Notes: And here we go, with...more description! Well, no, there's other stuff, but we're not quite at the funeral yet. That will come with the next post. I hope this one answers some questions and brings up some new ones. Thanks so much for your responses so far, darlins:)
Title: Love Letters
Part Two: The Unexpected Admirer
It took two and a half hours to fly from Denver, Colorado to Charlotte, North Carolina. Two and a half hours was more than enough time for Ben to doubt the wisdom of his decision to drop everything and fly to the other side of the country for the funeral of a man he’d never met before—hell, he had never even seen Brody before, apart from catching the tail end of a Blue Devils game once on TV and the occasional family photo included in a letter. No contact beyond the written word, that was the rule they had put in place for themselves when they were still kids, and Ben had abided by that rule, even when he was making himself sick crushing over Brody in high school. In retrospect, keeping it as impersonal as they had had been a brilliant decision. It let them be absolutely honest with each other in a way you simply couldn’t be with someone you saw face to face.
Ben had grown up cherishing the written word, thanks in part to the fact that his family owned a considerable number of Benjamin Franklin’s personal correspondence. Letters were the highest value thing he owned. When his third grade teacher orchestrated a pen pal project with another class in Concord, Ben had been excited beyond belief. The other class had had two more students than theirs, but Ben had volunteered to write to anyone who was left. In the end he got three names: Piper Digby, his original assigned pen pal, Jennifer Schroeder and Brody Kuzniar. He wrote to each of them, painstakingly careful with his penmanship, and included a sticker at the bottom next to his name. Piper got a dog, Jennifer got a flower and Brody got a football.
He sent each of them the same letter, telling them his name and why he had it (his mother had insisted), what his favorite things to do were (reading and playing Nintendo) and that he had a cat named Roanoke (after the original colony—his mother had obsessed about making everything, even a pet’s name, of some sort of significance).
The only person who wrote him back was Brody. Ben had been over the moon for that letter, avidly rereading it dozens of times before he wrote again. He’d kept every letter Brody had ever written him, but this one was special because it was the first.
Thank you for your nice letter. I liked the football sticker. I play football with my dad every Sunday. My favrite team is the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels but I also like the Broncos which is your favrite football team becoz they are from Denver.
My mom sais it is speshal that you are named after Benjamin Franklin. I am named after my Grandpa. I have a big sister who is Pam and a baby brother who is Ryan but he’s just a baby he doesn’t do anything yet. I like to play football and baseball and I have a dog named Rowsby Woof he is a golden retrever and he plays ball too.
Thank you for writing me. Please write again.
Your friend, Brody
With that simple missive, Brody cemented himself as Ben’s best friend. It didn’t matter if months went by without Brody replying, Ben always wrote him without fail once a week. All of the social cues that felt so cumbersome in interpersonal interactions fell away when Ben wrote, and he was able to talk to Brody about anything and everything. Brody’s letters had a quality of “my mother is making me write back to be polite” for a while, but after the first year, he started to write more frequently, about more than generalities. He told Ben about how badly he wanted to play football forever, about how his dad got drunk sometimes and his mom got very quiet, about his stupid sister’s boyfriend (so gross!) and about when his dog got hit by a car and had to be put down. The first year of their correspondence set the course for the rest of their lives, and after that it never faltered.
Ben had never imagined that it would cut short by Brody dying so young.
It had taken all of his willpower not to Google his friend and get the details. Ben had resisted that sort of snooping for years, and he wasn’t going to break tradition just to look into his oldest friend’s death. He’d find everything out that anyone needed to know at the funeral.
Yeah, the funeral…shit. Ben took out the card and looked at it again. So formal, so strange…he had been to funerals before, obviously, but they hadn’t really been public affairs. His mother had been cremated by her request, with a polite, impersonal note that she’d written herself sent out to family and friends. Actually, one of the replies to that note had come from Ben’s own father, the first time he’d heard from the man in close to a decade. A few lines of awkward sympathy followed up by a half-hearted inquiry about how Ben was getting on, and a few more lines about his father’s life in Canada, his newest family (he was on his third wife and fifth child, apparently) and his work. Ben hadn’t answered.
His grandfather’s death had been much more broadly publicized, but that was because the man was a renowned author. The funeral itself had been very small, mostly Franklin descendants, none of them staying for more than a day. He’d buried his grandfather in a simple pine box up on their cabin’s land. He could see the headstone from the kitchen window. It might be a little macabre, but Ben kind of liked that it was there, that he could still have some sort of connection with someone in his family.
And now he was headed to the funeral of a man he’d never physically met, but felt he knew better than anyone else in the world. Ben had no idea what his role was supposed to be. Who had sent him the card? He could believe it was Brody’s mother, if she still remembered him; she took her southern hospitality very seriously, but he hadn’t heard from her since he was ten. He could still picture her handwriting, elegant, almost like calligraphy. (It’s so lovely that you and Brody are still writing each other, dear. It seems he can only be bothered to put pen to paper for you.)
Brody’s wife Cheryl knew Ben existed, as did his siblings, presumably, but he’d never directly communicated with any of them. About them, plenty. Brody had dragged Ben kicking and screaming into the world of immediate communication, and once they started emailing back and forth, Brody restricted his hand-written notes to the end of the yearly Christmas letter. (Cheryl’s sick of all our family photographs revolving around sports, so this year she bought us matching sweaters and made us wear antlers. She thinks it’s festive, but one crack about me being Prancer and I’ll end you, man. I’m Blitzen, anyone can see that.)
Please Come. Even the handwriting was an enigma, neither blatantly masculine or feminine. Not that Ben expected curlicues and hearts, but he was used to being able to tell the gender of a writer solely by their style. This was just…he didn’t know. Had no idea. What would he say, when he got there? How would he explain himself when someone asked him who he was and what he was doing there? “Hi, I’m Ben DeWitt, I’m Brody’s pen pal.” He’d be lucky if they didn’t think he was some sort of internet stalker.
Suck it up, he scolded himself. Nobody forced you to come. It’ll be fine. Everything will be fine, as long as you don’t concentrate on the fact that you’re there to say goodbye to your best friend, your sounding board, your soulmate. Ben had thought that more than once about Brody; it couldn’t be everyone who started with a pen pal and ended up with a true confidant. There had never been anything romantic between them; Brody was as straight as a nail, and while he’d taken Ben’s coming out with amazing ease he’d never been interested in more than they’d had. Once Ben had recovered from his crush, he’d realized that he’d felt the same way. Their relationship was special, and not something that needed the clouding and complication of sexual infatuation.
“Sir. Sir. Sir.” The careful tapping on Ben’s shoulder jerked him out of his reverie, and he looked up at the friendly blonde flight attendant who’d obviously been trying to get his attention for some time. “Sir, please raise your seat back, we’re beginning our descent into Charlotte.”
“Right. Sorry,” Ben muttered, fumbling for the button that would straighten his seat.
“It’s fine,” she murmured, her voice a soft southern drawl. All around them people were in the process of waking up; it was nearly midnight out here on the east coast. She blushed a little. “Actually…I was wondering, ‘cause you look just like…are you the man who wrote Liberty or Death?”
How did she…oh, that damn book jacket. Ben had tried to get away with not using a picture for his bio, but his publisher had been adamant. It wasn’t the first time Ben had been recognized that way, and every time made him uncomfortable. But now she was beginning to look uncomfortable too, and he didn’t want that.
“That’s me,” Ben answered easily enough, his voice not letting out his discomfort. She grinned at him, her pearly whites two perfect, shining rows.
“I love your book! We’re readin’ it for my book club right now. I’ve got the hardback and the Kindle version, I pick it up every time I have a layover of more than a couple hours. I just started the chapter on Thomas Payne today, and y’know, it’s just so inspiring! Thank you for writing it!”
“Thank you for reading it,” Ben said with a smile. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy being appreciated, he just didn’t do well publicizing himself. But then, that was why he had Linda.
“I’ve actually got my paper copy with me. I was hoping, maybe after we touch down, you could just take a moment and sign it for me. Please?”
“I’d be happy to.”
“Great!” Her smile got impossibly wider. “Thank you! You won’t even have to move, I’ll bring it right over to you. The girls aren’t going to believe this, that I met you on a flight! I’m so excited!”
“It’s my pleasure,” Ben assured her. And it was. At least someone was getting something good out of his presence. Tomorrow…well, today at this point, he’d find out if it his being here really meant anything to anyone else.