|Title: Tahitian Moon (Act One)
Synopsis: Post-Marybeth world, wherein Casey is murdered by a psychotic alien cult. Zeke has to deal, trying to learn how to.
Warnings: Death of major character, LOTS of angst, heavy violence.
Disclaimer: I own nothing--all fantasy on my end.
Author's Notes: WIP. Big, huge thanks to my lovely, beautiful beta, lisabellex, for putting up with strangely placed commas and buldings chasing Zeke around town. ;)
Zeke managed to get a good four more hours of sleep after his dream, giving him the clearest head he'd had in a while. Waking up was the easiest it'd been in a long, long time, allowing him to slip out of bed feeling as light as air. He realized how much he'd missed being able to just… think.
Just as he was opening the door, Vicky appeared right in front of him, causing him to jump again. “Mom… God…”
“Come downstairs… the news is on,” she interrupted in a rush, looking serious. Zeke blinked heavily as she went back down the hall and to the stairs. Confused, he followed and made his way to the bottom floor.
He heard the sound of the TV, though it was all garbled muttering. He didn't understand what was happening until he was right in the room, staring at the screen. Vicky lit two cigarettes and handed him one, her own eyes set on the news report.
Zeke's jaw dropped slowly. The small picture window in the corner showed a hallway of some sort, with bodies lying on the floor covered in sheets. Police and other officials were shown walking amid the scene as the reporter on the main screen spoke.
“…Police had been tracking the remaining members of the UFO cult, eventually finding their 'home base'. They'd labeled this group responsible for the Herrington photo-shop tragedy, in which David Soto and his eighteen year-old employee, Casey Connor, were killed by a suicide bomber, who was logged as one of the cult's followers. The compound was found right here in Newberry, Michigan. CNN reporter Elaine Carlson is on scene with a report. Elaine?”
The camera switched over to an on-site reporter, standing just to one side of the compound's main gate. Zeke watched on, feeling his skin go cold.
“Thanks, Michael-- as you can see, the compound behind me is flooded with officials. According to one officer we spoke to earlier, thirty people have been found dead in circumstances already compared to the notorious 'Heaven's Gate' cult's group suicide.”
“Now, that was only two years ago, Elaine. Are these groups thought to be interconnected in any way? Have any statements been made putting these people in direct affiliation?”
“No, Michael-- nothing's been said of that, but the leaders of 'Elliptic Dream' had used teachings of Marshall Herff Applewhite, the 'Heaven's Gate' leader, as references to their own purpose and philosophy….”
Zeke's eyes scanned every last image, from paramedics bringing in gurneys, to police carrying box after box out to vans. He moved to the couch and sat, unwilling to take his eyes away from the report. A long line of ash fell onto his thigh, finally making him look down to brush it away.
“Are you… all right?”
Vicky's question echoed in Zeke's mind a few moments before he made a long, shaky sigh. “I…” he started, trying to find words. “I don't know what this means.”
“I guess… it's a bit of closure… isn't it?”
Zeke turned to look at her, confused. “Closure?”
“I don't… know,” he said with a small shake of his head. It was indiscernible at this point. A lot of people-- those people responsible for Casey's death, if the reports hypothesis' was correct-- had all done themselves in. They'd been afraid, and for good reason. Zeke had felt the presence of police and FBI involvement, long after Casey's death… especially within the last few weeks. These people had been right in their fear.
In looking to the faceless, symmetrically lined bodies, Zeke felt his jaw clench. “They were just scared, fucked up people, I guess. Fucked up people that killed my friend.”
Vicky put her hand on Zeke's knee and squeezed it. “Let me get us something to eat. You want cereal?”
Zeke nodded dumbly, still staring ahead at the TV. Vicky got up and left, leaving him to try to find faces… names, anything. Anything to tag to someone--any-fucking-one, all to be able to place blame and curse.
“Hon? Damn, you put the bowls up WAY too high…!” Vicky called. “Help me get this stuff done, God…”
Groaning in mock frustration, Zeke stood and went into the kitchen. “You could just use a chair,” he said. She grumbled under her breath as he reached to the top cabinet.
“I just wanted to make us breakfast.”
“You're pouring cereal in bowls with milk,” Zeke said, giving her a wry grin.
“I'm still making it for you,” she shot back.
“Eh… until I see you out with some wheat and a grinding wheel…” he teased. It earned him a small slap to the arm as Vicky passed by with the Frosted Flakes. He stood back and let her prepare their breakfast, becoming entranced with the milk she poured. His brain pushed back towards the objective he'd come to that morning…
'It's even more clear.'
“I um… I made up my mind. About leaving.”
Vicky stopped pouring and looked to him. “Yea?”
“I'm gonna go-- but… I need to go alone,” he told her. She frowned a bit in confusion and cocked her head to the side.
“Go… alone? To Europe?”
“No, not Europe.”
Zeke rolled his tongue around in his mouth, thinking. He ended up shrugging slowly. “I dunno,” he replied.
“Is it just that… that you don't want to go with me, or…?” Vicky softly asked.
“No, it's not you. It's not anyone but me… and what I need,” he said. He leaned on the counter and took up his bowl. He stirred the flakes around in the milk, feeling the odd sensation of doing something wrong, but not by what he wanted. It was the look in his mother's eyes that kept him from looking at her directly. “You've actually been really-- good. I thought I'd hate every last second with you being here, and I haven't.”
Vicky smiled a little, though still had a tense sadness in her face. “I've just wanted to… try, for you.”
“Yea, I know,” Zeke said. He took his first bite and stared at the floor as Vicky sighed and took her own bowl to the table. They ate in silence a few moments, Zeke pondering what his options were. “I've never seen the beach, have I?”
“No. No, you haven't,” Vicky replied. “We almost took a trip to Florida when you were about two, but your father… well, was your father.”
Zeke raised his eyebrows, not needing answers as to why they hadn't gone. It was most likely for the usual reason, anyway-- that of James being the utter prick he was. “I think I wanna go out to an ocean. A beach of some sort, stay there a while.”
“Do you think that…” Vicky said, pausing a moment before continuing. “I've been wondering what would happen if you'd gone with me, and whether-- whether 'certain people' would have problems with you going out of their sight, if you know what I mean.”
“Yea… there's that.”
Vicky finished her meal and turned in her seat. “It'd be best if you didn't leave a paper trail of any sort, like with checks or ATM cards. Stuff like that,” she explained. “You just need to do this, don't you? Leave without any big warning, right?”
Zeke nodded slowly, trying to comprehend what his mother was getting at. “Yea, I guess.”
“So having some Fed on your tail would be annoying… and considering the mess in Michigan, it'd be sort of stupid for you to get that sort of attention anyway. Do you think it'd be safe to do this, Zeke? I'm asking you-- because you've always had good instincts on how you are, and will be. Do you think it'd be safe?”
Hearing his mother talk like this was astounding to Zeke; 'She fucking trusts this.' He nodded. “Yea. I do.”
Vicky smiled in an all-knowing way. “Then we'll make sure of things.”
With the way Zeke had cared for his 'old goat' of a car, she barely needed any work or modifications. He still lay under it, checking oil and filters and whatever else. If he was to be taking on such a long drive, he wanted to be sure she could handle it.
It was odd, the smile on his face. It didn't feel forced or unreasonable, like he was smiling for anyone else-- or too much. He wasn't thinking of the things that would bring him down; the idea that he was making some sort of change seemed to be enough. The thought of going and going and going, highways, roads-- long stretches of them, no cops in sight to deny him the freedom of his foot on the gas…
“Yea,” he croaked out. There'd been only brief moments, always short-lived, where he'd been able to let loose with his girl without consequence. Yet in this new venture, there'd be times where he'd be the only one on the road… to Vegas, to New Orleans, or where-the-fuck-ever he wanted to end up… and he'd turn up the music, slam his foot down and go. He felt excitement run through his blood, the first time in way too damned long.
It'd be hard to tell anyone, but he'd have to let at least one of the 'trio' know. Delilah already knew of his possible leave, and he wondered if Stan or Stokely had been talked to about it. With the way Delilah could go on, half of Herrington could've gotten insight into it. A tiny cringe came over his lips; he hoped she'd kept her trap shut.
He'd let them know. It'd be quick and painless, making his quiet exit. It wouldn't be for forever, and he'd make that clear. But he needed a small piece of that time, where maybe he could find something other than Casey, death and sadness to dwell on. He knew there was so much more, no matter how empty he felt without the depression he'd held onto; the security blanket needed to be packed away and left behind for a while.
Once certain the oil filter was next to perfect, Zeke slid out along the cardboard he lay on, reached for his water bottle and looked up. He paled.
A news van had just pulled up in front of his house. A woman scrambled out, along with the driver and a man from the back passenger side. They seemed to be drowning in wires, cameras and other equipment as they fought to set up, eyes darting to Zeke every now and again. While his good mood had slipped away pretty quickly, he simply sat there instead of running away. It was useless; even if ten thousand Feds suddenly decided to intervene, they'd then ALL be there for Zeke to deal with. The media had just turned into one big, buzzing, annoying fly that Zeke couldn't swat away completely, no matter how hard he tried. He took a long swig of his water, thankful that he wouldn't be shown as the underage drinker he was with the other choice of drink he'd considered.
After the mini-circus of media was formed, the perfectly groomed reporter turned to look at him and smiled, still talking in rushed tones to the cameraman about light and her 'good side'. Zeke cocked an eyebrow and downed more water, devoid of any real reaction. He took a deep breath as the camera positioned, the microphone rose up…
“This is Sandy Perkins, live at the Tyler residence; stay tuned for a live broadcast where we hope to be the first station bringing you one of the more notorious 'alien killers' reaction to the latest developments in the group suicide in Michigan.”
Was that it? 'Just a bumper,' he thought with a roll of his eyes. He sat in wait as the news team uncoiled yet MORE wires and began their approach.
“Zeke, Zeke Tyler-- Sandy Perkins with Ohio State Cable News,” she introduced herself.
Zeke tried remembering her from the hoards of news crews that had hounded after he and the rest of them. “Okay,” he mumbled.
“If you'd grant us a small interview, with your reaction to the group suicide in Michigan…?”
Zeke had to hold back a sudden, evil grin as he groaned to a stand. “Yea… okay,” he replied, taking more of his drink. It was as if the woman had found out she'd won a new car with the way her eyes flared with excitement, grin threatening to eat her face alive.
“Okay, get ready Sandy-- we're on in twenty,” the man standing next to the cameraman said. Sandy ran her hand over her hair briskly, steadying herself. Zeke peeled at the label of the bottle and sighed, just as yet another news van pulled up. The occupants rushed out, looking panicked, most likely from getting 'beaten to it'. 'Oh, this is great,' he thought, letting a nervous giggle escape. Sandy gave him a quick, confused look before the man began counting down from five.
A slight mumbling came from Sandy's ear, most likely someone at the station speaking to her. “Yes David, I'm here with Ezekiel Tyler of Herrington, one of the brave students from Herrington that 'saved the world' this past October. We're here to get his insight to the news of Michigan's latest development…”
'Bla, bla, bla…' Zeke thought, biting his lower lip. The other news team rushed through their setup as Sandy turned to Zeke with a deep, pensive expression.
“…Mr. Tyler, we assume that you've heard about the cult, 'Elliptic Dream' committing group suicide just this morning in Michigan. What are your thoughts on this?” she asked.
Zeke made a pensive expression and sighed. He rubbed his mouth a moment before shaking his head and replying. “It's pretty crazy, isn't it?” he asked. She nodded in his pause, looking for more.
“But do you think justice has been served for your friend, Casey Connor?”
“Oh, just say Casey. And no… that's the stupidest fucking question I've ever heard.”
Sandy visibly paled, her eyes flashing wide a moment. “Mr. Tyler, I should just let you know, this is a live broadcast…”
“Well it is; how could a bunch of shitheads committing suicide be justice? It would've been a lot more sweet to watch those fuckers hang in public,” he answered, narrowing his eyes and trying his damnedest to keep his face straight.
Everyone turned to see Vicky now coming out onto the porch, looking furious. “Hi Mom,” Zeke said.
“What the fuck are you people doing here? Get the hell off of our property!” she yelled.
'This is even better…' he thought with amusement. Sandy looked ready to burst, yet kept her best professional face on as she turned to the camera.
“This is Sandy Perkins, reporting live… from the Tyler residence. Back to you David,” Sandy rushed out with. She shot a glare to Zeke once the camera was lowered. “Excuse me! That was one of the rudest displays I've EVER seen, and I've been working for OSCN for nine years!”
“Sorry… um… want me to strip?” Zeke asked, putting his hands to his belt.
“Zeke, cut it out-- you people, OUT!” Vicky interjected, motioning with her hand to their vans.
The next news crew looked on, glancing to each other in uncertainty. Sandy looked to them and groaned. “You may as well leave, unless you guys want the FCC on your asses,” she called to them, gathering up her things. Zeke leaned on his car and finished his water casually, watching them make their retreat.
The other crew still walked over, the reporter blinking nervously. “Um… we're with Channel 14 News…”
“I say 'fuck' a lot,” Zeke interrupted with a shrug. Vicky groaned, but he could tell she was amused. He nudged her with his elbow. “She does too.”
After the botched interview, Zeke had gone upstairs to his room with a smile on his face. Vicky had worn one as well, though she kept trying to look stern and give him small reprimands. It couldn't be helped; Zeke was too much of a deviant for her to reach, and she knew it. She'd known it since very early on.
He got inside of his room and looked around, starting to feel a bit nervous. He hadn't ever really traveled, so he didn't know what was important to take. It wasn't as if he was outright leaving, so he knew he'd come back to things. Still… what was there to 'survive' in this room? Clothes were a given, but felt uncomfortable with the idea of formally packing them for whatever reason.
'Don't even think about it. Throw some shit in a bag and get on with it.'
Everything blurred a bit as he grabbed up his duffel bag and began filling it… CDs, a few movies, books ('I never finished this?' he thought in finding his battered copy of 'The Illegal Rebirth of Billy the Kid'), an old notebook with pens… even a stuffed frog he'd won at Herrington's town fair six years before. He didn't know why THAT had to go in, but…
“It's a waste of money…”
“Oh James, let Zeke try for it!”
“Pfft… here then, waste two bucks,”
Zeke stared at the worn green fabric of the toy, recalling his father's distaste at 'frivolity'. 'Cos' people go to a fair for serious fucking business,' he sarcastically thought. It hadn't mattered that the odds were against Zeke in hitting the stack of cups apart; he was out to prove his father wrong any way he could.
'Wow, great job! Want to try again for a bigger prize?'
It was yet another triumph to tell the carnival booth worker 'no'. Zeke had been tempted to try again and fail, just to anger James. But he'd wanted that stupid toy, so he allowed himself one moment of pleasure without the need to prove anything else. His father had still thought it was all a stupid idea, but the green guy was under his arm nonetheless.
'This is going up on the dash,' Zeke thought with a smile.
Zeke sat on the couch alone, sipping a beer idly as he watched TV. With Vicky gone for a few 'errands', Zeke had called Stan. He figured that out of everyone, he'd be the most understanding. Stokely was reasonable too, but she was a she, and Zeke always crumbled under the weight of a girl's tears. If SHE cried, he'd keel over and die.
The knock on the door came at exactly four o'clock. Zeke swallowed and stood up, went to the door and opened it. Stan stood on the porch with a small smile.
“Hey,” he greeted him. “What's up?”
“Not much, man,” Zeke said, opening the door wider to let Stan in. “Just wanted to hang.”
“Fine by me… school was a pain in the ass today,” Stan said with a groan. “I'd kill for a beer right now.”
Zeke grinned and cocked an eyebrow. “You know where the fridge is.”
“Ah, it's good having a friend who can buy… or knows where he can buy,” Stan said.
Zeke chucked and went back into the living room, letting Stan go to the kitchen. He sat back down and tried to keep a good face on. Just as Zeke changed the channel, Stan returned with his drink, sighing contentedly.
“Yep… yep, yep, yep,” Stan said with a nod as he sat down and took his first sip. “After geometry… yep.”
“That's still kicking your ass?”
“Kinda. I got an okay tutor; not as good as Case was, but she's all right. I'm hangin' in there,” Stan explained.
“Good,” Zeke muttered. He took a long swig from his bottle and stared ahead. 'Well no need to make small talk or beat around the bush….' “So hey… just wanted to have you over, cos'… I'm gonna be taking off for a while.”
Stan blinked a few times, looking to Zeke with a confused expression. “Taking off? To where?”
Zeke was secretly thankful. Delilah had kept quiet. “Well, my mom had invited me to go to Europe with her… no, not there,” Zeke said, interjecting the last few words fast. Stan's expression had paled instantly at that. “I'm gonna go for a long, long drive.”
Stan looked away to the floor, staring blankly a few moments. “So like, you're leaving?”
“For a while, yea.” Zeke answered.
Now Stan puffed out a small laugh. “You don't have a damned thing planned out, do you?” he asked. Zeke shrugged and sighed.
“I'm gonna go where the road takes me. It's just what I need, I think,” he said. “You guys have been the most tolerant bastards to me, y'now. You pulled for me more times than I can count.”
“Well… you needed it.” Stan replied with a small nod.
“Yea-- and now I need to work shit out on my own. I've gotta find… something. Y'now?”
“I think so,” Stan murmured with a shrug. “You'll be coming back, right?”
“Yea, I think so,” Zeke replied. “I don't know if I'll want to, but I think I'll have to. This small fucking town has a way of pulling you back into its evil clutches.”
“Yea, it does. My brother Matt-- he thought this place sucked ass and went to try to live in Detroit, thinking it was a hell of a lot better, that anything was better. He came back, though. It's just one of those things.”
“Yea. So no, not selling the house or anything.”
“You're gonna be okay with cash and shit?”
“Yea, Mom's hinted to getting me straight cash… so I can't be tailed,” Zeke told him.
It took Stan a moment to recognize what Zeke had meant by that. Once he did, he sighed and nodded knowingly. “Oh yea… know what you mean,” he said. He made a saddened sigh and sat back further, looking older than he was. “Well, we'll miss you. You gonna call every now and again or anything?”
“Maybe come back at graduation… there'll probably be some big tribute to the boy.”
Zeke raised his eyebrows. “Maybe. That's what I'm trying to get away from; maybe at that point I'll be ready for it.”
“Man…” Stan said, now smiling a little. “I wish I could go with you. I'd chip in for gas cash.”
“You wouldn't have to,” Zeke said, now finishing his beer with a smile.
It was another warm evening. Stan had left earlier than Zeke figured he would have, but homework needed to be done and home cooked meals needed to be eaten with the family. Zeke sat by himself on the porch, wondering where he'd be in two days.
Two fucking days. His eyes rested on the waning sun, still giving off a bright glare over the pavement and up to the porch. It made him think of how beautiful it'd be to drive west, getting to watch sunsets on long drives. 'I'm going west,' he thought, nodding to himself. It'd be so scary, thrilling and bittersweet when he went to the airport Wednesday to drop off his mother, then hop in his car… and go.
It was then that Vicky pulled in, the GTO roaring as she revved the engine a couple of times before turning it off. Zeke watched with a smile as she stepped out, looking a bit flushed.
“I can see why you drive this thing. Wow,” she said, looking back at the car with a smile.
“Makes you feel like you're well hung, doesn't it?”
“You're ridiculous,” she said, rolling her eyes as she came up the steps and went to the chair next to him. “Well… it's all set.”
“What is?” Zeke asked. He brought out his cigarettes and lit two, just as Vicky pulled out an envelope from her purse.
“Keep in mind… you hold onto this. I don't care if you have to sew it in your underwear,” she said, holding it out to him.
Zeke reached over and exchanged a cigarette for it, frowning a little. It was thick and heavy, which made his eyes go wide as he opened it. “The hell…?”
“It's five grand in cash… and an ATM card is in there, too; it's in my name. If you use the cash up on your way, at least you'll be long gone and less easy to find. Especially if it's in MY name and all…”
Zeke's heavy, pounding heartbeat made his head feel numb. “Mom… this is nuts,” he said, finally looking away from the pile of green. “It's…”
“What you need; it's what you need,” she interjected. “I've given you plenty of funds over the years, trying to take care of you and the house and everything. But this is your 'getaway' money. It's money I'd saved up for you, anyway. I just transferred a few accounts into each other. Simple.”
This was anything but simple. Zeke knew Vicky's head for business, and with the sales of her book… “I'm not even gonna ask how much is in this,” he said, flicking the bank card.
“You don't have to… it's enough that worrying about expenses is trivial,” Vicky replied with a wide grin.
“I'd just ask one thing in return,” she said. Zeke bit his lip; great, an 'attachment'. He looked to her, seeing her smile go from wide somber. “It doesn't matter if it's done in a month or a year, but… when you come back, or wherever you end up-- would you get your GED for me?”
Zeke's lips parted a little. It wasn't much to ask, was it? What she was asking was simple, a request for her son to try to get on the right track. “Yea… yea, I could.” he replied.
“Good,” she said.
“Yea,” he murmured, looking up towards the sky. Blue was settling into a light orange as they sat quietly with their cigarettes, not bothering to speak.
The next morning was spent making calls. Since there would be no need for phones or gas, Zeke made sure to cut off services. He'd simply shut off the main fuse box to ensure no useless electric bills, but leave the chance for an easier return when it came. It felt weird in doing so, wondering if the house would be all right with him gone. It was probably the first time he'd bothered worrying about it, but it was his home. Maybe he could give a key to Stan before he left, as long as he promised no parties. Before he could think of himself as some crotchety old grandfather, he figured he'd offer his place up as a 'hotel' if Stan and Stokely wanted some time to themselves. The summer would offer enough warmth, and they could still catch a few episodes of 'Seinfeld', their favorite show to watch together.
Zeke hung up the phone, his last call made. He sat at the kitchen table, fiddling with his cigarette and thinking hard. If he were to be honest, he was already feeling a bit homesick. No matter the excitement of his impending travels, he'd be somewhere else-- somewhere unfamiliar and possibly confusing. But his biggest reason for going stuck out like a sore thumb at the moment.
Casey wasn't here anymore, but he was; every last reminder of the boy was held in this small town. It made Zeke's stomach clench a little to leave all of that behind. He'd get a few hundred miles away and realize that there wasn't anything to connect himself to the memories, at least in a physical sense. He couldn't just run out to help Delilah with car batteries, or have Stan and Stokely over for a few beers. Those were the people he'd come to know, and Casey had tied them up together-- however painful that was, it existed. It was real. As much as he wanted to escape it, he just hoped he'd find something to fill the void, however temporary.
There were a few things to pack away; the small photo album he hadn't burned would go in the duffel bag, just to look back on good times spent together. He didn't know if he'd have to take it out at any point, but if he did, it'd be there for him. There'd probably be a few nights spent with a couple drinks and memory-dwells.
Being separated from that was a good idea, and he knew it. He'd know it.
Just one more thing before leaving; one more thing that scared him to pieces, but it needed to be done.
Zeke couldn't get out of the car, not just yet. Just sitting in the car on the street was enough to make his insides twist… he didn't know if he could do this. Perhaps he shouldn't have…
'Shut up and do it, for fuck's sake…'
He opened the car door slowly, hearing every last spring and metal clack as he did. The world seemed to stop turning as he stepped out and looked to the mailbox first, 'Connor' written upon the top in metallic lettering. He let his eyes wander to the front porch, feeling his body tremble a little as he stepped around the car. The Connors' minivan was parked in the drive, showing that at least one of them was home. They'd probably heard his rumbling machine pull up and had already seen him; the face showing up at the window revealed such.
Zeke looked away from Mrs. Connor's imploring gaze, thinking of what he was to do; 'short, sweet and polite. No need to impose yourself on them at all. Ask for the album, make niceties and head back home.' He'd gotten up one step when the front door opened, and Mrs. Connor stood before him with a small smile.
“Zeke… Zeke, hello,” she said in a soft voice.
“Hi,” Zeke replied, trying his best to return the smile.
“It's so good to see you-- Frank!”
She still had that yell that made Zeke jump a little; he found himself smiling wider as he heard Mr. Connor's grunting reply of “What?”
“Zeke's here!” she called. She turned back to him and opened the door wider. Zeke's jaw clenched tight a few seconds before walking inside.
It was all the same as the last time he'd been here. The small hallway leading in was lit by the orange-dimmed antique lamp on the antique side table, quaint and sweet, just as Mrs. Connor liked things. He didn't look directly to the wall, but the Connor family photo was still hung upon it. He went to step away from the JC Penney creation ('I could've done it MUCH better,' Casey had once grumbled to Zeke about it, Zeke knowing that the boy had just hated the geeky hairstyle captured on film) when Mrs. Connor held up a hand.
“C'mon now, Zeke. Shoes off, you know the rules.”
“Oh… I'm not staying I just wanted to--”
“The heck you aren't. We were just about to order some dinner, and I insist that you stay for it,” she said with a small, pleading smile.
They'd never ordered out before. Casey had always bitched about it. He was tempted to decline-- outright run away when he saw Mr. Connor stand up from his basketball game he watched-- but bent down to untie his boots.
It wasn't exactly uncomfortable; Zeke couldn't pinpoint exactly how this felt, sitting at the Connors' dinner table, taking the seat he'd always had. He faced the opposite wall, trying to ignore the empty chair next to him. He wondered how far the Connors were in their grief, whether they'd learned to accept the empty areas in their lives.
“Okay then… you got orange chicken, right?” Mr. Connor asked Zeke.
“Yea, that's me,” he said, taking the Styrofoam container. The man smiled and passed him a plate; normally Zeke just ate straight from the box-- just as he and Casey had together, that night. This time he accepted it as if he needed to follow unspoken rules.
Mrs. Connor came in from the kitchen, carrying a bottle of Pepsi and napkins. “Good, I think we're all set,” she cheerfully said, passing cups around. Zeke smiled graciously and took his, making Mrs. Connor smile back. “It's so good to have you over like this; anything to make the mister shush up about basketball games.”
Mr. Connor huffed while getting beef teriyaki on his plate. “Oh, you love it. You say you hate sports, but sit and watch with me anyway.”
Mrs. Connor grumbled under her breath, Zeke smiling as he heard '…can't help that those boys are so tall and handsome,' muttered quietly. “Well… thanks for having me, I guess.”
“I've told you to come by, anytime. You know you're welcome here,” Mrs. Connor said.
Zeke nodded in reply, and the three of them began eating. It was quiet for a few minutes, minus the small mumblings of “can you pass the soda…?” and whatever other pleasantries. Zeke felt ridiculous taking their kindness, considering that he could've bought about ten of these dinners with what sat in his wallet at the moment. He figured, however, that the two of them wanted to 'treat' him, much like the odd dinners being Casey's 'treats'. If the boy could see them now, he'd be pissed. It made Zeke make a sudden chuckle, which made Mrs. Connor look up with a questioning look.
Zeke shook his head a little. “Just thinking about how… Casey would be so ticked off, you buying me dinner like this.”
“What do you mean? He'd want us to treat you…” Mrs. Connor replied.
“No, it's just… never mind.”
“No, no… what?”
With a great sigh, Zeke sat back. “If I tell you this, don't get mad,” he said with a growing grin. At Mrs. Connor's cocked eyebrow, Zeke huffed in a long breath. “Remember that weird… couscous thing you'd made sometimes?”
“Oh, he loved that dish!” Mrs. Connor said brightly. “Frank loves it, too.”
Mr. Connor made a sudden, uncomfortable cough. 'Okay, the man's on my side here…' Zeke thought, chuckling more. “When you weren't looking… Casey would give me looks and mouth 'I'm sorry', making out like he was gagging.”
Mrs. Connor's eyes went wide. “No!”
“I thought he loved those dinners!” she exclaimed. Zeke shot another look to Mr. Connor, who looked like he was trying his best to keep from laughing.
“Out with it, Mr. C. Fess up,” Zeke said.
“Um… what?” Mr. Connor said, blinking widened eyes.
“Casey told me.”
“Told you what?” Mrs. Connor asked. Zeke noticed Mr. Connor going a little red with embarrassment.
“Nothing, dear,” he replied quickly.
“Oh FINE, keep your secrets then,” Mrs. Connor said with mock frustration. Zeke smiled and continued eating his dinner when a small kick hit him from under the table. Looking up, Mr. Connor's face was expressionless, but Zeke could just tell…
“My dad's pretended to be really sick when she's made shit like that… he did it once, and then said he was going out to get some Pepto at the grocery store. On the way, he scarfed down two double cheeseburgers from McDs,”
Zeke bit the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing out loud again, intending to keep the secret of Mr. Connor's deviance. He took a long sip of Pepsi, and as he did, his face relaxed. He was here for a reason. He put the cup down and looked to his half-eaten meal, suddenly not hungry anymore. “I um…” he started. “I wanted to come by, just to let you know that I'm-- I'm gonna be leaving for a little while.”
Mr. Connor looked up from his plate with an inquisitive gaze. “Oh? Where to?” he asked.
“I'm not really sure yet. Out west, so far… I just need to get out of town, for however long,” he explained. He looked up, seeing the Connors glancing to each other with confused expressions. “Not forever. I just want to get away for a while. It's… been hard.”
Mrs. Connor folded her arms over her chest, sighing deeply. “It's understandable… me and Frank might take a trip to Florida next month. It's been a long time since our last big vacation visiting family out east.”
“Yea. But I'd just wanted to stop in, say goodbye and stuff. And that album, I wanna take that with me, too,” he told them.
“Of course… it was meant to be yours. Casey just… he knew,” Mr. Connor said, nodding a little. “He knew things could happen. When we looked through his things, it was like he was psychic. There's a small inscription in it for you.”
Zeke felt his body go numb, all blood seeming to drop to his feet. “Oh… yea?” he said, swallowing between the words.
Mrs. Connor smiled and stood up from the table. “It looks like we're done, anyway. It's upstairs in his room, if you want…” she went to say; she seemed to pause in seeing Zeke's expression. “I… can go get it for you…?”
Zeke thought he'd have jumped at the chance to avoid going upstairs to the familiar room. He didn't want to feel some sort of perverse excitement, his mind clouding over to believe the boy would be just past its door. Before he could say 'yes' to Mrs. Connor's offer, he shook his head. “No. I'll go,” he said, standing up and taking his plate.
“No, I'll get that, honey,” Mrs. Connor kindly replied, walking over and taking it. “It's on his desk, right on top of the computer. It's all… pretty much the same.”
Oh God, oh God, oh God… Zeke put his shaking hands in his pockets and nodded. “Okay,“ he said, and then turned away to walk out.
In the few minutes from walking through the living room, heading up the stairs and down the bedroom hallway, Zeke had felt like he'd run a marathon. He was trying to take deeper breaths but they were coming out quick and shallow, not allowing him to relax. The door just at the end on the right was making him sweat, even if the air around him was comfortable and cool. He was so damned ready to turn tail and run back home, never mind his car… but that was impossible. He was just too close now, unable to take his eyes from the door.
The feel of the metal doorknob sent a quick, barely-noticeable jolt up Zeke's arm. Before he could start to turn away, he forced himself to turn it.
Nothing had changed. Not one thing. He stood still, looking inside at Casey's bed, tucked over by the wall. It's sheets and blankets were done haphazardly, making Zeke realize… 'Casey could never make his bed. His mother used to do it FOR him, making it look like new…'
When she said 'pretty much the same', Mrs. Connor had meant it. She hadn't touched a thing, leaving the room encased in the past to that very day. Zeke closed his eyes as he stepped inside and shut the door behind him.
He nearly cringed at just the sight of the beanbag chairs they'd sat in while watching TV, still with the imprint of their bodies in them. He turned away and leaned on the wall, folding his arms over his chest; trying his best to keep his breathing steady. When he finally succeeded over his rapidly firing nerves, he swallowed and nodded to himself.
'Take this as one last comfort. Take it.'
Zeke looked around himself, his head turning slowly to gaze at every last little thing. The game system still held the game cartridge they'd last played together… 'for Christ's sake'… the bookshelf showed off Casey's ever-present geekdom, titles reading from Tolstoy to volume upon volume of computer manuals. The smile Zeke now wore surprised him a little as he walked over to the computer desk and plucked the small leather-bound album from the top. He pressed its tight binding hard into his palm, turning it over to see the front as plain as the back. It was something one could overlook completely, but the fact that there were words written inside-- just for him-- made him turn towards the bed and dare to sit on it's edge.
It was just as soft as it had always been. Casey loved it like that, while Zeke had felt like he was going to drown in the mattress when he'd lain down upon it. He didn't even realize that he'd sunk down onto it until absolute comfort encompassed him, his head resting on the messily covered pillow. He stared at the small book in his hand a moment before cracking it open.
His eyes instantly teared up at the small, simple line written on the inside cover: For my brother Zeke. He couldn't turn his gaze from it just yet to look at the first picture, memorizing Casey's familiar scrawl. A small curve at the bottom of the 'y', 'Z' written to look like an 'S'. His lips shook into a smile as he finally looked to the first photograph. It was just as simple as the writing, showing the slightly blurred image of Casey and Zeke lounging on the bleachers at school. “I remember that,” Zeke murmured aloud.
'No… Stokes, hold it… yea, okay, like that.'
'Case, just let her try it on her own. She's not some pro.'
'Yea Case, shut up-- WHOOPS!'
'You weren't even pointed it at us!'
'Yea I was!'
Zeke smiled wider. His fingers went to turn to the next page, but he stopped once at the corner of it. He shook his head and closed the book. “No,” he mumbled, closing his eyes and sinking further into the mattress. “Naw, I'm gonna save it. Okay? Just look at one each day.”
He wasn't drunk or at a grave; but he spoke now, feeling like it was the most appropriate place to do so. He nuzzled his head to the side, burying his nose into the pillowcase. For a moment, he pretended that he could smell Casey's hair, his skin, though he honestly couldn't. “Just wish you were here, babe,” he said in a soft whisper. His throat tensed up, unable to swallow the sudden lump forming. He could imagine how this trip could've happened months later, right after graduation. He'd have charmed the Connors into letting Casey go with him on a nice, long road-trip of a vacation, going wherever the road took them.
But he'd be going alone, and a small stab found him over that fact; he forced a hard swallow down and gasped out a tiny choke. He sat up and stared at the album a few moments, tapping it in his hands. He nodded to no one and stood up, now taking one last, long look around. He figured that someday, Mrs. Connor would come up here and rearrange things, maybe take things out. Maybe she wouldn't. Zeke didn't know which he preferred.
He made for the door, but in passing Casey's closet, he wondered a moment. A small flash of memory overcame him, and he opened the door to peer inside.
'No, LOOK! It's 'Stan the Vegetable Man'! Picked it up on the way to this huge antique show Mom forced us to go to when we were on vaca, at this farm stand. It's Stan!!'
Zeke searched through the closet for the shirt that Casey loved to wear under his strange attire of constant plaid, just to flash Stan with it and make him groan. He soon found the pumpkin-headed icon, his face wearing a cute but creepy smile. Absolutely hideous, but so Casey.
He held it tight in his hand against the album and shook out a breath; leaving the room without another word or look, back, Zeke ventured to the stairs and went down. He found Mr. and Mrs. Connor in the living room, talking in hushed, sad tones. Mrs. Connor's face went brighter upon Zeke's return.
“Did you find it all right?” she asked.
“Yea, yea,” Zeke said; he coughed into his hand and held the shirt up a little. “Can I take this? It was one of those… 'Casey shirts' I loved and hated.”
“Oh… that ridiculous thing. He BEGGED us to buy it,” Mrs. Connor laughed out. “Go ahead, Zeke; it's yours.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled, looking down. This was the worst of it, all of a sudden. 'I'm leaving him,'… “So, I'll um… I'll get goin' now.”
Mrs. Connor nodded and went over. Putting her hands on his shoulders, she bent her face down to look at him. “You be careful, sweetie. All right?”
“Yea,” Zeke said, realizing that he'd choked out the word-- realizing that tears were now streaming over his cheeks. Mrs. Connor bent in for a hug, tighter than the one she'd given him at the cemetery. This time, Zeke hugged her back, feeling desperate for just one more complete feeling of her warmth. 'Love her like she was my own…' he thought, stopping mid-thought.
He let go, trying to smile. “'K, guess I'm off,”
Mr. Connor stood up and went over to Mrs. Connor, holding her shoulders and smiling. “Take care, Zeke. Don't go for good,” he said.
Zeke nodded and went to the door. He opened it and stepped out onto the porch, greeted by the cool night air. He was halfway down the steps when he heard the door reopen behind him.
Zeke turned back around, looking to Mr. Connor. “Yea?”
The man swallowed and approached him. One of his hands went to Zeke's shoulder and held it hard. “If you need anything-- anything at all, you give us a call. All right? We'll be here.” he said.
Zeke put a tight hold on his jaw, feeling the man's soft gaze rest on him in the most fatherly fashion. “Thanks, Dad,” he replied, not really realizing what he'd said until Mr. Connor's own jaw clenched and tears welled up in his eyes. Strong arms brought Zeke in for a tight squeeze, surprising him.
“You just stay safe, son. Just stay safe,” Mr. Connor told him in a shaky voice. When he let go, he smiled and gave one last small slap to his back. He made a small wave before turning back to the house and disappearing inside.
Zeke walked to his car, got in and turned on the engine. It took a lot to keep his eyes focused on the road, desperate to purge the last of those concentrated, painful tears. Once home, he went to bed early and cried himself to sleep, readying himself for the world.
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