This is the moment James Oliver's life turns, not upside-down, but finally, blissfully, right-side up:
"Nice to meet you. I'm Miriam."
Beck looks up at him, and James swears to God (—even though he hasn't really believed since the day his parents looked at he and Miri and their joined hands and turned and shut the door in their faces—) that there are tears in his eyes.
"Daddy," Beck says, although only a week ago he'd decided that was too babyish for a kindergartener to say. "Where's my mom?"
James can feel his throat closing up, cotton stifling the vomit.
"Daddy?" Beck clenches the crayon drawing of his family he'd brought home from school between his hands, crumpling the two lone figures there. "Everyone else— I don't… why can't I—" And then he's swallowing hard and looking away, pushing his forehead hard against the window of the car, and for the life of him— James cannot speak a single word.
They lean out the window of her apartment, staring at the stars. Miri clings to the sill, craning her neck, tracing out patterns with her eyes and trying to tell him the stories behind them. James nods, but all he really sees is the movement of her mouth and the long line of her throat.
Finally, she ducks back inside, laughing. "You're not listening to me," she accuses, grabbing at his hands.
James shakes his head. "Not really."
Miri smiles at him. Her teeth are pearly against the brown gleam of her skin, like the coffee his mother drank at church meetings and the shade that made his father cross to the other side of the street.
"That's okay," she says. She starts to pull him backwards, into the dark. James has no idea where they're going, but he follows without a second thought.
Beck tilts his head critically. "You look weird, Dad."
"Well, thanks a whole—" James pauses, studying himself in the ornate mirror that hangs in their hallway. "You're right. I do."
"I mean," Beck backtracks, standing on his toes to peer into the mirror too, "just 'cause you don't wear that stuff a lot."
James assumes that by 'that stuff' he means the suit and tie, which he has to admit are a far cry from his usual daily wear. He prefers slacks and button downs, to be honest. "How about I just stay home tonight?" he suggests half-hopefully, trying to adjust his glasses at a jaunty angle. Really, it just looks sort of retarded.
"Nooo," Beck says. He pushes James's legs, forcing him closer to the front door. "You promised Mr. Lardonsissum—"
"Lairdson," James corrects, shuffling in accordance with Beck's shoves. "Did you do your spelling homework?"
He sighs. "Have Yanelis help you before bed. Not in the morning."
As if on cue, Yanelis traipses down the stairwell. Her footsteps echo through the pristine hall as she babbles in a weird English-Spanish mixture James himself can barely comprehend but Beck understands perfectly. Maybe he should look into hiring nannies of a more ethnically diverse sort.
"Hola Mr. Oliver, bébé Oliver." She takes Beck by the hand; he struggles away. "Buenas noches, have fun at your staffing fiesta. Si?" she prods Beck.
"Si!" he yells, and grins. James can feel his own mouth turn up in a helpless parallel: just like always, Beck is the only person all day who's made him smile.
"Do you believe," Miri whispers one night, "in heaven?"
They're twined together on her twin bed. The thousand dollars he'd taken from his college fund the day he left is long gone; he works with her in a local coffee shop, and this is all they can afford.
The question makes him hold her just that little bit tighter. "I think so," he says. The curtains are flung wide open, starlight reflecting out of her black eyes. James swallows. "I went to Catholic school. They told us…"
Miri listens silently as he talks about God and Satan and eternal damnation. About fire and sins and the saints that rose above it all. Then she rolls out of his grip and kneels over him, covering his body like a blanket.
"But we're all going back," she murmurs, "to where we started from."
Just as silently, James listens to her map out the lives of Shiva and Vishnu and Kali. How in his past lives, he might have been both a saint and a sinner, a beggar and a prince. How they all coalesced into what he is now. How, when it all ends up right, he will finally be home.
Only when the room starts glowing pink from the rising sun does she take his hand and press it against her stomach. "We're getting there," Miri whispers, helping him trace the swell that leaves his fingers trembling.
Oh, finally, James thinks, and kisses her so hard that lights bloom behind his eyes, because never in his cloistered life has anything felt so radiantly real.
It's Beck's eighth birthday and James is going to puke.
There are like twenty kids running around, because somehow Beck managed to dodge the completely-socially-awkward gene James has had to deal with since he could talk, and they're playing some game outside and he's been smiling for two hours straight and that rosebush is starting to look really, really convenient. Really.
("Oh," Miri mutters, black hair tumbling over her shoulders as he stands by her side, one hand on her cheek and the other at her belly. "Oh, James, it— it hurts—"
"Normal," the midwife assures, squat and matronly as she pries Miri's legs apart, "now just push for me, Mrs.—"
"Miss," Miri gasps, pain lightening her face just slightly. "We didn't have time to— ah!"
"Push, come on now—")
James spins around. "Yes?" He wipes at his mouth, although nothing's come out yet. Yet. He shakes his head. "The kids are all inside, don't worry, the nanny's watching—"
"Are you okay?" The woman standing in front of him steps forward, reaching into her purse in the same instant. Her pale face is wrinkled with concern. "Here, do you need some—" Ibuprofen is suddenly being shoved into his hand. She tucks a strand of brown hair behind her ear. "Sorry, no water. You'll have to dry swallow if you don't want to hurl."
James looks from the pills in his palm to her face. "I'm sorry… I don't…"
"Brought my niece here," she says helpfully, then mimes raising her hand to her face and gulps. "Go on. Seriously, those are some nice rosebushes. Don't go vomiting in them."
"I'll—" His voice sounds oddly mechanical, even to himself. Miri's face swims at the edges of his memory, superimposing itself on the woman until her very green eyes glint through instead. "Yes. Thank you. A lot." James pops the pills and grimaces as they go down.
("Mir, this is kid's cough syrup."
"You're nineteen years old. Take an Advil."
"It feels weird in my mouth. I hate pills. Promise you'll never make me take them."
"I feel like this is something I should consider a while longer."
"…I promise. No pills for Miri.")
The woman is still watching him after he catches his breath. "So, I'm thinking, unless you're like bulimic or something, there's not a lot of reasons to be puking on your kid's birthday. Which is basically my way of asking if you're okay."
James stares. She tugs on the hem of her jean skirt, chandelier earrings brushing her cheeks. "I wasn't thinking happy thoughts," he tries to half-heartedly explain, and then realizes how stupid he sounds. A hot flush makes its way up his neck, but to his surprise, the woman grins.
"I'll find you some pixie dust," she promises, and when she laughs it's like nothing else in the world but the sound of church bells.
As soon as they step off his parents' lawn, Miri breaks into a run.
"Wait!" James yells, lunging forward and grabbing at the back of her shirt. Her stomach hinders her going any farther, so instead she simply sinks to her knees right there in the quiet street. He falls beside her, wrapping his arms around her neck from behind.
"They hate us," she says lowly, voice breaking in the middle.
"They hate me." He sinks his thumbs into her palms, tracing the lines there. "I was supposed to— I would have been half-done at Harvard if I hadn't—"
"Why did you run?" she interrupts, not turning her head. One hand is rubbing her own swollen stomach. "Tell me why." Her voice has gone soft and static, and James breathes into her hair as the purple evening sky lights up their shadows.
"Nothing felt real," he whispers, half-hopeful and half-afraid the words have been lost in her curls. Then he raises his head, because the next words are that important for her to hear. "You feel real."
"So it's like a date."
"It is not," James argues, trying and failing to kill an electronic alien. He studies the controller with irritated fascination as Beck cheers in victory.
"When you eat dinner together and stay out late, it's a date," Beck informs him knowledgeably. "Let's play again."
They're both silent for a few minutes as the game restarts. James figures his parents meant for the huge flat-screen TV to have a place in his bedroom, but then he also figures they're still under the impression he doesn't make enough a year to buy five of these things. Suffice to say, it had gone in the sitting room the minute it arrived; and James is sure his parents didn't think it would end up being an awesome surprise for Beck instead. God forbid.
Ten minutes into the annihilation of an unknown species Beck says, "It's totally a date."
James groans and loses a life in the process. Was he this into video-games as a ten-year-old? "Let it go. It's not a date."
"Dad and Natalie, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G—"
"Must you use that amazing voice for nefarious purposes?"
"I'm just saying," Beck says, slamming his fingers down on the controller. He suddenly becomes very intent on the blue-grey screen. "I think it's cool you and Nat have a date. We've known her forever."
Two years, Beck has apparently decided, is forever. James sighs at the television and thrusts his controller violently to the side as if that might help him win. "This game has got to be rigged. Anyway, Natalie and I are just going out for fun. I promise."
James pretends not to catch the sideways glance Beck throws him. "…Bring me some food back from the restaurant?" he finally asks, then yells, "Yeah! I won again, Dad!"
"Good job," James says automatically, reaching out to pat his shoulder. In the late-afternoon sunlight from the wide open bay windows, their skin stands in sharp contrast, white to brown. For a second, staring at his son, an almost-not-quite date on the horizon, James can only think, Miri.
"I love you," Miri sings, dancing around the kitchen, fingers lighting over her stomach in time with the tune. "Love, love, love."
Her voice is high and trilling and sweet, and James leans down to kiss her throat. "I love you too," he says, loud, rough, lilting. Really, that's all there is to it: she is everything he isn't. That's why they fit.
Natalie kisses him in the driveway, leaning over the console of his car to smudge her lips shyly over his cheek. Something rises in him like a tide; her mouth feels like a balm, like something that he's been missing for far too long to clearly remember.
("Come here," Miri orders, and though they'd only met last week she sets his brain on fire when she kisses him hard just outside the coffee shop. James is so dazed, trying to hold onto the vanilla scent of her perfume and the shine of her eyes so close to his, that when she falls back down onto the balls of her feet all he can muster is, "Why?"
She smirks at him, and the word L-O-V-E imprints itself on the backs of his eyelids. "I wanted to see what a white boy kissed like.")
James turns his head, his cheek going cool and untouched. The silence in the car is suddenly, sharply deafening. "I'd better get home to Beck," he says, although they both know Beck has been in bed for hours.
Natalie sits quietly, not moving to open her door. "I'm sorry," she says finally. "I'm… I'm just sorry."
Before James can even call her name, the car door slams shut, and she's gone.
"Dad," Beck says. He's sitting on James's four-poster bed, memories James holds too dear to throw away but hurt too much to look at day after day strewn around him. He locks eyes with his son and swallows bile.
"Where did you get these?"
"The top of your closet," Beck says, voice hushed, staring down at the picture in his lap. Anger swells inside him like helium, turning him irrational, and he leans over to snatch handfuls of photographs away. "Hey!" Beck says, then yells it. "Dad, quit!"
"No," James says tersely, and oh God (—"You have such a weird God, James, how do all the people fit if he keeps the good ones with him—") his hands are burning as he grabs for the worn box Beck had left empty on the foot of the bed, trying sososo hard not to look down because she's smiling and laughing and frowning and she's so close—
"Give it back!" Beck scrambles forward, his hands skidding over the glossy surface of years before. He takes back as many of the pictures as he can, stuffing them into his arms, and James keeps trying to fit them all back into the bulging box, and finally there is nothing left to do but watch the remnants of their not-quite-fight flutter to the floor like melting snowflakes.
Beck looks up at him in awe, in wonder. He lets his arms go loose, and the Polaroid's hit the bed with a thump. "This is my mom," he says, and it takes James one long moment to comprehend the word coming from his son's mouth.
"I—" He turns his back on Beck, leans over his wood-polished dresser so that his knees don't give way. Too soon, too soon, his mind screams, but then James glances up into the mirror and sees Beck kneeling on the bed, and suddenly he realizes with nothing short of blinding clarity that twelve years— twelve years is much, much too long.
By the time he musters up the strength to turn around, Beck is half-falling off the bed, flipping through the pictures on the floor. "I kept them organized," he says, studying the backs that James had so meticulously dated minutes after they slid from the camera. "This— these are the newest, before she—"
The word don't fills James's head like a siren, like one last warning. "Beck," he starts, choking on something like fear, and what he wants to say is don't look at those, you laugh exactly like her and don't look at those, you smile the same way when you're surprised and happy and don't look at those you got her singing voice, every school play is like a knife in my gut and don't look at those there's a reason I haven't ever said this to you.
But by then Beck has found his prize, the final picture of them all, and he grasps it in his hands like gold. "October 13th," he recites, long used to James's chick-scratch. "1993." His brow furrows. "Dad. This is the day before I was born." He sits up again, holding it out. "Where's more pictures? Ones of her and me?"
Out of everything, it's the thread of hope in Beck's voice that turns James's vision blurry. "There— aren't any more."
Beck frowns. Flips over the picture. James can see it in his mind's eye: Miri lying on her side, hand out to try and shove the camera away, her stomach the focal point even as she laughs at the ceiling.
"There have to be more," Beck says, and grins. "You have pictures of me when I was a baby. Where's the ones of me and— and Mom?" And just like that, the hairline cracks Miri left all over James's heart open up again in a rush of pure hurt.
He's never heard Beck say Mom before.
"There aren't any more," James repeats. His voice has gone monotone. Beck drops the picture onto the bedspread, and it doesn't make a single sound. "That's the last one. I'm sorry, it's— that's the last one."
"Ten twenty-three," says the midwife, and hands him his squalling son. Miri reaches out her hands, still gasping, and coos soft words in Hindi.
Ten seconds later, she falls onto her back and screams.
"Eleven oh-two," says the doctor, and stares at James, still holding his newborn baby, with pity in his dark eyes. Miri's wrist is limp in his palm.
Beck is thirteen the first time he visits Miri's grave. James can never figure out what kind of flowers to bring when he comes, so the headstone is surrounded by a rainbow of lilacs and daffodils and roses, because she could never decide on a favorite.
James sinks onto his knees in the grass; it feels, of all the things in the world, like the coming home she had told him about years ago. He fits here just right.
After a few seconds, Beck sits down too. He leans in close, mouthing the inscription in the marble that James had had re-done the week he graduated Harvard five years later than planned with Beck on his hip and a job at PearTech. It's shiny and pale grey, the words almost calligraphy.
His parents, it turns out, were right; money can buy just about everything, in the end.
James pushes himself to his feet again, deciding that Beck should be allowed to have this moment alone. But before he turns away, pacing through the rows of body, he swears to the God he hasn't trusted for thirteen years that Beck breathes the words I'm sorry to his mother's headstone.
"I love you," Miri tells him, "from the sea to the sky."
He smiles, his glasses brushing her cheek. "That's a long way."
Miri laughs. It took meeting her to realize it, but that's how he's always imagined heaven would sound when the gate opened up for you: all golden bright and a million little sunbeams. "I'll be there," she promises, stretching out her arms to feign her next words. "Forever and ever and ever."
James doesn't mean to listen the day Beck brings home a girl with an eyebrow piercing and too much eye makeup, but… seriously. It's his house, he can accidentally eavesdrop if he wants to.
"I don't see why you're so afraid," Beck's saying calmly as he woah-crap-wrong-place-to-be-right-now backtracks out of the library. They're supposed to be doing some project for history class, but James is pretty sure they've gotten extremely off-topic in the hour or so he's given them.
"I don't see why you're such an idiot," piercing-girl snaps back. They're behind the nearest set of shelves, so all James can hear is the rustling of her black, well, everything as she moves around.
"Why don't you want to date me?" Beck challenges. James's eyes widens as he clutches at his laptop. …Really?
There's the slam of a book onto a table. "Because you're annoying and you have weird hair and I want to punch you in the face half the time and we're totally completely different!"
James has to admit that it's a nice rant. (And Beck kind of does have weird hair. Sort of. Not that he's ever going to tell him that.)
Beck's voice floats out softly through the wooden shelves when he answers her: "That's why we fit."
"Some people say," Miri informs him, "that you end up with the same person in every life."
He's dreaming, he knows he is, because when he turns his head he can see Beck through curtain-less window with his head in Jade's lap, listening to her read a book to him. Miri dances around him in a purple dress like she's twining an invisible Maypole, but when he grabs at her, the fabric gives way to smoke.
She gifts him with a smile that makes his heart skip. "You did such a good job, Daddy."
He shakes his head, unable to move his legs to get closer. "You would have been a great mother."
Suddenly the window doesn't show Beck and Jade reading anymore, but dancing. They keep messing up the steps and laughing and making up new ones, but he can't hear their voices, just see the movement of their mouths. Miri presses a hand to her throat.
"They're us," she says, and the image is gone again, replaced by Beck and Jade lying side-by-side in the RV Beck had claimed as his own. Their lips round out words he can't hear before they kiss, starlight illuminating parts and pieces of their bodies, and suddenly there's a gentle pressure against his arm.
"Tell him," Miri whispers, "that it's not his fault."
The words are hot on his cheek, and he nods in understanding. But then he realizes she's finally close enough to touch and cries out, spinning, arms open wide— but there's nothing. All that's left is a faint image of Beck and Jade, their foreheads pressed together in the dark.
a/n: Hokay. Be honest with me about this one. Obviously, I have a really intricate backstory for Beck, haha. I've been trying to get it down without it ending up stupid forever. Lemme know if anything was good/bad/confusing/weird/typo'd. I'm all for it.