Me & Your Ghost – Chapter Two
Two: The Plan
The plan had been simple in theory: baseball. The last attempt—through a week of smiles over gritted teeth, silences that dragged on perhaps a fraction of a second too long and teetered between companiable and into awkward; in the new abridged version of life at Byron’s home, marking twelve days since the reveal, into a new life he’s not too sure he even wants to be in—for the family his dad had imagined in his head, the two functioning parts finally meeting to become a complete circuit. Baseball had always been a constant in Byron’s life, it’s one of the few things he considers himself passionate about, and it’s something he can credit his dad for.
Boys Day Baseball, the four of them sat in a car on their way to potential dread—a coil that had been tightening in Byron’s stomach all week long. Monday morning had sprung with it a brief, strained breakfast in the kitchen, Byron stood hunched over the kitchen counter, testing himself to see how quickly he could get through a bowl of cereal to not require him to take a seat at the dining table; there’d been a smile from his dad at his appearance in the morning, and a brief, too tight to be comfortable squeeze of his shoulder as they’d passed each other in the hallway. His mom was carrying on as ever, still making it out for a jog on Tuesday, returning to a pitcher of iced tea prepared by yours truly, able to think she’d finally got it all: the picture perfect family, the friends, the career, even the sense that maybe she’d peaked, she was in the midst of her best years. Kasia was continuing on with the web of the lie she’d spun herself, going out to the skatepark on Wednesday with Logan McKenna.
Then Thursday. Byron’s glad to have broken away from the potential recurring sequence that Sunday’s bring with it breakfast with a side of something else unwanted, but this isn’t faring out much better. In the midst of the long distance thing, Graham declined the invitation of staying the night before so they’d have the time to put together a plan of action— his voice almost drowned out on the other end of the phone under the sound of his mom and her newest piece cheering on a hockey game, saying something to the effect of: this is a decision that Byron has to make independently, that of course, anything else and he’d be there as a sounding board, and technically, he already had done a week ago, the two of them are a team, Byron-and-Graham but for this one singular instance, it would have to be Byron by himself—so Wednesday evening passed with Byron focusing on something other than the choice between what was right and what was easy.
It’s always been him, really, Graham Salvat: the only one standing in Byron’s corner and believing him capable of achieving and doing good things. He thinks it’s unwarranted, founded from nowhere. It’s not fair for him to believe so wholeheartedly in the efforts Byron may put into his life. He wishes, quietly, and only to himself in the dead of the night where he can sleep away the guilt of his thoughts, that Graham was able to see the person everyone else did. That he’d stop, for one second that would drag into infinite, that he would realise that Byron wasn’t heroic, riding an endless redemption arc, that sometimes, like now, he made stupid fucking decisions and there’d be no amount of I’m not mad, just disappointed, that could make him change his mind. But then, also—as Byron is a guy who likes to argue with himself in his head, who has spent many-a-night contemplating whether the friendship he’s got with Graham is so right that it’s wrong—wasn’t seeing him in a way that no one else did quintessentially Graham? Wasn’t it everything friendship was, especially coming from someone who he’d considered a brother for so long?
It’s everything the two of them have always been, at least, since Graham came to Byron’s for the first time to sit and watch cartoons. It’s easy, even now in moments that seem to strain, in a situation where he feels at breaking point—where plan meets practicality and completely falls apart—to know that for as many nights he’s spent trying to find the right word to explain the place Graham has in his life, he’s also aware that he’s one of, if not the best, people he’s ever met, and it could have been fate, chance, destiny—whatever—but now they’re here and he’s got someone by his side during this charade.
Even with the plan being what it is, something so simple, so Andrews Boy’s on a Saturday afternoon, the blueprint for the relationship Byron built with his Dad, there’d been no accounting for Benny as a human being. Byron’s dad very rarely came up—or was even allowed to—with ideas, a plan of action, or anything that hadn’t already been discussed at length with his mom so this: the attempt to win Byron back to his side, to do something to say he was sorry with something other than his words, to envelope Benny into his life as something other than an afterthought, it had already played out in his head before he’d even had a chance to say it out loud. It had probably played out great, in the private viewing for Jonah Andrews’ eyes only: Benny, shocked, grateful, in awe of Jonah and being out with him in public, being treated like a son in view of anyone interested enough to take notice, having something longer than a snapshot to make him feel like his existence mattered, that he was wanted and even though it’d taken fifteen years, finally, fucking finally, here was the family, waiting for him with arms wide open. There’d be Byron, too, of course, who would come to a decision that let everyone step into this new life wholeheartedly, no regrets, no holding back out of fear of his reaction. In this, he’d have no rough edges, no sullen stare, slumped shoulders, arms crossed, he’d only be the good parts. He’d maybe even embrace Benny, call him brother, apologise for how he acted, express how excited he was to finally have a brother and all the fun they’d have together. Jonah would look on, smiling, so proud—so relieved that it had worked—and after an hour or so at the batting cages, bonding in only the way good old fashioned Andrews’ men could about sports of course, he’d end the day with a burger at Dev’s. And what of Graham? Who cares, because in this fantasy Jonah Andrews has won the ultimate prize: avoided all accountability for his actions, the grovelling for forgiveness at an end and even topped the day off with a fucking milkshake.
This isn’t what happens. Benny Stuart Rodriguez—sophomore year kid, the guy who ruined Byron’s life—doesn’t like baseball.
“Really?” His dad squints out beneath the rim of his trucker hat, the sun making standing around at the batting cages more uncomfortable than the atmosphere in the group. His face is turning red, he’d been shouting far too loud and energetically at Byron and Graham’s attempts in the cage than he would have any other time. “You sure? I mean,” he stops himself to huff out a breath, scratching the back of his neck, “have you played it before? You sure you don’t wanna give it a go?”
“I don’t think you’ll be able to convince him,” Byron says, slapping the bat against his palm. “Look at him.” The kid looks sick at the thought of even having to make a move to hold the bat, never mind step inside the cage and have balls flying at him. Byron looks to Graham who is stood with his hands in pockets, and then he looks back to his dad. “He’s not enjoying this.”
“But—” his dad takes the hat off to pat down his blonde hair and wipe away the sweat gathering at his hairline, “—your mom said you liked baseball.”
Benny’s shoulders have a long way to lift into a shrug, given that his neck is so long, and they’re fighting against the weight of the thick jacket he’s got on, too—which did make Byron snort when opening the door to him in the morning. The beat up blue truck had sat out on the street, the shadow of his mom taunting him through the window. Byron had wanted to say something about whether they got weather channels in downtown, with it being a world away and all, and if he’d known they’d forecasted it to be one of the hottest days of the summer—leaving him looking queasy with all eyes on him. “Uh,” Byron looks to Graham again, and they both raise their eyebrows at each other. Benny looks like he wants the ground to open up and swallow him whole, especially with the way his dad is still waiting for an answer. “I’m not that big of a fan.”
“Ok,” he shrugs, patting his knees and standing up from his seat on the bench. “Well do you like any other sports?”
“Uh,” Benny shakes his head, “not really.”
Byron snorts, swinging the bat in a circle on his left side. “Thought you liked all kind of physical sports.” Graham pushes his shoulder. “No, really,” voice caught on the edge of a laugh, he steps closer to Benny, “that’s what I’ve heard.”
“T—thats,” Benny cowers, and Byron really fucking wishes he’d find the same energy he had on that Sunday to look him in the eye and say what he really thinks.
“Byron,” his dad says, “stop.”
“I’m talking to the kid,” turning to face his dad, he raises his eyebrows, “isn’t that why I’m here? So, kid,” he still hasn’t found his muster, resolutely looking down at the floor, “what is it?”
“Not true. I—uh, I don’t like sports.”
“Great. We’ve got an hour left here at the batting cages, and Benny doesn’t like sports.”
“It’s really not that bad,” his dad interjects, “just swing and hit, y’know.”
“He doesn’t want to.”
“Dude,” Graham says, pushing Byron’s shoulder again, “come on.” Rolling his lips into his mouth, he lets Graham steer the conversation. “We can use the hour, Jonah. I could teach Benny?”
“Oh, uh,” blinking and looking between the three of them, his dad finally comes to a decision. “You and Byron go on, I’ll talk to Benny for a bit.”
Graham hauls Byron out of there, with him struggling to gain his footing and keep pace, “Dude, what the fuck?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Graham pushes him away, heading for the furthest cage towards the right. “I thought you were trying with the kid.”
“I still haven’t decided.”
“I dunno,” he shrugs, trying to ignore that Graham looks to be approaching something eerily similar to disappointment. “It’s a big decision.”
“I mea—I guess. He is also your brother so,” Graham squints at him, angled so the sun washes out the redness of his scar, “isn’t it easy?”
“Yeah,” Byron scoffs, moving away to open the fenced gate, his back to him, “so easy. My dad’s a cheater, I have a brother, and my family is a sham.” The gate swings back with a clatter as it hits the other side of the fence.
“You’ve got a brother,” Graham walks past him to fiddle with the settings for the machine, “which is fucked, yeah. But,” turning back to face him, he shrugs his shoulders, “your Dad is still here.”
“I thought this was my decision to make.”
“And it is.”
“Right,” Byron nods, moving to the center of the cage and getting into the correct stance. “So let me make my own fucking decisions.”
“I’m ready. Start it.”
There’s something cathartic about getting out the excess of energy he’s been carrying around in the ten minutes he’s in the cage. He hadn’t meant to lash out, it’s not something he’s ever meant, but there are times, like now, when he thinks that the fact that he and Graham know each other so well works against them. Is he supposed to feel grateful that his Dad didn’t abandon them for his second family? He wishes that Benny didn’t exist, that he wasn’t a factor in this equation and he’d be able to continue on in the way he always had done. He wishes his dad wasn’t a spineless piece of shit who had the gall to step out on his wife but still slot himself back in when the timing was convenient. He wishes his mom was stronger.
He can wish all he likes, though, it won’t do anything to change his very real circumstances. They get about twenty minutes in the cage going back and forth between the two of them—Byron is still too on edge to apologise, and he’s not capable of getting out the words that Graham should hear—when his dad comes with Benny at his side. They don’t look that alike standing next to each other, not the way it’s so obvious there’s a relation when Byron’s stood next to his dad. There’s a gangliness to the way Benny stands, adjusting to the length of his limbs, leaving him slumped over to appear shorter than he is.
“You boys good?” His dad beckons them over from the other side of the fence, squinting at their approaching figures under the visor of his cap. “We,” looking to Benny who stands with his shoulders meeting his ears, “we’re thinking about getting some food.”
“Dev’s?” Graham asks, opening the gate. He turns to look at Byron, the right side of his mouth lifting into a smile, into an olive branch, into an: I’m going to forgive you and we’re okay. “They’ve got a new shake.”
“Well,” he laughs, and the lump that had been gathering in Byron’s throat goes away, following him out of the cage. “If you ask Gabbi nice enough, then yeah.”
“Uh,” his dad says, poised to ruin the moment, the one thing he seems to have a knack for, “how about Marilyn’s?”
“—it’s Benny’s favourite place.”
Marilyn’s is a fucking dump, trying too hard to be edgy, and a stone’s throw away from downtown. Byron’s only been there once, during Graham’s Dark Age, and he’s not been in any rush to go back. It makes sense that the kid loves it, he probably thinks replacing the ‘l’ with a guitar is a stroke of business genius, and he likely thinks the interior decorating choice of black suede really helps the atmosphere of the place. No surprise, the place is for losers, so he fits right in.
“Marilyn’s is good,” Graham says, moving to stand beside Byron after locking the gate. “Right, By?”
It’s not good, not when it feels like everyone is ganging up on him and the only way out looks like it will be accepting Benny into his life. “Yeah,” he looks at Benny, “it’s fine.”
“Great. Ready to head off?”
“I wanna talk to Benny.”
The kid, sophomore year kid, Benny Stuart Rodriguez, approaching sixteen at a pace that terrifies him, only looks Byron in the eyes once during their conversation. Byron’s not too sure why it’s come down to him, why it feels like he’s been burdened with this decision that shouldn’t ever have had to trickle down to affect his life. It’s not like he’s ever really intended to be malicious, he goes out of his way to make sure his jokes never come close to really upsetting Kasia’s feelings, but there are somethings that are simply out of his control. They sit on a faded green metal bench, the heat of it stinging Byron’s leg’s through the material of his shorts. They sit in view of his dad’s car, a red volvo, and they’re in view of Jonah and Graham who sit watching them through the windscreen. They sit, the both of them knowing it’s about to be a conversation neither of them particularly want to have.
“I get that there’s a blood relation,” Byron says, hand on his knee, moving the leg hair under his finger in a circle, “but—we won’t and never will be brothers.” He wonders what it would be like, if all of the wishing and hoping Graham does for Byron to be a good man capable of doing good things came to fruition, if that would mean the conversation would be different, if Byron could make himself feel differently about the situation. Or, even, if what he knows is wrong would correlate with his actions. It’s not fair—or right—to punish the kid for his dad’s actions, to try and hate him for the sake of the wrongness his dad had done sixteen years ago. But it’s also not fair or right, to expect Byron to take the high ground, to forgive and forget, to lie down and take the direction his life is heading into. Byron already has a brother, waiting for him in the red volvo, who’s here when he doesn’t have to be. He doesn’t need a gangly kid with a bruised face, too many years too late.
With the sun on the right side of his face, his bruises fade to orange. “I’ve always been jealous of you.”
“Yeah.” Benny looks at him, sloping eyes that barely blink, finally meeting Byron’s gaze, for the brief second it counts before he goes to looking down at his dirt stained sneakers. “Like, I get it, I didn’t even exist to you two weeks ago. But, I’ve always known about you. And Kasia. I’ve always . . . been aware, I guess.”
“I—I mean. My—you—Jonah, he’s going to want you around a lot.”
“So I can ruin your breakfast?” He sighs, deflating under his jacket. “You don’t get it.”
“Guess not. My parents weren’t the ones hiding me away.”
“Who cares about Jonah? Fuck him.” It’s not what Byron had been expecting, he’d assumed he’d be eating this shit show up, finally being allowed out into the daylight with the new mechanics of a new family. “You’ve got everything. Don—don’t you get that? You’ve got a family, friends. I’ve—” Benny clenches his jaw, scowling down at his lap. Byron wonders where all this fight was when he was getting beat up, when he was curling into the foetal position and earning his namesake, where was he? He lifts his head, looking past Byron and speaking to no one. “I’ve known, always, longer than I knew about you or your sister. I wasn’t wanted. I wasn’t a happy accident, I was the accident that stuck around too long.”
“That seems dramatic.”
“It sounds fucking intentional. You think I’m happy to be here?”
“I wish you weren’t here at all.”
Benny nods, like he’d known all along it would come to this, that even if he’d allowed himself to pretend this could be different, the reality and past of his own life would inevitably catch up to him. Byron squints, rolling his lips into his mouth, wishing he had it in him to be nicer, that for one moment, no matter how small, he could be something other than mean boy saying nasty words. Why couldn’t he lie, smile, pretend this was okay, that the idea of Benny didn’t make his skin crawl? The transparency makes him uncomfortable, it was easier to pretend that the image of the kid in his head was real, that maybe he’d been able to read someone correctly and not be completely off base. He doesn’t like when people surprise him.
He likes it even less when they have to get in the car and make their way to Marilyn’s, with Graham sat at his side. If he’d been approaching disappointment earlier, he’s now fully embroiled in it when the conversation is hashed out to him. There’s something about his face that drops, his eyebrows falling into a frown, a slackness at his jaw, a look on his face that says: oh, this is what you’ve chosen to do? His dad kind of looks that way, too, when Benny sits slumped in the passenger seat, but Byron doesn’t care about him or what he thinks.
“I mean, I know it’s a decision you’ve had to make by yourself,” Graham says, deliberately speaking lower than usual as his dad is trying to take anything he can get to force a conversation between all four of them in the car. “But I was hoping you’d have—gave it more thought or something.”
“I did think about it. It’s the only f—” Byron pauses to compose himself, conscious that the day is hanging on by the bare threads that it is, the last thing anyone needs is for him to lash out. “It’s the only thing I could think about.”
Which is the truth of it all, ever since he’d been stood in the kitchen facing off with his dad last Sunday. Through the new attempt at normalcy, it’d been eating away at him, the choice between what was right and what was easy, whether it would make him a bad person to take the easy route, whether he even cared if it made him a bad person. It had seemed like a good idea at the time to have Graham come with them—a source of moral support at his side, a reminder that he couldn’t really get swept up in the idea of a family everyone else was so eager to take up. Now, he’s not so sure.
“Are you pissed?”
“No,” turning to look at Byron, his face picks up again, “Kasia’s a lot like you, y’know.” Kasia could worry herself into a heart attack if she didn’t compartmentalise a situation quick enough. Byron’s not too sure if they’re similar in that aspect, but maybe their stubborness prevents them from seeing the whole picture, though the whole thing isn’t that great of a view.
“God, I hope not,” he says, looking to gauge how Graham’s feeling behind the words he isn’t saying. He almost smiles at him, shaking his head, back to the regular scheduled programming of how they usually are together. “Hey, um, for Hilton’s party—”
“Seriously? You wanna talk about this now?”
“Yeah,” he says, knowing he’s read the book on the Benny Incident from cover to cover, and it’s something he’s ready to shelf for the foreseeable future. “What’s the plan?”
Graham almost laughs, if the breath that leaves him, the incredulous shake of his head and the jerk to his shoulder is anything close to being in range of humour. It feels normal, almost, like the two of them aren’t squashed in the backseat of his Dad’s car, about to make another stop on a day of certain impending doom; it feels almost like how it’s always been, a bubble only the two of them exist in.
“The plan,” Graham begins, a sigh in his voice, the sun washing out the entire right side of his face, “is that there isn’t one.”
“Just you and me, yeah?” Just how it’s always been, and if Byron’s got any say in it, how it will continue on until they’re old and fat and can’t even hit a homerun without heartburn let alone run the bases. Fuck Benny Stuart Rodriguez, fuck Jonah Andrews, Byron’s found his brother, and he didn’t have to wait 15 years to do so.