“Phillip. I really don’t need you to do that.” The dining room was dark, and the shadows made Phil look sixty instead of sixteen. The house felt more like a mausoleum than a home. “I’ll take care of the bills.”
Phil bit his lip. His hands hesitated over the scattered papers, their red warnings, the envelopes addressed to the wrong person.
“I will,” she said. “Now go. Play outside.”
“I’m sixteen years old,” he said, with a roll of his eyes that made him seem exactly that old and no older.
“Sixteen year olds don’t need sunlight now? I must have missed that article in TIME.”
“It was in The Washington Post,” Phil shot back playfully. She smiled at him, her sweet, sweet boy.
“Pah. The Post is for panderers.” They were Alan’s words, and Phil’s eyes drifted away, following a ghost’s path across the room. “You. Boy. Outside. Now.” She chased him out, closing the door behind him (and shoving a ten dollar bill in his hand for gas money). Then she went back into the kitchen.
The bills weren’t going to do themselves. Alan wasn’t going to take care of them, and she wasn’t going to let Phil take care of her. She picked up Phil’s pen, sat down, and got to work.
Phil came back after sunset, breathless, the chill of autumn high in his cheeks. “Mom,” he said, halting in the doorway. “You…” The table was set. Casserole on paper plates.
“I did the bills,” she said. “Not the dishes. Now shut up and eat your aunt Luna’s tuna casserole before it gets cold.”
“But if I let it get cold, maybe it will go bad, and I won’t have to eat it,” Phil said hopefully. She sat down, grabbed a plastic forkful of consolation casserole, and pretended to enjoy eating it.
Phil, who seemed to grow at least an inch every five minutes and consumed food at a matching rate, didn’t complain for long. He shoveled food into his mouth, and in between bites, filled her in on his night.
The circus was in town, he told her. The circus was in town, and the lead train in their caravan had broken down. “They’re going to be here for weeks,” Phil said. “Performances every night. There was one—there was this—Mom. It was so. Cool. This boy did archery tricks that were—” He waved a wild hand in the air. “Amazing.”
He filled their house recreating the sound and spectacle, the dangers dared and defied. “Maybe we could go,” he said quietly, putting his empty paper plate in the trash. “If you want to?”
“Maybe,” she said. It didn’t seem possible right now. Leaving the house. Getting in the car. Driving. Talking to people.
Alan would have gone. Alan would have loved it. She would loved it vicariously, living the noisy thrill through her husband and son, the two of them soaking up everything around them, a pair of smiling sponges.
“They’ll be here for weeks,” Phil said. Comforting her again. “We have plenty of time.”
She didn’t leave the house the next day.
Or the day after that.
Phil, though, Phil left mid-afternoon—leaving worried apologies and Mom really are you sure you’re okay I can stay’s in his wake until she yelled at him to get out. He stared at her in silence, and she stared back. They weren’t a yelling family.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, a rustle of wind through dry leaves. “I’m sorry, Mom.” He left, and she stayed, and Alan wasn’t anywhere.
The next morning she made blueberry pancakes and did all of the dishes. When Phil came downstairs, hair a tousled mess, she pulled him close and kissed him on the forehead and apologized.
“We’re going to be okay,” he said solemnly, putting his hands on her shoulders. She blinked, suddenly not sure what she was supposed to say. He was her baby. This wasn’t his job.
He ate all the pancakes she could make and hugged her goodbye before he left.
She Skyped her sister and talked until after midnight, when Phil finally came home. She let him stumble up the stairs on his own. He was humming ‘Entrance of the Gladiators,’ his hands waving in the air, a ringmaster of his own dreams.
The next day she went to the bank. She sat in tiny offices and avoided saying Alan’s name out loud and asked stupid, stupid questions, because she’d never worried about their money before, and now she had a house and car and son, and two of those things needed refinancing and apparently it was possible to get two mortgages and did she want to do that, did she know what was going to happen to Alan’s IRA, what were Phil’s plans for college, was she okay, did she need a minute.
The next day she stayed in the garage and thought about what she could do with the astoundingly absurd amount of money coming her way. She used to pester Alan about all the planning he did for death.
“We’re so young,” she said. In the unfinished garage, alone, she didn’t sound young.
It felt good to be out of the house without having to be out in the world. The garage had never been anybody’s space, unlike the bedrooms or the study or the living room (his side of the bed, his half of the bathroom, his worn leather seat, his lingering cologne). She could turn the garage into a craft space, or a lounge area. Maybe fill it with foosball tables and kegs.
Phil came out and joined her mid-morning. She offered him a beer, which he turned down. He puttered around the garage, picking up random tools and half-packed boxes and moving them around. “Phil,” she said.
“If you try to clean the garage, I will fire you.”
“You’ll—” His confusion brightened into a smile. “I think you have to pay me wages in order to fire me.”
“Shit. I haven’t given you an allowance in—” In fifty-one days, she almost said. “In a long time. How on earth have you been getting around?”
“I started selling drugs on street corners.”
“Phillip J. Coulson,” she said, “If you are dealing drugs and not sharing them with your mother, we are going to have a talk.”
“Just kidding, Mom. I’ve started selling my body.”
“An entrepreneur in the family. I’m so proud. Seriously, Phil. I know you’ve been going to the circus, I meant to give you more money for tickets and food and things.”
“It’s fine, Mom. I actually—I, uh. I made a friend?” There was a hopeful, awkward smile on his face that she immediately returned. Phil had never been the type to make friends. He was a sweet boy, polite and kind, but always so quiet. Too much like her, enjoying the view from the sidelines instead of stepping into things like his father would have done.
“And this friend of yours, are they a drug dealer as well? Or are they into prostitution?”
“Neither. He, uh. He works for the circus. So he gets me in for free.”
Well, this was one for the books. “Is he the strong man?”
“They don’t have a strong man. Just a strong woman. He’s a performer, though. A marksman. I think I might have told you about him?” His affected calm was laughable.
“The modern day Robin Hood? The one you’ve been waxing rhapsodic about for days? That one? Never heard of him.”
“He’s just really nice,” Phil mumbled.
“What’s his name?”
“Clint. Clint Barton.” Phil smiled at her, and she swallowed hard.
Her little boy had a crush. That hadn’t ever happened before. She wasn’t sure whether or not she was supposed to tease him about it. “You should invite him over for dinner.”
He blushed. “Mom! I can’t ask him that.”
“Why not? Circus performers don’t eat? Or do they live on cotton candy?”
“Clint doesn’t like cotton candy,” he mumbled. “He just pretends to because I like it so much.”
She already wanted to pinch Clint Barton’s cheeks. She really hoped he wasn’t forty and covered in tattoos and evil. “Invite him over. I’ll make him your Aunt Luna’s favorite casserole recipe.”
“You wouldn’t,” he said, horrified.
“No, I wouldn’t. I’ll make him something nice. Promise me you’ll ask him?”
“Whatever.” He rolled his eyes, then started to leave, then turned around. “I’ll—he won’t want to. He’d be really bored.”
“You should still ask. If he doesn’t want to come, he can always say no.”
Eventually, he nodded. “Okay. They’ve got two shows today. I’ll talk to him in between if I can catch him. But he’s going to say no. And he’s going to think I’m dumb for asking.”
“Attaboy,” she said, giving him two thumbs up.
When he left that night (still complaining, still worried, still her boy), she shoved him out the door and yelled, “Don’t get kidnapped by carnies!”
“It’s not kidnapping if I run away!” There was a laugh in his voice, but it left her chilled.
One way or another, months or years away, Phil was going to leave this house for good. College or work or love would draw him forward, and she would be the last Coulson living here.
That night she got drunk enough to ask Alan what she was supposed to do. Eyes watery with wine, she stared at their bedroom ceiling, and talked and talked and cried and begged and apologized, hearing only her own voice, drunk enough to expect an answer.
“What do I do?” she whispered. “Alan, our son is growing up. You should see him, Alan. You should see your son. He is so beautiful. He is so good.”
The next morning she found Phil in the garage. His shoulders were hunched, and he didn’t look up when she came in. “Did you ask him over for dinner?”
“And what did he say?”
“He said yes.”
“That’s great,” she said, trying to drag up enthusiasm through the miasma of hangover. She squinted because she thought she saw—Phil had a hickey. She felt absurdly proud.
“I was going to tell you last night,” Phil said, his sadness a gentle accusation.
“Oh.” She shuffled over to him. Put her hands on his shoulders (he was taller than her now; as tall as Alan had been), and forced him to look her in the eyes. “Son, I am very sorry that last night I got drunker than Dionysus and wasn’t awake to talk to you. I was very sad, and I drank a lot of wine. I thought it would make me feel better.”
“Oh my god no,” she said, thinking of how much emptier and angrier she had been when rationality had given way to hopelessness. “I am so hungover that I think I might actually be dead.”
“Not funny,” Phil mumbled.
“I am going to vomit on you,” she said. Phil looked alarmed. “I’m mostly kidding. About the vomiting.” She was pretty sure about that. “But I am actually serious about being sorry. I was…”
“You were sad.”
She rested a thumb on Phil’s cheek, on the curve of his jaw where stubble was starting to sprout. “I was sad. But I’m proud of you for asking Clint to come over. Is he coming tonight?”
“No,” Phil said, biting his lower lip. “He’s only free Monday nights, and I thought, if we had a few days, maybe I would have time to clean the house a bit first.”
She flushed with shame. Their house had been so spotless. She had taken such pride in every detail of the home she had made. Now Phil was embarrassed to bring his crush over for dinner. “Monday gives me plenty of time to clean. And you are not allowed to help.”
“I’m not allowed to clean?”
“No. You are not. You can rake the leaves, and bring the car in for an oil change, and—and—and you can get groceries. But the house is my job.”
They argued until she said, “Your dad wouldn’t want you to stop having fun.” Phil’s eyes blazed with anger at that.
There were so many words he could have flung back at her; cruel, true, painful words. There was so much blame waiting to come her way. Instead he mumbled an apology, got in his car, and left.
She swept the house.
Sorted through piles of mail.
Put all the vases into a box for donation; their sad, dark bouquets long since wilted and thrown to the compost.
Then she sat down on the floor of the kitchen, feeling drained, hungover, and guilty with laziness.
She tried to force herself to be proud. She had gotten things done. And that was good. And in the next three days, she would do more things, and—and—
Three days in the future was far. Lurching towards a precipice of forever that she barely pulled herself back from.
Tonight. Right now. She would make pasta, and put some in the fridge for Phil.
Then she would take one of her prescription sleeping pills instead of draining a bottle of wine.
And the next morning, she would do something else. And after that, one more thing. And that would be good.
It didn’t feel good.
She did it anyway.
By dinnertime on Monday she was exhausted from having spent the past two days in a cleaning frenzy that would have given Cinderella and her feral friends a run for their money.
All of the rooms were swept and vacuumed, the windows cleaned, the bathrooms and toilets scrubbed, the dishes done, and the table set. (The garage, on the other hand, had turned into a repository of Things to Sort Out Later. She’d caught Phil trying to sneak in and clean it up once already and had chased him out with dire threats of figuring out how to ground him.)
The boy that her Phillip brought home was a wiry, lightning-tense boy with a deep tan and carefully-combed blond hair. Phil brought him into the kitchen, and Clint took her hand in both of his (ignoring the soap suds on her wrists and forearms), said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Coulson,” and kissed the back of her hand.
He paired it with a smile so cheesy that she broke out into loud laugh.
“You are a dangerous young man,” she replied, taking her hand back and shaking a finger at him. His smile dimmed for a moment, and she realized that her teasing words weren’t safe words for him. “So sweet, you’re going to give me a cavity if I’m not careful,” she concluded, trying to summon her mother’s brand of harmless good humor.
“Come on, Mom,” Phil complained, rolling his eyes.
“Call me Lynn,” she said to Clint.
Clint ducked his head and ran a hand through his hair, undoing all the careful styling that had gone into it. The move was so familiar, and the disarray so natural, that she suspected Phil and his comb had put Clint to rights before bringing him into the house.
“I hope you like lasagna,” she said. “Because I made enough of it to feed your entire circus, and Phil and I are going to have leftover for eons.”
“I love lasagna,” Clint said.
“It’s really good,” Phil told Clint earnestly. “She’s a great cook.” He shot her a quick smile before turning back to Clint.
Phil took her off-guard sometimes, the quiet loyalty and love he had for everyone around him. He wanted Clint to like her, she realized. He wanted it very badly.
“The table’s set,” she said. “I just need to get the garlic bread out of the oven. Phil, will you put the salad together? Everything’s all set out. And Clint, if you could pour the water, that would be lovely. The pitcher’s on the counter.”
Clint leapt to like he was on springs. When he brought the pitcher into the dining room, she sidled up to Phil and whispered, “He’s cute. Good job.”
He blushed, and said “Mom,” stretching it out into an age-old polysyllabic complaint.
“He has very nice arms,” she added, before returning to the lasagna.
She’d put Clint on a seat to her right, in between her and Phil, and he spent the first part of the night with his head turned completely towards her, ignoring Phil completely. Finally he said, “My ears. They aren’t so good. Maybe I could—would you mind—can we switch?” He gestured at her seat. She looked at his ears, which looked perfectly normal, except for the hot red blush on the tips, then felt very rude.
“As much as I do love having your undivided attention,” she said, “I supposed it would be more fair to Phillip if you could look at both of us during a conversation.”
Clint mouthed Phillip? over his shoulder while they switched places.
“No one else calls me that,” Phil insisted. “Don’t you dare start.”
“Phiiiiiillip,” Clint said. “Thanks for switching seats with me, Phillip’s mom.”
“You’re very welcome, Mr. Barton,” she replied, settling down. She put a hand on Phil’s knee and gave it a squeeze. She smiled when he met her eyes. Calm down, she wanted to say. I like your young man. Everything’s okay. You can relax. Some of the sentiment must have come through, because by the time Clint was done thanking her and apologizing, Phil was teasing him about the tomato sauce on his chin.
Dinner with the boys was the most fun she’d had in weeks. Clint balanced spoons on his nose, juggled their drinkware, and read her palm while Phil was putting seconds of lasagna on all of their plates.
Clint, at her urging, ate more lasagna than she would have thought physically possible. “You have to come back next Monday,” she said, watching him mop up some marinara sauce with a slice of garlic bread. “This is doing wonders for my ego.”
“Just for you, Mrs. Coulson,” Clint replied, with a devoted smile.
“Call me Lynn, or I’m not giving you dessert.”
“Dessert?” Clint asked, with a reverent tone.
“Phillip told me you liked the caramel apples at the circus, so I thought perhaps you’d like some apple pie.”
Clint’s blue eyes went circle-wide. “Say ‘Thank you,’” Phil prompted.
“Thank you, Phillip’s mom,” Clint said, sticking his tongue out at Phil. “I do have manners. I wasn’t actually born in the circus, you now.”
“Where were you born?” she asked.
“Iowa. Well, that’s no small way away. Why did your family decide to leave?” Too late, Phil kicked her ankle. Clint’s smile didn’t leave his face, but the brightness did. Tension around his eyes made him look younger.
“We didn’t exactly decide,” Clint said. “We—my brother and I—well—” He took a breath and shrugged. “We ran away with the circus. Couple of years ago. I’m making some money at it now though.”
“And your brother? Is he part of the archery act?” Phil hadn’t mentioned any brother.
“No ma’am,” Clint replied. “He got a really good job a little over a year ago, so he had to leave. We stay in touch though, and he makes sure I’m okay. Takes real good care of me.”
Her heart broke a little when she smiled and nodded and remarked how nice that must be, a life in the circus.
Clint was fifteen, maybe sixteen, his nice shirt too short at the wrists and his pants above the ankle. Growing like weeds, those boys. Even in rocky ground, they grew.
As an apology, she took over the bulk of the conversation by telling Clint all about Phil’s adventures with the Boy Scouts. “He got the Captain America badge three times.”
“You can get the same badge multiple times?” Clint asked.
“Oh my god, Mom, stop.”
“You can if you make up new badges yourself,” she answered.
“Mom, I swear to god, please. I will do anything.”
“There’s the Captain America badge, and then there’s the Bucky Barnes Badge, and after that, there’s the Peggy Carter badge. They were actually part of the troop’s charter. Phil introduced new legislation before they kicked him out.”
Clint’s mouth dropped open. “Before they what?”
“They didn’t kick me out!” Phil hollered, taking his plate and stomping into the kitchen. “I resigned in protest!”
“The Boy Scouts don’t accept homosexual group leaders,” she told Clint, “on account of how apparently being gay is contagious. And Phil’s group leader was outed by another employee, which was already a pretty mess. But then Phillip sued the Boy Scouts on his troop leader’s behalf.”
Clint looked stunned and delighted. “Phil! Phillip! This is amazing!”
“He lost the case,” she said sadly, “and they asked him to leave. He made them remove the Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter badges before they kicked him out. Said it was a matter of honor. He was nine.”
“I wasn’t kicked out,” Phil yelled. “I resigned! In protest!” He appeared in the doorway, mock outrage animating his kind features, plates of pie in each hand.
“You’re amazing,” Clint said. She glanced over at him, and was astonished at the utter adoration in his expression. Then she looked at her son and saw it reflected there.
She and Alan had looked at each other like that, so innocent with love, with such need. They had loved each other that sweetly. Over the years, it changed—became more familiar, reliable; a well to draw from instead of something to admire from afar.
When Phillip had been born, it had felt like all three of them were new with love, new with astonishment and disbelief, new to each other.
And in the weeks before Alan passed, when she had lived at his bedside, it had felt both fragile and strong; metal beaten wafer-thin, a rubber band rigid with age and stretched to the limit. His hands in her hands had been skin and bone. Fragile and strong and then gone.
She blinked away tears. Thankfully the boys were too busy gazing at each other to notice.
“Of course he’s amazing,” she said. “He’s the only boy scout to receive the Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter badges.”
“You have to let me see them,” Clint insisted. “Phil, come on. You made awards and then gave them to yourself and then took them away so no one else could play with them. I need to see them or I’m going to die.”
“I am keeping this pie hostage,” Phil said stiffly. “I will release it only once appropriate reparations have been made.”
“What the fuck—uh, fudge—are reparations?” Clint asked.
“Say sorry,” Phil prompted. “And admit that I resigned in protest.”
“Sure,” Clint said. “You did that. Now give me that fudging pie. It smells amazing.”
She and Phil both ate two slices. Clint, somehow, devoured three. “I’ll wrap you some to take back with you,” she said. “And I’ll make a new pie for next time you come over.” Clint’s face dropped for a split-second. Phil didn’t catch it, but she did. He might not be here in a week’s time. “Why don’t you go to Phil’s room so he can show you his badges?”
Phil’s forehead furrowed. “Mom, my badges are in the living—”
“Thanks, Mrs. Coulson,” Clint interrupted, grabbing Phil’s hand. “Phil must be mistaken.”
“Check under the bed,” she suggested. “And behind the door. Make sure to shut it once you’ve checked. Also, I saw the box of condoms you tried to hide in the bathroom. If you need them, use them.”
“Dude,” Clint said, as he dragged Phil out of the room. “Your mom is awesome.”
She preened under that praise for a while. She brought the dishes into the kitchen and put everything away, putting aside a pile for Clint to take back with him.
It was late when Clint came downstairs. She was wrapped in a soft throw, sitting on her end of the couch. Still leaving room for Alan’s sprawling ghost.
“Phil’s asleep,” Clint said quietly. “I didn’t think you’d still be up.”
“I’ve been having some trouble sleeping.”
He nodded. “Phil told me about his dad. I’m really sorry.”
“Thank you,” she said, the response a reflex by now.
“I know it doesn’t mean anything. But nothing really means anything when shit like this happens, so it’s about the best anyone can do.” Startled, she nodded her agreement. “My folks—I—” She pulled her feet in tighter and gestured at the open end of the couch. “I gotta get back,” he said. But he sat down anyway. “I know some of what Phil’s going through,” he said. “He worries about you.”
“I know,” she said, a horrible admission.
“But I think he worries about you because he doesn’t want to worry about himself,” Clint said, running over her words. “It’s easier to pretend the lion’s not in the room than to actually look at the lion.”
“The lion in our house is one sad lion,” she said softly.
“Right. Sorry, I didn’t mean to come in and tell you shit about your own kid, I’ll just—”
“Thank you, Clint.” He met her eyes. He was younger than Phil, but right now he seemed as old as she felt. Sorrow-old. “When the circus leaves town, do you think Phil’s going to go with you?”
He jerked backwards. “No. No, he can’t, it’d be—it’s not a good place for someone like him. No way would I let him come.”
“Then—when the circus leaves, are you going to try and stay?” Being young and in love made time and logic telescope inwards, making impetuous fools out of the wisest of souls, much less the souls of teenage boys.
He shook his head, his messy hair tipped with moonlight. “I can’t.”
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Do you need help?” He shook his head. Then nodded it once. Shook it again. “Clint. If you—”
“He’s a really great guy,” Clint said, voice tight. “But I have to keep moving. That’s life with the circus. You don’t settle down. I meet guys like Phil in every town.”
“There are no other guys like Phil.”
He slumped into the couch. “No. There aren’t, are there?”
Eventually, Phil stumbled down the stairs. He turned on the light, startled to find them both sitting on the couch, in silence, in the dark.
“I’m just going to turn in,” she said, giving them some privacy for their goodbye.
When she looked back from the stairs, he son was bent forward to kiss Clint, his hands on Clint’s shoulders, Clint’s strong hands on Phil’s hips. Such lovely hungry boys, growing like weeds, so needy and so strong.
She slept through most of the next day, emerging once to have breakfast with Phil, and then again midday to give him more Tupperware containers full of food to bring to Clint.
On Wednesday, she made herself get out of bed, put on nice clothes, eat a healthy breakfast, and make coffee.
Then she went into Alan’s study.
She took a deep, shuddering breath of air that smelled like books and leather and Alan’s ridiculously expensive cologne. There were tears tracking down her face, but she didn’t feel like she was crying.
Mostly, she just walked through the room, almost-touching his books and papers and pens, almost-touching the things he had touched last, holding back because she would only ever be able to do that once.
His medals were in the lowest drawer of his desk. She sorted them by age, then by significance, before giving up and sorting them by which ones looked the most ridiculous. She took the Purple Heart for Phil. Kept the Distinguished Service Cross for herself.
The circus would be leaving soon. Phil would stay in this house, this house he shared with her and Alan’s ghost and the sad lion following them around on silent paws.
If Phil wanted to give Clint something to remember him by, he might want to give Clint one of these medals. Something meaningful. Something that he would want Clint to return. He’d want to give Clint a reason.
When she gave the Purple Heart to Phil and told him why, he nodded and said, “I was thinking of giving him my Peggy Carter badge.”
“Oh,” she said, somehow surprised at this demonstration of the depth of Phil’s emotion. “You could give him both.”
And then he was crying, this sweet, earnest boy of hers, crying and curling into her arms, letting her hold him. “Losing people fucking sucks,” Phil said, choking it out between sobs.
She laughed through her own tears and held him tighter. “It does, hon. It really fucking sucks.”
She kept the Service Cross. She brought it when she wrapped up her business with the bank, signing her name on Alan’s money, she put it in her pocket when she started volunteering and then working again, she fastened it to her bra so she could wear it close to her heart when she went to Phil’s high school graduation. She had it in her pocket on the Christmas that Phil brought Clint Barton home again.
“I think this belongs to you,” Clint said, holding Alan’s Purple Heart in his outstretched hand.
“That never belonged to me,” she corrected tartly, blinking away tears. She took his big, callused hand in both of hers, remembering the time he had kissed her sudsy hand with a fancy flourish. “It was Alan’s, and then it was Phil’s, and now it’s yours. Are you taking good care of it?” She folded his fingers around the medal while he replied. She already knew the answer was yes. Phil was smiling fit to burst.
“I sure am,” Clint said. “But I did give the Peggy Carter Badge to Captain America.”
“You better have pictures,” she said, pulling them further into the house that Alan had bought and she had kept and Phil had come home to. “Come on in and tell me some stories.”