The hospital corridor seemed to go on forever – forcing him to weave through an endless gauntlet of gurneys, doctors and nurses. Geoff had to force himself not to sprint and to ask, not demand directions when he needed them. Normally he wouldn’t care but ticking off the wrong person here could only slow him down.
He burst through the door to his brother’s room and all three occupants looked up. Richard nodded from where he sat beside the bed. Jon was sitting up in bed and turned from the young man he had been speaking with to give Geoff a weak smile. Besides a little pale, he looked none the worse for wear. Geoff sighed with relief and wrapped up his younger brother in a tight embrace.
“Good to see you too, Geoff,” Jon said, slightly muffled. Geoff pulled back to hold him at arms length.
“So what the fuck?” he demanded.
Jon shrugged. “A car swerved into my lane in front of me. I reacted too slow and we crashed. Damon pulled me out,” he nodded at the young man, “and called Richard before the ambulance came. Everything’s kind of hazy after that.” Geoff turned to his brother’s rescuer, looking at him closely for the first time.
He looked about Geoff’s age, if a little older, of average height with a lean build. His face was open and intelligent with pronounced cheekbones. His short magenta dyed hair was bright enough to be headache inducing if you looked at it too long but did little to distract from his penetrating eyes. Overall he was handsome in a punk-rock sort of way. Damon stepped forward and extended a hand.
“Damon Bryant, pleased to meet you. You must be Geoffrey.”
“Guilty as charged,” he replied as he took the offered hand. “Thank you for helping my brother.” Damon smiled.
“Heard a lot about you. Glad to put a face to the name.”
“All of it good, I hope,” Geoff responded lightly.
“All of it interesting, definitely,” came the somewhat cryptic reply.
Geoff raised an eyebrow but turned away to face his older brother. “What did the doctor say?”
“It seems to be just a mild concussion,” Richard explained. “The X-ray didn’t show anything usual and he’s responded well to neurocognitive testing so they don’t think there’s any serious damage.” He paused while Geoff moved his hand back and forth in front of Jon, who tracked it for a few seconds before swatting it away. “Nevertheless, since there was some external bleeding, they would like to keep him overnight for observation.”
“How do you feel?” Geoff asked, eying Jon critically.
“Good enough. Let’s get him home.”
“Concussions are a tricky business,” a pretty woman at the doorway interjected, walking in with the standard hospital accessories of white coat and clipboard. “Swelling and other complications can occur a short while after the initial incident. At the moment though,” she turned to Jon, “it looks like you were very lucky. That being said, I’d rather err on the caution.”
“Dr. Handler, excellent timing,” Richard stood to greet the doctor.
She gave a wry smile. “Well, I heard a young man who looked a lot like Jon was making a beeline for the ER. So I took a wild guess.” Jon exchanged an amused glance with Geoff. Everyone told them they had the greatest family resemblance but neither of them could see it. Where Geoff’s complexion gave the impression of a year-round tan, while in comparison, Jon was something of a ghost. As far as they were concerned, the biggest similarity was they wore their chestnut hair in the same short and gelled style.
Dr. Handler turned to Geoff, “I know you want to take him home as soon as possible but I strongly recommend waiting until tomorrow. It can only help.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Richard answered as Geoff opened his mouth to argue. “If you could give us a moment?” Geoff held the door open for her.
“Of course,” the doctor replied to the display of passive aggressive courtesy. Her coat had barely disappeared around the corner before Geoff whirled around to Richard.
“Why should he stay a minute longer in this germ factory if the tests came back fine?” he demanded.
“Geoffrey, you heard the woman. Some damage may not be readily apparent.”
Damon started towards the door. “I should probably–,”
“Before you go, could you give my brother an idea of what you saw? You were first on the scene, after all.” Both Geoff and Jon watched Damon intently.
“He was pretty out of it. Borderline unconscious and muttering gibberish. He must have taken a pretty hard knock,” Jon instinctively raised a hand to his head and winced. “It all looked pretty bad. Honestly, I’m surprised everything came back as good as it did.”
“Knowing this, I’d rather take the doctor’s advice,” Richard picked up. Geoff could see the sense in this and grudgingly nodded. Seeing this, Richard met his gaze and held it before continuing. “I share your desire to keep the family close immediately following something like this but here I believe you’ll simply have to suppress your…nesting instincts.” Geoff gritted his teeth to bite back a snarling response, forcing himself to take a deep breath instead.
“Whatever,” he conceded with a roll of his eyes. “Jon, there’s still a little time before visiting hours are over. Want me to run home and get you anything, seeing as you’re stuck here till tomorrow?”
Jon smiled ruefully. It was clear he didn’t want to stay here anymore than Geoff wanted to leave him. “I think I’m pretty much set. But my phone’s dying, think you could grab a charger? And maybe my iPad?” he added after a moment.
“You got it, Pinter. My charger’s in the car, I’ll grab it for you so you’re not high and dry when I go get your tablet,” Geoff suggested.
“You know, humans have been known to survive short periods without personal electronics,” Richard commented dryly. Damon chuckled and Jon clutched his chest in mock disbelief.
“Don’t believe it. That way madness lies,” Geoff replied with a grin as the tense atmosphere in the room began to dissipate. “Back in a flash. My car’s just outside.”
“Speaking of cars, how do you have one?” Richard asked pointedly. “I drove mine here and our other one was towed this afternoon.” Jon’s ears began to turn pink.
“This thing called car rentals,” Geoff shrugged as he headed for the door. “Charged it to the company,” he added, ignoring the loud sigh behind him.
“I should head out too,” Damon added. Geoff stopped at the door and held it open for him. “It was nice to meet all of you and like I said, come by the coffeehouse sometime for a cup on the house.”
“After today, I think I owe you coffee,” Jon chuckled.
“Damon,” Richard stood up. “Thank you.” It was a simple phrase but to Geoff his brother’s earnestness was almost palpable. No matter the cracks he might make about “nesting instincts”, the harsh reminder that they could never completely protect each other would be eating at Richard for some time.
The weighty moment was thankfully interrupted by the vibration of Jon’s phone. He reached for it and fumbled, and the smart phone buzzed itself off the side of the bed and plummeted towards the floor.
Geoff snatched it out of the air. “Close one,” he chuckled. He flipped the phone face up as he made to hand it back to Jon and casually glanced at the screen. One text message – something-something Boston. He looked up to catch an unmistakable twitch from his little brother.
That single motion was enough to set off his internal lie detector. Geoff frowned and took another look at the message partially displayed on the lock screen.
Even if the message hadn’t confirmed his suspicions, the pregnant silence, instead of the usual outraged exclamation of violated privacy, would have done so. Jon had always been a terrible liar.
The tense moment over the phone erupted as Geoff hurled the phone at Jon, hitting him square in the chest with an audible thump. Damon saw Richard open his mouth but Goeff cut him off.
“So, little prince,” he snarled. “How were the Catskills?”
Jon scrabbled backwards up the bed and pulled his legs up to his chest as physically trying to avoid the heat of his brother’s anger. With his wide eyes and shrunken posture, he seemed to have reverted to a frightened child before Damon’s eyes.
“Geoffrey!” Richard snapped.
“Looks like we have our cause of accident,” Geoff answered. “Jon was driving home while hungover after what must have been a hell of a party in Boston.”
“I didn’t…. It wasn’t…” Jon grasped for words. Richard said nothing, merely picking up the phone and after looking at it for a moment, placed it on the arm of his chair.
“Much love from Boston – great to have you back again,” he recited emotionlessly. “Well, that does sound incriminating, doesn’t it?”
Damon knew that this was technically a family matter and he should quietly excuse himself but Jon’s obvious terror made it hard for him to simply walk away.
“It’s not what it sounds like…” Jon began.
“Oh, spare me,” Geoff interrupted. “So you abuse our trust, do something incredibly stupid and almost get yourself killed? How self-absorbed can you get?”
“Self-absorbed?” Jon rallied somewhat at the term. “You’re lecturing me on that? You? Hey, Pot, name’s Kettle, have we met?”
Geoff’s fist lashed out. Damon felt his legs propel him forward, and he grabbed the other boy’s arm and twisted it around behind his back.
“I think you need to calm down,” he instructed Geoff, not applying enough pressure to cause pain but enough to still imply it was very much an option. Hopefully it would cut through Geoff’s temper tantrum.
“Let go of me,” Geoff growled.
“I get that you’re mad but this isn’t going to help anyone and I think you know that,” Damon went on. His instincts had been right and he was glad he had stayed.
“Thank you, Damon. You can let him go now, he won’t be any more trouble,” Richard’s voice brooked no disobedience. Damon could feel the violence leave Geoff as quickly as it had arrived. The fury remained but it was controlled now – boiling beneath the surface after the initial eruption. He released the arm and Geoff stalked over to the door. Jon began to uncurl himself but winced when his brother glanced over his shoulder.
“You can figure out what to do with him, Brody,” he said to Richard. “I’ve wasted enough time here so I’m headed back to Ithaca.” He slammed the door behind him. Both brothers avoided eye contact with Damon, who recognized the embarrassed silence of family members trying to find the words to smooth over an incident not meant to be seen by outsiders. He decided to give them a hand, and asked the first question that came into his head.
“Why did he call you ‘Brody’?” Damon asked.
“A ridiculous pet name,” Richard answered dismissively.
“It’s a mix of ‘bro’ and ‘daddy’ and Geoff liked that it made a real name,” Jon explained. He glanced at Richard. “I wish you’d let me tell him.”
“He’ll find out soon enough.”
Seeing Damon’s raised eyebrow, Jon grinned at him. “Dick and I have a little surprise planned for our favorite psychotic brother.”
"What do you mean transferring? You're the ones who moved!" Geoff snarled.
"Yes but I've decided it's a good opportunity to implement a change for you as well - you should be closer to home," Richard replied calmly. "You clearly can't be left unsupervised," he added, leaning back in his chair.
It had been a few weeks since the accident and Richard had summoned Geoff home for the weekend before the end of the semester kicked into high gear with exams. Jon had been waiting for this moment for some time now and had to stifle a giggle from the anticipation.
Geoff planted his arms on the mahogany desk and leaned forward. "So your brilliant plan is to transfer me from an Ivy to a fucking state school?" he growled.
Richard met his gaze unblinkingly, almost reptilian in the face of his brother's anger. It was like watching a showdown between a wolf and a snake, Jon thought as he observed his elder brothers from his place by the door. It always helped to have an escape route handy, though he doubted he would need it today.
This was far too entertaining to leave.
"Cornell was an unmitigated disaster," their eldest brother stated. "There was no reason to keep paying Ivy League tuition simply for Ivy League intoxication. I will not pay good money for you to indulge in a more expensive wine, Geoffrey."
"A diploma from the State University of New York won't be worth shit," Geoff argued, "and what will it look like to have an Ellesier dropping from Cornell to some no-name school anyways?"
"If you had started worrying family image earlier, we might not have been having this conversation," Richard snapped. And the snake strikes, Jon thought to himself. "After that last video went viral, going to a less prestigious school will hardly register now. As to the diploma, the way you were going there was no guarantee you would even get it."
Geoff twitched at the mention of the video but put on a smirk anyways. "The bastard started it. Now he's an example." The initial reaction was not lost on Jon and he felt a bit guilty. He and his brother may have their differences but no one deserved what those guys had wanted to do to him.
"And we had to settle a reasonable force lawsuit. Well done," Richard pinched the bridge of his nose. "While SUNY may not offer all of the...amenities that you're used to, it's perfectly respectable. In fact, fewer distractions could be just what you need to actually learn something. That you're supposed to," he added, seeing Geoff open his mouth for a smart reply. "Anyways, if you find your conditions so appalling, consider it incentive. You're welcome to apply somewhere up to your standards next semester. Provided your GPA is up to mine."
"Speaking of which, how did you transfer me? I don't recall applying anywhere," Geoff had begun to regain his composure, the initial tantrum had passed and now he would begin analyzing the problem, working out how to either solve it or turn it to his advantage. This phase was more frightening than his rage, which was at least somewhat predictable. In this quiet, thoughtful state it was much less certain what he might do. Sympathetic thoughts receded and Jon’s hand settled on the door knob.
When Richard turned to him with a nod, whose recognition would have otherwise filled him with pride, he began to feel queasy. Geoff's expression turned predatory and even more wolf-like as his head whipped towards his younger brother, confirming his fears. Violence he could handle, even give a little back as he grew older, but it was the more subtle retribution that he feared. Still, there was no backing down now. Jon shifted his weight slightly before responding with a Geoff-quality smirk.
"I made a few changes to your Cornell application and filled out the supplemental essays for you. It wasn't hard to copy your writing style - remember when we used to do each other's homework?" he asked. "My, I mean, your acceptance letter came yesterday."
After a moment, Geoff nodded. His expression was carefully blank but that in itself was an indicator that Jon would be hearing about this later when he was least expecting it. "So not only have both my siblings turned against me but together? It's nice to see a little family solidarity, at least. But I got to say," he turned to Jon with a genuine smile, "well played, little prince. Well played." Jon felt a surge of pride in spite of himself. After all these years, he still strove for his older brother's respect, if not his approval.
Pathetic, he scolded himself.
The next day was spent in a sullen, oppressive silence. The only one apparently at ease was Richard, who busied himself with his work, content to ignore the tension between his brothers. For his part, Jon focused on staying out Geoff's way until Monday.
Though his brother might like to pretend that his were the only real hardships, Jon had been uprooted as well. He was now attending Columbia High and though he had grown used to new schools, it never really got any easier. If he played his cards right, this could be the last before college, though it was certainly going to be the most stressful. Junior year was hard enough without being the new kid in town.
And I’m probably going to be “the new kid” for a while, he reflected bitterly, stalking down the street. It was Saturday afternoon and he had needed to get out of the house. By the third year of high school, friendships would be formed and cliques would be cemented – it would take some effort if he didn’t want to be a hermit for the next year and a half – effort that he needed to put into this grades. This was going to be a blast…
The bright spring day did little to lift his spirits. The only reason he was walking was that his brothers had forbidden his use of the car since the accident. No driving until he “proved he could be trusted to make responsible decisions.” When he demanded how exactly he was supposed to prove he was a responsible driver when they wouldn’t let him drive, the two had become inexplicably deaf.
He couldn’t entirely blame them for being upset but at seventeen, having to walk everywhere and worse, possibly taking the bus to school with the freshmen was bordering on cruel. Talk about adding insult to injury, he thought bitterly.
The worst part was it all felt so preventable in retrospect. He had been so fucking close. He had even made it to town! Jon had replayed the scenario more times than he could count, considering what he could have done differently and why he hadn’t done it. Perhaps drunk that extra cup of coffee before he left, not had that extra beer the night before or left after the party – it didn’t matter, it was looking more and more like he had fucked up long before swerving into that other car. It had been when he had chosen to try and drive back from Boston on only two cups of coffee, three hours of sleep and a hangover from what he suspected at least four cases of beer.
Keeping in touch with his friends back in Boston should have been simple with Skype calls, online games and constant texting - Richard had even offered to get him a train ticket to Boston for a few days - but the distance was beginning to tell. So when his best friend, Greg, had invited him to his birthday party, Jon was determined to make it work. So he had told Richard he was visiting Greg’s summer home in the Catskills when in fact he had driven up to Boston for the weekend. He had been so pleased with himself at the time – a simple, elegant solution. His brothers had been hesitant but it had been way easier to convince them to let him drive up to the mountains for a relaxing weekend than to Boston for a wild party. It had worked so well too – up until it didn’t.
Now it was becoming clear to him that no amount of clever plans, technology or money could replace simply being there on a regular basis. Jon had begun to accept his old circle of friends would never be a part of his life in quite the same way. Actually, whether or not he would have any friends, old or new, until college was starting to worry him as well. Besides not having a car, he was still technically grounded until Richard decided he had “learned his lesson” or he turned 18. Whichever happened first.
Turning to cut through the park, he wondered, not for the first time, if he should have fought harder to stay in Boston. It was pointless though, he knew he could never had gone through with it. It had just been the three of them for the last five years – they weren’t just a family, they were a team. So when Richard had explained the need to relocate to the new company headquarters, Jon had understood. His elder brother already faced enough difficulty from work, making him fight on two fronts by giving him trouble at home wouldn't be right. That’s how they operated, supporting each other and the family - in theory.
Geoff didn’t seem to understand that his and the family’s goals weren’t always the same thing, forcing Jon and Richard to intervene, then making them feel like traitors when they did. Jon’s forged application was nothing less than what Geoff had done to him over the years, all supposedly “for his own good.” He had lost count of the number of times he had brought a new friend home or asked to go to a party, only to find a few days later his schedule was suddenly rearranged so that he no longer saw the classmates Geoff had deemed not good enough for his little brother. If that didn’t do the trick, Jon would usually find his phone’s SIM card mysteriously missing for a few days. A few times he had even been transferred out of the system entirely, packed off to a private school if his middle brother’s standards weren’t met or more often, as punishment for something. Making real friends had been hard but he’d managed.
When Richard had proposed this plan, Jon had jumped at the chance for some long overdue payback. He should have learned by now that whenever he tried to do that it cost him just as much. Now here he was, his life upturned again and stranded in a small town in upstate New York with Geoff out for his blood.
It hadn’t always been like this. Geoff had always turned on a dime but largely been a doting brother during his childhood, along with best friend and partner in crime. He still had a custom-made cap bearing the moniker “the pint-sized prince” from when he was eight years old, that Geoff had ordered for him, along with several other gifts, courtesy of their father’s “borrowed” credit card. On Jon’s tenth birthday, Geoff had procured bus tickets and convinced their brother to help them skip school in favor of a day at the zoo. He must have been one of the happiest ten year olds in the world that day.
He still remembered it all in vivid detail – the wolves, the elephants, the lions, Geoff trying to throw another boy into the crocodile pit for stealing Jon’s candy….
That Geoff almost felt like a different person. Jon sometimes wondered if he would ever come back, or if that boy had died with his parents.
He traded a small smile with girl jogging past him and couldn’t help trying to steal another look over his shoulder – just in time to see her smirking over hers and turning away. Busted, he scolded himself. Though it didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Who knows, I might even see her again, it occurred to him. There could be something to living in a small town after all.
Jon could hear his father singing “It’s a small town” to the tune of “It’s a small world after all” softly in his ear. Songs and gentle teasing had been two of his father’s favorite things and combining them would have been an opportunity he couldn’t miss. The thought was a scalpel to the old wound but Jon couldn’t bring himself to banish it from his mind just yet. His brothers rarely spoke of their parents, and only to make disparaging comments when they did. Jon held on to his own memories all the more tightly, treasuring them like artifacts in a museum. He had been twelve when they died and some were already getting blurry. He lived in fear of the day they faded into obscurity completely.
Jon paused outside the small coffee shop, Café Perk Me Up, where Damon worked. The barista had been the one to pull him out of the car after the accident, and had even visited him in the hospital once. Why not stop in and say hello to the one person he sort of knew in this town?
The café was moderately full but there was no line in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Damon’s distinctive hair was nowhere to be seen behind the counter. Whatever, he thought, I missed lunch anyways. Jon approached the counter as a couple of girls left after chatting with the barista.
“What can I get for you?” The young man gave him a small smile as Jon stepped forward.
“Um,” he hadn’t given any thought to what he wanted. He scanned the menu while giving the barista an apologetic smile. “Sorry, just one sec.”
“Take your time, I’m here till 5,” the boy replied wryly.
Jon chuckled and glanced at the board one more time before back to the barista, Seth, according to the name tag on his shirt. “I’ll have the non-fat mocha latte, no whipped cream.”
“Dude, where’s the fun in that?” Seth replied with a grin as he entered “no whip” on the register, “Anything else?”
“I know, I guess I’m just boring like that,” Jon bantered. “And yeah, the ham and cheese sandwich.” He paid for his meal, all the while getting the distinct impression the boy was looking him up and down while trying to remain inconspicuous. Pro-tip, kid, whenever you’re closely observing someone, you’re being closely observed, Jon wanted to point out.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Seth handed his change back with a mischievous smirk that gave Jon pause, before returning it with one of his own. “For here or to go?”
“Here.” It was just bright enough to make eating outside uncomfortable and he certainly wasn’t taking it home. The whole point of the walk had been to get out of the house for a time.
“Grab a seat,” Seth flashed him another of what Jon was beginning to suspect were his trademark grins. Well, first walk around town and I’m already being flirted with, Jon reflected as he settled at a table by the window. I’d call that a good sign. Different team but still a good sign. Actually, it could be the second time, if he counted the girl from the park. Was eye contact and a smirk flirting? Sure, why not.
Too bad that Seth was a bit young, otherwise he might have been Geoff’s type. Seth was handsome enough as far as Jon could tell, and Geoff had once mentioned he liked green eyes. A new play thing might have been just the distraction to keep his brother off his back until school started. Perhaps he might run into someone else…
Am I really so much like my brothers or just really good at thinking like them?
Neither answer was very appealing. As much as he looked up to them, there were traits in both of them that he had no desire to emulate. Both of them followed the appeasement strategy he was considering. Smooth over tensions at home with a gift or gesture of some kind, be it a new video game, concert tickets or a temporarily relaxed curfew. Depending on the situation it could be as an apology or peace offering or something in-between. It was certainly easier than any real change in behavior, which was for damn sure. Now here he was doing the same thing, trying to make peace with his brother to side step his rage.
Some things are just in the blood, he reflected.
“Here you go, one mocha latte with a ham sandwich.” The plate slid in front of him. Jon looked up to see Seth. “So are you new here? If you don’t mind my asking,” the barista enquired.
“That obvious?” Jon replied with a chuckle.
“Well, you kind of have that lost, new guy sort-of look,” Seth gave him a mockingly critical once-over.
“I could be just socially awkward,” Jon retorted with a grin, “I could have crippling social phobias for all you know.” The boy’s open, relaxed manner was a welcome change from dealing with his brothers the last few days.
Seth laughed. “You would have had a point there if it weren’t so easy to tell that’s B.S. after talking to you for ten seconds. Plus, I’ve never seen you around before.”
“Maybe I just like to lay low,” Jon leaned back, enjoying the verbal fencing.
“I wouldn’t peg recluses as big coffee shop people,” Seth parried.
“It isn’t lunch hour,” Jon pointed out. “Not that crowded.”
“Touché,” Seth conceded. “So where you from, man?”
“Boston, just got here like a few weeks ago. The unpacking has been crazy so I haven’t got out much.”
“Nice!” before Seth could say any more, a blonde girl tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, Seth,” she said as he turned around, “Grayson says to stop flirting and help him.” They both grinned as they glanced over to the counter where another boy was gesturing impatiently.
“Yeah, I better get over there. Thanks, Maggie,” Seth turned back to Jon. “See you around maybe?”
“You might,” Jon replied without thinking. He gave Seth one of his patented smiles and the boy followed Maggie back to the counter, where he started whispering with his co-worker immediately. Jon watched him for a moment before sipping his mocha. Had he been flirting? Jon wasn’t so much bothered as intrigued. It had seemed nothing like when he watched Geoff talk to guys, though that shouldn’t have been surprising. His middle brother comprised exactly 100 percent of all the gay guys he actually knew. Well, there was Damon now so that might change.
His musings were interrupted by the arrival of a new girl at the coffee counter, who hijacked his attention immediately. Dark hair down to her bare shoulders, wearing a simple summer dress, she carried herself with an easy grace that he found instantly appealing. They briefly made eye contact before she turned away with a smile to order her drink from Seth. He watched her out of the corner of his eye for another moment or so before he felt sketchy and returned to his sandwich. He had other problems to deal with, there was no need to complicate things. But a simple hello couldn’t hurt, if he found an opportunity to start a conversation….
Or, he realized, he could take a leaf out of his brother’s playbook and make his own. He took out his phone and turned on the camera, flipping the viewing lens towards himself to use it as a mirror. As the girl began to walk towards the exit, he rose from his chair, phone in hand. Staring at his iPhone’s now blank screen intently, he strode forward at a fast clip, seemingly oblivious to anything in his path – which happened to intersect hers in the middle of the shop.
She barely had time to see him coming, let alone react. His deftly sidestepped as his elbow collided with her coffee, the girl stopped short, and the drink splashed out on to the floor.
“Shit! Watch it!” she snapped at him before inspecting her dress for any stains.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” Jon apologized, “Are you okay?”
The girl steadied herself and took a breath, “It’s alright and I’m fine.” She raised her cup and frowned when it appeared noticeably lighter.
“No, I should have been watching where I was going,” Jon insisted, wearing his most earnest expression.
“Happens to the best of us,” she replied, shaking the coffee from her hands as Grayson approached with a mop, raising an eyebrow at Jon.
“Here, let me get you some napkins,” Jon darted over to the counter before she could answer. “Seth,” he whispered, “what did she order?” The boy gave him a confused look before nodding in understanding. “Plain coffee, dash of skim milk.”
“I’ll have one of those,” Jon slipped him a five dollar bill. “Don’t worry about the change.”
His target had already reached the door before he caught up with her. “Hey,” he called.
“Thanks but I’m-” she paused, seeing the coffee in his outstretched hand.
“I think this is yours,” Jon said with a slight injection of shyness.
“Oh, you didn’t have to…thanks,” she took it with a slightly bemused expression before favoring him with a bright smile. Jon felt a tingle run down his spine.
“It was the least I could do,” he replied. “I just moved here so I’m a little distracted, kind of a space cadet sometimes actually… I’m Jon,” he offered, realizing he was rambling now. At what point, he wondered, did I lose control of the situation?
“Sophie,” the girl replied, looking him up and down, “I’ve seen you around school a couple times. Welcome to Sanitaria Springs.”
“Thanks, it’s…” he trailed off as she had already started walking away, instead of following the standard conversation route of asking where he was from and so on.
“Maybe we’ll bump into each other again,” she added over her shoulder. Well, there goes five bucks, he thought. Or, it occurred to him, maybe it was an investment.
“They had no right!” Geoff exclaimed, flopping down on his bed.
“Actually they do. Or at least Richard does,” came the infuriatingly calm reply in his ear. “Yeah, it was a stupid trick but come on, man, you didn’t even like Cornell or you would have tried harder. You’re just pissed they went over your head. And don’t give me that look.”
“What are you talking about? You can’t even see my face,” Geoff asked, glaring at his bedroom ceiling. He could almost hear his friend Patrick smirking into the phone.
“True, but I know what it looks like when you hear something you don’t like.”
“Sorry, aren’t you supposed to be on my side?”
“Always, dude. That’s why I’m being honest with you.” Geoff could hear the sincerity in his voice and bit back a sarcastic retort, simply grunting in acknowledgment.
“Though why SUNY?” he grumbled.
“Could be worse. It’s not like you don’t have friends there.”
“Cut the crap, Geoff.”
Geoff sighed. “I don’t think he ever wants to hear from me again.”
“I don’t know about that. He called me after the video made the rounds. Asked if you were okay.” Geoff wasn’t expecting the tightening in his chest at this new information. He fought to keep his voice nonchalant.
“Still doesn’t mean he’ll be thrilled to see me.”
“No shit. And that’s why you have to see him.”
“I tried apologizing – he doesn’t want to hear it.”
“So that’s it? Four years down the drain cause he doesn’t just get over it and forgive you right off the bat? Vergil has stood by you longer than anyone, even me. You owe it to him to not give up on him. He just needs a little time.”
“Last time we talked it sounded like if he never spoke to me again it would be too soon,” Geoff commented sourly.
“Dude, that’s because the girl he loved had just died in a car crash because you were too stubborn to let someone else drive your car,” Patrick snapped. “Your pride literally got her killed. Are you going to let it kill your friendship with Vergil too? Keep this up and pretty soon you’ll have no one.”
Geoff hung up with a snarl.
Seth ran out after him before he had taken three steps away from the door. “You forgot your coffee,” he said, handing Jon his half full cup with a grin.
“Ah, thanks, man.” Jon had indeed forgotten his coffee, finishing his sandwich and walking out replaying the interaction with Sophie in his head in slow motion. He smiled at the boy and let his feet drift in the direction of his new home.
Geoff ran his thumb down his phone screen, dragging away the man’s profile to bring up another. Nope. He swiped down again, disinterestedly thumbing through Grindr’s selection of local men. He refreshed the app and a few new profiles popped up, highlighted in yellow. He swiped through them in a matter of seconds. Too chubby. Balding. No picture. Too feminine. Obviously a fake profile. Oh, this one looked good – wait, he was on here with his boyfriend. He had already seen several profiles of handsome guys listed as “partnered” or “committed” and looking for friends. Really, who went on Grindr for friends?
Sighing, he put the phone aside and lay back staring at his bedroom ceiling. So, a date didn’t seem to be happening. Geoff would need another way to get out of his head and escape the continuous replay of his conversation with Patrick. He could already feel the solitude pushing in on the inside of his skull like a dense fog, heavy with uncomfortable thoughts and questions he didn’t wish to deal with right now. Well, the course of action was clear. This called for a drink. He rolled out of bed and padded down the hall towards the kitchen.
The kitchen was awash with bright afternoon light, a ray of sun highlighting the fridge like a divine spotlight. Well, I can take a hint, Geoff thought. He smirked as he opened the door to find a bottle of white wine, chilled and ready. Clearly a sign and as gifts from God go, a chilled bottle of Muscato was enough to make a believer out of him any day. Or at least a temporary one.
He poured himself a glass and sardonically raised it to the window in a mock toast. Taking a sip, he heard the front door open and he turned around to see Jon enter the kitchen and stop short upon seeing him. His younger brother froze for no longer than a couple heartbeats, eying him warily, before continuing towards the trash can with an empty coffee cup.
Geoff sighed inwardly. He was still smarting from the transfer stunt they had pulled, but he was also getting tired of the cold shoulder and needed some company. He opened his mouth to ask Jon how his walk was when he saw his brother’s hand pause over the trash can before withdrawing it, still holding the cup. Well, that is interesting. Reconciliation was shelved and elder brother instincts kicked in, as Geoff put down his glass and darted forward.
“What you got there?” he made a grab for the cup but Jon was ready and sidestepped him neatly.
“It’s empty. You were about to throw it out,” Geoff stated, positioning himself between the island counter and the wall, blocking the way out of the kitchen.
“Or maybe I changed my mind and decided to finish it. In my room. Away from you.” Jon made to push past him.
“You always were a terrible liar, Jon.” Geoff feinted right before swiping at the cup with his left and grabbing Jon’s wrist. The cup crumpled – definitely empty – and he caught a glimpse of handwriting on the base. Ah. His brother twisted out of his grip and backed away in a fighting stance. “Aw, a secret note on your coffee? That’s sweet. Who’s the lucky lady?” Geoff taunted.
Jon didn’t respond before he dashed forward as if to duck under his brother’s arm. Geoff braced for impact but Jon threw himself to the side at the last second, rolling over the island and thundering up the stairs to his room.
Geoff watched him go and listened to the slam of his bedroom door. He shrugged and retrieved his glass. “Well played, little prince,” he said to the empty kitchen. The excitement drained out of him as he took a long sip and the oppressive loneliness from earlier rolled in to take its place once more. He would have to apologize to Jon if he wanted anyone to talk to this afternoon but he almost immediately discounted that. He was just kidding around, after all.
Why should he apologize because his brother couldn’t take a joke?
The familiar line of thinking brought back the conversation with Patrick. His pride did get in the way a lot, didn’t it?
Pretty soon you’ll have no one.
But this was different, he thought. Jon and Richard were family. The three of them may fight but they would always stand together in the end.
However, he had once thought that Vergil would always stand with him as well.
Maybe Patrick was right. Maybe it was time to eat a little humble pie.
Maybe it came in chocolate.
Jon slammed the door shut and leaned against it for a moment to catch his breath. Definitely could have handled that better, he scolded himself, been more subtle to not attract Geoff’s attention when he noticed something written on the cup. Perhaps trashed it and come back for it later…. No, he shook his head, why should he have to hide like this and dig through his own trash? He wasn’t a kid anymore and it was his own goddamn business. Now, what was this all about? Jon turned over the crumpled coffee cup – on its base there was a phone number and a note in barely legible teenage scrawl.
Drop me a line if you get over your social phobias and want someone to show you around town –S
A number and an invitation from S? Sophie, perhaps? No, she had never been alone with his cup so that meant….Seth. Was I just asked out? Or, he thought, I’m misreading the entire situation and he’s just a friendly dude. Jon flopped down on his bed. Well, it had been a nice conversation. His first in the week or so since he’d been in the hospital and chatted with Damon. And maybe Seth could tell him if Sophie was a regular at the café and give him an idea when he might run into her again. He reached for his phone and texted the number.
Richard leaned back in his office chair, arms behind his head. Outside his window a bird chirped and the leaves rustled in the breeze. Sunlight flooded in through the windows, dappling the study with the shadows of the trees outside. A fine spring day. And I’m stuck inside, he observed sourly. He felt like he was ten years old again, stuck inside at his desk when all he really wanted to do was sit under a tree with a good book.
Muted voices and sounds of scuffling carried over from the direction of the kitchen but even that couldn’t quite disperse the afternoon tranquility. Richard ignored it and went back to his work with a sigh. Parenting two volatile teenage boys had long ago taught him the futility of intervening in every fight. If they didn’t sort it out themselves in the next few minutes, he might rouse himself. The distinctive sounds of someone pounding up the stairs announced the end of the incident. He waited a few seconds but none followed. Well then, small mercies, he thought.
Staring at the papers littering his desk, he shook his head. There was nothing here that couldn’t wait until tomorrow. Indulging his inner child, Richard took out his phone and sent a simple text to a new friend.
I’m bored. What are you up to this fine afternoon?
After a moment he put the phone aside and as soon as he did, it buzzed loudly, the vibration amplified on the desk’s wooden surface.
Enjoying my day off. Hbu?
Richard tapped out a reply, smiling at the quick response. Trying to work and failing. Might just need a break – join me for a drink? If you’re not doing anything, he added.
A little early for drinks, isn’t it? :P
Damon, Richard wrote back, one thing you will learn about our family is that it is NEVER too early for a drink.
“You always take me to the nicest places,” Richard commented wryly, eying the bar’s décor.
“Welcome to your first sports bar,” Damon proclaimed with a grin. He raised his beer. “Cheers.”
“To new experiences then,” Richard clinked his glass and took a long pull.
“Well, looks like you needed that drink,” Damon observed. “So,” he settled his hands on the table, watching his friend intently, “How’s life?”
“Tense,” Richard answered after a moment’s thought. He sighed. “Work has gotten easier now that I’m closer to the new office but of course…”
“Not all quiet on the home front?” Damon concluded.
“Oh, it’s very quiet,” Richard disputed, “The problem is that it’s too much so.” He stared into his beer. “The boys barely speak to each other except to fight. Jon is still despondent about the move and Geoffrey remains determined that the answer to all his problems lies at the bottom of a glass.” He sipped his drink.
“Like his drinking problem?” Damon commented seriously. “He’s, what, twenty?”
“Nineteen, and yes but that’s beside the point. He’s been giving Jon hell the last few days.”
“Okay, I understand you’re both still mad about the Catskills thing but kids-”
“Pull stunts like this all the time, I know,” Richard cut in. “And though Geoffrey – and I – still feel it was a betrayal of our trust, we’re more relieved than anything else right now. This time it’s actually my fault and Jon’s taking the brunt of it, I’m afraid.”
“Oh?” Damon raised an eyebrow. “So what has our favorite YouTube star sulking?” Richard frowned at the mention of the video but continued.
“A few days ago, Geoffrey received his acceptance letter from SUNY.”
“That’s…good?” Damon ventured, “Though he’s at Cornell, isn’t he?”
“He’s transferring next semester.”
“So he doesn’t want to. Alright, then why’s he doing it?”
“He doesn’t. In fact, he wasn’t even aware he had applied until he received the letter.” Damon’s eyebrow went higher. “You see…”
“Jon?’ The knock on the door was so tentative that Jon almost let him in. Almost.
“Fuck off,” he responded flatly.
“I just want to talk. I promise.”
“Fair enough,” came the reply. “Guess I’ll have to finish this Moscato myself.”
For a moment there was silence. Well, it probably couldn’t hurt to hear him out. Jon opened the door to see Geoff standing in the hallway holding a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“Just to make sure, this is under the condition that I let you in?”
Jon sighed. “A guy can dream.” He stepped aside for his brother. Geoff seated himself at Jon’s desk and poured the drinks before swiveling around to face him. Jon hesitated briefly to accept the proffered glass.
“Go on, take it. It’s not poisoned, I promise.”
The two sipped their drinks in silence for a few minutes.
“Where’s Richard?” Jon asked. “He wouldn’t be happy if he caught us. Or at least me.” Their elder brother would have preferred neither of them drank until they were 21 but had given up on Geoff long ago.
“Out with your knight in shining armor again. Left a few minutes ago. Didn’t think that would have bothered you anymore though. You should be in his good books for a while now.”
“I’m still grounded,” Jon protested.
“Really? I’m sorry that going behind my back and humiliating me didn’t net you more brownie points. Totally unfair.”
“I didn’t do it to suck up to Richard,” Jon bristled.
Geoff snorted. “This should be good. Because seriously, I’d expect this kind of shit from him but not from you.”
“You had him do what?” Damon exclaimed, startling the small number of their fellow bar patrons. He took a breath and, more quietly, continued. “You two sent an application in his name to transfer him? That’s got to be illegal somehow.”
“Cornell was doing nothing for him – or at least, nothing of what an ivy league should. He needed to be taught a lesson and better appreciate the opportunities he’s been given all his life. He takes everything for granted. Even his own family.”
“And I get that – but there are better, legal ways to do it. You said Jon’s getting the worst of it. How?” Damon asked sternly.
Richard ran his hand through his hair. “I really should have expected that. Geoffrey sees Jon’s part in this as a special kind of betrayal, worse than if it had just been myself.”
“Because it’s both his brothers and not just one of you? I can see that.”
“That certainly doesn’t help but not exactly. He and Jon have always had a…special relationship.”
“I think you mean ‘toxic,’ if what I saw at the hospital is anything to go by.”
“You mean the entire 10 minutes you were there?” Richard responded skeptically. Damon crossed his arms.
“Long enough to tell that Geoff scares the shit out of Jon. Any relationship based on fear like that is by definition unhealthy.”
“It’s complicated,” Richard snarled. He paused and took a deep breath to regain his composure. The irritating thing was that Damon was right. He just didn’t understand. “It’s not perfect by any means,” he began. “They were always close and since our parents passed, he has been the more involved, of the two of us, in Jon’s life.”
“I wanted you to feel powerless. To have someone make a major decision for you without even saying a goddamn thing.”
“So basically revenge for not giving you the right to royally screw up your life. Got it.”
“For not letting me fucking live my life,” Jon shot back. “You ran it like a police state for the last five years.”
“And did you ever stop to think why? Where you would have been?” Geoff was standing now and began to circle him. Jon’s first instinct was to backpedal but he quashed it. He wasn’t going to be intimidated. Not anymore.
“Not in a mental hospital?” he volunteered with a sneer.
“How many times do I have to say I’m sorry for that? It was a mistake, I know but you were a train wreck and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go to Richard for help. We agreed I’d be the one saving you from your impulsive, idiot self so he could focus on making sure you and I didn’t end up in the foster system. How long do you think you would have lasted in there? You want to critique my parenting skills? Fine. But don’t you dare pretend you were anywhere near functional for most of that time.”
“Maybe foster care would have been better than here,” Jon snarled.
“In the beginning, it kept him out of trouble. He was only twelve and he was closest to our parents than either of us. We never quite understood why but there you are. Geoffrey was able to keep him from going into a downward spiral – to do what had to be done. He had to be…extreme.” Damon’s eyes narrowed but he let Richard continue. “He made sure Jon did his school work, kept him from falling in with the wrong sort of people, even made sure he ate right. I can’t imagine it was easy – Geoffrey had to be a parent, therapist and brother all at once. His childhood effectively ended that day with our parents.” He paused and took a swig of his beer. “He….kept Jon from self-destructing and got him through those first years.”
“He’s like two years older than Jon, right? No fourteen year old should have that kind of responsibility,” Damon sighed before looking hard at him. Richard heard the unspoken question clearly: And where were you during all of this?
“For my part, I gave him free reign. Our uncle was pushing for custody of both of them and the company was taking off. With so many other things to deal with, Geoffrey’s methods – I didn’t question them, only the results. Which at the time were acceptable.”
“So that’s part of why you got him involved in the transfer scheme. You wanted to make it up to him somehow,” Damon stated flatly.
Richard shifted uncomfortably. “Over the years Geoffrey has done something similar to him many times – and with my tacit approval. I suppose giving him a chance to turn the tables seemed like a way to…make amends. If only a little.”
The silence in the room was deafening. The echo of his words hung in the air between them and Jon wished he could reach out and pull them back. He saw Geoff’s arm tense and he made to duck the thrown glass he knew was coming.
In a fluid motion Geoff downed the wine and hurled the glass across the room, shattering it on the far wall – in the opposite direction. When he made no further move towards him, Jon tentatively lowered his arms. Geoff took a deep breath and turned to him. Then the half full bottle on the desk. Jon followed his gaze and without a word padded over to pick up his own glass and wordlessly offered it to his brother. Geoff waved it away and instead took a swig from the bottle. Jon moved to take the waste basket over to the broken glass before Geoff stopped him.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of it,” he said, breaking the silent exchange. “Sorry if it leaves a mark,” he added.
A darkly comical thought occurred to Jon that his brother could have said something similar to Richard, all those years ago when Geoff had taken responsibility for him.
Verbally, he responded with a shrug. Jon shrugged. “I’ll put a poster over it if it does.” He handed his brother a notebook and watched Geoff sweep the glass into the waste basket. He remembered too late that the coffee cup with Seth’s number was there but Geoff let it go without comment. “I’m sorry for what I said. I didn’t mean that.” Jon paused to collect himself. “Don’t get me wrong, most of the shit in my life has been because of you but…you’ve also been there for me through all of it too.” Geoff stood up and faced him, his expression neutral. “The two of you, you’re like my rock. You know I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Geoff’s expression softened. “I-we have tried to keep you safe. Maybe not always gone about it the right way but that was always the only thing we wanted.” He reached out and put his hand on Jon’s shoulder. “I came here to tell you that.” Jon put his hand on his brother’s arm and they stood for a moment before Geoff withdrew. “I also wanted to give you this.” He put down the bottle and darted into the hall towards his room. “I found this when we were unpacking,” he explained as he returned. When Jon saw what he was holding, he felt a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.
In his brother’s hand was a small cap, faded navy blue and emblazoned in gold lettering along the brim was the title “The Pint-Sized Prince.”
Damon sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Dude, you three are all kinds of fucked up, you know that right?” Richard sipped his drink again. He could almost see the thought circling Damon’s magenta dyed head, his younger brothers would have been better off with their uncle. To his credit, however, he didn’t verbalize it. “Of course he jumped at the idea of helping you. As the adult, you should have known better.” Richard shifted uncomfortably again. “Also, you do know that shit like the Catskills thing is only going to keep happening, don’t you?” Damon continued. “If Geoff has been isolating him from forging outside relationships as much as I think he has, Jon’s going to fight harder to hold onto the ones he’s made.”
Richard scowled. “I’m well aware.”
“Well, you could have fooled me,” Damon berated him. Richard sighed.
“Very well, so I’ve failed my brothers utterly. I see that now. Well done for opening my eyes. I don’t suppose you have any suggestions, oh wise one?”
“For starters, you don’t get to feel sorry for yourself, and -” Damon ignored the sarcasm and reached across the table to put his hand on Richard’s, he tensed but didn’t pull away. “It’s never too late to try and change things.”
“Geoff…” Jon took the cap, surprised by the lump in his throat. He regained control of himself before looking up at his brother.
“You’re not exactly pint-sized anymore and… I think it’s time I started treating you like it. I might not always be thrilled with your choices – and I will definitely let you know – but I think I can learn to respect them.”
“Maybe there was something to that ‘new beginning’ in this town that Richard was talking about,” Jon mused.
“Hey, I wouldn’t go that far.” Geoff paused. “But he’s right in that as a family we’ll always be stuck with each other somehow. Probably best if we’re not at each other’s throats the whole time, right?”
“Absolutely. Only when you least expect it.”
With that, the two of them embraced. “Right back at you, Pinter.”
A bottle and a half later, Geoff sauntered back to his room. Flopping back down on his bed, he considered his new outlook on life and contemplated how long it would last. All three of them had fought – bitterly – and reconciled before, but somehow this last conversation felt different. Or maybe it was just the alcohol.
His gaze settled on his phone, lying beside him where he had tossed it after hanging up on Patrick. Eh, why not? He was in the mood to mend fences after all. Or was he just drunk dialing? Or why not both?
Geoff opened his contacts and checked recent calls before remembering the number he wanted wouldn’t be there. He scrolled down his contacts list, almost reaching the end before he found it. With a deep breath, he tapped “call.” It was answered on the fifth ring.
“Well, didn’t expect you to pick up. Had a voicemail message planned out and everything – what? No, I don’t want you to hang up. I want to talk. There’s something I need to say. Yes, Vergil, I’m drunk.”