THE PILLARS THAT RAISE US
A BAG OF HAMMERS
Alan/Ben; Ben/Amanda; Ben/OCs; Alan/OCs
WARNINGS: Spoilers for the movie, mentions of parental abuse.
He takes Ben, because his choices are limited and because Ben had come to him, his shoulders shaking at the memory of his brother’s death, Alan nursing a fresh bruise upon his cheek and Ben looking at him, touching the edges of Alan’s wound with calloused, warm fingertips, and Alan had looked at him for one long moment before pulling him in close, Ben stiffening in his arms because goddammit he never hugged anyone, but Alan pushing through, his lips soft on Ben’s, solid, still. Ben had aimed his quiet gaze at the floor, ready to just walk away from this, because that’s exactly what he’s used to doing, being completely non-confrontational, but Alan didn’t let him, his fingers encircling Ben’s wrist where he stood.
Ben opened his mouth to say, “Let go,” but Alan had swallowed that with his tongue and then, eventually, Ben had pushed back into him, his mouth bruising and biting and scraping Alan’s.
The next morning, when Alan had woken up at the sound of the door slamming behind his father, he had been surprised to see that Ben was still beside him, his mouth slightly open, his head against Alan’s shoulders, his bare feet crawling up Alan’s calves. Alan kissed the corner of his mouth, his palm over Ben’s heart, and that was when he decided, when they decided, Ben hardly missed in the cloud of grief that enveloped his home, Alan trying not to think of Melanie, of what might happen if he’s not there to quell his father’s rage.
They steal because they always steal, because it’s easy to justify when its people who deserve it, Alan’s father, especially, the stash of money slipped underneath the floorboards of the hallway closet that he thought Alan didn’t know about it. With that money, they buy two bus tickets, but then there are other things – the food they steal at first from farmer’s markets when nobody’s watching, the batteries Ben needed for his CD player, the clothes they saw at the beach once, at one of those shops that spill out onto the boardwalk, the watches that Alan sees in the scrap of a left-behind newspaper, and then, oh, the cars.
Boosting cars is somewhat thrilling, and the first time they do it, the very first time, before they have a chop shop lined up, before they even meet Marty, Alan slides in the seat and runs his hands over the steering wheel and turns up the music really loud and drives faster than he should and parks somewhere quiet and dark and drags Ben into the backseat and fucks him there, Ben’s hands pressing against the windows, Alan’s mouth sharp on Ben’s spine. Ben smiles wide below him, Alan’s strong hands turning him around in the cramped space, and he leans up to kiss him, Alan’s throat moving once and then again, swallowing Ben whole.
They fuck around.
In their first apartment, they share a room, so neither of them would bring anybody home. It’s them at home, Ben had told him once in his stilted, emotionless voice. Just them, and Alan had taken that to mean that they could do whatever they wanted outside of the apartment, that he could drink beers with a fake ID and sometimes go into the bar bathroom to fuck whoever’s available, boy or girl or sometimes Ben, when Ben was feeling particularly restless, feeling particularly vulnerable.
As far as Alan could tell, Ben is mostly a serial monogamist, dating a polite Asian waitress from the café a few blocks up the street for a few months before that turns sour – the day she realizes that Ben really doesn’t have an uncle in the auto sales industry – and then a tattooed bookstore clerk after that – who hangs on even after Alan lets it slip to him that they’re criminals, but ultimately leaves when Ben won’t introduce him to his parents – and then Amanda, beautiful Amanda who speaks in sappy romance lyrics and won’t move into the house that Alan and Ben buy because the day she comes over to see it, the day after she tells him she loves him and Ben sits there quietly until she starts crying, she realizes that the sparsely furnished bedroom belonging to Ben doesn’t really belong to him after all.
Ben had stood there, absorbing her anger, and Alan had hid his laughter – not well – behind a large palm, and when she left, Ben had shrugged and asked Alan if he wanted to go to the cemetery to look for a car, his face shadowed. Alan had taken his hand and Ben had let him hold it for maybe two or three seconds before moving away, not really needing to be touched.
That night, Alan lays awake with Ben beside him and wonders if Ben really does want a relationship outside of this, outside of them. He wonders if Ben needs someone else, if Alan isn’t enough.
He wonders if Ben will stay.
Melanie never asks what they are, what they call what they have, what they’re doing.
Plenty of other people do, and Ben and Alan will lie sometimes or tell the truth rarely – very rarely – or tell something that’s close to the truth, that could be true, but isn’t. Sometimes they’re brothers, sometimes they’re cousins, sometimes they’re married, sometimes they’re old childhood friends, sometimes Alan would lean in close and whisper that he and Ben had made a pact to secretly murder their families and run away together, whispering about the way he had strangled his own father, his thumbs pressing down and down on his father’s larynx until there was nothing left.
Ben doesn’t like that story, never has, so he’s usually not around when Alan tells it, Alan’s hand shaking with anger on his beer bottle. Ben likes the stories that Alan makes up on the spot, though, the ones that come easy to him, slip nicely off his tongue, and – depending on who it is, depending on where they are and how many drinks Alan has had – Alan will spin them bigger and bigger each time, peppering in more lies than half-truths, making sure that the listener is completely unbelieving.
It works, until it doesn’t.
Kelsey is something neither of them had factored into their small equation.
That first night Ben is gone, Alan waits and waits and waits and wonders if this is how Mel felt. He never said goodbye to her, never told her that he would come back, but she assumed that he would, anyway, because he was her brother and he loved her (just not as much as he loved Ben, he guesses). He drinks tea out of Ben’s large, unwieldy mug and then dumps it down the sink and pours in two fingers, no, three fingers of whiskey, making sure that Kelsey never sees.
He drinks to feel the burn of his throat and checks in on Kelsey four or five times during the night, lying spread-eagled on Ben’s unused bed, drooling on Ben’s pillow, his hand reaching out for something, someone. Alan cries in the bathroom and then wipes the back of his hand roughly across his eyes and then cries some more, his knuckles in between his teeth to muffle the noise. He doesn’t know how to fix this, because fixing it has always entailed running away and not only is he done with that chapter of his life, he’s also not the one to do it this time, not the one to be childish and stupid and able to throw everything out the window.
He picks up a book that Ben had left beside the couch, something long-winded and possibly boring, and he stares at the words without comprehending, without reading them, his fingers turning the page numbly. He falls asleep eventually, restless, waking up at every small creak or groan, before he finally says forget it, avoiding the bathroom mirror and making enough noise in the kitchen – banging pots and pans and accidentally cracking two eggs on the floor – that Kelsey is drawn out, sleepy-eyed and small.
“You can’t do that,” Alan says.
And then, “Don’t do that.”
Not to me, he doesn’t say.
They’re perfect until Kelsey is taken from them, and then they fight like hell to get him back, writing letters and making calls and stealing library books about foster parents and adoption. They (eventually) fly straight, putting most of their money into a savings account and getting jobs close to Kelsey’s school, filing taxes, severing ties with Marty, moonlighting as dishwashers in the diner sometimes, letting Melanie make fun of their hair nets.
They give up the pretense and Ben moves what little he had in the other room to Alan’s, burying his face in Alan’s shoulder when Alan talks about Kelsey, his body flat against Alan’s side. They live and they breathe and they work – Alan waiting tables at the café that Ben’s ex now owns, Ben at a record store down the street – and they flirt with going back to school, with applying to colleges, but never make a real decision, Ben’s hands smeared with ink until he rips up the applications one night, Alan watching him from across the table, unmoving, until he slides him a hot mug of tea, his fingers hot and pink on Ben’s wrist.
They’re smart, they know they are, but they’re not book smart, not school smart, and there were reasons why they left high school in the first place.
They steal something small every once in a while, just because, and they never have to explain it to the other one, the feeling they get, the thrill, the ease of it. Ben will pocket little figurines from toy stores, in the event that Kelsey will want Power Rangers action figures or something like that – even though he’s fucking twelve, Alan tells him, rolling his eyes. “Don’t you remember being twelve?” – and Alan will fish five dollar bills out of tip jars or roll up his sleeves to take pennies out of the wishing fountain, dropping them wet into the jar he keeps beside what will be Kelsey’s bed when he finally comes home.
The big things are off limits – cars, purses, whatever – but the little scams are still okay sometimes, the broken vase one that Ben loves to pull on unsuspecting women, trying to fake a few tears for a sympathy twenty. Alan hates that one, but he loves shortchanging cashiers, even though Ben has tried to convince him to stop on numerous occasions, the anger that radiates off Alan during his little act leaving a bad taste in Ben’s mouth.
Melanie helps them manage their money without laundering it – their shocked, open mouths at the first few measly paychecks – and they have to continually dip into their savings to pay the mortgage, but they do it, they manage, and they tell all of this, all of the good stuff, to the bored woman behind the desk at CPS, Alan’s hair slicked back and Ben’s palms reeking of sweat.
They just want their little boy, they say, and the woman nods her head as if she understands.
Kelsey doesn’t look like a little boy anymore.
In fact, he looks like Alan and Ben used to when they used to live in Fresno, the dark eyes, the clenched fists, the blank expression. And that, more than the time away, more than their broken promises to each other, more than anything, breaks their hearts.
“We didn’t protect him,” Ben tells Alan later, when Kelsey is asleep in his room and Alan and Ben are passing a bottle back and forth between them, too exhausted to cry. “We didn’t protect him like we said we would,” Ben says again, his voice low and almost pained, almost brittle, and Alan moves a hand up to his face, hiding his eyes.
They live, though.