My thanks to Craftingmom for editing and Ricky for beta reading.
I have to give Holden credit. Even if he didn't really understand my fears, he was more than willing to let me work through them and be ready to help, if asked. Once we had all settled in for the night in makeshift style, considering the lack of actual bed space, I lay awake in thought.
Harrison hadn't woken, and we had elected to let him sleep. We both understood that he had suffered something traumatic, even if he couldn't quite bend his mind around it. I imagined that the conflicting emotions had to be overwhelming considering she'd raised him for the last several years but was also responsible for much of his on-going pain. Holden and I hadn't discussed our relationship any further, and that was the reason for my current gratitude as I watched him sleep from my position on the floor.
His hand dangled from the couch where he lay. Moonlight fell in patches through the window, missing his face and a surefire poetic moment, and instead landing on the skin of his elbow and the side of his hand. I wanted to take his hand, just for a few moments, to show myself that I could overcome some small amount of my fear. I also just wanted to hold his hand.
I'd gone into my new school feeling as if I'd never stack up, because they had money and luxury and I had none. I knew that, in some ways, I would always be inferior to some of them, and despite my not having run into that, I felt it deeply. Perhaps that was just my own issue, but having Harrison and Holden made me feel like that wouldn't matter as much anymore.
I didn't have many friends from my old school. It wasn't anything in particular that I could think of that prevented that – except that I was an educational anomaly there. I enjoyed my work, I enjoyed reading that allowed me to escape my existence in this dirty part of the city. It occurred to me now, laying here, that I'd always simply escaped into those pages – be it a novel or a textbook – and had never tried to make my circumstances better. Perhaps it's something I could learn, something I could build on. The Phillips' had given me an opportunity, and maybe one lesson here was that things could be different if only I'd help myself.
My fears had held me back, made me suspicious when Harrison extended his friendship. Granted, even through his eyes, he'd thought me safe enough to throw away until I'd shown him I was more than he might have thought. In a way, it was very odd that we'd ever connected and in the most silly way possible, I had Carl to thank for that. Poor, witless, nutless Carl.
Then there was Holden. I liked that he was direct about what he wanted and wasn't ashamed of it. I was also a little nervous that he wanted me. I still was wracked with fears about how losing either of them might wreck me and my position at the school. For instance, Harrison's family was clearly old money and, presumably, influential. If things ever deteriorated to a certain point, they might put that influence into removing me from that school. I was also profoundly grateful that these dark and unflattering, selfish thoughts would never leave the echo chamber of my head.
But I was tired of being afraid. I had worried about my new friends and what they might think of my financially poor situation and my wreck of a parent, and they had handled it with more grace than I had. Even my father's drunken antics had been simply accepted as proof that we all had things and people close to us that didn't necessarily make us proud. So thinking, I reached out from my spot on the floor and gently took Holden's hand. I didn't squeeze, and while his hand twitched slightly at my touch, there was no romantic grasp, no magical realization that I had reached for him. Instead, he slumbered on while I made the most tentative of contact with him and, considering I'd known him just over a week, said the dumbest, tritest thing I could.
“I love you, Holden,” I whispered. Considering I'm such a chicken, it was appropriate I said this to him while he slept. I released his hand and tried to fall asleep, but now that I'd held his hand all I could think about was doing it again. Maybe, one day, when he was awake.
We were up late the next morning and ate breakfast at school. News of the murder was on everyone's lips and the air was thick with people's curiosity. Queen, uncharacteristically, gave Harrison a small hug and didn't have anything snide to say about anything. Anthony didn't appear to be in school as I didn't see him in any of our classes. Harrison slipped on his persona out of habit and seemed almost unaffected by his situation, and the contrast was further proof that the Harrison at school was the fake and the one I'd seen hurting in his home was the true person.
I'd kind of realized that before, I'm not entirely dim. But with all the extra going on it brought it home to me. In a way, I thought it was a good thing as he'd be able to get through the day with this personality as his shield. We put our heads down and confined ourselves to work for the day, and I was grateful for the learning to take my mind away from the problems we faced.
Holden went home after school, saying his parents wanted him to make an appearance, and left Harrison and I to get clothes from his house before heading to mine for the evening. There was a police guard at the door who would only allow Harrison to enter, escorted, to get his things. I was disgusted that his grandfather hadn't thought to wonder where his only grandchild was, but then perhaps he was too deep in grief to think clearly. I had a hard time believing that, based on my limited interaction with them and I was, admittedly, biased towards Harrison.
We rode in the car to my apartment, the place where we could find refuge from the prying eyes of the media. There had been a camera at the house, but Harrison hadn't spoken to them, and I'd kept silent after being turned back by the police guard. Harrison looked out the window at the passing buildings and broke the silence quite suddenly.
“I always thought he'd kill her after having had one too many drinks,” he said.
“I guess they must have loved each other once, right?” I replied, uncertainly.
“I can't be sure. I think I heard, once, that it was more of a political marriage. Something like an arranged marriage to bring two business, old money type interests together,” he said, then paused to glance towards me. “I've heard sometimes people grow to love one another, in that circumstance. I think they had some items in common, but seeing them as I have always known them, I think they were incapable of love.”
“That's sad,” I replied.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” he said with a sigh. “I wonder if I'll end the same way? I think love must be a lie, something the poets used to get laid, repeatedly.”
“No, I don't believe that.”
He turned and quirked an eyebrow at me, “You believe in love?”
“I don't believe you'll end that way,” I said by way of dodging his question. “I think you're too smart to fall into the mistakes of your lessers.”
“Oh, that was good,” he said with a grin.
“It's true,” I said softly and looked out my own window.
“What evidence do you have of this...theory?”
“You love Holden, and he's someone your family would never have approved of.”
“I need Holden, that's not the same thing,” he said quietly.
“I do think you need him, but I'm sure you love him too.”
“I'm still waiting for evidence.”
“There's great heaps of it!” I laughed at his frown, “How can you not love someone you claim is your moral compass? Someone that took the time to teach you compassion and friendship and what they really mean? Of course you love him, Harrison!”
He sat silently, digesting my words, and then looked at me with the devil in his eye. “Do you think, then, I should marry him?”
The car pulled to a stop and we exited, continuing our conversation in bursts on the stairs.
“I said, do you think I should marry him?” he asked.
“No! He's your friend, not a potential husband!” I retorted. My breath grew labored as we crested the fourth floor.
“But you just described a wonderful mate, are you trying to keep him for yourself?” Harrison teased. I, belatedly, realized he was shifting the discussion away from his feelings of a lack of self worth and towards my blooming relationship with Holden. I wondered if he were afraid we'd leave him behind, somehow.
“I'm just giving you the proof you asked for that you're capable of love,” I replied.
“If I love him so much, why did I tell him to put on sexy underwear and rub on you in the locker room?”
“Because you give shitty advice?” I asked while giggling.
“You can't think that's the advice one who loves another would give, can you?” Harrison pretended to sound aghast.
“Harrison, you do things like that just to see what happens. It doesn't mean you don't love him.”
“Well, let's see how you feel when I do it to you,” he smirked. “Why is your apartment door open?”
We'd crested the eighth floor, and my apartment door was, indeed, open a crack. I approached with some concern, after all it could be the world's dumbest thief come to steal things from people that have nothing; also, if he were that stupid, he might be dangerous. I pushed the door open slowly and entered the short hallway. I could hear muttering and something that sounded like things being tossed into the garbage. Going in deeper I was surprised to find Mr. Phillips kneeling on the floor and scooping junk off the floor.
“Mr. Phillips, what's going on?” I asked.
“Oh, Sean, I didn't hear you come in. Hello,” he said, nodding at Harrison. “I came to check on your father, and we had an unfortunate discussion about his drinking. He's gone out for provisions, and I was cleaning up the...evidence of our discussion.”
“Oh, I can do that. Trust me, I do it a lot.”
“Nonsense, I know better than to poke a bear,” he said as he stood up. “Besides, I had an ulterior motive!”
I smiled, “Let me guess; peach cobbler?”
“Oh, you guessed,” he grinned. “Do join us, I assume you are Harrison?”
Harrison's mouth curled at the corner as he took Mr. Phillips outstretched hand. “I am.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Mr. Phillips said and then took on a more formal air. “I am sorry for your recent loss.”
“Thank...” Harrison stumbled, “Thank you.”
“We'll just get out of our uniforms and meet you downstairs?” I asked.
“Splendid.” So saying, Mr. Phillips headed out the door.
“Sean,” Harrison said, “Have you been talking about me?” His corner quirk was in full effect.
“I may have mentioned you,” I replied while placing my school books on the kitchen table. “I'm going to change.”
“What have you told them?” he asked with gentle curiosity, unlike the aggressive tone he'd used when we first met.
“That you send pictures of other guys junk, of course,” I grinned and ducked into my room.
Dinner was a quiet affair, and Harrison thoroughly charmed the Phillips'. Mrs. Phillips made some gestures when she thought he wasn't looking, trying to ask if this was the guy I'd said was so cute and all. Of course, she was mixing Harrison and Holden up, but one could forgive that. Harrison would be a handsome catch for anyone.
They did get us back to the house at a respectable time, though my father was home on our arrival and had obviously been self medicating. His eyes blearily followed our progress and Mr. Phillips sat in the chair in the living room.
“Hello, Keith. Are you feeling better?”
My father looked at him, his neck turning stiffly, and his eyes took a few moments to adjust before he nodded. “Fine.”
Harrison and I went to the kitchen to get our homework done. We were also close enough to hear what was going on, but at least I wasn't worried about what my father would say – after all, what could top his last performance?
We booted up our laptops and started in on our assignments, and I tuned out some of the conversation so I could focus on that. Within ten minutes that was impossible as my father staggered to his feet and pointed a shaking hand at Mr. Phillips.
“You always wanted him, why haven't you just taken him?”
“Keith, you know we've always tried to help you. We're elderly now, hardly in a position. Let's also not forget that -”
“Bullshit!” my father roared. “You teach those little bastards all day. You know damn well he'd thrive in your house, why don't you do us both a favor?”
“Keith, please...” Mr. Phillips licked his lips, “You know we've always tried to help you.”
My father moaned, picked up the cheap bourbon by the neck and swigged. His face contorted from the harsh taste and he stood still, swaying slightly. I stood to try and lead him to his room, but he fixed his eyes on something unseen to the rest of us and spoke softly.
“For, what with my whole world-wide wandering, what with my search drawn out through years, my hope dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope with that obstreperous joy success would bring, - I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring my heart made, finding failure in its scope.”
“Browning? How apropos,” Mr. Phillips commented. “Let's try to stave off your death and give you time to be appreciated.”
“No...” He said quietly. “Sean. Go with the Phillips'. Things will be...better. I feel a little...” The rest was lost as he vomited across the coffee table.
“Oh, Christ,” I muttered. I went to the kitchen sink and removed the bucket and gloves, then filled it with hot water. I carried the stuff out and began to clean, something I was used to with his drinking, but I noticed something new – blood. It was brown and looked kind of like coffee grounds, but it was something I'd never seen in all the times he'd been vomiting.
“Mr. Phillips?” I said with a tremor in my voice, “Is this blood?” What a stupid question, Sean, what else could it be?
Mr. Phillips had gotten dad back to the couch and was just now kneeling down to look at his mess. His nose wrinkled, and he pulled out a handkerchief to breathe through. His eyes narrowed as he took in the brown specks and the amount of them. He glanced at my father and made a quick decision.
“Sean, call an ambulance and pack an overnight bag. I'm afraid you boys may have to come with me tonight.”
Dad was barely conscious when they wheeled him away, and Mr. Phillips merely dropped us at his home and, with a very few words to his wife, headed to the hospital. Mrs. Phillips led us to our rooms, and we set our things down. It was already late, but there was no one to call in for Harrison to get a day off from school, and I wouldn't let him go in alone.
I started at that thought. I was strangely calm about my father. I'd been cleaning his puke, spilled booze and empties for so long that this evening hadn't phased me much if at all. Finding blood in his vomit was just one more step on his crusade to drink himself to death. It was an inevitability and, sad to say though it might be, there wouldn't be much to miss. Our memories as a family included no vacations, there were no pictures on the walls of holidays or trophies for playing sports.
Our fridge never had my drawings on it, and we didn't celebrate Christmas or any other holiday, other than he may drink more. My memories of my father were of a broken, selfish bastard about whom I could, on occasion, muster some sympathy. Recently learning that he was gay and had accidentally gotten my mother pregnant on a one night stand, after being blind drunk of course, had only served to make me angry. I didn't expect any of that macho, asshole bullshit about being a man and doing what had to be done. I would have settled for a dad that tried.
I didn't believe in any deity, because what god would give me such a shitty hand to play? Still, I felt guilt at hoping he'd never come home and I could live with the Phillips'. I guess if your son could think that, why bother being a good dad, right?
Anyway, Harrison and I worked at the kitchen table, and Mrs. Phillips, like a holiday story, put milk and cookies out for us. Harrison looked odd, out of a school uniform, and yet he looked like he belonged here. I guess, when it came to family, we both got shafted – but this house, with its nurturing atmosphere, made us brothers.
The morning was a rush, and I didn't have a chance to speak to Mr. Phillips as he'd come back very late and wasn't up yet. Fortunately, we'd been picked up by Harrison's driver and, once ensconced in the car, Harrison did nothing more than stare out the window.
“Deep thoughts?” I asked.
“Somewhere between that and wool gathering, I think,” he replied. He turned so that his face was in profile before speaking slowly. “You know, despite everything that I have in terms of privilege and money, I think I could have been very happy to grow up in the Phillips' home. Of course,” he said while he rubbed his chin, “the irony is you have to grow up outside that environment to have the perspective to appreciate it.”
“I know,” I said sotto voce. “I used to wonder why they left me with my father, why they didn't try to get custody. As I've grown older, I don't dare to ask since they give me so much as it is. But still, with dear old dad doing his level best to take himself out...I wish I knew why they never did.”
“That is curious,” Harrison mused. “Perhaps it's simply human blunder, perhaps they kept hoping things would get better and assumed you'd want to be with your blood relation? Did you ever ask them?”
“Ask them? No!” I shook my head. “Seems kind of presumptuous when you think about it, kind of like asking people to throw you a party in your honor.”
“I see your point.” He turned his face to the window and said quietly, “Still, I'd go with them in a second if I had the chance.”
We arrived and dropped items off at our locker before heading to our first classroom. We met the group at our first session table. Holden had saved me a chair and this didn't go unnoticed.
“Holden, are you throwing yourself at the new boy?” Anthony teased.
“Not right this minute, no,” he replied.
“I'm sure Holden plays it cool, very subtle,” Harrison smiled. Then his smile split into a grin, “unless he's changing in the -”
“Shut it!” Holden said with a laugh as he reached out and tried to cover Harrison's mouth with his hand.
“Oh, please, we all know Anthony is the biggest slut here,” Queen sneered.
“Next to you? Please.”
“Tell me something. Did it hurt when you fell out of the whore tree and banged everyone on the way down?” Queen said while pointedly avoiding looking at Anthony.
“What the fuck? Did you eat your bitchies this morning or what?”
“You bring out the monster in me, deal with it.”
The bell for first session chimed and the work day began.
I was called to the office during my free period, and I had assumed it would be to make my selection of an elective, but instead Mr. Phillips was waiting for me in Mr. Kinkaide's office. He looked tired and seemed to deflate further when the door was closed and we were left alone.
“Mr. Phillips? What is it?” I asked quietly as I took a seat.
He smiled at me, a sad smile I thought. He folded his hands and then unfolded them and placed them on the arms of the chair, tapping his fingers against the leather. He fixed his eyes on the narrow window set high in the wall and a ghost of a smile crossed his face.
“When I taught your father, I was full of hubris. I thought of myself as a step parent or surrogate father for many of my young charges and would take pride in their progress and achievement – especially the ones with little to no father figure at home.
“But your father was a special case, and it blinded me and opened my eyes all at once.” He fell silent and turned his eyes away from the window and fixed them on the floor between us.
“I don't understand,” I said.
“I know. I'm not completely sure I do, either. Sometimes I think I do, and I think I did what I could have – should have – but many times I forget the reasons why. When I saw your father's poetry and his passion for the writing, I honed in on him to develop him, to push him and challenge him to new heights. We worked tirelessly, and at some point, I stopped seeing the boy and could only see his future achievement – and my credit in shaping him.”
I remained silent, trying to absorb the story and understand why he felt the need to tell me. There was something cathartic in his words, or so I hoped.
“So, in his senior year, we sent his poems out to colleges along with his applications and tried to get him a scholarship. There was interest, partial scholarships and work study programs but...it wasn't enough. Then, I hit on an idea.”
I watched his head fall and his hands clasp as if in prayer, dropped down between his knees. “You suggested he join the army,” I said. He sat still, a tear forming in his eye, and I knew then the guilt he must carry, for thinking he played some part in my father's collapse.
“I did. He was going to go on the GI bill and then go to college. But, of course, there was the conflict in the desert. He came back a hollow version of the artistic young man that had departed those many months before. He came back and found that he had a son, that his one night stand with a woman had born fruit...”
We sat in silence for a moment while I wondered if my birth was the last straw for my dad, and Mr. Phillips seemed to sense that and move forward.
“No one can know the human mind. Many soldiers cannot re-integrate into civilian life after combat, many struggle. Then there are men like your father who give up.” He sighed deeply and closed his eyes as he said, with pain and perhaps bitterness in his voice, “He married your mother to provide health care for you both. He was covered by the military at that point. But the union was doomed to fail. His sexuality complicated everything and your mother...well...”
“So...” I gathered my resolve and asked the question that had, most recently, come up that very morning. “Why did you let me stay with him? Why didn't you and Mrs. Phillips get me out?”
His developing tears matured and fell in wet tracks down his worn face; he'd never looked older to me.
“How could I when my hubris put your father in untenable situations? I pushed him to college, I pushed him to the army and pushed him to care for his child. Having done all that, who was I to take that child away?” he said, turning his head to look at me from the edge of his vision. “How could I possibly think I could be a capable parent to anyone?”
“But...he's a drunk!” I said with disbelief. “He was drunk all the time! I've been cleaning up vomit and doing my own cooking – raising myself because he's too broken to do anything but buy himself booze! Whatever you think of yourself, you had to be better than that!”
“Would I?” he said defiantly, his eyes still flowing. “I ruined his life, her life and yours.”
“Bullshit! You and Mrs. Phillips are the only ones that looked out for me at all! If you care so much -”
“- then you should have gotten me out of there!” I said in a loud voice. My own vision was getting blurry as my eyes watered.
“Yes, yes you're right, and I can see that now,” he said followed by a deep sigh. “But all that is in the could have, would have, should have department. Now, we have a difficult choice to make.”
“What?” I said while wiping my eyes dry.
“Your father has been mentioning some back pain for the past few months. I thought nothing of it, assuming he'd simply slept wrong. Unfortunately, that is not the case.” He sighed again and took my hand while turning his body to face mine. I looked into his careworn face as he said, “I'm afraid he has stage four pancreatic cancer.”Next Chapter Previous Chapter