A little over a year and half later I had Matty back in my arms, figuratively of course because he was getting to the point where it was absolutely impossible to keep him in one spot for more than about ten seconds. As soon as I had gotten back home Jen had taken me to court and been granted sole custody, as expected, but I at least had visitation rights for a few hours every week. I guess she was impressed with how well I was doing because a few months later she started allowing him to come over to my house for a little bit while she went out on errands. She desperately needed my help anyway because in a very unexpected turn of events Isabelle, who had been so adamant about not giving up her baby, had gone to trial eight months pregnant and quickly been charged with second-degree murder and handed twenty years at which point she changed her tune a little. Jen and Hale, who had assumed that they didn't need to leave an open spot in their family for the mini-murderer after all, had already gotten back down to their favorite pastime, baby making, and six months after they adopted David managed to produce the first baby girl born in the Jackson family in four generations. They were immensely proud of themselves for that fact, but with three-year-old Matty, two-year-old Caleb, six-month-old David, and newborn Lizzie, not to mention the two teenaged nephews, Jen was kind of in over her head. We had immediately gone back to court to revise our custody arrangement and now each got Matty for a week at a time, and I had never been happier.
"Daddy, more juice!" he demanded in that very superior tone that let me know he clearly thought he was king of the universe.
I shook my head. "No more juice. You can have water."
He scowled at me. "More juice!"
"Sorry bud," I said unsympathetically. "We're about to go home. It's almost bedtime, I don't want you all sugared up."
"No, no, no!" he shrieked, and took off like a rocket to the other side of the deck where Dad was sitting, crawling up onto his lap and latching his arms around his neck. "No bedtime! I wanna stay wiff Graham Cracker."
I guess at some point he had figured out that the words "grandfather" and "graham cracker" sounded similar and now that was Dad's name as far as he was concerned. Dad didn't give a fuck, he would have been happy no matter what Matty called him, and he spoiled the fuck out of him too which annoyed me sometimes but I knew he couldn't help it. He was really doing remarkably well. He had gained some weight back and started making an effort to take care of himself, and he was looking a lot healthier.
When we first got back to Long Beach with Dad I had been a little wary about letting him see Matty because I still didn't exactly trust him, but a couple days before his surgery I had let up. Open heart surgery sounded pretty fucking risky and although I didn't like to even consider it I knew there was always a chance that something could go wrong. I would have felt fucking horrible if he had died without ever having met his grandson so I talked to Jen about it and she brought Matty over and then sat in the corner and read a book while he and my dad got acquainted. Matty was very shy and wouldn't speak at all at first but Dad was incredibly patient and over the course of an hour or so managed to gently coax him out of his shell, something I never would have expected. I don't know why I had assumed he would be bad with kids. Taylor and I had been two-year-olds at one point so he obviously had experience with it, but I still had to admit I was impressed. By the end of the visit Matty had told him all about his day at daycare and named about twelve different kinds of dinosaurs, and before Jen took him out to the car he gave Dad a hug all of his own accord. After they left Dad hugged me and cried and we sat in my living room and talked for what seemed like hours. That was the point that I really decided to let the past go and just forgive him.
"Graham Cracker, more juice!" Matty said pleadingly.
Dad just laughed. "Sorry kiddo. Your dad said no, but we can go get some water. Come on."
Matty whined and sulked for a second but then climbed off of Dad's lap and reached for his hand and they both walked into the house.
I sighed and turned to Crystal who was sitting next to me. "He's going to give him some fucking juice anyway," I told her, "and he's going to be up all night."
She laughed. "Do you want me to go police it for you?"
I rolled my eyes and shook my head. "No, it's fine."
"He'll probably only give him a little sip," she said reassuringly, and leaned her head against my shoulder. I put my arm around her to pull her in a little closer and kissed the top of her head.
The day after we got back home Taylor had packed up and headed straight to rehab. He really didn't want to leave Dad but we had all agreed that it would be best for him to get there as soon as possible so he could avoid having a chance run-in with an old friend or dragging up an old memory that might cause him to relapse. As soon as he was safely settled in I went straight to Crystal's and, laying every ounce of my pride aside, begged her to forgive me. She had been unsure and hesitant at first, but for the first time since I had known her she completely dropped the tough girl attitude and made herself vulnerable, laying everything out for me completely honestly, and I did the same for her. It was nerve-wracking and terrifying for both of us as all the walls came down and the carefully compartmentalized emotions finally shone through, but it was so worth it in the end.
She told me exactly how much I had hurt her by pushing her away, how conflicted she felt now that I was begging her to take me back, and how afraid she was that I would turn right back around and do it to her again. I, in turn, promised her things that would have been absolutely impossible for me to promise anyone just a few weeks before, and I swore that I loved her and that I was never going to change my mind about that because she was the most amazing girl I had ever met. She was still so reluctant and guarded that it took a very long time to convince her I was telling the truth, but by the time it started to get dark she was starting to believe me and she let me put my arms around her and kiss her. I felt like the luckiest fucking person on earth at that point and I held her and kissed her until she stopped crying and started acting like her normal self again, and later that night I made love to her and was able to achieve what no other man besides Hale Jackson had managed to make happen before me which seemed to seal the deal. She was completely amazed, and she cried some more and told me that she loved me too and then we stayed in bed and talked for a long time before she fell asleep in my arms.
I just laid there and watched her for awhile, marveling at how incredibly different it felt from that night in my father's house, and how right. It wasn't that I loved her more than I loved Taylor because that wasn't and would never be true, it was just that she fit so easily into that missing place in my life where he didn't. He was my brother, and he had always filled his role so perfectly and wonderfully on top of trying to take the place of our parents when they had both been unable to do it anymore that I had assumed he could fill every empty space for me, but that just wasn't true. I had tried to put him somewhere he didn't belong, I had expected more of him than he could naturally give me, and although he had tried to play along that wasn't the way it was supposed to be. This right here was it. This beautiful girl beside me was the one who I was supposed to be with like that and Taylor was the one who was supposed to be my best friend. I'd gotten it completely backwards before, but that night, as I lay there with Crystal's head on my chest listening to the soft music and watching the candles slowly burn themselves out, I began to feel like I was really on my way to fixing things.
"Oh, Ryan, I meant to tell you," Taylor spoke up, "we're not going to be able to make it next Sunday. This girl at work needed me to switch a day with her so I'll be working Sunday night and I'll be off that Tuesday instead."
I nodded. "That's fine. Do you want to do Tuesday then? That's good for me." I gently shrugged my shoulder to get Crystal's attention. "Is Tuesday good for you next week?"
"Um…yeah, I think so."
"Okay," said Taylor. "We just have to make sure it's okay with Dad."
These weekly Sunday night family gatherings at Dad's house were a requirement of our family therapy plan, and although at first they had been a struggle I really couldn't say that I minded them at all anymore. In fact, I sometimes looked forward to them. Family therapy had sounded pretty fucking stupid to me when Taylor initially suggested it, but after the first few weeks when he had been at rehab and Dad and I had been alone in my house together with very hot tempers and eighteen years worth of built-up resentment about to boil over I had realized that maybe we did need some fucking help, and I had finally agreed to it.
It was hard at first and I had been really frustrated for awhile. I felt like all the therapy sessions were doing was just exposing a ton of deep seated anger directed from Taylor at Dad, from Dad at me, and from me at everyone and everything, but eventually it had gotten better and we were doing really well now, in my opinion. We still had our moments, and honestly it was usually because of me getting pissed off about something and not using my distraction techniques very effectively, but I was getting better about that too and now that Crystal was living with me I got weekly Swedish massages and daily acupressure treatments so my stress levels were virtually at zero.
"Dad," said Taylor, as he walked back out of the house with Matty in tow, "can we do Tuesday next week instead of Sunday?"
Dad shook his head immediately. "No, I have to be part of some presentation thing that night. We have to go meet a bunch of rich people and beg for donations."
Since his recovery Dad had gotten way into church and someone from one of his numerous church groups had apparently been so impressed with him that he had offered him a job. That in itself wouldn't necessarily be all that unusual except that the guy ran a nonprofit day treatment center for teen substance abusers, and he had hired Dad to supervise and mentor the teens. I never in a million years would have predicted that my father would be remotely qualified for that job, first of all because he was a recovering alcoholic himself, but apparently they liked to have people in recovery work with the kids because teenagers tended to think that nobody understood them and they could relate to former substance abusers much better than they could to straight-laced social workers. Dad fucking loved it, and I sort of suspected that he was partly doing it to try to make up for being a really terrible example when Taylor and I were teenagers, but I guess it didn't matter why he was doing it as long as it made him happy.
"What about Wednesday then?" Taylor asked.
"It would have to be after nine," Dad replied as Matty climbed back up onto his lap and started sucking on his sippy cup. "I have Bible study."
It was really weird to me that my father had suddenly found religion, and it would be a complete lie to say that his frequent Bible verse references didn't ever get on my nerves, but if that's what he needed to help him move forward after eighteen years of pent-up anger and self-loathing I couldn't really fault him for that. At least he wasn't drinking anymore. I wasn't drinking a whole lot either, and neither was Taylor. The two of us would have a beer together every now and then, and Crystal had developed a taste for white wine and liked to keep it in the house although she wasn't doing that anymore, but liquor was completely out. It just wasn't a good idea for any of us, and truthfully I didn't miss it. I didn't need it.
"Oh, that's right," said Taylor thoughtfully. "Well, we're really not supposed to miss a week so we need to find some time, even if it's only an hour or something. What's everyone's schedule next week? I'm working Sunday, Thursday, and Friday seven to seven." He turned to Chris who was sitting beside him. "What about you?"
"Just my usual," he said. "Monday through Friday ten to six."
It had been a huge surprise to me, but apparently eight years in prison had led Chris to reevaluate some of his lifestyle choices. I thought that was fucking hilarious and so did Crystal, but we didn't say anything about it to either of them in case they found it offensive. Taylor had been the one who had undertaken the task of selling Dad's old house and he'd had to go back upstate several times to deal with various technicalities. One of his trips had happened to coincide with the date that Chris got released from prison. It was two years earlier than his sentence dictated but California prisons were ridiculously overcrowded and he had racked up enough good behavior points that I guess some judge had just said fuck it, and let him out. I suspected that Taylor probably knew it was going to happen and had arranged his trip so that it would fall on the same day, but whether he knew beforehand or not he had stayed up there several days longer than was really necessary to just sign a couple papers. A few weeks after that Chris had come down to visit Jen because he hadn't seen her in eight years and had never met any of her kids but I'm pretty sure he ended up spending the majority of his time with Taylor instead. After a few more months and several more trips back and forth between the two of them he gave in and just moved to Long Beach.
He was a lot different from the rebellious, thrill-seeking little brat I remembered from my childhood. He was serious and quiet and very reserved, but I guess prison could have that effect on people. He didn't talk much and I found him difficult to read but Taylor seemed happy enough. Their relationship was a lot different from any that I had ever been in so it wasn't something I could really understand. They weren't clingy or overtly affectionate, they never snuggled or held hands or anything like that in front of other people, and they hardly even touched in front of Dad which I think he appreciated. There had been one or two times when it had been just me, Crystal, and the two of them that Taylor had stretched out across the couch and laid his head on Chris's lap and Chris had stroked his face and played with his hair, but that was the extent of it. I had never seen them kiss, although I was sure it happened behind closed doors.
What I did see, however, was a very quiet, calm sort of comfort that I guess came from having known someone your entire life, and I did think they were good for each other. Chris had been Taylor's first love after all, although at the time he had been too unsure of himself and insecure with the idea for it to actually go anywhere. I was glad he had changed his mind on that though because the more I saw of them together the more I thought that Taylor really couldn't have found anyone better for him. They did both have significantly dark histories, but instead of compounding upon each other and both becoming more depressed like I had feared would happen the result seemed to be exactly the opposite. As far as I could tell they were very supportive of each other, appeared to be happy, and from the little smiles and glances and brief physical interactions that I was able to witness it was clear to me that Chris genuinely cared for him. Beyond that it wasn't my business so I did my best to stay out of it.
Dad actually didn't seem to mind Chris so much. I knew that he felt guilty for how horribly he had treated Taylor in the past and I was sure the fact that the two of them didn't engage in public displays of affection in front of him helped. I guess he may have also figured that serving eight years out of a ten year sentence for manslaughter made you enough of a man for him so he had given Chris the seal of approval. He was invited to family meetings at least, and it wasn't like Dad made a conscious effort to exclude him or anything. Chris just kept to himself because that was just how he was, and I think Dad may have secretly appreciated that about him too.
Taylor turned to Dad next. "What about you? You're probably the one who we're going to have to base our plans on anyway because of all your church stuff."
"You know you can always come with me," Dad pointed out. "You've been to this class before - "
"No, Dad, I know that," Taylor interrupted. "I wasn't talking about that, I'm talking about our family meeting that we have to reschedule."
"I know, but I'm also saying you can come to this class with me."
"What? I mean, that's fine, I'll go with you but that's not - "
"You have to read before we go though. We're on the book of Mark chapters nine and ten, it's about how Jesus accepts the lowly."
"Dad…okay, whatever. That's fine."
Dad was really into spreading the word of the Lord these days and was constantly trying to get all of us to go to church with him. Taylor went with him sometimes, but I always refused. Church just didn't do it for me. It wasn't that I didn't believe in God, because I did. I was positive that he existed. He had saved my brother, he had saved my father, and he had somehow pulled me up out of the depths of my own personal hell, when I had thought there was no way things could ever get better, and made me happier than I had ever been before in my life. I just didn't need a big leather-bound book or a man in a robe to tell me to be thankful. I could do that well enough on my own.
Crystal, however, went with Dad almost every Sunday. She went for walks with him on weekday mornings which he was supposed to do for his heart but really hated and tried to get out of all the time, cooked for him every Monday evening and made sure he had enough food to last him until the next week, and she always at least called on the days that she didn't have time to stop by and see him. Ever since we got back together she had been fucking amazing, not that that came as any surprise, and I couldn't thank her enough. She had driven me around for the entire four months that my license was suspended and hadn't complained about it once, and after Dad's surgery she had quit her job working for Hale and moved in with me to help Dad through his recovery while I was at work. Dad positively adored her and Crystal really didn't seem to mind it either. She claimed that she genuinely enjoyed spending time with him, and I think she probably also did it because she missed her own family who were all back in Ohio. Dad was decidedly and surprisingly uncreepy about having such a beautiful girl around him all the time, but admitted that he had gotten very attached to her because she was so sweet to him and because he'd never had a daughter and didn't have any granddaughters yet. That last part was always spoken with emphasis on the "yet" and a pointed glance over in my direction, and I always just laughed it off.
"Okay, so Dad," Taylor continued firmly, "what is your schedule next week? When will you be free?"
Dad shifted slightly in his chair, taking care not to jostle Matty who was leaning against his chest with half-open, sleepy eyes, which was a fucking wonderful sight as far as I was concerned. "Well, I'm working nine to five Monday through Friday like always, and then I have this fundraising thing Tuesday night, Bible study on Wednesday, fellowship group on Thursday, I'm volunteering at the men's shelter on Friday - "
"Jesus," said Taylor, holding up his hands. "Okay, we'll come back to you."
Dad glared at him. "Son, you know I don't appreciate it when you use that word like that."
Taylor rolled his eyes but quickly caught himself. "Sorry. Anyway, moving on. Ryan, what's your schedule look like?"
"I shouldn't be too busy," I told him. "I'm at the same place I've been for the past couple weeks and we'll be finishing up soon so I could probably get out by four on whatever day you guys decide."
He pointed at me. "Thank you for being accommodating," he said with a meaningful look over at Dad.
Besides the fact that I had gotten my family back and my brother was obviously happy and decidedly not suicidal, my new job was one of the best things about my life. When I had first gotten back Jen had somehow managed to talk Hale into rehiring me on another short contract which was nice, but I knew it definitely wasn't going to last. I was basically just there to get everything back in order and train my replacement while I looked for another job. I didn't have much luck at first seeing as I now had a criminal record and a less than impressive employment history, but by a very lucky coincidence Taylor happened to be in rehab at the time with a guy who owned an independent consulting firm and was looking to expand and hire several new employees. Being that at the time of my interview he had just gotten out of rehab himself for a very debilitating addiction to alcohol and barbiturates he obviously believed in giving people second chances and wasn't fazed by my recent DUI. All I had to do was show him a reference from Kenneth saying that I had my anger under control and a reference from Hale stating that despite the fact that I had shown up at his house drunk and had also on a separate occasion pushed his wife into a wall, my work had been exceptional, and I was hired.
The only condition of my employment was that I had to get a four-year degree which the company would pay for, something that I saw as a perk rather than a drawback. The degree could be in pretty much anything I wanted it to so I went with economics because it sounded interesting, and there was no set time limit so I just took one night class a week and did the rest online but I was almost done anyway. The job itself was by far the best I'd ever had. I had the title of business consultant, which sounded fancy as hell, and the responsibilities basically consisted of me and another consultant going out to whatever small business had hired us, bossing everyone around, and doing a complete overhaul of their current system. The marketing consultant's job was to tell them how to make more money and my job was to tell them how to save more money, and even if they didn't take our advice we still got paid. Once I finished my degree I would be looking at bigger clients and therefore bigger paychecks which was always something to be excited about, and it was also coming at a very good time for me.
Outside of work my social life was slowly but surely recovering. I had never been the type to enjoy going out to huge parties with tons of people like Taylor, but I at least had some friends again. After we had gotten back home I had started actually paying attention to my neighbors and interacting with them more than just the standard, "Good morning," as I walked out to my car on the way to work, and I was pleasantly impressed with how nice most of them were. The couple directly across the street from me had a little boy about Matty's age so they played together fairly often, and the woman was really into her garden and liked to have little cocktail parties to show it off to the rest of the neighborhood all the time. Her husband on the other hand had no interest in cocktails or gardens, so while Crystal sat outside with the rest of the ladies drinking mint Mai Tais and suffering through long, excruciating conversations about hydrangeas I would go down to the basement with all the husbands to drink beer and play poker and talk about our stock portfolios. The poker nights eventually just became a regular thing and we rotated houses every week, and although I wasn't under the impression that I was especially close friends with any of them I liked them all well enough, and it was nice to not be hated by everyone I was acquainted with for a change.
I also visited Michael in prison every now and then and although it wasn't exactly fun I could tell he appreciated it. He was still awaiting his trial but he wasn't feeling any more optimistic about it. Mostly what I got from him was that he was just glad he had managed to get Isabelle twenty years and beyond that he didn't care what happened to him. It was sad, but there was nothing I could do about it. He had landed himself there, he knew that, and he was resigned to it. I think he just liked getting to hear about things besides what was going on in prison so I entertained him as best I could with stories about my blissfully boring life. Every now and then he would ask about his son and I told him as much as I could, but I obviously wasn't the best person to ask. The only times I ever saw David were when I was picking Matty up from Jen's or dropping him back off again so it was only for a few minutes a week if that, but from what I could tell he seemed like a happy, normal baby, there was nothing murderous about him yet at least, and he had dark hair like Michael, so that was what I told him and he seemed glad to hear it.
"Crystal, what's your - " Taylor started, but cut himself off. "Never mind, she's asleep."
I glanced over at her and saw that he was right and I laughed a little. "Sweetheart," I said, nudging her side, "wake up for a second. Taylor has a question and then you can go back to sleep."
She blinked her eyes a few times and yawned before lifting her head off of my shoulder and giving Taylor an embarrassed smile. "I'm really sorry, I'm just so tired!"
"It's fine," he said with a grin. "What's your schedule for next week?"
"Um…let me think. I have a show both this Saturday and next Saturday, and then Friday night I have this interview thing with Pete and them, and of course Thursday we have a meeting but I think all my massages this week are scheduled for morning or early afternoon so I shouldn't have a conflict with any other days."
Crystal had never especially liked her job working for Hale, and after Dad had recovered from his surgery and moved out she hadn't gone to get it back, but she really didn't need to. Now that she was living with me and didn't have to pay for her own apartment she didn't need the extra income. She was still with Skinny Pete and apparently the two of them were getting along better than they used to. I had put a firm stop to the stripper outfits and slutty dancing, however, which had pissed Pete off a little bit but I didn't give a fuck. Crystal's stage outfits were better although still far from modest, but Pete didn't grind on her anymore and Crystal still got to perform and make pretty good money doing it so I considered it a good compromise.
She also still gave massages and had built up a pretty good-sized client base, but traveling to their houses to see them meant that in the weeks following Dad's surgery she'd had to schedule appointments around my work hours so that he wouldn't be alone and that proved to be so difficult that she just started having them come to her instead. When Dad had been living with us I had given him my bedroom so that he wouldn't have to walk up and down the stairs all the time because he tended to get out of breath easily, Crystal and I had taken Taylor's room, and Matty had been in the nursery every other week so Crystal had set up her massage table in my dining room since we hardly ever used it anyway. I guess it worked while it had to but that room definitely had glass doors and it was a little awkward for me to get home from work and see half-naked people lying where my dining room table used to be with my girlfriend rubbing lotion all over their bodies, so I was pretty fucking relieved when Dad got his own house and that arrangement was over. Crystal and I moved back downstairs, Matty was moved to Taylor's old room, and the nursery was converted into Crystal's little massage parlor, although in about eight months it was going to have to be reverted back to its original purpose…but nobody else knew about that yet.
"So it looks like Monday works for everybody," Taylor was saying. "Am I right?"
Everyone kind of nodded in agreement so he turned to Chris. "Are you sure that's good with you? You're not going to be too tired if we get up early?"
Chris shook his head. "It's fine."
By "early" he probably meant something like four o'clock p.m. Taylor and Chris both worked night shift jobs and I had no fucking idea how they did that because I was pretty sure I would not be able to live that way, but they had just kind of converted their entire lives to the opposite sleep-wake cycle and seemed to handle it just fine. It meant a limited number of hours that Taylor and I got to spend together because most of the time one of us was sleeping, but it worked out okay. We saw each other at our family meeting each week obviously, and he and Chris came over to eat dinner with me and Crystal every Wednesday night while Dad was at church. Taylor and I usually spent at least one evening a week together just the two of us though, and I think it was good for us both. We were closer than we had ever been, but in a good way because we finally understood where to draw the line and how to avoid crossing it.
Crystal put her head back on my shoulder and I kissed it again. "We'll go soon," I promised. "I know you're tired."
"I'm fine," she protested, but it was swallowed up by a yawn and I laughed a little.
"No, we'll leave in a few minutes," I said. "I'm tired too."
Neither of us had slept all that well the past few nights, ever since she had gone to take out her NuvaRing on the appointed day of the month and discovered that it wasn't there. She didn't know if it had come out by accident or if she had just somehow forgotten to even put it in to begin with, but either way we had definitely not been careful and she completely freaked out. I finally calmed her down enough to convince her to take a test, but when those two little pink lines appeared in the window she got hysterical all over again and couldn't do anything but cry, hyperventilate, and repeat over and over again that she was so sorry. It took me nearly an hour to talk her down, and after that it had taken two whole days to make her believe that I really wasn't upset. I had no reason to be. I loved her, I was in it for the long run so I didn't resent the thought of being stuck with her, and even though it hadn't been planned if this was the way it was then so be it. I would have wanted it eventually, this was just sooner rather than later and I was perfectly happy with that.
"So Dad," Taylor spoke up in that slightly irritating tone of voice he used whenever he was about to get onto him about his health, "what was your blood pressure today?"
"Oh Lord," Crystal murmured. "Here they go." This was a subject that the two of them argued about fairly frequently and it usually lasted awhile.
"Don't worry about it," Dad said firmly.
"I am worried about it," Taylor replied, "and I want to know what it was."
Dad sighed. "I don't remember, okay?"
"Was it high?" Taylor pressed.
"No, it was fine."
"But you wrote it down in your book, right?"
Dad closed his eyes for a second. "Yes."
Taylor crossed his arms and glared at him. "You're lying. I looked already and you haven't written anything down for the past four days."
Dad rubbed his brow wearily. "So sue me, then. I've been busy lately and it was only a few days, it's not a big deal."
"It's absolutely a big deal!" Taylor protested. "Do you know what happens when your blood pressure gets too high? Little blood vessels in your brain can bust open and then you have a stroke and if you even live through it you could have half your body paralyzed and you wouldn't even see it coming because you're not taking your blood pressure every day like you're supposed to!"
"Taylor, just let it go," I said. Even though Taylor and Dad were initially much closer than Dad and I were, once we had all physically gotten back together things had almost immediately returned to the way they had been before we ran away, the two of them bickering all the time and me trying and usually failing to mediate. It wasn't as bad now though. Taylor was usually the one who started it and it was always just because he was worried that Dad wasn't taking care of himself. I could tell how much Dad's health concerned him, and maybe it would have concerned me too if I knew as much about stuff like that as he did but I kind of preferred to stay blissfully ignorant. I was scared of losing my father now that I had just gotten him back, and I knew Taylor was too, that's why he was always nagging him about taking his medications and following his diet and everything. We'd missed out on a whole lot of time together by being angry and I didn't want to miss anymore.
Taylor ignored me as usual. "Are you at least taking your beta blocker?"
"Yes!" Dad said, clearly exasperated. "Every day just like I'm supposed to."
"Every day?" Taylor challenged. "Every single day no matter what?"
Matty sort of lifted his head and looked up at Dad sleepily, and Dad smiled at him and ruffled his hair. "See how he gets onto me all the time? You never do that, do you? That's why you're my number one."
Matty beamed at him and sucked on his sippy cup some more.
"Dad, I'm just saying," Taylor started again, "you're not supposed to take your beta blocker if your blood pressure is less than ninety over sixty, and since you haven't been taking your blood pressure lately you don't know but you've been taking the medication anyway and that's dangerous!" When Dad chose not to reply he kept on talking. "You know, I'm really going to start getting serious about this now because this exact thing happened at work the other day. One of the patients on some other floor was on a beta blocker and the nurse didn't look to see what his blood pressure was before she gave it to him so then when he got out of bed he got dizzy, passed out, and fell and hit his head and ended up with a brain contusion. That means part of his brain started swelling up and getting crushed into the side of his skull," he added, "and that's why he got sent to ICU, so now he has a whole new set of problems to deal with and he wasn't in good shape at all when I left yesterday but if that's really what you want for yourself then great, go for it."
"Taylor," Chris interrupted in his low, composed voice.
He always seemed to respond better to Chris than he did to me or Dad, I guess because he didn't have an eighteen-year history of being really pissed off at Chris all the time like he did with us, so he glanced over at Chris and sighed. "Sorry," he said to Dad. "I just don't want you to get hurt."
"Yeah," I chimed in, because I didn't much care for the idea of Dad's brain getting crushed into the side of his skull either. "Just do whatever you're supposed to, please. It's not that hard."
Dad just sort of shrugged and shook his head. "If it'll make everyone get off my back about it…"
We had moments like this pretty frequently, but they really weren't anything to worry about. If family therapy had taught me anything it was that it was completely unrealistic to expect our family to get along one hundred percent of the time. Nobody was really angry with each other, we were just all three headstrong people and liked to make ourselves heard, and instead of the arguments ending by someone getting thrown out of the house they now usually ended with an apology and a change of subject.
Taylor was still scrutinizing Dad in a calculating way. "I just have one more question," he said quickly, "and don't get mad, it's just because I love you, okay?"
Dad gave him a weary sort of look. "What is it?"
"Have you taken your Lipitor today?"
Dad held his gaze for a moment and then rubbed his face with his hand and sighed resignedly. "No, I haven't, but by all means let me go take it right now for you."
"Thank you," said Taylor with a little smirk.
Dad nudged Matty to get his attention, shooting Taylor a look that clearly indicated he wasn't happy about having to do it. "Hey kiddo, get down. Graham Cracker has to go inside for a second because I'm lucky enough to be the only person I've ever met with a son who decided to become a damn male nurse."
Taylor just grinned because he never seemed to care when Dad grumbled about that and I don't think Dad was really serious about it usually, but Matty, who had been at least close to asleep only seconds before, immediately smacked him on the arm and gave him a fierce look. "Bad Graham Cracker! That's a bad word!"
"That's right, it is," I said loudly, "and he should know better, shouldn't he?"
Matty slid off of Dad's lap and approached me, nodding vehemently as he put his hands on my knees and looked up at me.
"But you shouldn't hit people either," I continued, "even if they say bad words, okay?"
I guess he didn't feel like getting lectured because he immediately stopped paying attention and headed over to Taylor and Chris who must have looked more entertaining. He was trying to drag himself up onto the bench so he could sit between them but apparently couldn't get a good grip on anything because he tapped on Chris's leg impatiently and commanded, "Crispy, hewp."
I laughed at that. He had gotten all into nicknames recently. Although Dad had pretty much always been "Graham Cracker" it was now apparently spreading to everyone else as well. Crystal was "Cristy," Chris was "Crispy," and Taylor was pretty much anything that started with a T. I think most recently it had been "Tic-Tac," but it tended to change every few days and I could never keep up. I was just "Daddy" though, and as far as I could tell Hale wasn't anymore which was exactly the way I liked it.
Chris smiled at Matty and grabbed him around the middle to pull him up. Chris hardly ever smiled but Matty could almost always get one which I thought was sweet. They saw each other pretty frequently actually. Chris spent a decent amount of time with Jen since she was the only family he had in the area so he got to see Matty even on the weeks that he wasn't with me. I found it a little ironic that Taylor was dating my son's second cousin and I had definitely made a joke one time about him always keeping it in the family, just to him of course, not anyone else, but Taylor and Chris weren't actually related themselves and they had known each other before Jen and I ever had so I guess it was really my fault. The thing that was even more ironic than that was how much Chris and Crystal resembled each other. They were both tall, thin, blond and blue-eyed, and of course had similar sounding names. Even Dad had made a point of mentioning their resemblance once, but I was pretty sure that was just a coincidence and if it wasn't who the fuck cared? Taylor and I were miles ahead of where we had been at one point as far as codependency went so I wasn't worried about it.
Honestly though, I had never really let that night go. I wasn't hung up on it or anything, I knew nothing like that was ever going to happen again and I fully accepted that fact, but I still thought about it sometimes because it had been an experience that was so uniquely exceptional and I knew I'd never have another one like it. I was very much in love with Crystal and I wouldn't have changed a thing about her or about our relationship, but she and I had never and would never have a night like the one I had spent with Taylor in our father's bedroom. My love for Crystal was like a river, deep and broad, flowing slowly and smoothly, and maybe every now and then there would be a bend and some well-placed rocks, a spot where the ride wasn't as easy, but it wasn't too hard to predict. No matter what happened along the way you always knew where you were going to end up because the current moved on constantly and forever in one direction, and that was a very safe, secure sort of feeling. I liked loving her that way.
My love for my brother, however, was the fucking ocean, vast and endless and completely uncontrollable, because we had been through hell and back together and that was something that I hoped I never had to go through with anyone else, but it was also a feeling that absolutely couldn't be replicated or recreated with someone who hadn't been there. We had been caught in the middle of a fucking hurricane with nothing to hold onto except each other, we had been dragged down to the absolute depths where it was black and cold and entirely, positively hopeless, yet somehow we were back on shore, back with everyone we loved, and I had no doubt that had he not been with me I would have just given up. I loved him with everything I had and although we didn't talk about it I knew he knew, and I knew he loved me exactly the same way.
Neither of us had ever spoken a word about what happened to anyone else, not Kenneth, not the family therapist, not Chris or Crystal, and certainly not Dad. Maybe they would have understood or maybe they would have at least not judged us but there was no reason to tell anyone. Nobody needed to know about that because it was over. It still mattered, of course it fucking mattered, it always would, but it was best left as a memory. Sometimes though I did wonder what it would feel like to kiss him again, and sometimes I even imagined it, but there was no point in acting on it because things had ended so perfectly. We were both happy, we were both comfortable, and most importantly we were both with all the people that we loved, and if sometimes what should have been an uncomplicated glance at each other was a little too intense, what should have been a quick embrace was held for a little too long, or what should have been a simple touch was just a little too tender, nobody said anything. If someone had I wouldn't have had the time for it anyway. I loved him in a much different way from the way that most people loved their siblings, differently than was really socially acceptable and maybe differently than was even technically right, but I didn't care. We weren't codependent anymore and to me that meant success. If anyone wanted to criticize me then they could try going through everything I'd been through and see how they turned out. I was proud of myself, I was proud of my brother, and I was happy.
The screen door slammed and Dad stepped back out onto the porch. "Alright Nurse Angelo," he said sarcastically, "I'm appropriately drugged up now, are you happy?"
"Thrilled," said Taylor dryly. "Although have you checked the expiration date on your nitro tablets recently? Because - "
Chris cut him off with a gentle hand on the forearm which he quickly withdrew as soon as Taylor stopped talking. He murmured something that was barely audible to me but must have been to Taylor because he sighed and said, "Fine."
"You know," Dad said as he settled back down in his chair, "Jesus said 'you cannot add any time to your life by worrying about it.' That's Matthew chapter six verse twenty-seven."
Matty had been leaning against Taylor's side but he perked up at the sound of his name and looked around quizzically. Taylor laughed and hugged him a little closer. "Not you, bug. He's talking about a different Matthew, and Dad, I really don't think he meant not to care about your health. It just means don't stress about everything." He exchanged a glance with Chris and then quickly said, "But we won't worry about that right now. I'm done lecturing you for tonight."
"Good," said Dad, "because I'm your father and I'm supposed to be the one lecturing you so now it's my turn." He gave him a mock-serious glare. "Get a haircut and stop putting all that junk in it that you do. It's ridiculous."
Taylor just leaned his head back and laughed. "Dad, everyone at work compliments my hair. Not just at work even, everyone everywhere compliments my hair. You're just jealous."
"I bet even Crystal doesn't spend as much time on her hair as you do," Dad shot back, "and hers is about four times as long."
Taylor glanced over at Crystal like he was about to say something to her but then shook his head and smiled. "Well, I would ask her," he said, "but it looks like she's completely out."
I turned my head again to look at her and found her fast asleep. "She is," I agreed, "and that one looks like he's about to be out too," I added, pointing at Matty. "I should probably get everyone home to bed."
"Please do. I don't want the little guy all tired and cranky when I have to watch him tomorrow," said Dad, but I knew he wouldn't have actually cared and he would still have done it no matter what because Matty had him completely wrapped around his little finger.
I stroked Crystal's hair and shifted her off of my shoulder. "Wake up, sweetheart,"
She yawned and slowly opened her eyes. "Oh my gosh, we're still here?"
I laughed. "We're going home now."
She stretched her arms a little bit and then we both got up. Matty knew what that meant and he always hated it. "No!" he protested, sliding off of the bench where he was sitting with Taylor and Chris and running over to Dad where he attached himself to his leg. "Stay wiff Graham Cracker!"
"We'll come back tomorrow," I promised.
He whined some more but I could tell he was really tired so it wasn't too hard to convince him to say his round of night-night's and I love you's.
Crystal leaned over to give Dad a kiss on the cheek, and when she pulled away he took her left hand in between both of his. "Will I see you tomorrow, angel?" he asked.
"Of course," she said with a playful smile. "I'll be here at seven thirty on the dot for our walk, and we will definitely remember to take and record your blood pressure."
"Thank you!" Taylor called.
Dad rolled his eyes. "Just as long as it's you and not him. I like you much better, you don't nag so much."
"I guess that's true, but he does have better hair," she returned.
Dad just smiled. "Get some sleep," he said and then released her hand, after which he shot me a look. I understood that look. I had been getting it a lot lately and it clearly said, why haven't you done it yet?
I just shook my head. Not yet, Dad. Be fucking patient.
The hand-holding thing wasn't just because he was trying to be sweet even though that's how he tried to make it seem. He was trying to feel for any new additions, to the fourth finger in particular, and he was getting irritated that he kept not finding anything. A few weeks ago, completely of his own accord, he had sat me down, given me my mother's engagement ring, and told me to hurry up before Crystal got tired of waiting and moved on to someone else. I had sort of laughed that off at the time too because we had been together a little less than two years which didn't seem exceptionally long to me, and things were going really well so I was fairly certain she wasn't planning on going anywhere, but I had taken the ring anyway because it kind of felt like things were headed in that direction. It wasn't that I had any reservations about being with her. I knew I was going to marry her and I knew that if I asked her right now she would say yes, but I just wanted to make sure that Taylor was okay with it first and I didn't want to be the one to bring it up because I didn't want him to feel pressured. He could see how serious our relationship was, he knew how much I loved her, and in a few days after Crystal and I went to her appointment and hopefully got a firm confirmation, assurance that everything was okay so far, and a date for when we could expect the next most beautiful moment in our lives to arrive, he would understand that there was no question of me backing out now. There never had been really, I think he knew that, and at some point soon he would let me know that he was okay with it. Until then, I could wait.
I gave Dad a hug and instructed him to be patient before he even had a chance to say anything to me about it because I could tell he was about to, and then I said goodbye to Chris. We didn't hug or anything, that seemed like it would just be a little awkward, but he gave me what looked like a real smile and said, "Night." I considered that good seeing as his verbal communication with most other people was even more limited than that.
Crystal said goodbye to Taylor and Chris as well and then held her hand out to Matty. "Come on," she said, and he took it.
"Oh, hold on," I said to her, "I forgot my phone's charging inside. Here." I handed her my keys. "You guys can get in the car, I'll be right there." I kissed her temple and ran my hand across her stomach as I did it because I just couldn't help it, I was honestly so excited, and then I turned to go into the house as she led Matty down the front steps.
I unplugged my charger and picked up my phone from where it was sitting on the kitchen counter. I had a text and I smiled and rolled my eyes a little when I saw who it was from. Fucking Riley. He still texted me all the time about his teenager problems that he didn't want to talk to Hale about. Sometimes he even came over if he was having a major teenager crisis. Honestly he was kind of a dumbass and did a lot of stupid shit that Hale would probably be pissed about if he knew, so I tried to give him good advice and I always encouraged him to be less of an idiot. There were some things that you just had to figure out for yourself though so I didn't lecture him too much and that was probably why I hadn't been able to get rid of him. I opened up the text. Dude, my girlfriend just asked me if I think her friend is pretty, wtf do I say?
I laughed. That was kind of tough one. Say yeah, she's pretty, but not as pretty as you, I suggested. That was bound to get him some. And also please wrap it up because the Jackson family is way too fucking big already, I added, and then slid the phone into my pocket.
I went back out onto the porch, and I could see Crystal down at the car getting Matty into the back seat. "Are you guys going to stay for awhile?" I asked Taylor.
He nodded. "For a little bit at least. We just woke up a few hours ago so we're not really in a rush or anything."
I shook my head. Fuck night shift, I could never do that. "Alright, well, go easy on him," I said, nodding towards Dad.
Taylor smiled. "I will. Chris cut me off, he says I've reached my nagging limit for the day."
Good for Chris. "That's a good idea," I said. "I guess I'll see you Wednesday then."
I gazed down at him, bringing my hand up to rest on the side of his neck and rubbing my thumb up and down a few times. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against my hip lazily before looking back up at me and smiling, and I could just tell from the look on his face that he was so fucking happy. That was an emotion that I hardly ever used to see on him and it meant so much to me that I finally got to see it now. It meant that I had done something right for once, that I had managed to fix something, and it meant that no matter what everything was going to be okay. We didn't have to say anything to each other because we both knew. There was a peaceful understanding between us now that had never existed before and there was no more need for words to express how we felt. Just a look could say it all, and it did.
I slowly withdrew my hand from his neck. "Love you," I said. "You too, Dad. I'll see you tomorrow when I bring Matty over. It should probably be five-thirtyish."
"Sounds good," he agreed. "I love you. Have a good night, and get to work on that thing we talked about."
I didn't respond to that because I had a perfectly good reason for not getting to work on it yet, and if I could wait then so could he.
"I love you too," Taylor said serenely, putting his arm around my waist and giving me a gentle squeeze.
I gave him one last look before turning and walking down the path to my car and the two - well, I guess technically three now - people who came first in my life, and I knew that he wasn't bitter, that he didn't resent me or any of them for it, because I knew him better than I had ever known him before and when I looked into his eyes I saw none of that. What I did see was happiness, tranquility, and acceptance, and what I heard even though no words were actually spoken was exactly what I had said to him over a year ago as we had walked out of the graveyard where Mom was buried and towards a newly bright and hopeful future – for the rest of my life, with all my heart and everything in me, I love you.
Very long author's note: Oh my God, it's finally over! I honestly can't believe it. I started this story in 2006 and now six years, over a thousand pages, and almost 600,000 words later I've reached the end! I really appreciated the reviews I got on the last chapter from people who liked the ending. I'm glad it wasn't as disappointing as I felt like it was going to be. Obviously I understand that people who were looking for a very slashy story didn't get what they were looking for, but this story isn't a romance and it was never meant to be. It's a drama obviously, and I think it kind of turned into a sort of character study as it went along. I had a really wonderful time writing it and I would love to hear from anyone and everyone who has been reading about what your thoughts are. One of my favorite things about reading all the reviews was seeing how one reviewer would really hate one character and really like another, but a different person would feel completely the opposite. That's pretty much the best compliment I could have gotten because it says to me that my characters come across as real people and that's what I wanted. I didn't want anyone to completely come off as "the good guy" or "the bad guy" because in real life people aren't like that, and I think I achieved that as well as I could have so I'm pretty proud of that.
There are certainly things about this story that I'm not proud of though so even though I'm done adding new content I'm not completely done messing with it. There are a few minor errors in most every chapter that I failed to catch before I posted it so I need to go back and fix those, and also I pretty much hate the very beginning that I wrote when I was sixteen so I may do some more work on that and try to match the writing styles a little better. I think I need a break from this story for a little bit though so I'm not going to get on that immediately.
A few people have asked about the original ending and while I don't want to say too much about it and take away from what I wrote instead, it was very, very depressing and melodramatic and ended with someone dead...you can probably guess who. I've also been asked about what I'm planning on writing now that this is over, and the answer to that is I don't know. I did actually have two other stories that I sort of started while writing this one but they didn't flesh out so well. I think I was just so into this story that I couldn't devote that much creative energy to a completely separate world, and I ended up taking ideas from those stories and putting them into this one so I can't do much with them now. I've been kind of freaking out about this honestly because I don't know how in the world I'm going to come up with a whole new set of characters and I'm not sure if I even want to. I'm so attached to these!
I'm playing around with the idea of writing more with some of these characters because there's so much in my head that didn't make it onto paper. Every single character, even the minor ones, has a very detailed background and an established personality and a lot of it didn't get to show because it wasn't important to Ryan's story. I'd kind of like to get to put some of that down on paper too so if I did another story with these characters it would obviously be from the perspective of someone besides Ryan. I've messed with him way too much anyway, I think he deserves a break. It's not a for sure plan yet, I don't know if that's a good idea or a really dumb one because I haven't had much time to think about it yet, but I just feel like I won't be nearly sad about this story ending if I know I can write about all these guys again. Leave me a review and let me know what you think, and if it's an absolutely horrible idea then definitely let me know that!
I've firmly decided that whatever my next story is will not be a drama. I need to try to write something at least a little bit happy for a change. It also won't be as long as this one because this is just ridiculous, and I'd like to experiment with a writing style that differs from this past-tense, epic narrative sort of thing I've had going. Anything that I do write will definitely have an adult protagonist like this one did because I don't think I write kids or teenagers very well, and I also don't think I write females well so it'll probably be a male because I'm not quite brave enough to give it a shot.
It may be a little while before I get back to writing because I have to take some time to come up with a plan, and I also want to take some time to read some of the other stuff on this site. I hardly ever read anything on here because I've been spending so much time writing, and I've only ever left one review, but I've had so many wonderful people review this story that I think it's only fair to go see what you guys have got up as well.
It has truly been a pleasure to write this story and hear from all of you that did leave reviews. I'm very relieved that it's over but I can't pretend I didn't have an awesome time, and it makes me feel wonderful to know that people have enjoyed this story and been affected by it so much. I hope that whenever I do post something else you'll come check that out, and if anyone has a story that they would especially like me to read please leave me a review and I'll try to read it. Again, it really has been a wonderful experience and I just can't thank you all enough.