Notes: Ugh, and here we have boys behaving badly. I hate verbal confrontations, both in person and on the written page, and my skin literally crawled writing some of this. But it had to happen. This is that time in the story where nothing is sunshine and roses and no one is perfectly right or perfectly wrong. But there will be a light at the end of this tunnel eventually.
Title: Love Letters
Part Thirty-One: Spoke Up, Got Out
Uncle Bill’s departure was officially the end of the Maydays celebration. DeeDee, paler and more wan than Ben had ever seen her, put a hand to her head and walked inside without saying a word to anyone. Ryan was right behind her, after giving Ben a look that was somewhere between frightened and aghast. Family members milled about and muttered to one another behind their cake forks. Surprisingly, Cheryl was the one to start organizing everyone.
“I think we’ll call it a day!” she said, managing a brightness in her voice that was completely fake, yet everyone seemed to want to believe it. “Joey, go with your sister back inside, okay? Aunt Sissy, if you could grab some Tupperware in the kitchen and help package up the cake for the birthday folks, that would be lovely. If everyone else could make sure the lawn is cleaned up and take care of their trash, we’d all certainly appreciate it. Happy Maydays, everyone!” With that, she started picking up the extra food and carrying it back inside. Ben helped her, because it seemed like a better thing to do than stand around getting stared at by the rest of the clan.
Of course there were the dawdlers. Cousin Matthew tried to chat Ben up again, to give him a “way to be a real man!” back slap and share a guffaw at Bill’s expense, but Ben swiftly sidestepped him and put the rest of the chocolate cake in the fridge. Aunt Sissy and several of the other women offered to help with the dishes, their eyes brightly lit with the excitement of an impending gossip session, but Cheryl politely pointed out that since everyone had used paper plates and plastic cups, there were hardly any dishes left to do.
“Thank you so much for coming, though,” she said as she ushered people out the front door. “Yes, I’m sure we’ll call you as soon as we can. Of course we’re due for a chat, Linda. Yes, I’ll make sure to pass along DeeDee’s fried chicken recipe, Harley, don’t worry. Bye now. Bye!” She shut the door on the last of them, turned her back to it and sighed. “Vultures,” she muttered. She looked over at Ben, who stood uncertainly in the hallway, and gave him a little smile. “You sure know how to stir up a hornet’s nest.”
“I hadn’t planned to do that,” Ben said, still feeling a little numb.
“I’m sure you didn’t. Ryan gave you the talk, right?” Cheryl pushed off the door and headed back into the kitchen. Ben followed her. “The one about not sayin’ anything to upset Uncle Bill?”
“He did, yes.”
Cheryl turned back to face Ben, resting her hips against one of the long countertops. “So why did you, then?”
“I’m not really sure,” Ben said honestly. “I was prepared for the homophobic comments and the general jackassery, but I didn’t expect him to go after Joey.”
“He never used to,” Cheryl said. “Not like that. Brody wouldn’t take it, and he was always Bill’s favorite nephew. Bill used to say that if only Brody had been raised right, he could have been the president someday. Bill and Joseph both wanted to groom him for public office. Before Joseph died he was trying to convince Brody to go to law school instead of staying on as a cop. It’s one of the few things that man and I ever agreed on,” she added with a bitter smile.
“Brody would never have done it,” Ben said. “He wasn’t never all that crazy about school. He liked to be part of the action.”
“So I learned, over the years.” Cheryl picked up a random glass of wine with her good hand and drained it. “You know he was scouted for the pros? He had a chance to get picked up in the draft, to be a real quarterback for a pro team, and he didn’t take it.” She stared at the empty glass in her hands as though wishing hard enough would fill it up again. “He went into the army instead.”
“I know, Cheryl.”
“I know you know.” She laughed. “It always bothered me, how much you knew.”
“Frankly, it’s always bothered me how much you didn’t care to know,” Ben said sharply, tired of playing around. If he was going to be in the doghouse after today, he might as well go all the way. “Brody had wanted to join the military since he was eleven; that was always his goal. The police force was a natural progression after he came home. He wanted to help people with his life, not just play football because he was good at it and it would make him a lot of money. I think growing up in this household there was always plenty of money, but a hell of a shortage when it came to love. I know there was for Ryan, at least.”
Cheryl pursed her lips. It looked like she was trying not to cry. “You stood up for me. Why?”
“Because your children don’t need to hear anyone say those things about their mother,” Ben replied. “Even if some of it’s true.” They glared at each other, a brittle stand-off. It was broken by Ryan, who appeared in the entryway to the kitchen. He looked unhappy. And angry.
“Cheryl, could I have a minute with Ben?”
“Take all the time you want,” she said, pushing off the counter and walking out without another word. Ben waited for her footsteps to fade before starting. “Ryan—”
“Ben, what the hell?” Ryan exclaimed. “Why did you do that?”
“Were you listening to him?” Ben demanded, feeling his own anger start to surface now. He didn’t have anything to be guilty about, damn it. “Did you even hear what that man was saying to you, or have you heard it so often that it just doesn’t register anymore?”
“I told you he was a son of a bitch!” Ryan shouted. “I told you he’d be that way, and I also asked you—Ben, we talked about this—I asked you not to say anything. And you told me you wouldn’t!”
“I didn’t say anything when he was calling you a godless queer, I didn’t say anything when he told your mother that the best thing about her was her cooking, and I didn’t even say anything when he started in on Brody’s death and the fact that none of the rest of you could ever be good enough! But I couldn’t stand there and let him talk about Cheryl that way, not in front of her own children,” Ben yelled back. “It was tearing them up, how did you not see that? You think your brother would have wanted his wife to be degraded like that in front of your entire family? In front of their kids? Jesus, it’s no wonder Cheryl is an alcoholic when she’s treated that way. Would Brody have put up with that?”
“You’re not Brody!” Ryan said viciously. “You’re not her husband, you’re not their father, you’re not even family. You don’t understand what’s really going on here, Ben.”
“Because you haven’t bothered to explain it to me,” Ben said, trying to ignore the sharp pang in his chest from Ryan’s words.
“Because I didn’t want to air all my family’s dirty laundry in front of you!” Ryan snapped. “Because I wanted you to enjoy yourself and not worry and have a good time here, not be thinking about how my mother’s finances are hanging by a fucking thread and Cheryl’s a drink away from killing herself and the kids are so sick with missing their dad that just watching them makes me want to fucking cry! Because I’m not Brody either, Ben, and I can’t even come close: not for Cheryl, not for my mother, not for the kids. All I can do is be here and try to glue the fucking pieces back together as best as I can, which isn’t very well.” His shoulders slumped a little.
“My mother never worked outside the home, she’s living off my dad’s social security payment and an annuity from my father’s investments. Bill handles the annuity, my dad passed stewardship of it to him in his will. He regulates how much my mother gets; he has his fingers in all of the family finances. My mom’s been trying to get extra money out of it to send Cheryl to a decent rehab center, and Bill’s been playing hard to get, but he was going to do it! And now there’s no fucking way he’s going to hand over the money for that, and there isn’t enough left in savings to take care of it!”
“That…doesn’t seem legal,” Ben said slowly. “Your mother is the primary beneficiary of the annuity; she should have the final say on how it gets disbursed.”
“Bill says it doesn’t work that way. It’s like a trust; the money is given out according to the original directive, and the terms can’t be changed by the beneficiary. The only one who can change the terms is Bill.”
“That definitely doesn’t seem legal,” Ben insisted. “You should hire another lawyer to take a look, there has to be a way—”
“Hire a lawyer with what?” Ryan snapped. “With all the money I make as an artist? With the money Cheryl gets from her own parents, which is zero?”
“You have an enormous family, there must be someone within it who could help you out,” Ben said.
“Everyone in the family has some kind of business with Bill, and none of them want it getting out. You heard how he was to Cousin Matthew. Bill knows where all the bodies are buried and he’s got some very powerful friends. There’s no fight here, Ben, that fight was over before it even got started. Everyone toes the line, even me.” Ryan let his head hang for a moment. “I hate hearing Bill say those things. I’ve wanted to punch that man in the face ever since I was fourteen, but I don’t because my feelings aren’t the most important thing at stake here. Molly and Joey are the most important things and they need their mother to be healthy, and the best way to do that is to get her into a rehab program. And I have no idea how that’s going to happen now.” He sighed deeply. “This was a bad idea. Fuck, this was such a bad idea.”
“Which part?” Ben asked sarcastically, because he had had it, really, finally had it, with being made into a villain just for doing the right thing. “The part where you invited me to a party that you knew would be fouled by a bigoted piece of shit, or the part where your family let him feel he could take that kind of control in the first place? Or is it me, is it me in general that’s a bad idea?”
Ryan stared at Ben silently for a long moment. “I really can’t look at you right now,” he said at last. “Please leave this house.”
“Fine.” Ben brushed by Ryan and walked quickly to the front door, anger and hurt driving his footsteps. He stalked down the porch and threw his car door open, and peeled out of the driveway with a screech of rubber on gravel. Fuck this place, fuck the Kuzniars and their twisted family politics, fuck putting up with that bullshit. And fuck Ryan for asking him to.
By the time he got back to his hotel, Ben had cooled off a little. Enough that he could pick up his phone and contemplate calling Ryan. Calling him and saying…what?
Ben stared at Ryan’s icon in his contact list, his finger hovering over it. He honestly didn’t know what he could say that wouldn’t just be a rehash of their fight. He didn’t feel like he had done anything that he needed to apologize for, frankly, and he wasn’t sure that Ryan would accept a call, containing an apology or not, from Ben right now anyway. The longer he stared at the phone, the more uncertain Ben felt.
Fucked. Ben was royally fucked. And while he felt that he’d done the right thing, there was still the fact that for DeeDee, and for Cheryl, it might have been the wrong thing. But how could he have known? Because Ryan told you, idiot. Only he hadn’t told Ben enough, because…well, Ben wasn’t sure why. Because he was ashamed? Because he didn’t trust Ben to keep a secret?
Eventually Ben put the phone down. He felt antsy, and sick to his stomach, and just wrong. He’d never been the kind of person who thrived on conflict, and especially not with Ryan. Fuck, he’d barely had any time with Ryan at all, and Ben was absolutely certain that there would be no more, at least not on this trip. Maybe not at all.
Ben couldn’t stay here. Not in this hotel, not in this city, not in this goddamn state. He had to leave. He’d change his flight, or just pay for a new one if he had to. He shoved his clothes and toiletries back into his suitcase, not taking the sort of care that he normally did with his things, just getting them packed as fast as he could. He checked out of the hotel, got into his car, turned the key and froze.
Ben couldn’t leave things like this, but he knew he couldn’t fix them. But maybe he knew someone who could. He dialed the number he’d added but left unused in his phone since his trip to Boston.
She picked up on the fourth ring. “Ben?”