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Prodigal Son

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“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” ~ George Moore

 


November 1980


The photograph is worn and faded from age, so Jeremy's careful as he holds the picture between his thumb and forefinger. Gazing at the moment captured here, Jeremy is briefly transported back to happier days when he and Eddie had loved each other with the fierce, timeless conviction of teenagers. It's probably not a great sign when you look back and view your high school years as the best of your life, especially when things are going objectively great for you.

Sprawled in his usual position on the couch, Jeremy lifts the bottle to his lips and swallows down the bitter ale. A creased photo album lies opened in his lap. The other pictures depict Jeremy's mother and father, sometimes the three of them together, all snapped before divorce and alcoholism took their toll on the family. Then there are the countless photographs of Jeremy himself at various ages. But only this one photo of Eddie exists, and by some cruel twist of irony it includes both him and Jeremy, the two of them looking shy and awkward yet exuberantly happy. 

The front door unlocks. Jeremy shoves the photo inside the album and sticks the cracked leather volume underneath stacks of magazines on the coffee table. He tries to look casual as the door opens and Casey's wide frame enters the apartment. 

“Were you pining again?” Casey asks with a sigh. Given that Jeremy's splayed out on the couch with a bottle of beer, looking bedraggled and bloodshot, it's not hard for Casey to connect the dots. Few things make Jeremy as mournful as what he's lost.

“Give me a fuckin' break,” Jeremy grumbles, but there's no heat to it. 

Casey sheds his leather jacket on the rack near the door. In his right hand is a plastic grocery sack filled with the ingredients for tonight’s dinner: fried chicken strips with mustard barbeque sauce. He sets the bag on the kitchen counter and takes a diet Coke out of the fridge. “If you miss him so much, just give him a call,” says Casey, for what seems like the thousandth time in their months-old relationship. 

“He doesn’t have a phone,” Jeremy says with an edge of ‘we’ve been over this’ impatience. Because he’s certain he has told Casey this exact statement at least once before.

“It’s a small town. Somebody should be able to pass on a message. How hard is it to walk next door or across the street?”

“His mother would kill him if she knew we were talking.” In most situations, this would be considered hyperbole. Not so with Eddie’s mother.

Casey flaps his left hand—the one not holding the Coke—in a dismissive gesture. “Excuses, excuses.” He’s had this conversation with Jeremy too many times to take it seriously, and Jeremy doesn’t blame him. He imagines it will be the argument that inevitably tears them apart at some point in the future. 

Casey sits at the dining table while Jeremy prepares dinner; he’s more of a hindrance than help when it comes to cooking, and Jeremy’s tiny loft apartment doesn’t accommodate much space for two people in the kitchen. Outside the window, the sun is beginning to set over downtown Chicago. The glare from the open blinds against the stainless steel appliances gives Jeremy a headache.

Casey draws the blinds shut and lumbers over to the kitchen island where Jeremy’s rinsing the chicken breasts in the sink. He leans on the marble countertop, says, “Guess who’s thinking about ending his sabbatical?”

There’s really only one way to answer that question. “You?”

“How’d you guess?” Casey has an infectious, goofy smile, made even more endearing by how round his face is. “Yeah, well, I was talking with Angelo about it, but I wanted to see what you think.” 

Angelo is—or was—Casey's partner at the firm. For the past year, Casey has put his law practice on hold after a family tragedy. Jeremy's never seen him in his capacity as a lawyer, having only met Casey a few months ago.

“Since when does my opinion matter? I didn't think we were serious.”

Casey blushes, looking flustered for a rare moment.

Jeremy can’t resist the opportunity to tease him. “You got a crush on me, Counselor?”

“Go fuck yourself.” The way Casey’s cherubic cheeks flush when he laughs take the sting out of his words.

“But you do it so much better.”

Casey grins.

“In any case,” Jeremy says, slicing the chicken into strips, “if you think you’re ready to go back to work, go for it. Isn’t that what life’s about: chasing happiness where you can find it?”

“Hard to argue with that.”

Twenty minutes later, dinner’s on the table, the smell of fried chicken wafting through the air. Maybe one of the perks of living in Chicago is the immediate access to all kinds of decadent foods, but Jeremy would feel remiss if he didn’t exercise his cooking skills in his own kitchen, at least for Casey’s sake; the guy can’t live on deep-dish pizza and hot dogs. 

“I assume you’re not spending Thanksgiving with the folks?” Jeremy says after a moment.

Casey licks a glob of mustard sauce from his thumb. “You assume correctly.”

“I don’t like the idea of you being alone during the holidays.”

“Well, tough shit. I’m not the first person life’s taken a massive dump on. I’ll manage.”

Jeremy notes the distance Casey puts between himself and his tragedy, the way he sidesteps actually talking about what happened. Casey has only ever spoken about it once, on a particularly difficult night for both of them, and Jeremy’s lucky he wasn’t too drunk to rememeber, because Casey’s never talked candidly about the incident again.

“What if you spent Thanksgiving with me?” Jeremy suggests. “My mom and my grandma live in Wisconsin. It’s not too far of a drive.”

Casey chews it over, considering. His masculine pride, instilled in him by his father, probably prevents him from accepting Jeremy’s hospitality. But Casey has done plenty that spits in the face of his father’s influence, so his ultimate decision is a coin toss.

“You know you’re just gonna mope if you spend Thanksgiving alone,” Jeremy says, hoping to convince him. “I don’t care what your therapist says: distractions are awesome.”

A twitch of a smile flickers on Casey’s mouth. “And your ma and granny will be totally fine with you bringing a random guy over?”

“I wouldn’t invite you if they were bigots. Gimme some credit.”

Casey doesn’t seem to know how to respond to this, so he says, “I’ll think about it.”

The phone rings halfway through dinner. Jeremy rises to answer, grabs the receiver off the wall. “Hello?”

The voice on the other end cuts through Jeremy's chest like hot blades. “Jer? It’s Eddie. I need your help,” Eddie says, as though the last eight years have not created a chasm between them. His voice is soft and broken, and Jeremy knows this call is no cause for celebration.

Stunned and astonished that Eddie is speaking to him, Jeremy asks, “Why? What happened?”

“I’m not quite sure myself. But by the sound of it, I'm in a whole lot of trouble.”

“Okay, where are you? I can come get you and we'll figure this out.”

“I'm, uh, I'm at the police station.”

A protective surge of anger and panic flares in Jeremy's blood. “What the fuck? Why? Did they arrest you?”

From his place at the table, Casey makes an inquisitive noise. “Who's arrested?” he asks with his mouth full.

Jeremy ignores him, his attention drawn to Eddie on the other end of the line. “I think so,” Eddie says. “They’re asking me a lot of questions, and one of them said I should call a lawyer. So I called you 'cause you're smart. I figured you'd know what to do.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Jeremy sighs. It takes him a moment to get his thoughts together. “Okay, look, I know a great lawyer. I’ll send him to you. Where are you?”

“The jail.”

“I know jail, but where—” Jeremy stops as he realizes the answer. Of course Eddie stayed in Harvest; he never knew enough about the world to want more than what was in front of him. “Right. Never mind. Look, just—don't say anything to the cops until I get there, okay?”

“Okay.” A smile seeps into Eddie's voice, and he sounds the same as he always did. Some things never change. “Thanks.”

Jeremy hangs up the phone. Unease shreds his chest. His vision pulsates, the world spinning under his feet. He has to brace himself against the kitchen island or else he’ll crumple to the floor.

“A lawyer, huh? Guess I'm officially back in the saddle,” Casey says, wiping his hands on his jeans. He stands up, walks to the coat rack and grabs his jacket. “So who's your delinquent friend?”

“He's not a delinquent,” Jeremy snaps. It’s surprising how much steel he hears in his own voice. “He's innocent.”

Casey slips his arms into the jacket. “That's what they all say.”

“It's Eddie.”

“Oh.” Casey pauses, understanding the gravity of the situation. “Shit.”

“That's not gonna be a problem, is it?”

“You never forget your first,” Casey says with a gentle smirk. “C'mon, let's save your boyfriend.”