"Satchmo, MOVE!" Peter roared as he fumbled with the doorknob to his basement, tugging and playing with the lock in a desperate attempt to open the door.
"Peter," Neal said, shifting his half of the cedar chest clumsily in his hands, "Why don't we just put it down—"
"No, I got it. I got it," Peter said breathlessly as he kneed the dog and the door finally flung open, "Steady now, steady… DAMN!" He cursed as he hit his head on an unusually low ceiling.
"You know, I didn't realize how much of an Olympian event this was going to be," Neal swiftly ducked under the ceiling in time to hear Satchmo's ever wagging tail make the door click closed behind him, cutting off the dim yet only source of light,
"And now your dog has made us blind. 'Can you come help me move some boxes' is very different from 'can you come help me move a couple hundred pounds of box-shaped wood'."
"And a jail cell is a far cry from an apartment with a view of the better half of Manhattan, both the city and the women," Peter spat back as Neal huffed, "You just can't let it go." The two men clumsily reached the end of the stairs, only to find that the ancient cedar chest they were moving couldn't quite make the turn around the corner.
"Now what?" Neal said exasperated, noticing the skin on his fingers was rubbing sore. He was repulsed by the beads of sweat he felt forming on the back of his neck, and even more repulsed by the sweat he saw trickling off his friend's face as his eyes adjusted to the dim light.
"I think if we flip it, we can make the turn," Peter said hopefully. Neal obliged, and with that, they were able to maneuver the huge chest into the corner El had cleared out a few days earlier. Neal took a quick glance around the basement—very typical American, very characteristic Burke, Neal thought. He noticed a pair of bicycles leaning against the wall, cans of paint that matched the living room on a shelf, countless numbers of tools gathering dust, and a whole wall full of cardboard boxes, presumably holiday decorations, old photos, and the like.
"Come on, Neal, what do you say we grab a beer—"
"Or some wine—"
"Or some wine, and watch the game—"
"Or the History Channel's documentary on 17th century Russian art."
"Fine. Wine then."
"Deal," Peter conceded as he tried to turn the doorknob. When it didn't instantly open, he stared in confusion, and then a pang of fear shot through him. He tried again, praying silently, and again, it refused to give.
"Peter…" Neal questioned menacingly, "Can you open the door?" Obviously embarrassed, he turned to Neal.
"Can you pick it?"
"There's no keyhole! You can't pick a lock without a keyhole!" Neal said, ascending the stairs and squeezing in next to Peter. He gave the doorknob a turn, and had no luck either. "Why is the lock on the other side?"
"I never claimed to be a handyman."
"You put the doorknob in backwards?"
"I was preoccupied."
"Trying to understand why I was receiving birthday cards from a felon."
Neal rolled his eyes and started back down the steps. Stopping halfway and turning around, he said with a lopsided grin, "We could knock it down?"
"Then you'll answer to my wife. Relax. It's already one-thirty. El's book club ends at four, she'll be home soon after," Peter tried to sugarcoat the situation.
"Four?" Neal started to complain but a look from Peter made him stop. He stepped back around the corner of the basement and made his way to the other side, leaving Peter to sit alone on the stairs. All was quiet for a few minutes until Neal reappeared at the bottom on the stairs with a pair of shin high leather cowboy boots, with fancy blue, yellow, and white stitching, way too big to ever be El's. He held them up questioningly to Peter, who shot him a look and responded, "They are my riding boots from when I was a teenager."
"Is that a heel?" Neal stared at them in disbelief and obvious confusion as to why anyone would ever wear them for purposes of horseback riding or otherwise.
"It's to catch the stirrup—Why am I explaining my own possessions to you? When you have possessions you can question me about mine. Put those back!" Peter said. Neal walked out of Peter's view, boots in hand. Again, all was quiet for a few minutes until Neal reappeared, this time holding the huge head of a stuffed deer, with long antlers.
"Now Peter, this is no way to treat your houseguests," Neal teased.
Peter just sighed and shook his head. "Must you?" he questioned. Neal just chuckled and walked off around the corner. Again, a few moments of silence ensued, before they were broken by a load crash and Neal's laughter.
"NEAL! Get out of my stuff!" Peter yelled.
"But Peter, oh, this is great. This is GREAT!" was the answer called around the corner.
"Worse than a child…" Peter mumbled as he started to descend the stairs but stopped when he saw Neal turn the corner. Immediately, his face flushed as he saw Neal's discovery. His consultant was wearing a neon green bunny suit, complete with floppy ears and cottontail. In his paws was an 8 x 10 picture of Peter wearing the suit, standing next to a pink horse, bright yellow elephant, and a purple dog. All four animals were handcuffed, heads down, standing in front of a police car.
"Peter. Please, do enlighten me on how you came to acquire this," Neal probed as he gestured down the suit and then proudly held up the photo for Peter to see.
"You know what you'd look better in than that suit?" Peter challenged, "Orange. Put that away, now, and STOP GOING THROUGH MY STUFF!"
"Oh, but Peter, you can't let me find a neon bunny suit in your basement and a picture of you in it, handcuffed, and not expect questions!" Neal continued, "One might draw certain conclusions…"
"Away. Now!" Peter commanded.
"This picture is priceless," Neal ignored him.
"Neal, I said NOW!" Peter yelled.
"I think the team ought to see this…" Neal said, whipping out his cell phone to take a picture.
"Send that picture and I'll throw you back into prison," Peter countered.
"That might be a risk I'm willing to take," Neal said, and ducked as Peter stampeded down the stairs and tried to grab the phone out of his paws. "Come on, Peter, just tell me!"
Peter tried to bargain, "Give me your phone. Give me your phone and I'll tell you."
Neal obediently handed the phone over, and waited, fuzzy arms crossed, for the explanation.
"It was a college dare. My roommates and I found the suits at a thrift store, we bought them, and dared each other to wear them around campus. We were more than a few beers in when we heard about a party in some senior dorm. We put on the suits and went and crashed it, but of course someone tipped campus security off about four guys in animal suits walking around campus. They caught us, handcuffed us, and took pictures. Then they let us go and I never drank at a college party again."
"That sounds traumatic," Neal said softly, touching Peter's arm with a green paw, "Are you okay buddy?"
Peter slapped him off and pointed to the wall of cardboard boxes. "Take it off NOW and put it away. Then STOP GOING THROUGH MY STUFF."
Neal begrudgingly trudged around the corner to take off the suit and put it back. Peter climbed up the steps again and sat by the door, praying that El would be back soon so he wouldn't have to answer any more embarrassing questions about his past. It wasn't two minutes later when Peter heard his partner's voice.
"Peter? Hey Peter, what's—"
"Really, Peter, I found something. What's th—"
"But this really isn't like the oth—"
"NO." When Peter received no response, he sighed and rested his head against the door. The next few minutes slowly turned into a half hour, which slowly turned into an hour, with still, no sign of El. Oddly enough, Peter realized, Neal had been quiet this long too. "Neal?" Peter called out. When he received no answer, curiosity got the best of him and he walked downstairs. He found Neal sitting cross-legged on the floor, with a scrapbook open across his legs. Neal looked up, and the way the dark hair fell across his face, he looked like a little kid.
"You and El, huh. Through high school, you knew each other?" Neal questioned, turning the page and leaning in closer to get a better look.
"Yeah," Peter said fondly, "We grew up together. She was two years behind me, I was best friends with her neighbor. He and I would play stickball in the backyard all afternoon, and I'd just wait for her to get home from painting class."
"El paints?" Neal said excitedly.
"Oh, yeah, she used to. In fact…" Peter disappeared into the darkness of the basement and returned a minute later with a beautiful oil painting, a landscape featuring a weeping willow tree and a pond. "This pond was in the town we grew up in. It's where I proposed to her…"
Neal's eyes darted across the painting, and then back to the scrapbook. He stayed quiet as he looked at the rest of the pictures, the smiling, innocent faces of the younger Burke's staring back at him, in happy oblivion captured in a time well before they even knew of Neal's existence. Slowly, the smiling faces aged. Peter and El in a baseball cap at a Yankees game, Peter with a black eye, El with a ring, El in a white dress, Peter and El together on a beach, Peter and El in front of their home, El with a puppy, Peter with a puppy, El and Peter with a puppy. Neal's heart ached for his own scrapbook full of memories with someone who loved him.
He looked up at Peter. "Is this why?" he asked.
Not quite sure he understood what his partner was trying to ask, Peter raised his eyebrows. Neal was looking at him intently, his eyes full of an emotion he hadn't before known his friend to express.
"Is this why what?"
"Is this why… you're you? You're both so happy, in all of these… Is this why you're you?" Neal patted the pages of the book, and looked away.
"Yeah, it is," Peter said softly, "It is. Without her, I'm not me."
"Good. You… you deserve this," he said, as he turned the page.
"You deserve it, too, Neal," Peter said softly. Neal just shook his head and kept flipping through the book. Another few minutes passed and the silence was broken by El's voice.
"Honey!" the muffled voice came from the top of the stairs. Both men looked up, and Peter turned and darted around the corner.
"El! We're locked in the basement…."
"You're what?" El called back, as the door slowly opened.
Neal stayed sitting for another moment, and flipped to one of the last pages of the scrapbook. On it was a picture of El and Peter and a grown Satchmo, at Christmas time, presumably only a few years ago. He continued flipping and stopped when he saw something familiar. A birthday card. He turned the page. Another birthday card. Then a postcard from France, and a third birthday card. On the very last page, he caught his breath. He ran his fingers over the photo staring back at him.
"Neal!" El called from the top of the steps, "Are you staying for dinner? I have some samples that I need your sophisticated palate for! Peter just doesn't have a taste for seafood like you do!"
Neal smiled and called back, "Of course, El, if it's not too much trouble."
"Never, honey. Come on up, you can pick out a wine."
Neal looked one last time at the photo before he shut the scrapbook. There was El, hanging on to Peter and her beautiful blue eyes smiling at the camera, and Satchmo, lying on the ground in between El's legs. Peter had one arm around El and was looking to his right, caught in the middle of a laugh, staring at Neal. And Neal was looking right at the camera, a big white-toothed genuine grin, caught in a rare moment of true happiness. The caption said "Our Family" in a silly font, with designs crawling up and down the side of the photo.
"Neal, we need you up here! Let's go!" Peter yelled from the top of the stairs.
"I need you guys too," he whispered, and he closed the book, and headed upstairs to his family.