The Final Curtain
While it was a lucky thing Miriam Abramowitz had a ground floor apartment, which limited the number of steps she had to contend with, she sometimes found it hard to remember to be grateful. Being grateful, she found, was something she had to work at. Living alone, after her husband died, had been a bit of an adjustment. She'd enjoyed it for a while, but eventually she got a bit lonely, and that grew as time went by, although she was still grateful to not have her husband around. There were neighbors moving in and out upstairs every year or so; few of them were worth more than a quick greeting.
This crossed her mind as she heard the new tenants moving about upstairs. They looked to be about college age to her, though she didn’t think she was a very good judge of age. There were so many ways to alter your appearance, and people had had a more conservative way of dressing in her day – it had been a bit easier to tell where people fit into the social scene.
“Oh!” she gasped, reaching in vain toward her back as a spike of pain lanced down into her leg. She paused and waited for the pain to ease before finishing her trip into her little kitchen to set her electric kettle up for tea. The kettle brought a smile to her face; the previous family upstairs, the Pellegrinis, had gifted it to her last Christmas. Derek had explained how she could brew a whole pot and just re-warm it. She supposed that sounded like pure barbarism to some, but she didn't stand on small social niceties.
Although the water would be hot, she preferred letting the tea steep for a few minutes. She headed for her dinette but was diverted to her little living room by the sound of her phone.
“Hello?” she asked. Normally she got people trying to sell her things, but she liked making them waste their time – and it was someone to talk to.
“Hi, Mom. How are you doing?”
“Michael, is that you?” she asked.
“Don't recognize my voice anymore, Mom?” he asked with a chuckle.
“It would be easier if I heard it more often,” she said with a trace of stiffness in her tone.
“I know. I should call more, and I'm sorry – I've just been so busy!”
“Have you? Well, tell me all the details,” she said.
“Oh, most of it would bore you – just business. Real estate is really only interesting to other people in real estate,” he said, sounding a tad smug to her ears.
“Oh, come on now,” she said, taking the phone into the kitchen with her. “I'm interested in whatever you're doing. Are you seeing anyone? Have you spoken to Marsha or the kids recently?”
His tone soured. “She's remarried, and since she has sole custody, some guy is raising my kids like I never existed.”
“Oh. Oh dear,” she commiserated. Marsha wasn't the kindest, but then with Michael she'd never had much incentive.
“But that's all about to turn around,” he said, his tone lightening. “We have a new project – three hundred and forty units with all the top-end amenities – pool, spa, on-site massage and spaces for other therapies. We have a dining hall with a special design to allow the occasional show by big bands! Can you believe it?”
“That sounds wonderful, darling,” she said while pouring her tea. “Big bands? That must be quite a thing to see.”
“We're very close,” he said. “But we're looking for a few more investors to complete the capitalization.”
She sat down at her dinette with a grimace and said, “Oh? I'm sorry, I thought you were describing something already built.”
“Nope!” he said with a chuckle. “It's all in motion. Once we secure the last of the financing, we'll break ground. It'll be the biggest R.O.I. in years in the real estate market.”
“Return on investment, Mom. Investors stand to make six times their initial seed. It's a goldmine, an absolute can't miss!”
She sipped her tea. “How is it you don't have investors crawling over this opportunity, dear?” she asked.
“Ugh,” he groaned and then laughed. “We ended up having to have more EIS – environmental impact studies – than we thought we would, and that changed our budget and timeline – but that's all taken care of now.”
“Oh, I'm glad for you, sweetheart,” she said and sipped her tea again.
“You know, Mom. It would help you to have a few more dollars in your account as you get older. This could be a real opportunity for you,” Michael said.
There was the hook buried in the kind action of a rare phone call. With a sigh she said, “Michael, I have no money left. I invested all I had in the last program you had with outrageous returns, even though my financial advisor warned me. I don't have anything to give you.”
“That wasn't my fault,” he protested. “There was no way to know the bonds were fraudulent! And those guys went to jail – most of them. Didn't you get your money back? You did. Didn't you?”
“No. No, I didn't,” she replied. “All I have left is my social security, and I need that, Michael. I'm sorry, but you'll have to find your funding elsewhere.”
“Mom...if you could....”
“I'm sorry, dear. Now I have to go get ready for my doctor's appointment.” She paused. “I wish you the best of luck, sweetheart.” She hung up and sat back just a bit in her chair. She let out a grunt and turned herself, looking at the picture of her husband on the hallway wall.
“This is your fault, you know,” she said to the picture. “You always treated him as if having a penis was the gateway to fame and fortune and he'd never have to work or develop things like talent or his education.” She sipped from her cup and spoke again, “There is an ongoing discussion that certainly won't end in my lifetime about nature versus nurture. If you want my opinion, and you didn't very often, I think it's a blend of both. Someone can be predisposed to be a cad, and yet be nurtured out of his baser instincts. Or they might be a truly kind soul, who is nurtured into believing that kindness is a flaw.”
She finished her cup and poured a fresh one, grimacing as she moved. At last seated, she sighed and sipped.
“I won't turn to look at you, because it causes me discomfort, and I think you'd get too much enjoyment from that. I wonder, though, how much you were naturally inclined to think an entire sex was lesser to you? How is it that having a penis makes you smarter? Have you never met a teenage boy in your life?”
She sat in silence for a moment, sipping her tea and thinking. “No. Of course you met teenage boys. I wonder if you were surrounded by the wrong ones? I confess I never thought teenage boys were much more than trouble combined with being an ambulatory boner.” She smiled. “I think no matter who they are, the ambulatory boner is built in. However, there can be more to them. There can be a grace to them that you never had. Not when you were hitting me, not when you were degrading me, and not when you ruined our son with your poison.”
She finished her cup and moved carefully to the sink. Placing the cup in the sink, she gripped the side of the porcelain and grimaced, waiting for the pain to pass. Eventually, slowly, she moved into the hallway and looked at the picture of her deceased husband.
“In all my life my only regret is that I didn't kill you sooner.”
She turned and shuffled to her bedroom, where she changed and took too long trying to make her thin hair behave. She was going to put a hat on, so she wasn't sure why she bothered so much – habit, likely. She slipped into her shoes and went to the front door with her woolen coat on her arm, looking out the window until the cab arrived.
She pulled her coat on and slowly started down her stairs. The cab driver hopped out and came to help her down the steps and to the car.
“Thank you very much,” she said with a smile.
“No trouble. We're headed to 516 Gatwyck?”
“That's the spot,” she said.
She settled in for the short ride, looking at the town as she rode by. As a girl her family had owned a dry cleaning business. She'd worked the front counter many times as a child, missing out on school activities and friendships along the way. Her father had been a cool, practical man who didn't see the value in hugs or kisses, but in faint praise for acceptable behavior. Many years later she'd married her husband in a small ceremony that brought her into a joyless marriage.
Michael had been a welcome change when he was born, but her husband's influence over time had left her saddened at her own status and feelings of worthlessness. After Michael had left for college, her husband had grown more angry than ever before. When she'd misbehave early on, he would spank her like a child – the things husbands were allowed to do to their wives! At first with his hand, then later with a paddle, as her behind disgusted him. It grew worse after Michael was born, but then eased when Michael was old enough to play sports. Her husband was preoccupied with Michael being the best, berating him whenever he wasn't. She'd tried to explain to Michael that sport wasn't everything, but her husband would poison the well, asking his son if he really thought a woman knew anything of the world.
Michael's absence at college left just Miriam, and her husband went from spanking to slapping her face, to hitting her with her own pots and pans-
“Here we are,” the driver said, pulling to a stop.
“Thank you,” she said, handing him cash, then climbing slowly from the car. The sidewalk was flat and in good repair, yet she moved carefully and with pain to the railing and up the two short steps to the front door. With one hand on the railing she squatted down, taking pressure off the pain in her back. She was long past caring what it looked like, since it eased her pain, and a moment later she moved on into the building.
After checking in, she sat down and breathed a sigh of relief. This was no way to run a railroad, her husband would have said – and it would have been just like him to compare her to a business or something just as emotionless and joyless. As much as she tried not to, once she started talking to him, she found it difficult to stop thinking of their marriage.
One never fully outgrows one’s youth, no matter how hard one tries. You may change religion – even opt to have none at all – or run counter to your parents’ style of child rearing, only to fall back on what you dealt with as a child from desperation or frustration. Sometimes it's deeply ingrained attitudes that you don't really realize are there, but you act on them. Believing in the wisdom and superiority of a male, for instance.
She'd been conditioned since she was a child, she now knew, to accept what men chose to give her. She'd rebelled in her own ways, but for most of her life she'd been too meek. Broken in some ways, even. Certainly not strong enough to nurture her son in a positive way, or not one that had made any difference. Each time she'd tried, her husband was there to slap her down – women in general. If only she'd not been so trained as to think she couldn't leave the marriage.
But then the day had come, hadn't it? They'd been in New York City taking the subway. Her husband had been in a foul mood – he always was after seeing his family, because they reminded him he wasn't as successful as some others in his family. He blamed Miriam. He was berating her as they waited, and a woman with a baby carriage bumped him. He turned too quickly to give her a piece of his mind and lost his balance.
She recalled being fascinated by the terror in his expression, something she'd never seen. He waved a hand toward her, expecting her to reach for him, but...she didn't. Even now she wasn't sure if it had been a conscious decision or if her subconscious had spotted an escape for her and decided to take it.
And so he'd fallen, hitting his head quite hard on a track. There was yelling and some confusion, but then the true horror – for some – was the train squealing on the track in the distance. A man had jumped down, but had to scramble back onto the platform. Someone called out, asking how to stop the train – and then it was there, and it didn’t matter if her husband had survived the fall.
She'd felt a sense of calm for some time after his death. Sometimes guilt would creep into her thoughts, and in rare moments she might even feel some regret – after all, he'd been a living creature. But then the feeling would pass, and she'd recall the barbed words and the hitting, and she would decide he hadn't been worth saving anyway. If she had reached for him, he'd have likely just pulled them both down.
She looked up and slowly pulled her self from the chair. “Yes, ready to go,” she said, following the nurse back into the exam room. She sat slowly and tolerated the nurse taking her blood pressure and asking her questions, then waited for the doctor. She’d seen Doctor Finnegan for nearly twenty years, since she'd moved to this small town. He'd recently retired and left her with this fellow, who was still wet behind the ears.
“Mrs. Abramowitz. Hello! How are we today?”
“We? Are we feeling royal today?” she asked and then sighed. “I'm sorry. I'm in pain, and it makes me cranky.”
“Understandable,” he replied and leaned back against the small counter.
She waited patiently for him to give her the results of the exam.
“As you're aware, the CBC and blood panel that was drawn after your initial visit pointed us in the direction of cancer. The x-rays and MRI show that, unfortunately, the cancer is very aggressive and has metastasized to your spine. An oncology consult would confirm-”
“Doctor, erm, Stanley, is it?” she asked, and he nodded in affirmation. “Your predecessor might not have told you that I'm not one for fiddling about. Tell me what it is you want to confirm – because when we get to oncology, we're talking about treatment options, not a diagnosis – aren't we?”
He tilted his head to one side and then straightened up. “Only in the most general sense. Determining the type of cancer directly affects how it gets treated.”
He nodded slowly. “Or not. But the tests and scans indicate you have pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to your spine. Confirming that would mean we'd narrow down the treatment options, yes.”
She nodded slowly. “And if it is pancreatic, something that has spread to my spine, what options would there be?”
Dr. Stanley pressed his lips together. “We'd most likely be talking about palliative care.”
She grunted and shifted, making the thin paper of the exam table crinkle. “If it isn't what you think, then that means it's something just as bad that is in my spine. Correct?”
“Only in the broadest sense, enough that I wouldn't be comfortable confirming it.”
She chuckled. “I have no interest in suing you, Doctor Stanley. It seems you're telling me I'm going to die. How long do I have?”
Dr. Stanley shifted his feet and rubbed just under his nose. “Usually by the time it's spread this far – and considering the tumors visible on the MRI and the proximity to the lymph nodes – it's what we term stage four. Survival rates, even with treatment...well, survival rates are poor. I'm not an oncologist but...not that much longer. Six to twelve weeks.”
She inhaled and let out an impatient breath. “Well. I suppose that, as they say, is that.”
“I can provide you with some materials for end of life care,” he said quietly. “We can manage the pain and keep you comfortable.”
She nodded and gave him a weak smile. “Thank you.”
She didn't really remember calling for the ride home, the pamphlets on in-home or in-hospital palliative care she was given, nor did she recall entering her apartment and starting a pot of tea. It was only when the timer went off on the electric kettle that she realized she was still dressed to go out. And where had her thoughts gone? Regrets, mostly. She was such a product of her environment, and in some ways still a slave to it.
“So,” she said as steam wafted from her tea cup. “How do I want to spend my final days?” She turned to the picture of her husband. “I suppose you think I should just suffer.” She sighed. “I suppose I should put some organization to this place. Perhaps make it less of a problem to clean when I die. If only I wasn't so tired all the time.”
She sipped idly for a moment and then said to the picture, “I can tell you one thing. I'll be damned if I'm going to spend my final days with you.” She pressed her lips together and nodded. “I need a plan.” She got up and rummaged in a drawer for a small pad of paper and a pencil, then retook her seat, and with a touch of the pencil lead to the tip of her tongue, she began a list in a spidery script.
Lawyer – review will.
Bank – paperwork for inheritance.
Donation of furniture/apartment clean out.
Landlord – negotiate end of lease.
She paused and thought for a moment, and then shook her head. She knew what she wanted – why on earth she was hesitating she didn't know.
“Mrs. A? The door is open – are you all right?”
“In the kitchen, dear,” Miriam called out. As Chloe Pellegrini entered the kitchen, Miriam smiled widely. “Come, sit, sit. I apologize for not getting up, but it's a bit of a pain, so I try to limit that.”
“Oh, no! No problem,” Chloe assured the older woman and leaned down to give her a hug. “I'm really glad you called. Derek and I have both said how we wanted to get back and see how you were, but ever since we got the house it's been kind of crazy.”
“Oh? Well, please, fill me in!” Miriam said with a big smile. The timer went off on the kettle, and Chloe filled their cups and brought them to the small dinette as she spoke.
“Well, your favorite boy, Derek, has really found his calling! He's been a monster about painting and refinishing old pieces of furniture – if it weren't for Austin, I think he'd have dropped out of school!”
“Oh no!” Miriam laughed and covered her mouth as she did. “I hope he's keeping up with his studies?”
“He does,” she reassured her. “I never thought about a study group after school – it wasn't really a me kind of thing to do. I didn't think it was a Derek thing, either – more like he just wanted to hang out with his friends. I have no idea how many times someone's parent had to tell them to quit fooling around and get their work done, but I will say he's gotten good grades since we moved here.”
“Are they still getting together? I mean now that he's a senior, some of his friends were going to go away for college, isn't that right?”
“Yeah, he was really bummed about that. He's still doing the study group, but now he gets together with these two boys with adorable accents, Nic and Mat? They were in the same orphanage in Romania and they got adopted right here in town – or, well, I guess Nic did, and Mat's in a weird spot; plus he's an imp.”
Miriam covered her mouth to hide her smile again. “An imp? Do tell me!”
Chloe chuckled and smiled. “I get most of the stories second-hand – just silly boy stuff, like pranks. But when I walk in the room Mat turns on the charm – and he's quite the charmer, let me tell you! Then Nic threatened to tell his girlfriend, and then I threatened to tell his girlfriend – it's just this silly thing.”
“So Derek is helping them with their schoolwork?” Miriam prompted, chuckling.
“Yeah. Some of the stuff is harder for them due to the language barrier, but they're really getting it,” Chloe agreed. “But since Derek's already done the work they're doing, it helps them out, too. Plus some of the weird parts about Mat getting adopted have to do with him behaving and being part of society or something like that.”
“What an odd requirement,” Miriam murmured.
“It's not that, exactly,” Chloe said and chewed on her lip for a moment. “I think what I heard was that because Mat has a really shitty background, the government is trying to make sure they don't have to invest in him like they would if he were a citizen. Like....”
“Oh,” Miriam nodded. “If he needs services, they'd rather have his country of birth pay for it. Typical bureaucratic crap invented by heartless penny counters.”
“Right,” Chloe agreed.
“And,” Miriam said with a smile, leaning forward, “are you still seeing Howard?”
Chloe let out a sigh, smiled and leaned back in her chair. “I've dated a lot of guys. There's the try-hards who try to do everything for you – so you end up not respecting them because they act like servants, and then they wake up one day and say to me 'You treat me like I'm a servant' and then get mad at me about that.” Chloe rolled her eyes. “Then you get the guys who are not as active, but just doormats. They go where you go, don't say anything so they don't rock the boat – and I may as well date a mannequin for all the personality they have.”
“Boys go through an awkward stage. Some grow out of it as they age, and some are eternally children, but not in any fun sort of way,” Miriam said sagely. “And Howard?”
“He...has a clue. Like, he didn't want to go to college, because he wanted to work with his hands, so in high school he was always taking the shop classes – wood, metal, auto – if it was a shop, he was in it. He worked with his dad during the summer, and after he graduated he got a part-time job with the company his dad works at while he goes to school for HVAC – Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning. His dad convinced him to go to school for the two year program, because he starts out in the union much higher than someone who didn't go.”
“That's sensible. How much more schooling does he need?”
“Another year. He graduated last year when I did.”
“He sounds like a catch,” Miriam murmured. “Is he, dear? Does he treat you well?”
Chloe chuckled. “He treats me like an equal, which is what I wanted. If I'm a bitch to him he calls me on it, but in a jerky way. He once did get really mad at me, just the one time.”
Miriam stiffened. “And what happened?”
“He closed his eyes and took a deep breath and said he needed a second. He went outside for a minute or two, and then he came back in, and we finished talking things out.”
Miriam sat still as if she expected more from Chloe, but the idea of a blow or slap never came. “That's it? He calmed himself?”
“Yeah,” Chloe said and smiled crookedly. “I was being a real bitch. I mean I knew I was acting like that, and I have no idea why I'd do that to him. I guess he outgrew some of the dumb boy stuff, like you were saying before – until he gets together with my brother, then they act like they are twelve, so...there's that.”
Miriam smiled as she relaxed.
“So Mrs. A, tell me what you've been doing since we moved. How are the new tenants?”
“Oh, not nearly as nice and considerate as you lot, I can tell you that,” Miriam replied. “There's a lot of late night coming and going – very unusual. Sometimes they wake me, but sometimes I can't sleep, and I just hear them.” She smiled at Chloe. “You and your brother had the consideration to put on headphones.”
“Ugh, I'm sorry to hear they suck,” Chloe replied.
“Did I hear correctly that Derek wanted to turn this house you bought into a bed and breakfast?”
“One day, yeah. He's working on the house while he's in school and helping Nic and Mat, and you know there's boyfriend time built into that – he's been super busy.”
“And are you back in school as well?”
“Yep! Much better grades too, so my dad is off my ass.”
“I'd love to see the house sometime,” Miriam said.
“Oh! Come over now! Everyone will be there. Derek would love to see you. How about if we order Chinese?”
A loud thump from upstairs made Miriam grit her teeth. She got up and pulled on her robe before shuffling to the kitchen and pushing the button to heat the tea in the kettle before sitting down. In the gloom she looked over at her husband's picture.
“I've often wondered why I didn't take your picture down. I think for some time I was afraid people would think, somehow, that I hadn't tried to save you.” She looked dourly at the image. “I didn't, of course – not that I'd have been fast enough or heavy enough to save you – but I certainly didn't want people to think I hadn't. So, there you hung.”
Something slid across the floor upstairs, and she stood, filling her cup, and then settled again. “You know,” she said, addressing the picture, “I sometimes wonder if I'd have felt more guilt had I intentionally killed you. Perhaps like the play, Arsenic and Old Lace. Or perhaps something more exotic, maybe heavy metal poisoning like on those medical dramas.” She sipped her tea. “I suppose I could have pushed you down the stairs. Or maybe dropped the toaster in your bath, though I'm told modern electrical systems would have prevented killing you – and a good zap would have only made you angry.”
She sipped her tea in the dim light and thought to herself.
“If I'd done away with you, perhaps Michael would have had a chance. That's my failure, but I think we both know I'm not much of a murderess – and Micheal is old enough that he should be able to learn from his mistakes, to overcome some of his father's programming. And that will have to be enough.”
She labored to stand and moved slowly to the sink, placing her cup and saucer for cleaning. She placed her hands on the lip of the sink and looked down as she spoke. “You know what? I learned something today.” She looked over at the picture. “I know, you didn't think I was capable of learning, but here I go – proving you wrong.” She looked back down into the sink and debated washing the cup, then left it. She shuffled past the dinette, using the counter and chairs to steady herself as she did. She paused in the hallway and looked at the picture of her long-dead husband. “I take that back. I learned a few things today – I know! Me! A woman!”
She reached out and plucked the picture from its accustomed place and held it in her hand. “I learned it's never too late for family. Yes, I won't die alone – I'll be moving into that great big house with the Pellegrinis.” She leaned forward and smiled. “They insisted. Derek is what a boy should be, and I shudder to think what you'd have done to him. Hospice will come see me there. The Pellegrinis are going to come help me throw things away, make my donations, and have promised to drive me anywhere I need to go.”
She walked back into the kitchen on unsteady legs, looking down at the long dead man. “I'm going to take what we have left in the bank – what I have left – and send it to Michael. I'm going to write him a long letter about how sorry I am for allowing you to do what you did to him. I hope it helps him. Then I'm going to spend my final days with people I love, and who truly care for me. Whatever I have in Social Security benefits over the next few months will pay my rent – which of course they refuse to consider, but that's what a will is for.”
She held the picture out by the frame, hands shaking. “My life insurance will get me cremated, and the rest will be left to the Pellegrinis for them to put into their new home.” She paused. “I was going to wait until tomorrow to start throwing out garbage, but since they woke me up...I guess a head start won't hurt.”
With a twitch she threw the picture into the kitchen trash, turned slowly, shuffled back to her room, and went to sleep.
“Mr. Kutsenko? This is Kevin Barnes from the junior high. How are you today?”
“Well, I thought my day was going too well, to be honest,” Alec said with a sigh.
“Yes, well, these things happen. Micah was in an altercation this afternoon, and he's going to be suspended for three days. The district zero-tolerance policy-”
“Which is moronic on so many levels, but continue,” Alec interjected.
“Whatever we may personally think, policy is policy. You'll be notified in the mail, but he'll be suspended starting tomorrow through the end of the week. Hopefully we can get back to learning the week after.”
“Yeah. Uh, so what's going on? Is this the same kid Micah had problems with before?”
“As I'm sure you're aware, the student and their discipline is something I cannot discuss.”
“Right. My kid can't even, you know, defend himself and be treated like the other guy. Right. Good system you have going over there, Capitano.”
The principal sighed. “Enjoy your weekend.”
Alec tossed his phone aside and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. He thought it was funny that kids innately could see when things were unfair, and yet later on adults constructed things in ways that weren't fair – sometimes from honest but poor design, but other times because fair wasn't the goal. Maybe it was just...quiet. Power. Maybe even just knowing you were taking away some helpless person's ability to fight back.
The more case studies he read, the deeper he got into his studies, the more savagely unequal Alec saw the world. So many people just...don't care. The apathy was bad enough, but then there were the shit disturbers, the trolls who were entertained by making others angry or miserable. Schadenfreude. The fact that a word even existed that just meant enjoying other people's misery kind of said it all.
Humans could be kind. They could soar on dreams sometimes. More often they bought into their own propaganda. How one country was the greatest or how another had bigger dicks. No such thing as a country claiming bigger tits, which you'd think would be an Amazon thing, but maybe it was because guns were phallic symbols for a lot of males, and those were used in wars? Grenades were sort of round, but Alec was reasonably sure that no woman wanted something shaped like that on their chest – although maybe they were meant to be thought of as a stand-in for balls?
Wow. Talk about letting your mind wander.
With a sigh, Alec gathered up his materials and headed for home, though he had a pretty good idea what would happen. After Sasha reminded Alec that he wasn't supposed to talk to school administration or teachers, they would try to find out why Micah kept getting into fights with this kid. Alec was sure it was the same kid as the last few times. Dale Hastert was older than Micah – in fact he was in Leo's grade, and apparently Leo had put Dale in his place a few times.
Near as Alec could figure, Micah liked to remind Dale that Leo had beat his ass, and Dale thought beating up Micah would be easy and would shut the kid up. Micah...wasn't built that way. Dale wasn't exactly the most imposing guy, either. Micah said he hadn't really kicked Dale's ass, but that it was pretty even – but only when Sash wasn't around. Sasha still clung to the adult ideas of violence never being the answer and settling things like mature people.
That was a curious thing, though. If you kind of look at a human from birth to death you should see this steady acquisition of knowledge and maturity until they hit their saturation point – like the brain had enough to get by in the world, and it just slowed in learning or stopped thinking it had things left to learn. That was silly – you could probably fill planets with things we didn't know, as a species, but we humans seemed to learn to a level of smug ignorance and then stop.
So really it depended on at what point a human reached their level of smug ignorance. Alec wasn't a big fan of ignorance, but he did hold a special place in his heart for a certain amount of smugness.
As he drove home, he decided to stop and ask Leo about this Dale guy. Leo was a likable fellow, and Alec, like Sasha, was incredibly grateful for Leo the person – a guy who seemed to like people whether they were older or younger, not bound by any traditional ideas of who his friends should be. He'd taken Micah under his wing in a way that had been very helpful to Alec and Sasha and the non-Micah parts of their lives.
Alec wasn't sure there was anything that would make him give up Micah – he and Sash were bonded with the kid – but that didn't mean it was smooth sailing. Micah had issues that sometimes pulled at their little family unit until Alec was sure something had to break. He and Sasha had school, which was a lot to start with, but there was also their relationship to each other and being responsibly there for Micah. That's where Leo had been a complete angel, giving Alec and Sasha some breathing room.
Alec also liked that Leo was dating Reece. Reece reminded Alec of himself, to a point, but Alec liked what he did to Leo. Leo was a cool customer, unflappable until you sprinkled in a little of Reece's brand of insanity, and then Leo kind of blossomed. He became more relaxed, he laughed more and he allowed Micah to be part of that. Goodness knows the kid needs more to laugh about in life.
Alec walked up the path and rang the bell for the Sidotis. Moments later Leo's mom answered.
“Alec, hi, how are you?” she said with a polite smile.
“Good, Mrs. S, how are you?”
“Eh,” she said, backing up to let him in. “We want Leo to focus more on his studies, but right now everything is about Reece. Boys!” she said, waving her hands in the air and grinning with a bit more enthusiasm.
“I know what you mean,” Alec said with a grin.
“Micah isn't here, is he?” she asked, frowning in thought.
“Uh, no. He's having trouble with someone at school, and I think Leo knows him. I'm just here for some information, if that's okay with you?”
“Sure, sure. He's downstairs with the weights,” she said and left Alec to find his own way down to the basement, he having been there before. As he descended the steps he could hear Leo grunting slightly, and as he entered the workout space he found Leo rapidly lifting, twisting his body and raising a kettle bell above his head and then reversing the process. At each major point in the work out – the initial lift, the second lift to bring the weight to eye level and then the third to raise it up with his arm outstretched- he'd pause and breath just like Alec had taught him.
Alec admired the way Leo was sticking to his routine – one Micah frequently did with him – and you could see some development in his shoulders and arms. Leo had his headphones in, so Alec crept up, waited for Leo to be fully extended, and with one hand dug a finger into Leo's ribs. With the other he scooped the handle of the kettle bell to ensure it didn't break Leo on its way down.
“Ah!” Leo cried out and twisted, losing his grip on the weight that now hung in Alec's hand. Putting a hand on his chest, Leo gasped. “You fucker! Scared the shit outta me!”
Placing the weight on the ground Alec straightened and smiled. “And that was just one finger.”
Leo blew a breath upward, blowing his hair from his forehead. “Please. You're yesterday's news since I met your husband.”
Alec raised a finger and then said, “Wish I could argue, but facts are facts.”
Leo lifted the bottom of his tank and wiped sweat from his face. “What's up? Where's Micah?”
“Home,” Alec said, taking a seat on the wight bench. “Wanted to pick your brain for a second.”
“Oh. Okay. What's up?”
“Micah was fighting again with this kid, Dale? You know him?”
Leo rolled his eyes. “I'll kick his ass and get him to leave Micah alone.”
“So you do know this kid?”
Leo ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah. He's been a dick for years to lots of people. I've heard rumors, but no real reason why that I know about. He says about every ignorant thing you can think of. He's got a little crew of small minded dickheads he hangs with. I ignore him a lot, but I usually fight with him a few times a year.”
“And how do you do this without getting suspended?”
“I...kick his ass near his house? He only lives a few blocks away.”
“Hmm. Tell me more.”
Leo shrugged. “Not sure what else to say off the top of my head.” He picked up a water bottle and drank. Running his tongue over his lips he looked up toward the ceiling for a moment. “Micah had a run-in with Dale his first day. I was showing him where his classes were, and Dale tried that old bully trick where you walk through someone, you know?”
“Well, Micah wasn't having any of it – because Dale called me a faggot or something when he ran into me. Micah said he has a lot of gay friends and Dale pissed him off.”
Alec sighed. “So that's it.”
“What do you mean?”
Alec shrugged. “Micah's about as stubborn as a person can get, but once you change his mind – whoever doesn't agree, watch out.”
“But he knew Dale was an asshole.”
“Right. But see, Micah used to be afraid of gay people in general. Now he's kind of the other way, angry at people who use that as a deciding factor in how they treat people. But if Dale, for example, keeps saying shit to you, then Micah might decide it's up to him to help you, whether you need it or not.”
Leo chuckled. “Yeah. Maybe.” He shook his head. “Dale's family is one twisted-up group. He's got an older brother that's been in trouble with the cops. His sister sells pot in school. His dad is this scary looking dude with tats who looks like he should ride a motorcycle, except his fat ass might not fit.”
“Some people have good balance,” Alec said with a grin.
“Fact. But it gets weirder. His uncle shows up at school board meetings trying to get books banned and is always talking about morals – which is funny, because he doesn't seem to have any, at least not any I want.”
“Yeah,” Alec said, sounding as though he were thinking. “Where do these people live?”
Leo described a house a few blocks away, nearer to Alec's home than Leo's. Alec grinned at Leo. “No more impure thoughts about your boyfriend, let alone my husband.”
“Seriously – ever going to let that rest?”
Alec smiled. “Are you kidding me? You're trouble. Jail bait.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Leo grumbled.
“That's Reece's job. What else about this kid, Dale?”
Leo shrugged. “Seems like he has sort of a big family, but I only really know about Dale living with his folks and his uncle, the weird guy at town meetings. I don't know if they go to church or drive-in movies or if they collect those creepy little figurines like old people do.”
Alec shuddered. “Hummels are too Stepford for me.” He stood. “Well, thanks for the info.” He leaned forward. “I was never here.”
Leo rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
Alec made his way home, deep in thought. Just a few short years ago his path would have been clear – mayhem. Toilet papering the front yard isn't as bad as it sounds. It's biodegradable. Same thing with eggs, as long as it's not a dry spell. Greasing doorknobs and icing walkways. The trouble with all that was that he was supposed to be an adult now. What a crock of shit that is. Sure, there were consequences before, but now people tossed around words like 'jail' and 'prosecution'.
It's funny, he thought. There is an evolution in a person's thought process – at least there had been in his. At first his parents would try to make things fair, but to a child's eyes spotting 'not fair' is quite easy. As you age, your parents, unable to hide that the world isn't a nice place, begin to tell you that life isn't fair – confirming what you'd already figured out for yourself. Too many times in life the ones who played by the rules fell to one side while those with money or power cheated their way to the front of the line.
The point, Alec felt, was that there was a time and place for society and generally accepted rules and then there was a time for the real world. While getting the snot knocked out of him had provided some gains to others that were hard to measure, he still had the scars inside. He was still unable to forgive those that had hurt him so badly. He was still unable to forgive that guy who'd come to work downtown, who'd hung out with Alec and Sash and then had chosen to befriend one of Alec's abusers instead, offering forgiveness where Alec would not.
And now? Now he was an example. A parent. A man too young to be walking the tightrope between college courses, married life and the challenge of a young son. For all that, failure wasn't something he could rationalize. When you thought about it, it was a minor miracle they'd had Micah as long as they had. Maybe because they had a judge on their side, helping to put a thumb on the scale in ways others who had connections weren’t used to experiencing.
Every two weeks the social worker visited like she expected to walk in on a party. Instead she found a reasonably clean apartment with a reasonably clean Micah and a grudgingly applied label of responsible being applied to Alec and Sasha. Sasha was fine with that, but Alec felt...tricked. Remembering back to that first night of seeing Micah, when he'd come in to eat...it still made Alec's heart break. When Micah'd gotten sick he was equally worried that Micah was seriously sick and that he'd leave them, struggling against the New York winter rather than put his faith in anyone.
Micah had chosen trust. After all the abuse he'd endured, after all the betrayals from those who were supposed to protect him, Micah had seen something in Alec and Sasha that let him trust. But even after all this time that trust could be scarily fragile.
One of the many problems Alec had with his chosen profession – one that made him question his direction – was the purity with which 'they', being the system, demanded children and adults act. Which video games or which ratings on movies or TV shows they could see. An act of experimentation, like when Carlo had kissed Micah over the summer, would be deemed 'inappropriate', and before you knew it the 'child in care', as foster kids were called, would have all these things required, like alarms on their bedroom doors and baby monitors in their rooms, as if they were little Charles Manson followers just for the crime of a kiss.
Alec pulled up behind Lu's bus and grabbed his bag before heading inside. In Alec's frequent dreams Sasha would be in the kitchen with nothing on but an apron to protect his parts, making their dinner, and then they'd have athletic sex somewhere in the house before settling in for homework or whatever. His dreams were dashed again – Sasha was working on something on his laptop in the living room, and Micah was sitting on the couch with his headphones on and his school tablet in front of him.
Alec patted Micah on the head, and Micah swatted at him absently.
“Hi, Babe,” Sasha said as he set his laptop aside and stood to stretch. Alec tossed his bag aside and grabbed Sasha, who laughed as Alec made a big show of attacking Sasha's neck.
“Get a room!” Micah teased.
“Good idea! Come on, hon! Loud sex to scar the teenager, coming up!” Alec said, trying to lift Sasha up and carry him, but Sasha was fighting him.
“You!” Sasha said amid his laughter. “Put me down!”
Alec did, but pulled his husband close. “Okay. But later? Ohhh, later.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sasha said with a smile.
“Uh, come here a sec,” Alec said, pulling Sasha toward their bedroom.
“Alec! No!” Sasha said, still laughing.
“What? Oh, not S-E-X!” he said, spelling it out for Micah's sake. His next words were cut off as Robin tapped on their front door before entering.
“Micah? I'm headed to the gym to run a bit. Want to come with?”
“Yes! They're going to have sex, and I need an out!” Micah said seriously. Micah hopped up and went to his room for a sweatshirt, a requirement in going out during the winter, since he disdained coats.
“Wow. Moving on to giving him nightmares about you guys fucking, huh?”
“That's nothing,” Alec said with a snort. “Wait until he finds out his Uncle Robin isn't just roommates with his Uncle Lu!”
Before Robin could reply, Micah was back and urging him out the door.
“Nobody better come between Micah and his Uncle Robin time,” Sasha said with a chuckle.
“He just wants Robin's abs. Lu told me,” Alec said. “So, uh, weird thing. The school called today.”
“They did?” Sasha asked skeptically. “They should have me as his first contact, considering some of your more colorful interactions with administration,” Sasha said with a smile.
Alec sighed as he sat down. “Well, not sure why I got the call, and you know we've had some epic talks about what is right and wrong with our education system, but this one is one of the dumber ones.”
“Okay, what did Micah do?” Sasha asked as he took a seat beside his husband.
Alec rubbed his hands across his thighs. “He's getting into fights with that Dale kid again. The school has a zero tolerance policy, so he's suspended.”
Sasha put his hand to his forehead and sighed. “Zero tolerance bullshit. Did you insult the principal?”
Alec glanced at Sasha. “No? I mean, I commented on the system, but not...extensively.”
Sasha nodded his head slowly. “So...you're thinking of something.”
Alec nodded back, then took a breath. “His problem seems to be with this one kid who seems to have a whole family of fucksticks behind him. I know how I'd handle them, but....”
“Yeah. But you're telling me you haven't done anything yet?”
“Outside of getting some info about the kid Micah is fighting with, no,” Alec admitted.
Sasha nodded. “So...we need a plan.”
Alec sighed. “We need two plans.”
Sasha raised an eyebrow. “Two?”
“Yeah,” Alec said quietly and looked at his husband. “When your responsible plan doesn't work, we need an irresponsible one that actually works.”
They spent the next hour throwing things back and forth, tentatively working under the idea of a plan A and plan B. When Micah got home they let him shower, then sat down to dinner together.
“So bud, got a call from the principal today,” Alec said. “Want to fill us in?”
Micah looked down at his food and muttered, “Not really.”
After a moment Alec said, “Puts us in an awkward spot, Little Bit. It'd help us a lot to know what's going on.”
Micah forked some of his pasta and looked up at Alec. “I mean, there's nothing you can do.”
“Well,” Alec said, leaning back. “Maybe yes, maybe no. What I do know is that if you keep fighting, you keep getting suspended and then eventually expelled. The county won't like that, and the judge won't like that, so much as I hate to say it, it's kind of a big deal.”
Micah leaned back in his chair and sighed, crossing his arms and looking away from Alec. “If we were normal, there'd be no county worker and no judge.”
Alec and Sasha glanced at each other. Sasha spoke first, “Normal doesn't really play into this. If we want to lay blame, we can put that on your birth parents, something you had nothing to do with. But the fact is, there is a judge and county worker in our lives all the time, second guessing everything we do.” He hesitated. “Look, sweetheart, I know this is difficult. Everything about this is difficult. But we're not backing down.”
Micah's expression shifted to one of defeat, and he reached into his pocket to remove his phone. He unlocked it, tapped the screen and slid it across to Sasha.
Sasha carefully picked up the phone. It was a chat thread. No names, just phone numbers.
So sad your dad spends so much time with a dick in his mouth.
Do your dad's teach you how to suck dick? So sad.
Do your parents know what you are? You should go back to the streets and hoe your ass.
The insults flowed over Sasha, hurting as much as they had in high school. “These people. Who are they?” Sasha asked, his voice low.
“Most,” Micah started and then cleared his throat. “Mostly Dale. Some are his cousins.”
Sasha took a deep breath and looked at Alec. “Give me the address.”
“I have never met such a shitty group of absolutely intractable, nonsensical, morally bankrupt people in my life!” Sasha fumed later that night. “They were trying to bait me into a fight – six of them! If I weren't so pissed I'd be terrified!” Sasha ran his hands up and down his biceps as Alec took him close.
“What did they say?” Alec asked through gritted teeth.
Sasha broke away and threw his hands in the air. “Unadulterated stupidity! None of it made sense! They jumped from the bible to how gay men have to wear diapers when they get old to my very favorite tropes about being gay equals sex and how we evil gays must want to molest every Tom, Dick and Harry in town, and then the grooming and the vile pedophilia comments!” Sasha turned toward Alec. “There was no reasoning with them, because they have no reason! They are trolls through and through, enjoying making problems for people just because they can and then sitting back and watching the mess they made. God I could just....argh”
“Okay, okay,” Alec said with a few nods of his head. “It's on to plan B? No question?”
Sasha looked at him grimly. “Plan B is too plain. We need a plan C.”
The next few weeks were tense. It was an awful risk, one that could end with a judge or county worker pushing the idea that Sasha and Alec weren't qualified to take care of Micah, that they'd be raising him to be a delinquent. The idea of losing the kid tore at Alec's insides, much the same way as the idea that Micah was so helpless in all this and handling it the best way he knew – by making Dale eat his words. Used to be kids could do that.
People think of kids as these wonderful little innocent creatures, and in some ways they are, but in many ways they are a ball of humanity's worst behaviors. Toddlers will lie and steal to possess something that either they want or they want to prevent a sibling from having. Oh, they may act on instinct more than sitting down and plotting a strategy out, but that's almost worse. It means it comes naturally to some of us to lie, cheat and steal our way along.
He'd read somewhere that most small groups get along pretty well. They can get together and work things out when there's a problem – talk it through, if you will. But once you get enough people, you get those who want to control others, who want to make their success on someone else's back. They become your first kings and emperors, later senators and presidents – captains of industry. It's human nature, to a degree, to conquer and control.
There are other, nobler human concepts as well. Sacrifice. Honor. Protecting the weak. Protecting your family.
So Alec was aware of the risks, and unlike the toddler analogy, he did strategize, to limit his exposure, minimize his risks and deliver a blow the Hastert family wasn't likely to forget. It took coordination and enough people that didn't like the Hasterts or who were simply trying to help Micah – because the fighting wouldn't stop. There was no way. Taking things to the cops was iffy at best. There was a lot of bluster around cyber bullying, but there were no real teeth to the laws.
Alec wasn't afraid to admit to himself that sometimes you just had to retaliate. It didn't matter if it was you or through a cat's paw, but you had to get even. Micah was already skirting the line and risking getting kicked out of school, which would cause real problems in his situation. The Hasterts would probably look on an expulsion as a badge of honor.
The first part of his plan was surveillance. With the winter break coming up, Alec wanted to get it done and be out of town for a few days. So he masterminded what he thought of as his best prank yet on people who really deserved it. Surveillance was all about not being seen while gathering important details, like whose car belonged to whom, and did the doors on the home fit well? Did they have cameras on their doorbells or dogs that might be sensitive to noise? Did neighbors have cameras on their porches?
Next was all about procuring the necessities: gloves, a baking sheet, plastic backpack sprayers, a spray bottle of skunk scent, and glitter. Silver glitter – didn't want to give away anything with the rainbow stuff.
Thursday was the last day of classes for the high school, and it was no trouble to have Leo and Reece come stay over. Alec explained the plan and everyone's role using a crudely drawn map, which he then attempted to eat but, choking, elected to tear into tiny pieces.
“Look, the first part of any really serious prank is to not get caught,” Alec explained. “But the second part is to leave no evidence, even if you're suspected. So,” he said, pointing to the map, “this house on the corner has a camera, but the rest don't, so we have to avoid that one completely. Second, we clean everything and get gloves on so there are no fingerprints. Assignments – we wait until about twelve-thirty. I will open the driver's door on the two target vehicles and disable the dome light, if it comes on. Micah will be in charge of carefully pouring his bottles of glitter into the heater vent closest to the driver. Reece, you'll put the Skunk bottles under the backseats, open and on their sides. You have to make sure you don't get any on you – it stinks like fuck, and it's stupid hard to get off.”
“What else?” Sasha asked.
Alec grinned. “You and Leo will use the sprayers to put a thin layer of water over the cars. Give them a minute to set up, then spray again. I,” Alec said with a grin, “will take the frozen pee disk from our cookie sheet, which we will throw away and never make cookies with again, and slide it through the crack under their front door, where it will slowly melt.” He looked around the room seriously. “I ate asparagus all week.”
The others glanced at each other in confusion, but Alec clapped his hands, and everyone cleaned the items they were to use and got their gloves ready. It was nearly one in the morning when Alec brought his car to a stop in the Hasterts’ neighborhood. The party emptied out quietly, taking their items from the trunk and trying not to shiver.
The lights were off in the Hastert home, so Alec boldly walked up to the father's and Dale's vehicles and opened them – surveillance had shown they didn't lock their cars – and turned off the dome lights. As Micah and Reece leapt into action, Sasha and Leo began to spray down the passenger side of the cars, moving to the driver's side when Micah and Reece were done with their tasks. By the time they finished, the thin coating on the passenger side had frozen, and they began a second sweep, continuing around the car until the sprayers were empty. Alec quietly moved up the front steps, sticking to the sides of the steps for the best support and, hopefully, least amount of noise. He pushed the frozen piss disk under the edge of the door, but it was too thick and cracked, so he had to settle for piling it up along the bottom. Meeting back at the car, Alec had everyone put their items in one small bag, their gloves in another, and then drove a few neighborhoods away where people had their trash out for morning service. With quick tosses out the window the evidence was gone, and they cackled all the way back to the apartment.
The energy was nervous yet triumphant as they sat down with warm drinks in the living room of the little apartment.
“I gotta admit, that was an epic plan,” Reece said with a grin as he sat on the floor between Leo's legs.
“Epic is the word,” Leo said with a chuckle.
“I have a question, though,” Micah said, looking at Sasha. “I never, ever, thought you'd let Dad do a prank like this. Why?”
Sasha flashed a wry grin at Micah. “First, I should say I don't condone what we did, even though what we did was likely to cause more irritation than harm. Alec and I aren't big believers in violence. I like to find common ground where I can, accept that some people have very little of that with me, and base how much I interact with them on that.”
“But sometimes,” Alec said, “you're stuck. Bad co-worker or boss. Bad classmate. Look, being a troll shouldn't be a full-time thing. You can have a little harmless fun without crossing lines and making people miserable. And you know, if making people miserable is your idea of a good time, then I'm all for ruining your day.”
“Yeah, I get not liking trolls, but...you've never pranked anyone this hard,” Micah said.
Alec fixed Micah with a serious look. “Micah, I have to tell you something. I don't want to, but I'm going to – because I love you.”
Micah looked confused for a split second. “I, uh, love you too.”
“I think maybe you're surprised I said that though, right? I mean, I don't say it that much.”
Micah gave Alec an awkward nod and a twist of his shoulders like he was going to shrug and then changed his mind.
“Trolls get their start and sometimes stay that way. They say shit, make someone mad and sometimes get their asses beat. I'd imagine some of them also win those fights, which turns them into bigger trolls.” Alec licked his lips. “They all start with some talking, like when I was in high school, people used to call this really hot guy I knew all kinds of insulting names.” Alec stared at Micah. “I mean, he was smoking hot.”
“Get on with it,” Sasha said with a roll of his eyes, leaning on Alec's shoulder.
“People talked shit about Dad? Did you kick their asses?” Micah asked.
“Sort of,” Alec said. “They didn't want me hanging around with him, because I was on the football team – actually, it's more basic than that. They just wanted control and to rub my face in their control. But they hurt Sasha every day with the things they'd say to embarrass and belittle him.”
“Belittle. Who says SAT prep isn't worth anything?” Leo said with a grin.
“Shut it, no-hair-bear,” Alec said with a grin.
“Dick,” Leo responded.
“I like Leo this way,” Reece said, rolling his head back to look at Leo, who was blushing.
“But did you kick their asses, Dad?” Micah asked.
Alec fixed him with a look. “No. I defied them. I refused to let them control me. And...they beat me.” Alec's voice dropped down, and a small tremble shook his words. “They used a belt and hit me so hard I had bruises.” Alec cleared his throat. “So the next day...I showed up. And I defied them. And they beat me again. And I kept defying them – and then they got caught. And they found out that living under a bridge doesn't protect them.
“So I get why you and Dale fight, or I get why you fight him. To be honest, what we did tonight was more for us, to help with our frustration over these shit disturbers. After the break, Dale will probably say something else to you, and you know what? You resist. Block his number. He calls you a fag in the hallway, you call him a bigot twice as loud. He pins you against the wall, you ask him why he's trying so hard to kiss you.”
The boys chuckled at Alec, but Alec remained focused on Micah. “You have to understand that the easiest way to take down someone is with laughter. They talk about your dads liking to suck dick, talk about how small theirs is or how their balls haven't dropped yet or ask why he's so interested in your dads. Sucker them in, Micah. Fighting is kind of the last resort – it's a self defense thing. You can't afford to get kicked out, so don't let that troll – who doesn't care about his own life – rob you of your education.”
Sasha straightened up. “Someone once said the best revenge is a life well lived. So, even though we got some revenge tonight, it's up to you to avoid the kinds of things that will get you kicked out. You have to find alternatives to fighting, okay, Micah?”'
Micah sighed. “Okay. I get it.”
Reece adopted a thoughtful expression. “Hey. What period do you have gym, Micah?”
Reece looked back at Leo. “I'm just thinking of the things you can do with spray adhesive.”
Griffin glanced over the last few lines of his paper, thought about making a different word choice and then shook his head. He'd already beaten this paper to death – time to submit and call it a semester. As it was, this thing was far past its due date, but the class had been given plenty of leeway, because the professor had taken ill partway through the course. He addressed the email and attached the paper, sending it along and him into the winter break.
He leaned back against the couch cushions and listened to the sounds of the house. There was a light at the far end of the apartment in the back, and Griffin could hear Robin's little trains speeding along their tracks. Lu was likely watching something in their bedroom, waiting for Robin to come to bed, although he'd been spending some time at the school gym and had been more tired lately. Devyn had decided to brave the dropping temperatures to get some junk from the quick mart a few blocks away. He'd dressed in the layers that made Griffin fondly think of Devyn as a Paddington Bear.
Truthfully, they all could have headed for home a few weeks ago, college semesters not being as long as public school ones. There was a reluctance, though… It was greed, in a way. As Griffin had taken to his classes in psychology, he'd tried to turn the lessons he was learning on himself and sometimes others. Sometimes there were reasons why people did the things they did, and sometimes it just seemed like so much random behavior.
The greed, though, could manifest in many different ways. Griffin had scoffed at the idea of missing home, but as the semester had worn on he'd come to realize what Derek had told him was true – Griffin had Devyn, and Devyn was home – and yet he'd missed Derek a lot more than he admitted even to himself. He looked forward to seeing his parents, but he knew that would come in spurts as he caught up with the other important people in his life who he'd not been smart enough to realize were so important to him in his daily life.
The greed had kept him here in this apartment, much as he suspected it had his housemates. While no one could argue Devyn and Griffin's loving relationship, Robin and Lu were still the most natural couple he'd ever seen. Of course, he wasn't included in all aspects of their lives, and they had to have issues from time to time, just as he and Devyn did, yet they seemed outwardly perfect. One of his worst failings was speaking for Dev or not completely translating what Dev had said. It was all about control, and he was working hard to stop it, but he wanted Devyn all to himself – greed. Unjustifiable greed and certainly not love, to limit someone like that.
And yet Dev forgave Griffin's baser acts. Griffin assumed some of his internal reasoning for keeping Dev to himself had to do with his experiences with Royce, but you can only go so far with that. Griffin was fully aware he had some odd things to work out, to try and understand himself and his motivations better, not just for himself but to be a better man for Devyn.
But in the end, Griffin knew, it wasn't just greed keeping them in their little bubble a few days longer. It was jealousy. Unhealthy, unfair, and ultimately poisonous – he had to understand his green-eyed monster before he did damage he couldn't fix.
Oddly, the only person Griffin could admit to being jealous of, at least to himself, was Nate. Nate, the insecure athlete with the great body and kindly, uncertain personality. It was hard to dislike Nate. Humans seemed to be preprogrammed to like attractive people better, to be easier on them and to forgive more willingly. Nate was in many ways a more athletic version of Devyn – he was taller and had proportionally more muscle than Devyn, but it was also due to his working out and his athletics. Nate was, by any objective measure, one of those physically blessed, genetically lucky people. Yet Devyn treated him like a lost puppy, lavishing the jock with love, encouragement and affection.
Part of being a better person was confronting things about yourself you didn't like. Griffin didn't like how jealous he could be of Nate, who had honestly never done a damn thing to him. It had driven Griffin in odd ways. When he had found out a few years before that Nate had seen Devyn fucking him, he hadn't felt embarrassed or angry. He hadn't felt like he'd been intruded on or that his privacy had been violated. Instead he'd felt...smug. It seemed like the wrong thing to feel, but he couldn't deny it.
Sometimes, after he'd learned of Nate's observation, he'd thought about it while he jerked off. He'd imagined Nate standing in a doorway, watching as Devyn responded to Griffin urging him on. And when he came he'd felt triumph mixed with his pleasure, but that would fade, as there was no Nate in the doorway and of course no Devyn having just railed him.
For a time afterward he'd teased Nate about spying on them and even made the suggestion that Nate could be their personal cameraman. Nate reacted as one would expect – with a sweet embarrassment borne of having seen a private moment by accident. Nate never commented on what he'd seen, never teased them about their lovemaking or said anything about Griffin bottoming.
And yet...Griffin could be jealous of Nate. Why? Was it only that Nate was so attractive? It wasn't like Devyn was interested in Nate like that. Nate made Devyn happy in a variety of ways, from being a long lost little brother to achieving the sports goals Devyn would have liked to have had for himself. So accepting that there was no desire between Devyn and Nate, why should he feel jealous? The ways Devyn treated him were far more in line with a romantic relationship than the way Devyn treated Nate.
He thought a moment more, and then he heard Devyn's boots as he ascended the stairs and kicked them off by their apartment door. Then he was there, padding across the room in his disheveled pink socks with his little bag of diabetes – his sugary treasures, as he'd teasingly correct Griffin.
Griffin wrapped Devyn in his arms from behind, barely containing his boyfriend and the bulky winter coat. “What did you get?”
Devyn began to wave items from the bag at Griffin as he pulled them out – sour gummies, red licorice, a box of 'theater butter popcorn' and peanut M&Ms.
“Oh, good stuff,” Griffin murmured, resting his head against Devyn's neck. Yes, greed. He wanted more time like this with Devyn, just as Robin and Lu wanted to maintain their time together. Once they were home it was to different homes, and asking about overnights like they were in grade school again. In the now he could touch Devyn any time he wanted, but back home...he'd have to share. How do you successfully treat such jealousy? How insecure must you be to need to know you're number one in his heart?
Devyn turned toward him and mimed pulling at the coat collar and sticking his tongue out to one side.
“Yeah, that coat probably is hot inside,” Griffin allowed, letting his boyfriend go. Devyn hung up his coat and scarf, topping the hook with his knit cap, and turned back to his boyfriend.
'Movie?' he signed.
“Yeah, I could go for that,” Griff replied. Devyn started the popcorn and brought the rest of the junk food to the small living room while Griffin got them sodas.
'Paper done?' Devyn signed.
“Yeah, finally,” Griffin said with a sigh to punctuate it. “I may need to ask Sasha for a massage after that semester.”
Devyn grabbed a bowl and filled it with the popcorn before joining Griffin, who'd opened the M&Ms and popped a couple in his mouth.
'What was it about?' Devyn signed.
Griffin glanced at his boyfriend and sighed. “Greed. Jealousy. I mean, officially it was about relationship dynamics, but really it was about greed and jealousy.”
Devyn turned half toward Griffin, motioned for him to continue and then grabbed a handful of popcorn.
You know what? Why not? Griffin thought. “Well, the paper was supposed to look at relationship dynamics, and it was kind of open ended from there – this is the class Professor Angata was teaching. He got sick, remember?”
“Okay. So I'm thinking school has ended, and you, me, Rob, Lu...we're all on winter break, but we're waiting to go home. Why is that?”
Devyn grunted, tilting his head to one side.
“I mean, yeah, Micah is still in school – but really that only holds up Sasha and Alec. Rob and Lu got out of school roughly when we did, so it's not like they had to stick around for classes. So I figure, you know, it's greed that keeps us all here right now – being greedy about having time with our significant others. We'll have to share at home, be in different beds at night.”
Devyn grunted twice, shaking his head.
“Well, yeah, you're right – but everyone will still have to ask. Like, we're not six and need permission to sleep with our other half, you know?”
Devyn bounced his chin up and down in agreement, then signed, 'Different. Parent and child, same old house, not new people.'
“Yeah, you're right. That parent and child dynamic is still changing. Still. Here I can grab your butt any time I want to, you know? It's the little things in life.”
Devyn snorted and wheezed in laughter.
Griffin smiled. “I love your laugh.”
Devyn blushed and wiggled his eyebrows a bit.
Griffin laughed. “Yeah, I love other things about you, too.”
Devyn pointed his finger, thumb back like a gun and winked. It was sillier than silly.
Griffin frowned slightly, took a breath and said, “Why do you think...I mean, we're in love. But why do I...still feel strange about Nate?”
'Strange how?' Devyn signed.
“Like...” Griffin put a hand to his forehead. “Why do I get jealous of him? I mean, we did a lot to make sure he was all set before we left, and that was a relief, but I've been trying to come up with a good reason why I felt that way – and why I continue to feel that way. It doesn't make any sense to me, logically.” Griffin looked at Devyn. “I mean, I can put it down in order – A,B,C – and come up with no reason why any of that should make me feel like I do...but it’s still there.”
Devyn shrugged and signed, 'He's a stud. Runs in the family.'
Griffin tilted his head. “Really, babe?”
Devyn let out his wheezy laugh again. 'What can you say? He is a stud. He looks like a better version of me, so maybe you feel attracted to him?'
“I think most people are attracted to him,” Griffin said with a dismissive wave. “Or at least a lot of people. We both know it takes more than a pretty face or a nice body to have a real relationship.”
'You saying I don't have a pretty face or a nice body?' Devyn asked, then snorted, unable to keep in his laughter.
“You're no help,” Griffin said and pushed him.
Devyn nodded a couple of times and sat up. 'It's got to be related to Asshole.'
“If you mean Royce, yeah. I mean, I'd like to think so – that I can trace a lot of my issues back to him. I'm not sure how this one would work, though.”
Devyn shrugged. 'He was a baseball jock. Nate is a baseball jock. He probably intimidates you without you realizing. Then you subconsciously react.”
“Huh,” Griffin said in thought. “That makes a lot of sense. It also...” He reddened, and Devyn poked at him, trying to get Griffin to talk. “Okay, okay! It's stupid, but...remember when Nate watched us fuck?”
Devyn rolled his hand in a 'go on' gesture.
Griffin glanced away from Devyn. “When I found out I was kind of...smug? Like I'd shown him somehow? You were mine, or I was yours – maybe both? That he didn't have a space there? I'm not sure, but I think somewhere in there is part of my answer.”
Devyn nodded slowly. 'He's a paradox. He looks like he's a tough guy, maybe even a dumb jock. But he's thoughtful and intelligent. So maybe if your mind takes him in and expects the worst, like Asshole, and then he doesn't respond...maybe it just gets bigger in your mind. Like tension in a balloon that gets bigger, waiting for him to blow up and act like you expect – like you're afraid of.”
Griffin wiped his face with his hands. “That's not fair. Robin has a pretty athletic body, and I don't act that way with him. Same thing with Hamster.”
Devyn shrugged. 'Who said fair? Not me. But...' Devyn tapped his chin and started signing again, 'Robin is the poster boy for being madly in love. Hamster has pulled you in like a puppy from the start, so different relationship. Nate just takes my time from you.'
Griffin huffed and looked away, then groaned lightly and looked back to Devyn. “I mean, of course that's part of it. I'm jealous – I admit that. I don't know why. I feel like if I can figure out the why I can figure a way to deal with those feelings once and for all.” He sighed. “I don't want to punish you or Nate.”
Devyn adjusted his position and signed, 'I think feeling smug after he saw us was you mentally saying 'fuck you' to the Asshole, almost like he was watching someone else have you – and it wasn't him. That it had been your choice.'
“Well, yeah, that makes a ton of sense,” Griffin said. “I mean, I'm not afraid Nate is going to try and rape me or something.” Griffin blushed. “I'd never think that of Nate. But...I used to, kind of, think about him filming us for real. I...got off on it, but then felt very strange afterward.”
'I don't know how people in porn do it. Unless they like the attention, I don't see how they turn off the people right there around them while they have sex,' Devyn signed with a shake of his head. 'If you thought...you needed it or something, I'd give it a try, but I think it would be strange. Knowing someone is there.'
Griffin shook his head. “I wasn't suggesting we try it. I'm just...being honest about the thoughts I'm trying to process. Is it too much? It's too much. Right?”
Devyn shook his head and chuffed out his laughter. 'Maybe if you were a basket case all the time, but I admire you for always taking a look at yourself and not blaming the world for things. But,' he reached out and took Griffin's hand for a moment, 'sometimes the world does something and it affects you. I love Nate – my heart feels huge sometimes with how proud I am of him. But it's not romantic, and I don't want to see him naked. I just recognize he had some lousy parents, like my dad was for a long time. I was lucky enough for mine to wake up. He wasn't.”
Griffin squeezed Devyn's fingers. “Sorry. I guess I just sound like I need you to tell me I come first. Pretty needy.”
Devyn smiled and turned around, picking up his tablet. He ran his stylus over the screen and turned it to face his boyfriend.
I was going to save this for an audience, but I think you need this now.
Griffin looked at Devyn, thinking his boyfriend would offer him a hug and kiss for comfort, but was shocked into silence when, very quietly but steadily, Devyn said, “I love you, Griffin.”
Griffin's eyes went wide, and he started to smile. “You...spoke! The surgery worked? It worked!” He leapt across the distance between them, hugging his boyfriend while Devyn shook with laughter. Robin was suddenly in the doorway looking at the two of them embracing and laughing.
“Oh, sorry. I thought I heard a yell or something,” Robin said, starting to back up.
“No, wait,” Griffin said, smiling. “You should know – my boyfriend loves me.”
Robin leaned against the door frame, and the corner of his mouth pulled up in amusement. “Yeah? No shit. Were you the last to find out?”
Devyn cleared his throat and said, “It's the first time I've been able to tell him.”
Robin's jaw dropped. “The surgery worked! Dev!” Robin slapped a high five with Devyn, who smiled at his friend's excitement.
“What's going on out here?” Lu asked, coming down the hallway.
“I told Griffin I love him,” Devyn said.
Lu grinned. “You sappy bastard, of course that's the first thing you'd actually say!”
Devyn grinned. “Actually, you guys aren't the first to know. I got caught practicing how to talk.”
“You did? By who?” Rob asked.
“Micah,” Devyn said with a nod. “I'll give him credit, though – he didn't tell anyone.”
“I'll kill him for keeping this from me,” Griffin said, putting a hand to Devyn's face. “My God. I just can't believe it.”
“You ready for bed?” Lu asked Robin.
“I guess. Let me shut things off,” Robin said. He leaned over and gave Dev an awkward hug. “Congrats, bro. I look forward to hearing you unfiltered from now on.”
Lu followed up with the same awkward hug over the back of the couch. Rob went to shut off power to his train layout, and Lu went to brush his teeth.
“Oh my God. Fuck a movie. This has been a long day,” Griffin said, standing and stretching. Devyn stood, gathering the snacks and moving to their room at the front of the apartment. Despite the length of the day, they were soon talking quietly, and before long they became passionate, Devyn whispering things in Griffin's ears that changed the way they made love.
Christmas day was a busy affair for families around the world, but very much so for the boys in the family of Sanitaria Springs. For some there had been midnight mass and early morning presents under the tree. Then the visiting and the food overlapped as the boys went from home to home to see their friends in small groups, ending up at the Kirkwoods', as theirs was the largest home to gather in.
The boys were spread out between the living room and the kitchen when Griffin called them all together, and Devyn stood on a chair for his moment.
He looked fondly around the room at the people who'd helped him get through difficult times, but who in turn had come to him for help. His heart overflowed, and he felt he was in danger of making his moment one that would overflow with sappiness, which he didn't really want. At long last, when his family was quiet, he spoke to them.
“I'd like you all to know Griffin is pregnant.”
There was a hush as if the air had run out of the room, then the room shattered, with everyone talking at once and Griffin slapping his arm for the crack. Devyn waved his hands to calm his family, and he couldn't help but chuckle. When they were quiet once more, he started again.
“I plan to put him on bed rest,” he began, and Griffin hit him again. Grinning, he said, “My family, my surgery was a success.” There was some excited chatter and random cheers, but he wasn't done yet. “I'd like to take just a minute of this holiday to thank each of you for making my life better. From my parents and the other adults in my life who gave me the people in my family, to Nate – who I couldn't be prouder of – to my boyfriend, who gets to be a part of this in a big way.”
Devyn pulled on Griffin's hand until they were precariously balanced on the chair. He waved at the crowd to silence them, as his voice would never be one for shouting.
“Griff, you know I love you to bits,” Devyn said, pulling the box from his back pocket. “When your student loans are paid off, will you marry me?”
There was a mix of laughter and cheering as Griffin accepted the ring. The house was busy with the talk of people catching up, the buzz of Devyn's successful surgery and memorable proposal and the merriment of the season. Devyn pulled his cousin Nate out onto the deck under the light of the frozen stars, closing the door behind them, shutting off sound as if the world had ended, such was the silence.
“I've missed you,” Devyn said, hugging Nate, who lifted Devyn off his feet in response.
“Missed you too, Dev,” Nate said with a grin.
“So. I hear you got an offer. Tell me.”
“Jesus,” Nate said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Well, it's a scholarship to a school that has a big baseball program. Ex-major-leaguers as coaches and instructors. If I go and I work hard, I could get a real shot at the majors.”
“Okay,” Devyn said with a nod. “What's the downside?”
Nate shook his head. “I'd be alone. I mean, I know everyone is behind me, but I'd be alone at school – it's in Florida. Uncle Dale drove me down to see it for a few days, and...I'm not sure I fit in with the culture. The coaches want the kids to pray all the time – they say it's a team builder, but it makes me uncomfortable. I don't think they'd accept me as bi. Plus...I'm in love, Dev. I'm in love with someone that sees all of me and still loves me.”
Dev patted his cousin's shoulder. “You're quite lovable,” he reassured him. “You bring up good points – except that they are all maybes. Maybe you'll fit in, maybe you won't. Do you have to? Maybe you can take a moment of silence and think about kissing your boyfriend instead of praying? I know it wouldn't be easy, but if you're a pro player you'll be far away, probably. What if a team like San Diego drafts you? If – when – you hit the majors, you'll be about as far away as you can be, not to mention where you'd play in the minors.” Dev smiled at him. “All I'm saying is travel, distance – that's part of the game. If that's not what you want, then your decision’s made. If you're just not sure, then maybe you need to try it out first.”
Nate nodded. “Elliot said I should try. To never pass up the chance to follow a dream.” Nate cleared his throat. “Actually, Elliot got a call from Julliard. He'd gotten a scholarship there before, but then his dad had the stroke. They redid his package – seems like they really want him – and he's thinking really hard about going.” Nate swallowed and closed his eyes. “I'm scared I'll lose him.”
“I read this thing once...if you love something, let it go. If it doesn't come back, it was never meant to be. Elliot is doing right by you both – you have to follow your dreams. But that doesn't mean it has to break you. It would be hard. Some people aren't built for relationships like that, and in the end one of you might feel having the other person close is more important. But you know, there are always cheap weekend flights to Florida.” Dev grinned and frowned all in one. “And nasty motels where you two can 'visit'.”
They broke out in giggles and leaned against each other.
“So you think...go for it?” Nate asked.
“Go for it,” Dev said with a nod. “But use your head. If you need Elliot, get him on the phone. If you need to see him, well, we'll figure shit out.”
The door opened behind them, and Elliot stepped out along with Griffin.
“Congrats, Dev,” Elliot said in greeting.
Dev reached up and placed his hands on Elliot's cheeks. “You guys can do this. Be great.”
“Hah, no shortage of confidence in you,” Elliot said with a chuckle.
“Elliot saw me watching you guys and filled me in,” Griffin said. Looking at Nate he asked, “Is it true? You could chase your dreams?”
Nate hesitated and then nodded. “One of them, anyway.”
“And you?” Dev asked Elliot.
“Yeah, it's been a dream for a long time. But...Nate is more than I ever imagined so...not the easiest choice.”
“But it is,” Dev insisted quietly. “It's just like anything else. You support each other in following your dreams. You get together by phone when you can, and take cheap flights and motels by the hour when you need to.”
“Dev,” Griffin frowned.
“I'm kidding,” Dev said with a grin. “I mean, you guys will want to just be together, but let's not pretend you're not fucking somewhere in that, okay?”
Nate chuckled and took Elliot's hand. “No, no pretending.”
“So do it. Follow the dreams. Lean on your family when it's hard. Stay in touch, and be honest with each other. Be true.”
“We could meet halfway on weekends,” Elliot said slowly.
“My uncle could get me a deal on a car,” Nate said thoughtfully.
“There you go,” Dev said softly. “Make it work.”
“Speaking of work, I think your mouth has worked plenty today,” Griffin said. “Let's go home, chatterbox.”
“You just want to take me to bed!” Dev accused.
“Like we didn't know that already!” Nate said with a laugh.
“Shut up, Nate,” Elliot said from the side of his mouth. “Let's, uh, sneak around to the cars and head home. What do you think?”
“The Kennedy men are studs, that's what I think,” Dev said before breaking out in his chuffing laughter.