My thanks to Craftingmom for editing and Ricky for beta reading.
The murmur of the TV was the only sound in the room. My father lay still and, somehow, that stillness made him appear to be what he was: dying. Mr. Phillips was at the nurses' station waiting for the doctor. He might have thought I'd want a minute alone with my father and perhaps someone normal would. A numbness had set in when we'd left the school. Robotically, I'd sent messages to Harrison and Holden to let them know what was happening and to let them know I'd call later. Mr. Phillips bade me to let Harrison know he was expected at their home for dinner, if he wasn't otherwise engaged.
My anger at Mr. Phillips had evaporated. He was, after all, simply an easy target right then. Now, there was the business my father had to attend to, that of dying. Small hoses trailed from his nose to feed him oxygen and drugs kept him asleep. He didn't look peaceful, though. Just sick.
“You were a shitty father,” I whispered to him. “I don't know if you can hear me, but I thought you should know.”
He drew a breath slowly, shallowly, and rattled an exhale.
“I'm lucky I'm not more fucked up than I am, no thanks to you. It would have been nice if you'd crawled out of the bottle and tried, at least.” I shook my head and looked down. “Now I have to hope the Phillips' will take me in.”
No response, just the unsteady breathing.
“I wish I knew why you couldn't cope. I wish I knew if it was hereditary,” I said softly. “Am I looking at my future? Is that some sort of unavoidable fate?”
He shuddered under the sheet and the light blanket, a hitch to his breathing and then he resumed his uncertain respiration.
“I could love him, you know,” I said, continuing to keep my voice down. “Holden likes me, so far. Remember him? The one you took such great pains to embarrass me in front of? I'm not sure I ever thanked you.”
I sighed as I watched him. I didn't know the cocktail they had him on to control his alcohol withdrawal coupled with the pain from the cancer. I sat in the chair and offered recriminations to him until the middle afternoon when Mr. Phillips returned. His wife was with him – he might have even told me that he was going to get her.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she said, pulling my head to her breast.
“Sean, this is Doctor Bronson,” Mr. Phillips said. Neither of them got any farther as my father chose that moment to stop breathing. His wishes, set forth in a living will, were that they not make him start doing that again and so it was the last one he took. Somehow, I felt cheated that he'd died right in front of me. I never got to tell him how rotten he was and I was really upset that, watching him, I felt a pang of loss and regret.
Holden sent a message while Mr. Phillips was signing paperwork of some kind. Holden wanted to know if he and Harrison should come to the hospital or to the Phillips'. After a brief hesitation I told him neither and I would see them both the following day. I really just needed tonight to get my thoughts and feelings together.
We left the hospital and went to the apartment where I gathered more clothes and a few other personal effects. Just enough for a few days. The ride in the car was quiet with the strains of some classical music filling the car. Dinner was also a quiet affair. It wasn't until later, after a shower and more comfortable clothes, that I sat in the living room with them, sipping hot tea.
“Sean, I realize that today has been a tough day. Unfortunately, the world does not stop for us, and there will have to be some things that we must address quickly,” Mr. Phillips said.
“Can I live with you?” I blurted. I glanced at each of them, and Mrs. Phillips smiled at me lovingly. “I know it's a lot to ask, but I don't know what would happen to me if I don't have you both. I can't rely on anyone else for this...please?”
“We'd be very happy if you did, Sean,” she said while coming to take a seat next to me on the couch. “You've always been welcome here and, I have to say from pure selfishness, I'm pleased to see more of you.”
“We've always wanted you here, Sean,” Mr. Philips said over his teacup. “You're a special light for us and it's our pleasure, believe me.”
I felt a pressure roll from my shoulders, a weight I hadn't been aware I'd been carrying. Perhaps, somewhere, I'd been afraid they'd say no – that they were too old or that it was too much responsibility or who knows what? Maybe I was just prepared for rejection, but I felt a bit foolish now for doubting them. They'd always been there for me.
Mrs. Phillips rubbed my shoulder and asked, “Do you want to talk about the day?”
“There isn't much to say,” I replied slowly, choosing my words with care. “As long as I knew him, he was drunk. He never cooked or got me clothes. He never came to a game or concert or play. He never tucked me in,” I glanced at her soft eyes and said, “all I know of him is what I missed out on because of him. I can't miss what was never there.”
“Yet, you aren't unaffected,” Mr. Phillips commented.
I nodded. “I guess it's only natural, right, Mr. Phillips? Something has changed, probably for the better.”
“That's a difficult yet...truthful statement,” he replied. “Still, considering our...recent discussions, perhaps it's best that he forced our collective hand.”
“He finally did something good for me,” I said. I sighed deeply and looked from one to the other. “Thank you.”
“I should think we'd like to meet this 'Holden' you're so enamored of, by the way,” Mr. Phillips said, a smile tugging at his lips. “Why don't you invite them for dinner tomorrow? I'm sure you could use some friends around, as well. Someone besides us well meaning old folks.”
“Good morning,” Harrison greeted me in front of the Phillips' house.
“Good morning, Harrison,” I replied and slid into the seat beside him. We sipped coffee in silence for a few blocks and then Harrison reached into his pocket and removed a cell phone.
“You'll want to return this to Holden for me,” he said.
“Why do you have his phone?” I asked, pocketing the device.
“Your message last night was clear in that you would speak to us tomorrow – meaning today. Therefore, I assumed you were bogged in detail and not simply avoiding your friends. Holden was having great difficulty not contacting you, so I helped him.”
I grinned, “Does he know you helped him?”
“He may suspect it by now,” he replied, his trademark corner curl on full display. “May I ask the details?”
“Sure,” I replied and shifted my gaze to the window. “My father died yesterday, as I mentioned in the text. He had pancreatic cancer, and it was far worse than anyone realized. I guess the drinking numbed things up for him, not just mentally and emotionally.”
“I'm sorry for your loss,” he replied quietly.
“It's okay. Thank you. I'm staying with the Phillips, now. You've been invited to dinner tonight along with Holden.”
Harrison thought that over and then smiled broadly. “Wouldn't miss it.”
I looked at him suspiciously. “What?”
He smiled like the Cheshire Cat and sipped his coffee. I resolved to ignore him. On arrival at the school, my attention was quickly diverted from Harrison's calm outward demeanor to a decidedly more passionate Holden.
“Okay,” Holden said as he grabbed my arm and dragged me to an alcove. “I've been waiting for you to get here, and you have to admit I was really good, not insisting to see you last night. But I've been worried – how are you?”
“I'm okay,” I replied, a little embarrassed at his outburst.
“No - you're not Harrison! You don't get to stuff things away like that and make me dig and dig,” he said, pushing his fingertips into my sides and forcing a giggle from me. He leaned in close, now that I was backed up to the wall, and repeated. “I was worried. You have no idea the amount of self control that took.”
“I'm sorry. It was a strange day, and I wouldn't have been good company,” I replied quietly.
“Being good company wasn't your job,” Holden said poking me in the chest. “It would have been mine so...you're interfering with me doing my job!”
I smiled at him and contritely said, “I'm sorry, Holden.”
“Well...I'm sorry too. I'm just worried for you.”
“It's all right. My father and I didn't have much of a relationship and the Phillips have taken me in. It's a shock, a little strange, but I think things just got better for me.” I shrugged, “It probably sounds screwed up for not being a little more sad about my parent dying but...”
“Well, if you need to talk...”
“I know, and thank you.” I smiled at him as I reached into my pocket, “Oh, by the way...”
I handed him his phone and his face flushed as he accepted it and looked up at me. “Harrison stole it, didn't he?”
“I think he thought your resolve was weakening,” I grinned. Holden squinted at me.
“You're enjoying my little emotions over you. Aren't you?”
“I'd be lying if I said I didn't,” I replied.
“If you're not careful, I may cuddle you to death,” he replied with a snicker. I tilted my head forward and narrowed my eyes.
His eyebrow went up, “Oh, look whose suddenly stopped being coy. Come on, we'll be late.”
We walked side by side, Holden smiling at me and, silly as it sounds, I was returning it. This seemed so very odd – did my father passing set something free in me? If so, doesn't that make it much more likely that there is something majorly wrong with me? The thought troubled me throughout the day.
Despite the brief chat with the Phillips, I did feel a shift now that my father was dead. In some ways, I was completely alone, bereft of family but I found that my experience with family had been so poor, I wasn't so worried about that as I might have been otherwise. These thoughts were rehashed a bit over lunch with Holden making inquiries and Harrison simply watching. Anthony wasn't there, and Queen spent the entire time with headphones in her ears listening to music, presumably, on her phone.
That evening, I assisted in preparing dinner. As it was a Friday, I could afford to do my schoolwork over the course of the weekend and looked forward to relaxing that evening. As I worked in the kitchen, I decided to voice my concerns about my lack of emotion over my father to Mrs. Phillips. She pursed her lips in thought before she replied to me.
“It's a complicated matter, to be sure, when we lose someone with whom our relationship wasn't...straightforward.” She sighed and turned her back to the counter to look at me while I sat at the table peeling potatoes.
“It was kind of straightforward, though,” I replied. “He drank and we largely ignored each other.”
“Yes, that's true. However, as you've stated, there was also a large amount of discontent on your part – and rightly so – for his abdication of his parental duties. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to slap that man and just drag you over here,” he muttered this last and grimaced. “We discussed it many times, it was always such a damnable mess.”
“I...appreciate what you did do for me.”
“It should have been more,” she stated. “Can't fix that, now, can we? A few more potatoes, handsome, and then we can get to mashing them. Boys usually like that part.”
“I'm worried what it says about me that I feel so much more free with him passing,” I said to her as I grabbed another potato from the bag.
“That'll pass,” she said confidently. “Your experience with your father was regrettable at best, but it was a known quantity. You had to be an adult and clean and cook and take care of everything yourself. Now, those things aren't the case and you'll have a chance to be a boy for a while – but that won't be easy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I'd imagine part of the relief is the release of your obligations – ones your father thrust on you with his drinking and the freedom to come and go as you pleased. But things you'd normally do, like eating tons of pasta whenever you feel hungry or deciding when your room should be cleaned or laundry should be done,” she turned and pointed at me with a cooking spoon. “You're on my time and in my kitchen, now. You're going to eat healthy, your laundry will get done weekly and that includes your sheets.”
“Yes, ma'am,” I grinned. She walked over to me waving her spoon.
“Don't you sass me, mister,” she laughed and hugged me from behind. I brought my hands up and held her arm close. I guess this was what having real family was like. We finished getting things ready and then I went to get cleaned up before my friends arrived. Opening my closet door, I was surprised to find new shirts hanging. I brushed through them and selected a nice blue polo and tried not to feel emotional about wearing clothing that hadn't been donated. I think the only other things I had that came to me brand new besides underclothes were my school uniforms.
I crossed the room to my dresser and opened the drawer with my jeans. My own jeans weren't in evidence, though I was sure they were stashed somewhere, but inside were new pairs that ended up fitting rather well. Curious, I opened other drawers to find some tee shirts and new underclothes. I ran my fingers over the material which was far nicer than the thrift store packages, and even the tee shirts felt softer and thicker to the touch.
I put on clean jeans to go with the polo and smiled as I looked in the mirror – the shirt fit well and I hoped the Phillips would be pleased to see me making use of the nice clothes.
Strolling back into the kitchen, I leaned against the counter and spoke to the room. “Someone has been putting clothes into my closet.”
Mrs. Phillips turned and looked me up and down. “Well, they have good taste!”
“Thank you,” I said, giving her a hug.
“Oh, don't mention it. I did a little shopping while you were at school,” she said patting my back and letting me go. “Your school clothes seemed to fit well, so I bought a few things based on those sizes.”
“I appreciate it,” I said looking down on the clothes. “They're really nice.”
“Well,” she said with a smile and, perhaps, a little moisture in her eye, “I had a coupon.”
I joined Mr. Phillips in the sitting room to wait for my friends. Mr. Phillips informed me that we'd have to meet with the county on Monday to formalize our arrangement. It seems they weren't immediately aware that there was a child involved. Small wonder, I thought, my father was afflicted with the same lack of awareness.
“There is one other thing we should probably discuss. Due to your father's military service, he is eligible to be interred at government cost. Do you have any wishes as to his final resting place?” he asked, speaking softly.
“I...I guess I'll give it some thought,” I replied.
“Do that,” he said gently.
At last, the doorbell rang and I went to greet my friends. Opening the door I was a little surprised to see them in shirts and ties and looking quite handsome. I should not have been surprised that the Phillips were lined up right behind me. It was a little crowded in the hallway.
“Mrs. Phillips, a pleasure to see you again,” Harrison said and handed her a small bouquet of flowers. “Mr. Phillips,” he said, shaking hands.
“Oh, thank you, Harrison,” she said with a bright smile. “I'll just put them in water.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, this is Holden Thieriot,” I said by way of introduction.
“Pleased to meet you,” Holden said while holding a small fruit basket out to Mrs. Phillips and shaking her husband's hand.
“Oh my, how lovely. Come in, come in,” she said and bubbled back towards the kitchen. Mr. Phillips moved ahead of us to the sitting room, and I whispered to them.
“Gifts? Who are you guys?” I snickered.
“We're polite gentlemen,” Harrison replied haughtily.
“Harrison, they've met you before,” Holden laughed.
“Yes, and I got an invitation to return,” he grinned and took a seat in the sitting room. I sat next to Holden on the couch and Mr. Phillips welcomed them.
“It's nice to meet you, Holden. We'd heard a little of you and Harrison, here, but it's always nice to put faces to names,” he said.
“I'm pleased to meet you as well, sir. Sean has told me something of you and your wife as well and I was curious to meet you.”
Mr. Phillips made polite inquiries of Harrison as to his home situation and then shifted to safer topics by quizzing Holden about his family and school life. When he left to help his wife set the table – telling me to stay with my guests – Holden raised an eyebrow at me.
“You've been talking about me?” he said, trying to keep his mouth from smiling.
“Of course he has, Holden. I'm sure, for instance, he's told them about your clumsy come on in the changing room,” Harrison began.
“That's enough out of you,” Holden laughed. In moments, we were teasing and laughing before being called to dinner. I went into the kitchen to help bring the food out and caught Mrs. Phillips dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
“What's wrong?” I asked her, coming close. She jumped and smiled at me.
“Oh, nothing dear, nothing,” she patted me. “You just grab those potatoes.”
“You were crying,” I stated. She looked at me and smiled abashedly.
“You might think me a silly old woman, but I just...” she pursed her lips and shook her head. “I just loved hearing you so happy with your friends. See? Silly old woman.” She waved her hands and tried to turn and pick up the vegetables, but I hugged her before she could get far. She held me tightly for a moment and then patted my back quickly.
“All right, let's go before we both turn into a mess.”
Dinner went off very well, and the Phillips were plainly pleased with my friends. Harrison put away his school persona and was far more himself. Holden was charming, and I was stealing little glances at him. Just as dessert was being served, Holden asked if we might be able to stay over at his home that night.
“I can't,” Harrison said, sounding bummed. “Grandfather told me the car would be around by eight-thirty to see me home by nine. The servants leave then, and he doesn't want to be in the house alone.”
“Oh, I'm sure I can understand why,” Mrs. Phillips remarked, holding a hand to her throat.
“Did you see that another body was found this morning?” Holden asked.
“Another? What do you mean?” Mr. Phillips asked.
“It started a few weeks ago, the police are just now admitting there are similarities between some recent deaths,” Holden replied. “First there was...” his voice trailed off.
“That guy from the religious group,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, pointing at me. “Peter Thatcher, from the St. Johns' Group.”
“I don't think I've heard of them before,” Mr. Phillips said. He glanced at his wife, and she shook her head, mystified.
“They are a group that defends priests accused of pedophilia,” Holden replied. “They bankroll the legal defense which can get pretty high.”
“Yes, yes I'd imagine it does,” Mr. Phillips replied. “This is fascinating, why don't we clean up and adjourn to the sitting room for tea before dessert?”
We helped to clear the table, and Mrs. Phillips shooed us all out to the sitting room and followed us in with the hot tea. “The dishes can wait, I want to hear this,” she said while pouring cups. “It's like having a walking, talking scandal sheet!”
I shot Holden a smile, and he gave me a crooked one in return. Harrison pantomimed a blow job, where the Phillips couldn't see. I stuck my tongue out at him.
“So, there was the first man – a fundraiser you say?” Mrs. Phillips prompted as she sat.
“Yes. This morning there was a man, a lawyer, who was found outside his home. He'd been beaten with a stone,” Holden said seriously.
“Beaten with a stone? Was he dead?” she asked, stirring her tea but not taking her eyes from Holden.
“Yes, very. Interestingly, this lawyer represented priests on behalf of the St. John's Group.”
“That name...” Harrison closed his eyes, searching his mind. Suddenly, his eyelids went up and quite wide. “Oh my God! The St. John's Group! Of course it sounds familiar – how stupid can I be?”
“Harrison? “ Holden asked.
“My grandparents sat on the board for them at one time or another – in fact, they were the group that raised money to send Father Jack away on his mission!” Harrison said while switching his eyes from Holden to myself and then back. “Someone is taking out the people that let those bastards get away with raping kids!”
“Well, I dare, say, they're doing God's work,” Mr. Phillips said before sipping his tea.
“Murder, though? They should be brought to justice, yes. But murder?” his wife asked.
“Some people find ways to keep justice away,” he replied. “I don't say I really agree with murder, but this is more of a visceral reaction. Yes, a part of me is pleased that these vile men are getting their comeuppance.”
We moved to the dining room for dessert and continued the conversation on the merits of taking the law in to one's own hands. Once it had been exhausted, Holden turned on the charm to convince the Phillips to let me stay overnight with him. He must have been very good because no one even asked if I wanted to stay over – which I did, but that's beside the point.
At eight-thirty, Harrison's car pulled up and we all piled in, Harrison instructing the driver to drop us off first.
Holden's home was stately but not ostentatious. There was a lot of stone outside, near as I could tell in the dark. We bid goodnight to Harrison, who told us we'd get together the following day, and I joined Holden in entering his home.
He guided me to a large room where a TV was muted above a fireplace, and his parents reclined in matching recliners.
“Hi,” Holden greeted them. “Mom, Dad, this is my friend Sean Stanley from school.”
I stepped forward as they simultaneously popped the handles on their recliners and stood to shake my hand.
“So nice to meet you, Sean,” his mother bubbled.
“Pleasure, son,” his dad said in a booming, stentorian voice. “We've heard about some of the troubles at school. Holden says you and Harrison have become friends as well?”
“Dad,” Holden sighed and rolled his eyes.
“What?” he looked back to me and seemed to size me up. “Holden tells us you have an avid interest in learning.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I was admitted to the school based on my academics on a scholarship.”
“Oh, excellent!” his mother said from behind him, having retaken her seat. “Holden does very well academically – perhaps you can study together?”
“Your grades must be very good indeed to get a scholarship, congratulations,” he boomed. “Now, what are your plans after graduation?”
“Dad! He's not here for you to pick over!” Holden huffed.
“What? I promised to leave the shotgun out of this!” he laughed, filling the room. A girl entered the room, and she was a taller version of Holden, but not by much. Instead of the short dirty blond hair that Holden sported, hers was long and tied behind her in a pony tail. She was wearing very short shorts and a tank top.
“I thought I heard Holden's new boy toy getting interrogated,” she said with a grin and holding out her hand. “I'm Callista but you can call me Callie.”
“He's not a boy toy and nosy is what he ought to call you,” Holden huffed.
“All right, stop picking on Holden,” his mom said with a grin. “It was nice to meet you, Sean.”
“Thank you. It was nice to meet you, too,” I replied. Holden beckoned be to follow him, and we ascended to the second floor and to his room. It was similar in size to that of Harrison's, but the style was more contemporary. There were built-in book shelves filled with trophies and books and all sorts of odds and ends. His furniture was heavy and his bed featured a curved headboard with a tufted ivory cloth covering. A large TV was opposite his bed which was flanked on the left side by a long dresser and the other side had enormous windows.
“There's a door hidden in the windows,” he said, noticing where my eyes had strayed. “Come on, I'll show you.”
“Okay,” I replied and fell in behind him. Walking to the windows, he slid his hand between the drapes and, with a twist, opened a door that was thoroughly disguised by the draperies.
“Whoa, cool,” I grinned as we stepped out on to a small balcony. The view was of his backyard, and the property was large and wooded. There was a manicured lawn with a carefully trimmed hedge garden in the center. I was taking in the details when I felt Holden lean into me and slide an arm around my waist. I stiffened and he froze.
“Is this okay?” he asked quietly.
“Uh, yeah. Just took me by surprise,” I said. I realized, belatedly, that I could return the gesture and tentatively slid my arm around Holden's waist. He sighed and leaned more heavily into me, relaxing.
“This feels good,” he said with a sigh.
“Yeah, it does,” I agreed. A slight breeze kicked up and Holden clutched me a tad tighter and then pulled away, moving his hand down to catch my own.
“Come on, let's go get settled.”
“Okay,” I agreed and allowed him to drag me inside. My head was swimming just a little, having just given him a half-hug and the fact that he was now holding my hand, something I'd been wanting to do just a few nights before.
“Bathroom is over there,” Holden said, pointing to the right of the dresser. “You can brush and stuff, and I'll get changed.”
He raised an eyebrow and remained silent.
I just bobbed my head and grabbed a few things from my bag and closed the door to the bathroom. Okay. I took a deep breath. Okay. Nope, take another deep breath. Shit, I keep this up, I'll be hyperventilating. I went to the sink, done in marble, and brushed my teeth and washed my face. Then I changed for bed, donning shorts and a tee shirt. I glanced in the mirror and ran a hand through my hair and exited the room.
“Okay, my turn,” Holden said as he brushed past me. He was wearing just pajama bottoms and his chest...oh, man! I walked over and put my clothes in my bag while letting the image of Holden sans shirt burn into my memory. I'd only seen him like that in brief glimpses while changing, and this was my first opportunity to really drink him in. He was evenly tanned with small, dark nipples. There was the hint of lighter skin at the top of his pajama bottoms which I found alluring beyond words.
He wasn't built, in fact he had no six pack abs or bulging pecs. He was nicely toned, however, and had a flat belly that looked...inviting. I looked around his room for the few minutes it took for him to brush his teeth and probably do exactly what I'd done. That made me feel a tiny bit more calm, the idea that he was as nervous as I was.
Holden exited the bathroom and walked to his bedside and flicked on a lamp before walking to the door and extinguishing the overhead light. I watched him go, devouring his bare skin as his muscles moved under the golden covering. The light played across his skin, and I licked my lips.
“Come on,” he said with a grin and pulled back the duvet of his large bed. I climbed in on my side and he did the same on his. Aiming a remote at the TV, he turned on a streaming service and flicked through the choices.
“Do you like scary stuff?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Sweet,” he said and selected something from the 'horror' tab. Setting the control aside, he slid over to the middle of the bed. I stayed still until he cleared his throat.
I glanced at him, “Huh?”
“If we're watching a scary movie, you have to protect me. This should be obvious, really,” he said with a devilish grin. I smiled shyly back and slid over to join him in the middle of the bed, with just our feet under the covers. I leaned back against the headboard, and he lay his head on the front of my shoulder and his hand on my stomach. I lifted my arm up behind him and gently lay it against the warm skin of his back, which elicited a sigh from him.
His hand moved across my stomach and pulled me to him by my hip, drawing us a bit closer. I bent my legs and bit and turned into him and he wiggled to get as close as he could. We ended up with my arms wrapped around him and my chin on his head while we watched whatever-it-was.
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