The Melody of Silence

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Chapter 23 - Nate

Al and I fought so much about that stupid wedding.

First we fought about the date. I wanted to wait until spring so we’d have time to plan. Al wanted to do it in the fall so we could “just fucking be married already.” We split the difference and settled on winter. It turned out to be a good call. Winter weddings are cheap as hell since nobody really does them because why the hell would you want to?

Then we fought about the location. Al’s dad wanted to do it in his church so, by proxy, I wanted to do it in his church since I kind of wanted my father in law to like me. Alex herself wanted to do it at the courthouse so we could “just fucking be married already.” We didn’t split the difference on that one. I just wheedled her until she agreed on the church.

Then we fought about the guest list. I wanted all her friends and family to be there so she’d have something memorable to look back on. She wanted me, Tom, Matt, and her father so that she could “just fucking be married already.” Are you sensing a theme? Anyway, we compromised on that too, and our final guest list was a reasonable but respectable 30 people. Al’s close friends and family made up about 99% of the guest list. My close friends and family-- Red and Matt-- made up the rest.

Once the big details were finalized, we fought about the caterer and whether to have an open bar and the invitations and the format of the service. We fought about the reception hall and the DJ and the honeymoon. We fought about the registry. No decision was easy, everything was a fight, and those few months gave me some of the happiest memories of my life.

Every fight was a slice of heaven in itself. When Al gets angry, she doesn’t really yell or gesticulate. It’s like all of her frustration gets funneled straight into her facial expression. Her cheeks flush and her eyes darken and narrow. Her lips pinch together until they’re rimmed in white and her nostrils flair. When she’s exceptionally annoyed by my idiocy she’ll tilt her head to the side and study me like I’m a math problem she can’t figure out how to solve.

It’s the cutest fucking thing on earth.

So our fights weren’t really fights. Yeah, we got genuinely frustrated, but it never escalated to the point of a blowout. And those arguments always ended in some kind of release.

The fight about the the date ended with us sprawled on the bed, limbs tangled, skin slick with sweat, panting and laughing and exhausted.

The fight about the venue ended in an hour-long deep dive into her feelings about the church and her father. We’d brushed the surface of that topic back in high school, but never to such an extent. I learned about how good things had been before they moved-- back when his parish was small and undemanding. Then I learned about how things had changed when they moved to a larger city and a more troubled congregation.

“He’s a good leader,” she had acknowledged from the passenger seat of my car, twisting her hands in her lap. “And I respect how much he cares about his people. It was just tough growing up, I guess, because we were never his first priority. He got better after what happened with my mom, but it’s still kind of the same. At the end of the day, given a choice between us and them, he’d choose them. Because with them it’s more than human devotion. It’s about God, too, and his duties and stuff.”

The fight about the guest list took place in hissed undertones in the kitchen, a couple hours after Matt went to bed. It ended in a frantic scramble for a room with a lockable door, and when I veered toward the bedroom Alex yanked me down the hall toward the bathroom. So we had shower sex for the first time and I have to say, I preferred Alex’s version to the prison variety.

Basically, every fight ended either in sex or in opening yet another door between us. We learned so much about each other in those months. Little secrets we’d kept, either on purpose or because the subjects had simply never come up. Stupid shit, like my favorite color and her general loathing for anything lemon flavored, and more important shit like her claustrophobia and my hatred of my own last name.

Those were good months. Matty was excelling at school and Alex and I had started looking for a bigger place so Tom could live with us after we got married. Alex was taking on more responsibility at work, and had started talking about applying to programs at more prestigious universities. I was pouring every ounce of spare energy into her wedding present.

We’d said no presents, so I decided to do something practical. Al’s car was on its last legs and she spent more time bitching about it than she did driving it. I got my hands on a decent 2000 sedan that the owner was selling himself at a significant markdown because it broke down and he didn’t have the time or the inclination to have it fixed.

So I threw a few thousand dollars at him, dragged that thing back to my shop, and fixed it up. The problems were easily fixable, and only set me back in parts since Red let me use the garage for free after hours. By the time I finished, it was spotlessly clean and practically purred when it turned over.

At the time I thought it was a pretty good gift, but that was before I received hers.

* * *

The date we’d settled on was January 9th. It was early enough that the semester hadn’t started at Al’s school so we had a week long “honeymoon” planned at a ski resort. “Oh, a ski resort in the plains of the midwest,” I hear you saying. “How exhilarating.” But listen, it was winter, okay? And I still wasn’t allowed to leave the state. So yeah. Great plains ski resort. Not that it really mattered. We didn’t plan on spending the honeymoon skiing.

With a week left before our wedding, pretty much everything was planned to the T. I know it’s supposed to be like a madhouse as the days grew closer, but Alex and I were perfectly relaxed. Our wedding wasn’t going to be some massive, pivotal event. It was just going to be a public declaration of what we’d both known since we were kids.

The Saturday before our wedding found us sprawled about the apartment in various stages of lassitude. Matt was sitting on the floor building something with his Legos. I had a feeling that kid was going to be an engineer or an architect or some shit with the way he obsessed over those stupid blocks. I was sitting at one end of the couch, feet up on the coffee table, reading a book. Al was stretched out over the rest of the couch, head in my lap, computer on her stomach, reading some article that looked to be more numbers than letters.

The knock at the door startled me, echoing through the apartment. I glanced at my watch.

“I thought they were coming at three,” I said. Her father was dropping Tom off for the evening, but it was barely noon.

“They are,” Alex said, unperturbed by the unexpected intrusion. She also didn’t seem too inclined to answer the door. She just lifted her head so I could slip out from under her and then went back to her article, staring fixedly at the screen. Something was up with her.

I was distracted, still glancing at Al out of the corner of my eye when I opened the door, so our visitor’s appearance took a second to sink in. A young man stood in front of me who looked like he’d stepped straight out a GQ magazine or some shit. He was a handsome kid, with bright, friendly eyes and a straight, white smile. He was dressed fashionably against the cold in a peacoat and a scarf, and I wondered if maybe he was one of Al’s students or something.

“Can I help you?” I asked, and something nervous crawled in my belly when his eyes met mine and the smile dropped off his face. He looked almost pained.

“I’m looking for Nathan Reynolds,” he said, shoving his hands into his coat pockets and rolling his shoulders forward. The gesture seemed somehow familiar. So did the kid. I racked my brain, trying to put a name to the face. I hadn’t run into him in prison, had I? He didn’t really seem like the prison sort.

“You found him,” I said warily. “How can I help you, man?”

His eyes widened and he nodded slightly, rocking back on his heels and gnawing on his lip. His eyes dropped away from mine and he studied the welcome mat beneath his feet.

“Kid, are you okay?” I asked. “You need help or something?” I was letting cold air into the house so I stepped outside and pulled the door shut behind me, crossing my arms over my chest against the cold. The young man stepped back and to the side, making room for me. When he turned, sunlight glanced off a small, silvery scar on his cheek and my brain stopped working.

My arms dropped to my sides, the cold disappeared, and all I could do was stare. Stare, and wonder how I hadn’t seen it the second I opened the door. The world spun dizzily around us and then spat me back through time to the shittiest day of my fucking life.

I felt every emotion at once. Guilt, relief, fear, love, loss, anger, sadness... I wasn’t standing outside my front door anymore, I was running down a hallway, screaming obscenities. I wasn’t looking at a grown man, I was looking at a snot-nosed little kid with a puffy, tear-streaked face. I felt an absurd urge to ask him if they got him waffles, but instead I just kept fucking staring.

He cleared his throat and his gaze flicked to mine before falling away again. “I’m, uh...” he trailed off, holding his hand out in front of him. For a handshake. “I’m--”

“I know who you are,” I cut him off. Then I abandoned reason, stepped forward, and wrapped my arms around him in what I’m sure was a strangling and unexpected hug. It wasn’t unwanted, though, I don’t think. After the shock wore off he returned the hug just as tight, and didn’t let go. We stood there for a long time-- perhaps too long for two grown men to be locked in an embrace-- but I couldn’t make myself let him go. Not again.

When I finally regained my senses, I slapped him a couple times on the back to give our too-long hug a manly edge and grabbed him by the shoulders, pushing him away. Then I just held him there and looked him over. Old habits die hard, I guess. I found myself searching for signs of distress or hardship and seeing none. None.

The jackass was a couple inches taller than me. Can you believe that shit? Taller than me. He wasn’t too skinny, nor was he overweight. His face was clean shaven and aside from that barely-visible scar on his cheek there wasn’t a mark on him that I could see. His eyes were bright and clear and expressive, and his smile was easy and genuine.

Over a decade’s worth of weight and worry left my shoulders so suddenly I felt liable to float up into the stratosphere. He was fine. He was healthy. He was good. He got out.

There were so many things I needed to know, so many years I needed to catch up on, but all I could do was choke out one word. “How?”

“Your fiance,” Jake said, standing patiently, my hands still wrapped around his shoulders.

I was torn between standing there with my brother until the end of time and leaving him outside so I could run in, grab Alex, and kiss her until she couldn’t breathe. I settled for a balance, and nodded my head toward the door. “Do you want to come inside?”

He smiled, but shook his head. “My dads are waiting in the car,” he said reluctantly, his eyes dropping back to the floor, and the spell wore off as I remembered how badly I’d fucked up. I let go of him and took a step back. It was a miracle his parents were even letting him see me. Why the hell did I think they’d be comfortable with us getting to know each other? They probably wanted him as far away from me as possible. I needed to fucking apologize, but I doubted they’d want me near them long enough to do it. And what use would an apology be? The shit I’d said to them, the hate I’d leveled at them... fuck.

“We were wondering if you’d like to get dinner, though,” Jake said, recapturing my attention as he shifted his feet, staring at the cement and glancing up at me periodically with an anxious expression on his face. “They said that you might not want to see them, but if... if you’re okay with it they want to meet you. We have a reservation at a place downtown tonight. Your... ” he nodded to the closed door. “Your fiance said it’s a good place. If you’d rather not meet them, though, we can go just the two of us. To catch up and stuff.”

I’d thought a lot about Ed and Pat throughout the years. I didn’t really know anything about them at that point. Just that they’d adopted my brother and, in doing so, saved him from a nightmare existence from which I couldn’t adequately protect him. I’d built them up into heroes throughout the years, worshipping them from afar. In that moment, though, for the first time, I loved them.

The last words I’d spoken to those two men were a combination of hate speech and death threat. I’m sure Al had reassured them that I wasn’t a raging homophobe, but they clearly weren’t quite sure. They’d talked to their son and explained kindly that his brother “might not want to see them” and left the decision in my hands. Coddling my presumed hatred, bolstering their kid against it while still giving him the chance to connect with long-lost family.

Those men were fucking saints and I couldn’t wait until dinnertime to try to make things right.

“You said they’re down in the car?” I asked, and the flash of alarm and fear on his face felt like rebar through my chest. I deserved a little pain, though. This was my fuckup and it was on me to fix it. “I’m not a homophobe, Jakey,” I said, shaking my head. “I just want to apologize.”

He hesitated and then nodded, shrugging.

“Okay, wait five seconds.” I slipped inside and grabbed the nearest pair of shoes from the pile by the door. Alex was sitting at the kitchen table, chin propped on a fist, eyebrows raised in question as I struggled to pull the shoes on without toppling.

“You,” I said, leveling a glare at her. “Are an angel. Don’t go anywhere. The second I get back I’m kissing you into another plane of existence. Understood?”

She pressed her fingers to her temple in a mock salute and her laugh followed me as I snatched a sweatshirt off the chair and let myself back out into the cold.

“Lead the way,” I told Jake, yanking the sweatshirt over my head as we descended the stairs and walked out into the parking lot.

A shiny black mercedes idled on the far side of the lot and Jake walked towards it. Both doors opened as we approached and Jake’s parents stepped out into the cold.

While Jake had taken me a second to recognize, his fathers hadn’t changed much since I last saw them. Ed had grown a slight paunch and his brown hair had a smattering of gray near the temples. Pat had a few wrinkles. Beyond that, they looked about the same, and seeing the three of them standing together made my heart thump, because they looked like a family. They looked like the most functional family I’d ever seen. Ed stood at Jake’s right and Pat circled around the car and came to stand on his left and they just looked so goddamned good and kind and normal.

And I’d tried to keep him from that.

“I...” I extended my hand, not sure who to speak to, suddenly very worried that I wouldn’t be able to repair what I’d broken. “I’m Nate.”

Pat smiled tightly and shook my hand, then Ed, and then we stared at each other in tense silence.

“So, uh...” I draped a hand over the back of my neck and squeezed, willing myself to man the fuck up and just say what needed to be said. “I need to apologize,” I said finally, squaring my shoulders and looking up at the three men before me. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but I forced myself to meet their eyes as I spoke, moving from one to the other as words I’d been mulling over for years finally found an outlet.

“I need to apologize and say thank you,” I amended, looking at Pat. “What you guys did, adopting Jake, probably saved his life. It was...” I hesitated, shifting my gaze to Ed. “It was selfless and generous and brave and I should have thanked you. But instead I acted like a shithead and I said things to you that you didn’t deserve.”

Pat, Ed, and Jake were all frowning at me and I couldn’t tell if they were disgusted, confused, angry, or just concentrating on what I was saying. I began to sweat in spite of the cold air and took a deep breath, trying to force calm. If they elected not to forgive me, that was okay, I reminded myself. That was their prerogative. As badly as I wanted one, I had no right to a place in Jake’s life. I’d screwed my chances, and if they chose to walk away that was on me. Not them. It was a choice they were free to make. I’d brought the consequences on myself and I’d have to live with them.

“I’m sorry about the things I said,” I went on, swallowing nausea as Pat’s frown deepened and Ed’s face twisted in something akin to pain. “I can’t say I didn’t mean them at the time. I really did hate you. But it wasn’t justified, it had nothing to do with the fact that you’re gay, and the second I got some distance I realized how badly I’d fucked up. I ruined what should’ve been a happy day for the three of you. I scared the shit out of you,” I nodded to Jake, “when I should’ve been reassuring you that everything was gonna be alright. I cursed at you,” I shifted my attention to Ed and Pat, “when I should’ve been thanking you. I pitched a fit and acted like a child when I should’ve been... I dunno... I should’ve been telling you guys about his favorite foods and stuff and telling you,” I looked at Jake, “that I loved you.”

I was rambling, and I knew it. Every time I paused for air, either Pat or Ed would open their mouths to speak but I just barreled on. If this was my only chance to see them, I needed to get it all out. It was selfish, I know. In retrospect, I realize I was consumed more by my own guilt than by consideration of their feelings. If I’d been a little less self-centered I’d have let them determine the path of the conversation. Instead I just steamrolled them.

“Jake said that you might be interested in dinner,” I said. “But I know my fiance called you and I know she can be a little... persuasive. So if you’re not actually comfortable with it, I don’t want you to feel obligated or pressured. I want to get to know you, but I won’t hold it against you if you’d rather not have me in your lives, considering the things I said to you and... and the kind of life I’ve led.”

It was getting harder to maintain eye contact. Pat and Ed looked pained and Jake just looked uncomfortable. I felt time slipping through my fingers and rushed on to the conclusion.

“Whatever you decide, I just wanted you to know that I’m grateful to you for taking care of my brother, and that I’m sorry for the way I behaved,” I said to Ed and Pat. “And Jakey...” I hesitated. He probably didn’t even like to be called that. What the hell right did I have to nicknames? “Jake, I’m really glad you stopped by. I’m happy to see you’re doing so well. I love the shit out of you, kid. I’ve missed you and worried about you every day for fourteen years and I can’t tell you how much it means that you were willing to come here in spite of everything. So... thank you.”

It was a lame ending, followed by an awkward silence. Apologies are hard, forgiveness is harder, and I knew that my time was running out. Ed wouldn’t meet my eye, Jake was breathing like he’d just run a race, and Pat looked like he was on the verge of tears.

I took a step back, realizing how much discomfort my presence was causing them. Shame, heavy and nauseating, settled over me. What had I been thinking? I shouldn’t have confronted them. I should’ve just asked Alex to relay my apology and tell them dinner wasn’t necessary. My desire to apologize face to face was purely selfish. I’d wanted absolution and instead I’d just made them uncomfortable.

“It was good to see you, Jake,” I managed, barely able to breathe around the band of remorse that was tightening like a vice around my chest. “I’ll uh... you guys drive safe.” I turned and my feet carried me away, and I tried like hell to square my shoulders and not look like I wanted to run back, drop to my knees, and beg until they forgave me.

My feet grew heavier as I climbed the stairs and I considered walking past my apartment, descending through the far stairwell, and going for a walk. I didn’t want Alex to see me so close to breaking.

I decided against it, though. She’d call that kinda behavior cowardly, call me a jackass, and I had enough guilt to carry without adding her disappointment to the load. I was reaching for the doorknob when pounding footsteps approached and my name pulled me to a halt. “Nathan!” Ed gasped, taking the stairs two at a time. When he reached the top he clung to the railing, his face flushed with cold and exertion.

“Are you okay?” I asked, genuinely worried. I didn’t really want Jake’s dad to have a heart attack and die on my doormat.

“Fine,” he said, panting as he waved a hand and rolled his eyes with a small smile. “I’m fine. Just not... the athlete... I used to be.”

I stood with my hand on the knob and waited for him to catch his breath. When he finally straightened, it was with a wide smile. “Our reservation is at six,” he said. “We’d like it if you’d join us.”

* * *

“You’re overthinking this, babe,” Alex said, resting her hand over mine on the gearshift as I drove us to dinner. Tom and Matt were at her father’s place as she’d apparently arranged weeks ago when she lined up this surprise. “They want to meet you.”

“Oh yeah, of course they do.” I drawled, letting some of my exasperation and anxiety leak out in the form of biting sarcasm that she didn’t deserve. “Why wouldn’t they wanna break bread with the asshole who threatened to kill them in their sleep?”

“You’re being ridiculous,” Alex said, her hand squeezing mine. “You were just a kid. They know that.”

“That makes it worse!” I exclaimed, frustrated that she wasn’t being more agreeable about how shitty I was. “What the hell kind of kid talks like that?”

“A scared one,” she answered evenly. “You’re being too hard on yourself. If you go in there all guilty and morose you’re just gonna make everyone uncomfortable. Smile and be nice. That’s all you gotta do. Think you can handle that?”

My girl is an asshole. It’s good, though. I speak fluent asshole, and sometimes it’s the only language that gets through to me.

“Yeah, I can handle it,” I growled as we rolled up to a stoplight. Without pulling my hand loose from hers, I leaned across the center console and kissed her. “You look beautiful, by the way.”

She did. She wasn’t dressed up or anything. She just wore jeans and a tight sweater, her hair pulled into a loose ponytail. I liked her casual, though. She was beautiful all dressed up, but she looked most like the girl I’d fallen in love with when she dressed down.

When she’d found me in the bedroom before we left, wearing slacks and worrying over my three tie options, she’d laughed audibly and thrown a pair of jeans at me. “It’s just dinner,” she said. “And we’re going to the Thai place downtown, not a freakin’ Michelin three-star.”

I was glad she was coming with me. If she’d left me on my own I probably would have rented a tux and bought them flowers or some shit and then spent the entire dinner driving them away with more awkward, unasked-for apologies.

With Alex there, it was pleasant. She held my hand as we entered the restaurant, and dragged me toward the table where Jake and his parents were already sitting. They rose to greet us and she hugged all three of them like they were old friends while I stood awkwardly behind her. Then we sat, and she reached over beneath the table and squeezed my leg.

“Sorry we’re late,” I said, scratching restlessly at my eyebrow. I had never in my life felt so profoundly low class. I’d never minded the fact that I didn’t have a lot of money or that I worked a blue collar job. Everyone I’d ever hung around with was more-or-less like me, with the exception of Alex and she didn’t count. She’d chosen to be friends with me when I was a dirty kid with ill-fitting clothes and duct-taped shoes. She clearly didn’t care.

These people might, though. They oozed sophistication and intelligence and wealth. These were the kind of people who went to nice restaurants and knew how to pronounce the entire wine list.

“You’re not late,” Pat said with a kind smile. “We wanted to get here early.”

I glanced down at my watch. He was right. We were actually five minutes early as well.

Silence descended, and Al’s hand tightened on my leg. What the hell was I supposed to say, though? So how have things been for the last fourteen years, Jake?

Thankfully, I was rescued by the waitress. She looked to me first and I ordered a water because I didn’t want Jake and his family to think I was some kind of alcoholic. Then we went around the table and everyone ordered wine or beer except for Jake, who was still underage, and I felt like an idiot.

“So, Nathan,” said Pat politely when the waitress left. “What do you do?”

I thought back to Thanksgiving at Al’s house back when we were still kids. I’d had so much confidence back then. I knew exactly where I stood in the world, and I was proud of who I was. Where was that cocky little shit when I needed him?

“I’m just a mechanic,” I said, shaking my head. “What do you two do?”

“Pat’s a defense attorney,” Ed said proudly.

“And Ed’s a cardiologist,” his partner said, and they smiled lovingly at each other. I glanced at Jake and saw him roll his eyes. That made me happier than any of it. My little brother had somehow grown up to be a normal kid who rolled his eyes at his parents’ affection. Who’d have seen that coming?

“What about you, Jake?” Al asked sweetly. “Are you in school?”

“I’m about to start my second year at Boston University,” he said, struggling to keep eye contact with her. I couldn’t blame him. My girl’s hot as hell. It’s a little intimidating.

“Oh my gosh, you’re kidding me!” Alex exclaimed. “I used to work at Northeastern. How do you like Boston?”

And then the pressure was off me as Alex and Jake grew more comfortable with each other, sharing their favorite spots around the city. Then the conversation shifted to what subjects Jake was taking, how he liked living in the dorms, and whether he wanted to study abroad. That question brought to light that Al and Pat had both participated in the same volunteer program, and they shared tales from their adventures. Then it came out that they all spoke a little French so they laughed and practiced it on each other.

“Hey, babe,” I said to Alex, scooting my chair back. “I’m gonna run to the bathroom. If she comes while I’m gone, order me a Pad Thai okay?”

Alex nodded, and I wove my way through tables and down the narrow hallway to the bathroom. Safely removed from the chatter and humanity of the restaurant, I leaned my hands on the counter and glared at my reflection.

What the fuck was I doing?

I didn’t fucking belong here. I didn’t belong in Jake’s life. He got out. He was attending a prestigious university and had rich, loving dads who saved lives and helped people for a living. Why the hell was I so desperate to insert myself into that? What did I have to offer him?

Hell, what did I have to offer anybody? What kind of father was I going to be as my son grew older? I’d never even left the state, and I was somehow supposed to prepare him for life in the world? What if he wanted to study abroad? What if he wanted to learn fucking French? What if he learned that he liked classical music or abstract art or some other shit I knew nothing about? I wanted him to have a good life-- a life like Jake had-- but how could I provide that? I wasn’t an attorney, or a doctor. I was a mechanic with an online Bachelor’s degree and a fucking criminal record.

My reflection looked fucking pitiful. Self doubt was not a good look on that face, in my opinion. When I was pissed, everything sort of fit together. Anger went well with cold eyes and a crooked nose. Self doubt just looked pathetic.

Blowing out a lungful of air, I flipped the sink onto cold and splashed some water on my face. Alex was right. I needed to jolt myself out of the self-pity spiral and lighten the hell up. It was just dinner.

I jerked upright as the door opened and my stomach lurched when Jake walked in. The door swung shut behind him and he caught my eyes in the mirror. Snatching up a paper towel, I dried my face and turned to face him. He hadn’t moved toward the urinals, and I had a feeling he’d come in here to talk to me.

“I, uh...” he trailed off, squeezing the back of his neck and studying the hand dryer by my shoulder. “I’m really sorry.”

“What for?” I asked with a frown.

“My dads are really good guys,” he said. “But they can be a little bit pretentious and they’re really... they’re layering it on kinda thick right now.” He glanced up at me with a small, apologetic smile and he looked so much like our mother it almost hurt.

“They’re not pretentious.” I shook my head. “That’d sorta requires actual pretense and they seem like genuinely amazing people.”

Jake nodded quickly. “They are, they are,” he said hurriedly. “They’re just kinda pissing me off tonight. This was supposed to be a chill dinner and they’re out here trying to impress you and stuff and it’s a little annoying.”

I couldn’t help a snort of laughter. Impress me? Me? To what end?

“I’m serious,” Jake said, crossing his arms over his chest. “They wouldn’t shut up about it all afternoon. They were real nervous coming down here, thinking you were gonna be an asshole and stuff, but after you talked to them this morning they switched to freakin’ courtship mode.”

I laughed again. “Courtship mode, huh?”

“Yeah,” he sighed, leaning back against the wall with a beleaguered look on his face. “Before you know it they’re gonna be inviting you to family reunions and making you come on trips with us.”

All I could do was laugh. What the fuck world was this kid living in? “They’re just being good parents,” I said. “They want you to have a relationship with your family.”

“Yeah, they do,” Jake agreed, nodding. “But I swear, it’s not just about me. Dad... that’s, uh... Ed’s my dad. Just so you know. I call Pat pop. It’s confusing, y’know... if you don’t know us. Anyway, my dad spent the whole car ride back to the hotel talking about how good you turned out.”

“Give him time to get to know me,” I said, still laughing. “He’ll change his tune.”

“I don’t think so,” my brother said, shaking his head, suddenly somber. “Honestly, I’m just kinda relieved.”

“I am, too,” I said honestly. “It’s good to see you’re doing so well.”

“No,” Jake shook his head. “Not that. I mean it’s good to see you. But I meant...” he trailed off and shrugged a shoulder. “I was really little when they adopted me, but I still remember stuff, you know? From before.” His voice was soft and pained, and I felt like he’d carved away a section of my heart. I’d always held onto the hope that he’d forget all that shit-- that the only scars he’d carry would be physical.

“I’m sorry,” I sighed, scrubbing a hand through my hair.

“Don’t be,” he said. “That’s not what I meant. I just... all these memories I had, you were there. And I always had this idea of you in my head that was bigger than life. All I could remember of you was this big, strong guy standing between me and the nightmares...” he broke off, rolling his eyes. “I’m sorry, I know that sounds dramatic. I just mean that I thought I knew who you were, and I built you up in my head into this... hero, or whatever. And then I got old enough that I started really asking about you, pressing my dads about why you never visited. And finally, when I was a teenager, they told me the truth. You know, the stuff you said and all that. I know I was there, I just didn’t remember it too well. All I remember is being upset.”

My heartbeat was loud in my ears as shame and humiliating surged through me. Jake didn’t give me time to spiral, though. He just barrelled on.

“It really bothered me to hear about it,” he said. “Because I love my dads and I’ve seen some of the shit they put up with from ignorant assholes. And the fact that this guy I practically worshipped had said that shit to them really hurt and pissed me off. But also... it just didn’t seem right, I guess. It didn’t make sense. I got it in my head they just didn’t understand or something, but then I felt guilty. I still couldn’t get this heroic image out of my head and that felt like a betrayal to them.”

“I’m sorry,” I said lamely. I’d put him in such a shitty position.

“Don’t be,” he said, smiling at me. “I’m just glad they see it now, too.”

Before I could ask what the hell he meant by that, he was nodding toward the door. “We should probably go back.”

“Yeah,” I nodded.

“Before we do though...” he hesitated, scrunching up his face like he couldn’t decide what to say.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I...” he sighed and rolled his eyes. “When we get out there maybe we could talk about something other than college majors and study abroad? Like... I dunno, music or something? Or TV maybe? They won’t stop harping on me about going to France this summer and I already made plans to go backpacking in California with my friends and I don’t really want you and Alex to have to witness that ass chewing.”

“Sure, man,” I said, laughing as I pulled the door open and led the way back out into the restaurant. “We can talk about whatever you want.”

* * *

Later that night, I found myself on my back in bed, arms folded behind my head and Alex’s warm, naked weight pressed against my side. She was still awake, her fingers drifting idly over my skin.

“My wedding gift is shit,” I said to the ceiling, out of nowhere.

“Huh?” she asked, lifting her head.

“My wedding gift for you is shit,” I repeated. “There’s no way in hell it’s gonna measure up.”

Alex laughed, the sound vibrating against my ribs as she lowered her head back down to my shoulder, warm breath fanning over my chest. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said. “It’s not your fault I don’t have any long lost relatives. If I did, I’m sure you would’ve done the same.”

Damn straight I would’ve. Still... there had to be something.

“I’m gonna make it up to you,” I said, pulling one hand out from beneath my head and tucking her hair behind her ear.

“Oh yeah?” she asked sleepily. “How?”

“I dunno, but I’ll figure it out,” I promised, and she giggled again and reached down to tug the blankets more snuggly around her shoulders.

I’d find a way. And in the meantime, I’d just have to keep trying to earn her in little ways. I’d be the best damned husband she could ask for. In sickness and in health. For richer or poorer. For better or worse. All of that shit.

And I’d learn French, too. It couldn’t be that hard.

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