Jacko Chant wasn't sure he trusted his brother-in-law, but he loved his sister so he never made an issue of it.
He didn't have any reason to dislike Sorensen Carlisle. The man had been a fixture in his life for as long as he could remember, having started to go out with Laura Chant even before Jacko entered school. Sorry was a kind gentleman and always considerate of others, never setting a foot out of line or being anything but perfect, but Jacko sensed something off about him.
He had thought long and hard on that when it was announced that Sorry and Lolly were finally going to get married after seeing each other for nearly a decade. They'd been living together for almost seven years, but circumstances kept causing them to delay formalizing their union. It took him a long time to sort through his thoughts, since he had no cause to mistrust Sorry... but then he hit on the root of his disquiet.
Sorry never did anything less than was expected of him. All of his reactions were perfect, never more or less than what normal would have been. Sorry's unfailing adherence to "normal" was abnormal in the extreme. It was like he was acting the part of "good man," mentally checking off items on his to-do list.
Jacko knew that many people would have assumed it was because he was jealous about Sorry taking his sister away, but that wasn't it. He had seen the way Lolly watched her long-time boyfriend, with concern and a bit of unease. It was like she knew more about Sorry than she was saying, and what she knew made her distrust him.
It was almost enough to make Jacko want to intervene, but there was a single mitigating factor that stopped him. The one thing Jacko didn't doubt was that Sorry loved his sister, and knew Lolly loved Sorry with all the passion of her soul.
No one else seemed to notice anything wrong, and that's what really got on Jacko's last nerve. That sense of unease made it difficult to be around Sorry sometimes – Jacko felt paranoid that Sorry not only knew how he felt, but was amused by it. The idea that his brother-in-law found his distrust amusing only made things worse – so many of his comments, which were said in innocent contexts, took on entirely different meanings upon reflection.
Spending time with Sorry was always an iffy thing if Lolly wasn't there.
As they prepared for Christmas dinner, his stepfather noticed they were out of milk, could use more charcoal for the barbecue, and didn't have enough cream or fruit to top off the pavlova. Kate was supposed to have done the shopping, but she did have a way of missing things.
"Is someone willing to run to the two-for?" Chris called out from the kitchen to the rest of the family, gathered in the living room.
Lolly was reading to their younger brother, Lachlan, and wore a cross expression at the suggestion, since she adored playing with children. She looked over at her husband, raising an eyebrow. Sorry, who had his nose buried in some kind of environmental literature, looked up from where he was sprawled across an armchair.
Sorry lifted his eyes, and met Lolly's. There was no verbal communication, but Jacko swore they managed to carry on a complete conversation, just by meeting the other's eyes. Sorry finally set his book aside, rising to his feet and heading into the kitchen. He came back moments later, carrying a list written in Chris' neat, librarian hand.
"Shouldn't take to long," he said, shoving his hands into his jeans pocket.
"You'll behave, right?" Lolly asked. Most people would have assumed she was being playful, but Jacko knew his sister better. She was genuinely concerned about... something.
"When do I not?" Sorry returned, smiling pleasantly as he bent to brush a kiss against Lolly's cheek. "Want to come, Jacko-boyo?"
Knowing very well that getting out of the house would keep him from being assigned immediate kitchen helper, Jacko agreed. They went out to Sorry's car, a nice Rav-4 that was painted an off-shade of gray. Lolly claimed it matched Sorry's eyes perfectly.
Thankfully, the air conditioner in the car was good and strong, and Jacko sank into the passenger seat with a sigh of relief. Chris and Kate didn't have central air, and the unusually hot New Zealand summer caused him to sweat. Jacko was just about the right age to be self-conscious about his appearance, but the real reason he hated it was because he detested the feel of sweat on his skin. His mother had told him he'd gotten very sick as a child, and maybe that was why it was so repellent to him.
He buckled his seatbelt, and waited for Sorry to get moving. The nearest store that would be open was the two-four in the next town over, which required a much longer drive than the usual trip to the near-by supermarket.
Sorry dug into his pocket and handed the list over to Jacko. "You can make sure I don't miss anything, or get the wrong brand."
Jacko checked the list and sighed, noting the three items they had needed had somehow ballooned into twenty. This wasn't going to be a quick store run after all. "Can do," he said, knowing complaining was futile. Anything – even spending time alone with his brother-in-law – was better than getting drafted to help his stepfather cook. Chris was very particular and demanding when it came to food.
The engine revved as Sorry turned the key, causing the radio to blare into life. A feminine voice started to extol the virtues of a White Christmas, making Jacko mentally shake his head. He didn't get why people were obsessing about snow during the summer holidays, English-heritage notwithstanding. The song switched over to the one about Snoopy and the Red Baron, and he crossed his eyes.
"Feel free to change the station," Sorry said as he slid sunglasses over his eyes and backed the car out of the driveway.
It was unnerving how Sorry was always able to hone in on what Jacko was thinking. He didn't like the proof his brother-in-law knew him much better than he knew himself, sometimes. But complaining would get him nowhere, and he reached out to flip through the stations, hoping to find something a little less full of holiday cheer.
The car trundled along at the exact speed-limit. It was another of the oddities about Sorry. He never went above or below the speed-limit, but always managed to maintain the car's velocity at the exact number written on the speed-limit signs. Jacko, who was eagerly looking forward to when he'd be able to get his own license, mentally vowed not to ask Sorry to teach him to drive. Sorry was too much a stickler for the rules.
He fiddled with the radio knob, wishing he'd thought to bring a CD to listen to instead. Sorry hummed along pleasantly with each of the stations Jacko tried, even if he only kept it there for ten seconds. Jacko grumbled internally, sure that he was being mocked in a unique Sorenson-Carlisle-kind-of-way. Sorry was good at making him feel like he was the punchline of some obscure joke.
Traffic was surprisingly heavy as they managed to get caught up behind a bunch of cars heading away from the city. Many of them had camping gear tied on the tops of the vehicle, and it didn't take a genius to figure out they were Christmas refugees. A lot of people wanted to escape the commercialism of the season, and there was no better way than to get back to nature.
They came to a stop at a light, and Jacko stretched his legs, wondering if now was a good time to express his concerns about his sister's happiness. He was alone with Sorry, and Sorry wasn't going to be able to escape easily (as he was prone to doing whenever things got touchy... sometimes he just vanished with a speed that was almost preternatural).
He cleared his throat, looking for a way to start what promised to be an uncomfortable conversation. "So are you and Lolly talking about having kids yet?"
"Someday, maybe," Sorry replied vaguely as he navigated a right turn. "We're still too young to think too much on it; she wants to establish herself as a teacher, first."
"She loves kids," Jacko pointed out.
"She does, she wouldn't be teaching primary if she didn't," Sorry replied. "But that doesn't mean we're in a rush to have some of our own immediately."
"But if she wanted them, now?"
"She wouldn't want them if I didn't want them, too. She would want me to be a father who truly cares about his children, so she and I will wait until the right time. Laura doesn't need to be a child's biological mother to love him." His eyes stayed on the road, but a slight smile crossed his lips, one that looked more real than most of the ones he shared.
Jacko wondered if Sorry was trying to strike back at him, in his subtle fashion. It was no secret that Jacko's father hadn't wanted him; he'd been conceived in a desperate, last-minute attempt by Kate to save her marriage. Jacko's father wasn't a cruel man, but he'd never really developed any kind of bond with his firstborn son. Chris was more of a father figure, but even he was careful to keep within the lines labeled "stepfather."
But the way Sorry had phrased that statement was interesting, pointing out that Lolly didn't need to bear a child to become its mother. Jacko considered Lolly his in a selfish, childish part of his heart. She may have been his sister, but she was as much a mother to him as Kate had been.
Sorry was like one of those Japanese puzzle boxes, impossible to solve unless you had a clue. Or a Rubix Cube – as soon as you had one side solved, you turned it over to see the solution wasn't right.
He scowled, unable to find a way to turn the conversation in a direction he wanted. So he decided to forget niceties and say flat-out, "I don't trust you," he said. "I don't know what Lolly sees in you."
Instead of getting offended, Sorry looked thoughtful as he carefully considered what Jacko had said. "All relationships are unique, and it's hard to define to someone who's not in the middle of it. Laura sees in me someone who needs her," he said after a minute. "I need Laura in my life, and Laura needs to be needed. That's probably the best way to explain it."
Jacko didn't like the sound of that. "So you don't love her?"
"Can you tell me what love is?" Sorry asked, and there was an upswing in his voice that indicated curiosity. "I really don't know."
Jacko blinked. "You don't know what.... and you married my sister?"
It was only the fact that Sorry was the one behind the wheel that kept Jacko from trying to punch him. But his fists knotted and he could feel his fingernails dig into the tender flesh of his palms.
"She says she loves me enough for the both of us."
Jacko was practically trembling in rage. He'd known Sorry wasn't what he appeared to be, but he hadn't been expecting this.
He forced himself to take a couple of breaths to calm down, the way Lolly always advised him to. But he was still seeing red as he spat out, "You're really a bastard, aren't you?"
"Technically speaking, yes." Sorry's voice was pleasant, like the insult hadn't even registered.
"What is wrong with you?" Jacko snapped back.
Sorry sighed, and pushed his sunglasses back into his hair. Then he did something totally out of character: he took his eyes off the road to stare into Jacko's face. "Do you really want to know?"
Jacko found himself unable to speak, his attention instead focused entirely on his brother-in-law's eyes. They looked like polished silver dollars, glittering in his tanned face with an eerie sheen. But he couldn't look away, and Sorry was disinclined to as well – somehow he turned the Subaru onto a side street without even watching where he was going.
So all he did was nod, hoping that Sorry might be able to justify his actions... for Lolly's sake.
Sorry began to speak, his voice soft but penetrating, echoing in Jacko's head like the ring of a gong. "My mother, Miriam, gave me up for adoption," he began, before laying out a sordid history of child abuse by his adoptive stepfather. He spoke calmly, like he was relaying the contents of a book he'd read, rather than traumatic events he'd suffered through personally. Jacko didn't realize Sorry had finished until after a minute of silence lapsed.
Jacko swallowed, his throat dry. "That really sucks," he said lamely, since it was clear Sorry wanted some kind of reply.
"I guess it does, but it all worked out alright in the end – if he hadn't taken to hitting me, I don't think I would have run away... and I never would have met Laura," he said, smiling. Unlike some of his other expressions, this smile seemed genuine. "Nature is all about balance; for something good to happen, something bad must also take place."
"That sounds new age."
"Or very old age, really." Sorry scratched his chin thoughtfully, leaving only one hand on the wheel. Jacko wondered why the sight didn't alarm him more. "You're really worried about Laura?"
"She deserves to be loved," Jacko said. "And I can't help but think she's going to get hurt."
"I'll never do anything to hurt your sister, Jacko," Sorry replied. "Deliberately, at least. But hurting people is part of the human condition, and I can't promise to never cause her pain. But she has the same power over me, so it evens out in the end, right?"
Jacko didn't get a chance to answer. They pulled into the car park in front of the shop, and suddenly Sorry was cheerful again, like he'd turned on a light switch. "Shall we get going, then? I'll go get some beers while you choose the fruit for the pav, okay?"
Jacko just stared, unable to believe that Sorry was just brushing off the almost-fight they'd just had. Wasn't he concerned about what Jacko would tell Lolly?
No, he wasn't, because he'd just handled the whole situation perfectly. By having the "discussion" in the privacy of Sorry's car, no one had intervened, and Jacko had been forced to wait for Sorry to explain himself. Sorry had been in control the complete conversation, and Jacko wouldn't put it past him to have timed the end intentionally. If Jacko tried to complain, Sorry had the upper-hand, since he'd been a Reasonable Adult, and Jacko's concerns could be put off as the imagination of a jealous younger brother.
Sorry had effectively outmaneuvered Jacko before the battle had even begun, using strategy and tactics worthy of Machiavelli himself.
Something was seriously wrong with his brother-in-law, but there was nothing Jacko could do except hope and pray his older sister understood what she'd gotten into when she'd become Laura Carlisle.