A/N: Written for the Review Game's Writing Challenge Contest, December edition.
Kenneth Walker spent most of his childhood wishing his father dead.
"Jesus, Kenny, what happened to your face? You lose a fist fight with a brick wall?"
"I fell out of a tree."
"Yeah? Well, damn. Why don't you head down to the nurse's office and get that seen to. And be more careful next time, alright?"
There aren't any stairs in his house, so Kenny fell out of a lot of trees back then.
As a teenager, Kenny was convinced his old man made a sport of hating everything Kenny loved: his mother, their farm, pianos, and churches. And Robert Garcia. A decade later, Kenny knows better. Da never cared enough about what Kenny loved to hate those things specifically; he simply hated everything. All in equal measure.
"Filthy wetbacks. They breed like cockroaches is what they do. Eat, shit and fuck. An' y'know what they're doin' for this country? Nothin', that's what. If I catch you 'round that Mexico boy again—"
"He's not Mexican, Da. He was born in New York. His mom's white—"
There's the sound of glass shattering, and Kenny falls out of another tree that night.
There was a time when things weren't like that, Kenny knows. A time when Mom was still around and Da smiled sometimes. But trying to remember that is like trying to sketch from memory an image from a favorite storybook as a kid or trying to explain the taste of something you hadn't eaten in decades to a stranger who'd never tried it.
There's something about an officer knocking on your door at three in the morning to tell you your mother drove herself into a tree at 115mph that puts a cold spin on childhood memories.
"It's your fault…"
The—CRACK!—that follows is Kenny's head against old wood, but Da's in his face before he can pass out, holding him up against the door by his neck like a fleshy noose. Da's voice smells like strong cheese and rotted tobacco. "Say it again, and there won't be nothin' for the ambulance to save by the time they get here."
Lightning winks at them as Kenny counts the beats of his pulse: one, two—buckle my shoe—three, four—shut the door—five, six— His father shakes him, and Kenny knows what a rat feels like in a terrier's grip.
"Say it again!"
"Everything's your fault." The thunder outside laughs as Kenny chokes. "Everything's your fault, and I hate you."
Morning smells wet as Kenny tramps through it, the air pregnant with fog that creeps up his jeans like the fingers of lonely ghosts. There's a barbed wire fence about a hundred yards ahead and a rusting, banana yellow gate that opens inward onto their property—my property, Kenny reminds himself, since there was no one else to inherit it—but he's not going to make it that far because his destination is closer than that.
His father's gravestone juts out of the earth around it like a broken bone out of raw flesh.
Resting with angels, here lies:
Benjamin T. Walker, January 7th 1947 – February 16th 2008
"The Lord hath given him rest from all his enemies."
Beside it is his mother's gravestone, and his grandparents on his mother's side beside her. The farm was from her side of the family after all. Sometimes he wonders if that's why Da hated it; if a man can't so much as put a roof over his family's head, where's his dignity? Nowhere, that's where. As a kid, Kenny's schoolmates had always thought it strange that he had a mini-graveyard on his own land.
"Ain't you scared?"
"That like, you'll be haunted? Or like, they'll come up to get you 'n stuff if lightin' hits the grave?"
"That only happens in movies."
Kenny scrapes his sneakers on the wet grass, tucks his chilled fingers into his jacket and crouches, squinting at the headstone. If he looks long enough, maybe the words'll change. Present a final message to him somehow. Something that'll ease his mind. Allow him to forgive Benjamin T. Walker and let his father's restless ghost pass on out of the battle-scarred corners of his mind.
Kenny untucks one hand and thumbs over the frost on the verse, melting back the ice and bringing—"The Lord hath given him rest from all his enemies…"—to a dark sheen that glistens in the white-yellow of dawn like wet lipstick on a statue.
"I think the whole world was your enemy, Da." Kenny lets his fingers drop and wipes the dampness on his pant leg with a frown. "Or you seemed to think so, anyhow."
A soft crunch of footsteps on frosted grass alerts Kenny to a visitor, but he doesn't need to look up to know who it is.
"You okay, firefly?"
"You okay, firefly?"
Bobby Garcia's hands are like dynamite in Kenny's fingers. If he makes one wrong twitch, everything will explode and he'll wake up and it won't be real. "You shouldn't—" be here, stand so close, look at me like that, call me those names, "—touch me. My da told you never to come back on the property. If he sees—"
"Then I'm already in trouble, yeah? So what? I like touching you."
There's a train in Kenny's chest—clack, clack, clack—shuddering against his ribcage with each loop it makes around the tracks. Bobby's thumbs sweep the insides of his wrists like he's tracing brail there, and Kenny says, "He'll shoot you."
"I'm not afraid of your daddy's gun."
"You're stupid, then."
"Let me kiss you."
When Bobby kisses him, Kenny considers punching him. Screaming. Cussing. Throwing rocks. Whatever it takes to scare him away. Then maybe Bobby won't get hurt and Kenny won't get his heart broken and Da won't serve time for murder.
Instead, he lets Bobby push him up against the cold, banana-yellow metal gate to their property and wonders if there's anything Bobby is afraid of.
"I'm alright." Kenny stands, and he's still frowning at the gravestone when he says, "You're up early."
"So're you," Bobby replies around a yawn, and Kenny turns, mouth open to speak—
He stills immediately. "What the hell are you wearing?"
Bobby blinks at him, deceptively innocent, and then glances down at himself as if he's forgotten already what he walked out in. "A, uh…shirt?" That sleepy observation—combined with a shameless stretch that reminds Kenny of a lumbering bear, fresh out of hibernation—kickstarts a burn in Kenny's cheeks.
"We're in public."
"S'private property," Bobby says.
"If someone sees you?"
"No one lives for a mile around—"
"—and…" Bobby steps up, invading Kenny's personal space and tucking his nose against Kenny's neck, "…it's six in the morning."
"It's winter." Kenny refuses to respond when Bobby winds his arms around his waist. "You're gonna freeze your dick off."
Bobby lifts his head just enough to grin down at him. "Seems okay so far."
Kenny wants very much to hit him. Before he can say so, Bobby's expression does one of its shifts, turning unexpectedly serious in the blink of an eye. Kenny's been with him for ten years, on and off, and it still catches him off guard.
"So," Bobby says. "What are you really out here for?"
"Nothing." Kenny frowns. "Talking."
Bobby touches their foreheads together, and Kenny shuts his eyes. "What're they saying, firefly?"
"I don't know. I'm…" Kenny shakes his head. How to explain? "I'm happy," he says. "Or, almost happy. I never expected to be happy, y'know? I expected…I don't know what I expected, but this wasn't it, except I am. I love…" He swallows, "…bein' with you. Livin' with you. Here. I love this house…"
Kenny's fingers tighten at Bobby's hips. "We should get you inside. S'cold."
"Not 'til you talk to me." Bobby stills his objection with a finger. "It's not that cold. And if it bothers you, I promise we can test that all my parts are fully functional later."
A gust pushes frosty blades of grass against their legs and Kenny takes his time answering. Finally, he says, "I'm angry…" but it's with the voice of a man whispering in church. "After all this time, m'still furious with 'im, an' I don't wanna be. I'm tired. He's my da, an' I'm tired of hatin' him. I want…" When he shivers, Bobby brushes a kiss to his forehead and wraps his arms around his shoulders. Kenny tucks his last words against Bobby's neck. "I want to forgive him…"
"So forgive 'im."
"S'not that simple."
Kenny blinks at the grave, frowning. It can't be, can it?
"The way I see it, you're the only one that can do the forgivin' at this point, firefly. So you either do, or you don't. He's not here to earn it, and he won't ever be. He's gone. He won't ever hit you again, but he won't ever be around to apologize, either. So you gotta decide for yourself whether it's worth it to let it go."
Mama winces when she puts on makeup. She wears long sleeves even in summer and jerks like rabbit when people touch her.
"I don't understand." Kenny wants to cry, but only babies cry so he holds the tears back.
"It's okay, baby, I'm alright. He didn't mean it, he just got angry, that's all. I've already forgiven him, see? I'm not angry."
"He doesn't deserve it."
"Sometimes…" Mama looks strange for a moment, like she's seeing a ghost, not Kenny. Then she sighs and pulls him into her lap, hugging him until all he can smell is her perfume. "Sometimes, baby, you just gotta forgive people. Even if they don't deserve it. Otherwise, it'll eat you up inside. Does that make sense?"
Her laugh is fractured, like a clink from a broken bell. She kisses his temple. "Maybe one day it will."
"Okay." Something knocks loose in Kenny's chest. A decrepit fragment, like a shard of dirty glass buried so deep he'd been afraid to dig it out for the pain it would cause. But he's surprised to find it looser than he expected, its sharp edges worn down by the years, and when he draws a fresh breath, it isn't as hard as he thought it would be. "Okay, I forgive him. For everything. Just this once."
Dawn is bright yellow as Bobby kisses him, and for a fraction of a second, Kenny thinks he sees something before his eyes shut. A stooped figure exiting through the property gates, cane in hand, his shape intimately familiar and silhouetted against the rising sun. When Kenny startles and looks, however, there is no one. Only the gate, wide open with the dirt path stretching infinitely outwards.
Kenny shivers, and then—with the awkward air of someone who does not perform the action often—he smiles and kisses silent Bobby's surprised inquiry. "I love you," he says. "Let's go inside."