Four more days.
I was reading some submission guidelines for some small presses, and one of them required section breaks to be formatted with three line breaks and three asterisks in the center line break, so I went ahead and did that. Not sure if I like the look, but they're there now.
Morning came very quickly, in the perceptive sense. Nothing had changed about the relationship between the earth and the sun, though many of the guests could have been tricked into believing so. As the sunlight trickled in through the many sun tunnels throughout Liza’s home, so did the soft sound Ben’s guitar. The sound might have been pleasant under other circumstances, but it was far too early, and the Ben was just strumming the same three chords again and again, stopping and starting without rhythm. This continued until Connor, who was sharing a wall with Ben, got up out of his bed and walked over to the next room.
Connor knocked. Ben set his guitar carefully on his bed and opened the door. He wasn’t expecting Connor of all people, but he needed a second set of ears and was grateful that someone else was up that early.
“Perfect, come in; come in,” he said, dragging Connor into his room before he could even speak.
Ben threw Connor into a chair and picked back up his guitar and the sheet of paper he had been writing notes on. Connor slumped into the chair and led his eyelids sink, but Ben’s immediate beckoning shot him out of his upright sleeping purgatory.
“I need your help,” he said.
Connor yawned and opened his eyes. Ben, uncomfortably juggling the tasks of holding a guitar in concert with writing on paper, met his line of sight, annoyed that Connor was not helping him despite not having not specified any topic or direction.
“What’s up,” Connor asked.
“I’m trying to write a song for Billy,” Ben said.
He crossed out a lyric angrily without proper backing support for the page. His pen ripped through the paper. Ben swore and reached for a new page, regretting his habit of buying loose leaf paper.
“I don’t know if ‘I’m sorry your cousin died’ is best explored through song,” Connor replied. “Though, I don’t listen to much country music, and I have this ghostly feeling that that’s a common topic. When are the CMAs?”
“Heather’s not-” Ben started, stopping immediately. “Heather’s not in this song. It’s just a love song. Plain and simple.”
“Then I might criticize your timing,” Connor replied.
He felt an urge to get up and leave, but his body was too tired to exit his seated position, and he decided he could put up with Connor a little bit longer. Billy ignored Connor’s comments and continued writing.
“What’s a good rhyme pair for ‘tight ass’?” Ben asked, still looking at his page.
Connor scooted up in his chair, suddenly very awake.
“‘No class’,” Connor replied. “When exactly do you plan on singing this?”
Ben looked up.
“You know, I can tell that that was supposed to be a dig at me,” Ben said. “But it actually fits and I am going to use it.”
Ben continued scribbling. A light wave of jealousy washed over Connor as he watched. Not necessarily a gay wave, but the wave one is typically washed over by when observing another individual getting attention when one is lacking that attention.
“Nobody’s ever written me a song,” Connor said.
Ben looked up from his writing again. Connor was slumped dumbly in the chair.
“Have you ever written anyone a song?” Ben asked.
The answer was no. The point was taken. Connor did not reply.
“Thought so,” Ben answered for him. “Is it too much of a stretch to rhyme ‘fairly complainy’ with ‘thick and veiny’?”
Connor choked on his spit.
“A little blunt, isn’t that?” Connor asked.
“Actually, a little pointier than you’d expect,” Ben replied to more choking sounds. “Could you go wake up Billy and bring him here? I feel like I need more concrete visual sensory detail in the song, but he’s making a stupid face in all his Instagram photos. I tried texting him but he’s probably still asleep.”
Connor gave Ben an ‘I do not approve of being used as an alarm clock’ stare, but got nonetheless. He exited the room, and Ben shouted back.
“Don’t spoil the song,” Ben said. “Just tell him I need his advice picking out an outfit or something.”
When the footsteps faded away, Ben picked back up his guitar.
‘something something something when’ ‘then’ ‘men’? Ben regretted sending away Connor so quickly. He set down his guitar, scolding his singing ability in his thoughts. He hated that he couldn’t properly put his feelings into words without sounding cliché. He hated how that feeling in it of itself was cliché, and lastly, he hated that that sort of metacognitive introspection was even taking place. If he wanted to write stupid cheesy love songs, he should be able to write stupid cheesy love songs. Unfortunately, no amount of proactive positive thought could qualm the anxieties. This is what he got for being a Gemini.
Connor trekked his sway over to Billy’s room which, the placement becoming clearer as Connor neared, was regrettably next to Heather’s room. The door was open and the room smelled strongly of wine. Connor took a step forward and stared inside. It was empty for the most part. The wrinkles looked the same as when Bailey and Connor had left, but he tried to convince himself that the indent was somehow from a live-and-well Heather who had slept through the night and was now just out having coffee somewhere.
Connor pulled himself away and knocked on Billy’s door. There was a series of grunts, a cough, and footsteps. Billy opened his bedroom door, half naked, half awake, and only half present in reality. He wasn’t expecting Connor of all people, but as the memory of the night prior slowly dissolved its way back into Billy’s mind, there were other things to be confused about.
“Brunch is at two,” Billy said, turning away.
Connor grabbed the door to stop it from closing.
“I’m not looking for food,” Connor said. “Ben needs you to help him pick out an outfit for today.”
Billy perked up but remained cool in tone.
“Is that a gay joke? Because I actually have a terrible fashion sense,” Billy said. “I slept in these sweatpants, and I fully intend on wearing them for the rest of the day.”
“His words, not mine,” Connor said. “Let’s go.”
Connor walked away, and Billy – feeling the urge to follow overcome the need to clothe himself further, both feelings relatively hazed over in his morning state – quickly followed after. Connor head straight to his room and flopped into bed, deciding now that the proper strategy was to cover his ears with pillows. Billy saw the open door to Ben’s room and stepped inside. The light was warm, the vibe was warm, and he was suddenly very aware of his lack of a shirt. Ben had yet to look up from whatever he was reading, so Billy took the moment to grab a nearby blanket and wrap it around his shoulders, the motion of which brought Ben aware.
“Oh good, did Connor find you?” Ben asked, making to stand up.
Billy sat down in the chair before Ben could get up completely. As Billy became more awake, he remembered how he and Ben had parted ways the night before. Billy looked out the door at the room Chris was sleeping. The door was shut tight. Ben looked at Billy’s. His hair was messy in a not even cute way. The skin under his eyes were morning-gaunt, and the whites of his eyes were tinted pink. Ben couldn’t relate more.
Billy looked back at Ben. He jumped up out of the bed and went to his suitcase.
“So I don’t have a lot of choices right now,” Ben said. “But I also have no idea what’s appropriate for a matinée. Here I was thinking a matinée was just a kind of movie screening. I guess I should have picked that up from being a stolen French word: matinée, soirée. Do you think that a noirée is a thing?”
Ben looked up. Billy was looking at him with a tired smile. It was clear he was trying to give the performance of paying attention but was too tired to do so sincerely. But that was just for a moment. When Billy’s eyes met Ben’s, his face shrank to a look of concern.
“What happened between you and Chris,” Billy asked.
Ben looked away and down to his suitcase, trying to remember. His memory was spotty, not because of drinking, but because part of him didn’t want to remember. He certainly hadn’t killed Chris like Billy had initially requested, but when he thought back, all he could conjure was the face of shock, anger, and disappointment on Chris as he left.
“I told him that what he did was wrong,” Ben said, thinking hard. “And I think I challenged him to a fight?”
Ben turned back to Billy who was still staring at him.
“Oh shit,” he said. “I didn’t know drunk Ben got that crazy. Do you think you can take him on?”
“I mean, I took that weight training class senior year of high school,” Ben said. “But overall, I don’t think Chris is really in the mood to throw down hands.”
Billy got up and walked over to Ben, choosing to sit at the end of the bed while Ben was on the floor.
“Is it a little to Robin Scherbatsky to say I think that’s really hot?” Billy asked.
Ben stared back without speaking, morally opposed to How I Met Your Mother references of any kind.
“It’s a little messed up and shows that you only care about what I do for you and not who I am,” Ben replied.
Billy laughed and got up, walking away from Ben.
“So are you admitting now that the ‘you can ask me for anything at any time’ and ‘I’m here for you’ were all just talk?”
“You’re one to speak with the amount that you talk.”
“Nope. Nope. This is why don’t work together.”
Billy walked over to the bed and picked up the sheet of paper curiously. Ben jumped up and ripped it out of his hands quickly, stuffing it into his pocket.
“Journaling from France,” he answered without being asked. “How’s Heather?”
“I’m not sure,” Billy replied. “If it’s anything like when I got my stomach pumped sophomore year, I’m going to go with alive, but terrible.”
Billy pulled out his phone. No messages from Heather, and her bitmoji remained squarely next his on the Snap Map.
“And how are you?” Ben asked.
“My stomach wasn’t pumped, but I am regretting not sleeping more,” Billy said. “I’m worried enough for Liza and Heather that I don’t know if I’d be able to go back to sleep, but I could definitely like, use a shower.”
Motion at the door garnered the attention of both Ben and Billy. It was Paul, looking just as exhausted as everyone else, but more clothed. He motioned towards Connor’s room.
“Did he tell you two?” Paul asked.
Paul felt immediately unwelcome. It was not as harsh as Ben’s presence the night before, but he attributed that to their apparent fatigue rather than change of heart. Their faces twisted into a ‘you don’t belong here but at the same time we don’t have the energy to really try to evict you from our moment’ sort of looks. I reality, neither Ben nor Billy were truly displeased to see Paul in particular, it was more the arrival of another person that lead to their behavior.
“Tell us what?” Ben asked.
To the extent of his knowledge, Connor had only spat out a few successful rhyme pairs and left.
“Oh dear, you two better sit down, and Billy, you should go talk to Liza soon.”
Confused and concerned, Ben and Billy sat down on the bed, and Paul took his place in the chair. Paul explained how Chris had falsely accused Heather, and how he and Chris had been fooled by Bailey and Connor, and now they had been put up to it by his brother. The two sat quietly, taking in Paul’s words. They, of course, were privy to the fact that Heather was still alive and (un)well, but the shock was still real. For all they knew, Heather really could have died that night. Billy got up. Liza was probably awake by now, and he needed to get her take on the scenario. He turned to Ben.
“Would you like to come with?” Billy asked.
“Of course,” Ben replied.
Paul muttered something about needing to help Chris with homework and let Ben and Billy head away. Once gone, Paul knocked on Chris’s door. Chris opened it. He looked tired and held a pen in his hand.
“Thank goodness,” Chris exclaimed. “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Paul entered the room. Chris had a laptop open, several sheets of paper strewn about his bed, and a look of exhaustion on his face. This one was not just fatigue exhaustion. This was ‘I have no idea how to write a eulogy’ exhaustion. Paul picked up one of the sheets of paper. All it had written on it was ‘introduce yourself. State basic information about the deceased. Positive information.’
“WikiHow only get you so far, eh?” Paul asked, setting the sheet down.
Chris collapsed into the bed, placing his face yet again into another pillow. He had known Heather for most of his life, but in this moment he felt like she was a complete stranger. He couldn’t count the number of hours he had spent pining over his unrequited and unvoiced childhood and adulthood love for Heather, but when he tried to type anything, all he could see was Heather downing that bottle of vodka, and when he tried to put pen to paper, all he could see was Heather’s back storming out of the ballroom. It was a kind of writer’s block you couldn’t really find a solution for with a Google search, maybe in therapy, but definitely not a search engine.
“Well, think back to AP Lang,” Paul said. “Who’s your audience and what’s your purpose.”
Chris got up out of the bed and picked back up one of his sheets of paper. He pressed down his pen and wrote as he spoke.
“My audience is all of you. But I’m guessing Liza is the most important there,” he said.
Paul nodded encouragingly.
“And my purpose is to honor the deceased?”
Chris looked at Paul for validation.
“That’s a good start, but we’re mostly looking to please Liza,” he said. “So you might want to emphasize personal fault and vindicate the shit out of Heather. Like, don’t even mention alcohol.”
Billy approached his aunt’s bedroom door. He could hear several voices inside chattering loudly. He knocked and footsteps pounded their way nearer. Billy and Ben were greeted to the face of Andy opening the door. Billy was about to hug his mother when he saw Heather in the room sitting on the bed behind her.
“Heather!” Billy yelled.
He ran up to his cousin and embraced her with open arms. Heather hugged back, but lightly. She too was exhausted, from the sleep deprivation, binge drinking, and subsequent stomach pumping. Liza shushed him, but Billy didn’t care. Chris and Paul and anyone that shouldn’t hear were far from earshot, and he was happy to see his cousin fully conscious and not vomiting.
Ben turned to Liza.
“Paul told us,” he said. “About Jon and everything.”
“Yes, we were made aware of that last night. My mind’s made up about Jon, but I’m still on the fence about his friends,” she said. “As for Chris and Paul, well we’ll see how they perform at brunch.”
Billy sat down on the bed and Ben took his turn hugging Heather. He too was happy to see her conscious and smiling, albeit a half smile. Liza explained how she had picked Heather up from the hospital this morning and snuck her into the house.
“I had her covered in a blanket and everything,” she said. “I was a little bit disappointed that everyone was still sleeping.”
Heather reported feeling generally fine. The actual stomach pumping, from what she could remember, wasn’t the most pleasant, but the fear and confusion of it all was worse than the actual pumping. The procedure itself just felt cold and constricting.
“So what’s the plan?” Billy asked.
“Liza initially suggested zombie makeup,” Andy replied. “Which I vetoed immediately for obvious reasons.”
Liza scoffed. It would have been really cool and totally like that one scene from Hamlet.
“Ultimately we decided that Heather will show up fashionably late right after Chris’s speech,” Liza said. “She’ll be waiting outside the dining room listening and hopefully it’ll help you deal with whatever you may be thinking about that boy.”
Heather chuckled a little. She had quite mixed feelings. Everything from leaving the ballroom with Connor to waking up in the hospital was fairly spotty. She did have fleeting images of Chris screaming as she had never seen him before, and she could feel the memory of the cold vodka bottle on her lips, but the further time progressed, the further they felt like memories of memories. She trusted her mother’s accounts, wild as they may have been, but she still felt unsettled. Unsettled about being unsure. Unsettled about having brought these people home. Unsettled about not knowing what to do.
“Speaking of which,” Liza said. “We should start preparing the dining room. Billy, Heather, you can come with me to help. Ben, if you would do your best to prevent the rest of your little friends from wandering about the house, that would be much appreciated.”
Liza threw a blanket over Heather’s head which she quickly threw off, and the three left to go set up. Ben made to leave but was stopped by Andy’s voice.
“Why don’t you hold on for a moment,” she said.
Ben turned back, concerned in part that Chris or Paul might start to move about the house and in part because he had never been in a room alone with Billy’s mother before.
“I want you to know first that I am not Liza,” Andy said. “I am not going to walk you through a cellar, and I am not going to go all daddy with a shotgun on you. That’s what we have Heather’s other mother for.”
Ben nodded and let his hand drop from the door knob. He stood, hovering awkwardly. Andy gestured to a chair and he sat, Andy taking the side of the bed.
“So, to cut to the chase, what are your intentions with my son?”
Ben’s eyes bulged and he slapped his pockets making sure that his song lyrics weren’t anywhere near. Andy laughed and dismissed Ben’s reaction.
“I’m kidding. I kid,” she said. “But I still do want to get to know you. I didn’t really get that chance when you two were a thing in high school.”
Ben made to speak but Andy kept talking.
“It’s fine. Heather told me you weren’t out or anything, so I wasn’t going to press. Plus you two weren’t necessarily the quietest boys 16-year-olds if you catch my drift.”
Ben wanted nothing more than to evaporate. Andy saw this on his face and immediately corrected herself.
“Oh god, I meant the drinking. Not, that. I mean, did you? No sorry. Which is not to say that you can’t. Oh goodness,” Andy stumbled. “What I’m trying to say is that you were loud drinkers, and that if you are allowed to do the do with my son.”
Ben’s face didn’t change.
“Oh I’m definitely note getting this message across properly.”
“I just. I feel like I missed out on really knowing you. I love my son, and from what I can tell, he really loves you to,” she said. “And that means I love you too.”
Andy smiled over at Ben who was still a little horrified, but also a little bit heartened by the encounter. He smiled back, choosing not to vocalize any of his current thoughts.
“Well, why don’t you get up and go lasso those troublemakers,” Andy said. “That may have been too kind of a word. They’ve done some truly horrific things. Regardless, go about your business, and forget I said anything about the sex stuff.”
Ben exited the room swiftly.
Liza, Heather, and Billy entered the dining room to find it already beautifully decorated. A ten-seat table had been brought in with places set for eight: Liza and Andy, Billy and Ben, Paul and Chris, and Bailey and Connor, all with hand written name tags. Liza assumed that Jon was not going to show. The end seat remained empty. Across from it, Liza had a nametag left for Heather and a bouquet of flowers laying in place of a plate.
“Thoughts?” Liza asked, introducing the room as if she had done any work other than write a check.
“Yeah, I thought you wanted us to help?” Billy said.
“Oh no, I wouldn’t trust you around my good dishes, much less shift things around,” Liza said. “Andy wanted some alone time with your Ben.”
Liza gave Billy a wink and Billy gave Liza an open faced stare.
“Oh don’t be worried,” she said, bumping Billy with her hip as she passed. “He’s competing with Chris for suitor of the year award. I think he has a good chance.”
This didn’t really calm Billy, but his anxiety was more retroactive. It had been at least five minutes since they left Liza’s, and he couldn’t imagine his mother interrogating Ben for any longer.
“He’s a good kid,” Liza said, walking over to the kitchen. “Terrible choice of friends and objectively terrible dancer, but I think he nets positive.”
Billy smiled. There was definitely an expose he didn’t like having his affections out there and known by the masses, but he was comforted to know that at the very least, Liza approved. Also, given the circumstances, he was hardly the center of attention, which was also comforting.
Ben ran through the house back to the guest quarters. Paul and Chris’s doors were both open, which gave him an initial fright, but upon closer inspection her found that they were both in Chris’s room chatting around Chris’s laptop. Further down were the rooms that Connor and Bailey were staying in, doors firmly shut. Ben guessed that the two were probably still asleep. This was correct.
He strolled into Chris’s room and the two looked up. Paul looked a little annoyed, not at Ben but at Chris, and Chris still looked scared and pale.
“What are you two up to?” Ben asked, taking a seat.
The two didn’t say anything to Ben initially. They hadn’t left on the greatest of terms during their last encounter, but a lot had happened since, and Paul at least was willing to let Ben’s words from the night prior to stay in the night prior. Chris was less willing in his silence – Ben had straight up thrown down the gauntlet – but right now he just needed help. The two started speaking at the same time, both just as eager to let Ben know that they had been duped, and it wasn’t really Chris’s fault, and that Liza wanted Chris to write a eulogy. This of course, shouted out by two at once, didn’t really work, but Chris quickly faded out and let Paul explain.
Ben knew all this information already, save the eulogy, but stayed silent to hear their side of the story. It was not unlike Connor’s explanation, just weighted a little differently. Ben peered over. Chris had about half a page on a word document typed out, single spaced. It couldn’t have been more than two hundred words.
“Do you plan on having your laptop out during the speech?” Ben asked.
Chris hadn’t thought of that. It did seem like a stupid idea. He threw himself back into his pillows. Paul gave Ben a ‘I worked hard enough to get him this far, look what you did’ look and pulled Chris back up.
“Keep those emotions for the speech,” Paul said. “Start writing down what you like and just spit the rest out from the heart.”
“He’s got a point,” Ben agreed. “Liza’s looking for sincerity. Maybe it’s best if you just say what you feel.”
“That’s the gayest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Chris.
His words were met with a pillow thrown by Ben. It missed.
“Most bisexual,” Ben shouted.
Paul picked up the pillow and thwacked Chris on the head.
“Or pansexual,” Paul said.
Liza entered the dining room reprising her black dress from the night before. Normally was not one to repeat an outfit, but it hadn’t gotten enough use, and the black had a good funeral vibe to it. Prior to her arrival she had talked the plan over once more with Heather. Once everyone was in the dining room, she would be safe to leave Liza’s bedroom and wait outside. Then after a Chris gave his speech, she could enter at her leisure.
Connor, Bailey, and Ben were the only ones present when she walked in. Neither Connor nor Bailey looked as if they belonged judging by both their physicality and choice of fashion. Ben, instructed by Liza through Billy, also wore all black, whereas Connor had shown up in athletic wear and Bailey in floral sundress. The contrast was made greater by the lack of conversation. All three had taken the initiative to not bring their phones, which may not have been a problem on any other day, but in the given circumstances the crutch might have been helpful. Ben also barely knew the two to top things off. The three sat silently and stared at the bouquet of flowers on the table. A small damp ring of water had formed on the red tablecloth around the end of the bouquet where the stems poked out, darkening the cloth ever so slightly.
Seconds after Liza, Billy entered. He was trying his hardest to wear all black but had to settle for a grey dress shirt. It fit with the rest of the room. He took the seat next to Ben and started the usual ‘how are you’ ‘I’m doing well’ robotic chit chat that one does while waiting for their two friends to arrive and perform a eulogy for the unintended and not actual death of one’s cousin. Andy, also in black, entered shortly after and sat down across from her sister.
Billy had started to wonder whether not setting an actual clock time for the brunch would have been a good idea, when Chris and Paul entered. Ben breathed a sigh of relief. Chris had not brought his laptop. He was wearing navy, which wasn’t ideal, but it was something. The two made for their spots marked with the tags, but Liza stopped Chris before he could sit.
“You can sit there as we eat, but I would like you to speak from the head of the table,” she said.