A Chat With Garrett
Garrett settles in for barebones conversation. Literally: he pulls up a chair and starts talking.
"So, beginning of the story. I met Shane in tenth grade. Month after school starts, my parents decide to move cross-country for work – because I mean, fuck Garrett, right? Not like he's a month into classes. Not like he's one Friday away from being Starting Fucking Forward in the first gridball match of the season. Not like he has friends or a life there or anything."
"Flash forward to my first day at this new dump, second to last period. Chemistry, Mrs. Bochelli. Everyone's setting up for a lab, I'm lost as fuck because, hello, first day – magnesium what now? And then there's supposed to be four of us to a lab, but my group is a person short already and I'm thinking it might just be better to skip out. You know, so my parents can get that 'Your son cut class' phone call, and then I can watch the vein in my mom's forehead NOT engorge, because haha, like she'd fuckin' care."
He pauses, realizing he's being bitter, and rearranges his face.
"So. Shane. Five minutes after the bell rings, this kid walks into class. Flops into his chair, drops his bag on the floor. Doesn't seem to realize that literally no one else is sitting down. Everyone's already grouped off in the labs on the perimeter of the room."
"'Mr. Daniels,'" he mocks. "'I suggest if you want today's grade, you join your classmates in the experiment.' Then she points to my group."
Here he stops, snickering.
"So Shane, he gets up, starts walking over, banging into like, every desk on his way. The teacher fucking glares, but she doesn't say anything else so I figure maybe this kid is a regular jack-off and at least I'll be amused for an hour. But then… he doesn't fucking speak. At all. He's real jerky and uncoordinated too, and yeah, in hindsight he was totally drunk, but at the time I thought he was just fucking weird."
"Anyway, my group's trying to do the experiment and I can tell Shane doesn't give a shit. Except then we're in a part of the lab where the rest of us had our hands full and Shane's the only one available, and we tell him to bring over the tray of test tubes and… I don't know what happened. He reached for 'em and overshot, and then like, lurched forward to try to catch 'em and made it fifteen times worse, knocking over all the other shit on the lab. Broken beakers, glass fucking everywhere…"
"Long story short. Teacher calls his name a few more times. Grabs his backpack off the floor, dumps it onto his desk and a whiskey bottle rolls out. And Shane…" Garrett starts to laugh. "Shane looks her dead in the eye and says 'Fuck chemistry.'"
He's still laughing, smiling as he continues.
"She drags Shane down to the office spitting about suspension and zero tolerance, and everyone in the class is like, super amused by it? Oh, yeah, Shane, he's a fuck-up all right – pretty cool he got us a break from labs though."
"So school ends that day and there he is, still sitting on a bench, looking bitter as fuck. I hang back, debating if I want to talk to him. Debated a long time, I guess, because then all the buses leave and Shane sighs, picks up his bag, and starts dragging ass down the sidewalk."
Garrett grows solemn. "I never told him why we became friends in the first place. And I'm not proud of this, okay? This sounds fuckin' arrogant, but like… I was popular at my old school. I was. But my friends there – well, you know the type. Clean-cut, all-American sporty dudes. Act like frat boys around their friends and angels around their parents. Had as many of those as money could buy." He pauses, looking thoughtful. "All the other shit money could buy, too. Parents felt guilty or something, so they bought me shit. Turns out, people wanna spend time at your house when you've got pool tables and jacuzzis and a whole arsenal of airsoft guns."
He tilts back on the two hind legs of his chair, balancing.
"Then there's Shane. He's not some fucking frat boy. He's not some angel. He's just… fuck, I hate this." Garrett speeds through the next part really fast."He's just this fuck-up loser kid whose probably gonna drop out before graduating." He winces. "Saw him walking away and thought, 'There goes an opportunity to piss off my parents.'"
"I know how that sounds, but look – do you know how FRUSTRATING it is to try to piss off your parents when they don't care? Without, like, ruining your own future? I wasn't about to screw myself over to get revenge. Shane was a last ditch effort. Show them what I COULD be. Look who I'm hanging out with now, you assholes. Keep ignoring me and I'll be the one getting drunk-suspensions. Shane, he was gonna be my live-action bluff."
"Followed him all the way home. Kept trying to get him to chat. Told him it was rad, showing up to class like that – 'Guess who's got two thumbs and don't give a flying fuck? This guy!'" He winces again. "Yeah, Shane wasn't having it. Kept telling me to go away, saying he's actually super boring and that I was wasting my time. But c'mon. A guy who shows up trashed to chemistry and tells the teacher to fuck off, calling himself boring? Nice try, loser, but you just sealed your fate. I'm gonna friend you so hard now."
"I'm an asshole." Garrett pauses; a pained look crossing his face. "I didn't expect the big ball of sweetness that was Shane, okay? He doesn't advertise that shit on his profile."
He lets the chair fall back to the ground, turns to the ceiling and stares.
"We get to his house, and I still haven't convinced him to hang out with me, and for fuck's sake, the mopey fucker had me charmed. I wanted to hang out with him now. See what was under all that mopeyness, because c'mon, no one is like that all the time. There was someone cool under there. I could see it."
"Then he tells me his old man is home and that I better leave. I mean… fuck. I come from a neighborhood where we call our dads Dad." He shudders. "Just the way he said it too. Told him I wasn't pulling his leg, he really could come home with me, but he says it's better to 'take care of it' now, that it'd be worse if he waited till later. Said maybe he'd come out after."
He sighs, frustrated.
"My dumb ass, with my pool table jacuzzi parents… just sitting out there on the sidewalk, thinking he'll go in, get his ass chewed, maybe get grounded. Sneak out after to hang. So when he comes out like, ten minutes later with a black fucking eye…" Garrett's body tenses. "Of course I freak out. I'm going ballistic, because WHO THE FUCK DOES THAT? And Shane's so unfazed. He just goes, 'Yeah, but it's taken care of now. Let's go.'"
He looks disgusted. "That acceptance, you know? That fucking acceptance of it. Just another Tuesday at Shane Daniel's house. Jesus motherfucking Christ."
"So we go back to my place. Watching him come into my house? Soaking in all the expensive shit? I saw his house, okay. Borderline poverty. Bad fucking neighborhood. He's just gazing around like he's in a museum. Don't even see my parents, but at this point I'm beyond screwing them over, because this dude clearly needs help more than I need revenge." He runs his hand through thick, light brown hair that lilts attractively toward one side. "I get Gridlock 700 set up on my console, learn that this kid is a huge fan and has like, all the players and stats of the last ten years memorized. He'd never played before and I crushed him on the screen, but he blew me out of the water just with pure freaking knowledge."
"Know what killed me? After we got past all the 'fuck off' and 'leave me alone' parts, he was such a fucking piece of cake. Mellow as shit. Never whined or complained. Didn't expect anything of you. He was grateful for like, fucking human decency. I made him a PBJ that first day and he blushed while thanking me. Blushed. Over a fucking Peanut Butter. Jelly. Sandwich."
He kicks out his legs, crossing his hands behind his neck and relaxing into the chair. "So that's the story of how I adopted my Shane. Told him to stay a few nights until things blow over with his dad – but then it turns out Corey Daniels has a forecast of Always Fucking Windy, so eventually I tell him to just be my roomie. Dragged the bed from the spare room into my bedroom, and it was like, three months before my mom even noticed that Shane pretty much never left our house." A pause. "And he never did piss her off, either. Too polite I guess."
He grows serious again. "The alcohol… that's a story for another day, I think. But fuck, if there's one thing Shane's awesome at, it's breaking your heart eight dozen times a year. He wasn't perfect, okay. He wasn't. But he does this thing where it doesn't matter if he breaks your heart eight dozen times a year, because if you need extra heart to glue yours back together, he just kinda hands over a piece of his own."
Garrett leans fervently forward in his chair, jerking his thumb to the side.
"That dude?" he says, passion in his voice, tears pricking his eyes. "Best fucking friend a guy could ask for."
The gentle wailing of Tibetan singing bowls sprang from the stereo, an austere and peaceful melody drifting through the living room. Soon it was accompanied by chimes, then a few plucky lines from a sitar, crisp and relaxing: mountain air encapsulated in sound.
Count to four.
Nude yoga was unexpectedly refreshing.
Sophia was bent in half, palms flat against the mat on her floor, bare ass exposed to the air, when from between her legs she saw a fully-clothed Shane walk in the room – a fully-clothed Shane who walked up behind her, grabbed her hips, and started to dry-hump.
"Shane!" she laughed, losing balance and walking forward on her hands. She tried to straighten herself into a downward-dog. "You could join me instead of being a distraction, you know."
"Yeah, on the off chance a god does exist, not gonna make him witness that."
"You fucking bet I am."
She walked her hands back to her ankles, now folded completely in half, speaking into her shins. "You leaving now?"
"Couple of minutes."
Leaving for his therapy, while Sophia stayed in the farmhouse to do hers; her therapist had recommended daily yoga. She'd been skeptical at first, but turning it into routine – and then sticking to it religiously – truly had helped with the nightmares. She was only getting a few a month now. It also helped that Shane was staying sober, on a streak of several months. Sophia had finally stopped feeling fearful if he didn't answer the phone on the first ring; could finally walk to the lake or dock without him and not feel an invisible corset squeeze out her air.
She liked her therapist, too. A peaceful woman a bit younger than her parents, who had the same quiet, calming energy as her father. She even had similar rectangular wire glasses to him. She listened with compassion, measuring her words. Her own daughter had committed suicide, and she was completely in tune with Sophia.
Sophia had never been to therapy before, but she was certain hers had been most unconventional. They'd cried together their first visit, and it felt like one of those chance meetings. The stranger on the bus, the panhandler in the park. The offer of a smoke or half a deli sandwich, those small gifts like a picnic blanket spread out beneath a soul-bonding conversation. One of those rare conversations that dropped less often than shooting stars – leaving fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, an hour later, with a friend you already feel safe having crash on your couch.
Her name was Meredith, just like the name of Amy's month-long girlfriend all those years ago. Sophia looked forward to every visit to Meredith's office so much that she'd begun to spring for weekly, rather than biweekly, sessions.
She wished Shane had been so lucky.
He was really struggling with finding a therapist he could jive with, and his AA meetings made him anxious with their communal story-sharing circles.
"Nosy fucks," he muttered, undoing his watch strap and setting it on the counter.
He left his watch home every meeting. Said if he wore it, he did nothing but stare and then time went twice as fucking slow.
She hated how hard of a time he was having with it all. He was on his second therapist already, and his third new cocktail of medications.
The first round of meds – the ones that had brought him some semblance of stability during their trial weeks – had settled into a thick, steady brain fog that he said felt like living inside a can of mushroom soup. The second round had been promising too, Shane feeling level, almost cheerful for the whole first month. Then they'd turned into a loop-de-loop of unpredictability: mood swings that left him angry over the weather forecast, jealous of Sophia showing Jas how to plant seedlings, nearly crying when he dropped and broke an egg in the chicken coop.
Both of those regimes had also murdered his libido. His third, current medication hadn't – as evidenced by her nude yoga finally eliciting a response beyond a flickering side-eye – but it was also causing insomnia and weight gain. He'd put on ten pounds in the last month, stomach once more pushing against his t-shirts in the way it'd done before he gave up beer. The therapist wanted him to push through these side effects, since his moods were at least stable again, and while pushing through Shane had returned to his grumpy self.
It was, in an odd way, comforting.
"Just remember," she said, face growing warm as the blood rushed to her head. "Last meeting for awhile. You get to skip next week."
"That's the spirit. Bring that to your birthday lunch, will you?"
He stared at her, and she met his gaze from upside down between her legs.
"Sophia, what the fuck kind of birthday present is visiting your parents?"
"It's a shitty one, which is why it's not the actual gift."
The next AA meeting fell on his birthday, and Sophia agreed it'd be a good one to play hooky on. Unfortunately, it was not the kind of hooky that involved slurpees and hanging on the dock, but the kind of hooky that involved her mother wanting to make right on her bad behavior by throwing him a birthday luncheon – complete with homemade pizza, spicy jalapeno poppers, and a big heaping plate of apology.
"Just turn my body into chicken feed," he muttered miserably.
"I'll do no such thing, you ass." She walked forward on her hands again, creating a wide arch. "I love you. I promise you it'll be worth it." She stretched further. "I promise."
She brought him to the cemetery.
Shane said nothing as she parked in the near-empty lot, as she shifted the gear to park and turned off the rumbling engine. It was a clear day with an azure sky, the sun shining down in blinding yellow shafts. The lawn was brilliant green with modern headstones in white marble and black granite, bursts of colorful flowers at each base. It was ritzy, as far as these places went; Garrett came from decent money and whatever her shortcomings, his mom was never one to slouch on material things.
Sophia didn't get out of the vehicle. She looked at Shane from the side, still holding the keys in place in the ignition after having twisted it off.
"Why the fuck did we come here?" he said at last, staring at the glove compartment.
The lunch; the lunch had gone better than expected. Some of the lingering darkness from before Wintersday had been lifted in that kitchenette as her mother said those two simple yet difficult words: "I'm sorry." As Shane accepted them with the scraps of social grace he could muster. As her father invited him to sit down on the sofa for the Tunneler's match, asking Shane if he followed. The small, pleased look when Shane nodded. How over lunch Sophia told her mother about her new chickens and rabbits, and the words didn't fall on deaf ears like the last time she'd bragged about the farm.
He'd even relaxed enough to enjoy the food.
Shane joining her parents didn't have quite the same sense of ease as Sophia joining their ranch family. Perhaps because she was still rebuilding that relationship with her parents herself. Perhaps because at the ranch, they'd been through something traumatic together and became stronger for it – something Sophia had definitely not told the Wakeshires about. The ranch felt easy, while her parent's apartment felt forced. But it was a step, a try, and however shitty his therapy and med regimes were going, Shane was still sticking to that mantra.
Now though, sitting in that warm vehicle on his birthday, a stone's throw away from the ashes of his dead best friend, he didn't want to try. He wanted to reach over and twist the engine back on and tell Sophia to take him home.
"Why?" she repeated. "Because last year I promised you that your next birthday present wouldn't be so shitty, and I intend to keep that promise."
"Sophia." His jaw tightened. "I don't want to be here."
She looked at him, her face hard, resolute. "Ten minutes. You give me ten minutes, and then if you still want to leave, we'll go."
Without waiting for his response, she opened the truck door and hopped down to the hot pavement. Shane sighed, rubbed a hand down his face, and stepped out too.
"Do you know where it is?" Her resolute face turned gentle as she came around the front of the truck, reaching for his hand.
"So we'll take a walk, then. Keep your eyes open."
Better hope we find it in ten minutes.
There was only one other person in sight, an elderly man on his own in the distance, bowing his head in front of a marble cross, his hat scrunched over his heart. A few birds chirped peaceably from the trees; scattered but lush, dotting between the gravesites and providing the only source of shade. Though the cemetery was only a short drive out of Zuzu, standing on its manicured grounds made the chaos of the city disappear. Sophia didn't force him to talk during the walk, and despite himself Shane relaxed. The change of scenery was nice, and passing the hundreds, perhaps thousands of headstones was almost meditative, glancing at each one while having no attachment to the name on it: headstone, grass, headstone, grass, the sun still blinding and Sophia's hand warm.
"Hey," she said, stopping. "Any relation?"
An expensive, grey-granite stone in front of them, with elegant, practical script: Matthew Prevost.
"Um." Shane swallowed. "Yeah… his dad."
"I'm sorry. I didn't know he'd lost him."
"Complications after a heart attack. Garrett was twenty."
He closed his eyes, knowing what would come next, and with the sun beating down to turn the inside of his lids a fiery orange, he followed Sophia's lead to the next grave over. He opened them, blinking against the returning brightness.
It was stupid. His best friend wasn't actually here. This stupid spot shouldn't be doing to him what it was. This was all mental; all inside his head.
He hadn't attended the funeral. He couldn't. To be around what? A handful of distant relatives that Garrett had never cared about or been close to. A hundred friends and acquaintances he did care about – who understood how he could light up a room – and yet none who knew him like Shane did. Shane, his brother, who'd been face down in a bottle every night since the accident.
Garrett wouldn't have held it against him, either.
He was popular in every way Shane was not: a social butterfly who flitted from circle to circle with ease. A ridiculous flirt who was never short on girlfriends. The kind of guy to step into a room and brighten the wattage without trying. The kind of guy who threw parties at his rarely-chaperoned house and made everyone feel welcome.
And when Shane preferred to stay in Garrett's room and watch TV rather than socialize at said gatherings? Garrett would check in on him from time to time. Play a quick match of the latest Gridlock before returning to the fray. Bring him up food so he didn't have to face the sea of people.
He made Shane laugh harder than anyone ever had.
He drove Shane completely mental with his boundless energy.
He embarrassed Shane with his total lack of shame. Being in public with Garrett? Like a bull in a china shop; like a kid in a candy store.
He dragged Shane out of his head and into the world: into playing gridball on a team, into giving a shit about his schoolwork, into being a godfather.
He blinked hard at the name on the stone, the last vestige of a guy who'd been larger than life.
The best fucking friend you could ask for.
At this point the memories wouldn't stop rolling. He thought back, to the time before all of it. Before the car crash. Before Jas and Sam. When a sixteen year-old Shane had essentially moved out of his crumbling house in a semi-dangerous hood, into a sleek contemporary two-story in a manicured suburb. When he'd become Garrett's roomie for the next five years, until he met Sam and they'd gotten their apartment together.
So many memories in that house.
The alarm going off. Shane waking groggily, chucking a pillow at Garrett's head – Garrett who was worse at getting up than him, who ignored the alarm the first two times, finally sliding off the edge of the bed on the third.
Shuffling to the kitchen half-dead, hair mussed, still in pajamas. Shane pouring himself coffee; Garrett toasting a bagel, and while staring at the toaster waiting for it to pop, reaching over and chuffing Shane on the back of the head, ruffling his hair. Shane swatting back only for Garrett to do it again – a half-playful, half genuinely pissed-off back-and-forth.
In the bathroom, Shane brushing his teeth and Garrett barging in like a tornado, digging through the drawers and making a holy mess, and Shane reaching easily to the side and passing him the contact lens case he was looking for.
Shane shrugging into his Joja hoodie and walking into the kitchen where Garrett was already dressed for class, waiting on a second bagel. After it's popped, following Shane around the kitchen – because Garrett has Woken Up now, and is going to try to shove the bagel into a scowling, increasingly annoyed Shane's mouth, laughing and saying, "C'mon man, you haven't eaten anything yet."
Pausing at the door to leave, Garrett again looking frantically for something – this time through his school bag, the pile of junk on the counter, the kitchen table. Shane silently pulling both their bus passes out of his pocket, offering Garrett his between two fingers.
Shane shoving his hands in his pockets as they walk down the driveway and toward the bus stop, his much more cheerful best friend striding alongside him and chatting incessantly. Reaching the stop where they'd splinter off, Garrett kissing his palm and smacking Shane's cheek with it affectionately. Waiting there for his bus to the university while Shane headed toward the stop that would take him to his dreaded days at JojaMart.
It wasn't that he resented Samantha entering the equation. She was a sweet, genuine person. She had a lot in common with Shane, actually, being quieter and more introverted than any of Garrett's previous girlfriends. But Samantha marked the end of an era, when she and Garret had gotten an apartment together on-campus, and even though Shane was affixed like a permanent third wheel to that relationship, he found himself revisiting those early days often.
And god, he didn't resent Jas either. Exhausting and stressful as it was to have a child he didn't ask for, it was impossible to imagine not having her in this world where Garrett was dead. All those times they'd sat in the apartment, a toddler Jas waddling between their strange little family unit. Waddling toward Shane – falling on her rump and looking up at him and laughing that wide toddler laugh, as if sharing a private joke with her new uncle.
And fuck, if it wasn't the jolt his heart needed after his current Jojamart shifts: Jas racing to the door in greeting, her little arms hugging him around. Fuck if he didn't watch those facial expressions she was starting to make – those exaggerated eye rolls, those ear-to-ear grins, when it was like watching Garrett's features suddenly slip over her own. Fuck if she wasn't still a piece of him, on top of being her own beautiful little person.
Shane blinked again; the sunlight overwhelming. He wasn't sure whether he'd been staring for minutes or seconds; those buckets of memories had been dumped into his head all at once.
"Hey," Sophia whispered, tugging his hand. "So which is it? Do we head back, or sit down?"
"Um." Shane licked his lips. "Sit, I guess…"
She smiled. "Was hoping you'd say that."
They sat facing the stone, listening to the sparse warble of the chickadees flitting in the trees. Shane focused on the sun beating down, wondering if the back of his neck might burn. It hurt his eyes to stare at the painful brightness reflecting off the smooth marble, and he stared at the base of the stone instead, watching strands of grass occasionally pop.
Then Sophia spoke.
Shane's insides went rigid. His eyes locked onto a single strand of that grass, refusing to so much as blink.
"I wish I could've known you," she continued, her fingers beginning to brush the tops of the grass at her side. "I've been wanting to talk to you for a long time. I've been wanting to let you know… Shane, he's doing so well. The last few months, he's been doing so, so well. And as his best friend, I feel like you would want to know that. That he's been doing well."
Shane swallowed. Broad daylight, his eyes pricking; burning.
"Don't interrupt," she hissed. "I'm not talking to you."
In the distance, a car engine rumbled and stopped: someone else pulling into the cemetery parking lot. It sounded once removed, as if the two of them – the three of them – were in a bubble, and Sophia continued to talk.
"I hope you're listening, Garrett. Because maybe I don't know you, but I do know you were best friends with Shane for ten years. I know anybody who holds that title would have to be really damn special, and to understand him better than anyone else in the world. And yes, he's had setbacks and he's done things he wishes he hadn't. But I think we both know his heart. And I think – I think it would piss you off to know what's he's done with your memory."
Shane had been listening quietly; at this the heat rose to his face, but she continued before he could interrupt.
"He uses you to make himself feel guilty. Tell him to knock that shit off."
She turned, glaring at Shane. "You do. You always make those comments. What would Garrett think if he knew you drank again after he died, what would Garrett think if he knew how Jas's life had turned out now. What if, what if, what if. What about this, Shane? What if Garrett loved you so much that he wouldn't want you to waste your time feeling guilty about shit you can't change? What if he'd want you to focus on all the good shit you've done in the last year instead?"
Shane's heart was fast in his chest, his words caught somewhere in a pit between his lungs, and before he could get any out Sophia turned back to the stone.
"If you saw him with Jas, your heart would melt. I swear it. I hope… I hope you can rest in peace knowing that. Jas is being taken such good care of and lives in a house where two people love her with all their heart. And Shane? I love him, Garrett. I love him, and I'm so sorry you aren't here anymore, but I need you to know I'm taking care of him. I need you to know that your best friend isn't alone. He'll be okay."
The burning was no longer the only thing occurring in his eyes. Shane blinked back tears, just as Sophia turned to him and said, "Go ahead."
His voice came out crackly, fragile. "What?"
"Talk to him."
"I – I can't do that."
And he couldn't. Not with Sophia right there. Maybe not even with her gone.
She watched him carefully from the side.
"Talk to me then," she said.
Shane stared at the patch of grass between his crossed legs. His body felt heavy, as if that dense afternoon sun brought extra gravity to the earth. Was there some science to that feeling? Different ions in the air, from all the dead folk beneath?
"It should've been me," he mumbled at last.
Sophia's soft voice grew confused. "What?"
"It should've been me," he repeated, nodding toward the ground. "Me in the fucking dirt with him, not Samantha."
A long pause, then a whisper. "Why?"
"Night of the crash. I was baby-sitting Jas, but I wasn't supposed to be. It was supposed to be me and Garrett going out together." He plucked a handful of grass. "Sam was having a bad day though, and sometimes… sometimes she got jealous, I think. All the time we spent together. Most guys ditch their friends when they get a serious girlfriend, but not him. And Sam was sad, and I was fucking tired that day and told her to go to the game instead of me. Just a college game…" Shane choked; he ducked his head into his shoulder to contain the emotion.
"Shane, you know it doesn't work that way," Sophia whispered.
"Jas would still have her mom," he muttered through his shoulder. "Should've fucking been me with him."
"It was a car crash," she said gently. "They were just… unlucky. To be in that exact lane of traffic, at that exact time. If you'd gone with him instead, what are the chances the night would play out the same? It wouldn't have. You wouldn't have been in that same spot, at that same time."
"Fine, then we'd all be alive."
"Can't do that, Shane. Can't play that fucking game. You can't. It'll drive you insane. You think I haven't played that with Amy? If I hadn't taken one earlier bus? If I'd left when my work was done, instead of waiting out my shift? If I'd been able to tell that something was up, that morning before I left? You can't fucking play that game."
Then she crawled forward: she turned around, leaning her back against the headstone, sitting directly over the grave.
Shane glanced behind him, as if there might be someone watching, ready to smite. "Isn't that like… disrespectful?"
Sophia stared at him. "What, sitting here? What do you think Garrett would say?"
The voice sprang to life instantly: one of Garrett's favorite ways to flirt.
If I'm offering my lap, then I'm offering my lap. Take a seat, sister.
It startled him, how quickly that voice rolled through his brain, and a moment later he joined her in leaning against the headstone. They were quiet for a long time, watching the elderly man with the hat walk off down the sidewalk; watching the people who'd pulled in get out of their car, deliver a wreath of flowers to a grave, then leave.
Sophia didn't press. She'd been better about that; letting Shane have time to process before asking him to speak.
"It's shitty," he said at last.
Her voice was careful. "What is?"
"Samantha's run in all this…" He rubbed a hand down his face, wondering whether she'd be able to read the guilt in that gesture. "I barely ever miss her, you know? She was a good person, but we were never close. Just basic friends…"
"It's okay that you miss him more, Shane."
He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. They weren't quite wet yet, and the pressure helped dam what might've turned into tears. "Yeah."
"It is. Sam was your friend because of Garrett. But Garrett was your friend because of himself."
Shane nodded. He knew better, though. Sam never had a Shane. She didn't have a strong friendship outside of her fiancé. Her own family was as broken as Shane's. And then she'd had a daughter, and thrown her whole self into being a mom…
…and then she'd died, and handed Shane her little girl.
Sophia's voice rang crystal clear in the tranquil day, once more speaking to someone other than him.
Shane's head jerked up.
"Maybe I'm not at the right place for this. But then, I figure the place doesn't actually matter much. I just want to tell you that I know your daughter, and I think she's amazing." Sophia grabbed Shane's hand, tightening her grip on his fingers. "She just turned eight. Did you know that Shane tried to bake her a cake? Marnie wanted to do it, but Jas looked at him with those big eyes and told him she wanted him to. And he did." The fingers rubbed harder. "It was so dry, too. He baked it way too long, and you couldn't cut a piece without it crumbling like sand."
Shane's hand twitched under hers.
They were quiet a moment, and she whispered, "Shane?"
"Is there anything I could say that would freak you out?"
"Anything. Is there anything I could possibly say that would freak you out, make you wish you weren't with me."
Shane blinked; the whiplash of this request making it hard to keep up. "Um," he said, voice quiet. "I doubt it."
She gave a small nod, whispering, "okay" as if to herself.
"Samantha," she said, louder, closing her eyes. "I can't be her mother. I could never replace you. But I can love her. I already do, and I could be there for her, in some of the ways a mother could be."
Shane's chest lifted, the movement pronounced with the way he leaned against the granite stone.
They never spoke about what the future held. After everything that happened over the winter, they'd simply… come back together. Sophia returned home, Shane returned to Joja. Sophia started coming over for dinner at the ranch twice a week, Shane continued to stay the night with her on weekends. Saturdays were still spent working on the farm, with plenty to do now that it was spring again.
Jas joined them, though.
She spent her Saturdays playing with Amber and Sophia's new chickens and rabbits. Running in the orchard, climbing the apple trees. Helping plant seeds and weed the flower gardens. Playing pretend in the yet-empty barn; a castle in her imagination.
They hadn't discussed anything long term. The shell pendant, that was just a sentimental gift that Shane wore below his shirt each day, unsure if it was a promise or not. But this?
This sounded an awful lot like "I want to build a life with you."
Sophia let go of his hand. She looked down, again rubbing her fingers over the grass of the grave.
"Garrett," she said, addressing his best friend once more.
The name stabbed Shane just as hard as the first time.
She continued. "Jas wants to call Shane Dad, and right now he doesn't let her. He finds a lot of excuses. Thinks he's not worthy of that title or something. But here is what I know: he loves her, and she adores him. And I think all he's doing is putting off the inevitable." With that final sentence she looked up, eyes boring into Shane. "What do you think?"
Stillness. Eyes boring, and stillness.
Then he heard it. Unsettling, how quickly that voice poured in again. Unsettling how much it sounded like him.
Hey dipshit, you denying my daughter that basic right?
How about it doesn't matter that I've been gone four years. How about you've been her other dad for the last eight. How about that.
And tell her you bought that fucking panda.
I mean, I'd come down there and do it myself but, you know. Dead.
Shane swallowed, blinking back tears as he'd already done a dozen times that day.
"Well?" said Sophia.
He nodded. He was unable to translate those words from his head to his mouth, but a nod… he could do that.
She looked at him curiously. "Yeah?"
She was quiet a long time, finally saying, "Jas likes it on the farm."
Shane grunted; it was true.
"She likes the treehouse," Sophia continued.
"Shane, you'd be so much better off quitting Joja."
At the name of his employer, he looked up. "The fuck?"
Her face was again resolute; he hadn't seen those blue eyes so steely in a long time. "You belong on a farm, okay? You're so good at it, and between my place and the ranch, you've got so much knowledge and skill already. The exercise, the open air all day. Somewhere you can be around living stuff, and look around and see physical proof of your work…" She trailed off. "I see that miserable look on your face every time you even think about Joja. So maybe your therapy is rough, I get it. Maybe we're having problems with your meds. But outside of those things, I can't help but think how much better off you'd be—"
"Losing my job?"
She looked at her lap. "Moving in with me."
"Working full-time on the farm," she continued, playing with her thumbs. "With both of us, we could do so, so much more than I'm able to do on my own. Profits this year are shaping up to be decent, and I swear we could double them together. And the house belongs to me, Shane, there's no rent, nothing to pay off, and Jas – we could work something out…" She looked up, trepidation and hope shimmering across her face.
Shane's heart pattered. He could only focus on one part of this at a time.
"You don't realize how big that is," he said.
"It's one of those life decisions, yes."
"Sophia, I have an eight year-old."
"I'm basically a single father."
"About time you admitted it."
"It's a big fucking decision."
"Yes, and I want to make those kind of decisions with you."
To this, Sophia looked at her lap again. She did not give a retort.
"I'd be leaving Marnie high and dry," Shane added quietly.
A pause. "Well what did she do before you moved in?"
"Hired help. But she couldn't keep affording it. She keeps talking more and more about downsizing."
Their solitude was interrupted then: a hearse pulled into the lot, followed by several other vehicles, the beginnings of a funeral procession. They watched it in silence, reclining with relaxed shoulders against Garrett's headstone, Shane's legs straight in front of him, Sophia's crossed at the ankle. They watched as the pallbearers lifted the heavy black casket from the back of the hearse, removing it in reverent silence; as a woman in a blue dress and with a handful of tissues exited her sports car, already blotting her face. One by one more people filed out, and Sophia let her head droop to Shane's shoulder.
"I want to be cremated," she said.
More people filing out, not talking, quiet but for car doors slamming and high heels clicking on pavement.
"I know it's not that simple. I know you can't just quit, and I know you can't just abandon Marnie. But… can we talk about it sometime? Can we consider that there are possibilities?" Her eyes flickered up. She waited until they met his, then whispered, "I want a future."
Shane kept her gaze while several more car doors slammed shut.
He nodded, then kissed her forehead.
Later that night, Jas was propped against the pillows on Shane's floor. She was in purple pajamas with cupcakes on them, a controller in her hands, one small thumb fiddling the joystick while her tongue was pinched between her lips. She was trying to keep her cart on the race-track, her thumb growing more frantic, her hands lifting the controller up above her head as if that would help control it on-screen.
Then she let out a dramatic squeal and let the controller flop on the pillows. "I fell off the bridge," she cried, half gleeful, half frustrated. "The coconut got me."
Shane nodded at the screen. "Not over yet. See? It's putting you back on the road."
She groaned. "This game will be the death of me!"
He sucked in his lips – he'd long since learned to stop asking where she picked up phrases like that. Girl was a sponge.
He looked to his left, staring at the closet in the back of his room.
He got up from the bed, walking toward it.
He opened the door, then reached on the top shelf, still home to a piece of yellow construction paper: slightly more crumpled than before.
He pulled it down and stared at the two figures, at the single word. Looked up at the little girl in pajamas, sprawled on his pillows and racing on his console, her elbow resting on her favorite panda. Looked in the mirror above the dresser, at his own reflection: officially four months sober, and still trying.
It was time.
You guys...I'm finished?
I don't want to blubber too much in here, but god, it's an incredible feeling. THANK YOU for giving this story your time. Not only is this the longest one I've ever written by about two zillion words, but it's the first time I've ever gotten to THE END. Your comments/ support/ encouragement throughout have done wonders for both my writing and happiness, and now I'm pulling you all into a big cyber hug.
If my future writing projects interest you, keep reading~
I am beyond excited for this next story. Please note, it is NOT a sequel to Stars, but... you've definitely not seen the last of Shane Daniels. The same Shane you know and love, only this time in the M/M romance arena. This story is a collaboration I'm doing with a dear friend, and the themes are darker, more dysfunctional, and more divisive than in Stars. It won't be for everyone, but if you like INTENSE stories? Bro, have we got you covered.
We won't be releasing until sometime in the new year, but please check out my tumblr (ginger-delight-writes) to keep up-to-date.
Thank you again for hanging with me throughout this fic. If you've gotten any enjoyment from it, a comment is the best thank you an author can receive. Whether 5 words or 500, they mean the world. To everyone who has left comments or feedback in the past, I hope you all know how much I appreciate it.
Have a lovely rest of the year, and hope to see some of you for the next installment of "Shane Daniels in Wonderland." (We're working on that title, okay)
Lots of love,