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The Sign of a Hollow Man

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Thud. Thud. Thud.

John rolled his eyes at every heavy step that the inebriated man who he currently supported took. Somehow the Captain had let Anne convince him that it would be best if Cotton stayed in his house – to keep an eye on him and keep him out of trouble or something along those lines. He had agreed when she had given him that innocent, sweet smile that reached her eyes before she turned on her heel and made her way to the towns Orphanage before he had even realized what had happened; the full weight of the Reverend being thrust into his arms as he reached the dirtied door of his humble home. John had quickly been pulled from his thoughts as Cotton had clawed at the door - his puffy red eyes barely seeing the blurred world in front of him, his mind still so foggy with the copious amounts of alcohol he had consumed in the short hours of the night – had tried, but failed, to open it himself in his drunken stupor. Wrapping his arm tighter around the other man’s waist, John had pushed the door open and managed to half drag Cotton in, the latter being little to no help whatsoever in their current situation as he let his head roll over to one side, knocking off Johns shoulder, his eyes half lidded and blood shot as he mumbled to himself – John too distracted in their current predicament to pay too much attention to the drunken tales of the man who he was practically cradling at the moment.

As he manoeuvred them over to the nearest chair, facing the fire that had long died out, nothing but blackened wood and ash left, John felt the beads of sweat form along his brow, his hair already beginning to cling to his face in the early morning heat. Cotton was far from light, nothing like the young, gangly child John remembered from when they were children, and the thought of having to carry out the task of moving him from the chair that he was currently slumped in, his chin resting on his chest as he continued to murmur incoherently to himself, to the bed upstairs was not one that John was looking forward to. He had promised the young Mistress Hale that he would speak to her in the Orphanage that morning after he had deposited the Reverend safe and sound – but as he surveyed the scene before him he realized that he may have been quick to jump to the conclusion that this would be an easy task.

“The pollution – the, the, sins of the flesh, the-“Cotton slurred, but was cut off in the middle of his drunken monologue by John, his eyes rolling to the ceiling as he thought to himself that he was far too tired and too warm to listen to the Reverend preach. It was a task at any time, but to think what he would have to endure from the intoxicated man – he thought it best to stop him before he had the chance to start.

“Cotton, the morning is too early and my body too sore for your preaching”

John watched as the preachers swollen eyes followed him as he moved across the room, shrugging off his belt and waistcoat as he felt his shirt already sticking to his back in the early morning heat. Walking towards the other man, who had slumped down in his armchair, his eyelids heavy with both the drink he had consumed and the sorrows of a man who had just lost his love. John sympathised with the man before him, understanding the painful sting of no longer being by your lover’s side. Yes, Mary still shared the same small town as he, but she could never be his again. Something that she had made more than clear to the Captain. So he understood more than many in the small Massachusetts town did. However, that did not mean that he was happy that he was left with the sole charge of looking after the man. Wrapping a hand around the top of Cotton’s arm, John pulled him upwards, the former grunting as he did so, not wanting to be moved from his current position.

“Come on now Cotton – “ John started, his face a picture of concentration as he adjusted his hold on the other man, ensuring neither of them were going to fall, “Resting in a bed, not a graveyard, will do you a world of good.”

With effort, John managed to get Cotton walking, or rather dragging his feet, at a somewhat reasonable pace towards the bottom of the stairs, both men grunting in exasperation already. Don’t know what he’s so tired for, I’m the one doing all the carrying! John thought to himself as he huffed out a breath, Cottons hand fisting in the back of his shirt as his feet got tangled up in themselves. “Cotton!”, John shouted, not caring if he startled the man beside him, as he quickly managed to regain his own footing and help Cotton do the same.

“Johnny boy!” was the reply he was met with, in a loud and brash voice. Cotton widened his eyes, and Johns snapped his head round, waiting on something else to slur from the lips of the preacher. But all that followed was a dry, humourless laugh as Cotton raised his eyes to meet his own, eyes that John could clearly see were filled with a great sadness. Making sure that Cotton had his footing once more, John wrapped his arm tighter around Cotton’s waist as he said in a soft voice, “Come on now Cotton – help me up the stairs”, he paused momentarily, wanting to say something to comfort him, tell him that it would make it better, but John knew better than that. He had spent countless nights alone with nothing but his thoughts – thoughts of Salem, of Mary, of the life he had before – and he knew that a few hours’ sleep in a soft bed would do nothing more than to help the aching bones and head of the young Mather. It would take much longer to heal the wound that had been left on his heart.

It was with silence that both men ascended the staircase, stopping every few steps as John readjusted his grip on Cotton, the other man having an iron like grip on his shirt to steady his own shaking legs. Sweat beaded along Johns brow, his hair sticking to his face and neck as the sun rose in the early morning, causing the air to take on a sticky heat. Only a few more steps John thought to himself as he hauled himself and his drunken companion up the last 2 steps, a small sense of achievement washing over him that neither one of them had fallen down the stairs. For a few moments as Cotton had wavered and swayed he had been certain that a heap at the bottom of his staircase was a sure destination. Stopping for a moment he caught his breath, leaning so that Cotton was lying half against the wall, John no longer supporting his full weight.

Hiccup. Hiccup.

Raising his forearm to wipe the sweat from his brow, John glanced over at the man who was making the offending sound, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. He watched as Cotton turned himself closer to the wall, his face pressed against it as he attempted to support his own weight – unsuccessfully. As much as it was impeding on his plans for the day, John and Cotton had grown closer over the past weeks and even though he would never admit it to the other man, John considered Cotton a friend. To see him in such despair was not something he took lightly and if a soft bed and a helping hand was something that he needed then John would be content to help. John watched as Cotton lifted his hand to the wall by his face, his finger almost stoking the cool wall – his eyes locked on what he was doing as though he was mesmerized by it. As Cottons heavy eyes slowly began to close, John took his place back at the other man’s side, pulling him off the wall and once again resuming his previous position of cradling the other man at his side, grateful that it was only a few steps from the small landing to the bed.

“Come on – I’m sure a soft bed will help your head far more than a wall”, John said with a slight smile to himself as he practically dropped him onto the bed, standing up straight and taking in the sight before him. Running his hand over the back of his neck, he titled his head to the side in bemusement as the current state of Cotton. His face was buried in the pillow and his feet slung over the side of the bed and his arm outstretched. He would have laughed to himself had the situation that had led to the current position hadn’t been such a sorrowful one. Dropping his hand to his side, John blew out a breath and stepped forward, pulling the mucky boots from Cottons feet and lifting his legs so they were now both on the bed. If he was going to have to share his bed he was going to make damned sure that Cottons dirt-caked boots didn’t destroy it. Moving to the head of the bed, John wrapped his hand around the top of Cottons arm and pushed the other man so he was no longer buried in the pillows of John’s bed. He was stunned then when he felt hands grab at the collars of his shirt, his face being pulled close to Cottons as he puffed out a putrid mixture of all the alcohol he had consumed mixed with morning breath right into the Captains face, almost knocking him over with the stench.

“Cotton, what the hell!” John exclaimed as he tried to pull himself from the other man’s grip, surprised at the strength the other man possessed in his current state.

Hell - Johnny, that’s exactly it! I have truly seen it this very night that has passed!” Cotton said wide eyed as he pulled John even closer to him, their noses almost touching as his eyes darted about the room as though he were waiting for the Devil himself to walk in at any moment. Releasing his vice like hold on John’s shirt, he moved his hands to his face, John grabbing at the other man’s wrists in return.

“Cotton, you’re drunk and you’re heartbroken – go to sleep”, John soothed in a soft voice, thankful when Cottons grip slacked. He was sure there were going to be marks on his face from where Cottons fingers had roughly dug into the flesh. He was sure that Cotton would welcome the dreamless sleep that such intoxication would bring, but trying to get him to release his hold on his face and lie down was going to be a bigger obstacle than he had anticipated.

“You are truly a kind friend, sir”, came the quiet declaration from Cotton as he tapped his hand lightly against Johns cheek, his eyes a picture of concentration almost as if he wanted to say more but the words escaped him. Something, John thought, was so unlike the preacher – a man of words who, in John’s eyes, always had something to say whether he wanted to hear it or not.

Shock overtook him for a moment when a sloppy and wet kiss was placed on his cheek, before Cotton finally succumbed to the sleep that was trying to claim him. His chest rising and falling slowly, head turned out towards the trickles of light that were making their way through the dusty window in the early hours of the morning, Cotton slept, and John noted, with a small look of hurt and torment still painted on his features. Lifting the blanket from the bottom of the bed, John pulled it up over Cotton, stopping a moment to glance at his friend.

“Goodnight Cotton”, he whispered as he turned and left the room, ready to begin his day.

And although neither Captain nor preacher would speak of it later, John returning later that night to find Cotton awake and still, silent in his thoughts by the fire in his home, they would be closer than before as they learnt that they were more alike than they had thought.