Notes: Finally, a meeting! Not a lot of explanation, but it’s coming. I’m going to have so much fun writing these two guys together, I can already tell. These posts tend to run long as it is…enjoy, guys!
Title: Love Letters
Part Four: Mourning Is A Spectator Sport
The Fellowship Hall was thick with the smell of casserole. It was an aroma that Ben was very familiar with; casserole, in its generic form, had been one of the only dishes his mother had ever made. Tuna noodle, lasagna, green bean, cheese and potato, shepherd’s pie…it all mixed together into a buttery haze, so heavy in the air that Ben thought he might be able to spread it with a knife if he tried.
The space beneath the church was divided into various rooms, but the Hall was the largest one, and it was packed to the brim with people and food. One whole wall was nothing but tables covered with pies, cakes, cookies and casseroles, their tin foil peeled back to expose the delicate innards, which were scooped up haphazardly onto plates by circulating church folk and handed over to each new entrant. Ben accepted his own paper plate and plastic fork with a muted thank you, then examined the offering. Tuna noodle, with the top burnt almost black, a gingerbread cookie probably left over from someone’s Christmas party, and a piece of—he leaned in and sniffed—sweet potato pie, with a fluffy meringue topping.
“That’s my wife’s pie there,” Greg said from behind him. “Best pie in the county. She adds lemon juice to the meringue, makes the filling taste sweeter. Give it a try, son.”
Ben cut off the end of the wedge and brought the slender sample to his mouth. It was…huh, it actually was really good. He’d never had sweet potato pie before, and didn’t care for pumpkin, but this was…
“It’s delicious,” he told Greg honestly.
Greg smiled. “I thought you might like it.” He craned his neck and looked around the room. “Go on and mingle some, son, it looks like the Kuzniars are pretty walled in at the moment.” He patted Ben on the back, then disappeared into the crowd of people. Ben felt his momentary courage flicker and die as he was left alone, surrounded by somber chatter and black crape hats. He moved, because moving felt like the best way to appear purposeful without having to attempt a conversation with a stranger, then finished his pie, because one bite had been enough to remind his stomach that he was running on empty. The tuna and the stale cookie went into the nearest trashcan.
Ben still couldn’t make out Ryan. There really were a lot of people over by the family. Maybe it would be best if he went upstairs for now, out of the cloying heat and the soft sadness, and waited for the crowd to thin a bit. Mind decided, Ben headed for the exit, making a quick detour to pick up a cup of coffee, because now that his stomach was awake, his brain was starting to demand more caffeine.
The table with the carafes was as packed as the rest of the place, but Ben managed to wend his way through and grab a cup of hot, black nirvana. The coffee was actually pretty good.
“Excuse me, honey, could you pass me the sugar?”
Ben reacted to the gentle request before he could even see who was asking him. “Of course.” He grabbed the closest container of paper packets, then turned and handed it to a small, elegant woman with curled gray hair and a pearl clutch. “Here you go, ma’am.”
The woman didn’t take the sugar. She just stared at Ben for a long moment, her bright blue eyes widening. Familiar bright blue eyes. “Benjamin DeWitt?”
Someone else who knew him from his book cover, maybe? Or… “Mrs. Kuzniar?” Ben tried, because she was too old to be Brody’s sister but those eyes were a dead giveaway. He remembered how Brody had described his mother a few times, and it had almost always been complimentary. (Pretty much I take after my dad, but I kinda wish I was more like my mom instead. She’s a hell of a lot nicer most of the time, unless you’re late for Sunday dinner.)
“Oh my goodness.” Her gloved hands flew up to her mouth, and then she was pulling Ben into a hug, heedless of the hot coffee in his hand. It sloshed over his knuckles, making him wince, but Ben managed to keep it from spilling all over Brody’s mother. “Benjamin! Oh my goodness, you’re here! Honey!”
Ah. She must have been the one to send the invitation. Ben was about to reply when she went on, “This is, my goodness, what a shock! Oh honey, I didn’t even think to let you know, and of course I should have, heavens, you’ve known Brody for forever and I know he would have wanted you to…” Her arms trembled for a moment, and Ben did his best to hug her back one-armed. She pulled back, dabbing at her eyes, and smiled weakly. “I know he would have wanted you here. Oh my goodness, look what I’ve done!” Her eyes focused on his wet hand and stained cuffs, and she tutted and took the coffee from him, handing it over to the nearest curious onlooker. She pulled a lacy little handkerchief out of her clutch.
“It’s fine,” Ben assured her, pulling his hand back, “there are plenty of napkins.”
“No no, those won’t do it,” she said, dabbing at the stain. “Oh, I’m so sorry. If we were at home I’d get you some club soda and offer you a new shirt, but I had to go and mess your pretty jacket up here.”
“It’s really no problem,” Ben said, but he let her fuss until she was as satisfied as she was going to get. She let go of his hand long enough to put the handkerchief away, then took it back again immediately.
“I should have gotten in touch with you,” she lamented again, “I’ve been thinking about you on and off ever since Brody showed me his copy of your book. That was such a nice picture of you in the back, honey.” It had been particularly nice, a three-quarter profile of him, the gray suit matching his eyes, his sandy brown hair stylishly spiked and a slender goatee accentuating his mouth. Ben’s face was nothing special, he’d always known that, his nose slightly snubbed and a little too wide where it had been broken when he was twenty-one. His eyebrows quirked up in the middle and his forehead was already lined from frowning at too many books, but he’d looked…pretty good, in that picture. For him. Right now, tired, stained and wearing a five-o-clock shadow that he’d forgotten to shave off in his hurry that morning, he was surprised Brody’s mother had recognized him at all.
“I guess I still usually remember you as a little boy,” she continued, patting his hand. “But you came anyway, and I’m so grateful you did.”
“It’s my…” Shit, he couldn’t say pleasure, this was in no way pleasant. What did you say at times like this? What was appropriate? “I couldn’t have done anything else, Mrs. Kuzniar,” Ben finally said, and her eyes welled with tears even as she huffed with exasperation.
“Oh heavens, Benjamin, call me DeeDee, you’re old enough now to use my first name,” she told him. “You should come and meet the rest of the family, honey.”
Apparently a response wasn’t required, since DeeDee tugged him away from the coffee table and led him effortlessly through the crowd, a tiny Moses parting a solemn Red Sea.
The receiving line was still going strong, but apparently the Kuzniar matriarch didn’t bother herself over things like order. She smoothly inserted herself in front of an older couple talking to a tall, dark haired woman and said, “Pamela, sweetie, this is Brody’s friend Benjamin DeWitt.”
Pamela was a taller, plumper version of her mother, but she clearly wasn’t in the know. “Benjamin…” she said slowly as she extended her hand out of habit. Ben shook it for the same reason. “Wait, Ben Benjamin? Letters Ben? Ben whose penmanship put mine to shame in middle school, Ben?”
That was how she knew him? Ben smiled weakly. “That’s me.”
“Wow.” She was still holding his hand, but not out of affection; it was like she’d forgotten about their grip. (Pam lost her car at the mall last week. Like, literally lost it, she completely forgot where she parked it. A security guard had to drive her around the lot in his go-cart while she pushed her remote door locks. Mom’s afraid she’s going to accidentally drive off of a cliff someday.) Needless to say, Ben was pretty sure that Pamela wasn’t the letter writer. “Ben in the flesh.”
“Wait, Ben?” A little further down the line a few hovering mourners were gently pushed aside, and just like that, Ben was dumbstruck. It wasn’t so much that he was seeing Ryan up close, although now that they were only separated by a few feet the interest Ben felt was even stronger, spurred by little things he hadn’t been able to make out before, like the empty piercings in Ryan’s ears and eyebrows. It was more the look on Ryan’s face that took his breath away, somewhere between awed, excited and slightly, disconcertingly afraid. There was so much energy in his eyes, so much anticipation in his very posture that Ben felt immediately like folding in on himself, because there was no way he merited that kind of emotion. Especially not from someone he knew next to nothing about. Brody had almost never written about Ryan, beyond the bare bones. (Ryan’s coming home this weekend, Mom’s making me get him tickets to the game… Dad gave my old car to Ryan, he better not wreck it… Mom and Ryan went to the hospital to visit Grandmother today…) The most interesting aside that Brody had ever dropped was: You and Ryan are the only ones who ever write to me over here. That had come while Brody had been on his second tour, in Afghanistan.
“Oh my God,” Ryan said faintly. “You came.”
DeeDee glanced between them curiously. “Did you invite him, sweetie? I didn’t know you boys knew each other.”
“We don’t,” Ben said. He gathered the tatters of his self-confidence around himself, detached his hand from Pamela’s absent grip, and extended it toward Ryan. “But I’m glad you reached out to me.”
Ryan took Ben’s hand in both of his, not to shake, just to hold. This was the most tactile family Ben had ever met. It didn’t feel awkward this time though, not like with Pamela. “I am too.”
“I don’t want him here.”
That was a new voice, low female and a little hoarse, and they all turned automatically to look at its owner. A statuesque blonde stood a few feet away, as perfectly coiffed as DeeDee but obviously not as in control of her emotions. And why should she be, Ben reasoned. This was Cheryl, Brody’s wife. Cheryl who had just lost her husband. Cheryl, from whom the only thing Brody had ever passed on to Ben pertaining to him was Don’t text me after six at night, okay? Cheryl doesn’t like it when she knows I’m talking to you.
“Cheryl, darling,” DeeDee began placatingly, but Cheryl shook her head.
“No! I don’t want him here! I don’t want the children around him.” “The children” were Molly and Joey, who stood with their mother, one of her hands on each of their shoulders. “You need to leave,” she said, looking straight at Ben. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her skin was pale, not naturally pale like Ryan, but sallow and grey. She looked ill and exhausted.
“No, he can’t go yet,” Ryan protested, still holding onto Ben. “Cheryl, he was Brody’s best friend.”
“Don’t think I won’t throw a fit right now if that man isn’t out of my sight in the next five seconds, Ryan, because I will,” Cheryl said, implacable. DeeDee looked like she was about to burst into tears.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll go.” It was the right decision, even though Ryan suddenly looked frantic. That wasn’t how Ben wanted to see him. “Come and talk with me for a while?” he asked impulsively.
“Of course,” Ryan said with a sigh of relief, stepping up to Ben’s side.
The entire room had gone silent, taking in the tableau. Ben had done enough public book readings to know just how loud he had to speak for his voice to carry in a place like this, and he pitched it deliberately low when he said, directly to Cheryl, “I’m very sorry for your loss.” He nodded to DeeDee and Pamela, then turned and headed towards the stairs. Ryan followed him closely, a warm presence at his back keeping the tide of murmuring supposition away long enough for them to get out of the basement.
Ben took a deep breath once they were outside, cleansing his lungs. Ryan watched him with a little smile on his face that gave way to a frown after a second. “I’m so sorry about that. I didn’t think Cheryl would go that far.”
“It’s not a problem,” Ben said honestly. “I didn’t come here to make her upset, I came to pay my respects to Brody.”
Ryan nodded, his eyes brightening with renewed tears. “He would have wanted you to know. If he could have—” His beautiful voice stopped working, and Ben filled the sudden silence.
“I also came to find out who invited me here. I thought it was your mother.”
The smile came back, a little watery this time, but easily. “Mom might have, if things hadn’t been so hectic, but I didn’t want to take the chance. I’ve wanted to meet you forever.”
“Why?” It was the penultimate question, for Ben, encompassing every other query: what did Ryan know about him? Had he and Brody talked about him? What did they say? Why was it so important to Ryan that he be here?
“I’ll tell you everything,” Ryan promised, “but…” he looked around the church parking lot, “can we go somewhere else to do it?”
“Do you have a place in mind?” Ben asked.
Ryan’s smile this time was blinding. “I have the perfect place in mind.”