Autumn in New Jersey always brought along a melancholy mood, something Harry Osborn noticed every year without fail. He woke up earlier in the morning than anyone, always leaning over to kiss his sleeping wife before he'd slide out of bed.
Harry always felt Liz Allan was one of the best things that had happened to him. He felt safe with her, taken care of in a way he'd never felt in his life before. They got along well and they had a beautiful son (who Harry routinely checked in on in the mornings after putting the coffee on); it was a perfect family and a perfect marriage by anyone's measure. Eisenhower was on the radio although Harry wasn't listening, drinking his coffee and staring out the window at the bright orange trees stroking the grey sky.
Melancholy as it might have been, autumn was Harry's favorite season. He liked the brisk walk to the train station to get to the city and seeing the trees dropping leaves on the streets like the world's most colorful ticker-tape parade. He liked the clouds and how the closer it got to winter the longer it stayed dark, making him feel safe and invisible. He'd bought them a pumpkin for their porch even though it wasn't October yet, remembering how his dad always decorated for Halloween and no other holiday.
Around noon when the sun was brighter and he was going over some licensing paperwork, Harry was notified his wife was on the line. He realized as he picked the receiver up that he hadn't eaten lunch.
"Liz? Hi, honey."
"Harry, I just wanted to tell you not to come home late tonight -- Peter's over, he's staying for dinner and I don't want you missing him."
"Peter?" Harry ran a hand through his hair, smiling. "Sure, I'll even leave early. Seems like it's been forever since I've seen ol' Pete around."
Peter Parker was one of Harry's closest friends; they'd been introduced by Harry's father on one of Harry's first days at Osborn Industries. He was a photographer and an employee of the Daily Bugle, which was operated by a Mr. J. Jonah Jameson, a longtime family friend. Harry hadn't known anyone else in the city, but the two had bonded over business functions and business dinners, held occasionally at the Osborn house.
Harry took a detour to a flower shop, letting his mind carefully wander the fragmented memories of the first time Harry truly felt like a friend and not an acquaintance to Peter. It was four years ago, when he'd been invited to a Christmas party and got to meet Peter's friends. That was where he'd met Liz for the first time, and Flash Thompson. He'd sat across the room from Liz, happily drinking champagne, sitting next to Flash and feeling his discomfort melt the longer he stayed there. He remembered Liz's eyes, Peter's laugh, the sound of traffic from outside and Flash's hand on his shoulder.
No, it wasn't Christmas. Harry remembered cupcakes that said IT'S 1949! and someone was saying how everyone needed someone to kiss at midnight. Harry rubbed his temple, frowning as he purchased a dozen lilies to bring to dinner. He and Liz hadn't had their first kiss until a year later at the Osborn Industries Christmas Party.
He took a breath and closed his eyes and wished he had a cigarette. He always thought clearer with something in his system. He could never keep his memories straight.
"Hey, gang," Harry said as he opened the front door, the energetic notes of Tony Bennett's Rags To Riches engulfing him as much as the sudden gust of heat from the fireplace did. His son Normie ran over to hug his legs and Harry scooped him up with one arm after he put his briefcase down. "And hi to you." He kissed him on the cheek.
"Oh, Harry, they're lovely," Liz said as she came over to collect Normie and the flowers from Harry. "I hope they weren't too expensive."
Six dollars, but Harry put his finger over his lips. "Secret. Between the three of us I think the price is worth it," he said, and then amended to "the four of us" when Normie indignantly tugged on Harry's coat.
"Hey Hare," Peter said, stepping out of the kitchen. Liz handed him the flowers and asked him if he could put them in water while she went to check on supper. Peter held them and hung around by the door. "Glad you could make it on time, supper's not quite the same without the scent of wealth overpowering the pot roast."
Harry shrugged off his coat, laughing. He looked at Peter, familiarizing himself once again with his thick-lashed hazel eyes and his boxy jaw, a boyish face even at 25 framed by dark, pointed cowlicks. Whenever Liz's hair did that Harry brushed it from her face; he felt tempted to do that now.
"Says the famous Peter 'should have been here an hour ago' Parker. I should really take this to heart, huh," Harry said, chucking Peter on the shoulder. Peter touched him on the shoulder in response, reminding Harry briefly of their first New Years-or-was-it-Christmas. "Hands off the merchandise, this shirt is worth three of you."
"I think I liked you better before you were CEO," said Peter, leaping away to pot the flowers. "Or maybe it's just all this New Jersey air."
"I know I'd go from rags to riches if you would only say you care," sang Tony Bennet from the radio. Harry turned it up, loosening his tie and licking his lips.
"Soup's on," Liz said, calling them to the table. Harry sat between Liz and Peter, Normie on Liz's lap.
Peter got up to get his coat after they finished dinner, slipping it on and kissing Liz on the cheek. "Hate to rush, but I need to catch the train before I'm trapped out of the city all night. Let's do it again soon, kids."
"I'll walk you out," Harry said, pulling his own coat on.
Now that it was after dark with the wind biting bitterly at his cheeks he felt justified lighting a smoke, letting the smoke mingle with the fog. They waited on a bench for the train, the wind blowing leaves across their feet.
"Don't be a stranger, Pete, okay?" He said, voice quiet. The sound of the engine drowned out most of his voice. "Come by and visit me at work sometime, I'm in the city all week."
Liz always knew when he smoked; he tried not to do it often because Normie hated the smell, and it always made him tense, jittery. Harry could feel the cold sticking to him, numbing his fingers and sobering his thoughts. His chest tightened.
"Harry, what's the matter?" Liz stroked his forehead.
"Don't feel good," he said, closing his eyes, hands shaking. "I feel sick."
Even his brain felt frozen over. He hadn't felt like this in a long time, he'd figured he'd cured himself of it through determination and his marriage to Liz. He remembered Christmas -- it'd been Christmas -- and finding himself under the mistletoe with Flash Thompson, uncomfortable but drunk giggles from the party daring them on (but not really, that wasn't done). New Years when they'd found a dark corner when the ball dropped, kissing and panting and unbuttoning each other's shirts. It had been a mistake, it had been sick and disturbed and Harry still wondered what was wrong with him. What had been, rather. He wondered if stress was known to cause damnable behavior in otherwise normal, well-to-do guys.
"Is Pete single?" Harry asked as they got into bed, buttoning up his nightshirt. "I don't think he's ever mentioned a girlfriend."
"I was thinking of trying to set him up with my girl friend, Mary Jane Watson. She's a great girl, gorgeous red hair… have you met her, Harry?"
He shook his head and pulled the blankets up to his chin. "No."
Usually once a week Harry and Liz were intimate, but tonight when she touched him he shivered again, turning on his side. "I'm not feeling well, honey," he said, trying not to think about Peter touching him like she was, or remember when Flash actually had.
In the morning he leaned over to kiss Liz's forehead, slipping out of bed and making coffee. He was still cold all over but his head was on fire with fever that he hoped the caffeine would suffocate. When it didn't he tried nicotine and turned the radio on, settling on Nat King Cole. He opened a window so that the kitchen didn't fill with smoke and thought about Peter's eyes.
"Good morning, Mr. Osborn," said Donald Menken, vice-president of Osborn Industries and had been, without promotion, when Harry's father Norman was still CEO. He always seemed to look at Harry with condescension through his thick glasses.
"Good morning, Mr. Menken," Harry responded politely, taking off his hat and hiding in his office. Menken's gaze on him lingered and Harry shut the door.
When Harry was younger he often couldn't find his father, and once rather than waiting for him to appear he'd gone looking through the spanning hallways of their large country estate. "Daddy?" He'd ask the walls quietly, not daring to raise his voice. Norman was in his office, that was where he always was when Harry couldn't find him anywhere else, and he wasn't alone. Harry was seven years old when he witnessed Norman Osborn softly stroke the cheek of Donald Menken, pull their bodies close with his hand braced on Menken's lower back until their faces met at the lips.
His father had never known he was there, nor to Harry's knowledge had Menken. Sometimes when they passed in the hallway Menken gave Harry a look of cold disdain that made Harry shiver and feel like he was being seen through, his own deepest secrets exposed and vulnerable to condemnation. He didn't know if he'd imagined the memory or not. His father had been dead for years and his legacy was a puzzle of disconnected thoughts and pictures collected from both memories and dreams. Harry's breakfast threatened to come up and he lit another cigarette.
Peter Parker, line one, said his secretary. Harry hesitated before picking up the receiver.
"Hey Harry, how're you doing? I wanted to know if you'd be free for lunch, I'm in the neighborhood."
"I don't know if I can leave for lunch right now. Why don't you come by my office? We could have a drink." Harry leaned forward in his chair, fingers drumming the desk. Peter said he'd be right down.
When he opened the office door for Peter a tense atmosphere descended over them as suddenly as if there'd been a bucket of water above the door. Harry smiled and walked to his desk, upon which was a bottle of scotch and two shot glasses, one of which he held up to offer Peter.
Peter hesitated in the doorway, as if sensing a trap hanging in the air; as if Harry was a spider and the office was a giant web. Harry sat on his desk, still holding the shot.
"Pete? You coming?"
The tension seemed to abate slightly; Peter smiled and walked over, accepting the shot and clinking it against Harry's. "Wouldn't miss it, Hare. To good health and family?"
"Sure," Harry said, downing his shot quickly. Peter followed suit, and Harry refilled his own. They looked at each other.
"So is this how all the rich get richer, or just Harry Osborn?" Peter joked, watching Harry down another shot.
"It's how the rich keep from blowing their brains out," Harry murmured, with a wink. Harry felt the scotch doing its job; his nerves eased, or at least they did a good impression of it. He sat further on his desk, watching Peter watching him. "Pete, thanks for coming," he said, softly.
Peter leaned his hand on the desk, glancing away from Harry, though he smiled. "My schedule isn't as full as yours."
"Right." Harry bit his lip. Peter looked at him then, eyes helpless.
"Harry--" He seemed about to say something, then licked his upper lip. "Harry, how's Liz? How's she doing?"
Harry's chest tightened. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling the backs of his eyes buzzing.
"Liz, she's great," he said. He put his hands over his face, breathing heavily. "Doing great, I've never been happier than after… she's so good to me."
Peter took Harry's hands, taking them off his eyes gently. Harry watched him intently, swallowing as Peter raised one to his mouth and kissed the knuckles gently. Harry leaned close to him, his eyes half-closing.
"Pete." His voice was quiet, almost inaudible. He touched his cheek. "Peter, please."
"Harry, were you drinking?" Liz asked him when Harry walked in the front door. He tried to respond but only growled in his throat, and swallowed, his mouth and throat completely dry. He took off his hat and kissed her cheek.
"I stopped off after work," he said apologetically, then pulled a tulip from inside his coat. "Got you something."
"It's beautiful." Liz kissed both of his cheeks, stroking her hand through his hair. "You have to stop spending so much on flowers."
"Where's Normie?" Harry stroked her cheek and cupped her face, kissing her cheeks, her eyes, her mouth. Liz pushed him off, moving to put her flower in water.
"Harry, you're drunk," she said. "Maybe you should have some coffee."
Harry rubbed his temples with both hands, sitting down on the couch. "Not drunk. I just want to love my damn wife, is that a problem all of a sudden?"
"No," Liz said from the other room. "Take a shower and go to bed, darling. You're sick and it's late."
Harry lied out over the couch, his arm over his eyes. "I am sick," he muttered, breathing slowly. "Liz, I love you. D'you love me?"
"Of course I love you." She sounded surprised.
"I'm sorry," he moaned. "I'm sorry I'm drunk. I love you, Liz, please don't ever leave me." He wanted a cigarette to get rid of this headache. He needed something like coffee injected right in his arm to steady his racing heart, but he didn't know what was strong enough to rid himself of these urges. After four years he thought he had killed them but with his eyes closed he thought about Peter as if he'd been Flash, touching him in dark seclusion in places Harry had only ever touched himself.
At some point he made it into his bedroom, and he and Liz undressed each other in the darkness -- Harry never liked having the lights on in the bedroom. He kissed Liz's mouth and her neck, rubbing their bodies together and breathing hard. Liz's fingers stroked his face and he grunted, and moaned, and rolled off her in frustration.
"I'm sorry," he said, sounding like he was going to cry. "M-must've been the scotch."
"Tomorrow," Liz said gently, sitting up enough to hold him. "Tomorrow, okay? We'll make it work."
They made it work in the morning, slowly and quiet before the sun rose all the way. Harry kissed Liz and stroked her hair, weeping a little when they were through. Liz held him and kissed his cheeks, before getting up to make him coffee.
"How's your head?" She asked him, handing him a cup.
"S'okay," he muttered, wincing as he moved his head over the steaming coffee. "Are you getting back into bed?"
"Can't, I'm having lunch with my mother in the city today and I have to get Normie dressed."
"When're you going to be back?"
"Depends on the traffic," she said, kissing his cheek and leaving the room. "Hopefully we won't have to stay the night."
Harry ended up with the house to himself all day. At around eleven in the morning he dragged himself out of bed, forcing some food down his throat and popping two Anacin.
Liz and Harry had begun dating the night of the Osborn Industries Christmas party in 1950, a year after they'd first met at Peter's. She had been his first girlfriend, and they'd been engaged just under six months after they began dating. Norman Osborn never lived to see his son wed; a few months prior he'd been killed in a factory accident, though off the record some people in whispers speculated suicide. Harry didn't think about it. He didn't want to know. The nightmares he had where he saw his father, head twisted and torso spilling out blood and intestine from the machine that had practically bisected him, were more than enough.
Sometimes when his dirty thoughts resurfaced Harry thought of Norman's bloody face, and he vomited the urges into submission. Sometimes he wondered if his father had felt this way too, if Norman had killed himself and if he had done because of this feeling, this coiling abnormality that surely would have ruined Norman's life as it was Harry's. Harry breathed hard, thinking of the bottle of Anacin in the cabinet or of filling the tub up with water and dunking his head in.
Instead he found himself with the phone in his hand and Peter was on the other line. Now that the ball had begun rolling, Harry felt powerless to stop it or control himself. He needed to know he was normal, he wanted to feel normal, but all the while he felt the desires were too much not to succumb to. After years of stringent repression they demanded attention. He didn't want to beg, and Peter didn't make him. An hour later he was at the door.
"I'm sorry," Harry said, closing the door and grabbing Peter by the suspenders. "So sorry."
"I'm -- you don't owe me any apologies," Peter said, his eyes reflecting Harry's thoughts so well. Guilt and desire, wanting more and wishing for restraint. Thinking of Liz and trying to forget about Liz.
"I'm sorry for getting you involved." Harry kissed him, hand on the back of Peter's head. Peter put his hands on Harry's hips, kissing him back breathlessly. Harry panted and readjusted, kissing him harder and leading him toward the couch. "I'm so sorry," he moaned.
"Stop--" Breathing, panting. "Apologizing. Okay?" Peter wrapped his arms around Harry, fingers clutching the back of his shirt. Harry fumbled for the buttons on his shirt, before he froze.
"We shouldn't do this here," he muttered. "Liz could -- or someone else, I -- we can go to my study."
Peter swallowed but nodded, seeming to welcome the relocation for the opportunity to recollect himself. Harry locked the door behind them and sat on his desk, pulling Peter with him, pulling him close. Peter leaned him over and their hands fought for each other's belts and buttons.
When Liz came home, Peter was gone. Harry was pouring himself a glass of wine.
"Can I talk to you, Harry?" She asked, her voice slightly tense. She sent Normie into his room to play, walking over to Harry and pouring herself some wine as well.
"What is it?" He asked hesitantly.
She took a drink. "Are you… Harry…"
"Are you having an affair?"
Harry dropped his glass and Liz jumped. Harry exhaled, his cheeks flushing. His clothes were stained with accusatory splashes of red. "What? Am I what?"
"Calm down Harry. It's just a--"
"Dammit, Liz! Goddammit!" Harry grabbed the bottle as if to throw it, but the look she gave him made him set it down again. "Why would you ask me that? Why would you think that? Was it about me that makes you think--"
His legs buckled and she caught him, bracing herself from falling over completely. He sobbed against her shoulder.
"Please don't leave me, Liz," he said miserably. "I don't know what I would do without you. I don't know. I'm so sorry."
"Why are you sorry?" She stroked his back, leading him down to the floor so they were both sitting. "Why have you been so distant and tense lately? Is it work? Is it me? Would you talk to me?"
He shivered and sobbed against her, saying nothing. He thought about his father, laughing at him through a mouthful of blood, calling him worthless, an abomination.
"Please, Harry, I might understand, please," Liz said, trying to rub the tears off his cheeks.
"I'm going to sleep," he said shakily. "Work in the morning."
A week travelled by quickly and Harry behaved himself, keeping himself so constantly buzzed on caffeine and nicotine he could barely focus on anything but his chattering teeth. He and Liz had sex once in the middle of the week and Harry, numb-fingered, began to think maybe he was better again. Maybe all it took to cure him was an occasional indulgence every few years, no need for doctors or to mention it to anyone.
He opened his office door and Peter was in there, waiting for him with circles under his eyes and a flower. Harry's heart fell into his stomach and he fell into Peter's arms.
"Harry. Harry. This isn't fair," Peter breathed, as Harry kissed his neck. "I came here because -- this can't work, we just can't keep doing this. We can't."
Harry pulled on Peter's shirt collar, whining into his skin. "Because it's unnatural," he muttered, panting, thinking about his father's twisted neck.
"You're married," Peter said, moving away. Harry held onto his shirt, kissing whatever skin he could reach. "And this isn't fair, you know this isn't fair, Harry! I know you're sorry you got me involved, but I'm sorry I got myself involved. I did that myself, I can take responsibility for it. This is where it stops."
He pressed the flower into Harry's hand. Harry kissed him on the lips shakily, knowing it was the last time, and heard something like glass breaking.
Both of them turned their heads; Liz was standing in the doorway, a bottle of wine broken at her feet, her hand tangled in her hair. Peter moved away from Harry, walking out of the office quickly -- he stopped by Liz to apologize before he went along his way.
"Harry." Her voice was calm. Harry looked at her, covering his face with his hands.
"Liz. I'm sorry, I couldn't tell you," he said into his palms. "I'm not as strong as Norman was. I couldn't control my… I can't…"
When he moved his hands from his face Liz was standing in front of him, her face unreadable. She took a breath and slapped him.
"Harry," she said slowly. "I love you, Harry, and I hate when you let yourself get stupid. All your excuses do is give you more reasons to hate yourself and hurt other people. What you want to do with your life is your business but that--" Liz pointed out the door. "That and me are incompatible. Are you going to keep it together, or do we need to talk about getting a divorce?"
Harry rubbed his cheek. He thought of their family. Their house. Their son. He thought of Peter.
"I don't know."
Liz slapped him again and he shouted, "Dammit!"
"I accept your apology," she said briskly, rubbing her stinging hand on her shirt and turning away from him. "And I think I'm going to stay with Mary Jane for a while."
He wanted to beg her not to leave him. His throat was dry, no words coming out. He thought he muttered another breathless apology, or maybe it was in his mind. Sorry, Liz, sorry, Peter, sorry, Norman, sorry, I'm sorry, so sorry, I couldn't make it work, I made it all fall apart.
She kissed his cheek and squeezed his hand.
"It'll be all right, Harry. Breathe. You'll be all right. We'll go home. And you'll sleep. You can call me in the city if you need someone to talk to. But you need to get out of your own head."
He closed his eyes. When he opened them again she had left. He looked out the window, seeing the already darkened sky promising an early winter. Harry missed autumn already.