Jensen blew out a slow, deep breath, his fingers shaking as he let them brush over the worn down faux fur of the frog in his hands. If he closed his eyes, he could hear Mack’s childish giggle and “Ribbit! Ribbit!”. He squeezed the old frog tight and let his head drop forward.
August 14th, 1971
He hadn’t known what to expect, not truly. As soon as the words left Josh’s mouth, Jensen expected to feel relief. Alan’s reign of terror was over, his father wouldn’t hurt anyone else again. He expected to feel guilty at that relief, because what kind of person did that make him, glad his father was dead?
But he’d felt neither of those things.
“Are you sure?”
“Jensen, I am sitting at the morgue to identify his body! I’m pretty goddamn sure.”
And that was that. Jensen said okay, told his brother to give him a few days to get down there, and then he left to tend the cows.
He had felt strange at dinner, his grandparents laughing over Jenna and Kaleb’s wild recounting of their fishing trip at the creek. How was he supposed to tell them their only son was gone? His grandmother, of course, knew something was off almost immediately and pulled him aside as Chad and Jared were tasked with clearing the table.
“Jensen, you’re killing us here,” Albert said finally, crossing his arms over his chest. “Whatever it is, it will be easier to deal with once you actually say it out loud, son.”
Jensen nodded, but still, the words were stuck in his throat. He thought of Jenna… of Kaleb and Cameron and Leigh Ann… of someone just casually telling them that - He closed his eyes and shook his head, then slid off the couch and moved to his knees in front of his grandparents, reaching for each of their hands.
It didn’t matter what his relationships with his father was, his memories and feelings weren’t the same as theirs with their son.
“Grandma, Grandpa… Josh called me today with some bad news,” he started softly, looking up between both of them. “It’s… it's about Alan.”
“Oh, no,” Martha gasped, her free hand coming up to cover her mouth. The hand in Jensen’s was shaking and he held on tighter, nodding his head.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, and found that he was sincere. Albert closed his eyes, his shoulders stiffening and Jensen was nearly rocked back on his heels at recognizing the compartmentalizing as something his father used to do. His eyes began to burn and he realized that he was sad, sad for everything he once had and everything he could’ve had, everything Alan had once had the potential to be.
“I’m going to go down to Texas to help Josh with the house and.... and handle all of the arrangements,” Jensen said after a moment, looking between his grandparents.
“He would’ve wanted to be with your mother,” Martha answered firmly, nodding her head as she met Jensen’s eyes. Her eyes were swimming with unshed tears, but she smiled softly. “I hope he’s found himself some peace, now.”
“Me too, Grandma, me too.”
He’d barely made it a few feet inside the house before he’d turned back around, retreating to the safety of the outside. The yard was unkept, of course, overgrown and wild, the grass almost up to Jensen’s hips and the walkway hidden by debris. Alan’s truck was a permanent fixture in the driveway, the tires flat and rims sunken into the pavement, dirt and weeds taking over. Jensen wondered if he’d walked the quarter mile to the store or had things delivered…
Even so, the outside looked a hell of a lot better than the inside.
Jensen ran a hand back through his hair, sighing as he wiped the sweat free from his brow. He knew his father had a problem, they all did. It wasn’t surprising that it had gotten worse when his mother died. But…
Nearly every surface was covered in bottles, from cheap beer to whiskey, some broken and some whole. Whatever attempt Alan had made at picking up and using a trash bag had always ended with a half filled bag being dumped in a corner to spill out back onto the floor. The actual garbage can and refrigerator were overwhelming with the amount of rotting food and take out containers, rivaling the dishes piling up in the sink.
There were spots of blood on the floor, leading away from the broken glasses, what the brothers could only assume was where Alan had stepped on broken shards. The only pathway through the house was where the police and coroner had come to take out the body - the front door to the living room recliner.
The state of the house that his father had been living in made tears burn the back of Jensen’s eyes. Alan had done and said awful things, but was the man who had taught him how to fish, to play catch, to light a fire - deserving of an ending so bad?
Jensen wiped at his eyes quickly and looked up, blinking in the sun to look at the older gentleman picking his way carefully through the walkway, looking at him through coke bottle glasses.
“No… Jensen? Is that… Jensen?”
“I… yes?” Jensen answered, laying the frog gently beside him before pushing up and brushing off the seat of his pants. “I’m sorry, it’s… Mr. Collins?”
The older man nodded his head and smiled, taking his time to get through the grass. Jensen moved forward, meeting him halfway and holding out his hand in greeting. The older man’s smile was genuine and he wrapped his free hand over their joined hands, giving a tight squeeze.
“It’s so good to see you, despite the circumstances,” Mr. Collins said with a genuine smile. “It's been a long time since you’ve been around here, young man.”
“It has,” Jensen agreed, smiling sadly. Though he’d been here for his mother’s funeral, he hadn’t stayed to see much of anyone. “Can I do something for you, sir?”
The man shook his head, his sharp blue eyes glancing over Jensen’s shoulder before locking back onto Jensen’s face. “I knew your father wasn’t doing well. He ordered groceries from the store, and I made sure to come out here at least twice a week with the delivery and a home cooked meal. He was a sad man, Jensen.”
Jensen’s throat was thick as he nodded, looking down at the cracked pavement between their feet.
“And forgive me, but Lord… that man did it to himself. It didn’t matter how many times I prayed for him, or Vicki prayed for him… The Lord couldn’t forgive him until Alan forgave himself, and your father was too stubborn to do so.”
Jensen looked up again and watched Mr. Collins carefully, squinting slightly against the sun.
“Men make mistakes, the one constant we have. We breathe, we eat, we fault - and if we’re lucky, we learn from them and we grow.” Mr. Collins smiled sadly, squeezing Jensen’s hand again before releasing it and adjusting his posture.
“I’m not sure my father learned from his mistakes,” Jensen said softly.
“Perhaps not,” Mr. Collins agreed, “but yet… we forgive him for it, anyway.”
Jensen opened his mouth to argue, but realized he had forgiven Alan. At least, he wasn’t angry anymore. He would never forget the things his father did, the challenges he caused their entire family to face, the hardships or the pain - but he found himself remembering the good times, though few, and pulling those forth to drown out the better part of his adult life.
Alan was gone, and the only memory of him that deserved to stay, the only one that Jensen needed to have, were the ones that mattered.
“Thank you for coming by to check in on him,” Jensen said after a moment, looking over his shoulder as the front door opened to see Josh stepping out onto the deck. “I am glad he had someone looking out for him, and I’m sure he didn’t thank you.”
Mr. Collins just shrugged, smiling once more. “I know that this house isn’t fit for much,” he looked sad, his gaze moving towards Josh before coming back again. “You boys are welcome in our house. We have a few empty bedrooms and the grandkids aren’t coming down this week.”
“We couldn’t impose,” Jensen started but a quick look made him snap his mouth shut.
“Vicki and I insist. You boys will be dead on your feet by the week’s end.”
“We appreciate it,” Josh answered for them, coming up behind Jensen. “Thank you, Mr. Collins.”
Mr. Collins nodded once more, then started back down the driveway, a quick wave of goodbye in parting and a prompt, “Dinner is at six!”
Jensen watched him until he disappeared down the street, heading back to the corner store. Then he turned to Josh. “I guess we should start.”
Josh swallowed hard and nodded, but neither one of them moved. The prospect of starting to clean the inside of the house and salvage what was important, seemed like an overwhelming task. Finally, it was Jensen who sighed and clapped his brother’s shoulder, pushing him forward.
He picked up a shopping bag of thick trash bags and headed first towards the kitchen, Josh trailing silently behind them. They worked side by side, silence thick and heavy, their thoughts a swirling mess. Jensen wasn’t quite sure how he was supposed to feel, but with every bottle he tossed into the trash, every moldy container, every piece of trash… he wondered if he should’ve done something differently.
The sound of a smashing bottle made him jump and he turned to see Josh standing at the end of the island, his face bright red and tears burning his eyes. He was staring hard at the ground where he’d just thrown a bottle, the shattered pieces still shivering with the impact.
Then, he turned his angry gaze on Jensen.
“Stop it,” he hissed, suddenly swiping another arm out, causing a second bottle to go rocketing across the kitchen and shattering against the fridge. “Stop it!”
“I can see it on your face, Jensen! I can see it!” A tear finally fell, sliding down Josh’s cheek. “You didn’t do this, we didn’t do this! Dad was a rat bastard who chose this over us! He-he-” Josh let out a wheezing breath, tightening his fists again and Jensen dropped the trash bag he was holding on the ground.
“He chose this over his family.” More tears slipped free and Josh was openly crying, squeezing his eyes shut tight. “I don’t get it, I don’t- he didn’t - fuck.”
Jensen stepped carefully over the broken glass and approached Josh carefully, holding his arms out slowly until he wrapped them firmly around his brother’s body. Then he pulled, knocking Josh off balance and drawing him in against his chest, holding onto him tight.
Josh clung onto him, a sob escaping as he buried his head in Jensen’s neck. Jensen found his own eyes burning and he didn’t try to stop it. They stood together, crying for the family they could’ve had, for the father they’d lost years ago.
When Josh finally pulled back, they both looked away from one another, wiping their eyes. Then Jensen cleared his throat. “You know, we learned a lot from him.”
Josh’s eyes snapped to Jensen then, the look incredulous.
“We did. We learned how to be the dads we wanted him to be. I… I don’t know if I would’ve been the dad I am without the dad we had,” Jensen said honestly, shrugging his shoulders. “He inspired a lot of my parenting.”
Josh snorted a laugh at that, but didn’t disagree. He sniffed and looked around before sighing. “We really should make a dent in this before we go to the Collins’.”
Jensen nodded and then gave a sad smile. “You know, Mackenzie would’ve slapped us both by now. You know what the first thing she would’ve done when she got here would’ve been?”
“Other than open all of the windows?” Josh replied with a short laugh, making Jensen smirk.
“I’ll be right back.”
He carefully picked through the downstairs, heading towards the living room. He wrapped his arms around the base of the record player, lifting it up and blowing a puff of air at the top, causing a cascade of dust to billow up into the air. When he turned around, Josh was standing there already, a record in his hands and a knowing smile on his face. Jensen chuckled and together they went back to the kitchen, setting up the music and letting the upbeat sounds of Elvis start to ebb away some of the sadness.
The sun was hot, the temperatures soaring high above 95, and Jensen was cursing himself for volunteering to clean up the yard. Josh had left fifteen minutes ago, offering to get a new can of oil and gasoline, plus sandwiches and lemonades for lunch, giving Jensen a much needed rest.
August 16th, 1971
It was too bad that the shade did nothing to stop the sweltering heat of the sun.
He peeled his shirt off, using it to wipe the sweat from his face and his neck, leaning back against the side of the house. He exhaled, closed his eyes, and then heard the sound of a stroller. It squeaked along the sidewalk and then stopped, and Jensen furrowed his brow. It sounded like it stopped right in front of -
When he opened his eyes, it was to the last person he expected to see.
Rosemary somehow looked the same. She was beautiful, her hair artfully pinned to the top of her head, her summer dress loose and twisting around her legs. She cocked her head as she looked across the yard at Jensen, but he couldn't determine what her expression meant. Then, she smiled and started up the driveway.
Jensen felt his eyes widen and he scrambled to his feet, struggling with his shirt to pull it back on and getting stuck in the sleeve. Rosemary’s gentle laugh made him pause and he looked at her, embarrassed, and fought to right himself.
“Uh, hi,” he said and swallowed, glancing over her and down at the stroller. “Uh…”
“Hello, Jensen. It’s nice to see you.”
Jensen just stared. He thought of the last time he saw her, the tears dried on her cheeks, the anger in her eyes as she handed off the best thing in his life. He straightened his shoulders, forcing himself not to be nervous and met her gaze head on.
“You look well.” He was glad his voice was steady and she nodded, reaching forward to squeeze his arm.
“So do you,” she replied. Then her eyes darted down to his left hand. “Married, I see?”
Jensen nodded, resisting the urge to shove his hand behind his back. He nodded instead to the ring on her finger. “You too.”
She smiled again. “Ten years,” she answered, shifting her weight so her hip was against the stroller, “and four kids later.” She gave a light laugh and Jensen smiled at her.
“That sounds familiar.” He winced the moment he said it and waited for the question.
“Oh?” she said, cocking her head once more. “I thought…” She stopped and shook her head. “I’m glad you’re happy.”
Jensen knew he could leave it at that, but somehow, he felt he owed her an explanation. He reached into the back of his jeans and pulled out his wallet, flipping open to the photographs in the center.
“This is Jared,” he said, holding out the military photo, watching Rosemary’s face as she leaned over to look, “my husband.”
She smiled then and Jensen didn’t pause to figure out what that meant. “This is Jenna,” he lowered his voice as he flicked to the next photo, looking up at Rosemary’s face. Now, Jensen saw the resemblance and he watched as Rosemary saw it too.
“Oh, Jensen,” she whispered, her fingertips gentle as they brushed over the photograph. “She… she’s so beautiful.”
Jensen nodded and looked down at the picture, smiling. “She’s a pretty amazing girl, so smart and driven. She… she wants to be a doctor.”
Rosemary looked up, her eyes shining as she smiled. “You’ve done good, Jensen,” she said and Jensen found himself choking back tears at the sincerity in her voice. “Now that I’m a parent… I just…” She shook her head. “I wasn’t ready then, and I wasn’t fair to you, simply because I was hurt. But, I don’t regret it and this?” She pointed at Jenna, then reached up and cupped Jensen’s face. “This is why. You’ve raised an amazing young woman, Jensen. You should be so proud.”
Jensen swallowed hard and nodded his head, then licked his lip and looked back down at the picture. “I… my sister Mackenzie and her husband… we lost them too young, so we have their kids, too.” He flipped to a family photo of all the kids, and Rosemary gave another joyful laugh as she looked at them.
“Your family is beautiful, Jensen.”
With very little encouragement, Rosemary talked about her own kids and a little about her husband, though she turned the tables on him and surprised him by wanting to know about Jared. The conversation was surprisingly easy and only broken by the sound of her youngest son fussing in the stroller, not pleased that his walk had been interrupted for so long.
“It was really, really good to see you, Jensen,” Rosemary said and reached for him, giving him a tight squeeze. Jensen found himself hugging back, nodding his head in agreement. It was a strange closure he hadn’t realized he needed, and he felt lighter as he waved at her back as she left, cooing softly to the babe.
Jensen sat back down against the wall of the house and found the wallet back in his hands, his own fingers tracing the pictures of his kids softly. God, he missed them, he missed Jared. They only had a few days left before the funeral before he would be back in Vermont and life would be returning back to normal, but if the last two days showed him anything, it was how much he missed having Josh around.
When Josh’s truck came creeping up the street, Jensen found himself smiling, leaping up to greet his brother and take the bag of sandwiches from him. The tension Josh had worked up at coming back to the house seemed to bleed away at the sight of his brother and he gave back an easy smile, following Jensen into the shade for a short, picnic lunch.
Jensen made a promise to himself then that he would have Josh and his family around more often, push to have them up in the summers, get to know his niece and nephew and sister-in-law better. They were the only family each other had left.
Jensen stretched, his back popping in protest from being in the same position on the grass for too long, and he wrinkled his nose at the sound. Beside him, Jared snorted a laugh, poking him in the ribs. “Old man,” he muttered and Jensen shoved him into the grass.
August 22nd, 1971
Jared’s laughter was free and beautiful, a sound that had become more and more readily given over the last few weeks. Jensen loved it.
He rolled his eyes at the tongue Jared stuck out at him and pushed up from the ground, walking towards the edge of the clearing to get some more firewood. When he walked back to their small campsite, he couldn’t help but smile.
Chad had gone into town while Jensen was in Texas and purchased two large canvas tents, working with the boys (though how much help Kaleb and Cameron were, Jensen wasn’t actually sure) to create their camp. Martha had collected a myriad of old quilts and blankets for them and Jenna had meticulously set up a bed space for each of them inside of the tents. Jared was leaning back against the downed oak tree, Chad at his side telling some spooky story. He leaned forward, his hands waving animatedly, and three of the kids (Leigh Ann had stayed back at the house with the Padaleckis for the night) were leaning forward as well, shocked expressions on their faces.
Jensen loved it. He laid a few of the thicker branches on their fire and moved back around to sit beside Jared, leaning into his husband’s side. Jared lifted his arm up to wrap around Jensen’s shoulders and Jensen took a moment to appreciate the fact that they could be like this out here, without Chad batting an eye, the kids uncaring and not paying attention to either one of their dads.
Jensen leaned his head on Jared’s shoulder, letting his eyes fall closed as he listened to Chad go on about Big Foot, gasping and wondering aloud if the creature would travel this far north.
“But… there’s no such thing as Big Foot, right Uncle Chad?” Jenna asked, her voice slightly higher than normal and Jensen found himself smiling.
“Well,” Chad answered, an air of nonchalance about him, “I’ve never seen him. Have you?”
Jensen opened his eyes to see all three of the kids shaking their heads furiously.
“Then I don’t think we have anything to worry about. Besides, Big Foot is so big, he has a muted sense of smell. He can’t track much of anything, other than marshmallows of course.”
Beside him, Jared snorted, and Jensen rolled his eyes as he watched Cameron drop the bag of marshmallows he was digging through.
“Mellows?” Kaleb repeated, glancing down at the baag with a few bright white treats spilling out of the open top. “Those mellows?”
Chad made a face, pretending to scramble back from the kids as he moved behind Jared and Jensen, peeking out over Jensen’s left shoulder. “Oh no,” Chad mock whispered, shaking his head. “Oh no, oh no, oh no!”
“What?” Jenna exclaimed, scooping up the bag and twisting down the top. “What if we don’t eat any more? Will we be safe then?”
Chad pretended to look around the clearing, then said in his most serious voice, “I think the only way we can be saved… is if we toast and eat them all.”
“Chad!” Jared scolded, but it was too late. The kids took the permission for what it was and all three made their own noises of excitement as they scrambled around to find the marshmallow sticks they’d picked out earlier. Chad chuckled, winking at Jensen before reaching up to ruffle Jared’s growing hair.
“What?” he said as he climbed back over, settling on Jared’s side. “Just wait, they’re gonna get stuffed and then we can convince them to bring us some. We don’t have to do any work.”
“You’re impossible,” Jared snorted, elbowing Chad’s side, but Jensen watched as Jared accepted no less than six toasted treats from the kids, licking the sticky sugar off his fingers. They managed to get through half the bag before Kaleb passed out in the dirt, Jensen pushing up from his spot and stretching again before tucking him into bed. Jenna and Cameron weren’t far behind, falling asleep as soon as their heads hit their pillows.
Chad took his spot beside the boys in one of the tents, calling a soft goodnight as he settled in his bed, and Jensen chuckled as Jared flopped down beside Jenna, groaning as his knee smashed into a rock.
“I think camping was more comfortable when we were their age,” Jared muttered into the blankets, then turned his head and found Jensen’s eyes in the moonlight. Jensen rolled his eyes and smiled, getting underneath the covers much more carefully and having to shift around until the earth beneath him was smooth.
As soon as they were settled, the sounds of crickets started up again, singing their song over the last cracks of their fire, the sound of the kids breathing. Jared reached beneath the covers and found Jensen’s hand, twisting their fingers together.
He thought of when he was a boy, maybe four, the only time he remembered camping out. Jensen and Josh had taken an old sleeping bag and put it out under the stars in the backyard. Alan had found them outside after dinner, sitting over a pile of sticks that Josh had placed paper cut-outs of flames in, and Jensen remembered thinking they would be in trouble. Alan however smiled and went inside, coming back with a jug of coffee and hot cocoa and a package of cookies.
He stayed with them as the sun went down, laying back in the grass. They were just able to see the night sky through the stretch of trees that separated their back yard from the next and Alan pointed up, showing them how to find the North Star. He showed them the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper. Then they all made up their own, a starlit horse, a truck, a soldier.
Alan laughed with them and drank his coffee, creating ridiculous names for the constellations Josh and Jensen made up. Then he rubbed Jensen’s back as he rolled over in the sleeping bag, until he fell asleep. Jensen woke up in his own bed the next morning, not knowing how he got there, but his pajama knees were grass stained and the memory was at the forefront of his mind.
“They’re gonna remember this for the rest of their lives,” Jensen whispered to the night. Jared squeezed his hand, but Jensen wasn’t sure if he actually heard him or if it was a reflex in his sleep. He smiled and let his eyes close.