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What Happens in Small Towns

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Jim knew the rules of being a good son-in-law living under the roof of his wife's parents and one of them was helping your mother-in-law out with the chores.

"Blair's here," Valerie called from her vantage by the kitchen window. Jim turned his head from the litter of supper dishes that he was stacking, and went instead to open the door. Blair always came around the back.

"Hey."

Blair was bundled into an old, bulky sweater, with the collar turned up against the evening chill. "Hey." He came in. "Hi, Valerie. Sorry to call at this time of night."

"That's okay, Blair."

"I won't be long." Blair turned to Jim. "The bike's sold. I'm taking it for a good-bye run on Saturday. Any chance that you want to come along?" His eyes were very blue under the kitchen lights, very piercing, completely aware of what he was saying. 'Any chance that you want to come along?' He wanted Jim to go to Cascade with him, leave behind his wife and this house and JJ's grave out at Riverfield cemetery, and Jim was scared out of his mind by how easy it was to think that he should do just that.

"I'll talk to Caro, but I don't think she'll mind," Jim said. Blair didn't like that answer. His smile stayed friendly, his stance stayed relaxed, but Jim knew Blair well, and his freaky sight picked up the little twitches of hurt and worry around Blair's eyes and mouth.

"Okay. Call me. I figured I'd drive out the back of the lookout, then over to Windham and back. Hills and valleys and a couple of good straight roads – might as well do the thing properly."

"Sounds good. Yeah, I'll call you." The bike was sold, and Blair was leaving soon, and yes, why not; things should be done properly.

"Tell Carolyn I said 'hi'." And then Blair was gone, and Jim carefully picked up the plates and carried them over to his mother-in-law, who was scented with an odd mix of her favourite perfume and dishwashing chemicals.

"He's a nice boy," Valerie said. "You'll miss him when he goes."

"Yes," Jim said. "Yes. I will."

He went through to the living room. Carolyn was folding laundry, her long-fingered, pretty hands smoothing out underwear and jeans, and the last of JJ's clothes that they were going to give to Valerie's church group.

She picked up a little blue onesie, and held it by the shoulders. "I remember before he was born. I could hardly believe that I wasn't looking at doll clothes, they were so tiny." She laid it down on her lap and folded it with great care and precision, so that it lay empty and tidy and ready to go.

"Blair's sold his bike," Jim said, and shifted his eyes to the landscape on the wall so that he didn't have to see the disappointment in Carolyn's eyes. He hated talking about JJ. It made him feel like something was tearing inside him. "I'm going out with him on Saturday – the last ride."

"Have a good time, then," Carolyn said stiffly.

"Thanks," Jim said, and then felt like a fool several ways. He sat down beside Carolyn, and put one arm awkwardly across her shoulders.

"That little apartment over Pittman's Store is for lease."

She tensed.

"I know that you like being around your Mom, but it's not like..."

He stopped. They'd been living with Mike and Valerie because they were saving – saving to be able to afford something decent for when JJ was older, and would have needed his own room and space to play. "I think it would be better, honey. And it's not far, you'll still be able come home to your Mom when you need to."

Carolyn's hands were scrunched into the onesie, undoing all the careful work of her folding. "Like when you're out? Which is all the damn time, right now, Jimmy."

"I've got overtime. You're going to tell me that I shouldn't take it?"

"No." She rested her face in her hand. "No." Her voice trembled. "I'll think about it."

"Okay." He kissed the side of her head, and then stood. "I'm going for a walk. Okay?"

"Too bad if it wasn't," she said and fished up a pair of jeans to fold.

He pulled on a jacket and walked the twenty minutes it took to get to Hanrahatty's Saloon, and he made one beer last three-quarters of an hour while he sat slouched in a corner and noted, without stepping in to use the john, that someone had been smoking pot in there , and then he walked back again. He might as well get used to not walking or driving around to Alice's to see Blair.

***


Blair picked him up on Saturday, all bounce and enthusiasm as he hauled Jim out of Valerie's kitchen. It was a good show, Jim knew, just like his own which melted into nothing as he sat behind Blair on the bike. Blair took them via Windham first, blatting along the straight stretches while Jim watched the shoulders a few inches in front of him far more than he watched the countryside. He'd left Blair behind when they were just teenagers, and he'd missed him but it hadn't felt as desolate as this; but that was the difference, wasn't it? Jim had been the one leaving, the one heading on to the bigshot career. He felt quite unreasonably angry and he didn't even know who he was angry with.

They wound up the hills, down through the woods, and then Blair took them off the road down a dirt track. The official lookout was another three miles on, but everyone knew about Lukie's View. It was ugly these days because the area had been logged not so long ago, but the promontory at the end of the road still had one the best angles to look out over the county. They reached the end of the road and Blair stopped. They were the only ones there.

Jim got off the bike, and fumbled for the bag with the thermos of coffee. His hands were cold, and he warmed them around the cup that he poured. Blair didn't say anything, just walked out to the end of the View and stared down the hills to the land below.

"Coffee?" Jim said.

Blair turned his head, the lines of cheekbone and jaw hard against the empty grey sky behind him. "Yeah. Why not. We brought it to drink it."

He walked back, kicking at a broken log stump before sitting on it and sipping at the cup that Jim handed to him. It was all so ordinary there, for a moment. No lingering glances or touches, just the simple mechanics of passing a hot drink between two sets of hands.

"This is it, then," Blair said. He gulped down the coffee, despite the heat of it and then stood and patted the bike's saddle. "Hail and farewell." He looked at Jim. "What about you, man? Hail and farewell for you, too?"

"I'll miss you," Jim said simply. Because he would.

"You're a stupid bastard," Blair told him. He pushed back loose strands of hair from his face. "No, really, you are so stupid."

Feeling this pissed off at Blair ought to make the whole conversation easier. It didn't. "Then you'll be glad that you're leaving me behind. You sure wouldn't want someone as stupid as me embarrassing you at your university, would you?"

Blair's face turned red and then white. He took a long breath. "Okay. That was dumb of me. But, Jim...." His hands spread wide, encompassing confusion and curiosity, and a yearning plea.

"What sort of man would I be if I just dumped Carolyn and our marriage?" Jim asked, his voice rough with anger. "Especially now."

"You'd be a man doing something sensible."

"You're out of your fucking tree, Sandburg. And not exactly unbiased. Since when was it supposed to be sensible to run off to the big city and play gay!"

And there it was. Blair hadn't said a damn thing about what he wanted Jim to be with him in Cascade. Neither had Jim, but that didn't stop him feeling mightily pissed off at the idea that Blair had been playing him all this time, being his friend and nursing fantasies behind his back.

"I'm not playing, Jim." It was softly said - and dangerous. That wasn't something that Jim had ever thought he'd associate with someone unequivocally outing themselves. He'd assumed that a stance like that would make you vulnerable, not a threat.

"Well, guess what, Chief. Neither am I."

"Yes, you fucking are, you're still playing, Jim. I..."

"Who the hell are you to tell me who I am?" Jim roared.

Blair was in his face then, come from nowhere, and Jim's gut flip-flopped like crazy. "I'm someone who knows you. I know you, and I'll tell you something for free. I'm going to Cascade, and whether you ever see me again or not, I give you and Carolyn six months. A year, tops, because you married for the wrong reasons, and she won't ever be what you want, and you won't ever be what she wants." He turned away as if to head for the bike and then whirled around and shouted, "Damn it, Jim! You don't love her!"

"You think you know so much about who I love?" Jim sneered.

"Yeah," Blair said breathlessly. "Yeah, I think I do." And then he was back in Jim's space again, awkward and demanding against Jim's body, and damn near pulling Jim's head down by the ears to plant a sloppy, desperate kiss on his mouth. It put Jim off-balance more ways than one, and he grappled his hands onto Blair's shoulders and then just held on, because this was it, and Blair was going, and Jim was staying with Carolyn. So, really, one stupid kiss didn't matter in the greater scheme of things.

Blair detached himself eventually, but only so that he could lean his forehead against Jim's shoulder. Jim shifted his hands into something like a bear-hug. "Chief, you have the worst sense of timing ever."

"I know. But before... I was the nerdy kid and you were the awesome jock, and then you weren't here because you were in the army, which is a culture so supportive of alternative sexuality, and then you were fucking your way through every woman in town until you knoc-" He stopped, his head still buried against Jim's shoulder, his arms holding on hard around Jim's body. "You want to tell me when there would have been a good time?"

Jim very gently pushed him away.

Blair's face was a patriotic study – red and white skin and blue, watery eyes. "Well, hey," he said with heart-breaking brightness. "I got a good-bye kiss out of this debacle. Can't be all bad."

"No, it wasn't all bad. But, Blair." It was Jim's turn to plead. "I can't... I won't hurt Carolyn like that. And, god, next time you want to tell someone about your big gay love for them don't introduce the subject the day after their kid's fucking funeral." Jim's voice wobbled.

Blair bent to pick up the bag. "Yeah, I know, loyalty, it's a good thing. Makes you admirable. Not like that would-be home-breaking shit, Blair Sandburg. And timing. I get it."

"I never asked you who bought the bike." Jim's throat was closed.

"Some collector in Oregon. I guess we'd better take the goods safe back home to the garage." Blair's back was turned, but Jim could hardly miss the swipe at his eyes. "I need the cash."

Blair secured the bag, and sat and turned the bike towards Jim, towards the sealed road that would take them back to town. "Come on, man. Last ride," he said, and smiled.

***

Carolyn rubbed at a smudge of dirt on her hands. "What do you think?"

Jim considered for a moment. "I think that if we get any more scientific about positioning this furniture you and I could get diplomas from MIT."

That surprised a tiny yelp of laughter out of Carolyn. "It's not a big space, that's for sure." Her face glowed, and for a moment Jim remembered that he loved her. He did.

"How about we splash out with a meal at Hanrahatty's?" Jim asked "We can walk there in five. Celebrate being at the centre of all things." He tried to make that a joke and not bitter irony.

"I don't know. We've taken a hole out of our money – the deposit and everything..."

"And we've worked hard all day and we deserve a break. A celebration." He stopped as Caro's face changed, and he realised just what he'd said.

Carolyn plastered a brittle smile on her face. "It's okay. You're right. We should go out and toast to us, and – and new starts."

Hanrahatty's was quiet, and it might have been pleasant to be out together except that the girl who was bar-help and waitress knew Carolyn from school, knew her family, and wanted to falteringly offer her sympathies for their recent tragedy. Jim stonily wondered why she couldn't have just sent a card at the time rather than souring his appetite for his dinner. But Carolyn smiled wanly and said something polite and after that it was an okay meal. If they didn't talk so much, well, did it matter?

When they went back home (their new home, their new start) they made love, for only the second time since JJ had died. It went okay, they both came, no-one burst into tears afterwards. Jim lay awake for a while afterwards in the dark, tracing out the shape of the room. Their bed, with Carolyn tucked into a neat curl under the covers, Jim lying on his side beside her. Carolyn's bureau there. His bureau there. The stack of plastic storage crates in the corner, neatly draped with a quilt. In the corner of the bottom drawer of Carolyn's bureau there was one set of baby clothes - a little suit, booties and the shawl that Carolyn's aunt had knitted, along with her grandmother's ancient prayer cards.

And in the top left-hand drawer of Jim's bureau was a photograph of him with JJ, and the postcard he'd received from Blair, with a picture of 'historic Hargrove Hall' and Blair's address and the words, 'Have worked out how old I am compared to the rest of my year. Ancient. Completely ancient.' The first 'ancient' was underlined three times, and it had made Jim smile, in amusement and relief that Blair was still prepared to write to him and tease him, before he stuffed the postcard under his socks. He'd have to call Blair some time, and let him know that he and Carolyn had their own place now.

***

Jim was working construction, building big houses for people who clearly had a lot more money than he did. Maybe, he thought cynically, they just had a lot more debt. That was something that he and Caro generally agreed on - money. He'd heard Valerie talking to a friend of hers about it, how it was a good thing, because she'd seen a lot of marriages founder on the question of who spent what and where.

So, less than ten dollars a week on beer, especially when it was about the only money Jim spent on himself? Small potatoes. A man didn't go out and get drunk on barely ten dollars of beer a week, not at bar prices. Jim nursed his drinks, made them last a while, endured the ribbing some of his friends would give him about being pussy-whipped when he refused to spend more. A man couldn't be pussy-whipped when he wasn't actually spending that much time at home.

Tonight, he was at the Bird in Hand, halfway to Windham and on the truck-stop route. It was a nice drive in the twilight, and a busy bar, and Jim sat quietly and sipped his draft, which was not the best beer in the county, regardless of what the blackboard said in big, awkwardly written letters. There were some men by the pool table, trash talking each other. Jim watched them, aware of an ache somewhere in the pit of his stomach.

There was one man, broad-shouldered and fit, with blond hair, and crows-feet cheerfully crinkling at the corner of his eyes. He didn't look anything like Blair at all, and that was part of the ache in Jim. Guys weren't anything that Jim had seriously considered when he was younger and filled to bursting with hormones and boners – maybe he'd had the occasional random thought, but curiosity and horniness were all there was to that. Jim liked women just fine, and he'd loved the thought of an army career. But now and again, he could look at a man now, at the line of shoulders or the curve of ass, and realise that yeah, he'd do that. There was a part of him, were Blair Sandburg suddenly in front of him, that would quite willingly punch Blair in the nose for providing that particular epiphany.

But Blair wasn't here, and Jim was at the Bird in Hand, and when the cute blonde girl gave him the eye, he gave it right back at her.

"You're not waiting for anybody?" she asked. There was a sweet lilt to her voice that he liked.

"Nah. Just enjoying a beer after a hard day, that's all."

He lifted his glass and saw her gaze rest on his wedding ring. There was the slightest hint of a frown between her carefully manicured brows, but it was gone and she turned a brilliant smile on him. Jim had sluiced off with cold water and a wash-cloth and put on a clean t-shirt before he left work – fastidious common-sense, if you weren't going home to shower. But he'd be okay to be next to; if he chose to invite this curvy little piece to some slow dancing, there'd be nothing to turn her off.

"So what do you do?"

"All those fancy houses out by Masonville? I'm working on those."

"And with the muscles to prove it," she said. Her voice was approving, but Jim felt a sudden chill curl in his gut. What the hell was he doing? It was one thing to be restless, unable to go home at night and face Carolyn, and absolutely another to cheat on her. And just like that, the headache spiked through his skull, and the noise from the jukebox was a harsh buzz in his ears. Involuntarily, his hands rose to shelter his head.

"You okay? the woman asked with surface concern, but disappointment and contempt hid underneath. She probably thought he was drunk, and Jim doubted that the rough shove back of his chair so that he could stand would change her mind. Disgust washed sourly through his gut, and angry frustration. He hadn't had one of these 'turns' for a while, and he always hoped that they were finished and gone, until his body betrayed him with this stupid shit yet again.

"I'm fine," Jim ground out. "But I get migraines, okay? Sorry," he muttered and headed for the door, his own footsteps like gunshots in his head. From some far, far away place, he heard the blonde mutter, 'Migraine my ass,' to someone, another woman who tittered, 'Never mind, honey. He's probably gay, anyway."

It was a little better outside. Jim took a cautious breath, and felt something inside relax. The air was still dirty with gasoline fumes, and noisy with the hum of motor vehicles, but it wasn't quite so bad. Jim figured that he might even be able to get to his car and get back home, and he was nearly at the driver's side door when he was spun around and thrown against the unforgiving metal. Confusedly, he looked into the face of Wade Atkins.

"You are one sorry fucker, Ellison, and it's just as well you decided to walk away from that slut." Atkins's face was screwed up in anger and disgust; outrage, even.

Jim forced his hands up between them, but Atkins's grip in his jacket hardly shifted. "Back the fuck off." His head still hurt, and he could feel red anger in him, down deep and getting drunk on the pain and humiliation of the last few minutes.

"Maybe I will, if it means that you're going home where you belong." Atkins shook Jim. "Are you going home, Jimmy?"

Home. That was the plan, wasn't it? Home, to Carolyn, his wife. "Yeah, I'm going home, Wade. Wish you were me?" That red anger in Jim's gut chuckled, and Jim enjoyed one soaring moment of gleeful rage before he was doubled up on the ground of the parking lot, with his arms wrapped over his gut.

Atkins's voice shook with jealous anger. "You fucking treat her right, Ellison, or there'll be more where that came from. You hear me?"

Jim didn't say anything. Instead he gingerly hauled himself up to lean against the side of the car. "Shit," he muttered to cold and empty air. Atkins was heading out of the lot, his hand stuck out of the car to flip the bird at Jim as he headed onto the road. "Asshole," Jim said softly, and then groaned and rested his head in his hands. God, but it was bad this time, and desperation built up in him. Besides the ringing in his head and the soreness in his gut, his leg was joining in as well. He had to be able to drive, and again he took some cautious breaths, slow, down into his aching belly, and he thought of Blair, and that book on yoga that he used to flip under Jim's nose. Jim would smirk, laugh outright sometimes, and he never did twist himself into any damn pretzel, not even for Blair Sandburg, but he thought of Blair's voice now, and tried to let his breath flow.

After a while, his body settled enough that he thought that he might get home safely, and he staggered to his feet and fumbled in his pocket for his keys. He could see his face reflected in the car window off the lights in the parking lot. He'd grazed his face when he hit the ground. Atkins's punch to his gut he'd be able to disguise. The scrape and the blood – not so much. Jim slumped down into the driver's seat and started up his car, and headed home.

It wasn't that late when he got there, stumbling up the narrow steps to the apartment. Carolyn was still up, talking with her friend, Wendi; the coffee cups and the plate of cookies lay tidy between them on the table. Carolyn spotted the graze on his face straight away, and Jim braced himself. Raw hurt or frosty disapproval; which one would it be this evening?

"What have you done to yourself now?" his wife asked. Jim ticked option number two and walked carefully across to the tiny kitchen and the glasses and the faucet and cool water.

"Nothing serious," he said, and sipped his water. It wasn't as refreshing as he'd hoped. It tasted too much of chlorine, of whatever impurities clung to the pipes, and Jim put the glass carefully down in the sink.

"It's time I was going, anyway," Wendi said. She hugged Carolyn, and headed for the door, but not before she glared at Jim. He stared back as coolly as he could, aware of his chin jerking up in defiance. Another woman who thought he was drunk when he wasn't. This – this was his 'I don't give a damn' face.

"Rough night?" Carolyn asked. She looked tired, like she'd had a rough night herself.

"I tripped," Jim said. "Because I was tired. Not because of anything else."

"Maybe you should think about getting home a little earlier if you're so damn tired," Carolyn shot back.

Jim held up one hand. 'Don't start. It's not anything – "

"Oh, I know it's not anything. It never is anything. It's just my fucking husband out on the town because he'd rather drink bad beer in cheap bars than come home at night!" Carolyn's voice was hard and low, and Jim recognised the signs of imminent tears, which made him feel trapped and angry.

"It's no big deal," he said, and then tried to turn the conversation. "I spend a damn sight less on beer than you do on your lottery tickets."

"It's not about the money!" Carolyn burst out shrilly. Her eyes were bright with tears that weren't quite ready to fall, and her cheeks were flushed – bright red patches under the angry blue eyes. "It's not about the fucking money! You're never here! I sit here in this shitty little apartment and you're never here."

"You're not sitting here all alone. You have your friends, you have your goddammed mother..."

"And my friends and my mother aren't you. It'd be nice to see my husband now and again. It'd be nice to be able to tell myself that you actually want to come home at night, but I can't do that, can I, Jimmy?"

Jim said nothing; he turned his back and headed for the couch. He figured he might as well stake it out now. It looked like that would be where he'd be spending the night.

Carolyn's voice came out of a vast distance, even though the room was small. "You can't do it, either, can you? You can't turn around and look me in the face and say that you actually want to be here. You can't do it, can you?"

Jim sat and leaned forward, arms on his thighs, hands hanging loose and useless between his legs. God, but his leg hurt. It hurt almost as much as the tightness in his chest and the burn in his throat. "I'm sorry," he said roughly. "I'm sorry, honey. I really am."

"Sorry doesn't make much of a marriage, does it?" The bedroom door shut quietly, and behind its shelter Carolyn cried softly, muffling the noises she made in the pillow; and Jim lay on the couch with his hand over his face and wondered how something done for good reasons could turn out so damn badly.

***


Jim tried, but Carolyn observed his more regular returns home with a kindly, courteous contempt, and when Jim once put his hands gently on her shoulders as she sat at the table, she leaned her head against his right arm and said, "It's not working out." They stayed there, touching, the warmth of their bodies the only thing that merged between them. It shouldn't have been a shock when Jim came home to an empty place one night, and looked around him at the gaps where some things used to be, and the letter that hadn't been on the table in the morning when he left.

He sat down and looked at it for a while without touching it. Finally he picked up the envelope, which was dry and rough between his sensitive fingers, and opened it up, to find the pale blue note paper that Carolyn favoured.

'Jimmy,

Don't pretend you're surprised, and please don't call me, not for a couple of days at least.

I've taken half of the money in the account, and my own things. You can keep what's still in the apartment, sell it, whatever you like, although I'd appreciate my half of the deposit back. Dad's organising a lawyer. He'll be in contact.

I don't know. I wish I knew if it was losing JJ, or if everything was wrong from the start, but I can't do this any more.

I'm sorry.

Carolyn.'

Jim folded the note and carefully placed it back in the envelope. Then he picked up the phone and dialed Valerie and Mike's number.

"Hello?" Mike's voice.

"Mike. This is Jim."

"Yes, I thought it might have been. Jim, I'm sorry. Carolyn told me what she wrote you. I'm not letting you talk to her, and if you come around here, it would only be because you wanted trouble. We don't need any trouble, son."

"Look. I just want.... Is she okay?"

"No, she's not okay. Just leave it for tonight, Jim. I know that you must feel sick about this but that's just too bad right now. I'm looking after my girl. You understand me?"

"Yeah. Yeah. I understand." Jim hung up, and stared at the wall for a while. Carolyn had taken their wedding picture. Jim didn't get that. Why, when it was all over? He was two weeks shy of turning twenty-seven years old and for his life so far he had a dead kid and a failed marriage.

"Fuck." It wasn't enough. He threw his head back and shouted, loud as he could, "Fuck you! Just fuck you!"

The phone rang, jangling his nerves. He stared at it for a moment, not sure whether he should pick up or not. But then he stepped forward and clutched the receiver against his ear.

"Yes?"

"Jim? Valerie called me." It was his mother.

"Hey, Mom."

"How are you, darling?"

"Uh. Not so good. You know, with my wife leaving me and everything."

"Oh, Jimmy. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."

Jim felt weak at the knees and a little queasy. He sat down, the receiver still held in his hand with a white-knuckle grip. "It's okay. It's not your fault." Jim tried to get an emotional grip, but his feelings were just as white-knuckled and sweaty as his hold on the phone. "How's everything at your end?"

"Fine. Rich is good. He got a good report from his doctor."

"That's great." It was great. Rich had been good to his mother; he was a decent man, and if he and Grace lived on the other side of the country just about, that was too bad.

"I won't badger you tonight, darling. But I'll call you in another couple of days. You let me know if anything major happens. Call collect if you have to."

"Mom. I can afford a phone call, okay?" The words came out like hail on the skin.

"I know, I'm sorry. But it was such a shock when Valerie called me, although in some ways it wasn't. With poor little JJ... I still feel guilty that I couldn't come then." His mother sounded like she was nearly ready to cry, which was bad, because Jim didn't need anything to set him off right now, and the only other option was an anger that he couldn't unleash towards Grace.

"It's okay, Mom. Rich wasn't well. It happens. It's good that you've finally got somebody nice." Jim used to have somebody nice, didn't he? God, he was going down for the third time in a cold lake of self-pity, and he didn't care at all.

"Take care of yourself. Don't make any stupid decisions in the first hurt, Jimmy. Don't do that to yourself."

"I'll be fine. And I won't do anything stupid. I promise. You take care of yourself, too. Bye, Mom. And thanks." He hung up and stared at the phone like it might bite him. It stayed quiet, and alone in the silence of his apartment, Jim swallowed hard and paced about the space, noting more clearly what was still there and what was gone.

Carolyn's careful, decorative clutter was gone from the top of her dresser, as was the good quilt from the bed which was plain and forlorn with just the comforter and a spare blanket. Jim's things stood just as they had that morning, nothing disturbed there at all. He opened up his sock drawer, and dug down for the keepsakes at the bottom. There was the small album his mother had sent of her doings with Rich, the postcard from Blair, the picture of JJ. He'd been three months old and Jim had him scooped in his hands, one under his head and the other under JJ's tiny butt. JJ had been happily surprised and he'd crowed like a tiny rooster, and then he'd flapped his arms like wings, startled at his own noise, while Jim smiled at him with what had to be the sappiest expression on earth, even for a doting father.

Jim laid the photograph, and Blair's postcard on the comforter. Hargrove Hall faced the ceiling in an entirely historical manner, but Jim could feel the underlining of Blair's words with one touch of his index finger.

"I don't know, Chief," he said, before he propped both pictures against the lamp base on the nightstand and lay down on his side and looked at them for long minutes. He could go to Cascade now, if he wanted, because there was certainly wasn't anything to keep him here. He could go any place he wanted.

If he went to Cascade... His father and his brother were there, strangers that they were now. Blair was there, and Blair had kissed him before he left, and Jim had freaked out about a few things in his time, but that kiss hadn't been one of them and what did that say about him, and about Blair?

Jim stretched his whole length across the bed, filling up some of the cold empty space where last night Carolyn had lain. Sadness, depression – those were the right emotions for this moment, and he felt those, sure. But there was a heavy relief hiding just underneath them, and Jim felt out the shape of that relief before he shut his eyes and fell into sleep.

***

He made another call to Grace three weeks later.

"Hey, Mom."

"Jimmy!" Her voice was filled with pleasure. "How are you, darling?"

"Packed and ready to head out of Shitville."

"James Joseph! My ears!" But he could hear the smile. "And this call is to let me know where your gypsy way will take you? It had better be."

"I wouldn't dare not tell you. It'd be more than my life would be worth."

"Talking about daring, dare I hope that you're heading in an easterly direction?" Grace's voice was wistful.

Jim turned his head – averting his face from a glance that couldn't come through the phone line. "It's more like 'Go west, young man.'"

There was a silence on the line. "I see," his mother said finally. "Jimmy, are you sure?"

"I can catch up with Blair, and maybe think about finding a decent job in Cascade. And it's big enough that I can decide when I get there whether I follow up on the long lost family or keep my distance. It's not all about Dad and Stephen."

"Oh, Jimmy. I don't know if it's wise. I really don't. It's been so long."

"Better to let sleeping dogs lie?" Jim asked.

"More like not open old wounds," Grace said unhappily.

"That's my choice, isn't it.?"

"It's not just your wounds, young man."

"Mom..."

"No, Jim. I mean it. It was a mess, and not just your father's fault."

"I know who didn't return the letters and the calls, Mom. Just because you left didn't mean that they had to shut down contact. If I turn up on the old bastard's doorstep and make him uncomfortable I won't be shedding any tears for him. Or for baby-bro either." Another silence. Jim felt like shit. Stephen had never responded to any of his mother's overtures – whether at the behest of their father or out of his own motives, Jim didn't know. Yeah. A mess, and he'd just rubbed his mother's nose in that fact.

"Hey. I'm sorry, Momma. I didn't..."

"I know, Jimmy. It's okay." It clearly wasn't okay, but there wasn't much that Jim could do about that on the end of a phone line. "Look, darling. Take care. Tell me your new address and all your news. Take care."

"Yeah. Yeah, I will. Love you, Mom." It wasn't something he said often.

"I love you too, Jim."

"Yeah. Bye." He put the phone down. The line was due to be cut off any time now, and he didn't really know why he'd left it so late to talk to his mother. He picked up the last bag. "Don't lie to yourself, Jimmy," he muttered, as he headed down the stairs for the last time and chucked the bag onto the front seat of his car. It was starting to rain, a grey drizzle that wasn't much more than a mist, and it stayed that way until he was on the interstate and gunning his way up to seventy.

The rain came down more heavily and flew in comet trail tears across the side windows, but Jim didn't feel like slowing down, any more than anyone else on the road did. It was free and clear for now, and he was headed for Cascade.