Empty Walls

January 21, 2018
By thegeyerguesthouse, Scottdale, Pennsylvania
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thegeyerguesthouse, Scottdale, Pennsylvania
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Author's note:

I wanted to write a story about what can drive a person to the edge and how love can bring them back. As someone who has social anxiety, I felt that representing a character who went through similar issues of overthinking was important. Not only did I want this represented, but I wanted it to be represented by a protagonist of a story. In fiction, I find that protagonists are typically easily able to take agency over their life. I wanted to have a character who didn't find this simply, who froze in place from time to time.

When he was sixteen years old, his younger brother had been cast as a small role in The Taming of the Shrew. He remembered it well. Chris came home with a script in his hand and gushed about the opportunity to play Biondello.

James patted beside him on the couch at the slummy new apartment and asked him to explain the plot to him. Chris didn’t sit, instead, pacing while he spoke.

James knew while Chris went into every detail of the plot that there was no way their father going to be able to. Yet he decided to allow his brother to speak much too quickly in his excitement.

“The leading guy is named Petruchio, and he’s really smart, and really drunk, and my character works for him.” Chris spoke quickly and loudly, moving from side to side in a manner similar to a windshield wiper.

James laughed. “You got cast as a slave? You’re excited about being a slave right now?”

Chris wore an attempted irritable expression, though a smile peeked through. “You just don’t get Shakespeare. Slaves are everywhere in that, and they’re always the smart ones. I affect the main plot, y’know. I help carry out Petruchio’s scheme.”

James groaned, resting his head back on the couch. “It’s a friggin’ Shakespeare show? You know I’m not gonna be able to follow that. That isn’t exactly my style.”
Chris finally plopped beside him, frowning in the supportive-little-brother way that he always did. “You’re smarter than you think. I think you’ll be able to follow it just fine. And – And I can explain it to you while you learn it so you can enjoy it.”

“Fine. Fine, alright.” He responded shortly and hoped it would fade from Chris’s mind.

So of course, for the next month, James ended up roped into reading some stiff Shakespearean script from the copy they had taken from the school. Most nights saw him making mac and cheese staring at the ripped up, yellowed pages from the script. Every night, he rehearsed with Chris. Every night, James tried to make mac and cheese exciting in that kitchen. Tried to keep Chris focused on the new weird ingredient in the mac and cheese or the torn script so he wouldn’t ask about Dad.

They began to rehearse the script so frequently that James swore he knew Chris’s scenes by heart. He had no idea what the meaning was to what he recited, but he knew all the nonsense words inside and out. Chris had made fun of him for it.

“You’re a closet theatre geek, I know it.” He said one night with a sarcastic grin.

James shooed him out of the kitchen in response. If he was a little proud that he could recite one stupid scene, no one needed to know about it.

One night, Chris went into theatrics about his teacher, Mrs. Lee.

“She literally walks into the classroom in a red cape. She says it’s an overcoat, but it’s a cape, James, I swear.”

James snorted. “I gotta see this in person. She wear it all the time, or what?”

“All the time. And she pronounces theater the-a-ter. She’s the most dramatic human being I’ve ever met. And I know you.” Chris wore a cheeky grin.

James punched his shoulder and Chris let out an exaggerated, pained noise. And Chris thought he was the dramatic one. Then, he dug into food, and the two fell into a companionable silence. Eventually, Chris spoke. “Dad…He’s not gonna come, is he?”

The older brother looked up, blinking at the abrupt shift in mood, speaking quietly. “I, um… I don’t think he is.”
Chris nodded once and didn’t bring the topic up again. He seemed in a more sullen mood for the rest of the night, though, and James tried to call Dad at work that night to ask. Of course, no answer.

He finally reached his father the night before the performance. He begged him to come. Told him that Chris was doing so well. That he was putting his heart and soul into his scenes. He didn’t have a lot of lines, but he practically buzzed as they got closer to the show. In hindsight, James had rambled to his father.

Maybe that was why his father’s response had been “James, a middle school production of Shakespeare ain’t more important than the safety of others. You need to sort out your priorities and get over your damn self.”

Maybe that was why his father had hung up his phone before James could get another word into the phone.

  He never told Chris about that night. But the next day, he made a big breakfast for Chris and sent him off, wished him good luck.

Finally, the night of the show came.

James wore his only dress shirt with a proud smile as he sauntered into the auditorium. A pale green, scuffed shirt earned him some distasteful looks from the parents who chattered about their darling children. He snuck backstage with flowers he stole from the neighbor’s yard, planning to brighten Chris’s night with them.

Instead, the sight of a positively green looking Chris comforted by his drama teacher greeted him. His first thought was that Mrs. Lee really did wear a cloak.

James waited for a split second before interrupting her attempted breathing exercises. “This is my brother. I think I might be able to do this a little better.”
Her eyes widened almost comically, and James cut into the spot where she had stood before she had time to react further.

He rubbed Chris’s shoulder, offering a smile. “You got this, man. We know you know the lines. Heck, I know the lines, if you need me to step in and get my spotlight.”

Chris almost cracked a shy smile, still looking ill. “I…I’m scared. What if I fail?”
James’s snarky expression moved to a softer one. He patted his brother’s head. “Then people think you’re the cute kid who messed up. And they remember you that way, dude. No one remembers the one who said all the lines perfectly, do they?”

Mrs. Lee finally moved from her still position in the background. “Excuse me,” she said, her voice exactly as he had pictured it in all its melodrama. “That isn’t true. Plenty of people remember performances where things don’t go wrong. And you aren’t allowed back here, young man.”

Chris’s expression shifted to a more anxious one immediately. “Gonna - get in trouble. James, please.” He swallowed thickly, taking a deep breath.

James immediately felt protective, stood up a little straighter, and shook his head. He pulled Chris into a hug. Chris stilled, looking surprised at the open affection.

He then proceeded to vomit all over James’s dress shirt.

James looked down at his shirt. He blinked. He blinked a few more times, as if closing his eyes and opening them again would make the vomit disappear.
It did not.
  The vomit brought out the green in the shirt, he observed numbly. Looking back on that night, what he remembered most was the permeating smell of bile. The smell was the type to make  a person sick to have contact with, and it was seeping through his shirt.

Chris wore a mortified expression, and Mrs. Lee took the moment of stillness to force James out of the backstage area. He heard a stage manager announce “Places” frantically as he walked into the audience, stunned.

If the parents concealed their distasteful looks before, they were out in the open now. He looked down at his bile-covered shirt and laughed a little. Nothing about the situation should have been funny. In the moment, however, he thought of how ridiculous the situation was. He took a seat.

The woman beside him scooted to another seat at the sight of him. James wore a face-splitting smile in response and held eye contact until she looked away uncomfortably.

The lights dimmed and the show began.

James watched the show silently, and, as predicted, understood nothing. Perhaps the fear that his brother passed out backstage consumed the majority of his thoughts.

Painted cardboard and gawky teenagers took up the stage. James tapped his foot on the floor throughout the scenes.

Again, that same mother glared at him.

He intensified his tapping as a response.

The tapping came to an abrupt stop when Chris came on stage. He looked like Chris again, and not the zombified version.
James leaned forward in his seat with wide eyes, mouthing the other character’s dialogue. Chris stared out into the audience for a moment, and James started mouthing his line. After that, he tried to send him his line through telekinesis.

Finally, Chris spoke. He delivered his lines with fervor. James felt like he could breathe again and may or may not have cheered at the top of his lungs when the scene ended. They were going to the next town in a week, anyway.

He had the impression that mother would remember the vomit-covered, toe-tapping shouter that ruined her child’s precious performance long after the performance no matter what he did. He had a legacy, he thought to himself with a slight smile.

The vomit on his shirt, the disdain from his father, and the pitiful stolen flowers all seemed worth it after the performance when Chris entered the audience after the performance.

He was so happy looking. No, he was so normal looking. Chris had always striven to be normal after everything in their lives existed outside of any normalcy. Somehow, by being in an embarrassing play with awkward teenagers and vomiting on his sibling, he achieved it. James wondered briefly if he’d ever have that normal teenage experience that Chris reached, if only for a fleeting moment.

He shook his head quickly and finally walked over to Chris, wearing a proud smile. Chris beamed at him in return as if James had written the piece himself. James swore he’d remember the warm feeling in his chest forever. For years, he looked back at that night with pride.

Now, the thought of it left him with a guilty pit in his stomach. He stared at his call log on his phone, at the twenty missed calls from Chris in the past month. Why couldn’t Chris stop? More importantly, why did each dodged call have to remind James of a time when things were different?

He turned off the phone, wishing he felt angry. Instead, the creeping feeling of guilt and nothingness took hold as he turned up the volume on the TV. He lied on the lumpy couch and allowed a loud television to silence his overbearing thoughts.

The next morning, James pulled his body off the couch slowly and tiredly. Each muscle in his body felt stiff as though bones had attempted to fuse together and given up by morning time. He groaned a little, hearing the high-pitched squeak of aged springs as he separated himself from the couch.
He scrubbed his face while walking through his house. Beige walls met him in every direction. He looked towards the bathroom for a moment. Was he really going to spend time brushing his teeth? No one noticed him. No one cared about his teeth.

In this city, no one noticed anything that happened to anyone outside of themselves. He considered it a small blessing. He stared at himself for a few moments. With a frown, he realized that he stared at himself as though he were a separate being. He brushed through his hair with his hand a few times in front of his bedroom mirror.
A silent evaluation of how he looked hit him. Pale skin met purple tinted skin around his eyes. He struck himself as someone he would have awkwardly looked away from at a younger age.

But thinking about being a kid brought a world of different thoughts that he quickly shut down. He yanked his hand out of his hair and dressed for work quickly.
Grey shirt, khaki pants, belt. Same as always. He stole one last critical gaze in the mirror before leaving the house, not bothering to lock the door.
In the beginning, his job felt similar to the feeling of carrying in every bag of groceries inside the house in one trip. That victorious feeling in his heart that he would win no matter the cost. That he had finally overcome that impossible obstacle. He felt tenacious and proud to be tenacious, easily shutting down the voices who had exclaimed he wasn’t strong enough to carry them.
However, as time went on, the bags began to leave marks on his wrists. His steps became slower. The voices of doubt became louder. Became unobtrusive.
Those voices that said he couldn’t hold a job for longer than a few months became overbearing as he clocked in. How could he talk to costumers all day?
He wasn’t able to hold eye contact with a stranger on the street, and now he had to talk to each costumer reassuringly and with knowledge that he didn’t possess. The grocery bags were cutting into his arms, blood beginning to seep, and he wasn’t sure how to get inside the house anymore.
The voices seemed to be shouting now. Maybe not. He felt disconnected to his own internal monologue now.

Shaking his head, he entered his workplace and put on his same plastic smile, beginning to work at the customer service desk.
At some point, the customer’s angry yells joined the voices of disapproval in his mind. Was it his father yelling that he was a disappointment or the woman in the trench coat with the expired coupon?

But work passed. It always did. The day ended, and he had microwavable macaroni and cheese to look forward to. A feeling of relief started to hit him as he realized he had ten minutes left until he could get away from the overly white, fluorescent-lit building.
When he finally got to clock out, his posture shifted immediately. He was no longer a stiff board with a wax smile. Now, he was able to be a human again. Perhaps he was a slouching excuse of a human, but it was better than living each hour as an inanimate object for single moms to get rid of their frustrations.
That was amusing at the start of the job. Chris would have said, “No, Barbara, yelling at my brother will not stop your husband from cheating on you while going on ‘business trips’” with that warm smile of his. James would have laughed. The thought made James feel a pang of something in his chest.
He didn’t have to force his mind to change the subject this time. Rather, his boss walked over and dragged him out of that dark corner of his mind. He wore a smarmy smile.
  James wondered if with each passing year, it became harder to turn off the fake smile. Would that insincere smile become his only way to express happiness?
“James, glad I caught you before you left, boy.” He said in that nasally tone of his.
James concealed a frown. Taking in context clues, this meant either someone called off or someone complained.
“I took some time to watch you today. And you just seem so – how do I put it? You seem like you’d rather be dead than helping our loyal customers.” That plastered-on smile delivered all of this.

James briefly wondered if his demon doll-like smile was only expression left. If expressions expressing profound emotions ever popped up on Matthew’s face. This man must have worn a placid, pasted on smile while proposing to his wife.
Matthew cleared his throat. James realized that he still hadn’t responded and looked up quickly. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” Matthew stared at him critically. James winced. “Sir. Sorry, sir. I’ll do better.”
His boss’s smile only grew after that. “I expect that you will. I would hate to have to let you go. And people have been fired for less, you know.”
James’s internal jokes went to a halt. He was barely making it as it was. He nodded curtly. “Yessir. Understood. Thank you, sir.”
Matthew nodded in return and walked away from him. James fled the building, feeling like a c***roach fleeing the foot that tried to crush him. Where was his exoskeleton? He certainly didn’t feel like he had anything resembling a spine.

Entering his bedroom, he was met with a sea of beige walls. Usually, this led to a feeling of nothing. This time, that dull color filled him with discontent. He stayed in this apartment for three years.
Three years was long enough for entire relationships to change, for a child to feel like an adult. Three years of living in his apartment saw no change in the environment outside of his disaster of a bedroom. Every other room was immaculate. If he wanted to move in a day, he could have easily. This might have been a source of pride years ago. Instead, shame churned in his stomach.
When Mom was alive, the house she ran had an undercurrent of warmth to it. She burned expensive candles in the kitchen at all times. Dad had griped about it, but he wore the smile he reserved only for their mother.
Each time Dad returned from the newest military base, the house remained the same. James remembered beautiful family photos on the wall with backstories that only Mom could tell. There were no empty walls. Every wall held an inspirational quote, a family photo, or a piece of art she had seen at a flea market.
Even after Mom passed and Dad sold the house, James put up posters, hand drawn pictures, and report cards on the walls. He put them up in an attempt to cover that underlying emptiness that came from his family no longer having the feeling of home.
When they moved to a new location, James made a big deal about their official moving day being when he put up Chris’s drawings and his own posters. It made Chris smile, so he used a shoe as a hammer to hang the childish art on walls. Bloody fingers faded to the background when it made Chris crack a smile after weeks of solemn faces.
When they got a bit older, it became a ritual of putting up their A New Hope poster. They had no Christmas tree. Rather, their family ritual was to get stubbed fingers by nailing a nail into the wall and gleaming with pride. When it hung high, so did their heads.
Eventually, the poster stopped going up. Other priorities were more important than Star Wars merchandise, and he didn’t want to permanently damage the walls. Plus, shoeing a nail into a wall proved to be a painful experience.
Now he had the freedom to buy a hammer and nails, but it seemed pointless. He’d move someday. Considering his current rate of change, that move might be into a coffin. Regardless, who would take down the posters? And how much would it hurt to do so? Or worse, would there be complete apathy as they took down something that used to have worth?

He moved to the kitchen and threw a microwavable lasagna into the microwave. Living dangerously, not making mac and cheese for once, he thought to himself. He grabbed a plastic fork from the drawer.
Holding the light plastic in his hands, he found the crux of his anger in the situation. Everything in his house was disposable. Plastic cutlery. Paper plates. Cheap sheets. Old TV. Himself. Every part of the house was disposable.

He listened to the faint hum of the microwave and realized he wasn’t hungry anymore.
Turning off the microwave, he went straight to sleep and acted like the tan walls didn’t make him feel like screaming.

The next few days passed in the same fashion. He wore a bigger, more Matthew-like smile at work. He acted like the angry mothers weren’t sucking the life out of his soul. This was the new routine for him. Similar to the last one, but it was more difficult to get himself to eat dinner afterwards.
This night, he saw something that would change everything.
There was a bitter chill in the air as he raced home, eyes on the ground in typical fashion.
He frowned when he saw that his usual sidewalk was closed. He’d have to walk through Grant Street. Reluctantly, he adjusted his path.
He stared up at the ever looming building on the street. Jefferson Industries was one of the only businesses on the apartment filled street, towering over every person who walked passed it.
As he walked passed the building, a few women in scantily clad outfits tried to beckon him over. He offered awkward smiles and kept walking at a rapid pace.

Then, his eyes fell upon a young boy among them. The child lacked a coat and his frame shook as he stood alone. Big, brown eyes met his own.
James froze for a moment. Should he call the cops? It wasn’t his business. Parents in this town sent kids on trips frequently. Maybe he should walk faster and act like he didn’t see it when he couldn’t sleep that night.
That familiar feeling of guilt attacked him at the mere thought of it. Attempting to assuage the guilt, James waved at the young boy a little. The boy waved shyly, wearing a hint of a smile. His face conveyed that he wasn't used to kind gestures. And that was that. The final nail in James's coffin.  He kneeled beside the boy. “Are you okay, bud?”
The kid stared for a moment, looking perplexed by the question. Big, brown eyes made contact with James’s. He nodded.
James nodded a little in response to this. Looking at the little boy’s dirt smudged face, he still felt as though he had to do something more. He was quiet for a second, considering the situation.

Slowly, he stood again. A flash of disappointment showed in the little boy’s eyes, his frame shaking. James spoke in a quiet voice. “Have you eaten today?”
The boy frowned pensively before shaking his head, looking down.
“We’re getting you food, then.” He spoke quickly before his mind could talk him out of it. The kid looked at him doubtfully, assuming that he was playing a joke.
James started to walk to the nearest coffee shop, gesturing for him to follow. He used to be irritated that there was a coffee shop on every block. Now, he was grateful. The kid didn’t speak as they walked, but James took in small observations upon seeing him under the streetlights.
The child was barefoot. His clothes were tattered, obviously hand-me-downs. What perplexed him the most was the little one’s mannerisms. James wondered how old he was. The way that he carried himself reminded him of a wounded animal as the two walked down the icy street. He kept his eyes low in a submissive way that seemed uncharacteristic of a child.
James guided him into the restaurant. The child again looked confused by his behavior. Still, neither of them spoke until James looked over the hanging menu. “Got any preferences?”
The kid jumped when he spoke. Finally, he responded in a quivering voice. “I – prefer chains, sir. Doesn’t hurt so bad.”
James blinked several times at the answer. “Soup. I meant what kind of soup you like.”
“What’s a soup?” Came the quick response from the kid. This was the first normal, childish behavior that he had shown, and James felt relieved that there was something inquisitive inside of him.
“It’s the perfect food for warming people up. Made of warm broth and vegetables and meat.” He explained.
The child stared up at him for a moment, looking surprised at the description. “…Oh. I dunno. I dunno soups.”
James observed him for a moment before ordering them two chicken noodle soups and sitting down.

“Why’d you take me here?” Another fast question came from the child, words mumbled rapidly.
He paused awkwardly for a moment. That was a good question. “You looked real sad. I thought – soup makes me happy. Especially when I’m cold.”
The child stared for several moments, eyes red, but James swore he saw hope spark in his eyes.
“My name’s James.” He said quickly, offering the warmest smile he could muster. This smile, he felt, was much different than the one he used at work. This smile reminded him that there were expressions available that weren’t made of wax, carefully sculpted.
“ ‘M Bel, sir.” The response was careful and fast.
James nodded, making eye contact with Bel, trying to make sure he didn’t feel threatened. “That’s a really nice name. It’s good to meet you.”
Bel’s lip twitched upwards, although he seemed unsure what to do with a compliment. The waitress brought over two bowls soup, steam spiraling upwards from each bowl. James heard the child’s stomach growl from across the table and laughed.
“You should blow on it first. Cool it down. Then you’ll be good to go, buddy.” Bel practically preened at the nickname. James felt a warmth inside that wasn’t from the soup as he took his first bite.
“Thank you… Sir.”
James laughed. “You’re tacking on all these ‘sirs’ like I do when I deal with angry people who have expired coupons. I don’t got an expired coupon; you don’t gotta worry.”
Bel stared for a few seconds. “I’m sorry. Am I not supposed to? I..”
James dropped the playful demeanor. “If it makes you feel comfortable, you can. If not, you don’t gotta.”
Bel took one hesitant bite before breaking into a bright smile at the taste. “Thank you, sir.” He began to wolf down the meal, slurping up each bite as though it had been weeks since his last meal. Staring at his thin frame, James wondered exactly how long it had been since his last meal. For the first time, he felt guilty for having fifteen frozen mac and cheese meals rotting in his freezer that he couldn’t make himself eat.
Still, the sight of him enjoying food so much brought a smile to his face. James even ate his bowl of soup. He wondered if food always tasted better with company that savored it as though it were a gift from the heavens.

“When I was your age, I ate like this, too. Buffets were my number one dream, honestly. To just eat everything in the world and have no consequence? I used to eat four plates. Chris would have just one plate.” He went silent for a moment, mind clouded with overpowering thoughts for a moment before he shook his head. “I always thought that was a corrupt misuse of the magic of buffets.” He wasn’t sure what made him start talking. It had been a while since he voiced whatever thoughts came to mind. He wondered if he sounded as rusty at it as he felt.
The doubts were put to rest when he saw Bel’s expression. His smile was genuine, not the shadowed, submissive expression that had permeated his being before. “I wanna eat at a buffet.” He responded, voice full of conviction. “What’s a buffet?”
James laughed loudly. The cashier looked over. He quieted immediately, but he didn’t feel like a murdered bug in the same way that he had in the past. “It’s a place where you can eat all the food in the world for a set price. They assume that punks will eat one plate and call it quits. I defied that.”
Bel giggled, setting down his spoon.
“Do you want anything else to eat? Dessert, maybe?”
Bel shook his head quickly, rubbing his stomach as though the sensation of being full was new for him. James watched him for a moment.

“I...have a bed that I never sleep on. Can never make myself sleep there. Don’t know what my.. Uh, anyway. If you need a home - there’s heat. And more mac and cheese than most people can handle.”
Bel stared at him in disbelief, waiting for the catch before hesitantly shaking his head. “I – I wish.. I wish I could so much. I can’t. I can’t, sir. My father would.. He loves me. He'd be upset.” The boy trailed off, looking miserable to deny the offer.
James paused, sensing that if he didn’t intervene, tears would start soon. “Right. Hey, that ain’t your fault.”
Bel spoke quietly, with an abrupt control over his emotions. “I won’t forget you, sir. How kind you are.”
James frowned a little. “Not kind. Not kind enough. I’m a – coward.”
Bel shook his head. “Allowed to sit beside you?”
James blinked at the change in topic but nodded. Immediately, Bel jumped to the booth beside him and buried his face in his side, his attempt of a hug. James wrapped an arm around his shoulder silently, rubbing it gently. 
Bel didn’t move for several moments. James slowly smiled. “You’re – like an affectionate cat.”
Bel looked up. “I like cats. I like cats a lot. ‘Specially their ears.”
“I’m allergic real bad. I always end up sneezing like an idiot.” James said in response.
“I sneeze a lot when it gets cold. Don’t like it much.” Bel responded hesitantly. He appeared as though he was afraid a negative response would have an unforeseen consequence.
“That’s the worst.” James encouraged. “Or when the inside of your ears gets itchy. No worse feeling, in my opinion.”
Bel nodded slowly. “I like it better than - other things, though.” He looked up at James again. He looked as though he was trying to memorize his features. “I... need to return to Father.”

James frowned, letting him get out of the booth. He still felt as though he should do more. From what Bel had said, though, maybe his father needed his help with caretaking. His father must not have realized that Bel was shoeless when he left. Or coatless.
He stood and pulled forty dollars out of his wallet quickly, handing it over. “Go buy a coat. And shoes. Please. It’s too cold outside. And buy something that makes you happy.”
Bel looked at the money incredulously. He tried to hand the foreign material back. James shook his head a little, responding with a smile. “I’ll spend it on something dumb. Spend it on something more important than my dumb mac and cheese.”
Bel hugged him again, swallowing. “I’ll..I’ll miss you.”

When Bel pulled away, James finally had an idea of how to help. He quickly grabbed the receipt and scribbled down his address. “If you ever feel like you’re in danger, please.. I’ll be here. I never lock my door, anyway.”
Bel clutched the money and receipt. He treated both items with a deep reverence. Then, as quickly as Bel had appeared, he disappeared.
James left the restaurant and walked home slowly. He looked up at the snow as came down in slow, gentle flakes. For the first time in weeks, he smiled at the sight.

James spent the following days having more of a spring to his step than he had in years. He thought he gave the hardened, back-denting couch a run for its money in terms of springing. As he got ready for work, he found himself whistling. Whistling. Like some character in a musical.
Usually, mocking thoughts would shut him down, but not this week. In the corner of his mind, he wondered the entire time if that little boy with the ratty clothes was alright. But to have been helpful, to have not been the one to disappoint others, it was…
He embraced it like the revolutionary, foreign feeling it was. He reveled in it as he prepared for work each morning. Of course, then he looked at himself in the mirror and the rainbow mindset crashed down. But the rainbow mindset was attainable now.

When he walked home after his noon shift, he walked on Grant Street. He walked passed the lurking Jefferson Industries building, frowning a little. He applied for a job there at one point. Showed up for an interview. Did well, even. And they offered a salary far higher than the one he was receiving at a department store.
But... Something about the place left him feeling deeply uneasy.
He turned down the job, and tended to avoid Grant Street when he could. He could have used his usual path. Avoided Grant Street, avoided Jefferson Industries altogether. Something in him, though, hoped that if he stayed on Grant Street enough, he’d be able to see Bel. To be sure that the boy was truly okay.

For the first time since that night, he saw Bel again. His first observation was that the boy was still shoeless and coatless. Standing in the cold, he looked like a picture in a pamphlet about how to help homeless children. James frowned, moving to Bel’s side.
Bel’s face lit up as soon as he saw him. After a moment of stillness, he noticed James’s frown and his expression became shameful, hanging his head. “I – Father found the money. He didn't like that. I - I broke his rule, and.. ’M sorry.”
James shook his head quickly. “Hey, that’s nothing to apologize for. Just – wanted you to be able to get something nice for yourself. I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Bel looked up at him thoughtfully. “Wanted to get you something nice. I don’t deserve – nice.”
James frowned immediately at the words. They sounded recited, as though the sentiment was beaten into the boy’s head. “Everyone deserves nice. Especially little kids. And cat lovers.”
The words drew a smile from Bel. James thought that a smile suited the kid well.  He paused, trying to think of what he did to keep Chris content when life seemed to beat him down. “I’m taking you to a library.” He decided.
Just as he had with the buffet, Bel clearly didn’t know what he was speaking about, but he nodded quickly.

Not for the first time, James wondered what Bel had experienced that caused him to trust a stranger so quickly. After a moment, he threw his coat around Bel’s shoulders, starting to walk.
Bel followed and blinked up at him. “This is your coat.”
James nodded a little.
Bel blinked again. “Why’d you give me your coat?”
James laughed. “Look, I’m an adult. Got more fat on my bones. Like a whale. So I’ll be fine. And you need something.”
“What’s a whale?”
“Okay, so we’re looking at a picture book on whales first.”

The two walked to the library, Bel inquiring about the library the entire way there.
When they stopped in front of the building, James stopped in his tracks. All libraries seemed to have the same look to them. Chris would have been offended at the accusation. Truly, though, standing in front of the building brought a whirlwind of unwelcome memories all at once.
He remembered finally staying in one location by his senior year. Chris had been so excited. A freshman in high school, he’d be able to establish himself as a student in one location and have consistent peers.
It was no wonder he rose up in the school. He was always a bright kid. Teachers were able to see that blinding brightness with him not playing catch up every three months at a new school.
Chris had a thirst for learning. That was the only way James could think to describe it. Chris went to novels as though they were an oasis in a desert full of family problems no one in the household could openly speak of.
Chris had study meetings for his honors classes at the library. James agreed to drive him. Chris begged, as though James could say no to his little brother with his never quenched love for knowledge.
And Chris was so excited to introduce James to all his bright, new friends. So naïve. But James had hoped, anyway. He introduced himself to them with a lopsided smile and a handshake.
He really should have foreseen that the older brother with the tattoos and the dirty fingernails wouldn’t exactly bond with the honors kids. At each school that he went to, the gifted kids had an air of being a class above the rest of them. They were designated for greatness. James was designated to work at a McDonald’s.
He really felt okay with it. He embraced it. Irritated PTA members and told Chris all about it. This shifted when Chris wanted to be friends with the children of PTA members.

He remembered picking Chris up while wearing his favorite plaid shirt. He had felt good. He’d been visiting his girlfriend, and he still had remnants of overly sticky lip gloss on his skin. When he entered the library, he saw the kids talking in low voices to Chris.
Chris looked displeased. His eyes were on the ground. No, he looked embarrassed. James then heard his name. He saw the solemn expressions of the high schoolers, as though they were staging an intervention.
James felt a sinking feeling in his gut. He ignored it and smoked outside while waiting for Chris.

James blew slow puffs of smoke and watched them float away. James watched the smoke go up into the sky and disappear into nothingness. He hoped for a moment in his teenage angst that he could do the same. Maybe Chris could move in with one of the trust fund babies.
Chris came outside. He looked at him with uncharacteristic disdain when he saw the cigarette in his hand. James ignored the sting, offering a bright smile. “How was your study buddy session?”
Chris wore a halfhearted smile, quickly got into the car. “Was okay. Had fun.”

James patiently awaited the ‘but.’
It came.
“But they were talking, and… Could you stay in the car instead of coming inside to pick me up? Please? I know it’s.. They really like me. And I don’t wanna ruin it.” He spoke in a rush. The underlying message was that James’s existence was ruining his street cred with perhaps the whitest people James had ever met.
James still wore a smile. He nodded. He drove the car away silently and wondered if it was the beginning of the end. What happened to being the cool older brother?
It had been the beginning of the end. A fracture formed that day. And it grew until it became unbearable.
And James was standing outside of a library in the freezing cold pondering over this while a child with no shoes stood beside him.

When James rejoined the present moment instead of wallowing in his self-pity, Bel was watching him carefully. James noticed that the kid had a tight grip on his hand. Perhaps that was what brought him back to reality.
James offered a smile. “Let’s get you that whale book, yeah?”
Bel nodded quickly, practically cutting off the circulation to James's hand. He had determination written on his features. Perhaps he believed that keeping a tight grip would keep James grounded in reality. Perhaps he was right.
James made his way through the library, cursing whoever created the Dewey Decimal System. How was it that after twelve years of public school, he still had no idea how the books were organized?
He wandered around aimlessly in the hopes of finding a whale, feeling a bit like the captain in Moby-Dick. Chris hated that story. He ranted about the boring writing style for weeks. By that point, the strain was so intense between them that the only common ground Chris could talk about was things that frustrated him.

It was proving to be difficult to ignore memories in this world of novels that Chris had probably devoured whole.
An attendant at the library noticed him during his third lost circle around the building. The man walked up behind James and spoke in a gravelly voice. “May I help you?”
James practically jumped out of his skin. By extension, so did Bel. The two turned around to face him slowly and both murmured about whales quickly.
The man’s face lit up. James realized that he had matching dark circles around his eyes. Strangely, it made James feel like he had an ally. A fellow sleep deprived member of his clan. They should make jackets. Sad, purple-ish blue hued jackets.

The man spoke in the same deep voice. “I’m glad to see fellow animal lovers. Would you like picture books?”
James nodded, put a little at ease as the man led the way. When they reached the right section, the man looked at Bel and wore a warm smile. “Pick the one you want. They’re all very informative.”
Bel nodded shyly and stared at the titles for several moments before pulling the smallest one out gingerly.

The man with the kind eyes asked if they needed anything else. James hesitated. “Wanna sit with us and help us read it? I’m dyslexic and I’m pretty sure this one’s never read.”
The man blinked a few times but he nodded. “Of course. You two seem like good company.” He led them to a massive table. Bel silently asked permission to sit at the table. Seeing this in his body language, James nodded quickly.
The man looked perplexed at this and took in Bel’s disheveled appearance. He said nothing of it. “My name’s Henry.”
James introduced the both of them to the man, already giving into his parental instincts. He made eye contact and smiled, a little braver than usual. Bel didn’t look up until he was sure Henry had his attention somewhere else. Then, he examined him as though he were an unfamiliar creature, like the whale.
Henry opened the book. James rubbed Bel’s shoulder and pointed at the image in front of them. “This is a whale, bud. They got real thick skin that keeps them warm.”
Bel nodded quickly. He wasn’t comfortable enough to ask a question with the new creature sitting with them. Henry seemed to pick up on this. He skimmed through the book and found a section on blubber. The man read it slowly, in an articulate voice, and pointed out the diagram explaining it. James decided that he liked Henry. 
Slowly, outside, the sun began to set as the three sat together, reading picture books as though they held the answers to the universe. For Bel, to be able to have access to knowledge was a new experience far more exciting than getting toys. Or having shoes, in his case. The boy absorbed information as though he were a sponge. Every action he made had an air of believing the experience would never happen again.

Bel stayed close to James and moved closer as the hours went on. Henry watched the two interact carefully, as though dissecting a frog. Or he was staring at a carefully constructed puzzle and wondering how the pieces connected. Either way, he took in each interaction with caution.
Because of this, it was no surprise to James when Henry pulled him aside as the library hours came to an end. He spoke quietly and with conviction. “You seem very kind. It’s… What is the situation with this child?”
James responded quickly, again feeling guilt sit heavily in his stomach. “I found him on the street. Took him for soup. And then I met him again. And – I don’t know. Libraries always… They’re cathartic for kids, ain’t they?”
Henry smiled a little, looking less suspicious, still not allowing his guard to go completely down. “They certainly are. He’s homeless, then?”
James wasn't sure how to answer. He didn't speak for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts into cohesive sentences. A supposedly easy concept, yet it felt like he was trying to speak Pig Latin. “He has a parent. A parent who has a lot of control over him. I’m not completely sure of the situation, and I don’t wanna… Foster homes ruin families. A lot. I’ve experienced that myself. So I’m a little… wary. I offered him my home if he needs it. I’m – trying, y’know.”
Henry offered a smile, one that exuded warmth despite his awkward mannerisms. “I can tell you are. I like your company. I’m going to give you my phone number.”
James laughed quietly at the straightforward statement. “I’d like that a lot, man. You made today brighter.”
Again, he was met with a warm smile. James fiddled with his phone and got Henry’s contact information quickly.

When the two walked back to the table, its size seemed to be infinitely bigger with Bel sitting at it alone. The child had a way of trying to appear smaller in his space. He had his arms wrapped around himself and clutched the coat to himself as though he was savoring the feeling of heat.
James patted Bel’s shoulder. Bel smiled up at him like he was smiling at a rainbow in the sky. It put James at ease. “You ready to head back, sweetheart?”
Bel paused, shoulders tensing a little. Just like that, James’s ease left like a dog through an open door. He helped him to his feet, ruffling the boy’s hair and trying to keep the tension away from the boy.
Briefly, he wondered what stirred such a need to protect this child. With a little irritation to himself, he wondered if he was filling the gap from Chris.
Since the day Chris decided his friends needs were more important than James, he felt as though he were a t-shirt with a tiny hole. It was tiny at first. Not even noticeable to the common eye. Noticeable to all those who were critical. And it grew. And grew and grew. Eventually, he had nothing left but a gaping hole and a few threads.
But he watched Bel quietly. He thought for a moment as they started to walk outside. Thoughts came to his mind about his need to protect.
As he saw the child hug the coat as though he had never been blessed in this way, he decided that this wasn’t connected with Chris. It couldn’t be.
This was pure. This was what it felt like to care for the well-being of another person. He didn’t initiate contact to fill the bare front of his t-shirt. However, maybe fabric was starting to fill the failed cracks, he thought to himself as he guided the child back to Grant Street.
That fabric wasn’t enough to stop the persistent, dark guilt in his gut when he finally had to leave Bel on the street. Bel put on a brave face, trying to smile. It made him feel worse. Again, he worried he wouldn’t see the child again. Again, he wondered if he was making a terrible decision leaving him in the heat of battle. So, again, he offered his home.
And Bel began to sob. He hugged James tightly, James’s jacket enveloping his tiny figure.
James tensed immediately, holding the child close to himself. He murmured reassurances burnt into his memories from years ago as he rubbed the child’s shoulders.
Abruptly, Bel pulled away. He slowly took the jacket off and handed it back to James. James frowned. “You can have it, buddy. It’s too cold to be out in a t-shirt.”
Bel shook his head with reluctance. “I can’t. I can’t. I wanna, but I – can’t.” His crying became worse, staring at the jacket with profound sorrow. James watched for a moment.

He decided that he wasn't going to leave the child crying in the cold. He sat beside Bel until the boy cried himself out. The cries that escaped were low,  almost animalistic. After minutes of this, his crying became more subdued, softer. James felt like he turned down the volume of a radio. The boy looked up at him silently, face tear stained. “I love you.” He said in a rush, voice earnest.
James blinked a few times. “I care about you, Bel. I – wish this was all different. It ain’t fair. None of it’s fair to you.”
“That’s – the nicest thing anyone’s ever said.” Bel replied. James smiled weakly. Bel hadn’t finished it with “to me.” He said it in a way that conveyed the words as the nicest anyone had ever uttered.
“I think some Shakespeare sonnet fans would disagree with that, bud.” James tried to lighten the mood, smiling fondly.
Bel shook his head quickly. He stared at the grey material of James’s coat, yearning. “Nicest. Ever.” Bel reached out and touched the coat, silently saying a goodbye to the coat that brought him warmth inside and out, even if only for a day. James felt unhappiness churn in his stomach.
After Bel's farewell to the coat, the two said their goodbyes. Bel hugged James yet again, breathing in deeply. Then, he disappeared down the street. It was always a magic act with Bel.

No matter what James did, he couldn’t stop his brain from conjuring terrible scenarios about what would happen to Bel. What had happened to Bel in the past.
Bel’s way of carrying himself suggested in every way that his home life wasn’t healthy. Why would he casually bring up chains if he hadn't been abused? He recognized the signs well. Yet.... James also knew that those who tried to intervene always caused pain. Not only that, those kind of actions caused a chasm in the family, one that often hurt the children with more severity than the adult.
As James walked home, possibilities pounding against his head, he began to feel weary. It seemed like he made constant choices to put too much responsibility on his shoulders. Yet, here he was. Diving in to a situation to put more weight on himself. To put more guilt on himself. As though he hadn’t been wallowing in guilt for the past three years.
All he could picture as he reached the house was the sweet mannered boy he had gotten to know being hurt irreparably because James didn’t have the courage to call Child Protection Services. A part of him recognized that it wasn’t a choice made only due to courage.

He remembered the good intentioned teachers that saw the two boys with unwashed clothes and overly grown up eyes. They were the ones that set Dad into a state of panic.
When Dad came home furious at the two for disturbing the peace, James felt as though he let the already breaking apart family down.
Dad always put on a convincing show, as well. The teachers ate their words. James used his fancy shirt. Chris talked about the books he was reading at the time. They put forth the very finest they had to offer.
After CYS left, life around the apartment got better. This change was never permanent, though. Dad's concern lasted for weeks, at best. Dad asked about school. For the first couple of days, he checked homework, even.
Then, he stopped checking homework. The next day, he didn't ask how school was. He came home with alcohol heavy on his breath, and after that, it slipped again. It always slipped again, and always resolved with Dad having to go back to the base.

James didn’t think others realized that it didn’t hurt to be ignored. More than anything else, it hurt to be recognized every once in a while, to have faith completely, and then to fade to the back of the priority list. Again and again.
James was his father's priority when life started to slope downwards, when teachers recognized his struggling, and then life got better. Of course, over time his behavior became stagnant like pond water. When this happened, he got left behind. Over and over again, in a vicious cycle, James was destined to be left behind by those he loved.

He wondered if Bel felt like this about him. James popped up and played the savior, sure. But he never made stayed long enough to truly save the child. He wasn’t sure enough to save him.
What could cause him to be sure? Bel never appearing again until he appeared in a news article in a homicide?

When something like that happened, everyone like him would feel mournful and talk about how they knew they should have done something.
The bottom line was that they didn’t do something. They didn’t save the struggling child. They made empty promises over bowls of soup, took the little one to libraries, and patted themselves on the back for it.
James sighed and opened the door to his apartment.
He began to pace around the empty apartment , echoes bouncing off of each wall and joining the battle between two sides of his mind. The footsteps seemed to be the explosions in the warfare as he went through his options over and over again.
Kidnapping the child. Probably a no-no, as far as it went. He didn’t think he had the constitution for prison. He barely had the constitution for costumer service. There went that option.
Calling protective services. Probably wouldn’t be able to see the boy again if he made that choice. What if he was reading too far in between the lines and Bel’s father was just impoverished? Taking the boy away from him would be cruel, in that case.
The only other option was to do nothing. Perhaps that was the most despicable option of all. Allowing a child to suffer in order to avoid a conflict, that was what his brain was suggesting for him. Guilt gnawed at his mind, at the newly sewn t-shirt that held him together.

He checked his phone. 6 more missed calls. Deep within, he felt more anger at himself for his inability to do anything that would help others.
He hadn’t always been so inactive when those he cared about suffered. Now, fear stayed behind him, a constant shadow that grew as his guilt grew.

After pacing for a few more hours, James took the next logical step and dragged his miserable self to the nearest bar.
He marveled at the fact that he wanted to be around people. This tended to be rare for him. He’d hide behind Netflix and frozen meals, his barrier from the outside world carefully built around him. Now, he was going out.
He would have been proud if he wasn’t going out to wallow in his misery in a place where most others were also wallowing in misery.

Nevertheless, he walked down the street again and into the well-lit bar. When he was younger, bars were associated with family bounding. Dad would take the family to a sports bar.
Chris would complain the entire time, of course. He had homework to be done, friends to be made. There was always a reason for Chris to be angry with Dad’s attempts to bond.
James opened the door to the restaurant forcefully, making himself turn the page.
Then again, why was he at a bar if not to overanalyze the past and present?
Entering the bar, he realized how welcoming the establishment was. The lights were warm, not artificial and overly bright in the way that they were at work. Wood floors met maroon painted walls.

He took a seat quietly and ordered a beer. After a moment, he realized that he only had enough for one more beer even if he was trying to be careful. When he thought of what he gave the money to, he realized that he didn’t regret this in the slightest.
Sitting at the bar, he looked over and saw a woman sitting by herself. Based on her body language, she was there to overanalyze the past and present, too.
Wavy chestnut hair framed her body. She had a raw kind of beauty to her, James thought to himself. The woman didn’t have any pretense to her. Exhaustion was written in the way that she sat, and she wasn't trying to conceal this.
James offered a smile to her after taking another drink. He felt a need to know more. He reminded himself that he wasn’t emotionally prepared for a romantic relationship. As he looked her over, though, he thought she could use a friend. Maybe he could use one, too.
After a moment of fear of everything that could go wrong, he spoke.

“Hi. I’m James. You look like you’re in the unhappy night club.” As soon as he said it, he began to backpedal. “I mean, that was weird. That was a weird way to say that. I didn’t mean it in an offensive way, I swear.”
The woman laughed with ease. “Honey, you’re fine. I am in the unhappy night club. Definitely. What made you join our fine group?”
James relaxed immediately, smiling. “Feel like I’m trapped at a crossroads. And – y’know, tired of sitting on my couch watching movies that used to make me actually feel things. Yourself?”
She offered a pained smile. “Uh, lost my husband two years ago today. Marine. Anniversary day is – really hard. It’s been – Same thing. With the movies. You watch the ones and you get brought back to another time, and you want it back, and it’s the worst.”
James frowned empathetically, nodding, holding up his drink. “To friends and loves lost.” He took a long drink. The two examined each other briefly, realizing that they started the conversation on a depressing note and that the other didn’t care.

The woman began to speak again after a moment of silence. The silence wasn’t broken to escape awkwardness. It was a moment of silence, to memorialize what had been lost.
“I’m just real grateful that you’re not here to hit on me. You’d think people would pick up the grief bubble from a mile away tonight. I just… Need one night without that. Doesn’t stop some people, I guess.” She paused for a moment, adding an afterthought. “Well, that, and I’m at a bar.”
James smiled a little. “Yeah, that’s messed up, man. People just don’t pick up on vibes good, do they? Then again, I work customer service. Don’t exactly deal with the cream of the crop, humanity wise.”
The woman winced. “You poor soul. You must have a lot of horror stories.”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
Looking for a distraction, she said, “Tell me about it, then.”

And James did. James got to vent about all his plights out loud. He had been so used to internalizing all of his frustrations – voicing it out loud felt like a cleansing experience.
In turn, she shared about her job. James learned that she was a paralegal. Paperwork was her whole career. James pointed out with a grin that the two of them probably had the most grating jobs possible. They commiserated together.
“And the worst part – the absolute worst – is when you do all this research for a case that is cancelled before it comes to trial. And logically, you know that you were still paid for it, and that you should be content. Instead, you got all invested and you wanna yell about justice.” She said quickly and passionately.
“I completely get that. Logically, I get that I’m being paid to make sure that all the angry customers are taken care of. And logically I know that some poor sap’s gotta do it. But it don’t stop you from wanting to scream.”
James thought to himself with a smile about the fact that what began as an appreciation for a woman’s beauty had descended down into impassioned rants. Actually, no. It had ascended up into rants between two people who didn’t have an outlet for their daily frustrations.
He thought that anyone overhearing the conversation would judge the rapid-fire rants the two were having. These two, though, had an understanding between them. He was almost certain that they each had a moment of being grateful that they weren’t doing the other’s job.

James bought another drink for her. He appraised her drink. It was a fruity drink, one named ridiculously enough that it would have made a new drinker blush. She ordered it with a confidence to her.
Only after he offered did he realize that he only had two dollars in quarters to pay for her drink. He dumped the change and organized it for the bartender. The bartender looked unamused at his antics as he counted all of his coins. He felt his ears get hot as he paid, making sure to tip.
The woman smiled at him. “You didn’t plan this out, did you?”
James didn’t think it was possible for his face to feel any hotter, but his cheeks found a way, nonetheless. “I did not, no.”
She looked endeared, at least. She stayed quiet for a moment. “It takes a lot to make me smile on this day. Believe me. And you managed it with your lack of planning. So… Don’t worry about it.”
It felt like she knew exactly what to say to put him at ease. He smiled sheepishly, gulping down the rest of his beer.

The rest of the night rolled in a similar fashion. Any time James tensed and felt as though he had to hide his head like a turtle, she just smiled. While she shared why she picked the college she did, James wondered why she didn’t mock him for talking too fast or too much. He almost didn’t know what to do with himself, being around someone who wasn’t only tolerating his presence.
Henry hadn’t just tolerated his presence, he tried to remind himself. Then, his mind supplied that Henry’s job was to help others. Henry worked at a library. So, yes, he recommended books. He even made conversation.
He was equating friendship with the equivalent of a doctor treating a patient. That was the only friendship from the past years that he could think of, and it was a person who had no choice. Was it any wonder he hated himself?

It took a few moments for him to realize that she was trying to get his attention. He snapped back to reality quickly. In times like these, he felt like his mind was a TV that was flipping through channels. Someone else was sitting on the remote, and he had no choice over what program came on. He smiled weakly. “Mind was on the wrong channel. I’m sorry. Say that again?”

She shook her head. “No need to worry. When did the channel flip?”
He paused, biting his lip. “Uh, it was… You said that your number one choice for a while was forensic science.” He realized that she must have said that minutes ago, expression guilty.
She nodded, expression patient. He wore a surprised expression. James had expected at least a little judgement for that. “Right. Okay. It was. When I was in fifth grade, we dissected frogs in my science class, and I got into school more than I ever did before. Kept asking when we’d do it again. I think my parents were worried I was a sociopath after that talk.”
James laughed with a small smile. “Doesn’t everyone have that discussion with their parent at some point?”
She wore a matching smile. “I sure hope so.”

The two swapped stories as the hours flew by around them. They had minutes where neither of them spoke, where their minds were on different channels. To both of their surprises, that was okay.
Eventually, stories were interrupted by yawns. Many, many yawns. James laughed and checked the clock, planning to make a joke about how old they were to be tired so soon. The clock hanging on the wall revealed that it was a quarter to two in the morning. James rubbed his eyes. “I, um.. I had a lot of fun tonight. I didn’t know it was possible to…be so at ease.”
She nodded. “You – I’m here every most Monday nights. If you wanna see me again. This was actually really cathartic.”
James nodded quickly. The two said their goodbyes. It wasn’t until after he left the bar that he realized he never learned her name. Even then, he didn’t berate himself as harshly as he might have some days. Sleep evaded, as it usually did, but his late night lacked the sting that typically came with staring at the ceiling with his mind’s volume up too loud.

James walked home from work slowly on Grant Street the following days, as though walking slower would enable Bel to appear. It didn’t. He knew it was ridiculous to be antsy, but by day four, he began to tear himself down for not calling CYS. When he entered his apartment, he closed the door behind him, a satisfying slamming noise echoing from wall to wall.
He blinked in slight surprise to see a small figure curled up on his couch like a house pet that had lived there for years. “….Bel? Um, why are you on my couch?” James inquired.
Bel jumped up, looking repentant. “I – I..” He started, before trying to hide under the couch in response.

James stared for several seconds. He pulled the latch on the side of the leather couch so that the recliner legs came up and Bel could effectively hide. He allowed the boy to, starting to walk around the house aimlessly. He started the timer on his phone to see how long it would take until Bel tried to run out of the apartment and act like he hadn’t been there.
Surely enough, after the timer hit the nine-minute mark, James heard tiny footsteps sneaking towards the door. He walked over quickly before Bel could complete his great escape. “I don’t have an issue with you coming here. Really. Just wanted to know what’s up. And if you’re okay.”
Bel squinted at him critically. “There’s – nothing ‘up.’ S’all down.”
James pondered over what that could possibly mean, coaxing him to the kitchen gently and slowly. Thankfully, Bel followed his lead. The two didn’t speak, but James went through all of his cabinets looking for something that resembled a normal meal for the boy.

Patiently, he waited for Bel to elaborate a little further. Nothing came. Again, he was struck with how bizarrely quiet the boy was able to be. He looked back at his childhood. At all the times that he spoke too much, too loudly, with not a care in the world. Dad had changed that for him over time, sure, but Bel wasn’t old enough for that to have happened yet. He was at the age to be yelling about boogers. And yet..
An impromptu round of the quiet game continued as James muddled through his cabinets. He had no idea if he had anything edible in his pantry, but he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to try. Finally, he found a pound of spaghetti and began to boil water. He gestured for Bel to sit. “What’s up, dude?”
Bel was quiet for a few minutes. “I was really, really.. My thoughts got all dark and I didn’t know what to do about it. So I.. I remembered the receipt with the address. And – And you make me feel not all dark. And so – so I came, and I’m sorry. I can leave if you… If that’s what you want.”
James paused at the outburst, patting his head and offering a smile. “You’re fine, Bel. I like you being here. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay. We can get some food in your tummy.” Bel smiled just a little at the word. “And then you’ll feel better. Life’s like that.”

He opened his fridge and pulled out tomato sauce. After a moment, he sniffed it critically. Then, he nodded affirmatively, put it in a pan, and added salt and pepper to sauce. Bel watched in silent fascination. James laughed a little. “You want a talk through for all this?”
He didn’t expect the shy nod he received. He began to commentate his actions, with riveting ideas such as putting stale bread in the toaster because it didn’t taste as stale when it was toasted. By the time the pasta was done, he piled the sauce and pasta onto the bread, effectively making pasta sandwiches for the two of them.
Bel already seemed in lighter spirits by this point, eyeing the food with pure want in his eyes. James laughed. Year old pasta and stale bread, but Bel was eyeing it as though it were Turkish Delight and he was Edmund in The Chronicles of Narnia. When Bel saw James dig in, he started to eat, eyes wide with surprise at the flavors.
James laughed. He thought back on how many nights spaghetti sandwiches had saved him and his brother. He said as much out loud. “Pasta costs, like, ninety cents a pound. So when we’d move to a new location, and cash would be all tight, we’d have pasta for dinner every night. Only, it was for months. Just months of pasta and tomato sauce. And I tried for variety, man. I really did. I think my lowest point was putting thousand island dressing on the pasta. Chris never did forgive me for that one. Uh, anyway. The answer lied in spaghetti sandwiches. Satisfying, and not as gross as some of my terrible attempts.”
Bel smiled throughout the story. James realized he hadn’t spoken about Chris out loud that much since… Since he..

He couldn’t afford to think about that. This was why he tried to avoid these kind of stories. The smile that graced Bel’s face at James’s nostalgic story made him regret it just a little bit less, though.
“I don’t know what thousand island dressing is, but if you made it, it must be so, so nice.” Bel broke James out of his thoughts.
James laughed a little. “You’re too sweet.”
Bel paused for a moment, smile falling. “…Oh.”
James couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up at his literal interpretation. He recovered quickly. “It’s an expression, Bel. Means I think you’re nice. That’s all.” He wore a fond smile as he said this, reaching over and ruffling his hair.
By the time the two finished, Bel already began to look downtrodden. James watched him carefully. “We should.. You want some advice for what to do when thoughts get dark?”

Two sentences in and he was already feeling like a complete hypocrite. He spent the past two years at work pushing down dark thoughts and ignoring them until they temporarily dissipated and attacked with a vengeance when he came home and had no distractions.
Bel nodded quickly, though, so James assumed he didn’t catch on to the irony of the situation.
“When you feel like you can’t handle anything anymore, take a deep breath. And hold it for four counts. Then let it out for eight counts.” He felt vaguely like Chris’s dramatic theatre teacher explaining it aloud. Based on Bel’s expression, though, he was interested if not a little perplexed.
James demonstrated. Bel moved closer, breathing with him deeply. They went through a couple of cycles. Bel looked mildly surprised afterwards. “That… I like that. I like you.”
James laughed, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Glad to hear it, buddy.”
Bel watched him for a second before throwing his arms around him and nuzzling his side. James remained still for a moment before gently pulling him away a little. “Why don’t we watch a cartoon or something?”
Bel blinked. “Cartoon?”
James gaped for a moment. “Dude!”
He pulled Bel back to the couch. Bel jumped onto it. “This – This is such a nice place to sit. ‘S so soft.”

James found himself rethinking all of the angry thoughts he had put towards the couch in the past year. For years, the couch seemed to represent his failures. Its old springs that creaked each time someone sat infuriated him. Truth be told, that wasn’t what frustrated him.
What frustrated him was that he was a grown man who couldn’t sleep in his bed because there was no TV on. Because there was nothing to silence his own deafening thoughts. When people before said that white noise in the background helped them sleep, he thought it was a load of horse crap. Now, he stayed paralyzed on his creaky couch with the TV blaring old movies.
But Bel thought it was soft.
Maybe – his couch wasn’t a glaring failure. Maybe it didn’t represent the hubris of mankind. Maybe it was just a couch. An old one, but a couch nonetheless.

He scrolled through Netflix for what felt like the millionth time. This time, though, Bel was staring at the thousands of titles with wide, glittering eyes. James read the titles out loud for him. He also read several descriptions of movies. At first, Bel was shy. He said quietly that it wasn’t up to him.
So James decided to scroll through the films until he got a physical reaction from Bel. Surely enough, a My Little Pony TV show did the trick. James laughed a little. Whoever was monitoring his Netflix account had to be worried for him. Twenty documentaries about serial killers and a show about the magic of friendship were going to be in his ‘continue watching’ queue.
Bel watched every character interaction with rapt attention. James recalled a conversation he overheard at from a patron about how technology was ruining his children. A balding man, he had pronounced, “Television made my kids not care about me anymore. It takes away their attention spans. It comes from the devil, I’m telling you.” James decided he didn’t agree with the man’s astute, very rational argument that could only come from someone waiting in a customer service line.
Because Bel was engaged with the show in the same way that Chris became engaged with books. And not everyone was made to be a good reader. But television – it was accessible. Any child could watch it and empathize with a character’s plights.
…God, he was thinking a little too much like the father from Matilda.

They sat in a comfortable silence for nearly an hour of oversaturated colors. Bel bounced a little on the springs each time the blue horse was on screen. Pony. Whatever.
After two episodes, Bel’s exuberance shifted to discomfort. He stood. “I gotta head back, sir.”
James nodded once. “Of course. Hey, thanks for hanging with me. I had fun. Even though I still have no idea which pony is which.”
Bel giggled a little, though the sound had a hollow quality to it, more so than before. James kneeled beside him. “Don’t forget about the breathing, yeah? It seems ridiculous, but it – really does help. It’s the only thing that got me through the past few years.”
Bel nodded quickly. He threw his arms around James again. James patted his back a few times. “Stay safe, yeah?”
He received another nod in response. Bel walked out of the apartment slowly, gazing over his shoulder ruefully more than once before the front door closed with a resounding thud.

The next day, James felt that his life was an empty canvas instead of a canvas covered in ostrich poop. With no work to do, he glared at his empty pantries. Last night, he had cooked from scratch. From scratch. Without a microwave. The last time he cooked from scratch, Gangnam Style was topping the charts.
And yet, he felt like he should do it again. What if Bel appeared unannounced again? He couldn’t make pasta again. To eat pasta two nights in a row? That would cause war flashbacks to his days with Chris.
He didn’t realize how much he forgot in the past years about cooking. After all, he didn’t have garlic in his fridge. Garlic. If he listened closely enough, he could hear the sound of his mother being disappointed in him.
Thus, he went to the grocery store. Outside of the frozen microwavable section. In the distance, a baby screamed. One day, you’ll learn to internalize all this, he thought to himself. And you’ll think of stupid, elusive metaphors to captivate the pain you feel.

He walked through the store slowly, feeling like he was in the Wonka factory of vegetables. Piles upon piles of fresh produce sat perfectly in rows.
The sound of screaming intensified. He winced sympathetically. The poor mother.

He was almost shocked to see that grocery stores carried items outside of mac and cheeses. Even more shocking still was the sight of the chestnut haired woman from the bar holding the wailing child. He walked through the mecca of vegetables, smiling at her, albeit a bit awkwardly.
She wore an equally surprised smile. The general feeling was akin to seeing a teacher outside of school and feeling discomfort. They both didn’t seem to have considered that the other really, truly had a life outside of sitting at a bar that night. He recognized that there was no reason to feel awkward.

They had been so comfortable with each other that night.  He almost told her about how he was considering kidnapping a child. He didn’t, but he sure was closer to than he was with anyone else. That was the real kicker. He never learned her name, but he felt a connection to her that was stronger than he had with others in years. But ease was no longer in the air.
He realized that she said something to him. What it was, he had no idea. He blinked a few times. “Um. Hey. Your kid okay?”
The woman wore a weak attempt of a smile. “He’s not dying. Just… Real fussy.”

James paused. He reached that road with two paths, one that might help but made him anxious, and the other that avoided conflict. He took a breath. “I’m… I’m real good with kids. Do you want me to give it a shot? Change of height might – help.”
He spoke, feeling a bit like a gawky teenager again. No, he wished he felt like a teenager again. As a teenager, he had such a confidence about him. He laughed in the face of PTA parents. Currently, he dealt with them each day with a bowed head.
As a teenager, he hated himself, too, and he just internalized it with ease. That wore him down after a while. Now, self-hatred seemed to run through his veins.

The woman examined him for a moment. He imagined she considered if it possible to tackle him if he attempted to run. She must have decided that he passed, handing the wailing toddler over quietly. For once, he was grateful for the bags under his eyes that seemed to perpetuate an air of weakness.
For a moment, the child continued to cry. James slowly walked him over to an ear of corn, holding it just out of reach. James believed wholeheartedly that it always piqued a child’s interest if they were given the impression that they weren’t allowed the object. He peeled at the strings surrounding the corn.
Of course, after a moment, wet eyes stared up at him with curiosity. James laughed a little at the sight, letting the baby take the ear. The woman watched in awe. “He’s been – all morning. Not even a change of scenery would.. How?” She finished her thoughts simply.
James grinned, feeling something akin to pride. He relished in it while he could. “Call it a gift. I was always a real mama’s boy, so I spent a lot of time with her and my baby brother. Picked up a few tricks.” He immediately felt like he was bragging, backpedaling a little. “Um, plus, some babies like being up higher.”
She smiled warmly. “Whatever the reason, I’m extremely grateful. That was – a lot.”
James smiled back, a little more hesitant after his random burst of pride. “What’s the little booger’s name?”
She laughed. “He’s Timmy. Hey, by the way, I’m Isabelle. I was kicking himself when I left and realized we talked past midnight and I never gave you that.”
He relaxed. She hadn’t done it intentionally. He was so convinced that she made a choice, that she didn’t trust him. In reality, their conversation had just spun too fast.
He bounced Timmy on his hip, feeling a sort of ease at having a little one near again. Isabelle smiled at the sight. “You’re really good with him.” A second later, Timmy shoved the ear of corn into his mouth. She laughed a little. “Um, I’ll pay for that. Sorry.”
James snorted, taking the corn away despite Timmy’s disgruntled noise. “You’re alright. I wanted produce, anyway. Maybe it’s a sign that I should get corn. ….After disinfecting it, that is.”
She smiled, a fondness in her eyes. “Hey, are you free tomorrow night?”
James paused. He thought through what his work schedule was quickly, gaping for a few seconds. Was he being asked on a date by the pretty lady with the equally terrible job?
Then he realized he was holding the calm toddler.
His heart sank a little. Resident baby whisperer title was coming back to haunt him. He nodded. At least she’d be able to have a night out with no worries. If anyone deserved it..
“I’m going out to this really nice place in town.” He waited for the description of an amazing man. The man wouldn't be anxious, nor would they be a fast speaker. There wouldn’t be silence every three minutes because his brain short-circuited like an old computer.

He didn’t hear what she said after that. But she looked at her like she was expecting an answer. She looked… almost nervous. He blinked a few times, feeling too ashamed to ask again. “Okay. Sounds great.”
Her expression lit up. Then, she gave the name of the establishment. If he thought he short-circuited in the past, it was nothing like this. “…..What?”
She repeated the name again. He blinked a few times. “Are you – asking me out?”
She nodded, cheeks tinted red.
He blinked a few times before breaking into a grin. “Oh! Oh, um.. Yeah. Yeah. I’d like that a lot.”
She laughed a little. “Um, what did you think happened there?”
This time, it was his turn to become a little red. “I thought you wanted me to babysit the rascal because you were going on a date. I didn’t…”
She laughed. “That’s – really sweet that you said yes anyway. My mom helps with that, though.”
He paused, realizing that he made the assumption that a woman who met him once previously would leave him with her kid. He laughed a little, handing Timmy back. “I’m a little air headed today. Sorry. I’d love more time to chat with you. I can finally find out what specific cheese tastes determine if you can trust a person. Can’t believe that’s something that you feel that strongly about.”
She laughed. “Hey, you know it’s true. And that’s something I save for the third date.”
James laughed. “I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed. I’ve been pondering on it for the past few days.”

After a few more minutes of conversation, he got her phone number. Her phone number! To go back to casual shopping after that felt ridiculous. He pushed his cart down the aisles, checking for people jumping onto the back of the cart and riding it like he did when he was a kid. He felt jubilant. He had a date. With a girl. A girl who asked him out.
And the night before, he got to just be himself at his house and watch a show that wasn’t vaguely terrifying. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that he enjoyed that rainbow filled show.

After spending two hundred dollars on groceries, he went home with a spring in his step.
As always in his life, this seemed to a sign to the gods that things had to go wrong as soon as possible.
He put all of his groceries away in a meticulous fashion and plopped on the couch tiredly. After six seconds of silence, he realized it had been a while since he checked his email. Willfully ignoring his texting app altogether, he clicked the email icon quickly.
There were five emails from a college email. C.emerson. He swallowed thickly. Chris. Each one included his name. Each one begged for contact. He felt guilt digging at the bottom of his stomach like a hole drilled into the center of the earth.
He took a deep breath.
He marked the emails as spam.

After that, he moved to close the app. Considered deleting it entirely. Before he did, though, an email from an unknown sender caught his attention. The subject only had the words “A warning.”
He frowned heavily. Typically, this followed with something related to a sale. But the email address held only random numbers and letters. Hesitantly, he opened the email to see its body. Inside of it read two sentences. “Leave the boy alone or your corpse will be hung from these rafters.” A photo of a warehouse was attached. "You'll reach the same result if any contact with the police is made." 
He froze. He reread it a few times. Unease took hold deep in his chest. For a few moments, it was difficult to breathe. Closing the app, he curled up on the couch, thoughts racing. He pictured each scenario from the crime shows he watched.
Slowly, he pulled himself out of bed and locked the front door. Then, he sat on the couch, fear strangling him. He clicked on Henry’s contact. After a moment of hesitance, he decided that the threat of death was more pressing than the threat of potentially embarrassing himself.
‘I need help. I think Bel’s parent might be someone dangerous.’ After a few revisions, he sent the text to Henry and anxiously awaited his response, praying that the man had a magical solution to the threat of murder.
His phone dinged almost a minute later. James nearly jumped out of his skin. He wasn’t used to actually opening texts. Nonetheless, he opened Henry’s response quickly. It read:
‘What can I do to help? What happened that worried you?’
James cringed. Of course an acquaintance wouldn’t have a magic solution. He thought about shutting off his phone and acting like he never sent the first text. Then, he thought about his corpse hanging in the rafters of some warehouse.
For a moment, he wondered if anyone would care. No one was attached enough to truly be devastated. Chris would.. Chris wouldn’t even know. He’d just keep sending emails, as though that could make up for the lost years. For the words said. For the words left unsaid.
Then, he remembered Bel tightly hugging him and refusing to go until James pulled away from himself. Suddenly, he felt guilty for being apathetic about his death for even a moment. A child needed him. He had no time for anxieties. He sent a screenshot of the email he received.
Henry responded quickly.
‘Oh. That does seem worrisome. I’ll try to track the email address. In the meantime, make sure you stay safe. Call me if you need anything. Even if it’s just someone to talk to.’
James felt conflicted. Phone calls weren’t his specialty. He didn’t like that silence wasn’t allowed. His mind sputtered like an old engine, one that wasn’t adept enough for new technology and perhaps never would be.
Nonetheless, the gesture was kind. It was much more than he expected.

It was difficult to sleep that night. There was only so much tossing and turning to be done on a couch that barely fit him in the first place. Each time the floor above him creaked, he was convinced that someone broke in and was ready to take him.
Crime shows playing in the background definitely did not help his nerves. Each episode was fuel to his anxious fire. Eventually, he sat up in frustration and looked for another show. He thought that it might have been wrong that it took the threat of death to stop him from binge watching shows in which others lost family members. He felt angry with himself that the style of show had ever brought a sense of relief.
He put on the rainbow-filled show that brought Bel such joy and faced the back of the couch, hand on the cheap leather, too anxious to look over his shoulder. His mind kept supplying thoughts of a looming figure creeping up behind him. And he knew it wasn’t possible. He knew it was ridiculous. But he couldn’t stop the feeling as the hours rolled on and the same lesson about being good to others played on screen.

One day, when Chris was thirteen, he jumped into James’s car with joy that was so intense it was almost palpable. James laughed at the sight and asked what had him so high on life. The response he received was yelled in that way that kids did when they had such excitement that they either didn’t consider the environment or didn’t care.
“Jenna asked me to the dance, and we’re actually staying long enough for me to go, and she’s the one who I thought was so pretty and smart, and she asked me. She asked me. I thought she was gonna ask Jake. Remember? I saw her talking to him yesterday and I was all sad, but I was wrong, and we’re going to the dance together, and -”
“Chris. Breathe, dude. Please.” James didn’t think it was possible for sentences to run for that long, but here they were. An affectionate smile stayed on his features, nonetheless.
Chris followed his instructions, still practically jumping in his seat. He didn’t speak until the hopping subdued. “I can’t believe I’m gonna get to go to a dance! It’s gonna be so great, James. I didn’t think I’d ever get to.”
James reached over and ruffled his hair, laughing when Chris tried to pull away. “I’m glad for you, man. We’ll get you some nice dress pants for it, yeah? I’ll ask Dad for the money.”
Chris looked grateful immediately. James decided that this was worth a celebration dinner that didn’t include pasta or sauce.
Arby’s it was, then. When they pulled into the parking lot, Chris’s expression lit up. “Have I ever told you you’re the best big brother?”
James had snorted a laugh. “Once or twice, yeah.”

After they ordered the sandwiches and sat in a booth, Chris’s expression went from ecstatic to terrified. “I – I don’t know how to dance. How did I never think of that? Do I gotta cancel, or what?”
James paused. “Hey, I don’t think that’s the next logical step here, man. She asked because she was interested. This ain’t grounds to cancel.”
Chris didn’t look assuaged. James thought about it. “Look, man, what teenage boy actually knows how to dance?”
At this, Chris’s expression darkened. He gave one clipped syllable in response. “Jake.”
James winced. “Um, okay. So I’ll teach you. It’s not like it’ll be hard.”
Chris examined him. “Have you ever even danced?”
James laughed. “Look, it can’t be that hard. They wouldn’t expect awkward teenage boys to do it if it was. We’ll – figure it out. Okay? And it’ll be fine.”

James got the impression that Chris didn’t actually think James would go through with it. But that night, he put a beaten up Frank Sinatra CD into their player after Chris went to bed and danced around until he got the basics of how a couple’s dance was supposed to work. And maybe that was embarrassing.
But it was a lot more embarrassing that night when he had to actually dance with Chris to get him to understand it. That night, James asked if Chris had any girls he could practice with. Chris had gone bright red. “I’m not you! I don’t just have a bunch of girls..” He made a face. “Jenny can’t know that I can’t. She can’t. That would be so embarrassing. We just need to…” He trailed off, looking like he wished he hadn’t said anything in the first place.
James felt a bit guilty. “Chris. Hey. Listen to me. It’s alright. She ain’t gonna know. After my training session, you’ll be – like that dude in Singing in the Rain.”
Chris cracked a smile. “Gene Kelly?”
James nodded quickly. “Nerd. Let’s go. This’ll be… Uh, interesting. That’s for sure.”
“What, am I supposed to dance with you?”
“You got any better ideas, Einstein?” James asked in turn. Chris glared for a few seconds, but it only made James laugh. “You’ve gotta work on that, man. You’re not too good at intimidating.”

Chris stepped on his foot while he walked to the CD player. James thought it was an accident at first, but he saw a smirk on Chris’s features while he fiddled with the buttons.

In their first ‘lesson,’ James taught Chris where to stand and put his hands. They both laughed like idiots and looked just as stupid. James towered over Chris, but he couldn’t make Chris do the girl’s part. That wasn’t conducive to learning. Chris stepped on his toes more than once, this time actually accidental. As the hour stretched on, though, Chris got a hand on the four steps. James laughed. “Y’know, this is supposed to be the easy part. I got the coordination and you got the brains, huh?”
He received an angry squint in response. Hours into their escapades, Dad came home. He watched the two. They both didn’t notice at first, concentrating, both of their brows furrowed. Dad cleared his throat. They both leaped away from each other quickly.

They expected a speech. At the very least, disdain. His expression did convey that at first. When he spoke, however, the only thing he said was “Chris, your hand is in the wrong spot if you’re dancing as a man. It’s below the ribcage, not on the ribcage. Unless you want to cop a feel from your brother.”
If Chris had looked embarrassed before, now, his face was scarlet red. James laughed loudly, unable to stop himself.
They had a few more lessons before the night of the dance. Chris slowly became more comfortable with the moves. He smiled when he spoke of the dance instead of only sharing terror.

Of course, Dad wasn’t home the night of the dance. So James gave advice. He gave advice, messed with Chris’s too perfect hair, and let him borrow his cologne. He also gave a lecture and a half about not using too much cologne. He knew Chris, and he knew that the kid would get nervous and overspray and then his date would choke on cheap cologne.

By the time that the time of the dance came, James was certain that he did everything he could to prep the kid. And he looked pretty good, if he did say so himself.
He sent Chris on his way and demanded pictures. That night, he went to work and spent the whole night wondering if things were going well. Mostly, he worried about the amount of cologne that his brother used. Jesus Christ.
When he checked his phone, he received a photo from a friend of Chris and Jenny on the dance floor. Chris’s cheeks were flushed, but he looked confident. His hand, James noted, was not on Jenny’s ribcage. It brought a smile to James’s face.
But it also meant that James never really learned how to dance like a boy. He knew the girl’s part seamlessly. He could do it any day of the week. He had kind of gotten used to not leading, though. It wasn’t like it mattered. He didn’t lead a life where dancing was in any way relevant.

Well, until now. Now, he was most definitely in trouble. He looked around the restaurant, hearing the loud band and going a little green. Isabelle picked a joint with a dance floor. What were the odds? What, did she smell weakness on him? At the very at least, at least now he understood why Chris was mortified at the prospect of a dance floor.
Izzy found him quickly. She wore a stunning, blue dress that hugged her curves. He looked at the sequins on it, at how they reflected a hundred tiny lights from them. She wore a vibrant smile. He offered a boyish smile in response. "It's good to see you." He spoke a little hesitantly, struggling to be heard over the band.
"You too! You look good. I like the look." She gestured to the button up shirt with a smile.
That made him a bit more at ease. His smile wasn’t quite as forced. "I feel like a monkey in a tuxedo, but I really appreciate it. You look stunning.”
She smiled at him warmly. “You’re too kind. You good to dance?”
He was silent for perhaps a millisecond longer than required. “Of course. It’ll be fun.” He was pretty sure his expression conveyed complete fear, but at least he was trying.
“This is my favorite local band. They’re really kind. I make a point out of attending their gigs when I can. When I’m not, y’know, juggling a toddler and work. So about twice a year.” She finished with a wry smile.
He laughed. “That’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t know how single parents handle it all without having a breakdown. It’s really impressive. I helped my little brother out a lot while my dad was out of town, and even that was too much from time to time. To have that and a full time job…” He trailed off, a little flushed.
She nodded. “Exactly. I’m glad to be spending my night off with good company.”

The heat in his face intensified. The two made their way to the dance floor, and she took his hand, putting her other hand on his shoulder. He shuffled with his steps for a moment. Leaning in, he made an admission with a quiet voice. “So, um.. I’ve only ever danced the girl’s part. My only dancing experience came from whipping my brother into shape for a dance.”
Immediately, she grinned. “That’s so sweet! Don’t worry about it. I happen to be an expert at the guy’s part of the dance.”
He blinked as the two switched positions. She took the strides forward, and he moved back a little more seamlessly. He laughed, the sound loud and joyful. “You’re not worried about being embarrassed?”
She shook her head. “I’ve got a handsome man dancing with me. I doubt that the first thing they’re noticing is who’s doing which step. Even if they were… It’s kind of fun to make an idiot out of yourself sometimes. Therapeutic, in its own way.”
The response made him thoughtful. He used to think in those terms. He’d be vomit covered in an audience and laugh at the PTA mothers. Now, he could… Maybe he could be similar to that again, even if it just meant he had his hand on a pretty woman’s shoulder and her hand was on his waist. He smiled again. “I like it. I like that. Strength in numbers, too. If one person looks stupid, they’re a weirdo. If two people look stupid, they’re trendsetters.”
She nodded with a grin. The two danced like this for hours, to all types of songs with all types of tempos. He could scarce remember a time where he had so much fun and so little pressing heavily on his mind.

The two had drinks together, both wearing bright smiles as they continued to dance together. Eventually, both of their feet ached and they sat on the curb outside of the restaurant. Breathless and tired in the best of ways, they sat with one another. After a moment in the chill of winter, he wrapped an arm around him, smiling at her and staring straight up. “God, I love tonight. And the stars.”
She smiled immediately. “Always love a guy who can appreciate nature. You’re a fan of stars?”
He nodded quickly. “I wish I knew all their backstories and names. I’m not quite next level. But God, I could spend my life staring at them and I’d be content.”
“The last date I went on, the man said stargazing was idiotic. That there was no point if there was no telescope. I swear, I was prepared to leave right then. …That might have been a little ridiculous of me.”
James laughed. “No, not at all! That’s totally a justifiable reason. Dude might as well have said he doesn’t like peaceful time to not have to think. That’s what stargazing’s for, isn’t it?”
Izzy leaned on him a little. “Exactly. It’s time for reflection and enjoying nature. Realizing that you’re just a – speck of dust in the universe, and feeling relieved for it.”
“This is – not the kind of conversation I expected to have tonight.” James started. “It’s much, much better. Definitely makes your problems seem less important when you realize that there are a million stars up there that will exist either way.”
She was quiet for a moment, thoughtful. “Do you – want to come home with me tonight? It’s – too quiet at my house with Timmy at Mom’s. Much too quiet.”
He blinked. “I’d love that. I’d really love that.”
She watched his expression for a moment, looking unsure of his motives. He spoke before she could voice the doubts. “It’s the same way at my house. Would love some company tonight. Sick of walls caving in on my while I watch crime shows.”
She laughed. “That sounds about right.”

The two left arm in arm with a companionable quietness that exceeded the amount of time they spent with each other. Already, James felt as though he knew her for years. He had an unstoppable smile on his face as they headed to the parking lot.

The next morning, he felt young again. After sleeping a full night and waking up beside a woman who liked him – actually enjoyed his company, he felt exuberant. A fluffy white comforter covered the two of them, with a warm, autumn-esq red wall surrounding the two of them. He slowly creeped out of bed to make breakfast for the two of them.

After a few minutes of looking through the foreign kitchen and trying to behave as an ambassador to the kitchen of Izzy, she walked in with massive bedhead and a tired smile. “You look lost.”
James smiled sheepishly. “I’m not too subtle, huh? Just looking for a spatula.”
She grinned, grabbing it for him. He began to cook eggs, nearly from muscle memory. He hummed approvingly at the spice rack she had. He had salt and pepper in his pantry. That was it. She, however, had more spices than he could pronounce. He liked it. The whole kitchen was well lived in and well stocked in a way that his failed to be.

In the day, the house was different than before. It had a warmth to it that was undeniable. Each wall held photos of family. Some of Timmy, and more than one photo had Jake and Izzy together. They looked happy. They looked perfect, in the way that James would have seen in the past and felt an inexplicable jealousy for the unreachable thing they had.
And he was cooking eggs in their house, joyous photos looming over him. He felt a little guilty, to say the least.
Mostly, though, he felt content. He felt it in his bones. The house reminded him of his mom’s. However, it lacked the old-fashioned décor that had quotes about home. Instead, each part of the house exuded the feeling of home.
He told her as much. Her smile grew. “That’s what I wanted to go for. I designed this kitchen myself. I was really, really particular about it. Drove Jake nuts, I think. But it was worth it.”
He smiled warmly. “You seem like you could spend hours in a Home Depot and be content.”
“Oh, I have. And I’ll continue to. I’ve thought about working there before. Maybe I’d have the chance to escape paperwork.”
“What’s stopping you?” James inquired.
“I don’t want the place to lose its magic. It’s like when I got my first job. I used to love McDonald’s. Then, I started working at McDonald’s. And the smell of the fries made me nauseous after a while. So I figure that if I work at a place that I wasn’t particularly attached to in the first place, there won’t be that inevitable downfall.”
James winced. “That didn’t work too well for me, y’know. I hate Wal-Mart. Always have. Just end up hating it more and more the more time I spend there.”
Izzy laughed. “Y’know, that’s a good point. Guess there isn’t really a magic solution. …I would have fun consulting people. And I could probably get more hours off to have with Timmy.”
James had only just noticed that the house was empty and cranky baby-less. “Where is Timmy?”
She smiled. “He’s at my mom’s for the weekend. She was so excited to have a weekend with him. And I was so excited to have a night out.”
James smiled wide. “Glad to be of service.”

She stayed close to him while he cooked. He watched her silently, a little flushed. What was the best move? If he put an arm around her, would she be uncomfortable? How long was he supposed to hold his hand there? He’d end up holding it too long and being awkward.
Jesus Christ, he sounded like Chris preparing for the dance.
He ignored the Chris voice and put an arm around her. She seemed to relax at the touch, so he figured he didn’t make the completely wrong choice.
When they began to eat at the oak table, Izzy let out a loud, pleased noise. James laughed loudly. “I didn’t think they were that good.”
She shook her head. “These are fantastic. What did you do to them? I’ve gotta know your secret.”
He laughed a little. “Um.. That’s a third date kind of secret.”
She smiled. “Using my own line against me. Well played.”
He wore a matching smile, eating slowly. James wanted to draw out the pleasant feeling in his chest as long as he could.

Nonetheless, eventually, he looked at the time and realized he had to work in an hour. He jumped out of the chair. “I gotta go. This was so, so nice. Text me?”
She stood, pulling him in for a kiss. He froze for a split second before leaning into the touch. Her lips were soft. Softer than he expected. After a moment, they both pulled away, breathless. She smiled at him. “I’ll text you.”

He left her house with an uncontrollable grin. As he walked back to the house, he noted that the path was similar to the one he used on the way home from work. He began to hum, unable to control the smile on his face.
His walking came to a halt when he heard a faint choking sound at the alleyway of Grant Street.
He investigated the noise hesitantly; phone in hand, ready to call 911 if needed. When he entered the alleyway, his phone fell out of his hand.
Bel was lying in the snow, wheezing, covered in blood and bruises. His tattered clothes were now gone. James froze, realizing just how malnourished the boy was. He leaned down to pick him up quickly, shaking, and noticed a leather cord tied around the child’s neck.
Bel looked up at him, eyes wide and terrified, a sort of clouded look on his face as though he were barely aware of his surroundings. There were claw marks surrounding the cord. James stared at it in horror before roughly trying to untie it, panicked.
With the leather cord gone, Bel gulped in air, wheezing and coughing as though he had just escaped a fire. He shivered violently, skin still pressed against the snow. James watched. He remembered the email. His jaw clenched. He made a decision.

He felt done being pushed. His whole life, others told him how to feel, how to behave. Ever since his mother died, he was just pushed. Pushed by everything. First by an alcoholic father, then by a job that sucked the soul out of him, then by his own mind, then by some strange email.
He picked the shivering child up quickly, taking his coat off and engulfing Bel with it. He ran back to his apartment, ensuring Bel’s safety in his arms, trying to keep him as still as he could.
After they entered the apartment, Bel’s shivering persisted violently. James jacked the heat up as far as he could. He decided he didn’t care about his heating bills for the time being. This was a child’s life.

He set Bel on the couch and ran through the house, gathering all the blankets he owned. He felt a little unhappy that that amounted to a total of three blankets.
Nonetheless, he wrapped the boy in the blankets. One fluffy blanket, one comforter, one quilt.
He watched the child, worry heavy on his features. The kid could have died out there. He still could die. He held his phone close to himself, 911 dialed. The email’s words were burnt into his head. He decided to wait. If Bel’s condition worsened at all, then he would take the risk. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Bel dealt with irreparable damage because of James’s own fears.

So he paced. He paced and paced through the house until his feet could no longer hold himself up. Then, he sat at the coffee table beside the couch, pleading to the kid silently to wake up.
Then, the boy began to fade into consciousness. James jumped a little, trying to reassure him, putting a hand in his hair. Soon after, he passed out again. James frowned silently. He listened to the child’s now heavy breathing, a bit closer to how a normal person would breathe. He felt another wave of anxiety and began to pace again, swearing.
Bel went in and out of consciousness sporadically but eventually came to for more than a few moments, eyes fixating on James. James didn’t notice at first. Bel let out a quiet whimper in an attempt to get his attempt.
Immediately, James moved to his side. “Um, hi. Hi, Bel.”
Bel began to cry weakly, shaking.
James frowned. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I – told, I’m sorry.”
James tensed a little. “Hey. Hey, that’s not your fault. It’s okay. It’s okay, Bel. You’re – You’re safe.”
Bel’s hiccups were the only sound in the otherwise dead silent apartment. In the open space, they echoed from wall to wall. He clinged to the blankets for a few seconds. Then, he spoke, voice weak. “I – I should go. I should go; he’ll..”
James barked out a no in response that shocked the both of them. Bel flinched, looking frightened, and James spoke in a lower voice immediately. “I.. want to keep you safe. Here. If that’s okay.”
Bel blinked a few times before beginning to weep. “I – I don’t want you to get hurt. I… Father is powerful.”
James frowned immediately. “I don’t care. Bel, I don’t care. Your safety, it should.. It should be important too, y’know? Why should mine be considered more important?”
Bel looked at him as though the answer were obvious. “Cause – it is.”

They both remained stubbornly quiet for a few moments. Finally, Bel spoke, voice quivering. “You – You’re gonna keep me – forever?”
James nodded after a moment. This time, tears of relief spilled over from Bel’s eyes. James stood and grabbed a glass of water quickly. When Bel looked confused, James spoke. “Bud, you’ve cried a lot today. Don’t want you dehydrated.”
Bel started to smile, the sight almost painful. “I – I never knew someone could..” He didn’t finish the thought, instead downing the glass of water quickly. When he did, he got off of the couch slowly, one big mass of blanket. Then, he leaned on James, exhausted.
James smiled warmly, quiet for a few moments. “I – You had me real scared there, y’know.”
Bel blinked. “Huh?”
“I thought – thought you were dead. Dying. When I found you, I..”
Bel remained quiet for a few moments, thoughtful in that way that should have been uncommon. “I think I’ve been dying f-for a long time.”
James stayed silent for several seconds, stunned. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “I think you’re right.”
Bel hugged him with all his might for several moments. Even then, the grip was weak. He looked up at James. “Are you – are you gonna help me live again?”
James swallowed. The last thing he wanted was to let the kid down. On the other hand, if he got taken by the man’s father and murdered, Bel definitely would not be living again. “I… I’m gonna do my best. Okay?”

Bel seemed satiated with the answer. James was not. Bel had never experienced parenthood that was up to par. Of course he was satisfied with mediocre half promises. Apparently, he was used to not being fed. James wanted to give him a childhood he deserved, starting today. And that couldn’t start with this. He had to be better. If not for himself, then for the kid who didn’t know any better and worshipped the ground he walked on because of it. James stood.
“You’re gonna have my bedroom, alright? We’ll – We can spend today bringing my stuff to the living room.”
Bel’s eyes widened. “Sir…”
James waited for him to elaborate further. Instead, Bel brought him into another tight hug.
James offered a smile. “You good to help me organize? I think you’ll be a killer help.”
Bel looked perplexed. James huffed a laugh. “Uh, a very good help, I mean.”
Bel’s expression brightened immediately. The sight made James’s spirits brighter as they entered descended into the hell that was his bedroom.

An unmade bed in the center of the room framed the mess that was his room. Clothes were strewn about the room. Each time that he thought he might make an effort to clean it, it was as though a weight were placed on top of his chest. He got to the point where the sight of the room made him ill and disappointed. Then again, it wasn’t as though that was a new feeling for him.
The rest of the house had an air of not being lived in. He could have an apartment tour on any day with the emptiness in the other rooms. In this room, though.. Even if one didn’t consider the piles of dirty laundry, there was dust surrounding every corner. Embarrassment flooded his mind.
Slowly, he walked over to one of the piles of laundry, picking it up and throwing it into the laundry basket, disgust heavy on his expression.
Bel took a deep breath, watching. Clearly, he wasn’t back at full health, nor should he have been expected to be. Fluffy blankets still surrounded him. Nonetheless, he slowly reached down and picked up James’s clothes, joining in James’s effort.
James frowned immediately. Three pieces of laundry in, the child was clearly dizzy. He paused for a moment. “You know what would be super helpful?”
Bel looked up quickly.
“If you could sit by the laundry basket and make sure clothes don’t spill out of it. That way, I can just go big and throw the laundry in.”
Bel shuffled to the spot, sitting, clearly having no idea that James was giving the task to avoid the child overexerting himself. He smiled serenely as he guarded the laundry basket.
Five minutes into the task, James felt the overwhelming feeling of defeat. He wasn’t sure how to fight it. But this… This was going to be Bel’s bedroom. It had to be. He deserved to be a normal kid with a bedroom. One that didn’t have dust caked into every corner.
That was what kept him going after the first five minutes. He pictured Bel jumping onto a bed not covered in whatever always got onto sheets after one week of being clean.
At least someone would get to use this bedroom that seemed to mock him. He yanked the filthy sheets off the bed and added them to the pile of laundry. Bel watched each motion carefully.
Finally, Bel spoke. “I like this room. I like it so much. The walls are such a nice color. And they’re – so clean.”
James swallowed. “Um, I’m glad. I’m glad you think so. It’s gonna be yours. Once it’s all cleaned. And we’ll – get you a coat. And… Uh, we’ll get new blankets. Whatever blanket you want. And clothes that fit real well. Okay?”
Bel began to cry. James dropped the dirty shirt he was holding. He moved to the side of the child quickly. “What’s wrong, buddy?”
Bel was silent for a few moments. “I – I don’t deserve this.”
James frowned, wrapping an arm around him. Bel sniffed loudly. “Please. I’ll just – I’ll just take the floor. I’m used to the floor. It’s what I deserve. Father says so. And he’s always right, and I don’t need a coat, and clothes are so expensive, and…”
“Hey. Take a breath, okay?” James was reminded of all the times he gave the advice to Chris.

Bel practiced the breathing exercise James taught him slowly, cheeks puffing out in a way similar to a squirrel’s.
James realized as he watched him, breathed with him, that the child was still caked with dirt in a similar way to his bedroom.
He stood, pausing for a moment. “Am I allowed to pick you up?”
Bel blinked, nodding quickly. James scooped the child up, anchoring him to his hip.
James realized as he watched him, breathed with him, that the child was still caked with dirt in a similar way to his bedroom.
He stood, pausing for a moment. “Am I allowed to pick you up?”

Bel blinked, nodding quickly. James scooped the child up, anchoring him to his hip. He carried him to the bathroom connected to the bedroom. Bel’s face lit up. James smiled. “You like that too, huh? It’s one of the reasons I picked the apartment. I’m not even kidding.”
Bel grinned. “That makes me happy. You don’t even have to walk anywhere, and there’s actually a place to – to go to the bathroom.”
James set him down, rubbing his shoulder. “You should take a bath, buddy.”
Bel’s expression shifted to a perplexed one, staring at the tub.

James made a face. Of course. The kid didn’t know what a bath was. Why was he surprised?
He turned on the water, testing it out more than once, anxious about burning the child’s skin. He paused for a moment. “Take off your clothes.”
Bel went quiet for several moments. For a moment, he looked disheartened, but this was quickly concealed. He stripped and turned his back to him, awaiting… something.
When James turned around, he practically jumped out of his skin. The sight in front of him was horrific.
A mesh of scars covered the boy’s flesh, different layers of distorted flesh showing. The entirety of his backside was either purpled or dark red, oozing with pus. What wasn’t pus covered was covered with dried blood. Each layer of blood covered him so completely that it was difficult to tell what the color of his skin was underneath all of it.
James felt sick. He stared at the torn apart flesh for several moments. Then, he ran to the toilet and vomited. Bel still stayed completely still, awaiting punishment. The sight made James feel ill all over again. Slowly, he moved back to Bel’s side. “You – shoulda told me. You shoulda told me. We gotta disinfect this.”
Bel blinked. “What?”
“I’m gonna clean this. Before you bathe. Okay? And, uh – it’ll sting. But it’ll help you heal.”
Bel looked miserable for a moment, nodding slowly. “I’m in trouble. I’m sorry.”
James shook his head a little. “No, buddy. I swear you aren’t.”
Bel looked as though he weren’t listening anymore. James frowned. He had to clean this. He didn’t have a choice. It was probably already infected. He hesitantly grabbed the rubbing alcohol from under the sink.
He warned Bel before he touched the rubbing alcohol to the boy’s back. Bel remained weepy as the rubbing alcohol stung into his skin. He didn’t seem hurt at the contact. Perhaps he was numb in that area.
However, he was profoundly affected at the prospect of being punished by James. He whimpered apology after apology. James repeated time and time again that it wasn’t a punishment, that he was just cleaning the blood. Bel shut off.

By the time he finished, James went through half a roll of toilet paper. The sheets of paper were drenched in dark red, brown, and yellow. All and all, it was nauseating experience that James hoped he never go through again.
Bel looked up at him with wide, terrified eyes. He seemed to be awaiting the next attack against him. Again, an apology slipped out.
James frowned. “Bel. Please. Listen. It wasn’t to punish you. Your back was covered in stuff that mighta given you an infection, and I wanted to make sure you were safe. Now you can take a nice, warm bath. In a not punishment way, because it isn’t a punishment.”
Bel hopped into the bathtub, eyes red. His whole body was tense as he stared up at him. Quickly, the water became just as dark as those toilet paper rolls.

James frowned, staring at the water. He paused for a moment, draining the tub again. This time, the water was clear. James paused for a moment, grabbing his shampoo and dumping into the water.
Immediately, bubbles began to foam. Tension seeped out of the room as bubbles entered it. Bel giggled loudly at the sight, reaching out and clapping them. The sight made James almost forget the horrors that must have happened to the child. In this context, he was so innocent.
Bel seemed content to just sit in the tepid water. James watched for a few moments, before reaching over and pouring shampoo into the boy’s hair. He ruffled the hair, feeling the shampoo go from liquid to foam. Bel leaned into the touch, practically purring at the contact.
James felt contentment, wrapping the boy in a white, fluffy towel afterwards. Bel hugged him. “You’re – you’re not mad?”
James laughed quietly. “Bel, I’m not mad. I promise you. I’m not. Not even a little. That was to help you. You’ll see when it starts to heal up.”
Bel clinged to him, eyes red. “Please don’t ever get mad at me again. Please. I don’t like disappointing everyone. And I’m… I’m really good at it.”
James held him protectively, trying to keep him calm. He carried the boy to the bed, setting him down gingerly and rubbing his back.

By the time that Bel woke on the stripped bed, it was nearly a day later. James paced through the house, completing several loads of laundry that he had put off for nearly a month.
Although disgust washed over him in waves, something akin to relief washed over him as well. He was finally doing it. The impossible dream was being conquered. Sure, his impossible dream might be doing laundry and folding it, but he had to start somewhere. And he was starting it.

On a selfish level, he was starting to see that having a child around might help him stick to a schedule. How could he expect to raise a functioning person and not function himself? For a moment, he wondered if that was what Sam had been for him in the past. If he always just needed someone to take care of, or everything would crack apart.
He felt like he was trapped in a hurricane and the prospect of protecting another was the only thing that drove him to find shelter each time. Otherwise, he lied down through the storm, utterly unable to take any action in the name of helping himself. He imagined that others would find it disgusting. They would find his bedroom disgusting, certainly. But now – he was doing laundry. And he’d mop the room today.

As soon as Bel woke, he’d spring into action like a competent adult figure. A mind-blowing prospect, truly.
He did mop the room when Bel woke. The whole room. He knew that was an idiotic thing to be proud of, but he’d be damned if he wasn’t. He couldn’t remember the time he set a goal for his house and actually upheld it.
Lately, he fell into the trap of completing one step and then being trapped in quick sand. In the past, he’d do laundry. It would sit in one corner. For months. And it would become mingled with the dirty laundry until it became one disgusting mass that he willfully ignored by staying only in the living room.
And now. He was moping the floor. It looked like clean wood again. Fake wood, but bright colored like it had once been.

Bel’s smile grew at the sight. Carefully, he reached down and touched the light colored floor. “It’s bright, sir. In here. And you keep the lights on.” After a moment, he stood and hugged James’s leg. James laughed a little, continuing to move through the room. Bel slid alongside him, smiling up at him as though he was staring at the sun in the sky.
After the room finally made it to a point of almost being passable, James decided it was time to go shopping. He put the boy in a shirt that didn’t have holes in it. Ripping through his wardrobe, he found the softest cotton he owned and helped Bel into it. James held the old shirt, quiet for a moment. “Hey, do you wanna burn this shirt and have, like, a ritual?”
Bel stared at the shirt carefully. “I – I think someone else should be able to use it, sir. Could we.. donate it?”
James paused. He knew no donation site would accept the tattered, bloodstained shirt. Nonetheless, he nodded solemnly. “That sounds like a real nice thing to do.”
Bel practically glowed at the positive attention. Again, he moved to James’s leg. James laughed. “Let’s go buy you clothes that actually fit, huh?”

Thus, they went to Target, Bel swimming in James’s leather coat. They both looked around in awe at the store. James didn’t remember the store being as fancy as it was.
As they began to walk (or rather, James walked and Bel half-walked, half-clung), Bel gravitated towards the kid’s aisle like a moth to a flame. James laughed a little. After a little, he began to throw the objects that Bel lingered by into the cart. One by one, he did this, until it appeared that half the aisle had manifested itself in the cart.

The child had been through so much. He deserved a fluffy, blue elephant. That elephant, too, deserved a companion. And he needed art supplies. How else could he cope with boredom with James gone all day?
Plus, the star decorations. They were so cool. James always wanted the overpriced galaxy decorations as a child. He and Chris, they had a special thing where they looked at the stars together.
And Chris would know everything about them. Of course. He had a tendency to know everything about everything. He also had a tendency to be very charitable about his knowledge. He was never irritated about Dean not knowing it. That… That came in when he was in high school.
Before that, he was eager to share what he learned about stars. More than one night was spent with the two of them sitting in the parking lot of whatever apartment duplex they found themselves a part of, Chris commentating on constellation and James taking the moment in, hoping it would last forever.

So yes, he was going to buy the overpriced star décor for Bel. In memory of Chris, he thought to himself as he put it in the cart. And then, he felt frustrated with himself. In memory. As though Chris was dead. As though he wasn’t states away, awaiting James’s contact.
They went through the bedding aisle. Bel’s jaw practically hit the floor at the sight of rainbow blankets. “It’s like on the show!” He squealed.
James processed for a moment before remembering the color saturated pony show. He laughed a little, putting the twin sized blanket into the cart. Okay, so his bed was a full sized bed. He didn’t care. There were no full sized blankets that made Bel actually behave like a child. So he was sticking to his guns. The two made their way through the store together, James picking up an array of shirts and pants for Bel.
He had Bel try on several coats, finally settling on a furry, brown one. James thought to himself that it vaguely resembled one of the teddy bears in the cart. It was like someone skinned the bear. He made a mental note never to mention that metaphor to Bel.

Bel was willing and cheerful throughout the whole adventure. His expression, however, switched to a perplexed one as the two made it to the front, a now full cart still pushed by James. “Are you gonna leave that, sir?”
James looked at him for a moment. “No, buddy. We’re gonna talk to a nice clerk and then take it home.”
James tried to keep pushing the cart towards the front. Bel dug his heels in, freezing. James turned around slowly. “Uh, you alright there?”
Bel’s eyes blurred with tears. “You – This is too much money. It’s too much stuff. I didn’t – I didn’t think… I thought we were just having fun looking.”
James took his hands off of the cart, moving one hand to the boy’s shoulder. “It’ll be real nice. I want your room to be like an actual kid’s room, not like mine is right now. Mine barely counts as a room right now.”
Bel shook his head quickly. “No, sir! There’s – there’s lights. And a bed. And the bed is very, very soft. And you have – pillows, and I don’t need nothing else.”
James blinked at the closest thing to an outburst that the child had ever given. “I want to buy it for you. I never got to have the cool new stuff as far as – it went. There were, um… A lot of handmade decorations, and they were great. Really. I’ve got great memories of them. But… There’s something real special about knowing that someone cares enough to get you the real deal.”

Bel stared at him for a few long moments in silence, waiting for James to change his mind. James did not. Tears continued to stream down the boy’s face. James wondered for a moment if he did too much too fast. Then, Bel nearly tackled him with a hug, sniffling loudly, snot dribbling all over James’s shirt.
James laughed a little, scooping Bel up. “It’s gonna be great. I’m gonna – help with decorating. It’ll be the coolest room ever. Okay?”
Instead of giving an audible response, the boy hid himself in James’s chest, nodding just a little bit after a moment of silence.
To say that pushing a cart filled to the brim with toys while carrying an emotionally exhausted child was difficult was an understatement. It was nearly impossible. With each step, the cart tried to take some alternate path, being pushed with only one hand. By the time he made it to the front, his arms were badly sore. But a smile lit up his features as he waited in line, looking through all that they looted from the store.

It looked a bit like a rainbow vomited all over his cart. Bel began to snore. James laughed. He had been holding the kid for five minutes at the most, and the little one was already passed out. Either he had the magic touch or the events of cleaning and buying were too much for his little heart. He assumed it was the latter.
As they went through checkout, James felt a surge of gratitude that Bel was too tired to stay awake and see the total. If anything would make the kid panic, James thought it would be breakdown worthy for him if he saw that James spent three hundred dollars on the shear amount of stuff that he bought for Bel. For a split second, it was breakdown worthy for James. That was a lot of money to spend in one setting.
Then again, he spent a good amount on grocery shopping as well. In the past week, he spent more than he typically spent over the course of two months. He felt a little bit dizzy at all of it. He also felt ecstatic. He found a night light shaped like a moon. A freaking moon. ….He may or may have not bought two of them so he could have one for the living room as well.
He supposed that it should have made him feel shameful. Instead, as he pushed the cart to his car, his heart felt warm and full.

James called Izzy the next morning, practically skipping through his kitchen. He supposed he was still on a high from being able to buy as much as he did. He knew that perhaps it was ridiculous to be wound up from a shopping spree. But he never got to have that experience in the past.
In the past, the only time he got to have a spending spree was when buying Christmas gifts for Chris. Even that had been at a thrift store. To spend a ridiculous amount at a store like Target… Well, he felt like he was moving his way up in the world. First, he actually cleaned his room. Then, that. Crazy stuff.
When Izzy answered, he jumped a little. “Hey, Iz! How’re you doing?”
“I’m doing pretty good. Lazy weekend for me. The best kind of weekend, in my solemn opinion.”
James laughed. He noticed that her voice was a bit more high pitched over the phone. He thought it was endearing. It was like the Disney Princess version of Izzy.
“That sounds amazing. Um, so I kinda adopted a child. I didn’t – mean to?”
She paused for a moment before a loud laugh echoed into the phone. “How do you accidentally adopt a kid? There’s a lot of paperwork there. You just fall onto it and it made your signature, or what?”
James went a little red. “Okay, so it’s not official. There’s this – um… There’s this kid who I bought soup for a bit back, and he and I were friends. Named Bel. Absolute sweetheart. He was always outside when I found him. I thought that maybe his parent was – at a disadvantage, somehow. I didn’t.. Anyway. Sorry.” He stopped for a moment sheepishly.
“I think the details are cute. Go on.”
If anything, that little sentence stopped him far more than anything else would have. He went bright red. “I – Um… You’re cute. Uh, so.. So, yesterday, I found him nearly dead on the street. Couldn’t – take that. I took him to my apartment. And I’m gonna take care of him now.”
Izzy was quiet on the other line for a moment. “You’re a kind man, James. Really.”
That caused a bit more stuttering on James’s part. God, it was as though she knew exactly what to say to fluster him.

Finally, he found his footing. “So, I was wondering if you wanted to come over and meet the little booger. Bring Timmy, if you want. I don’t know if Bel’s every gotten to be around a little one.”
Izzy’s response was fast, tone happy. “I’d love that. Maybe we can have an indoor picnic?”
James blinked. “A – what?”
She laughed, the sound warm even with the tinny tone that comes with speaking over a cell phone. “An indoor picnic. You eat all the food you’d have at a picnic, on the ground with a blanket, but you don’t have to deal with it being freezing outside.”
“That’s – lovely. Who came up with that?”
“My mom used to do it all the time. Perfect way to make kids feel like meals are special. Especially when they get stir crazy like kids do in the winter.”
James was quiet for a moment. “Yeah. Worried about taking Bel outside much more. He said his – father is a powerful person. I don’t really know what to do with that.”
“Then an indoor picnic will be perfect. I’ll bring wine for us. And.. juice for the little ones. You want me to make us food, too?”
James blinked. “No. I’ve got that. Just got a metric crap ton of food at the grocery store. Wine is more than enough on your part. Wanna – come over at, like, twelve?”
She agreed. She agreed! Another date, barely one day after the last date. James shared his address then began to frantically google picnic recipes.

Sandwiches and fruit seemed standard. The internet had a lot of bizarre, hipster recipes, as well. After going through several websites, he had something that resembled a menu. He got to work frantically.
After scrolling through several pages, he decided on pinwheel shaped ham sandwiches, cut up strawberries, salsa, and cucumber feta dip, just to be a little bit extra. …He probably spent too much time on the hipster websites.
As he putzed through the kitchen, Bel entered the room. He had an essence of sleepiness. Each step he took was with sleepy, bewildered eyes. “What’re you doing?” He slurred, the sentence becoming one slurred word.
Somehow, James understood the words. “Making a picnic for us. My – My friend, Izzy, is coming over with her baby. And we’re gonna have a nice meal together.”
Bel’s eyes went low for a moment. “Oh. I’ll – I’ll stay silent in my room, promise. Won’t move at all.”
James frowned. “She’s looking forward to meeting you, buddy. That’s one of the reasons she’s coming. So… You’ll be with us.”
Bel looked up a little. Then, he slid to James’s side, looking a little bit in awe. “….Oh. ‘Kay.”
James cooked with Bel glued to his side, grinning as Bel “helped.”

After cooking a feast of picnic food, they set the blanket mid living room. The two moved the couch, James doing all the lifting but putting his best effort forward to make sure that Bel felt helpful.
After a moment, he put up a Youtube video of nature on the TV, smiling a little. The two began to set up food on the blanket. Bel looked confused by the whole thing but immensely pleased nonetheless. That seemed to be a common state for Bel to be in.

The doorbell rang as the two set plates. They both jumped up immediately. James laughed. “We’re both real skittish, huh?”
Bel nodded quickly, standing behind him as though using him as a protective wall as James opened the door.
Izzy smiled at him warmly, pulling him in for a hug. James relaxed into the hug, smile warm. “It’s good to see you again. I’m real glad you could come over so short notice.”
She smiled back as they pulled away. “Of course. I’m excited to meet him! And Timmy is, too, I think. Are you excited, Tim?”
He didn’t have much to say in a matter of words, but an excited gurgle conveyed his thoughts. James grinned.

Bel stayed hidden behind James for a few moments before poking his head out from his side curiously. Izzy laughed. “James, I see you’ve grown a second head.”
Bel blinked a few times. Then, he walked out from James’s side, as if trying to show her that he wasn’t connected. “’M Bel. James says you’re nice and I hope he’s right ‘cause I like nice people.”
Izzy smiled immediately. “I do, too. Glad to see other people share that. I’m excited to get to know you. James gave a glowing report.”
Bel looked up with wide eyes, not sure what to do in the face of a compliment. He buried his face in James’s side. The sight made Izzy and James both smile at each other. James could tell that Izzy was already charmed by the little one, and the sight made James feel warm.

He guided her into the house, feeling a little embarrassed by the lack of grandeur in his home. Bel’s room might have had ceiling stars, but the rest of the place was bland, having one note to it.
If Izzy noticed this, she made no comment on it. Instead, her expression lit up at the sight of the picnic that they set up. “It looks gorgeous!”
James grinned. “Thanks. I had a lot of help from Bel.”
“I’m sure you did. Bel, what was your favorite thing you helped with?” Izzy asked, making an effort to keep Bel engaged. James was thrilled that she cared enough to try. …He was definitely starting to get attached.
“The – um… kitchen. Helping is – tasting all the food.” He still had that same shyness that he had with James at first. James knew that the two would be an unstoppable force of good once the boy got over that hump.
Izzy smiled immediately, sitting on the ground. “I agree completely. And now we all get to eat it together. I can’t believe how fancy it looks. You all outdid yourselves.”
She set down the promised bottle of wine. James looked at it with a surprised smile. “Shiraz? I like you more and more every minute.”
She grinned. James noticed for the first time that she was a little flushed, too. “You’re a Shiraz person too?”
“Heck yeah I am.” Came a rapid fire response from James. After a moment, he elaborated. “My mom always had it around the house at holidays. I’d taste it and think it was the grossest. But either way, it definitely left an impression. And later, after, um… She was gone, when I was older, it felt like a way to keep in touch. If that – I know that’s kinda stupid.”
Izzy shook her head quickly. “No. Definitely not. You saw my house. I still… His socks are still in his drawer. I got rid of everything else. But I got cologne, and pictures, and socks. Because you gotta hold on. And sometimes the ways that you hold on are bizarre, and that’s just fine.”

James felt some of his anxious energy melt away as she spoke. He didn’t know why he expected her to somehow be revealed as judgmental. Perhaps it was because she hadn’t in any way yet, and that was rare for those around him. Then again, his main audience was angry people returning items, so adjusting that might make a difference with that.
He smiled as he felt the last bits of apprehension drip out like water from a faucet. “You’re exactly right. Hey, let’s eat, yeah? Bel looks like he’s seconds away from shoving a whole pinwheel in his mouth.”
Bel looked up at the accusation, giggling when he realized it was a joke.

And pinwheel shoving they did.
Eating together with people who made him feel safe, he found, was a marginally different experience than eating alone.
He had gotten used to equating eating with a chore. With a nasty habit he was forced to keep up with, despite his best effort. He’d always eat in front of a TV, doing so as quickly as possible and trying not to let loneliness creep in. Loneliness remained the ever constant shadow.
Now, there was no TV show to drown out his loneliness. Instead, there were people who made him smile. Bel sat beside him, eating quickly and letting out joyful noises as they dug in. James felt a sense of liking domestic life that he never once experienced before. And cooking – it had been fun, too. He got to explain each step to a child who actually cared. Who listened, who asked questions with intrigue written on his expression.
And now, the child watched Izzy with rapt attention, searching for any sign of ill intent. Izzy spoke in a gentle, coaxing voice. “How are you settling in here, Bel?”
Bel stared for a moment before speaking. “I – I like it lots. ‘S so light.”

Izzy nodded solemnly, waiting for him to elaborate. She let him take his time. James smiled at this. After a moment, Bel did. “I got a special night light shaped like a moon. And it’s so special. Me and – and James went to the 'Target' yesterday and he bought so many things that I cried. I have a coat! And it’s really, really fuzzy. I always saw people in coats that looked like that. The – the rich kids. And now I have one, an’ it’s so warm that I just wanna wear it forever!”
As soon as Bel had the explosion of thoughts, he looked shocked at his own self. After a moment, he apologized.
Izzy reached over and ruffled his hair, offering a smile. “There’s no need to apologize for being excited. Ever. Being excited is the best.”

Bel paused for a moment. And then the verdict came in, clear as day on his expression. He most definitely liked Izzy.
James smiled fondly. “She’s exactly right, y’know. Excited people are always the most fun to be around.”
Bel stared up at him quietly. “You’re excited, then.”
James wrapped an arm around him. Izzy watched the two of them, expression bright. “You two are adorable. James, he’s good for you already. I can tell.”
Bel blinked at the compliment, his smile growing.

James could tell that Bel was certainly a fan of Izzy when he pulled her to her feet after lunch and asked if he could show all the new, nice toys.
As James cleaned up the plates and blankets, he heard Bel chattering happily to a sweet voiced Izzy. He thought that he could get used to that being background noise rather than a dramatic back track to a deep voiced narrator naming suspects for the murder trial.
Nearly an hour later, James entered the bedroom, hoping to interrupt if it was too much for Izzy. He was quickly learning that the outwardly introverted child could turn to talkative at a rapid pace, and he didn’t want Bel faced with any kind of opposition, not when he was finally coming out of his shell.
James thought that she would never be that way. She had compassion for everyone. But in the case of the newly home child, he wanted to be safe.
When he entered the room, he announced to Bel that he should name his teddy bears soon. Bel looked up, eyes wide. “I – I…That’s so much power. You bought them, and – and so you should.”
James laughed, moving beside him. “Never. It’s the kid’s job to name the bears. If I did, it’d be treason.”
Izzy snorted. “I’ve named most of Timmy’s toys.”
“Well, that don’t count. Can’t talk yet. As soon as he hits his fourth birthday, though, it because treasonous. Just FYI.”
Izzy laughed, her smile wide with no inhibitions. “Thanks for the information. I appreciate it. You’ll have to inform me about other rules of toys on our future dates.”
James’s face lit up. This was a date. He was dating her. “Oh, of course. There’s so many, too. We’ll have our work cut out for us. Months of material.”
“Well, I guess we’ll just have to keep going out for a while, then.”
They shared flirtatious smiles, the air having a feeling of peace to it. The three of them sat in Bel’s room together for another hour, getting to know each other through cheerful and sad stories.

Eventually, she smiled at the boys in front of her before speaking. “I have dinner with my mom tonight. …If I don’t get there soon, she’s gonna think I got kidnapped. Again.”
James laughed loudly. “Okay, you gotta tell me about that sometime.”
“I promise I will. I hope we get to do something like this again soon. I…haven’t had this much – happiness around me in a while. It’s a nice change of pace.”
James nodded quickly. “I’m right with you. Thanks for a perfect day. And Shiraz. Shiraz, too.”
Izzy laughed. She pulled him in for another hug. She hugged Bel, too. And Bel clung to her, his smile bright and perhaps a little worn.

When she left, Bel declared that he was going to name his bears Izzy.
James couldn’t stop the smile on his face. His face hurt from smiling. He was so used so smiles hurting from the falsity of them. This was – a nice kind of soreness. That same kind of sore that came from dancing with Izzy. “Every last one of them, huh?” He responded.
Bel nodded solemnly, holding the Izzy bear close. James laughed, ruffling his hair. They had a sea of Izzy bears now, and James was terribly endeared by it.

The author's comments:

This was one of my favorites to write. Bel's just having a blast and getting to be a kid, and I adore it. 

Bel woke up to an empty household. He got out of bed slowly, feeling the rainbow blankets, a smile gracing his features.
His old dwelling place had been a cage. He remembered the overwhelmingly metallic smell of blood permeating through the dark room. There was no source of light and each wall was grey, stonelike. The only color to the room had been from bodily functions that always resulted in punishment. He would dream of a room that had bright, warm lights and colors. And a big giant painting all over the wall, he decided one night, covered in welts. A rainbow painting.
He had a big, bright room now. He had all the colors in the whole world on his blanket alone. And a night light in his room. Not only did he have lights, he had another light for nighttime in case he got scared. Three lights overall. The warm light illuminated the walls of the room. He lied in bed for nearly an hour, staring at the brightly colored blanket and crying with joy. After years of tears being a salty tasting, terrible prospect, tears of catharsis were both a shock and a relief to him.

He took in a deep breath. The bedroom smelled pleasant and bright. James described the cleaner he used as too strong and “lemon-y.” Bel decided that lemon-y smells were possibly the greatest ever as he got out of bed.
Bel moved to the kitchen, seeing that James had already set up the rainbow pony show. He grinned and bounced onto the couch.
He watched the show for hours upon hours. The plot endlessly entertained him as he held his blue elephant protectively to himself. After a while, he ran to the bedroom with reckless abandon and grabbed his fuzzy, soft coat. Then, he sprinted back, hoping he didn’t miss much. James had yet to show him that the shows had a pause button.

Then, Bel stared at the art set that James bought him. Briefly, he wondered if he was allowed to open the set. He considered all of his options and then decided that James must have wanted him to play with it. Slowly and hesitantly, as though something would jump out of the set, he opened it.
Nothing literally jumped out, but several colorful markers metaphorically jumped out at him. He thought back on his rainbow painting plan. He plotted out his idea for several minutes, critically using paper upon paper upon paper, before he finalized the artistic design with all the professionalism a child could muster.

He walked to the bedroom, practically vibrating with excitement as he turned on the light and stared at his huge canvas, the blank wall.
And he took out his markers. He stared at the red marker, looking unhappy at the sight of it, tense for several moments. Memories of blood gushing time after time in his father's care rushed back to him at the sight.
He shook his head a little and decided to leave the color in the kit. Forever, probably. But he couldn’t throw it away, not when James was so nice and bought him the pretty art set in the first place.
He drew wide, sweeping, motions with his orange marker on the wall, smile unable to be contained. Then, he did yellow right underneath. He stared at his reference rainbow on the page carefully before continuing, the TV show going on loudly in the other room.

He wondered if this is what heaven was like. His father had spoken about heaven and hell frequently. More often than not, he spoke of how Bel was destined to hell. How Bel ruined his life. How he was so weak, so pathetic.
Bel realized that he was no longer holding the green marker, picking it back up quickly.
If Bel was destined to hell, then why did James buy him the beautiful bright markers? He nodded to himself, still trying to follow the plot of the pony show in the other room. Slowly, he realized that multitasking was really, really hard. He continued to try, nonetheless. His stomach growled more than once as he worked. As usual, he tuned the noise out. Differently from usual, though, he didn’t ignore it and have nothing to focus on instead. Now, he had an artistic piece to focus on.

After some trials of being too short to reach the height he wanted, he had a light bulb moment. He could use the bed to be taller. So he pushed. And then he tried again. And again. He didn’t have the strength to. He grunted in frustration, before being enlightened by a second light bulb moment. There were so many chairs in the kitchen. He could take a chair from there and then he’d be tall!
He waddled from the kitchen with the massive chair back to the bedroom. Vaguely, he noticed that his leg was starting to hurt. But he ignored it in the pursuit of art. Standing on the chair, he began a portrait of James, trying to remember each detail that he traced in the past. After an hour of standing on the chair, an undercurrent of constant pain in his leg while he worked, he deemed himself done and took several steps back to evaluate his work.
He frowned at it. It wasn’t as perfect as his trial drawing. He worked so hard. Why couldn’t it be perfect?
He paused for a moment, then he realized there were no clouds surrounding the rainbow. There was the problem!
So, he drew clouds. His arm began to ache as well. The clouds covered the entire wall. He grinned at the sight. After finishing, he hugged the wall triumphantly. When he pulled away, he realized that black got onto his new pajamas.
He froze immediately. James would be so upset. He worked so hard to pick the perfect pajamas. Quickly, he peeled the shirt off, sprinting to the washer and throwing the top into it. Sitting outside the machine, he apologized to the shirt quietly, clinging to the blue elephant again.

He patiently awaited James’s arrival from work, not daring to go to the fridge. What if he ate something that James didn’t want him to eat? And how was he supposed to know what was and wasn’t acceptable to eat? Besides, he had dealt with much more intense dinner.
James had made dinner for them the night before. He chopped up apples, even. The taste was so alarmingly tasty to him.
Bright. That was how he would describe his experience here. The apples had a bright taste to them, and James was bright and happy, and the lights made the building bright.
Bel had always preferred bright to dark. Actually experiencing brightness solidified this for him. Before, the only brightness he experienced was when he was forced outside for punishment. The brightness was found in the snow.
But snow wasn’t a good kind of bright. It was chilling, and numbing, and made him hurt really bad some nights. Especially when he had to sit in the snow because his legs refused to hold up for another moment. The snow burnt furiously against his injuries when he sat into it. He wasn’t sure how snow could burn, and yet somehow, after hours, it occurred.

The carpet he was sitting on, he thought to himself, didn’t burn at all. It was nice and warm. And dry. He loved the dryness of the household. He lied down on the carpet, hugging Mr. Blue Elephant tightly in his clutches, eventually falling asleep.
He woke up when James entered the door. James’s first sight of Bel saw the child shirtless and with carpet marks imprinted into his cheek and chest. He laughed a little, helping him to his feet.
Bel’s face went from sleepy to delighted when he recognized James. He stumbled into a firm hug, smiling up at him. “I missed you!”
James laughed. “I missed you, too, buddy. Did you get the oatmeal I left on the counter for you?”
Bel paused for a few moments. “Um, what’s an oatmeal?”
James smiled for a moment, before realizing something, expression transforming to a frown.

Bel was immediately anxious. He lived in this light place for three days, and somehow he already made James mad. He wondered if the man realized that Bel was missing his shirt. Would he be angry that Bel ruined the perfectly pretty shirt? It was white. What if the black was permanent? Would he have to return to his father?
James spoke quietly. “Did you eat at all while I was gone?” Bel wondered if the quiet voice meant he wasn’t going to be punished. Then, he realized that some of the worst punishments of all are proceeded by the quiet voices. Quiet anger was sometimes scarier. Should he lie?
How could he lie to the nicest man who decided that he was worth the nice clothing and rainbow blankets and night-lights?
He looked down. “No, sir. ‘M sorry. Didn’t – didn’t realize I was supposed to.” He wanted to say that no one gave him permission, that he couldn’t have known. He wanted to say so before James decided it was punishment worthy. Then, he realized that that was an excuse. And excuses meant worse punishment.
James was quiet for a few moments before he gestured for Bel to follow him. Fear immediately shifted to dread. He was to be punished, then. Why did he always have to mess everything up?

James didn’t speak as he moved through the kitchen. This confused Bel all the more. Bel moved to the ground, staring up at him.
James, unaware, cooked grilled cheese for the child, still wearing a perplexed frown. He’d been gone for seven hours. Bel missed both breakfast and lunch because he hadn’t considered that a child would simply think they weren’t allowed to have food.
After cooking the two up grilled cheese, he sat on the ground beside the child and handed over a plate. Bel stared at it, anxiety written on his features. James paused. “It’s, um.. my favorite grilled cheese recipe. Real good. You put mayo on the bread, it becomes a million times tastier. I don’t know why. Was my mom’s secret.”
Bel slowly and hesitantly took a bite. He thought back on the times that Lucifer punished him with razorblades in his food. He prepared himself.
Nothing came. No blood spurted. Instead, his taste buds were filled with the taste of cheesy goodness. Immediately, a smile went onto his features. “It is a million times tasty.” He spoke quickly, with a full mouth.
James smiled immediately. Bel decided that he liked how a smile looked on his face. Before, smiles meant that pain was coming. Father smiled when he brought home a new “toy” to test on Bel. Now, it was different. James smiled a lot. Almost every time he was with Bel. And when he didn’t, when he went into another world for a few seconds, he always smiled when he came back.
The thought made Bel’s heart warm. He continued to eat the sandwich at a rapid pace, having been ravenous after a day of hard work. The oozing, warm cheese felt so good in his mouth. And the color of it was so bright, too. He thought to himself that it almost exactly matched the yellow marker he used earlier. That marker smelled plastic and gross, though. This smelled like – home.
Then, he remembered the shirt all over again. He stared up at James, pondering if he should disturb the peace or not. He didn’t want to at all. ….Punishment was always a little less severe if he owned up to it in the first place. So he had to. He just had to.

He stared at his ‘mayo’ sandwich regretfully, at the oozy cheese, slowly setting it down, looking up at James. His expression was hesitant, bordering on frightened. “I got black on my shirt. So it’s – it’s in the washer, and I’m so sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to. It’s okay if you have to – to get the burning liquid again.”
James looked perplexed for a moment before frowning heavily. “Buddy, that was rubbing alcohol. It’s meant for cleaning bad wounds. I swear to you, it wasn’t punishment. It was cleaning.”
Bel tensed a little. Why wasn’t he talking about the current problem? The current sin that Bel committed?
James paused, realizing. “And I’m not mad about you getting black on your clothes. Accidents happen. Especially to little boys who are home alone. ….One time, my dad came home to me putting Chris’s little four-year-old self into the dryer, the two of us taking turns to see who could stay in it the longest. ‘Least it ain’t something like that.”
A small, unsure smile creeped onto Bel’s expression. That was silly.

James watched him for a moment, trying to elaborate on the rules of the household. He didn’t want Bel to live his life here on his tiptoes, afraid of accidentally breaking some unnamed rule. It was becoming clear that that was how he lived his life before.
He spoke in a gentle voice. “I think we should set some ground rules.” Immediately, Bel’s expression went from carefree to somber. He looked to be expecting the worst. So James spoke quickly, not wanting him to be any more on edge than he already was. “My only rule is to not do something for mean reasons. That’s it. That’s the only one. Things can break, and clothes can get stained, and chaos can – befall upon man. And that’s all okay. Yeah? Just as long as it wasn’t purposeful. And it wasn’t to make others sad. Think you can handle that?”
Bel blinked. He blinked again. He looked like a bluescreened computer, truly. Finally, he spoke. “What if I break something on purpose and no one else gets sad? What punishment do I get then?”
James paused for a moment. “Uh, we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”
Bel looked suitably terrified at the prospect of burning bridges. James laughed. “It’s a – misused saying. The actual saying is ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.’”
Bel looked around carefully. James realized after a moment that he was searching for a bridge. He smiled fondly. “I don’t think you’re the type to break something on purpose. So we don’t have to worry about, yeah?”
He nodded. Finally, the boy finished the rest of his grilled cheese sandwich.

After this, Bel remembered his artistic project and realized that he didn’t show it off to James yet. He jumped to his feet quickly. “You wanna see what I did today?”
James nodded, and Bel’s happiness blossomed further. He took his friend’s hand and jumped to the bedroom. Then, he turned on the light and showed off his artistic masterpiece.
James went silent. Eerily silent. For nearly a minute. Bel realized slowly that he purposefully put something on the wall. Not a single other wall in the house had something on it. Was – James going to get in trouble because his wall had writing on it? Why did he think it was allowed? There were so many rules he didn’t know. He was so stupid. He never knew his father’s rules, and now he messed up James’s. Messed it up so bad that he was completely silent as he examined the walls.
His mood immediately flipped like a switch, fear seeping deep into his chest. Feeling as though water was filling his lungs, he started to cry, the sound loud and terrified. “You – That was a rule. That…was a rule, sir. To not purposefully ruin stuff.”
Quickly, he bent over, offering his back to be beaten. He offered his bared flesh, the only thing he could give. His crying persisted no matter how he tried to silence it. Still, nothing happened. A silence persisted in the room, with the only noise being persistent sniffles.

After a moment, Bel realized that he wasn’t the only one sniffling. James was crying as well. The sound made him freeze. He messed up so terribly that he made his only friend cry. Having never made another cry before, the feeling of guilt was overwhelming and horrific. He began to sob violently, spitfire apologies firing at a pace that would impress a rapper.
Slowly, James moved Bel up from his back. He had a hand on the boy’s chest, slowly raising his hand and raising the child in the process. His voice was quiet, but it still wasn’t full of rage or hurt. “The walls. They aren’t empty. They’re – finally not empty. Finally.”
Bel stared at him for several moments. Then, he glanced at his art. He double took at least five times, expression perplexed and troubled.
Slowly, James began to smile, tears still streaming.
Bel stared a few more seconds. Were these happy tears? He only just experienced them for the first time that morning. He didn’t realize it was something anyone else would experience. But – he didn’t look angry.
“Are you angry?” He wanted to be certain before he relaxed his posture at all.
James shook his head. He took a step closer to the portrait of himself. Slowly, he reached his hand forward, touching the marker. He was quiet for a moment, examining the green used on the eyes and the mixture of brown and black for the hair. He looked at Bel carefully. “Is – um, this me?”
Bel nodded slowly. “Yessir. You – I like rainbows. And you. And the wall – was like a big piece of paper, kinda. Why – aren’t you mad?”
James was quiet for several moments. He took his hand away from the wall, looking at the boy in front of him. “Um, I – I couldn’t get anything up on my walls. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get myself to put stuff up. And I went to Izzy’s – and her house was so nice, and there were photos on every wall.”
He was quiet for a moment, taking a breath. “I…I realized I didn’t have any photos to put up. Not a single one. We never bought the yearbook photos. There – There was a box with all my childhood pictures in it, but I left it when I – when I left for good.”
Bel watched him for a moment, still looking perplexed. He went onto the bed quietly so he could reach James’s face. James moved to his side, and Bel slowly reached out. He wiped away his tears slowly. In turn, James did the same for him.
Eventually, Bel spoke. “You have a photo up now. Of you. And with rainbows, so it’s even better.”
James laughed breathlessly, the sound still akin to a cry. Bel reached out and hugged him from the bed. James smiled warmly, hugging back. After a moment, he picked the boy up and spun him around.
Bel shrieked in joy, holding on with all his might.

James watched him for a moment. “Um, so there’s a lot of empty walls in the house. We – maybe we could take pictures and put them on the walls? Or – or even do a mural together?”
Bel blinked. “What’s a mural? Sounds – funny.”
James smiled. “Good funny or bad funny?”
“Good funny.” Came the eager reply, Bel’s face hidden in James’s shirt.
“It’s a piece of art that goes directly on a wall.” James responded with that characteristic warm smile that made Bel feel happy on the inside. Bel thought to himself that it was lightness personified.
James set him down. Bel stared up at him, eyes wide. “So – I did a mural? It sounds so adult.”
James laughed a little. “Yeah, sweetheart. You did a mural. All by yourself. It’s real good, too. I like the clouds, especially.”
Bel looked close to proud, bouncing a little. “They took a really, really long time. I had to get a chair to do it.”
James snorted a laugh. “Ah, so that’s where that chair went.”
Bel realized that he didn’t put it back and immediately went to the chair, waddling it back to the kitchen quickly. James followed, feeling lighthearted in a way that had seemed so improbable in the past.

By the time that Bel set the chair down, he was panting. James laughed a little and walked back to Bel’s room with him. Bel’s room. Bel loved the sound of that. A whole room where he could do anything in the world that he wanted. And the wood was clean, and the walls were clean. The wood was so clean that it squeaked when he stepped on it.
He had been accustomed to squeaking occurring because of mice. He never considered that a clean environment could lead to squeaking.
James grabbed him a clean pajama shirt. Then, he paused for a moment, examining Bel. “Do you, um… Wanna get a photo together with your fancy adult mural?”
Bel had no idea what a photo was, but it sounded so wonderful, and James wanted to share the experience with him. He nodded quickly. James pulled his phone out of his back pocket, opening the camera.
Bel practically jumped out of his skin when the phone revealed the two of them together, looking the exact same that they did in person. He looked down at his shirt, then at his shirt in the camera. “How does it do that?”
James paused. He really had no idea what the science was behind cameras. “It’s, um… Magic.”
If James thought the kid was smiling brightly before, now it was bordering on comical. He smiled at James, leaning on him quickly. James laughed a little. “Can you do that to the little circle in the top right corner?”
Bel followed instructions immediately, and James snapped a picture.

The following days passed in a similar fashion. Both had fleeting moments of panic and wondered if they were failing. Overall, though, the two grew closer.
Bel waited for life to fall apart in some way. He waited for James to hurt him. But – nothing came. The blankets stayed rainbow, the mural stayed on his walls, and the two spent one afternoon putting stars on the ceiling.
Rather, James put all the stars up and convinced Bel to hand him stars and act as moral support. Bel grinned through the whole affair. Being helpful was the best feeling ever, he decided. Second only to the feeling of eating mayo grilled cheese sandwiches.
That night, when Bel lied in bed, his eyes were on the lightly illuminated ceiling. The stars glowed. He felt so lucky. He had a moon night light and stars and a big window on one of the walls where moonlight peeked in. With all of these, he was perplexed as to why sleep wouldn’t come.
He thought back on the past. Typically, sleeping was his only escape from hours of boredom, locked in his room for days at a time. Now, there was so much to do. His art set sat in the corner, and teddies sat in a pile around him, each one carefully placed by him. No longer were there grey walls surrounding him. There were so many rainbows in his room.
Maybe that was why he couldn’t sleep. He wasn’t bored, ever. James was always there with the smartest ideas to keep him entertained. It should have made him more tired by the time evening hit, but he found himself adrenaline filled in his room.
He didn’t want to wake James. That wouldn’t be fair. He worked every day so that Bel could have teddies and food, and Bel would be selfish to interrupt his only break.

In the other room, James stared at the ceiling silently for nearly an hour, the TV playing in the background. Technically, he knew that the amount of energy he put out exponentially increased and should have led to immediate slumber. But his mind didn’t seem to operate under those terms. Instead, he was wide awake.
When nighttime hit, his thoughts always seemed to take a turn for the morbid. During the day, he played with Bel and came up with awe-inspiring plans to paint the walls in the house. At nighttime, this shifted to worries about what the landlord was going to do to him if he discovered the rainbow vomit that spread from his cart to the walls of his home, about how much beige paint would cost when he inevitably had to paint over the walls. He wondered if that would devastate Bel.
And that – that led to a whole other world of unpleasant thoughts. Would Bel be in this household that long? Or would his father find him?
Then, visions of James’s corpse hanging in front of Bel and traumatizing Bel forever flooded his mind. He pictured Izzy being taken by complete shock, being hurt and frightened at the headline in the paper. He pictured – it hurt to picture Chris, only ever seeing him again after he was dead and gone.

After that, a total stranger would see the walls covered in rainbows, and they wouldn’t see it in the way James did. They wouldn’t see a child’s artistic endeavor, a final break from the darkness that surrounded the kid. They’d just see an undisciplined child’s work. It’d be painted over without a second thought. Bel would be given new scars, his art would be covered, and James would be something remembered with guilt and fear.
Now he certainly wasn’t going to sleep. He began to fear that Bel would be taken away while James was asleep. He swore he locked the door.
Since when did that stop a criminal? He tensed a little at the prospect of harm coming to the child under his care. And, okay, maybe he was a little too attached a little too fast, but that was his own business.
He stood slowly, body aching. He never realized how much more he moved when a child was around until a child actually was around. Then, everything was sore.
He decided to check on Bel, just in case. Better safe to be safe than sorry. Better to be neurotic than sorry, rather.
He pattered into the room, steps soft, though they still echoed through the apartment.

When he opened the door with a soft creak, he saw Bel amongst a pile of teddy bears, eyes closed. James watched for a few seconds, then realized that the child was too still. He was still in that classic way that children were when they thought they’d be in trouble for still being awake, not a single muscle moving. His eyes were screwed shut perhaps a little too much.
He spoke in a quiet voice, as sweet as he could muster. “Bel? You awake, buddy?”
One of Bel’s eyes shot open. James laughed. “Thought so. Why don’t we go get some tea?”
He crawled out of bed, a cocoon of blankets. Together, the two walked to the living room, both sleepy and wired.
James went through his cabinets. “Glad I went shopping. Lavender or chamomile?”
After a few moments of silence, he elaborated. “Herb tea or flower tea?”
Bel paused. “I like flowers!” He whispered, voice caught in between excited and exhausted.
James laughed. “Chamomile it is. We’ll both have it. Think you’ll really enjoy tea.”
He brewed the tea in the way that all classy people do: the microwave. Then, he added a generous amount honey to Bel’s mug before handing it over.
“Be careful. It’s hot. Make sure you blow on it before you drink it, yeah?”

Bel held the warm tea in his hands for a few moments. It didn’t burn. Not even a little. Nothing had burnt him in a week. Nothing had even come close to burning him in a week. His back was getting better. It wasn’t oozing anymore, and it didn’t hurt to lie on his back. He thought back on all the hot sensations, all the scars he received from heat in the past. He was silent for a few long moments, thoughts whirling.
Then, tears hit him out of nowhere, a violent, uncontrollable surge of emotion making his heart ache. James looked concerned immediately, taking the tea out of his hand, eyes wide and concerned. “You okay?”

Bel couldn’t speak. He felt like cloth was shoved into his mouth, words unable to be formed. Finally, one sentence made its way out, the sound almost inhuman, pain manifesting and terrible. “He hurt me!”
The man realized immediately, eyes sympathetic though he didn’t speak. Slowly, he engulfed the boy in a hug. Cries came from deep within, surfacing after years of silence. Bel thought it would kill him. His heart hurt so, so bad. He didn’t know how to stop it. He thought the force of pain was unstoppable. An uncontrollable force that made him feel like his insides were being pulled out of his mouth, organ by organ. He sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed, unable to stop.
James held him through all of this. He murmured reassurances over and over again until his voice became hoarse. The two sat on the floor of the kitchen for hours as Bel cried.
After hours of pain cutting like a knife, exhaustion hit him, hard, and he passed out in James’s arms, face soaked with tears. His frame still shook as he slept. Slowly, James carried him to the bed, tucking the blue elephant in his arms.

The next morning, James checked on Bel after hours of silence in the room. Because it was nearly afternoon, he felt a bit like he was checking something he left in the microwave and may or may not have nuked.
Slowly and gingerly, he pushed the door to the boy’s room open.
Bel lied on the bed, blankets strewn across the bed. The bears, which had been arranged by Bel so carefully the previous nights, were thrown to the ground. Each one was on a different side, making the bedroom look similar to a bear tornado. James wondered if that could be a sequel to Sharknado.
He picked up each bear that was on the ground carefully, making sure Bel could see each move he made. The only sounds in the oddly quiet room were James’s echoing footsteps and Bel’s sniffles.
When James sat, Bel began to hiccup loudly, tears streaming silently. After a moment, Bel spoke. “I…I’m sorry. My Izzy bears.. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to, and they musta been so sad.”
James smiled just a little. This child just had the worst of realizations, and his worries lied in if his bears were suffering emotional turmoil. He reached down carefully, rubbing his shoulder. “I’m sure they understand. Bears are very good at picking up at human emotion. And they’re way, way more forgiving than humans, anyway.”
“I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve bear forgiveness. I’m – I’m no better than Father.”

Immediately, James frowned. He moved towards the headboard of the bed, brushing through Bel’s bed. “You aren’t. That would mean doing it over and over again. You made a mistake. People do that sometimes, sweetheart.”
Bel looked appalled at the prospect. He buried his face in his pillow, barely breathing. James let him do so for a moment. Then, he heard shallow breathing. He wondered if this was Bel’s way of punishing himself and frowned. Hesitantly, he pulled Bel’s head up. “Breathe, bud.” He turned Bel to the other side slowly, placing every bear on his lap. “See? They still love you.”
Tears welled up in Bel’s eyes all over again. “I – I still love father.”
James swallowed a little. “Family’s like that. You’re a loyal person. It’s – admirable. Really. But… Don’t let that mean that what he did to you was okay. You can love someone and hate what they did.”
Bel murmured about life being too complicated. Then, the two fell into silence again. After a few moments, Bel pulled one of the Izzy bears to his chest, mumbling apologies into soft, light brown fur. He rubbed his face on the bear, eyes red. His nose was such a ferocious shade of red that James noted the sheets would have to be washed.
“You should bathe. And we can – put on some happy music. I know it won’t erase the bad, but distractions are – good sometimes.”
Bel looked up at him. “Are you – are you going to be with me?”
James paused. He knew it wasn’t the best habit to foster. He was practically training the child to be codependent. But this… This was an unique situation. He nodded. “If that’s what you want, yes. There’ll be bubbles. And I’ll – put on music. Some Kansas, maybe. That used to be my go-to sad music.”
Slowly, Bel reached his hands up to be picked up. James complied, letting the bears fall around where Bel lied. He thought for a moment that it looked a little similar to a chalk outline of Bel. He grabbed pajamas with one hand, holding him as though he were protecting the child from the world.
Bathtime was subdued. As of late, Bel bathing typically implied giggles and splashes. This morning, he sat rigid and still as the warm water filled up around him. James added the biggest amount of bubbles he possibly could and then put on quiet music. The child didn’t move for minutes, listening to the music, snot running fast and without reprieve, like a skilled marathon runner.
But he looked calmer. His eyes weren’t filled with agony and fear. James wasn’t sure that this was a good thing. Instead, what replaced it was a sort of emptiness that came with grief.

In a way, the child was grieving. In a way that all children do at some age but with much more severity. Each person goes through an experience where they realize that their parent isn’t perfect. And a lot of the time, it’s a healthy part of growing up. In James’s case, he saw how much his dad drank.
Abuse, though… That made it a tricky situation. When a person grows, when they have access to different types of people and realize that being whipped isn’t a normal experience, their whole perspective of normal is altered forever. Bel’s entire worldview was collapsing around them. It was up to James to protect the child amongst the rubble.
And he was going to. No matter the cost, he was going to make sure that Bel’s normal included baths, good meals, moon night lights, and, most importantly, love.
Sitting on the other side of the tub, James talked in a hushed voice. “I love you, Bel. I’m glad that you’re safe now.”
Immediately, Bel’s hand sprung out of the water. Emotion poured back onto his expression. He grabbed James’s hand tightly, breathing erratic. “I love you. I love you. ‘M sorry. Gave me such a nice…”
James shook his head. “You can’t be happy all the time. I wouldn’t want that from you. You’re a kid. That basically means you’re a tiny person with more emotions and less experience for dealing with emotion. Crying is appropriate. I’d be more worried if you weren’t crying, I swear.”
Bel held James’s hand for a few moments. He didn’t move from his spot in the bathtub, the water slowly becoming tepid. James noticed that his skin was beginning to prune. He moved to pull his hand away, causing a whimper to escape from Bel’s lips.
James paused, keeping his hand in place, instead pouring shampoo into Bel’s empty hand. Bel carelessly put the shampoo into his hair, not having the energy for much else. After a moment of waiting to see if Bel would do more, he slowly rubbed Bel’s scalp. He grabbed the cup and washed it out slowly. Bel’s overly straight posture slowly shifted. Crying noises escaped, although there weren’t any more tears left to cry.

He helped Bel out of the tub after that, handing over a towel and organizing the child’s pajamas. “Hold On” played softly in the background. James thought to himself that the song lyrics were applicable. He was grateful for a moment that children have a tendency to overlook lyrics and only hear the tune.
The child dressed slowly. Then, he practically fell onto James, soaking his shirt and sweats. James paused for a moment. “I know what we’re going to do today.”
Bel didn’t look up. Rather, he mumbled into James’s shirt. “Die from sad?”
James shook his head slowly. “Definitely not that. We’re going full comfort. I’m making you lasagna and we’re watching the entirety of Star Wars.”
He guided Bel to the couch, picking up an armful of teddies before they got there. Bel lied on his side, hugging every bear close, eyes red.
He didn’t speak as the first movie began. James was in and out of the kitchen, cooking lasagna noodles, browning the beef, adding onions and garlic, marina, and checking an online recipe that proclaimed it made the best lasagna ever. Each time he reentered the living room, he quoted whatever scene played.
After a while, the smell of homemade food permeated through the house. He took a seat beside Bel as it cooked, pulling the child’s feet onto his lap so they could both be comfortable. Bel’s eyes remained glued to the screen throughout all of this, although James was unsure if any of it was actually absorbing or if he was just using the colors and noises as a distraction.
Either way, James was glad for it. One thing he decided he didn’t enjoy about movies that got him through bad times was the onslaught of bad memories it brought back after a while. This movie was practically his therapy as a child. He and Chris would pop it in every time Dad was harsh with them, or school was too much, or they missed their mother. The result was that James felt a pang in his chest. At one line on screen, he missed his mother, he wondered if he’d ever finish homework, and he felt like he was going through puberty all over again.
Hopefully, he’d be able to avoid this fate with Bel. He’d have to be sure to watch the films with the child at good times as well, not just playing it when Bel’s world was crumbling like a cracker.

After minutes of sitting and watching, James felt a strong longing for time with his brother as the movie played. This was their movie. This was what bonded them together. Watching without him, it felt… wrong.
But it kept Bel’s thoughts at bay, and it wasn’t overstimulating. That was what mattered. James smiled a bit. To have something to protect, that was a somehow relieving feeling.
When the lasagna was taken out of the oven and cooled off, the main color was brown from the bubbled up cheese. James’s stomach growled loudly at the sight. He paused the movie, holding Bel’s hand and guiding him to the kitchen table. The two ate in silence, James devouring the food. It had been years since he cooked following a recipe. He felt a sense of pride at the huge dish of lasagna that sat in front of the two.
James made sure that Bel consumed enough water, explaining the situation to him quietly. “Your water tank is on empty, basically. Crying makes you dehydrated. And we don’t want that. That can make you even tired-er.”
Bel didn’t speak for several moments, lasagna halfway eaten. Slowly, he moved to James’s side of the table and hugged him with all his might. His breathing was still off, but this – was something. Something positive, something to build on. The two sat in silence with Bel clinging to him as the minutes rolled by.

As the days rolled on, the two found a new normal in their routine. Bel was withdrawn still, not up to drawing or chatting, but he at least didn’t look unhappy at the fact that he existed anymore. James figured they were making progress. He knew that things went worse before they got better, though. So when Bel decided not to speak for a few days, he didn’t fight it or force the kid.
He looked back on his week as he made grilled cheese again. He took a few days off work to stay with Bel and relished in the disdain that was clear in Matthew’s voice. It was the first day he took off at his entire employment, but Matthew still made it appear that James was beginning to slack. Months ago, his stomach would have churned with remorse and fear. Now, he smiled.
At worst, he’d be fired. And then, he wouldn’t have to do the soul-sucking job each morning. Perhaps he could get a job at the library. He snorted a little at the thought. That would be rich. He was pretty sure the last novel he read was in his senior year of high school. …No, even that, he had Chris read and summarize for him. But there was something about that library that had an air of forgiveness. Of acceptance, even. Bel entered the building as a homeless child, and Henry read to him like the two rolled into the building with a Cadillac.
Henry was coming over soon with what James assumed would be enough books for a small army. James decided that it would be a pleasant surprise for Bel, who was becoming more subdued than he was when James first became acquainted with him. The thought worried him.

He brought the grilled cheese to Bel. Bel took a total of four bites before sheepishly setting it down, mumbling that he was full. James frowned. “Bel, you didn’t eat much yesterday, either. You gotta make sure you’re getting nutrition. Try to eat at least half.”
Bel looked surprised for a moment at the command, not used to receiving one from James. Hesitantly, with sad eyes, he ate half of it. James sat beside him, feeling uneasy and a bit guilty. “Great. Thank you. Why don’t we watch another Disney movie, huh? Will that help?”
The child nodded slowly, looking shy. When James took the plate away, he clutched a bear to his chest tightly. He rocked back and forth slightly.
The doorbell rang. Bel practically leaped out of his skin, eyes wide. When James opened the door, he laughed. Just as he thought, Henry had two armfuls of books, piled up high enough that his face was barely visible. “Best way to cope, huh?”
Henry nodded with a bit of an awkward smile, entering the apartment. “It’s my favorite way, anyway. I thought Bel would appreciate it.”

When the two joined Bel in the living room, Bel was hidden under a pile of multicolored blankets, although a lump betrayed where he was. James laughed. “Bel, Henry is here. The nice library man. If you wanna visit with us.. He got books on all sorts of animals for you to read.”
He didn’t get a response. Carefully, he helped remove the mountain of books in Henry’s arms. Henry and James shared a look. Henry began to smile. The two had the same idea. He grabbed the first book, beginning to read it “to James.”

Two books in, Bel slowly moved the blankets that seemed to mesh with his body. Only his eyes peeked out as he tried to view the pictures of giraffes. Though he clearly looked exhausted, James felt relieved that the child still experienced curiosity. Henry moved to his side, showing him each photo.
James smiled wide at the sight. “How did I end up with such cool friends?”
Henry was silent for a few moments, looking up at him. “I’m actually always warm, not cold.”
That got a laugh out of James. “You’re just like Bel. You both are so literal. It’s – I love it.”
Henry smiled warmly. He seemed to realize that his response was odd. “I was homeschooled. Never really, um… understood ‘slang.’”
James thought that the air-quotes sealed the deal for Henry’s language. “I’m gonna have to give the two of you a pop culture education. Already doing it to Bel. Hence the Disney flicks.”
Henry rubbed the back of his neck. James blinked. “Tell me you’ve seen at least one Disney film.”
Henry looked embarrassed, shaking his head a little. “My parents – believed there were hidden anti-Christian themes.”
James winced sympathetically. After a moment, a question came forward. “Um, do you believe that?”
Again, that characteristically Henry smile graced his features. “No. Not even a little.”
James nodded quickly, clearly relieved. “Well, now we gotta play Beauty and the Beast. It’s my favorite of all time, and we gotta start there.”
Bel spoke in a quiet, shaky voice. “It’s nice. My favorite.”
James’s face lit up. Those were his first words of the day. He reached over, smoothing out the child’s rat nest of a hairdo. “You got good taste, buddy.” He looked up at Henry. “I know that Disney movies are supposed to be girly, and it’s supposed to be embarrassing or something to enjoy them, but this one is magic. The lead girl is super cool, and the bad guy is the guy who would have been the romantic lead if it was made when Disney movies were first made, and there’s a friggin’ Beast.”
Henry laughed at James’s clear enthusiasm. “I know the original fairytale. It should be interesting to see how it stands alongside it. …Hopefully the characters are a little more sympathetic.”
Bel nodded a little in response. James nodded as well, in an impassioned way. He put the movie on, and as a deep voice narrated the Prologue, the three of them relaxed in each other’s presence.
James narrated bits of the film. He couldn’t stop. Each time he thought he had a handle over himself, a good part came on, and he had to declare that it was such. Plus, Bel had watched it the morning before, so it was all fresh on his mind rather than being a blurred memory.
The two seemed to enjoy his narration, though. Eventually, he shut himself up, not wanting to hinder Henry’s first viewing.

By the end of the film, Bel’s head was in James’s lap and his legs were spread across Henry’s lap. All three of them were engrossed in the film, though Henry was the most emotionally involved as he didn’t know the magical Disney resolution. James noticed that his posture shifted to a more tense one when Gaston and the Beast fought. An alarmed noise escaped Henry when Gaston stabbed the Beast from behind. James couldn’t stop the smile that creeped on his face.
“That was…incredible. That was an incredible experience. I can’t believe it took me as long as it did to watch that.” Henry spoke in an awed voice. Bel watched him carefully, expression carefully blank.
After a few minutes of discussing the movie and the rest of the Disney film chronicles, Henry realized that it was nearing on nine o’clock. He slid from under Bel, grabbing all of his picture books with a smile. “I’ll see the two of you later. I hope you feel better, Bel.”
Bel didn’t respond verbally, although he did wave, wearing what James spotted as a ghost of a smile.

James and Bel fell into their typical comfortable silence after Henry left. Bel stared up at him from his lap, reaching a hand up to James’s cheek and placing it on him tentatively.
“Why don’t we get you to bed, bud?” He asked in that way that parental figures did. Where they weren’t actually making a suggestion or asking a question, but they wanted the child to feel in on each action.
Bel nodded in response. As soon as James stood, Bel moved to his side, blankets and all. James laughed a little, guiding the blanket-smothered child to the bedroom.
When they got to the bedroom, James stared at the mattress with the overzealous springs for a moment. He began to smile. “I know something that’ll help you feel happy.”
Bel looked up slowly, expression inquisitive. After a moment, James separated Bel from the blankets.
….It was odd, seeing him without blankets surrounding him. James supposed that in the past days, he got used to Bel hiding himself among rainbow blankets. It became a Bel-ism, a part of Bel’s natural habitat. Without them surrounding the child, he looked even smaller than usual.
First, he cleared all the bears off of the bed, making sure that Bel could see they were safely put beside the bed. Then, he stood on the bed. Bel watched each and every move of James, trying to discover what his master plan was.

After a moment, James took Bel’s hand and pulled the boy up beside him. Bel looked positively bewildered. James watched him for a second. When the two held eye contact, he began to bounce on the bed, grinning like a little kid.
Bel spent a few seconds staying still, eyes wide in confusion. Eventually, though, he joined in. He began to bounce, but in typical Bel fashion, he was timid at first. After a few bounces, he began to get confident. A smile began to blossom on his face, like the first flower after a long, harsh winter.
The two began to jump more and more emphatically, out of breath and both smiling at each other. Then, a miracle happened. Bel began to giggle. He held James’s hand tightly, leaping up and down, face red from the sheer amount of energy it took to jump on the bed.
Nearly five minutes later, exhaustion began to kick in for the two of them. The jumping came to a slow before stopping altogether.
James tucked the child in, placing each bear back on the bed tenderly. Bel watched him, letting out a displeased noise when he began to leave.
He laughed a little. After a moment, he sat beside the bed. “I’ll stay here until you fall asleep, okay?”
Bel nodded slowly, taking his hand and staring at him with big eyes. Minutes rolled by as his lids began to get heavier and heavier until they fell shut. It wasn’t until he fell asleep that he let go of James’s hand.
James went to bed that night feeling content deep within.

When James woke up the next morning, it was with a sort of calmness that he didn’t know he missed. He had a feeling one gets on a lazy Saturday, that everything was going to be okay, that there was nothing on his agenda, that nothing had to be done just that minute.
His mind played tricks on him many times in the past. On those lazy Saturdays, he felt as though the world was caving in around him. That if he listened close enough, there was something happening panic stirring. Not today. In the other room, he heard the faint noise of Bel talking to one of his bears, solemn and hushed.

James listened with a smile. Bel was explaining his innermost thoughts and feelings to a bear. “I don’t know what I did to get here.” He spoke quietly. “There are rainbow walls. Walls of rainbows. I never thought so much light’d surround me. And food. …And he cooks all the time. He talks about how he doesn’t know how to cook good, but it’s a lie.”
Silence reigned in the house for a few moments before Bel began to speak quietly again. “Um, and I…I guess I got used to thinking I didn’t deserve food or rainbows or hugs, and… It’s all confusing, Izzy. S’all so confusing.”
James walked to the bedroom slowly, steps gentle as not to spook the kid. “I was thinking it’s a pancake breakfast kinda day?”
Bel still jolted a little, pulling his teddy close quickly. “Pancake?”
James paused. “I keep forgetting you’ve never had this stuff. You’re in for a treat, little one!”
Bel relaxed at the familiar nickname, standing quickly, resting his head on James. James smiled warmly. He began to walk, pulling Bel with him. Bel tried to keep his face buried in James’s side, causing it to bob up and down as they made their way to the kitchen.
“You’re gonna be my little helper in the kitchen, right?”
Bel nodded fast enough to receive whiplash in response. James laughed a little. “So, basically, pancakes are an excuse to have dessert for breakfast. Which means that when we have them, we gotta add our own nutrition so we aren’t tired all day. When I add chocolate chips, I add bananas, too.”
Bel looked very pleased, pulling his chair beside James so he could oversee James’s every move. James googled a recipe, thanking the high heavens for the internet for the third time that week. He was certain it was the only reason that Bel and he were able to enjoy homemade cooking and not live off of cold cereal and depression as meals.
After adding all the ingredients, he smiled at Bel. “Your turn. You’re gonna be my mixer. Think you can handle that?”
Bel bounced a little in response. James took it as a yes.
So Bel began to stir, making a face at how difficult it was, working through the batter, clearly lusting the chocolate chips he stirred. All in one split second, he thrust his hand into the batter and whirled it at James, wearing a troublemaking grin.
James froze for a moment, chocolate chips and pancake batter dripping down his cheek. Fear flashed on Bel’s expression. James reached into the batter and flicked it into the child’s hair.
Bel let out a sound between a shriek and a giggle, jumping out of his chair. And thus, a battle began. Using a good amount of the batter they made, the two attacked one another, chasing each other around the kitchen until each and every surface was smothered with pancake batter.

James scooped Bel up and he again let out a giggle-shriek, the batter getting on his clothing. “Let’s get a picture with the crime scene behind us.” And so, batter covered and unable to stop laughing, the two got several pictures, barely recognizable under layers of pancake batter.
Cleanup was not quite as fun as the initial attack. James cleaned Bel carefully with a paper towel. Bel smiled up at him as he worked. Then, when James began to clean himself, Bel stole the paper towel and meticulously cleaned him, making him bend over so he could. James smiled wide. “Glad you trust me enough to be goofy.”
Bel, the little cutie he was, hug tackled him in response. James laughed.
And they made batter again. This time, it took up much less time. James realized they wasted the bananas from the first batch. Then, he smiled. No, not wasted. The childish, devious grin on Bel’s face was most definitely worth a banana or two.
This time around, Bel took mixing very seriously with his face scrunched in concentration. James grinned. “At hard work, huh?”
“Yessir” came the quick response, Bel moving the spoon through batter, glaring at it.

When they finally ate, James found it more than worth it. Bel let out a loud, pleased noise. “S so good!” He said, an enthusiasm back in his voice that James missed.
“Dessert for breakfast, I’m telling you. New revolution.”
Bel ate a whopping three pancakes, a great improvement to the three bites of each meal he made a habit of having.
After they both cleaned their plates (and the rest of the disaster of a kitchen – minus batter on the ceiling) James got Bel settled at the kitchen table with his art set.
He decided he was going to print out and hang up the photos they had taken. So, he emailed each photo to himself, using his laptop to print them. Sure, the quality of the photos wasn’t the best. But they were moments he loved, photos he adored. He figured that could compensate for some blurry pixels.
He printed each one out, hung them on the previously empty walls, and wore an uncontrollable smile. Then, he dragged Bel to come see. Bel stared at the pictures with teary eyes. “On – On the walls? This is – the living room.” He spoke quietly, as though informing James of this for the first time.
James nodded gently. “It is. That’s why I want them here.”
Bel took his hand quickly. “That’s – so nice.”
James grinned, walking back to his laptop. He clicked on his inbox, humming a Beauty and the Beast song as it loaded.
His humming went to an abrupt stop when he saw the most recent email.
It came from that same unknown email. This time, there was a subject. In bolded, black letters read “Greetings from Christopher!”
Immediately, he felt fear clawing inside of his stomach, deeper and deeper into a growing pit. He opened the email quickly, hoping it was some bizarre coincidence.
The only body of the email was an address. Attached was a video with a thumbnail that undeniably showed his brother. His baby brother. Covered in blood and bruises, eyes wide with terror. James felt his hands begin to tremble as he moved to play the video.
Chris was crying. No, he was sobbing. His brother was tied to a chair, yanking on the ropes as a shaky camera moved towards him.

Numbly, James thought that he looked older than he had when they parted. His jawline was stronger. When the two separated, Chris was still a boy. Now, his body resembled a man’s, though his terrified expression matched one that James knew from their childhood.
In his lap sat a piece of paper with disturbingly elegant handwriting. It read “Return the boy in three hours or my head gets mailed to your house.”
A man with a face hidden in shadows approached Chris with a bat in hand, and the last moment that appeared on video was the agonized scream of what James had vowed to protect no matter the costs.

Bel heard the scream from the computer, slowly pattering into the room. His eyes were wide as James stood. He sprinted past the child and vomited into the sink, the sounds escaping him terrible and echoing.
Almost instantly, Bel knew. Robotically, he moved to James’s side, expression controlled. “I’ll… I’ll go. To him. I’ll..”
James began to cry harshly, trying to collect himself. He mumbled the name Chris among other inaudible words, his breathing erratic and uncontrollable as he heaved over the sink. Bel didn’t know what to do at the sight. His – one steady was no longer steady. He repeated himself again.
James shook his head quickly. “Never. We can’t… I.. I don’t know what I’m supposed to… I was supposed to f***ing protect him!”

Bel froze. James’s crying got worse when he realized he was upsetting Bel. That led to Bel crying. He hugged James tightly, the only thing he knew what to do in the situation. “Your brother? Father.. He has..?”
James spoke, voice broken, not trying to control it. “He has him. We’re – we’re gonna fix it. I don’t know how, but…But…”
Bel shook his head, crying becoming worse. “There’s not a way to fix it with Father. Please. Please, I’ll go back to him.”
James tensed. “No. Your life isn’t – worth less than his.”
Bel frowned at him. “Yes, it is. It is. I’m not… I’m not worth all this. I knew I wasn’t. I knew it would all fall apart, because I ruin people, I ruin people, I - ”
James cut him off, scooping him up quickly, tears coming down his face in a steady stream. “Your father does. You don’t. I don’t want you hurt, because you don’t deserve to be hurt. You deserve – rainbow murals. You gotta believe that. We’ll – we’ll find something, I know we will.”
Bel hid his face in his neck, shaking.

When James was no older than seven, his dad left him with Chris and a firearm, telling him to use it in the face of any danger.
Only looking back did James realize that wasn’t a normal part of coming of age. That most children didn’t see a gun outside of TV shows, and even then they were told it was a dangerous, scary weapon.

Chris always seemed to know in some way that James didn’t at his age. He seemed to comprehend that there was something abnormal about their dad being at work every day. With him coming home only occasionally, sometimes with a strong, repulsive smell on his breath.
James knew that as the older son, as the one with a frame of reference for life before, if anyone should have felt it was completely different, it was him.

But… After Mom died, it all fell apart. For everyone. The world didn’t make sense anymore, so why should the rules of the household?
He wanted to be the perfect son. He was perhaps a little too talkative, a little too stupid to be considered so. But he certainly did try.
One of the only times that he reached expectations was with firearms, actually. He remembered the training sessions with Dad. Driving out to the middle of nowhere, Chris doing his homework in the backseat, complaining about how important his homework was, that he should be at a steady location doing it rather than being forced to shoot a gun.
And he was a peace supporter, of course. By the time the kid hit fifth grade, he decided that he was morally opposed to guns. It always made James laugh. When he hit fifth grade, he was morally opposed to cooties and adult talk. Chris was practically a gun control advocate by the time he was that age.
They’d drive for hours to a secluded area, get out in the bitter cold, and practice shooting at cans. The area they found always seemed to have an idyllic quality to it. Trees were covered in pretty white frost. The air had a unique stillness to it, one that was scarce to be found in the apartment duplexes they frequented. James imagined that the place was exactly what a philosopher had in mind when they spoke of a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it. Nothing could be heard for miles.
He remembered more than anything else the sound and feeling of crunchy, frost covered grass under his feet.

And Chris loathed it. He loathed every second of it. It wasn’t serene, it was boring, and cold, and his gloves had holes in them, and he didn’t wanna learn how to shoot the stupid gun.

Then again, this was the same Chris that used to cry when he found dead c***roaches in their place. Not because of the grossness, but because c***roaches were sweet, because they didn’t deserve the cruelty they faced.
Chris missed the target almost every time he tried. James constantly made jokes that that was why he was a supporter of gun control. He couldn’t shoot a gun, so he was one of the people who was in danger either way if guns were easily accessible.
But James – he thrived there. Academics had always been difficult for him. Whenever they stayed at a school long enough that teachers formed opinions, those opinions were typically that he was apathetic, a troublemaker.
Here, he was not. Here, he could shoot precisely, without fail.
And Dad had a glint in his eyes, something like pride when James hit every target. They never talked about it, of course. They never did. But James remembered that feeling of warmth, of having someone feel proud of him for a long time after the target practice ended.

They used to have that a lot more often. When Mom was still around. When Dad could be around James and Chris without being constantly reminded of what he lost. James wanted that feeling more than anything. So, when he received a pat on the back, a “You’re a natural, son,” he felt like everything was worth it. He always felt like he should join the military, like his father did. Before it all fell apart.

Now, he felt as though he were a part of a war almost constantly. And he was. The prisoner of war was his brother. His brother, the pacifist who argued more than anyone he knew. He was the one who was hours away from decapitation, from losing that brain that was constantly appraised by teachers.

James carried Bel to the laptop, shaky. “I – need you to look at the background of the video. See if you…if you recognize anything.” He thought that with another child, he’d have to spend time making sure the child was aware of the seriousness of the situation, of the potential ramifications. With Bel, this wasn’t the case. He stared at James with frightened, serious eyes.
And James was forced to sit through the video again. He didn’t realize that it would be as horrific the second time. He thought that perhaps he’d be numb to it by this time. Instead, he felt nausea deep within, having to take deep breaths at the sight of his brother in danger. All over again.
He felt ashamed to be making a child watch the video. A child who had already been through so much pain. But he didn’t exactly have a choice, did he?
So he and Bel watched the video in complete silence, both tense and apprehensive. James tried to stop the video before the scream echoed through the apartment again. He didn’t succeed. Well, it was something to add to the list of growing failures he faced.
Bel broke the silence that had fallen between them. “I – I think I know where he is.”
James looked up, speaking in a rush. “Where?”
“That, um… In the background, there’s a – a… cage. And ’s my cage. He’s in my…my room. From before.” Bel began to cry again, curling up on the floor, his face hidden in his lap.
James sat beside him, rubbing his back mechanically. His thoughts were spinning around him. Bel continued after nearly a minute. “The – the, um… big building on the street we met. In the basement. In the basement, there’s…”

James frowned heavily. “Jefferson Industries? How did…?” After trailing off, he paled a little. Bel’s father had been described as a man with a great amount of power.
“Bel, is your father Mr. Jefferson?”
Bel began to cry in response, before choking out a no, then taking a breath. “You – You…. You’re my father now. Not him. Not…”
James swore. He swore loudly. The man was perhaps one of the most powerful men in the city. He figured it would have to be someone with a great amount of power to have an almost omnipotent knowledge of James. To know his brother, to take his brother from states away… Jesus Christ. He should have seen it coming earlier. He felt frustrated with himself for not seeing it sooner.
He needed to get a gun. He hadn’t used guns in years. He didn’t know if he could still use a firearm.
James felt terrified. He felt like he was stuck in place, frozen as the minutes ticked down. Three hours. How much time passed since the email was sent? He checked immediately. Fifteen minutes ago. He had two hours and forty-five minutes left before it was all over.
He sprung into action. “We need to go. Now. I’m getting a gun, and I’m gonna…”
Bel looked up quietly, eyes wide. “Gun?”
“I’m getting my brother back. We’re getting him back.” He scooped Bel up in his arms, carrying him outside. He realized ruefully that this was the second time Bel was outside in his keep. He had become so scared that someone would find them out. That Bel would be taken into the unknown, evil clutches of his father again, never to be seen.

And now, he knew whose evil clutches Bel had belonged to before. Terror slowly began to transition to rage. This man abused an innocent, sweet child. This man whipped him so bad that his backside was still covered in welts and scars, possibly never to be the same. Now he had James’s brother. He tortured and warped the innocent. He wasn’t going to do the same to his brother.
The anger that he felt towards that face on the billboards for Jefferson Industries slowly changed into anger towards himself as he walked outside the main apartment door, slamming it behind him.
He had the opportunity to connect with Chris. Chris reached out time and time again. He apologized. He begged for forgiveness. He sent emails with updates about college, about girls he was dating, like he wanted advice. Just like before. Before, when James wasn’t a name that brought deep shame.
And James never once considered that this could someday stop. That one day the emails would stop coming in, and James would have no phone calls he guiltily ignored. His brother could be dead already, and that would be because of James and no one else. There wasn’t anyone else to lie the blame on anymore.
So he went into a gun store that he walked past a thousand times on the way to work. He realized that having a child in his arms while purchasing a firearm was perhaps one of the worst decisions he’d made in a while. But that list was long and ever-growing.

For a moment, he was grateful for the gun permit his father made him get as soon as he turned eighteen. At the time, he wondered if it was fair for him. He didn’t know if he wanted to own a weapon anymore. In the present, though.. This could be the only shot to get his brother back, and he was going to take it, no matter the cost.
In the face of danger, he did what all men do. He called the two people he considered to be friends and tried not to be overly dramatic in potentially saying goodbye.
First, he phoned Henry. He knew that with Izzy, he would find it harder to get off of the phone. Walking down the street with Bel close to him, he wondered what safe location he could store the child at. The mysterious man who stole his brother knew enough about James to find Chris in the first place. The apartment wasn’t safe.
Hell, maybe this was all just a set-up for the man to reach Bel with James in rescue mode. The panic in his gut grew and grew, and he felt as though his insides would burst at any moment.

Henry picked up the phone quickly, a smile evident in his tone. “Hello, James. How is your Disney marathon going?”
James was silent for a moment. “I, uh… We had an interruption. My brother is – in danger. I have to go after him. I don’t – I don’t know what the outcome’ll be, but I wanted to let you know, and.. And say goodbye. You were so nice. So much nicer than you had to be to the awkward stranger, and I really…appreciate it. Keep that up, yeah?”
The line was quiet. James wondered if it went dead before Henry spoke again. “James, I…Who is going to watch Bel?”
James swallowed. “Um, um.. I don’t know. I have two hours. Less than two hours. And I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, Henry.”

This time, there was hardly a pause after he spoke. “Take him to my house. It’s on Market Street. Near the library. I’ll watch him while you do what – you must. I’m sorry. I’m sorry it’s happening to you like this. You’ve been a good friend. One of the best I’ve ever.. I’ll, uh… send all the ‘good vibes,’ like you say.”
James took a deep breath. “Thanks. Thank you, Henry. I’ll.. Are you sure? This is a dangerous.. I don’t want you to end up hurt in all of this.”
“I don’t want Bel to end up hurt in whatever situation it is, either. It’s number 405.”
James thanked him, silent for a moment. “I gotta – I got an hour fifteen left. Gotta go.”
Henry told him he’d see him soon. James dialed Izzy’s number quickly, though he hesitated over the call button, feeling a pit of anxiety in his stomach. She deserved something more stable than what he’d provide.

….It’d be much, much worse to find out about James’s death without any warning, though. And that’s.. essentially what happened to her with Jake. He wasn’t going to make her go through that again. He pressed the call button, voice shaky when she answered in that charming tone of hers.
He spoke after a moment. “I – Chris got kidnapped. Chris got kidnapped by Bel’s dad. I’m going after him, and I might get murdered. I’ll probably get murdered. I got a gun. I wanted to – to let you know. And apologize.”
Izzy was silent on the other side of the phone, in the same way Henry was. “Please tell me you’re kidding. Please.”
James scrubbed his face, eyes red all over again. “I’m sorry, Izzy. I..” He trailed off. What could he say in a situation like this?
She spoke in a quiet voice. “That – That’s so unfair. I’m sorry, James. I’m – glad to be with someone courageous enough to… Who’s watching Bel while you go all spy on them?”

James told her about Henry quickly. “I want to, too. He needs all the protection he can get, if his – father…” She replied.
James tensed. “Izzy, this is dangerous. It’s not a safe situation. Someone I love was already kidnapped; I don’t…”
“I don’t care. He needs protected. You shouldn’t have to go through this alone, James. I know you… think you deserve to. And you don’t, so I want to protect him in any way you can. You’ll need to – focus on the mission on hand without worrying about his safety.”
James swore quietly. He supposed he wouldn’t be interested in her if she wasn’t empathetic towards Bel, if she wasn’t impassioned about the situation, but he was seconds away from a meltdown without worrying about his girlfriend being kidnapped, too.
“Okay. Okay, um… Henry’s house is on Market Street. 405. I’m heading there now. We’re – See you there?”
“See you there.” And just like that, she hung up.

James wondered if Izzy and Henry would keep Bel safe should he die.
They would. They’d do it, because they were the types to protect everyone and everything they could. Perhaps that was why they befriended the anxious guy who talked rapid fire.
Maybe they’d be better parents to Bel than James was. They would probably at least be more equipped with discipline. After all that Bel went through, James couldn’t bring himself to raise his voice. Ever.
Bel hugged onto him tightly as they moved down the street quickly and intensely. James started to shake as he wondered if this was the last time he’d be able to hug the child.

James showed up at Henry’s house out of breath, his skin red from the cold. He blinked a few times, trying to make sure he was at the right address. It was enormous. The building looked like a mansion straight out of a forties mafia film. He swallowed.

Then, he knocked a few times, and Henry greeted him at the door with a solemn expression. Izzy beat him to the house already, sitting inside, anxiety heavy on her features. She visibly relaxed at the sight of James, yanking him in for a hug. James started to cry all over again at the compassion she had, mumbling an apology. She shook his head, holding on for a long moment. James pulled away with hesitance, feeling that if he didn’t soon, he’d stay in her arms forever.
He took a look around the massive building in slight awe. Henry had always appeared so down-to-earth, so humble. His house told a different story. But he didn’t have time to ponder how Henry’s house related to him. Time was ticking down, and he felt as though he was swimming through molasses to reach his destination.

He set Bel down, kissing his forehead. “I – I gotta go. I gotta get Sammy back. Izzy and Henry are gonna stay with you, okay? It’ll – be fun.” He supposed it would be more convincing if tears weren’t coming down with no sign of stopping.
Bel shook his head. James blinked. He didn’t think the child ever said the word no to him before. But here they were, and Bel was clinging to him like that stubborn piece of burnt food on a pan that needs seared off with a spatula.

James had to sear him off. He wished he didn’t have to, but Christ, if the kid was hurt on his watch, he didn’t think he’d be able to go on. With Chris already, he could feel a severe heaviness in his heart, a gaping hole that expanded as the minutes ticked down. This – a child, a beautiful, innocent child… He’d wallow in guilt until he died.
So he pulled away from the kid, putting on a brave face. The decision was made. Bel would still have a happy life this way. Even if James’s body was hanging from the rafters, Chris a decapitated head at James’s door… Bel needed a chance. Someone had to come through this without any more torture.
And Bel – Bel wore an expression of betrayal. Of absolute betrayal. He ran away from James quickly, hiding in Izzy’s shirt. The room fell silent outside of Bel’s cries. James looked at the people around him, at the friends that he became closer to in a few short months than he had with any outsider.

With a heavy heart, he walked out of the house. He checked his phone for time again, beginning to panic. And he sprinted. He sprinted in a way he wasn’t able to with Bel in his arms, all the way to Jefferson Industries. It struck him that he had no idea how to get to the aforementioned basement. But he was going to, or he was going to be shot by a guard first.
And by the looks of it? That was a possibility. Two security stood outside of the already looming building, making it more intimidating than it already appeared to be.
He decided to check the back for an entrance to the lower level, trying to hope. No such luck. That would be too logical for the sick man with his sick tendencies that ruined everything he touched. He swallowed, looping to the front of the building again.

After a moment, he headed in. In the massive, impressive lobby, there was an elevator plated in a gold-like substance.
James made his way to it quickly. Well, that was somewhere to start, at least. After stepping inside and seeing that there was no basement level on it, he ran back out, frustrated. The man in the elevator wore a bewildered expression as the elevator doors closed as excruciatingly slowly as they opened.
As he watched the doors close, he began to feel a spark of panic in his stomach. What if his brother was one level behind him and he didn’t reach him in time? On a separate floor, would he be killed?
Before he had a chance to have a meltdown in the one colored lobby, something tapped his shoulder behind him.
He turned around slowly and cautiously, instantly anxious that he was caught. Instead, he was met with a tear-faced Bel.
He jumped, whispering quickly. “You’re supposed to be with Henry and Izzy! You’re in danger.”
Bel shook his head stubbornly, gripping his hand forcefully and dragging him through the building. James stopped him. “Bel, I won’t let you get hurt. Not here. Not after everything we… Please. Please, Bel.”

Bel spoke back, voice quiet, as passionate as the child had capacity for. “Only person in the whole world who knows where the basement is. I gotta, gotta go. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault, and I gotta.”
James stared at him for a moment. He had thirty minutes left. Bel wouldn’t lie. He wouldn’t make up a secret entrance.
He swallowed thickly. He didn’t have a choice, did he? Slowly and numbly, he took a hand off of Bel’s shoulder, letting him drag him up the stairs.

The two made their way through a seemingly endless amount of stairs, and James feeling an emptiness settle deep within.
He felt as though he were trapped in a bubble, and he couldn’t hear through it. Couldn’t feel through it. It began to feel as though he was playing a video game, not actually living a life in which his brother was going to die if he didn’t give up his kid. He only saw his world crashing around him as he walked up the elegantly red stairs. James thought to himself that this red wasn’t symbolic of wealth. Rather, it seemed to be the blood of the innocent that had been spilt in this very building.

No wonder the place seemed to be so off kilter for him when he had been there before. Though everything on high floors seemed to be normal, seemed to be pleasant, on the lower grounds lurked a despicable human who hurt a kid that James learned to love.
Bel didn’t cry as he walked. He didn’t show any emotion, for that matter. James thought that perhaps he was sealed in an isolated bubble as well.
They reached what must have been the top floor, and James was met with what he assumed to be Lucifer’s office. James frowned heavily, wondering how they were to reach the basement from there. They climbed thirty flights of steps, the red carpet all blurring into one mass eventually. Bel was close to hyperventilating, and James felt a prickling sense of fear that a guard would appear.

So of course, one guard did. James swore that he gave power to his thoughts enough that it made his feared situations come true. His anxiety brought tragedies to life, made demons walk the earth and torment his family. That would explain the current situation.
James tried to look as normal as possible despite being out of breath and ready for murder. He offered a smile with the air of a businessman. He realized that the effort might be futile considering the face that he was holding a light-headed child in his arms. “I have a meeting with Mr. Jefferson. I presume his office is at the end of the hallway?"
The guard nodded once. James walked passed him quickly like a shoplifter walking out of Wal-Mart. Only when they made it into the office did he feel that he could exhale the breath he took in.
He lied. To an official. For the past years, he couldn’t hold eye contact when telling the truth. Now, he did with a lie.

The office was different than James expected. It had a kind of off-putting cleanlineness to it. James thought to himself that it was similar to his working place. Fluorescent lights lighted the walls. On the table sat a golden nameplate. Nothing screamed madness in the way that James thought it somehow would. If anything, it bore resemblance to a principal’s office.
He watched Bel with a frown, voice quiet. “How’re we supposed to reach the basement from here?”
Bel looked at him for a moment, frown heavy on his features. For the first time since he arrived at the building that must have brought him such pain, fear began to take hold of his expression. He gestured to the closet.
James blinked once, frown heavy, perplexed. But Bel walked to the closet, opening it and pressing a small panel on the floor. The back of the closet opened in a way that resembled a vault. James stared with wide eyes.
And they walked through. They walked back down those thirty flights of steps. Although, this time, James carried Bel in his arms protectively. By the time they reached the basement, labored breaths were the only sound that echoed through the cement staircase.
James feared that in enemy territory, leaving Bel anywhere would be far more dangerous than taking him into what used to be the boy’s bedroom. After a moment of indecision, he carried the child through the door.

As soon as he walked inside, he was hit with the stench of blood. The metallic scent drowned out all other senses. Cautiously, he stepped forward.
There were no lights in this place. Perhaps intentionally. From what he heard of Bel’s father, he seemed to want to be in complete control. Depriving a person of all other senses – that could give total power. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, a jarringly playful voice spoke in front of him.
“I thought you might be here. Good for you, James! Nice and smart. Smarter than I gave you credit for after looking at those transcripts of yours.”
James felt Bel completely freeze in his arms. Dread filled him. After a moment, he spoke in a quiet, firm voice. “Mr. Jefferson?”
“Aw, but you’re so formal. See, I never like the formal types for these transactions. The “please,” the surname, the begging as blood pours out of their mouth… It all seems so blasé. Anyway. You’re James, aren’t you? You know, after hearing Bel whimper your name each time he was left in his cage, I gotta say, I expected a little bit more.” He tsked a few times. James’s eyes slowly adjusted to the dark as he worked to identify the man’s features.
“You seem to ooze the essence of being a grunt. Just like you did when you had that interview here. Your brother, on the other hand… Bright. I can tell. You can just see it on some people, especially when you get the opportunity to do what I do. You see it in their eyes when they search for any chance at escape, even after they were drugged. It’d be a real shame to cut off his pretty little head.”

James clutched his gun immediately at that. He felt himself beginning to shake. Slowly, the environment began to take shape in front of him. He deciphered what was in front of him, realizing that the man had a blade against his brother’s neck.
Chris was unconscious. In person, he looked much, much worse. Dark red was the only color James could make out. James felt sick to his stomach.
Mr. Jefferson began to speak again. “The poor thing. You care so much about being a good person, about doing the right thing.” He spat the phrase. “You judge people like me up and down. You call me cruel. No, you call me a monster. You make me unable to be related to. But you ignore call after call from your poor little brother, all alone at college. The first time he was separated from you in your life, wasn’t it? And you abandoned him.  He tried to call you the night he was taken, you know. If you answered… This would all be different.”

James knew it was a lie. In his heart, he knew that even if James had answered Chris’s call, Chris still would have been taken. It seemed that all roads led to James standing face to face with Bel’s father, a firearm in hand. That didn’t stop guilt from twisting in his stomach. The man continued to speak, pressing the knife against Chris’s neck, not yet deep enough to cut but quickly veering towards that. “You know, I may be a monster, but that’s certainly better than a coward.”
James went still. He wished he had some artful response. He wished he could stand in the face of evil and spit at it. In movies like Taken, they always knew what to say to the bad guys who twisted the world to make the protagonist look evil. But… Mr. Jefferson wasn’t twisting the world. He was exactly right. Time and time again, James thought of Mr. Jefferson as a monster. And he was. He was a monster, but he wasn’t frozen in a minute, unable to speak or think or breathe.

Undeterred by his lack of response, Mr. Jefferson took a step closer. For the first time, James saw his face in person. The man was conventionally attractive, with stark black hair and piercing eyes. What stood out more than anything else was the unearthly quality of his smile. In this moment, he saw the man who wore a wax smile on the billboards advertising his company. James always thought that smile was similar to Matthew’s, but with a deeper kind of cruelty. He saw the man who whipped children into submission, who made them stand in the snow as punishment after making them climb sixty flights of steps. And he felt hatred. Sheer hatred, deep within, operated as hatred often did, driving all of his thoughts.
Mr. Jefferson spoke. He wore a smile, one that matched the unnerving smile he wore on the billboards. “So, you have two options. You can pick the little rat and be shot on the spot, or you can pick your brother and leave the premises unscathed. Maybe you could rekindle a relationship with Christopher. He’d be forgiving, I’m sure. And Bel would fade into nothing, like he’s so very good at doing.”

James finally spoke, his voice breaking and betraying his emotions. “Why do you have to have him back? You don’t love him! You don’t love him in the way that you need to love a child.”
“You’re so naïve. I’m avoiding a child scandal tabloid story. That’s all. This child, this spawn from hell, he was dropped off at my doorstep by his mother. What was I supposed to do with him? Why are you so certain that you would have been so different?”
“Because I don’t look at a child as a burden. Because I’m not messed up in the head.”
Again, the man tsked. “Wrong answer.” He let blood start to seep out of Chris’s skin, right near his collarbone.
And James –
James saw red.
He took a shot.
The sound of the gunshot echoed through the cement walls.
Before Mr. Jefferson hit the ground, he dug his blade into Chris’s skin.

James screamed out in panic, unable to stop the noise from escaping. He screamed to overcoming the years of silence. Too late. He screamed too late, his bubble of numbness finally starting to close in and suffocate him.
All out of nowhere, he felt everything instead of nothing. He felt years of guilt crushing him like the thirty floors above him collapsed onto him.
He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t find a way to get air to enter his lungs. But he dialed 911, his hand trembling as Bel looked at him with fear in his eyes. James noticed with a violent pang that Bel was fearful of him, not of Lucifer. He had just shot Bel’s father. Bel’s only kin. He had every right to be afraid.
The 911 operator answered the phone. James heard “911, what’s your emergency?”

And James – James forgot to speak. He felt a manifest panic from within that used to happen during job interviews over the phone. He had never considered that such a panic would transfer over to a life threatening situation, and he was disgusted with himself for letting it do so.
He felt himself breathing quickly and shakily as a professional voice repeated their question again. “Sir? What is your emergency?”
  James took another shaky breath, feeling lightheaded. “Um – um, my brother. My brother got stabbed.”
“Tell me exactly what happened.”
James swallowed. This was exactly what he was afraid of. “Um… Um, My brother was kidnapped. And I found out where he was located. So I showed up. The – the kidnapper – he started to dig his…I shot him.”
Again, the nearly monotone voice spoke. “Where are you located, sir?” It chimed, too calm for what the situation warranted.
“Jefferson Industries. On Grant Street. Um, once you get to the very top floor – there’s an office. And in the closet, there’s a panel that leads to a door. Down those steps, it – it, um leads to a basement. We’re – um….We’re stuck there, and I…”
The other line went silent for a moment. Apprehension started to settle in his stomach. The woman was going to think he was playing some sort of cruel prank. He began to cry, the smell of blood starting to overwhelm him all over again. “Please. Please, I’m so scared he won’t..”
The dispatch spoke again, voice articulate and slow. “Are you in immediate danger?”
James swallowed. “Um, I don’t think so, anymore. The man who stabbed my brother is… is dead.” He knew that he needed to give a further explanation, to go into detail. No details surfaced. His mouth felt as though cotton was stuffed inside of it, gagging him.
“We’re sending a dispatch out now. It should arrive within ten minutes. Is the patient conscious?”
Against his will, his crying began to take a violent turn. Still, he forced out a response as he stared at the corpse-like figure that once belonged to his brother. “No, ma’am.”
“Is he breathing? Normally?” The questions seemed to hit him with no refrain and no sign of stopping.
James finally moved close to Chris. He moved his hand in front of the now young man’s face, still for several seconds, starting to shake before he started to feel little ghosts of warm air coming from Chris’s lips. “Um…Um, there’s a little bit of air coming out. It’s – so faint. It’s so faint.”
He thought for a moment that perhaps he was done, that the interrogation was done. He was wrong. Several more questions hit him. He felt as though they hit him anyway, physically whipped the little bit of something he had left in him. He hung up. He knew that the last thing he was supposed to do was hang up. He knew that he was supposed to stay on the line as long as humanly possible. Until the ambulance found them.

But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He threw his phone at the wall, sliding onto the cold concrete. He noticed after a moment that Bel was crying, too. And he held on. He held on with all his might, like Bel was the only thing keeping him on this planet. As though if he let go, he’d descend into the depths of hell, never to be recovered.
He sat beside what remained left of his brother, hand shaking violently as he held onto Bel, held onto his lifeline.

After hours (or minutes,) the ambulance crew found the three of them in the pitch-dark basement. Flashlights illuminated the walls that were splattered in blood, in God knew what else. James held Bel to himself protectively, looking similar to a prisoner as he clung to Bel. He felt in his heart a fear that Bel would be taken away, that all the pain, all the suffering would be for naught.

One of the paramedics helped James to his feet. James let himself be led but he didn’t let anyone get near Bel, near hissing when one of the paramedics examined the two for injuries.
Vaguely, he recognized that he should let them examine the two. He recognized that socially, that was the right choice.
He did not. Carefully, the paramedics moved Chris onto the stretcher, mindful of the knife that remained in his collarbone. The light shone on his sandy brown hair and made the rest of his body look paler, even more ghostlike than it had before.
James was guided up the stairs as two of the crew members carried Chris up flight after flight of stairs.
He began to feel lightheaded. He didn’t bother to tell anyone around him. The only people who were certainly certified to do so, and he kept his mouth shut. James didn’t want to be a bother. He knew that the focus had to be on Chris. They didn’t have enough paramedics for him to be weak.

So he attempted to brave on with all his might, the weight of Bel becoming heavier and heavier in his arms. By the time that they reached Mr. Jefferson’s office, he could barely stand. He set Bel down slowly, frame beginning to shake.
As soon as Bel made contact with the ground, he began to wail at the top of his lungs, throwing his arms around James.
James swallowed thickly. The paramedics kept moving, rushing to get Chris to the emergency room. James fell onto the carpet, hugging Bel with all his might as the two of them cried. Blood that stained his jeans from his time on the floor began to seep into the perfectly white carpet.
He had to go find Chris. He had to be sure that he didn’t miss them going to the hospital, didn’t end up at the wrong emergency room. At the moment, the only thing he seemed to be capable of was sobbing, was mourning the past and the present.
He mourned the loss of his Chris, of the innocent Chris who had given up on him all those years ago. Most of all, though, he felt as though he were mourning the potential loss of his brother now, of the brother that had a taller stature, more muscle to him.

The next thing he knew, Izzy and Henry were on both sides of him, helping him down the steps on each side of him.  He let them guide him, unable to form words.
Izzy ended up driving him to the hospital. James leaned on the window, numbness overtaking him in the front seat of the car.
Bel did not have that luxury. He couldn’t stop the childlike wails as he sat in Henry’s lap. His ears hurt. For weeks, nothing hurt him at all. All the touches he received outside of alcohol were warm, were comforting, were there to help him. The gunshot was loud. The gunshot was angry, and overwhelming, and terrible.
And James, the man who smiled through everything, even when Bel could tell he was hurting… He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t close to smiling. Bel didn’t know what to do with this revelation. He hiccupped, trying to think of what he could do to comfort James. Cautiously, as though James would bite at a sudden movement, he reached his hand over the front seat and put it in James’s hair as James had for Bel when he was upset.
He moved his hand around in slow, circular motions. Over and over and over again. He hoped the motion would ease the pain in some way that he couldn’t do with words. Words didn’t help when your heart hurt really, really bad. Bel knew that well.
He knew that his heart hurt being back in the darkness. When he got in trouble in the past, Father would make him go outside in the snow. He thought that was the punishment. In reality, the punishment to Bel was always returning to the basement after his senses got used to nice, neutral smells, to bright lights.
Then, returning to the dark, damp area was always more painful. What had always hurt him the most was the reek of blood that struck him each time he returned. Living among it, he would have had the ability to get immune to the smell. Bel thought that maybe his father did what he did just to make Bel never quite get used to the smell.
Each time he returned, the smell gagged him. And if he puked… He’d end up in so much trouble.
He felt all those fears going back down the stairs. When he began to feel sick in what used to be his living space, he was so, so scared that knife Father was holding would pierce his back again as punishment ‘cause he was feeling sick.
And all he could think was that he was gonna end up back with Father again, and that he’d deserve it. Because he was the reason Chris was being tortured in the first place.
He felt hate. He felt hate so deep in his stomach for himself. He was angry that he wasn’t strong enough to say no to James when he was kind and warm and he offered to buy him soup.
If he said no right then, James wouldn’t be staring out the window, tears streaming down his face at a rate that Bel would have been beaten for and put in his cage for, at the least. Father always got so angry about anything that came out of Bel’s body without his – permission.

And now – Father was gone. Forever. Bel would be able to stay with James forever and ever, with no monster waiting to attack. He should have felt relief in every part of his body. He did, a little. But he also felt scared. Really scared. He was scared of what James would do to him if Chris didn’t make it. If he finally made the connection that Bel led to all the pain he was dealing with.
He tried to tell himself that James wouldn’t be like that. That James was light, so light, in all the ways that Father was dark. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t convince himself.
So he kept his hand in James’s hair. James moved his head towards the touch, slowly turning his head and facing Bel. His eyes expressed pain as bad as being whipped. After a moment, James reached out and took Bel’s hand. And Bel… Bel held on with all the force he could muster.

When James was twenty-two and Chris eighteen, the two had a scheduled routine for their father coming home drunk. In fact, it got to a point where James felt disappointed that he knew each step by heart, that they went through the steps mechanically, each comforting but firm hand coming from muscle memory.
The night that it all changed was during the summer after Chris’s senior year. He was prepared for college. He had scholarships enough to pay his way; his life was organized in a way that James could never dream of having himself. Tensions in the household were surprisingly low. Dad hadn’t been in town for a few weeks. Chris acted like James wasn’t his brother most of the time. James acted like it didn’t hurt most of the time.

Chris had adapted to the ways of the nerdy kids, and James was just proud of him for finding people that he felt kindred to. At this point, the initial sting was long gone, and for the most part, James was fine with no longer being able to step in and save Chris in his time of need. Chris had a support system that he chose not allow James on.
A part of James was upset that Chris stayed at that high school for the last four years. Before that, James was his fierce protector from the constant world of strangers and bullies. James was the one who got a job as soon as he hit sixteen, who saved all those years, then bought his own apartment, and told Dad they were staying. That conversation, that was the one that completely stopped his relationship with his father. At the same time, though, a begrudging respect grew for James.
James never thought that staying in one location could directly lead to Chris getting as close to disowning him as he could. Selfishly, he thought to himself that he never would have fought so hard for it if he knew it would lead to his demise.

He remembered all the details from the night almost too vividly. He remembered the humid weather, suffocating a person as soon as they stepped outside.
Mostly, he remembered how Dad came home that night, dripping in sweat. James always thought to himself that a person’s sweat smelled different when they drank. It smelled strongly of alcohol, of whiskey, of depression, of years of neglecting children. …Okay, so the last two required reading in between the lines, more so than the first two.

James and Chris were watching TV together when he burst into the room. They weren’t really talking, but they didn’t really talk anymore.
When Dad entered the room, any common ground that existed between the two of them was ripped from underneath them like a carpet.
Initially, that would have made him angry. Now, he was just a little tired. He stood, offering a weary smile. “Hey, Dad. Glad you’re home safe. Everything okay?”
Their father moved past the two of them quickly, putting food into the fridge with a smile. When he smiled like that, it was especially clear that he was drunk. He had to have been at least two cases in. There was nothing reserved about it. Dad had always been reserved, and this smile was almost too bright in comparison.
When he returned, he pulled James into a hug. James blinked more than once, hesitantly patting his shoulder. “Uh, what’s this for?”
“I’m so, so sorry about last time, James. James, you know you were always my favorite, right? So good. So obedient.”
If Chris had been upset with James before, he certainly was now. James tried to pull away slowly.
Trying to do anything against a drunk Marine’s wishes always proved to be difficult. He squirmed a little. Dad held on for a few more moments, his grip painfully firm.
James felt discomfort deep in his body. If he had known it was the last hug he’d receive from his father, perhaps he would have handled it differently.

When he finally did manage to pull away, Dad wore that overly cheerful smile still. Each time he came home with that smile, James found he liked it less and less.
As Dad took a step back, he was off balance. He toppled to the ground quickly, in that graceless way that James and Chris had become all too familiar with.
James offered help. When he did, Dad’s expression soured. “I don’t need help from you, no matter how hard you refuse to believe it.”
“I wasn’t - ”
“You oughta learn some respect. I’m thirty years your senior, and you and Chris both act like you got more knowledge.” With each word, Dad wound up more and more, as though he were prepping for a fight.
James thought to himself that the worst part about alcohol was how quickly the person’s mood jumped all around, like a rabbit set free.
Then, James and Chris’s dad moved to leave, grabbing the keys from the rack. Chris looked at James desperately, silently begging him to do something, anything to stop him.
“Dad?” He meant to sound authoritative, but the word came out as a question.
Their father looked at him in that sergeant way that he always managed, even when drunk. James found that his voice was caught in his throat. Air didn’t seem to be filling his lungs. “I… What are you doing?”
“I’m going out. I’m finding another bar.”

He reached out for the keys, hand shaking. He knew he was being too feeble, much too feeble to convince a drunk, strong man. He knew Dad had drunk too much to drive and be safe on the road. He knew that it was at a point where this would be dangerous.
Their father nearly laughed, although the sound was broken. “You got anything better than that?” He shoved James back.
All James could recall was the time that James was being bullied in third grade, that his peers said he was a little freak. He came home sobbing, begging his parents to intervene. His mother almost stormed to the school himself, but his father refused to. He gave instructions, and he told James that if he wanted to get anywhere in life, he’d have to learn to face his bullies, even if his heart hurt.
His heart pounded in his chest violently enough that he felt it in his ears. Adrenaline pulsed so alarmingly that he thought he may attack the man himself. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t stand up to this bully.
Chris tried to. Chris was braver than James was, always. He wasn’t effective. James and Chris both knew that if James had been emphatic, would have demanded, Dad might have listened. He couldn’t. He was so scared, so tired.
Dad left with the keys to James’s car.
And that – That was as good as permission, wasn’t it?

The next day, a local newscaster reported that a drunk driver crashed into a car that had a teenager driving. Two casualties.
James knew. James knew right then. He didn’t have to wait for the footage of James’s once perfect car now a catalyst for the path of their father’s destruction.
James, too, was a catalyst for that path.

When he told Chris, Chris stared at him with such anger in his eyes, with such fierce hatred, that he fled from the house right then. He was too much of a coward to do anything else. His only defining trait.
Going to identify the corpse, the man who taught him how to play baseball, the man who taught him how to tie his shoes, the man who taught him that grief could warp a person so bad that nothing would remain… That had been the worst part for him.
Staring at the paled corpse, he felt as though his world was crashing down around him. What once was his father had an expression that was no longer angry and indignant, no longer overly joyful. Instead, it was completely blank. There was only nothingness left for his dad. There was only nothingness for him as well.
Knowing that at another part of the morgue, a mother was identifying the corpse of a seventeen year old…
He went out for a drink that night. He didn’t know what else to do.
And then he cried. He cried so much, so harshly that he couldn’t breathe, punching his wall over and over again when he finally got home. With each punch, guilt hit him harder and harder until there was nothing left.

He wished that the healing process began after that night. After he turned to alcohol just like Dad did all those years ago, after he saw memorial after memorial for the teenage girl.
The girl had gone to a school that neighbored Chris’s. She had plans for college. She was known as the girl who was going places.
She wasn’t going places. And it was all due to James, to his own cowardice.

Everything came to a head after they attended Dad’s funeral. James had become a master of avoiding Chris until that point. How could he avoid him then?
More reporters came to the funeral than actual mourners. Dad had always wanted to die a hero. To die saving the American Dream, saving innocent US citizens who had a right to freedom.
Dad died killing an innocent US citizen who had a right to a future, who had a right to go to a fancy college in the same way that Chris did.
When they came home from the funeral, Chris finally yelled. He finally got to tell James each step that he did wrong. James was hurting so bad, had pressed it all into himself so bad that he felt he was going to cave in if one more thing pushed him.
And push Chris did.

All James could think was that his confrontation was similar to Dad’s, when Dad saw a bad report card or found out that James hadn’t done enough to cover the fact that he wasn’t there to parent his children.
He didn’t say this.
When they got home, snot was dripping down Chris’s nose. James tried to put a hand on Chris’s shoulder, though his own hand shook himself.
He was mistaken in doing that.
Immediately, all the grief and rage boiled over from Chris. Chris slammed him into the wall, eyes full of unshed tears that weren’t going to shed because he was in control now. He was. Somehow the power shifted from his father to him, skipping James entirely.
Somehow, no matter what James tried, he ended up powerless, thrown around at someone else’s wind.

And he took it. He took it like some ragdoll. He swore that the initial hit wasn’t as bad as the yelling that followed. Hitting against a wall was animalistic, impassioned.
Chris had always been so smart, though, and his words could cut far deeper than any hit ever could.
“This is on you. All of this. It’s on you. There – There… You said you loved Dad, you acted like you were the only one who could love him, who really, really loved him.” Chris took a breath, looking shaky, no longer as certain as he was when he started. The certainty returned soon after.
James thought it was similar to how he gain confidence on stage, but so much more painful. “You didn’t love him. You enabled him.” Chris spat the words at him.
James didn’t speak. God, he wished he could speak. Ever, when he was confronted. Instead, he stood silently, feeling the last pieces of the puzzle, the last bits of himself left, being burnt on fire. He felt like it was fire.
That was his mistake. Whenever he didn’t speak, people thought it was admission of truth. Always. It wasn’t. Silence occurred when he short-circuited like a bad computer.
After nearly ten seconds of Chris waiting for a response, he went on. “And you aren’t even strong enough to stand up to me. To your little brother. You – I used to look up to you! What happened? What happened that made you just lose your spine?”

James wanted to scream that he lost it because Chris and his father wanted him to enable each of their actions. Dad had been worse, of course. Refusing to enable an alcoholic is near impossible.
Then again, so was refusing to enable a teenager. A bright, responsible teenager. And – somewhere along the way, the little pieces of defiance he had himself were sacrificed to keep the family together. They had to be sacrificed, or everything would fall apart.
Glue is not enough to keep objects together if they objects are actively repelling from each other. And, like glue, he was pulled apart in the process.
That was his mistake. It didn’t belong to anyone else. But the family he was trying to keep together – they sure didn’t help the process.

“You just stare. The whole time. You stared during the funeral, you stared when I found out Dad was dead, you stared when the family… That’s worse than not being sorry. That’s being too weak to even be sorry, and it’s such crap. It’s such crap, James.”
James started to cry. He was humiliated. But his brain was already supplying him with all those thoughts, and now they were under a microscope of the ever bright Chris. James couldn’t hold it all in anymore.
Chris had a way of telling him that he had to show something, then being frustrated that he did. He stared at James for several moments, waiting for some kind of answer for what he did.
Instead, James started to leave the room. He felt sick all over, like he wanted to crawl into a hole and let the world swallow him whole.
“You’re the reason that girl is dead! It’s on you. It’s on your shoulders, and it’s gonna be forever.” Chris shouted after him, to his back. Somehow, yelling at someone who was walking away seemed to enable a person to say crueler things than they’d say if they had to deal with the person’s face immediately afterwards.
James hid in the bathroom. For hours. He wished he had come out, said something to his brother. Tried to bridge the gap somehow. Instead, he sat on the linoleum tile, sobbing like that was all he knew how to do. Then again, lately he didn’t know how to speak, so perhaps that was all that was left.

By the next morning, Chris was gone. He left a note on the fridge that said he was staying with his friend until he left for college. Just like that, over the span of a month, he lost his whole family.

Or he thought he did. He was wrong. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Chris was still family, even if he hated him forever. When he started calling a year ago… A part of James assumed it was to tell James off for good, to let him know that he was flourishing without him.
And again, James was already so close to crashing down, to walking himself to a ditch and sitting there until the world forgot about him and he could fade into nothing.

So he ignored calls, he turned off his phone whenever possible, and he wondered why he paid for a device he never got good use out of. What good is a phone to a person who has no one?
Now, as he sat in the waiting room, he had someone. More than one someone. He had a child in his lap, a friend by his side, and a girlfriend holding his hand tightly.
He was now going to lose the one person who was constantly there, who constantly tried to contact him even as James dodged calls.

That hurt, perhaps worse than not having a support system at all. He held Bel to himself protectively, shaking. After hours of talking to police officers, of showing the emails he received, of having to show Bel’s back to them and explain that it was just beginning to heal until the officers were satiated, he felt mentally drained.
Still, he did his best to remain in the waiting room as the hours passed. Izzy had Timmy in her arms, and she carried him out of the room more than once when he became fussy.
Each time she left, he felt himself panic a little. He knew that was ridiculous. He also knew that that was okay. Sometimes, brains were ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.
He felt his backside getting numb after seven hours in the waiting room chair. Chris was still in surgery. A lingering part of James was convinced that as soon as he decided to leave and rest, events would reach a head and James wouldn’t forgive himself for not being there.
When Izzy returned with Timmy again, she took James’s hand slowly, making sure he was aware she was reaching. She did her best not to startle him. He still jumped a little. “Why don’t we head back to my house for the night? It’s late, James. We’ll get them to call if anything changes.” She leaned over, murmuring to him.
James looked unsure. Nonetheless, he stood reluctantly and found that every part of him that could be sore was. He wrapped an arm around her slowly. Again, he found himself quiet, stuck in his own brain and unable to leave that space enough to converse.

Bel let out a low whine when James stood, and James shushed him soothingly. That was the closest the two had gotten to verbally communicating with each other for hours.
When they got to Izzy’s house, James felt as close as he could to being calm in the situation. The place had such a feeling of home to it. It smelled like burned candles, pleasant and warm smells that weren’t so strong that a person could directly identify them.
After a moment of indecision, the three of them seemed to decide together that there was no way any of them would be able to sleep in a separate bed. Just this once, the three of them would pile up in one bed. The day was sent straight from hell, and company was the only thing that stopped James from having a breakdown. He had a feeling that Bel was in a similar boat. Even Timmy’s crib was moved to Izzy’s room for the night.

Izzy slept that night, exhausted. Bel and James, however, remained wide awake. Both were aware that the other was awake, but both stayed perfectly still throughout the night, trying to will themselves into falling asleep.
James felt like he had to tell Izzy. If Chris woke… He wanted to think when, he wanted to be one of those people who corrected it to when Chris woke. He couldn’t. If Chris woke, and Izzy saw the tension between the two of them, hanging and making the air between them thick… She’d have to know.

By the time the sun rose and shone through the window, James slowly got out of bed. Bel followed him, his silent shadow.
When Izzy woke, James and Bel had a weak attempt of breakfast on the table for her. The four of them ate in silence, though none of them were particularly hungry.
James practically rehearsed what he’d say to her, yet when the meal was finished and he realized it was the prime time to explain everything, he felt like his tongue was stuck in his mouth, heavy.
He forced himself to speak anyway. That was – more than he could have done before. “I – Chris and me, we… We got a complicated relationship, Izzy. So, it might.. I wanted to make sure you knew before.”
She blinked when he finally started to speak, wrapping an arm around him. “Alright. Thanks for letting me know. Is it a.. personal family thing?”

He swallowed thickly. He nodded once. He knew right then that she wouldn’t make him elaborate. He also knew that he had to elaborate for his own mental health.
After drawing in a slow breath, he spoke.
“My dad was – an alcoholic. After Mom died. And we tried to act like he wasn’t, but he was. And – And… He was a member of the army, so we moved a lot. And Chris got angry about all of it. When he hit high school, I bought my own apartment so he could stay in one place. And it was all great for a little. It was great. But then, it wasn’t. And he didn’t think I was the cool older brother, he thought I was embarrassing, and dumb, and he found his academic clique, and he finally belonged. But then, he didn’t belong to my family anymore, he decided.”
He frowned. This was the first time he voiced these thoughts, and they poured out at a violent rate, words cascading like a waterfall.
Izzy rested a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. “That sounds rough.”
“If that had been the worst of our relationship, we’d be fine now. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t the worst.”
Izzy waited for him to continue. He couldn’t for a moment. After a few seconds, he forced more words out, pace getting faster and faster until words were joined together. “Dad came home drunk, really drunk, and I had already had a really awful work day, and I was just so tired of all the tension that always happened when Dad showed up at the house, but… I didn’t… He took my keys. And Chris was so mad, and I couldn’t tell Dad off because I was a coward.”

Bel frowned at the word, remembering what his father had said before. He shook his head, looking as close to stern as a child could be. James kept an arm around his shoulder, not taking what he said back.
Instead, he barreled forward. “He left with my keys. And – And he died that night, Izzy. It wasn’t – it wasn’t just that, though.”
His vision blurred in front of him, but he continued stubbornly. “A teenage girl was driving that night.” Izzy inhaled sharply. James was certainly in too deep to stop now. “She wasn’t supposed to be driving; it was past midnight. She was – picking up her little sister, Izzy. Her little sister who snuck out. And instead of picking up the…”

The room was dead silent as Izzy listened, expression unreadable. James began to speak again. “She died. She died, and Dad died, and Dad died a villain. Because drunk drivers, no matter what they did during their life, they – they die villains, Izzy, and no one remembers the good, and…”
He couldn’t continue. So many words poured out of him that he found he had none left. Bel clung to him tightly, reaching up and patting the side of his face a few times.
Izzy spoke quietly after silence lingered between them again. “I take it you and Chris didn’t get along after that?”
James swallowed. “Um, we didn’t talk. For weeks, actually, any time I saw him winding up, I just…ran out of the room. But that didn’t last forever, and before he left for college, he laid all his chips down.”

Izzy watched him for a few moments. Still, her expression wasn’t clearly readable. James looked down at the floor, anxious that he ruined what was budding between them.
She took his hand again. He looked up quickly. “You were trying to be a loyal son. And you…made a mistake.”
He nodded jerkily.
“Why don’t we head back to the hospital?” She asked, rubbing his arm with one hand.
When they reached the hospital again, Chris’s surgery was finished and he was stabilized. In turn, James felt stabilized, as though he could breathe again.
They entered his hospital room. James and Bel sat side by side, James watching Chris for any sign of movement or life.
As soon as he wasn’t pumped up by adrenaline, exhaustion attacked. It seemed to do the same to Bel. Bel buried his face in James’s side, breathing heavy. “I love you.” The boy mumbled, barely able to be heard.
James almost smiled at that. “I love you, too, buddy.”

After three agonizing hours of sitting at Chris’s bedside, he finally began to wake. His eyes opened slowly, as though there were lead weights keeping them closed. He looked bleary eyed and bewildered, still recovering from a large dose of medication in his system.
The doctor had told James not to expect any conversation from Chris until at least another day. He didn’t tell James, though, that Chris would still be able to have emotional reactions to his surroundings.
Almost as soon as he saw James, tears began to fall down his pale cheeks.
James felt a dam open somewhere deep within. He began to cry harshly, the sound broken and ugly. Before, this kind of noise would be confined in a bathroom, never to see the light of day. That silenced side of himself was vanishing more and more each day.

So he cried. And it hurt, but it felt…healing. Cleansing. He was hit with the type of tears that helped instead of tearing a person apart. He couldn’t remember the last time that he cried in such a way of release, of healing.
Chris began to cry, too. James couldn’t remember the last time he saw his little brother cry. Seeing a person who he watched grow up cry in such a way was heart wrenching in its own right. He did everything he possibly could to make sure that Chris wouldn’t have to go through pain if it was avoidable.

Then, he cut him off. That was the most painful thing imaginable, to lose a support system. He hated that he did that. But… He didn’t hate himself for doing it. At the time, he was emotionally rubbed raw in every way, seconds away from cracking into a thousand bits. So he did something hurtful, yes, but it wasn’t malicious. He was trying to protect himself.
That in itself was a rarity for James, and though it wasn’t the right choice by any means, maybe… it was forgivable. Even if it wasn’t for Chris, James could begin to forgive himself.
Chris tried to move, body covered in wires. James thought he looked like a science experiment, like a resurrected corpse. He was a resurrected corpse, in James’s eyes. A miracle of science. Because – James saw him before he arrived at the hospital, and he looked like a corpse in every sense of the word. Only a day ago, he resembled the figures that appeared in James’s crime shows. Only scarier. Much, much scarier. When James watched his shows, he always got to wonder how they were pretending not to breathe. To not have that luxury…

It caused an emotional release to see Chris with expressions, with light in his eyes like he did as a child. He was still pale, in that way that people who touch death are. But he escaped death’s clutches, and James just could not stop the tears of relief.
James realized that Chris was still trying to sit up and was dragged out of his thoughts immediately. He shook his head emphatically, gently pushing him back down.
Immediately, James saw the side of Chris that he always admired and was vaguely annoyed by. He had a glint of defiance in his eyes. James shook his head again, standing with Bel in his arms. Chris looked frightened. James realized Chris thought he was going to leave again. Instead, he sat carefully beside Chris on the bed.
Chris tried to speak, voice forming muffled words with a contrite tone.
For the third time, James shook his head. “Can you save a speech for a time when you’re not standing on a bridge with the grim reaper?”
Chris swallowed. Instead of trying to speak again, he rested his head on James, staring up at him tiredly.
James smiled fondly. “Get some rest, dude. I’ll stay here.”

For a few days, they remained quiet, tiptoeing around each other even without Chris able to walk.
Three days later, they finally spoke to one another. When James entered the room early morning, he blurted out an apology. Chris, apparently, had the same idea, saying an equally impassioned apology.
They stared at each other for a moment. James realized that Chris’s eyes were no longer foggy, that they had a clarity to them. After a moment, they both laughed awkwardly.
James cleared his throat. “Um, you wanna go first?”

Chris winced a little. When he spoke, it was with a froggy voice. “I – didn’t mean what I said. I was wrong. I was so wrong, and I get it if you hate me forever. You – did everything for me, and I should’ve been grateful. Instead, I was such a…brat during high school. I didn’t get how – much you protected me until I was in college. And then… Then I realized that you provided everything. Everything. And in turn, I decided that you were – insignificant. ‘Cause of some stupid friends who weren’t there as soon as – as everything came out about Dad.”
James paused. “They… Did they cast you out?”
Chris nodded. “As soon as that came out. They treated me like I was you. Um…No offense. That was.. Sorry.”
James snorted. “You’re gonna have to work a lot harder to offend me, Chris. I grew up with your snarky nonsense every day.”
Chris immediately looked a bit calmer. James smiled at the sight, sitting on the uncomfortable vinyl seat. He took a long drink of the cheap, watery tasting coffee. “I’m sorry I ignored your calls. I was – I was a real coward, Chris. You were right, before. Was so afraid of breaking any further.”
Chris nodded quickly. “I – I know. I know. That’s why I kept trying. I wanted to tell you I was sorry, tell you about college, about all the drama with the girls, and everything stupid. I just…hoped. Hoped you’d be able to forgive me.”
James was quiet for another moment. He took another drink of coffee. He found that method suited him well, forming his thoughts while he took a drink rather than having to force out half-formed thoughts. After his lingering drink, he spoke quietly. “I forgive you, Chris. I forgive you. You were grieving; you…lost a father, too.”
They looked at each other for a moment. Then, Chris moved forward in that stubborn way of his and yanked James into a hug. James laughed. He cried, too. And both of those – they were okay.

They held that position for several moments, like they used to when Chris had a terrible day or James failed another test. Only – it was different. It was different, and Chris was taller than James now, and James was definitely gentler than he was before.
And then, they just got to talk. Talk like brothers, talk like they were friends for decades. They were.
“I got a kid now. It – um, wasn’t intentional, but now I got a child, and I wouldn’t change the little dude for anything. He’s so sweet.”
Chris smiled. “I assumed. I mean, you had him with you, so I was hoping it wasn’t just someone you kidnapped.”
James laughed,  He felt embarrassment flush his cheeks. “….About that..”
Chris stared at him for a few moments. “…You are not allowed to say that and then not elaborate. Not allowed.”
James laughed again, throwing his head back in a way that happened rarely. “Uh…He wanted to be kidnapped. Oh, s***, that sounds worse. That really sounds worse. No, really.”
Chris started to laugh, still looking perplexed.
James grinned, before becoming a little more solemn. “I found him in the street. Kinda assumed he was homeless. …He was not homeless. His dad is the person who kidnapped you.”
Chris’s eyes widened. “You mean my kidnapping was a retaliation kidnapping?”
James paused. “When you put it like that… Anyway, he was being abused, bad. Found him almost dead. And I – kinda freaked. Wasn’t gonna let that happen. So I took him in. And I guess Mr. Jefferson wasn’t a big fan of that choice.”
“Your life wasn’t nearly this exciting before.” Chris said, voice deadpan.
James snorted. “I know, right? Bel brings a lot of excitement with him. You’ll really like him, I think. He asks a lot of questions, just fyi. Now that he knows that it’s common to ask what someone’s favorite color, he’s been asking it before he says hello to someone. I’m not discouraging it, it’s too freakin’ cute.”
Chris wore a bright smile. “I can’t wait to meet him, then. Where is he, anyway? Thought he was attached to your hip.”
“He’s sleeping in the waiting room with Izzy. I’m sure he’ll bounce in soon.”
They smiled at each other for a moment, going quiet. Then, James remembered something. “Hey, you haven’t told me about the college experience yet!”
Chris grinned. “There’s not much to tell. I’m still a nerd. A massive one. I…stayed away from the pretentious crowd after what happened, though. Learned my lesson there.”
“Better to learn it in high school than when you’re forty and you don’t got any genuine friends.”
“…A good point. You say that like you’re a forty-year-old. I’m majoring in English. Taking a lot of writing courses. Um.. So, a part of me might be doing it to spite Dad, but that’s okay, right?”
James smiled, reaching over and ruffling his hair. “You haven’t changed one bit, have you? That’s just fine. Least Dad inspired you somehow.”
Chris laughed a little. “I really love it, though. My peers are a lot like me, and I – wanna write. Forever. Even if I don’t make it anywhere.”
“That’s real admirable, Chris. I mean, I work at Wal-Mart. So it’s not like I’m gonna judge your career choice.”
“You did get a job, though?” Chris asked, looking proud in that weird way that he pulled off somehow.
“I did. Customer service, if you’d believe it.”
Chris couldn’t hold back the laugh that surfaced. “You. Got a job in customer service? Why? Why would you do that to yourself? You hate people who complain.”
James went a little red. “Well, I didn’t… think of it like that!” He stammered. “Besides, I met Bel on the way home from work, so it was worth it. So…Shut up, you little jerk.”
Chris wore such a radiant smile that James might as well have said that he was the most intelligent man in America.

And this – This was what James missed more than anything else. The dumb jokes, the complete understanding that they had for each other that someone could only have if they grew up watching them. If they saw them at their worst, their best, and their terribly awkward.
Right then, Bel appeared with a massive bedhead, pattering over to James and resting his head on James’s shoulder wearily. James scooped him up. “Still exhausted, huh? That was a lot for anyone, much less a little one. Chris, this is Bel.”
Chris smiled at him, trying to look a little less threatening in spite of the wires surrounding him. “Hi, Bel. James was telling me all about you.”
Bel’s eyes widened. Chris laughed a little. “All good things, I promise.”

Bel examined him. In a sleepy, subdued voice, he began his usual interrogation act. “Wha’s your favorite color?”
“I like blue, I think. Been a while since anyone asked me that. What’s your favorite?”
Bel looked up at James for a moment, speaking in that same quiet voice, like he was unsure if he should be speaking. “I like green. Like Daddy’s eyes. He says they’re vomit colored, but he’s wrong. They’re… Creamy. I like that green.”
James laughed. “I don’t know what that means, but I’ll take it as a compliment.”
Chris smiled at Bel, wearing a welcoming expression that James thought suited him well. “That makes total sense.”
Bel examined him critically. “Do you like teddy bears?”
Chris’s smile grew. “They’re awesome. I used to have quite the collection. I…Actually carried this little leopard stuffed animal around with me everywhere I went. James won it at a carnival, and I kinda got really jealous in that obvious way little kids get, so he gave it to me as a birthday gift.”
“I can’t believe you remember that! You were, like, five.” James exclaimed.
Bel watched the two of them for a moment before fleeing the room. Chris looked perplexed, head tilted a little. “He do that often?”
James nodded, counting down out loud.
By the time that he reached zero, Bel sprinted in with five bears in his arms, handing them over to Chris one by one. He wore a meek expression.

Chris smiled tiredly. James thought that sickness was still written on his face, even though it was clear he was putting in an effort to hide it. “These for me?”
Bel nodded quickly, looking a little embarrassed. “They…they make me feel happy when I’m not happy. I thought… I’m sorry if it’s dumb, sir.”
Chris shook his head quickly. “It’s really thoughtful of you. I don’t know a lot of kids that would care. God knows I didn’t when I was that small.”
James looked him up and down. “And you’re definitely not that small now. You were supposed to stop growing by the time you reached college! What happened?”
Chris laughed. “Uh, I ate a ton of vegetables?”
James raised an eyebrow. “No. Really. You can’t cook.”
Chris wore a pouty expression. “….I ate a lot of raw vegetables, okay? And ate what was at mess hall. Shut up.”
James laughed again. Chris pulled a teddy bear close, squint-glaring at his brother. Bel moved to James’s side, speaking in a loud whisper, more akin to a stage whisper and much louder than he had been when he mumbled before. “I like him. Is he staying?”
James smiled. “For a little bit, at the very least. And we’ll – maybe get to visit him at his fancy college.”
Chris looked up quickly. “I’m graduating this year. I – If you could make it, that’d… mean a lot. I couldn’t believe you went to my high school graduation, even, with how much of a jerk I was to you.”
James frowned. “Hey, don’t talk like that. You were a teenager. Teenagers can be jerks sometimes, man, that’s just how it is. You still had a great heart, and you were still my brother.”

Chris just stubbornly shook his head. James felt oddly proud that his stubbornness hadn’t faded with age. If anything, it tied closely with his morals. Stubbornness and morals, when tied together, could wage a war against anything in a person’s way. Especially with someone as bright as Chris.
James smiled fondly. “Really, man, I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m not holding a grudge. Why are you?”
“….That’s a valid point. But… You were the only.. This is dumb. I’m sorry. I… While we’re getting it all out.. At first, when you didn’t answer, it really, really hurt. ‘Cause all my friends abandoned me after what happened, and after I left for college, I realized you were the only one left from that time that didn’t just abandon me. Because I abandoned you. But then… It felt like you abandoned me. If that makes sense.”
Upon seeing James’s expression, Chris backtracked. “And I know why you did it, and I know what I’m saying barely makes sense, but I wanted to get it out.”

James was quiet for a moment. “No, you’re right. I should have thought about what you were going through. I… Chris, I didn’t tell you, but I really did feel like I was drowning. As soon as Dad passed away, something broke and I didn’t know how to fix it.”
He wanted to elaborate further. He didn’t want to look pathetic. That was quite the balancing act. “I… Hid on the couch, couldn’t sleep on my bed, couldn’t shave, couldn’t cook, all this… Crap that sounds pathetic when I even try to explain it. So I swear, it was just… fear. And – tiredness, Chris. Just feeling so exhausted with everything, especially everything that lurked outside my phone.”
Chris watched him, looking thoughtful. “It…Did you ever try to get help or anything?”
James frowned. “Didn’t think I was – bad enough for that.”
Chris made a face. He wore a face that every person of modern thinking wears when facing the old fashioned ways. James recognized this, cringing a little. Chris spoke patiently. “It doesn’t work like that. If you’re not feeling like yourself, you’re supposed to see someone, James.”
James made a face. “You make it sound so black and white.”
Chris paused. “You’re right. It isn’t that easy. But… It should be. I saw a therapist.” He added, though it wasn’t an admission, like James would have treated it as. 
James’s confusion must have showed. Chris spoke in a playful voice. “I know Dad taught us to be emotionally constipated. But we don’t gotta stick to that, you know. Feeling things… It isn’t something to be embarrassed of.”
James frowned. If anyone else had said that to him, he would have been irritated. He would have shrugged it off. But this was Chris. And… He did seem more adjusted. More at peace with himself. He was quiet for a few moments. “…How do you go to a place like that? What if they…judge you?”
Chris paused. “It’s nice to bring a friend with you. I can always come with you. I mean, I’ve been through it before.”
James nodded once after a few moments. “I… I don’t know if I’ll be able to go myself. But Bel should go to someone. He’s… Been through too much. Too young to go through all that he went through.”
Chris nodded. “Then we’ll do some research and find someone that’ll help him with that. And maybe you can learn some of the methods Bel learns.”
Bel looked up. Based off of his expression, he heard adults talking and zoned out but then realized they were speaking his name. James offered a smile. “We’re talking about what we can do to help you heal.”
Bel blinked up at him. “But.. Back doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“Emotionally.” James clarified.
Bel nodded, resting his head on James with a smile. Just like that. It was that simple for someone who didn’t have all these preconceived notions for how a person has to behave, has to feel.
Chris smiled reassuringly.

And James… James thought that maybe talking to someone wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He already was getting better at talking to friends about thoughts. …Maybe that was because he actually had friends now.
James smiled a little. “Hey, by the way, I actually have friends now. A girlfriend, even.”
Chris wore a proud grin. “I can’t wait to meet them! What’re their names? Is the girl cute?”
James gave a wry look. “Henry and Izzy. Izzy’s beautiful, Chris. I think you’ll like her a lot. She’s smart and kind, and she’s got the cutest little kid. Named Timmy.”
Chris blinked. “You finally got a use for your baby whispering, then?”
“God, it feels good to be around someone who was there for the origins of my mad babysitting skills. And hey, just ‘cause you’re the worst babysitter…”
“You are so rude to me.” Chris said with a bright grin.
James wore a matching smile. Memories of receiving desperate calls from Chris came flooding back. “Every single time you babysat, man. Every single time.”
Chris looked sheepish. “That kid was demonic.”
James laughed. “So you say.” He examined Chris for a moment. He saw just how pale he looked, how spent he looked. After the emotions the two went through, it was no surprise. He spoke again “…You need to rest.”
Chris wore an odd smile at that. “Missed having someone protective like you are.”
James smiled at him quietly. “Missed having you around. Get some sleep. I’ll be right here, yeah?”
So the two settled in, a pile of teddy bears circled around Chris. He looked like he was a part of some bizarre ritual.

One morning, before James and Izzy even considered getting out of bed, James’s phone rang, the bell tone loud and obtrusive in the bedroom.
He groaned, sitting up and answering it. To his surprise, Matthew’s nasal voice rang over the phone. “James, it’s been weeks and you haven’t turned up for work. Are you intentionally being irresponsible or is it coming naturally?”
James blinked a few times. Before he could think of a response, Matthew spoke again, tone condescending. “Being irresponsible is a form of disrespect to those in charge of you. Are you aware of that?”
James made a sleepy noise that could be interpreted as a “yessir.”
Of course, Matthew went on. He always did, in a tone that sounded as though someone punched him in the nose and deserved it. “I’m willing to be…forgiving. I’m afraid I’ll have to dock your pay, though. You have to understand. I could easily fire you. Instead, I’ll extend forgiveness if you come to work early tomorrow.”

James stared at the phone for several seconds, starting to become more aware. He thought about his past month. He thought about how he was certain more than once that his life was going to be over, how it always went on. He was silent for a moment. Then, he spoke, voice clear, not hesitant. “No.”
Immediately, Matthew let out a displeased, annoyingly nasal noise. God, that tone was grating. “What do you mean?”
James took a breath. “I mean no. I mean I don’t want the job back; I want to quit. It doesn’t make me happy. I don’t – think it ever did. Thanks, sir. Goodbye.”
He didn’t give time for Matthew to speak, for him to try to change his mind. Instead, he hung up. Izzy wore a bright grin, giving him a thumbs-up.
James laughed, dramatically lying on the bed again and throwing his arms around her.

A week later, Chris finally got discharged from the hospital.
James felt anticipation bubble in his stomach at the idea of Chris seeing his apartment. It should have been a terrifying prospect. In fact, if it had been two months sooner, the thought would have made him physically ill. Now, he felt excited as he sat in the waiting room with Izzy and Henry.
When Chris came into the waiting room with crutches, James sprung to his feet with a goofy smile. He had all of his family together now. And they all got to meet.
Chris smiled wide, although it hid a pained wince. “You must be Izzy. You hate your job as much as James hated his before, right?”
Izzy laughed, reaching out and shaking his hand. “I’d like to give a shout out to capitalism for letting that sentence exist.”
Chris’s grin became genuine immediately. “Oh, I like her already.”
James wrapped an arm around Izzy with a smile. “You two are gonna get into intellectual talk about government and I’m gonna be completely clueless. I can feel it in the air.…Speaking of, Chris, this is Henry. He works at a library for a living. He knows every book ever, and he watched his first Disney movie this year.”
Henry nodded solemnly. “James showed me Beauty and the Beast. And now I’ve bought every single animated Disney movie.”
The group began to head outside of the dreary hospital. James blinked, eyes widening. “You didn’t tell me that! I coulda just downloaded them for you, dude.”
Henry shook his head. “No. I tend to either dedicate myself fully or not commit at all. So I have fifty-five movies, and all of them are Disney, and that’s just something I’m going to have to live with.”
Chris interjected with a smile. “So, you’re saying that we’re going to marathon all the Disney movies ever at someone’s house before I leave, right?”
James nodded quickly. “We’re doing it at Henry’s house. For sure. Because apparently Mr. Library Salary Man lives in a mansion.”
“…Family inheritance has to pay off somehow.” Henry replied, changing the subject quickly. “I’ll be grateful you’re able to enjoy my house under better circumstances, without everything on your shoulders.”
Chris watched the two of them, then at James. “So, you befriended a paralegal, a rich guy, and a child who all care about you?”
James snorted. “Yeah. All within the span of a few months, too.”
Chris blinked. “I think years of dealing with crap finally paid off for you, James.”
“…I think you’re right. Let’s go home and eat a ton of food.” James smiled, helping Chris into Izzy’s car, being sure not to overstep his bounds.
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” came Chris’s cheeky response.

Again, when they arrived at the apartment that James spent years associating with dread, he felt anxious and hesitant to guide him inside. Nonetheless, he walked up the stairs with a small army of people behind him.
Bel walked ahead of him. James was struck with how a week ago, the two held a similar position. When James wasn’t sure if he was going to live through the day.
He didn’t understand how so much could change so quickly. He did know that it was completely liberating to be in a similar place with a support system big enough to sound like a stampede of elephants on the steps.

When James showed Chris around the apartment, Chris beamed at the photos on the walls.
Eventually, he showed Chris Bel’s bedroom. Bel, of course, led the charge, talking excitedly about his moon nightlight.
James showed Chris the rainbow mural on the wall that the two of them worked on, the mural that had markings of both a child and adult.

Chris examined him for several moments. He looked as though he were thinking of how to voice his thoughts.
Finally, he spoke. “No more empty walls. I’m proud of you, James.”
James looked at the rainbow vomit colored walls. He pulled Bel close, wrapping an arm around Chris as well. For the first time, James felt as though contentment was attainable permanently as it warmed him inside and out.

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