The rain was pouring into Alex’s coffee cup. He stood, hair sticking to his forehead, and stared as the cup started overflowing, until it was near the brim. He held the cup tight, holding back a hiss as the fiery liquid burned his skin.
Alex smoothed his tie and glanced back at his silver Lexus UX. He examined his reflection in the wing mirror. He stroked his hair, eyeing the bird’s nest that the combed strands had become. His suit still looked crisp, though, and his eyes weren’t red or puffy. The under-eye concealer he’d bought on a whim after a bad night had done its job well. He’d have to go back to the shop and thank the cashier for recommending it to him. Without the bags under his eyes, he almost looked normal. Except for his stupid hair.
Clenching his hands, he locked his car, patted the bonnet, and sighed. His feet felt stuck to the floor, as if they were cement, refusing to budge. It had been so long since he’d last visited home, and now here he was, standing before his old church. A church he’d entered several times as a kid, before he’d realised how toxic the community was. Before he’d realised how they’d corrupted his father’s mind.
“Alex?” a voice called, broken and rusty, and Alex would know that voice anywhere.
“Benji,” he answered, proud of the way his voice held strong. He took one last deep breath and turned around to face his younger brother. Benji was glancing at him with all the love in the world. Love that Alex knew he didn’t deserve.
“Alex,” Benji said again, eyes wide in wonder, before he grasped his brother into a massive hug. Warm and comforting. “I’ve missed you.”
Benji let himself fall into the hug, seeking solace in a comfort he wasn’t allowed to enjoy anymore.
“You’re an embarrassment, you know,” his father said, stumbling across the room until he was face to face with Alex. Alex held his breath, staring up at his father. He could smell the whiskey on his father’s breath, strong and powerful and as ugly as his father. “Don’t think I don’t know what you are.”
“Dad,” Alex started, voice choked. “I’m your son.”
“Son? No son of mine would act like you,” his father spat, leaving a nice wallop of spit on Alex’s cheek. “No son of mine would refuse to act like I taught him! No son of mine would embarrass me, like you did! No son of mine would be like you.”
“I’m your son,” Alex said again, through gritted teeth. “I do my best, dad. I look after you when you’re down. I cook the food for you, me and Benji when you’re too preoccupied to do it, and I’ve aced all my classes this year. I’m not an embarrassment.”
“Please,” his dad continued, raising his bushy eyebrows. He crowded Alex until he was well into his personal space. Alex held his ground, staring up at his father, though he could feel his heart beating in his chest. “You do that to make people like you. You cook to get Benji’s respect, as well as mine, and guess what? It doesn’t work. If you left right now. If you walked through that door, I can guarantee that neither Benji or I would miss you. Who’d miss a sinner like you?”
“I’ve missed you,” Benji said again, as Alex held his brother’s embrace, trying to keep the tears from falling.
“Same,” he said, unable to let all his emotions escape. I’ve missed you too, he wanted to say, but there was a block in his head. An image of his father screaming, the smell of whiskey touching his nostrils. Alex burrowed his face further into Benji’s suit, taking comfort in the scent. Benji smelled like an abundance of cologne and sadness, and Alex clung to the scent. “Same.”
“Come on,” Benji said, at last, drawing Benji out of the hug. “I still can’t believe you’re here. You just up and left, Al. Where did you go?”
Alex shrugged, refusing to meet Benji’s inquisitive gaze. “Around.”
His father had kicked him out of the house. His drunk, couldn’t accept change father had kicked him out of the home he’d helped look after for eighteen years. And for what? For choosing to dance with his best friend in an area where people he knew could see? Alex gritted his teeth at the unfairness of it all.
Dad hadn’t even let him say goodbye to Benji. He’d grabbed his shoulder, told him to pack his bags in under ten minutes, and then given him a thwack on the back as he’d left. Alex could still feel the bruise now, two days later, sat in his crappy car, with barely any money. He needed to find a job fast.
Dinah Meriden had taken him in and offered him a job at her café. She’d taken pity when she’d seen his bedraggled figure. She’d sat him down, given him enough food to make him sick, and hired him on the spot. Dinah had refused to hear why Alex thought it was a bad idea. Alex had hated the job, but he’d loved Dinah, and he was forever grateful to her for taking him in. Few people would have made the effort, but Dinah had seen something in him, and taken a chance. Alex had found himself devastated five years later when Dinah had died from a heart attack. He’d planned on leaving, but Dinah had left the café in her son’s care, and that’s when Alex had met Malcolm.
“Around,” Benji scoffed, patting his brother on the shoulder. “Al, you disappeared off the map. You didn’t have a phone I could call, and no one here knew where you were.”
Alex shrugged Benji’s hand off his shoulder, wiping the corners of his suit. “I’m here now,” he said, scanning the churchyard in front of them.
“I didn’t think you’d turn up, you know,” his brother said, after some silence. “You left him, and me, without saying goodbye. I thought you wouldn’t come today.”
“He was my dad,” Alex said, a smile on his face that didn’t reach his eyes. “It would have been shitty of me to miss my father’s funeral.”
“It was shitty of you to leave us,” Benji said, before frowning. “Sorry, Al, I didn’t mean that. I’m just angry.”
“It’s okay,” Alex said, rubbing his sleeve. “I’m here now.”
“He was really good to me, after you left,” Benji told him as they headed towards the church. “Started taking more time to be with me, taught me how to cook, helped me with all my homework. He missed you, you know.”
Alex laughed, but it felt hollow. “You did well without me,” he said. “Heard you’re a lawyer now.”
“Dad pushed for it,” Benji admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “But he was right. He knew I’d love law. I’ve always pushed for fairness.”
Alex wanted to scream out, to cry about how nothing in his childhood was fair, but he closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. “I know, Ben.”
“I know we’re not close anymore,” Benji said. “But I need to know, Al. Why did you leave?”
Alex shrugged his shoulders and crossed his arms around his chest. The tie felt like a lasso around his neck. “Dad and me. We had different ideas on our futures.”
“And you left without saying goodbye?”
“I had to, Ben.” Alex said, face blank. “If I didn’t leave then, I’d never have gotten out.”
“But our dad was kind,” Benji said, confused. “We had it good. You know we did.”
You had it good, Alex wanted to shout, but he bit his lip and stared as the priest started towards the altar. “We’ll talk later,” he told Benji, who frowned, but sat down next to him. Like the wonderful son Alex had never been.
“John Mullins was a good man,” the priest started.
“Your father sounds like a bad man,” Malcolm said one night after he and Alex had engaged in an intense battle of pool. Alex couldn’t remember ever playing that badly, but it had been a few years. The last time he’d beaten someone at pool was his own father.
“He was alright,” Alex said with a shrug.
“Really?” Malcolm asked, raising an eyebrow. “He kicked you out and you actually think he was alright? God, if my mum had done that, I would have disowned her right away.”
“He’s my dad,” Alex said.
“You’re supposed to love your family.”
“Even when they don’t love you?”
“He does love me,” Alex said, voice tired. “That’s why he kicked me out. To protect me.”
“You can’t believe that.” Malcolm said. “He did it because he’s a homophobic bastard who can’t let his own son live the life he wants to live.”
“You don’t know him,” Alex protested, grabbing his beer, and downing it in one swoop. “What gives you the right?”
“Because I know you,” Malcolm said, peering at Alex, his voice gentle. “And you’re a good person, Al.”
“You barely know me,” Alex said, placing his glass down with a clink.
“Then let me,” Malcolm said, eyes wide and earnest.
“Goodbye, dad,” Benji’s voice cut in. Alex lifted his head to see his brother standing in front of the whole church, tears spilling from his eyes. “Until we meet again.”
The rain had stopped as they left the church, yet Alex could feel a strange shiver quaking through his bones. He felt drained. Alex wanted to run off to his car, drive back home, to where he knew Malcolm was waiting for him. Angry and upset by his decision to attend the funeral of a man who’d poisoned his soul. But Malcolm would understand all the same. Alex felt his feet pick up, before a firm hand clasped onto his shoulder. Sighing, he turned to face his brother once more, who scanned his face with a resigned sadness.
“You’re leaving again,” Benji said, and Alex tried to ignore the redness of his brother’s face.
“Yes,” Alex replied, thumbing his car keys, and glancing at the floor.
“Will you come back? Come visit me? Please?”
“Sure,” Alex said, but it sounded hollow even to his own ears.
“Right, yeah, I should have guessed,” Benji said, his voice harsh. “Because that’s what you do, isn’t it? You run away as soon as something bad happens.”
“Look, Alex,” Benji said, after taking a long sigh. “I don’t know what happened that night. I don’t know why you left. I don’t know whether it was something I said or did, or if it was dad. But we missed you. I really missed you. You were my older brother and one day you weren’t there anymore.”
“No, Al, don’t. I want you to stay. I know it’s a little selfish of me, that you have your own life, though god knows where, but if I had the power, I’d beg you to stay. Please. I just lost dad. I can’t lose you too.”
“I’ll visit,” Alex said, at long last. “I promise, Benji. I’m not going to disappear again. But you have to accept me for who I am. You can’t be like him. Please. Not like him.”
“Like who?” Benji asked, creasing his eyebrows.
“Like dad,” Alex said, as they reached his parked car, resting his head against the window. “Please don’t be like him.”
“But he was a good man,” Benji frowned.
“Sometimes,” Alex corrected, eyes closed. “Sometimes he was a good man.”
Alex pressed a button on his car keys and sighed as the beep sounded. His car was open, he could escape. Escape from the expectations of everyone around him. Escape from the pressures of his past. He reached for the car door, but not before turning to see Benji looking at him with a look of realisation on his face.
“He kicked you out,” Benji said, scanning Alex’s face to make sure his assumption was correct. “You left. The night after you danced with Chris. You left. It was because of our dad, wasn’t it? He said something to you.”
“It’s okay,” Alex said, but he felt a powerful surge of love in his heart. Love for his brother, his younger brother who’d always been clever. Who’d always known him better than anyone else. “It’s over now.”
“It’s not okay,” Benji said, but Alex shook his head.
“You don’t have to pretend.”
“I’m not pretending,” Alex told him. “I’ve got a decent job, I’ve got a home, I’ve got a life.”
“And a brother.”
“And a brother.”
“Who you’re going to visit,” Benji said, finger pressing into Alex’s chest. “Right?”
“And whoever you’re living with, bring them along too,” Benji said, after a slight pause. “I know you hate living alone.”
“I don’t hate living alone,” Alex said, scratching the back of his neck.
“But you do live with someone,” Benji said. “I know you, Al."
"But, before you go, there’s something I need to hear from you.”
“What?” Alex asked. “Can I just get in my car and drive home? Someone might be waiting for me.”
“I knew it,” Benji whispered, before glancing once more at his brother, smiling. “I need to know, Al. It’s been ten years, and I never had an answer. Just let me know this. Are you happy?”
The smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. The gentle caress of fingers on his hip. The comforting blue of his mattress. The bluebells blooming in the wilderness. The many laughs of his friends. The stuttering engine of his Lexus. Seeing his brother once more. His dad, buried in the ground, unable to hurt him anymore. The freedom he’d never experienced as a child.
“I’m happy,” Alex responded, and he meant every word.