Little breather from the super heavy stuff, don't worry, there's still a whole funeral to cringe through. Some more backstory on John and his siblings. It gets a little heavy as we recount growing up in the Laurens house, consider yourselves warned. (Shadow, I love that you pick up on the historical references, especially that you call it a scavenger hunt, that's amazing. I'm curious to see if you pick any out of this chapter.) (Mimi, Alex is just who he is, maybe he'll finally see his worth someday? Today probably isn't that day... Tomorrow probably isn't either.) As always, thanks for reading and double thanks for leaving reviews, that's how I crank this much out so fast. You guys are all amazing. Enjoy!
John put Ellie down for a nap, Polly and Harry were watching a movie, Jem had gone out. Martha still wasn't back. We were up in John's room. He lie against my chest, sitting between my legs, his own long legs bent to fit. I twisted my fingers through his hair. He was staring at nothing in particular, jaw slacken, lips parted.
"How are you?" I checked in.
"Honestly, I'm just tired more than anything. It's almost a relief that he's… gone. Like so much of my bad died with him, but I'm tired, it was a long night." he hummed against me.
I moved my hands to his shoulders, rubbing them, thumbing the scar on his shoulder, he rolled his neck in response, stretching the stiff muscles. Good job, Hamilton, you're doing this right, I smiled at myself.
"It was." I agreed.
"You're thinking about her, aren't you?" He sighed.
I blew out a breath, "who?"
"E-Eliza." He hesitated, her name whispered reverent like a prayer. He remembered her name. And he's still fixing me, his dad just died and he's fixing me.
"Oh, it's fine."
"You'll be a really good dad someday, Alex." She'd said those things to me once, too.
"Ha. I don't know about that." My voice stayed flat.
"I do. Ellie freaking loves you. I'm sorry about everything that happened to you, but I can't help but be grateful that at least now I get you."
I clamped my eyes shut behind him, "me too," I whispered into his hair.
"You sure you're okay, love?"
"Fine," I changed the subject, "forgot to tell you, Lafayette called you while you were… I answered it, hope you don't mind. Didn't want him to worry."
"Thanks," he sighed, "I need to call him back." He let his head drop against my chest and we sat like that for the better part of an hour, him dozing - but never quite sleeping - against me. Me caressing, rubbing, hair twirling, trying anything to soothe him. My mind swirled from the conversation with John. I was thinking about Eliza and what could have been, couldn't shake loose of it, but John felt so warm, so soft, so right in my arms, his hand holding my forearm, near where I clasped my other wrist across the breadth of his chest. His breath deep from his daze, I held him tighter, his thumb rubbing soothingly over my arm.
I heard the front door open, it was probably Martha, didn't want her to think we'd abandoned her kid. I started to slip out from behind John, but stopped myself, if it was Jem, I wasn't sure I could control myself. Offhand remarks to me are one thing, I can deal with that, don't usually, but I can, but not when it was toward John. I couldn't bear to watch his brother treat him like that anymore than I already had. I'd seen John hurting enough on this trip and I would obliterate the next thing that brought him any more pain.
I curled back against him. Martha would find the baby snuggled up and napping, it was fine. I let myself nap with John, his warmth, and the rhythm of his slow breathing intoxicating me. As I slept, I dreamt of the big house filled with sound, the percussions of violence, John afraid, his siblings afraid, John hiding who he was. I woke up angry, he shouldn't have had to live through that. When I woke up all the way, John was gone. I got up and stretched, smoothing my t-shirt and jeans, retying my ponytail before going downstairs. The siblings were in the kitchen, papers spread out over the table, Martha pointing at different information on the pages. I stood in the threshold, silent, not sure if I should insert myself into the conversation. John sensed me - his human-cat, still a dumb concept, watching from the corner - and waved me into the room. Slowly, I closed the distance. The paperwork was all from the funeral home. Poor Martha, she was on top of everything.
"I think Friday is good, gives people enough time to get in town, us to make plans, not too long for me and Alexander off work." John stated.
"You think two days is enough?" Harry pursed his lips in contemplation.
"It's gonna have to be, I can't be gone from work forever."
"They can't find someone else to take pictures for a day?" Jem crossed his arms.
"I do more than that, Jemmy."
Martha cut in, "enough, I agree Friday is perfect, people who want badly enough to be here will. I called dad's lawyer this morning to get the will situated. Jack, I don't know what he-"
John cut her off, his jaw set, "-it's fine, Patsy."
Seriously? The bastard wrote John out of the fucking will? I balled my fists, how could John's family be so shitty? The fights, the gunshot wound, the 'lost boy' all made so much more sense being here, seeing the treatment first hand.
I stood behind John, hands on his shoulders, "anything I can do?" I hated feeling useless and in the way.
"I'm not sure yet. Thanks, Alexander." Martha's smile was earnest.
I excused myself for a cigarette and checked my email. Story pitch from Adams. I rolled my eyes and read it, I could knock it out today, no problem. I reread the details and finished my smoke, going inside for a notebook. Wanting to stay out of the way, and for God's sakes, work alone, I sat at John's cluttered desk - school papers dated a decade ago - and pushed them neatly to the side. A picture slipped out from the bottom of the stack.
Two gangly teens, arms around each other's shoulders on a beach, John skinny, sunburned and freckled, holding up a fish by the mouth and grinning, crooked teeth shackled in braces. Lafayette was beside him, all joints and limbs and odd angles of puberty, eyes crinkled behind blue, plastic framed glasses, grin too big and all teeth, his hair a picture perfect 70's afro from the Southern summer's humidity, a smudge of peach fuzz on his upper lip. Acne dotting both their shiny, pubescent faces. I laughed heartily and snapped a picture of the photograph and sent it to Lafayette.
I chuckled at his response and got started working on the story. I was almost done with it when the door cracked open, John slipped in and sighed, tossing himself into the bed, he looked small, like the boy in the picture.
"Jesus!" He exclaimed, seeing me in the corner, a hand on his heart, he swallowed and panted.
"Hi, sorry. Didn't mean to scare you." I said sheepishly.
"No, it's just… I thought you were outside, sorry, are you working? I know you don't like to be bothered when you're working. I can go."
"You're fine. You okay? Seem flustered." I put my pen down and cracked my knuckles.
"Just a lot..."
"I get it."
"I know you do. Funeral's gonna be Friday, did you have any idea these things are so expensive? They charge you $250 just to dress him."
"Damn," I swiveled in his office chair, "found this." I handed him the photograph and he turned bright red, the colour of his sunburn in the picture.
"Oh, my God," he grinned and shook his head, "I'm… shoot, okay, Laf's there, so it's sophomore year, or maybe it's the start of… yup that's when we first became friends, he got here early, and so it's right before sophomore year, we'd only known each other for like a week there, that's summer we went to… I think that was the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, yeah, because mom was there… so that makes me… I'm fifteen in that picture." I loved watching his mind work, sexy when he furrows his brow when he thinks.
"You're adorable is what you are."
"I gotta show Laf that you found this."
"What did he say?" John doubled over in laughter.
"He told me to burn the evidence."
"You wanna see some really incriminating shit?"
"Always." I winked at him. Winked? That's a thing I do now?
"Be right back." He got off the bed and left the room, I went back to working, put the finishing touches on the story as he returned with a thick photo album. He sat down and patted the bed beside him. I joined him and he flipped the cover marked 'John' open, immersing us in his memories.
He was so little, a baby, curly mop of hair, eyes still unsure of what colour to be, obligatory bath pictures. He told me anecdotes about each picture, each. His mom, looking so much like Martha snuggling him while he slept, his father sitting beside her, I could see how John resembled the younger, healthier version of his father, despite having the facial expressions of his mother. Next page, John about as old as Ellie, wore a party hat, face and hands covered in green frosting, a young Martha also in the picture. He grew up over the next pages, hair cut short, curls puffing around his face at bizarre and unflattering angles, the smattering of freckles getting darker. Vacation pictures, Disney world, a cruise ship, the bahamas. A grade school aged John sitting on a couch in the living room holding a baby, Harry. Slightly older John holding a different baby, Jem. Teenaged John holding a third baby, Polly, sitting on the couch that was still in the living room now. Him and Martha on a double tube going down a water slide. John and Harry playing soccer in the backyard. John biting a medal, wearing goggles and a swim cap. A page dedicated to gawky teenaged John and Lafayette's friendship, the same picture from earlier, and then nothing.
"Mom was the one who did all the scrapbooks," he explained the abrupt ending, "sucks more for Polly. She got the real shit end of the deal."
I nodded, I know about shit ends of the deal.
"I need to get this sent off to Adams… bastard… but thanks for showing me, querido." I kissed his nose.
"Thanks for looking, mind if I stay in here? I'll be quiet, just want some down time before Abuela gets here."
"Your grandmother's coming?" More new people?
"Yeah, she's flying in from PR tonight. She only moved back like a month ago, I think I told you she lost her house."
I nodded, mentally adding in the hurricane.
"You'll like Abuela, though, she's my mom's mom, she'll like you, too."
"So, it's cool if I hang out here?"
"It's your room, I can't kick you out."
"You know what I mean, smart ass."
"No, you're fine."
I realized in the mad dash to get out of town, I'd left my laptop plugged in at home. Fuck me. I growled to myself and started typing the article in on my phone, flustered by the tiny keyboard.
"Goddammit! Stupid fucking... no, autocorrect... son of a motherfucker!" I backspaced all the messed up words to try again.
"You okay there, friend?" John said lightly, looking up from his own phone.
"No, it's this tiny goddamn keyboard, can't type out all this shit on here, left my computer."
"I'm sure you can use Harry's. C'mon." He got up and left the room, and leaned over the landing's railing to call down to Harry, still in the living room with Polly, I tried to catch John's hand, pull him back. Don't put your brother out just for me.
"Harry, Alexander got hit with some work stuff, can he borrow your computer?"
"Sure thing, my dude!" Harry called back, pausing the movie, he ran up the stairs and opened the door to his bedroom, an impressive computer setup, three monitors sat on the desk, one mounted to the wall above the three, sleek looking gaming chair, a headset, hung on the arm of the chair, he knocked the headset to the floor and entered his credentials to unlock the computer, quickly shutting down the tabs he had open.
"This is… wow." I took in the setup.
"Yeah, it's pretty cool, I'm a streamer." Harry agreed, getting up and offering me the seat.
"I don't think I even know what that means."
"Weirdos on the internet pay him money, real money, to watch him play games that they could play." John explained.
"That's a thing?" I asked.
"Yeah, Twitch, it's a super legit thing." Harry chortled at my ignorance.
"I guess I'm older than I thought." I sat in the chair, it was comfortable, would be easy to spend hours in.
"Cool, well, there you go. John, you wanna…?" Harry made a circle with his thumb and forefinger and tapped it against his lips, waggling his eyebrows.
"Uh… When does Abuela get here?" John contemplated.
"Not for like four more hours, you'll be fine."
"Sure, man, let's go."
Harry rifled under his mattress and produced a box, not unlike a lunchbox and sat on his bed to roll a joint. I started working on his computer. This is some surreal shit.
"Come join us when you're done." John kissed my forehead as Harry licked the seam of the joint.
I worked quickly to transcribe the article and fired it away to Adams, John and Harry were still outside, much like I'd found them the previous night. John's eyes barely open, he grinned that same dopey smile and motioned for me to sit next to him. I lit a cigarette.
"We're all out, but I got more in my room if you want some, Alexander." Harry was ever the gracious host.
"I'm alright, thanks. Could go for a stiff drink, though. Can't believe I had to fucking work, Adams is such a prick. Told him I was out of town for a family emergency." I flicked my cigarette.
"You said it was for family?" John's inhibitions were low, he prodded where sober John might not have. Come on, does this have to be a thing? Really, John?
"Well, yeah, I didn't know what else to call it, 'the guy I've been seeing for a few months is having a crisis so I'm hopping on a plane tomorrow for an indeterminate amount of time, see ya, bye,' seems a little wordy even by my standards."
John snuggled against me, "I'm winning! You called me 'family'."
Harry laughed playfully at our exchange, "yo, if you want a drink though, we got the hookup downstairs, dad's bar is now officially my bar."
"Oh, you wish. You aren't even old enough to drink!" John rolled his eyes at his brother.
"Never stopped you, Jackie," he closed one eye and held up his hand, two fingers and his thumb out, hand turned flat, palm down, and bent his thumb "chick-a-blah."
"Yes, ha ha, very funny, asshole, I was underaged drinking and got myself shot over being an idiot. Let that be a lesson to you, grasshopper."
"Really, a good cautionary tale." I agreed.
"Dude, if you woulda been there…" Harry turned his attention to me, "so, John comes home bleeding like a stuck pig and he tries to clean up in the bathroom like there's not a damn bullet in him, psh, man, he almost fainted in the bathroom, pale as hell, looked like ET, so, 'course dad finds him, 'cause he's up here hollerin' and crying. I thought dad was gonna beat him dead before bleeding out even had a chance to kill him. Shit, you had that black eye for a month."
John chewed his cheek, "nuh-uh, the black eye was from school, remember, cause I got in that fight, and then when I went to square up on it and get revenge that's when Charles Lee pulled the fuckin' gun on me. Dad busted my lip that night. The black eye he gave me that you're thinking about was when he caught me and Frankie Kinloch in bed together."
"Pardon me for not being able to keep all your injuries straight. Hah, you remember my eighth grade year when I told dad I was gay, too, to try and get him to back off of you? He beat the fuck outta me."
"I think that was the second time he kicked me out, 'cause remember, I went to stay with the family Lafayette was with that year, since dad stopped hosting exchange kids when mom died. Dude, I thought he was gonna kill you, dummy, still can't believe you did that."
"Eh, I was old enough to take it, deflect some of it off you."
"Jesus Christ! This is normal?" My mouth hung open, eyes darting between them as they spoke so casually about incredible violence. I shook my head and lit another cigarette. John leaned against me, riding out his high.
They both shrugged and Harry laughed, "welcome to the family, my dude. This is how the Laurens gang rolls."