Prayer of the Backhanded - Jericho Brown
Harley likes the air when it is crisp, when it dances through the overgrown edges of his hair and they dangle over his forehead, around the curve of his ears. He likes it when the shop windows fill with chunky sweaters and utilitarian boots and checkered trench coats. He likes fake snow, and cornucopias teeming with plastic pumpkins, and those little scented pinecones with the glitter that gets absolutely everywhere. He likes cinnamon tea and oatmeal in the mornings. He likes it when his breath fogs the lenses of his glasses and he huffs impatiently to hide the fond laugh that rises in his stomach. He likes the way the ground stops humming and starts singing, a full, sweet sound in lilting chords that never seems to end— just rises and falls. Everything is coming to a subtle ritardando and he doesn’t mind it one bit.
Not the palm, not the pear tree
Switch, not the broomstick,
Nor the closet extension
Cord, not his braided belt, but God,
Bless the back of my daddy’s hand
Which, holding nothing tightly
Against me and not wrapped
In leather, eliminated the air
Between itself and my cheek.
Make full this dimpled cheek
Unworthy of its unfisted print
And forgive my forgetting
The love of a hand
Hungry for reflex, a hand that took
No thought of its target
Like hail from a blind sky,
Involuntary, fast, but brutal
In its bruising. Father, I bear the bridge
Of what might have been
A broken nose. I lift to you
What was a busted lip. Bless
The boy who believes
His best beatings lack
Intention, the mark of the beast.
Bring back to life the son
Who glories in the sin
Of immediacy, calling it love.
God, save the man whose arm
Like an angel’s invisible wing
May fly backward in fury
Whether or not his son stands near.
Help me hold in place my blazing jaw
As I think to say, excuse me.
He sits on the balcony, alone, watching the sun begin to set. It isn’t past six in the evening, but the days are shorter now. He has a thick comforter wrapped around his shoulders, and he clutches it to his chest with dry hands. Art Club had worked with clay that afternoon and he hasn’t had a chance to hunt down some lotion yet. He made a shoddy little pinch pot and gave it to Pepper to keep paper clips in. He called it “Pepper’s Pott.” She was very amused.
Peter is in his ear through his comms. Harley hasn’t been going out with him in the suit- not that he’s allowed to: Pepper has rules, and the rules include training with Tony and Rhodey until they declare him fit for patrolling- so he stays here, still, and talks to Peter. It’s routine. He doesn’t mind it. And he doesn’t mind not being cleared for combat yet, either. The whole sorcerers debacle was fun and all, but his muscles were so sore in the aftermath that he’s pretty damn sure his body can’t handle daily patrols like Peter does.
“I saw the sign,” sings Peter as he swings. “And it hmmm eyes, a-woooohoohoo, yeah!”
Peter knows no words to any song ever and it is one of Harley’s most favorite things about him. The list of things Harley loves about him is endless, so this is a very serious claim.
“You are a truly bad singer, Pete,” Harley says through a grin, watching his breath mist in the air, like something in him is boiling warm and he’s loosing it into the sky. It’s grey against the sharp fuschia painted across the horizon, mirrored back on the faces of the buildings. Harley once thought these glass edifices were ugly as sin. Now, he thinks they’re just short of incredible. “I hate to say it, but someone has to tell you before you show up at the American Idol auditions or somethin’ and Simon Cowell goes oh, no. No, you’re rather horrible.”
“Simon Cowell hasn’t been a judge on that show for years,” Peter huffs. “Hey, you know who is a judge, though? Lionel Richie.”
“You’re shitting me,” Harley says, sitting up straighter. “Lionel Richie is a judge on American Idol? That’s blasphemous. He could at least spring for The Voice.”
“The Voice is lame. I’m here for the classics.”
Harley scoots back a little, leaning against the outer glass of the french doors. “Did you ever record episodes on VCR tapes when you were a kid? And, like, label each individual tape with Sharpie marker and shit? And go back and watch them when you had the flu?”
Peter lets out the tell-tale grunt that says he’s landed on some random rooftop to observe. “Nah. Ben, May, and I always watched it live so we didn’t have to tape it.”
“Ah,” Harley says. “I forgot some kids weren’t afraid to sit on their living room couch for the first few years of their lives.”
“Harley,” Peter admonishes in a scandalized little voice.
Harley shrugs to himself. “It’s a good day if I can joke about it, Petey.”
Peter sighs dramatically as if he thinks it shouldn’t be joked about at all, and that’s about when Harley sees him.
“Hey,” he says, and stands.
The tiny speck of distant red hops up and waves its arms. Peter whoops and it echoes in the comm in his ear but he hears it out loud, too, carrying through the chilled air like a trumpet blaring, and there is something so warm and content in Harley’s chest that a whoop of his own bubbles out. He tosses his head back and throws his voice into the dusky night, the call of a beast so singular that only Peter can answer it in kind. Around him, the sky drips in faded lavenders and rubbed-out denim and he stares up at it. He feels part of it. One with the universe. At complete peace.
Peter reaches the balcony in all of two minutes. He’s quite fast when he wants to be. He perches on the wrought iron edge, toes on the metal, one hand between his feet, ready to spring up, shoulders heaving from the exertion. He yanks his mask off and his matted curls fall into his eyes, which shine bright even in the dimming light.
“Hey,” Peter finally answers.
Harley grins. “I was thinking about making some Massaman curry. Bruce left a recipe tucked in between Tony’s mom’s cookbooks and I want to try it out.”
Peter shivers bodily and leaps off the railing, landing on his feet a handful of inches in front of Harley. “Sounds awesome,” he says, rubbing his hands together for warmth.
Harley slings an arm around his shoulders and pulls him inside. He can’t bite down on his grin. He doesn’t want to.
Harley chops sweet potatoes and presses tofu while Peter showers. When he comes into the kitchen, hair dripping onto the neck of his sweatshirt and still humming I Saw The Sign, Harley shoves a bag of dry rice at him.
“I know how to make this,” Peter announces.
“Good,” Harley says dryly, but he’s still smiling. His cheeks are getting sore. It’s the nicest pain he’s ever felt. “Do it.”
Peter does, and, soon enough, the kitchen smells like jasmine rice and warming spices from the orangeish curry paste and Harley wants to burrow into this scent like it’s soft dirt and hibernate ‘til winter’s end.
“How do you feel about red bell peppers?” Harley asks Peter, weighing a red one and an orange one in his hands.
Peter glances up from his phone and squints. Harley holds the peppers up higher so Peter can see.
“Both, do both,” Peter says.
“Both is good,” Harley agrees.
“Disaster bi,” says Peter.
“You have no right to call me out on that,” Harley says as he slips a knife around the stalk of the first pepper.
“You’re absolutely right. I do not. I am equally disastrous.”
“And equally bi?”
“Meh,” says Peter, shrugging one shoulder. “I mean, yes, bi, but probably straighter than you.”
“It’s all a spectrum, my dude,” Harley says, nodding. He throws the pepper core at Peter to piss him off, but Peter just catches it one-handedly in a show of athleticism that would make Brett Gardner cry. “You can be as gay as you are, and the rest can be straight— or whatever it is you identify as.”
“I know,” Peter says with a half-grin. He flicks a loose pepper seed at Harley and it hits him on the forehead. Harley crosses his eyes to look at it. “I don’t need the gay is okay talk, Harls. May raised me. She’s, like, the most active ally out there.”
“I know,” Harley says. “She showed me the photo album with all of her old Pride protest pictures while you were napping during Finding Nemo a few weeks ago. She’s a badass.”
“I know, right?” Peter gushes. “I’m pretty damn lucky to know her.”
“You talking about me?” comes a voice, followed by a clatter of heels on the hardwood.
Peter spins in his chair, a dimpled smile coming across his cheeks. “Uh, yes, actually.”
May flips her loose braid over her shoulder. “Good. You should be.” She presses a kiss to Peter’s cheek, says, “hi, baby,” crosses the kitchen to Harley, kisses his cheek, and says, “hey, peaches.”
“Hi, May,” Harley says, nose wrinkling and a fierce blush rising on his cheeks. May is wonderful and amazing and affectionate and Harley still has trouble handling it all sometimes. Not that his momma isn’t great, but she was never quite as open as May is. May is a tropical storm: high winds that toss seas with more power than the moon could dream of, but puffing out the clouds on her way through to let the sun shine hot and bright. His momma is a summer drizzle, the kind that storms and writhes with lightning for a few minutes and then fizzles away into a half-hearted rainbow. They’re both forces of nature, sure. May just takes some acclimating to when you’re only used to showers spitting from the sky. A couple’a sandbags and some duct tape over the windows to keep everything safe inside. She could out-rattle a rattlesnake.
His momma? She could out-burrow a rabbit with the way she trembles under the sheets.
Harley stirs the curry some more.
Tony and Pepper join them for dinner, which is nice. It’s not every night they can round up the whole gang at once— usually because May and Pepper can’t cook for shit and Tony is too lazy to most nights, or Pepper is out of town, or, most commonly, Tony forgets about his basic human functions (especially when it’s a Parker residence night and the boys aren’t there to remind him.). They all eat big, heaped servings of the curry, painting the rice and their plates a pleasant pink, and Harley tells them all they have to eat fruit before they go to bed.
“Fiber,” he says. “Fiber not only helps you shit, but keeps your whole biome happy. Eat a goddamn pear or something.”
Harley eats a pear. Peter eats two, grimacing the entire time. He doesn’t like pears. Harley doesn’t know why Peter doesn’t just have some apples instead. (He can be an idiot sometimes.)
Tony, tossing around a core, is in the middle of an apple-themed soliloquy when Harley’s phone rings, cutting him off.
He sticks his hand into his pocket to mute it. “Continue this story, I’m intrigued,” he tells Tony, even though he does not want to know anything else about the myriad of ways Tony has gotten apple-related injuries.
“So blindfolded, deaf, drunk Clint takes the arrow and he points it, right, as archers do, and he says, are you ready, Tony? And I said- I’ll remember this til the day I die- yes. I said yes, like a fool, and suddenly I’ve got a groove carved along the top of my head and the apple is still balanced up there and I’m bleeding. And alcohol is a blood thinner, in case you didn’t know, so I’m spewing like goddamn Niagara Falls and Clint is trying to put his hearing aids back in and Natasha is just cackling in the corner, because she laughs in the face of my mortality, and Steve says well, Clint, I apple-laud your effort. And that was the moment I knew my crush on Captain Underpants could never be any more than a crush. Anyone who makes a pun like that isn’t worth my IQ,” Tony finishes sagely.
They take that in silence for a long moment.
Harley’s phone vibrates in his pocket again.
“You can get that, squirt,” Tony tells him. “I’m not one of those no phones at the table... people.”
“You can say parents,” Harley says, slipping his phone out. “It’s not taboo.”
The way Tony chokes on his water contradicts that statement.
Harley flicks his lock screen on. Three missed calls and seven texts from Poppy, plus another call from his momma.
His stomach drops. “Uh oh,” he says, shoving his chair back and re-dialing Poppy as quickly as technology allows.
He drifts into the kitchen, pacing the length of it back and forth, watching his warped reflection in the stainless steel of the fridge, the oven, the microwave. His chest feels tight in that pre-panic way. He wipes his free palm on the thigh of his jeans to rid it of sweat.
The dial tone swallows its next beep. “Harley?” comes Poppy’s voice. It trembles.
“Pop? What’s wrong? Are you okay? Is Momma okay?”
“We’re okay,” Poppy says. “We’re not hurt. It’s just…”
“What, Poppy?” he says, and he has a bad, bad feeling. This is the moment of potential energy, the apex of the swing. The moment before the crest of a wave becomes a barrel, before an egg cracks, before an empire falls. This is the insulation in the very walls around him biting its tongue alongside him. That psalm the universe sings has reached a measure of rests— a caesura, breathe. He can’t.
“Harley, it’s… it’s Daddy,” she says. “He’s dyin’.”
Harley drops the phone.
It clatters to the ground, bouncing off the tile. He stares at it, hears Poppy calling his name, someone in the other room asking if everything is okay in there, and all Harley can do is look blankly at his phone on the floor.
There’s no. Reaction.
The tiles don’t start to tremble. The sky doesn’t open and roar a gaping, spitty maw. He doesn’t collapse to his knees, or fall white and limbless in a faint, or start to cry with inconsolable, heaving shoulders.
Nothing changes. This thing is happening and nothing changes.
Another blink. He picks up the phone.
“How do you… how do you even know,” he says, and it comes out flat. The topography of it is like the desert and every word sends a mouthful of sand tumbling from his lips like the mummies of the pharaohs have come to life and he is the most ancient of them. He could drift away on a breeze.
“He tried to come back to Rose Hill,” Poppy says. “He got inside town lines in a truck and Jim from across the street noticed, tried to run ‘em off the road. I wish he’d done it, frankly, but it didn’t work. He got right back out of town and his truck veered off the road. He got a little smashed up. He’s at the Methodist Medical Center. I just… thought you should know.”
She heaves a sigh that shudders and winds through her ribs, the sound tinny from the shitty Rose Hill service, and Harley’s chest is aching.
“Momma?” he says.
“Not good,” Poppy says grimly. “We’re at the hospital. Every time he wakes up, he tries to talk to her. I don’t know if I should stop him or not.”
Harley freezes. Or, time freezes around him and he’s caught in the thick molasses of it. “Wait. Did you just say you’re at the hospital?”
“Oh my god, Poppy,” he says quietly. “I’ll come, okay? I’ll come. And we don’t gotta stay, I can bring you to New York for the weekend or something, I’m coming. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t,” Poppy snaps. “Don’t you even think about it, Harley James. Don’t do that to yourself.”
“Poppy,” he says, and his voice cracks through her name. “I can’t… I can’t, you, there? No. I can’t do that to you. Momma is a grown ass woman, she loved him at one point, she can make her own decisions. But, you? No. I can’t make you sit there alone.”
“Don’t, Harley,” she says, and it’s quieter. She knows there’s no changing Harley’s mind once he’s dead set on something. “You couldn’t even come home for the weekend without hurting real bad. Don’t do this to yourself.”
He shakes his head slowly, even though she can’t see it. His stomach has turned into concrete, the lining of his esophagus is lead. “I have to.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“No. Pop. For you? I have to.”
“Not for me. If you’re doing it, it has to be for you. Do you need closure? Do you need to see him one more time? Unplug his IV, maybe, punch him real hard on the chest and hope his heart just quits right then? Take a scalpel and play tic-tac-toe across his belly?”
Harley thinks on that for a moment. Does he need closure? In a way, he owes everything to his father. Owes him this life in the city, since he wouldn’t have it if Daddy didn’t screw him up so bad. Owes him his love of engineering, borne of a desire to understand the work the man did when he pulled on that hard hat and his steel-toed boots and marched off to the construction yard every morning and came back smelling and sweating like the plague every night. He owes his father for the baseball bat he hardly used, for the star stickers that still indifferently glimmer on his ceiling, for the guitar he taught himself to play until it became an extension of his goddamn arm.
He owes his father for teaching him what a real dad should be— for letting him know that whatever half-assed fondness Tony showed him over one weekend while nearer to death than Harley could comprehend at the time was more genuine than anything his blood father ever did or said to him. He has Tony now, and that’s because of his dad. He has someone who loves him and doesn’t even think to show it in the same way Harley’s father did. (No creaking bed, crown of his hair bumping the headboard, unshiftable weight on his chest, burning pain. With Tony, he can breathe. With Tony, he’s safe. Yeah, okay, he got kidnapped and shot. But he’s a lot less fucked up over that than he is over everything his dad did to him, that’s for damn certain.) He has someone to depend on, who depends on him. And, fuck, that’s terrifying, but he’s getting better at it. His father turned him into something wild, uncouth, and unrefined. Made him want to fight, to protect, with hackles raised and claws sharpened. Made him viciously empathetic. Made him the type of person who notices everything, cuts through veils with safety scissors like they’re scythes.
He made his suit because of his dad. Doesn’t that mean something?
Poppy keeps saying his name. He presses the phone more firmly to his ear.
“It’s for me,” he interrupts. “It’s for me, Poppy, Christ, it’s for me. It’s mine.”
“‘Kay,” she says softly. “Okay. If you’re sure. Keep me updated, Harls. Be safe. Love you.”
“Love you more.”
“Love you most.” She hangs up before he can say impossible.
Now he sits on the tile. The stripes of grout uneven under his thighs, his hands on his knees, cool air against the very bottom of his back where his shirt rides up. It’s a henley, the waffley kind, forest green. He runs a fingertip over the fabric, the bumps and grooves of it, like brick roads. He wants to walk them towards some distant place that will stop his heart from yearning. He is the man who has nothing and everything. He is the man. He.
“Harley,” comes a voice, and it’s a little gruff.
“Hi,” he says, but doesn’t look up from his sleeve. It’s like a monochrome spiral and his eyes are glued to it. He cannot turn away. It has grabbed his soul in its ghostly fist and is shaking it, scowling. He clatters like he’s full of marbles where the fuck are these marbles coming from, he’s glass, he’s glass, and they’re being spilt onto hardwood flooring.
A big, rough hand on his cheek. “Hi, kid.” Tony sits down in front of him, close. His thumb rubs across Harley’s cheekbone. “Where are you, huh?”
“Rose Hill,” he says weakly. He meets Tony’s eyes. “Poppy called. My dad’s dying. Car accident. She’s at the hospital with him and my mother right now.”
Tony’s hand slips from Harley’s cheek and his knuckles smack on the tile. “Who do you need to come with you?”
A wave of potent gratitude hits Harley and he’s blindsided by it. His eyes fill and his throat stings and he can’t look into Tony’s eyes, can’t meet the warmth in them, can’t see the love there- because it’s love, that burning thing Tony looks at him with- because it fucking terrifies him and— and he doesn’t deserve it. Not an ounce of it.
“No one has to come,” Harley says.
Tony reaches forward and grabs Harley’s hand, squeezing it between both of his own. “Good thing that’s not what I asked. Who do you need to come, Harley? I know I can’t stop you from going, and I have no right to, no matter how badly I personally want to get a few good licks in on him.” Tony sighs, shakes his head. “You just tell me how to make it easier.”
Tony’s thumb is pressing into Harley’s hand, massaging inwards, towards the heart of his palm. It’s there, he thinks. He sees it, at least.
“Come back,” Tony says softly. He slips one of his hands up to Harley’s wrist and his fingers wrap around it like a bracelet, just below his panic watch, to clamp around his pulse point. He taps it like a fuel gauge that won’t show the right levels. No gas left. Harley is running on empty. He is a red-line tick and the mirage of not quite being there.
“Sorry,” Harley whispers, and stays wherever it is he is.
Tony lifts Harley’s hand and presses his cheek into it, rough beard against his palm, between his fingers. “Feel me?”
Tony is tight around the eyes, tense at the corners of his lips. Almost resigned, but too upset to be there quite yet. Not ready to give up.
“C’mon, honey,” he whispers. “I know it feels better now, but it’ll hurt worse later.”
“I can’t,” Harley says, and his voice is monotone but it should be raw, broken, ragged like the edges of ripped fabric. “I’m trying.”
“Okay,” Tony whispers. “That’s… all I can ask for, I guess.” He sighs. “I’m assuming your avoidance of the question means we should round up the troops. The ones that are here, at least. I mean, I don’t know who— knows, and what they know, so it’s up to you, in the end.”
Harley looks from Tony’s left eye to his right and back again, hand still pressed to Tony’s cheek. It moves as Tony’s speaks. It’s warm there, he thinks. Tony thrums with life, vivacious, after all. Touching him should be like touching live wires. But Harley can’t feel them. A shame. “Only… you and Peter know everything,” he says. “Pepper knows what I told you guys before you took me in, and I don’t know what May knows.”
“May knows as much as Pepper,” Tony says quietly. “Couldn’t keep my trap shut when we were playing Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. It’s on me. I shouldn’t have told her.”
“It’s fine,” Harley says, and he means it. “Her knowing made handling me easier and I don’t… mind that she knows.” He can feel himself losing the train of his thought before he gets to the end of it, and he wonders if his words are starting to spiral. Circles and circles and circles.
Tony sighs again and it sounds like it comes from the very pits of his stomach, thick and dark, slate grey. Harley wants to say it’s okay, if only to keep Tony from making that horrible sound a second time.
“Y’know,” Tony says. “I never thought I would become one of those hovering people, but I don’t want to leave you alone for even a minute while you feel like this.”
Harley looks up at him, letting his hand slip from Tony’s cheek to grab a fistful of the end of his shirtsleeve. “S’fine,” he says. “Happens a lot.”
“Harley,” says Tony. “Kid, that doesn’t make it okay with me. In fact, it’s so not okay. One of the least okay things in the world, probably. Very few things make me more upset than knowing that.”
The words bounce around inside of Harley but there’s nothing for him to do with them.
“Alright,” Tony says quietly. “Do you want to go sit in the living room while I go tell them? Or I could have Pete come out and help you start packing now. Or- I don’t know. You tell me. Gimme something to work with, please.”
Harley lets himself slump bonelessly forward across Tony’s lap, his stomach across Tony’s legs and his head hanging limp, his fringe brushing the tile. One of Tony’s hands finds his back and rubs slow circles into it.
Harley’s legs are filled with TV static. He just needs to sit here for a while.
“Hey, buddy?” Tony says. His voice sounds strained.
“Mm,” Harley says.
“You just want to sit for a minute? Recoop?”
“Okay. Whatever you need.”
Harley holds one hand up and waves it around. Tony catches the message and grabs it, holding tight. It’s the realest thing in the world.
He gives himself an undefinable period of time- it could be five minutes or an hour or several weather-raging years- before peeling himself off of Tony’s lap. He doesn’t particularly feel the cold when he stands, but somehow the absence of Tony breaks through his absence.
Poppy is waiting for him. This is something he knows. So he turns to Tony and says, “I’ll come with you, but can you do the talking?”
He offers Tony his hands to pull him off the ground. Once Tony is upright, massaging a crick in his lower back with a wince, he claps his free hand on Harley’s shoulder and squeezes. “There’s nothing in this world I do better than the talking,” he says.
They walk back into the dining room together. Everyone’s gaze snaps up, but Peter fully leaps to his feet, wide-eyed and earnest. Harley can’t stop looking at him because it’s like Peter single-handedly carved his world out of marble and handed it over like it wasn’t much more than a nickel.
“We’re going to have to make an emergency stop in Rose Hill,” Tony says. “Squirt’s father is in the hospital.”
Something in Peter’s face crumples and he’s looking at the dining table and chairs between them like they’re hurdles and he’s halfway through the ninety meter sprint. Harley isn’t sure how he feels about comparing himself to Peter’s endgame. He thinks it makes the fog he’s lost in a little more translucent. He doesn’t know if that’s okay, to have such a claim on Peter— to want Peter in his life forever. No one is in his life forever.
Selfish, something hisses.
Shut your damn trap, he tells it.
Pepper is slowly rising out of her seat. Harley can see that.
“Honey,” she says. Harley likes it when she and Tony call him that. It makes him feel like he belongs to someone. “Are you… do you want to do this?”
“It’s my responsibility,” he says.
“Do you want to do this?” Pepper repeats, and walks closer to him. She takes one of his hands. He sees her do it.
“I want to do this,” Harley says. It sounds flimsy, even to him, and he wishes he could be better.
Pepper looks at Tony then, and her eyes are narrowed and hot with something too complex for Harley to unravel. His hands are too numb to hold a wrench, much less pick through the pieces and sort them.
“Tony,” she says. “I don’t think Harley should go to Rose Hill.”
Every pair of eyes catches her.
“Why?” Tony asks, wide-eyed and caught off-guard. He’s frozen, like he’s afraid breathing too loud will piss Pepper off.
“Why?” Pepper echoes. She jerks her chin towards the dining table- Peter and May- in a silent question.
“I think the reason is obvious,” Pepper says. “Don’t you want to leave all of that past behind you? Why would you put yourself in a situation like this- with someone who hurt you- for their benefit and your own detriment? It’s going to bring up bad memories and I don’t think it’s worth it for you, Harley.”
“Wait,” says May from the table. She doesn’t stand, but she puts her fork down. “I know crappy doesn’t even begin to describe this situation, but isn’t it Harley’s choice to make? If he needs to be there for this, shouldn’t we let him go and be there for him if he needs us?”
Pepper frowns. “Why would we willingly and knowingly let him go into a situation that will hurt him? Don’t we have to protect him from that?”
“He’s almost eighteen, Pep,” May says. “He can make his own decisions, and, frankly, I think this is a pretty mature decision for him to make, if he’s sure he can handle it.”
“Mature how?” Pepper says hotly. Harley sees lightning and he is the thunder thud. He’s shaking the earth, all his power expended, and now he’s the aftermath. The strange stillness. The city is holding its breath. “If he was so hurt by this dick that he needed to move away ten years later, why should we let them even breathe the same air now?”
Harley is sinking into quicksand and it’s already up to his shoulders. Everything greys out and he’s just there. He’s there, but he can’t feel anything for shit. The blur in his vision is so intense that it’s like his glasses are gone and his prescription is twice as bad; everything is a smudge of color like dragging his thumb across a paint pallet and then swiping it across a camera lens for no other reason than wanting to.
“You’re not his mother, Pepper, you don’t need to make his decisions for him,” May says from under water. Ocean waves and tornado winds and all of the women in this house are ferocious and he, and Tony, and Peter are stiff and shocked. Harley is drowning. Sand mixes with water in his lungs and swirls up like rip currents pulling in the pit of his stomach and he hears Pepper say, “well, you’re not his mother either, May,” before he stumbles back into the kitchen and pukes violently into the sink, so forceful that some of it comes out of his nose and he can’t catch a breath he can’t and Peter’s cold hand is on his forehead and the other steadying his waist and everything is sharp and cut like crystal again and Harley feels the tears on his face before he realizes he’s crying.
“I’ve got you,” Peter says quietly. “Let it out, Harley.”
“What’s that one quote?” Tony says from behind him, and his voice is all tense in that way it gets when he’s helpless. “Better out than in?”
“Second Harry Potter,” Harley rasps, then spits. “Eat slugs, Malfoy.”
Peter pushes Harley’s hair off his forehead as he hunches over the sink in exhaustion, elbows on the metal rim. He’s sweaty and shaky and everything smells bitter and horrible and he wants it all to end. He wants to get on the plane, get close to Poppy, and hold her for all he’s worth. The world will get quiet, then, he thinks.
He wants May and Pepper to argue about not being his mom again.
“Sorry,” he says aloud when his stomach has stopped rolling. “I didn’t mean to… paint a Pollock or anything.” He knows they can hear him from the dining room. “S’just… no one has ever cared enough about me to argue about something like this before.”
“I resent that,” Peter and Tony say at the same time.
“But,” Tony continues, “I will let it slide because I like where this is going.”
Pepper’s hands replace Peter’s on Harley’s forehead. He can tell by the way that lemon rind tang stings his nose. (He can smell it now.)
“We’re sorry for overwhelming you,” Pepper says softly. “I might not agree with this, but it is your choice to go nonetheless. I shouldn’t try to stop you doing that.”
“We are sorry, peaches,” says May, coming up on his other side and slipping an arm around his waist. She presses a kiss to his shoulder. “We just got a little too fired up. We can’t help it. We care about you too much.”
Harley is still crying. He doesn’t mind. “Just enough,” he corrects May. “You care just enough.”
Peter and Harley pack one bag to share, a duffel stuffed with sweatshirts and sweaters and beanies and an unnecessarily large number of toothbrushes that Peter refuses to leave without. Harley makes sure Peter has his panic watch strapped on before slipping a braided little bracelet Michelle made for him on his own wrist. It’s blue and red in horizontal stripes and Harley had a good laugh when she told him it’s the membership identifier for the F.O.S. club— the Friends of Spider-Man. She made matching ones for herself, Ned, May, and Tony, and handed them out before the start of their senior year. He likes to think of them as one big strand joining them by the wrists, like the theory that claims an invisible red string ties you and your soulmate together by the finger.
He thinks of this very intently when Peter slips his pointer finger under the ring of the bracelet as they sit on the private plane Tony has for them all. Looped together.
Peter sleeps. Harley takes Melatonin, waits in vain for it to work, gets past the point of it working, and spends the rest of the flight counting breaths that feel like trying to blow up a balloon through a crazy straw.
It’s a drive from the landing strip to Methodist Medical and he’s wedged in the back seat between Peter and May. Each of them holds one of his hands and both of them snore on either of his shoulders, exchanging breaths like taking turns, like seesawing in playgrounds with Poppy cackling on the other end and the sun burning their shoulders. Harley Parker, he wonders. Harley Stark? Harley Parker-Stark. Stark-Parker? A fantasy. He almost snorts.
He keeps his eyes on the road while Tony drives. It’s blackish night, the type that sucks the color out of nature and turns it greyish, pallid, silvery. The street is dark and damp from rain. The trees are shedding leaves and the bare branches are like broken limbs cutting the sky into shards. There are stars. He can’t bring himself to be excited. To have missed them.
Tony parks about as close to the visitor’s entrance to the hospital as one can get and Harley thinks too close but also escape escape escape. He almost asks, can we leave now? But there are three somethings he needs to take care of behind those glass double doors.
The first something barrels into him as soon as they reach the front desk, before Harley can even offer a name. An armful of lanky Poppy, with her blond waves shorn to her shoulders and an anorak jacket swamping her. It’s olive green. She looks stupid and beautiful and mature and Harley can’t help but hold her face against his collarbone, fingers knotted in her hair, his breath stuttering, rocking side-to-side and squeezing, squeezing her because she’s real and she’s him just the same way he’s her.
“Hi,” he says. “Hi. I missed you. I missed you so much.”
“I know you did, you big baby,” she says and kisses his cheek. She’s got glasses now, like him. They’re cat-eyed and thin-rimmed. Both of ‘em nearsighted: one of the only things they got from their daddy before he got the hell outta dodge. And then got the hell back into dodge. And then almost died.
Harley steps away just slightly, finding her hand and holding on tight. “Poppy, you remember Peter, Tony, and Pepper, I’m sure.”
They each pull her in for a one-armed hug. Poppy had met Pepper and Tony back when Harley first moved out and they must’ve made a damn good impression or something because Poppy moons over Pepper and her poise even now, a year later, and mentions that Tony seemed endearing if misguided and surprisingly lacking in people skills. Her direct quote was he looked like he wouldn’t mind if the floor swallowed him whole but he also offered to buy me a share of Starbucks stock, so.
“And this is May Parker, Pete’s aunt,” Harley says, gesturing at May, who, under Poppy’s scrutiny, flicks up a single eyebrow. She waits a moment before grinning.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Poppy,” says May quietly, “despite the circumstances.”
Poppy says, “am I gonna get a hug from you too, or?”
May snorts and hugs her tight, rubbing her hands up and down Poppy’s back.
“She just adopted you,” Peter tells May. “She does that. It’s a very brief but thorough process. If only the American Immigration System were that effective and succinct.”
“Hey, yeah,” says Tony.
“Not now,” says Pepper. “That is not a now talk.”
“Isn’t it an always talk?” says Tony, looking around. “No? Just me? Okay. Call me crazy, it’s fine, I just think that people should be allowed to come into the damn country looking for a better life and that institutionalized racism and white-supremacy are the poison of our nation—” he withers under Pepper’s glare and throws his hands up in surrender. “Yes, honey, I’m sorry, honey, you’re right, honey.”
Poppy says, “I guess we oughta get it outta the way, then.”
“Get what out of the way?” says Pepper, even though she knows exactly what Poppy is referring to; even though her eyes glint dangerously like knives catching the light.
Poppy looks at Harley, who tugs her hand. “Well, you are going to talk to him, ain’t you?”
“Aren’t,” Harley corrects quietly.
“What gives you the right,” Poppy says. “Mister I moved to New York and now I speak proper.”
“Pop,” he says.
“I have to,” Harley says, turning to Tony, Pepper, May, and Peter. He decided somewhere around minute forty-five of the plane ride and sat on the idea for the rest of the trip. He’s come all the way out here. He will never have another chance like this, another moment so monumentally earth-shaking that it could change his entire life.
This is a moment staring into an empty doorway and Harley gets to choose where it leads.
Pepper bites her thumbnail. Peter shoots him the most mournful thumbs-up he’s ever seen. May just looks sad.
“Okay,” says Tony. “Do you have a place to lead us, Miss Keener?”
Before May Parker meets Charlotte Keener, she doesn’t know what she’s expecting. Maybe some blank-eyed, half-hunched, washed-up type of woman in sweatpants who can be found watching everything and everyone except her children through a haze of cigarette smoke.
What she finds is a woman who is undeniably groomed if a bit harried, taller than Pepper (and, by extension, Tony and May), with open eyes and a mournful ear-to-ear smile as she engulfs Harley in a tight hug, rubbing her hands up and down his back. May hears her say, “oh, baby, you shouldn’t’ve come,” and May wants to step in. She wants to say wasn’t this situation created because you stayed with that man in the first place? She wants to say couldn’t you see the look in your kid’s eyes? Didn’t it hurt you? She wants to say oh. Did he hurt you too?
May is good at watching people. It’s why she’s good at writing stories: she has an affinity for catching little things in the way people act. The way Tony’s movements stutter around Steve Rogers even if his words are polished, and the dichotomy of his blatant affection for Natasha versus the chariness with which he holds himself around her. The way Pepper sits in a meeting, listening to every word with the type of rapt attention that May could never achieve, waiting to hear the moment there is a chink— waiting for that moment to sink her teeth in and rip. The way Peter and Harley look at each other: eyes always searching, memorizing, like they’re waiting muscles-tensed for the undoubted moment they lose each other.
Charlotte Keener and Tony Stark hug, but Charlotte’s moves are jerky with wariness and Tony inches slowly towards her, so she can see exactly what he’s planning to do as he says, “been a while, Charlie.” She sees it in both of them: a caution and a reassurance in one. No, I won’t do that to you. Yes, this is okay. I trust you.
“It has, hasn’t it?” says Charlotte, patting Tony’s back. She hugs Pepper next, and it is easier. “Miss Pepper, lovely as ever.”
“Always a charmer, Charlotte,” Pepper says as she squeezes her.
When Charlotte turns to May, she’s prepared to give a wave and a hasty I’m Peter’s aunt, nice to meet you, your son is an angel and I’d kill and die for him. What she does not expect is for Charlotte to grab her by the hands and pull her into a lavender-scented hug, tight with wiry arms around her shoulders and the itch of Charlotte’s wool cardigan against her neck.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Miss Parker,” says Charlotte sincerely. “Harley has just about waxed poetic to me about you. Thank you for taking care of my boy when I’m too far away to do it.”
May gapes at Tony over Charlotte’s shoulder. He looks amused. She’d like to punch him just once. “Of- of course, he’s an absolute treasure,” May manages. “Call me May.”
“Then call me Charlotte,” says the blond, pulling away. Harley’s eyes stare at May through Charlotte’s face. She’s so young that she could be siblings with him— not more than thirty-five, with just the beginnings of crows feet at the corners of her blue stare. May has started- quite suddenly- to feel terribly sorry for her.
“Charlotte,” May echoes.
“Mamma,” says Poppy, “is Daddy awake in there?”
Charlotte cocks her head, pulling Poppy into her side. “He’s in and out. It’s not looking so good, sugar. Concussion, crushed lung, could be an infection from the crash.”
“I’m going in,” Harley says from where Pepper has tucked him under her arm. May thinks briefly, amusedly, that Pepper is challenging Charlotte like a peacock preening. He’s my kid too. Tony is rolling his eyes now, but May is sure as shit that Tony is about four seconds from pulling Peter against him in turn. They really are children inside, the whole lot of them.
Charlotte says, “you’re what now?” and May hears Pepper mutter thank God she’s reasonable under her breath, which she attempts not to take personally and fails. She’s used to Pepper’s unyielding hardheadedness by now, but it doesn’t take away the sting of being alluded to as brainless. She raised a kid just fine in her opinion.
“I’m going to talk to him,” Harley repeats. “I have to.”
Charlotte stares at him and a certain ferocity comes into her eyes before dwindling like it’s been flushed down the drain. May can see the whirlpools, like it’s giving a fight to stay. Charlotte rubs her eyes with her thumbs and says, quietly, “if you need to, then I sure as shit can’t stop you.”
Harley presses his lips together and nods. Pepper says, “Charlotte, how about May and I bring you to get a cup of coffee? You look like you could use a break.”
Charlotte pauses a moment, looking from Poppy to Harley, who both give her a nod. She says, “thanks, Pep. I’d like that very much.”
May can’t help but know this is when Pepper plans to give the woman the talk. Pepper hasn’t claimed aloud a want to talk to Charlotte, but it’s written all over her in bright red pen, curlicue cursive.
May says, “c’mon, then, hon. We’ll get something warm in you, that’ll make everything better.”
Pepper leads the way to the cafe, following signs, and May walks beside Charlotte, her hands buried in the pockets of her jeans. She watches her scuffed loafers as she walks, side by side with Charlotte’s stained sneakers, and she sees herself, somewhat. A woman who grieved so heavily, so wholeheartedly, for a lost love. The difference is that May had Peter to pull her out of it with two knobby-knuckled hands, sure and strong like only a fourteen year-old boy can be. Poppy was too young and Harley too hurt to be that for her. She had to grapple on her own, and she failed.
And it’s okay that she did, May thinks. It’s okay to fail, but now she’s this half-woman- undoubtedly, no matter how put-together she looks- and that is not okay.
May wishes for Charlotte’s sake that it hadn’t gone so poorly for her, that the situation had been different. No soul deserves to be ground against stone so repeatedly that it turns to dust and pebbles.
They sit at a small booth together, the type that should really only fit two people but May and Pepper squeeze hip to hip, their sense of personal space that of womb-splitting sisters. Half of May’s ass hangs over the edge and Pepper is wedged against the wall and Charlotte looks at them with a fond type of a smile, the kind that says gosh, I wish and ain’t that quaint.
“So, what is it you’ve got to say?” Charlotte says, gazing between Pepper and May over the rim of her flat white. “I can see you chewing it down right now, Miss Pepper.”
Pepper puts down her coffee cup and gets right down to business, in the way that she raised herself to. “I hope it doesn’t sound insensitive but I can’t understand why you would stay with a man like him. And not only that, but come to him now, after all these years.”
Charlotte says dryly, “I’ll pretend it was less insensitive than it feels, if it saves you from being wounded.” May snorts a laugh. “Pepper, I can only imagine that Tony Stark gets on your nerves sometimes.”
“What we’re talking about is a lot bigger than someone getting on your nerves, Charlotte.”
“Oh, I know,” she says. “Just play along for a minute, won’t you? I’m about to tie you up in a cute little ribbon.”
Pepper’s eyebrows flick up. “You can try. Sure, Tony annoys me. He’s an idiot.”
“Mhm. That’s how it started with Harley’s father and I. We got along fine at first, seventeen and knocked up with just enough time to finish high school before Harley came charging out like a loaded canon. Enormous head on that little shit. Forty hours of labor to pop him into the world, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Things started to get scarier after that, when Harley was growing. Money was always tight, no matter how much he worked, but he was always lovely to me. ‘Til it turned out I was pregnant with our second little menace, Poppy.” Charlotte takes a sip of her coffee and brushes her hair behind her ears. They’re Harley’s ears, sticking out just a little too far to be subtle. “His anger started turning out, then. He was always fond of drinkin’, but he started to drown himself in it. He’d come home sloppy and mad as a hatter, swinging at anything and everything that he could reach.” She clears her throat, pushing her coffee away. “More often than not, it was Harley or me.”
“Charlotte, I don’t see what this has to do with Tony,” Pepper says. “He’d never, ever dream of touching me like that, even back when he was drinking.”
“Oh, trust me, I know,” Charlotte agrees. “Just hold on for me.
“Here’s the thing: I still loved him then. How couldn’t I? He gave me the best thing I'd ever had. We still had a house, we had another kid on the way. He was sweet on me when he wasn’t drunk. And when Poppy was born, it looked like things were gonna clean themselves up. He started drinking less, wasn’t angry all the time. He was great with her. It was like he was a new man. I was stunned, to say the least.” She knots her fingers together to stop fidgeting. “Until it started up again, worse than ever. He never touched Poppy, mind you, but Harley’s told me now that he would hide in his room from the moment I left for my shift- I always took the graveyard hours so I could spend the day with Harls when he got out of school- until I got back. And that breaks my heart,” she says, voice thin, “because I never knew how bad it was when I wasn’t there. And that’s on me. It is. I will never deny that. I should’ve seen. But I loved him, yknow?” She takes a deep breath through her nose. It’s thick with the tears she’s holding back. “Have you ever loved a man so much that you gave yourself up for him?”
“No,” Pepper and May chorus.
Charlotte nods. “I didn’t think so. You’re stronger than I ever was, then.” She turns to Pepper. “Does Tony scare you, going out on those missions in that tin can rocket?”
“Every time,” Pepper says evenly.
“Does it hurt you when he goes?”
Pepper squints. “Charlotte, there is a difference between these two situations that you’re not seeing.”
“Explain it to me then,” she says, leaning forward. “I mean it. Explain it to me. Because all I see is that we both couldn’t help but love men who hurt us damn bad.”
Pepper breathes. “When Tony scares me, he scares me because I’m afraid he will get hurt. I’m never afraid he’ll hurt me.”
“Ain’t hurt the same no matter what the reason for it is?”
“No,” Pepper says firmly. “No, because I have autonomy in this. I choose to stay with him because I love him. Because he loves me, and makes certain that I’m happy. Not because I’m scared of what would happen if I left. Not because I don’t have a choice but to take beatings and watch my kid get beat to shit too.”
May winces at the bluntness of Pepper’s words.
“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” she says quietly. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you to go through that. It was a shitty situation, there’s no denying it. No matter what you did, it would have hurt.”
“Thank you, May,” Charlotte says quietly. She turns to Pepper then. “And thank you, too. I guess I— I mean. I don’t know if I agree yet because I’m still trapped in the middle of all of this. He’s in there and he keeps asking me to come sit with him and I do it because I’m afraid for him to die alone—”
“Charlotte,” May interrupts, “if you’re bullying yourself into spending time with him, you’re making the problem worse for yourself.”
Charlotte bites her lip as the first tears slip over the edge of her lashes. “Well, fuck,” she says.
May reaches a hand across the table and squeezes. “You’ve got us now. It’s too late to fix this, but it isn’t too late to heal.”
Charlotte squeezes May’s hand before standing up. “I’m going to run to the bathroom real quick to clean up,” she says weakly, gesturing to her salt-streaked cheeks. May notices that Charlotte doesn’t address her pronouncement, but decides not to comment on it. It’s very Harley, outright assuming that no one could possibly mean it when they offer to be a friend. When they offer to stay. The bastard really did fuck them both up.
“Do you want us to come?” Pepper asks, as gentle as she’s been. Which is to say, as gentle as a stone in the hand of a drunk black bear with vertigo.
“No, no,” Charlotte says waving them down. “I’ll just be a minute.” She starts to go but turns before she’s out of earshot. “Thank you,” she says again.
May smiles at her. They watch her search for the bathroom until she disappears around a corner.
Pepper turns to May. “I think we nailed that.”
May leans into Pepper’s shoulder and bursts into laughter.
There’s a nurse in the room when Harley careens in. She’s adjusting the IV plugged into a young man with a face made almost entirely of road rash under a shock of dirty blond hair that hangs in his eyes. He’s short, broad shouldered under the thin paper smock he’s draped in. He’s speaking to the nurse, joking, “any way you could slip a little tequila in that thing?”
“With your history? That ain’t even funny,” says the nurse, twice the age of the man and visibly done with his shit.
“Aw, c’mon, sugar. No one would have to know. Plus it’d make me a lot more manageable. You’d like to manage me, wouldn’t you?”
She clips him upside the head and says, “you repulse me,” before turning to leave the room. She sees Harley standing there and her eyebrows jump. “Oh, now who’s this sweet thing?”
The man in bed sits up slightly, squints. He doesn’t have his glasses on. His lips, cracked and bloody, fall open, and he says thinly, “I’ll be damned.”
“Hi, dad,” says Harley.
The nurse hurries to leave the room.
“Come here where I can see you,” says Harley’s father.
Harley almost says no. His knees straighten out like matchsticks and strings of tension are knotting around his spine, between his ribs; he’s a messy crochet project. He moves forward. Stands a few arm lengths away from the edge of the bed.
“Jesus,” the man mutters. His voice is like Harley’s: not deep, but sweet like sun tea on Saturday evening. “Look at you. You’re all grown.”
“Yeah,” Harley says. His mouth feels empty.
“So you heard I was laid up and came to see me,” the man says.
“Yeah,” Harley agrees, not caring how it sounds.
“You touched in the head or something? Jesus, use your words, wontcha?”
“I’m not living in Tennessee anymore,” he blurts.
His father nods, then winces, holding his forehead. It’s got a bump like an egg on it. “I know. Heard it from Jim when he very well tried to kill me.”
Harley doesn’t know what to say to that. He has a thesaurus in his head and he can’t pick out one goddamn word. Not one. He’s a fucking mess. He’s alphabet soup.
This man in front of him. He made Harley want to sink between the floorboards and become part of the laminate. He made Harley want to run ‘til his feet turned bloody and raw. He made Harley want to toss himself like loose paper off the tallest building in New York City and tumble like he’d been discarded from the hand of a disinterested god.
He stares at the papers at the foot of the bed. His eyes run through them over and over. He can’t look at his father.
“I can tell you’ve got something to say,” says the man before him, staring up at him with these crystal blue eyes. They’re sharp, not like his and his momma’s and Poppy’s.
“I’m real screwed up,” Harley forces out, his face folding. He doesn’t want to cry in front of this man. He doesn’t. His father breathes like he has stalagmites in his lungs, pointed, there isn’t enough room. “It’s like I see myself acting the way that I do, and I hate it, but I can’t stop it. And you did that to me,” Harley’s voice gains traction he didn’t know it had, “you did that to me. God,” Harley fists one of his shaking hands and whispers something he never before admitted to wanting, “why couldn’t you just stick around? We could’ve- we could’ve- you could’ve figured your shit out, come back as a new man. Been a dad.” Harley finds himself jabbing into his own chest and he feels like he oughta rip out his hair in handfuls like dandelion weeds. “Was I good enough for you?”
“No, Harley,” his father says and he looks cracked, “I wasn’t good enough for you.”
Harley bites down on his tongue until it bleeds. He’s not stupid. He’s not. (He’s trying not to be.) He can’t fall for this. (He can, but he shouldn’t.) It’s a load of shit, this man ruined him. (This man made him. He is this man and this man is him.)
When Harley’s knees give in, his father’s arm is there to catch him, and Harley feels he’s tumbled through time, a hole in the ground has swallowed him, he’s plummeting, he’s three and uncomfortable, he’s four and swatting at him, stop, please, he’s five and he’s numb and still and the bed rocks and creaks under him.
His father’s arm is around his shoulder and he’s never been so scared but the words that tumble from his lips like drunken prayers are, “I needed you, dad.”
When his father says, “I needed you too, son,” the spell breaks. Because his father did need him. To vent out onto. To pick apart with a scalpel and tweezers and words like anaesthetic. To burn and pillage like Troy and leave to be buried under ash and sand and dust, empty buildings like haunted eyes and broken-locked doors like crooked front teeth.
Harley pulls away sharply, pointing at him. “No,” he says. “No, you can’t say that,” his voice is choked, his throat on fire. “You don’t get to do everything you did to me and then say that.”
“What on Earth do you mean?” says his father, looking rocked.
“You know exactly what I mean,” Harley spits, turning on his heel and pacing. He’s running his hands through his hair. Christ. Fuck. “You did this to me. You turned me into the type of kid that can’t trust people, who used to not be able to have friends until the right type came along and forced it. I’m scared of fucking everyone and everything. I had to move to New York to run away from it all,” Harley sounds hysterical, he’s yelling, “you have no right to ask me what I mean. Fucking shit.”
His father says, “I mean it, you’ll need to elaborate. I don’t remember much of your childhood on account of the fact that I was most always drinkin’ to forget it.”
Harley stops so short that his sneakers squeak on the tile. “What did you… what?”
“I don’t remember it much,” his father croaks, and Harley feels. Harley is. Emaciated. Suckerpunched and fileted.
Harley says, “you should burn in hell for the things you did to me,” and it’s the first time he’s ever thought it. God, he never realized it, but he’s mad. He’s not just afraid, not hurt, he’s fucking furious, he’s fuming, he’s red-eared and wet-eyed and his hands tremble like an addict airing out and he’s not even a little bit done here. He turns to his father, meets his eyes. “I wanted to forgive you,” he says honestly. “I wanted to walk in here and put it behind me, so I wouldn’t waste so much of my life hating you. Hate is corrosive and I hate it. But— Jesus Christ,” and Harley’s laughing, he’s laughing so hard that it wheezes in his chest and comes out in this smoke spiral of black fumes and he’ll choke on them again, he will, “you don’t even remember what you did to me,” he says airily. “You don’t even remember it. Well, guess what? I’ve got the scars to remember it by. I wake up half the nights of the goddamn week remembering it,” he’s yanking on the mouth of his sweater, it’s choking him, “I don’t have that luxury. So I hope you know how boot-licking lucky you are to have it as a ghost instead of a crimson-eyed demon following you all the damn day through.”
Harley buries his face in his hands. He doesn’t see it when his father starts to sputter, but the sound pierces straight through his ears.
His hands drop. His father is ruddy-cheeked beneath the road rash, blue-lipped, one hand on his chest, weakly pounding it. And in his eyes, this look. It says look what you’ve done to me.
Harley yells, “doctor? We need a doctor, please, we need someone now,” panicked, his heart is fluttering wild, he doesn’t even make it to the bedside before a pair of gloved hands are taking him by the shoulders and pulling him out of the room kicking, yelling, he’s so sorry, machines are beeping something wild, he’s a fuckup, get the AED, he shouldn’t have yelled, and then the door is shut behind him and he falls sharply mute, shoulders hunched, staring a thousand-mile stare at the wall across from him.
They’re waiting for him in plastic chairs. They all look up at the slam of the door.
Poppy and Peter leap to their feet in tandem.
“Hi,” Peter says. “Hi. Come here. What happened. Harley. Hey.” He comes forward and grabs Harley’s hand and drags him because he is boneless. Whimless.
“He’s having a heart attack,” Harley says. “I hollered at him and gave him a heart attack.”
There is a beat.
“What the hell did you just accuse yourself of?” says Tony. “Wh- Harley. What the everloving fu-hu-heck. You can’t possibly think that. Well, it’s you. You possibly can. But you shouldn’t, is the point.”
Peter says, softly, “Harley,” and Harley turns to him. Peter’s face says it all. It’s written in his eyes like they’re embroidered with strands of maroon and gold. “You didn’t make his heart fail. Wasn’t he an alcoholic? Harley?”
“Mhm,” Harley manages.
“Then he probably already had cardiomyopathy, whether it was diagnosed or not, or high blood pressure. I assume you read his chart because you’re a snoop?”
“Does it say he has heart problems?”
Harley bites his lip.
“Then how could it be your fault? It was definitely exacerbated in the crash. You’re entirely entitled to do a little shouting at him. Jesus. You’re entitled to do more than shout at him,” Peter yanks on Harley’s hand, seemingly subconsciously, “no one would blame you for planting a nice punch right on that ugly schnoz of his—”
“Aaand that’s enough from the peanut gallery,” Tony announces. “How about we all take a breather, okay?”
Peter drops Harley’s hand to walk over and whisper something in Tony’s ear. Tony nods. He looks at Poppy.
“I’ll take Peter on a tour,” she says, because she can read minds as well as she can read lips (two things Harley cannot do in the slightest. She got all the useful genes and he got all the fucked up ones.).
Peter blinks and then says, “uh, okay, cool, let me just…” He careens forward and grabs Harley’s limp hand, squeezes it. “Okay.” He drops Harley’s hand. “Cool. Let’s go see the… hospital.”
“We can go watch the babies,” Poppy offers and Peter’s eyes gush with fountains of light.
“Yes,” he squeaks. “Yes, the babies, we will see them. Okay bye gotta go baby time.”
Poppy takes him by the elbow, rolling her eyes, and leads them to the elevator.
Harley collapses on a plastic chair.
Tony sits next to him, shoulder to shoulder. “So,” he says.
“Yeah,” Harley answers.
“You don’t need to tell me what he said,” says Tony. “Or what you said. What was generally said in that room by the two of you maybe or maybe not directed at each other. But. If you do want to air out a little, my ears are open and my mouth is shut.” Tony mimes zipping his lips and throwing the key over his shoulder. He scoots down in his chair, crosses his arms. Makes a good show of looking extremely indifferent to whatever Harley decides while also looking extremely, desperately invested in it.
“I failed,” Harley blurts. Tony’s eyes close but he doesn’t turn. “I failed,” Harley repeats. “I… I had something I wanted to say to him. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.”
Tony keeps his eyes shut and takes a very even breath. “Why couldn’t you say it to him?”
“Because it wasn’t true,” Harley whispers. “I couldn’t lie to him. That would make it worse.”
Tony says, “this, right here, us, right now, doesn’t have to be about him. In fact, I refuse to make it about him. This is about you. You tell me what’s going through you right now.”
Harley buries his hands in the sleeves of his sweater and wraps his arms around himself. He tilts forward until his head is resting on his thighs, his ear scrunched under his head. What he says, he says in the voice of a broken boy. “I tried so hard to forgive him, Tony, and I failed.”
Tony presses a hand over his eyes and Harley can see it shaking. “Harley,” Tony says, and it’s cracked. Tony’s hand comes around Harley’s back slowly, hooking him, and he moves bonelessly. Tony shifts him so his torso is draped into Tony’s lap, and Tony rubs his hand in slow motions along his spine. “Forgiving him isn’t a one-and-done type of thing. Absolutely no one expected you to come here right now and forgive him for years of… everything. Even if you never forgive him, no one will blame you. I mean that. I just…” Tony takes a deep breath. “Harley, have you forgiven yourself?”
Every muscle in Harley’s body goes stiff in a wave, from his neck down to his toes. He doesn’t move, not even to breathe, and yet. Somehow. He’s sobbing, big, aching heaves that burn his throat, and tears aren’t even coming, he’s arid, but he can’t stop, like it’s pouring out in a stuttered stream. He fists his hands in Tony’s grease-stained jeans to hold onto something real, to keep from floating, and Tony runs a hand through his hair and hushes him, murmuring in a sweet voice that Harley can’t even bring himself to pick apart, to hear the words, it’s all Tony, it’s just Tony.
Within Harley sits this ball of hard, anguished calcium. He hadn’t known it was there. It’s a weight he has become so used to carrying that it’s not even a memory. But, now. Now that Tony has taken a hammer and chipped away at the first piece. Harley has never felt so heavy and so weightless at the same time.
He sits up, turns and presses his face in Tony’s neck. He tries to remember how to breathe there. Tries to erase the weight of his father’s arm heavy over his shoulders. Tony rubs his back. The motion is infused with sadness so potent that Harley thinks he’ll have blue racing stripes painted on his back when the day is done.
It is around this moment when a doctor comes walking slowly from the hospital room, removing her gloves one at a time.
Harley, with the languidness of someone who already knows, comes to his feet. Tony wraps his arm tight around Harley’s shoulders.
“We lost him,” says the doctor.
Harley, for a moment, burns. Then everything goes perfectly still.
“Okay,” he says.
Then, he faints.
He wakes up in a hospital bed of his own, thinking isn’t this ironic, an IV in his hand and Tony wedged beside him. He shoves his face into Tony’s shirt and Tony holds him as he buries himself one clod of dirt at a time.
They end up in the grass outside his childhood home that night, he and Peter and Poppy, wrapped in blankets and triple-layered sweaters. Peter’s holding one of his hands tight and Poppy’s head is heavy on his shoulder.
The stars are languid with light, like droplets of cream in coffee. Like lint on wool, like sand on the pavement while leaving the beach. The moon is enormous and full, buoyant, vibrant in monochrome, wearing two tones as well as Judy Garland. The crickets are whistling a tattoo, like a too quick heartbeat, and Harley tries not to listen so it doesn’t send him spiraling. He squirms a little on the grass, trying to displace a stone from under his back, and Poppy lifts her head. He grabs her and pulls her back into place, planting a kiss on top of her hair once she’s there. Her fingers tap on his ribs and Peter breathes and it bursts from him like his mouth is a handgun, “I don’t know why I’m upset.”
Peter squeezes his hand as Poppy says, “Harley, he was your daddy at one point, no matter what he did after.”
“He was yours, too, and you’re not upset,” he says mulishly, feeling seven and red-cheeked and sour.
“I have the room to be mad at him,” Poppy says intently. She sits up beside him, looking down to meet his eyes. Peter stays silent. “You were older, you remember more, you… he treated you worse. I was farther away from it all. I can be mad. You don’t have the distance, you don’t, and that’s just the way it is. You can be hurtin’. You must’ve loved him at some point, didn’tcha?”
“I guess,” Harley says.
“Alright,” Poppy says. “You can be hurting, then. Just don’t… lose yourself in it. Okay? Can you do that for me?”
“For you?” Harley echoes. “Anything.”
Poppy’s face falls for the first time since Harley arrived and it’s like tumbling bodily down flights of stairs. It’s bruised back and arms grappling at the edge of the wood but slipping, every thump rattling his teeth, falling and fumbling and never reaching the landing.
She grabs a fistful of his shirt and pulls him up, smashing his head into her neck and it feels backwards since she’s the one crying but she takes a hand and grips his hair and holds him and shakes with sobs like silent, stealthy earthquakes and Harley holds her, tight as he can, round her waist, and she smells like coconut the way she always had and she’s got this old, coffee-stained cardigan on and it used to belong to Harley so it’s too big in the arms and hangs half-way down her thighs and she’s right here and he feels her but he missed her, he missed her so much it aches like phantom fucking pains. His life is a phantom pain.
He thinks Poppy and Peter ought to be the ghostly ice, then, pressed against the bruises too invisible to see. For now, he lets them soothe the ache.
Harley doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting on the couch, staring forward, still in his black suit and grey shirt and stiff leather shoes. He’s awash, his vision completely blurred, not even a Consciousness much less an Awareness. He is the dust on the entertainment center and the wrinkle in the carpet by his feet. He’s a loose string on the couch cushion and crumbs clinging to the throw blanket.
A hand falls onto his shoulder and he jumps so hard he bites his tongue, slamming back into his body with the force that meteor’s carry when they slice through the atmosphere.
“Jesus, Harls, sorry,” Poppy says, pushing his head between his knees as his breathing hitches. It’s loud. Not her voice, but the hum of the room, and it’s bright and his suit itches and squeezes where it’s just slightly too tight around his thighs and he just needs to. Breathe for a minute. Fucking fuck.
“It’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay. I’m fine.”
“I didn’t ask,” she says, “and don’t lie, you fool.”
She wraps an arm around his arched back, then shifts to rest her chin between his shoulders. “Come back to me. I miss you.”
“I’m right here.”
“But you’re not you,” she says.
“‘Cuz I’m all sad and confused, like a big fucking knot of strings. I’m a string knot so bad you’ve gotta snip it.”
“We’re not snipping you.”
“It’d be easier.”
“Have any of us ever liked easy, hmm?” She pulls away and forces him to sit up. She has this black shawl over her shoulders and she looks like someone’s wine aunt. “Us, or any of your funky friends from the city?”
He almost cracks a grin, but it falls. “No.”
“I know you’re blue. But you used to be able to push through it. C’mon, where’s your smile, huh, Harls?”
As if cued- as he is oft to do- Peter walks through the door, an arm halfway up to the elbow caught in a pringles canister and two chips hanging from his lips like a duck’s beak. His jacket is gone and the sleeves of his half-tucked shirt are rolled up. “Ca’ s’meone pull m’sock u’ f’me?” he asks, holding one foot up.
“There,” Harley says. “There it is.”
Peter tilts his head back, opens his mouth, and lets the two chips fall in. He crunches ungracefully, crumbs falling to his chest. “Hey, is everything okay?” he asks.
Harley says, “yeah, buddy.”
Peter wrinkles his nose. “You can’t fool your best friend.”
Poppy leaps to her feet, always the situation-reader. “I’m heading to Missus Next-Door’s to see the cows.”
“In that outfit?” Peter asks, but he sounds impressed more than anything.
She nimbly flips him the bird as she walks away, pulling her shawl tighter with one hand.
They watch her go. Peter crosses over and puts his heel on Harley’s lap, waiting. Harley pulls Peter’s socks up. He really is his housewife, Jesus Bleeding Christ.
Peter offers a Pringle. Harley takes it.
They sit back in tandem, scooting down until their chins are tucked and their shoulders are almost even with their knees. Harley sighs.
“Say it,” Peter goads. “Saaaaay it. You got something to say to meeee. I want to heeelp you.” He prods Harley with an elbow. “Sa-ha-hay it. Ooooo, child. Say it.”
“When did you become a one-man gospel group?”
“Just now. Was I great?”
“The best. I’m your number one fan and I’ll buy all your albums. Can you sign my boob?”
“In gold Sharpie only. That will be fifty bajillion billion dollars.”
“Oh, thank gosh. I have fifty bajillion billion and one on me right now.”
“It was forewritten in the stars.”
“Is that the title of your platinum single?”
“No, no, that’s It was forewritten by His Holy hand.”
“D’you think God writes in cursive?”
“Mm, probably. Hebrew cursive.”
“Should I learn to read Hebrew?”
“Harley,” Peter says.
“Then I can read you Torah passages in the original language.”
“He hugged me,” Harley says. “He hugged me before he died. I don’t know why he did it but I think I started to fully fucking collapse because I’m a little bitch and then he caught me and instead of letting me get up he hugged me and I can’t stop thinking about the fact that the last thing he did was hug me and the last thing I did to him was shout at him.”
“Harley,” Peter says and his eyes fall wide open. He yanks his arm out of the Pringles canister and sets it on the floor before grabbing Harley around the shoulders and pulling him in, even as Harley is too stunned, too numb to get his arms to lift, and he says, “this is a hug, okay? This is a hug.” His mouth is right near Harley’s ear. He feels Peter’s breath, feels his heartbeat pressed against his own chest. “And this is when you hug somebody: when you care about them, and you want them to know that.” Peter pulls away but holds Harley by the shoulders. “Y’hear me?”
Harley doesn’t trust his voice, so he nods. Then he grabs Peter and squeezes him for all he’s worth.
“It’s you and me now,” Peter says into Harley’s shoulder, “and it’s gonna be you and me forever.”
“How can you know that?” Harley asks, desperate. He wants to be sure like Peter. He wants to. “I don’t even know who I am.”
Peter tilts back just slightly. “You’re Harley. I’m Peter. Just like it’s always been. What else do you need to know?”
That night, Tony sits with him on the couch, both of them slurping cups of hot chocolate and watching Friends reruns flicker on the TV until the sky tinges with faded purple. He starts to monologue seemingly out of nowhere. Harley listens. “Family doesn’t end in blood. It doesn’t. And you… Harley, you’re my family. Did you know that? Because you are. Irrevocably. No take backs. You’re family. And I think I’m yours, if you’ll have me. So we’re gonna do what family does. We’re gonna stick together. That’s how we get through things. You understand?”
Harley feels another chip of calcium come loose. He turns to look up at Tony and says, “understood.”
They turn back to the TV and watch Joey speak ‘french’ until day breaks.
i was a pinball kid.
some kids played racing games, turning corners sharp
but always reaching that checkered line, victory! (three syllables i never rolled off my toddler
tongue, and i knew every letter. Scrabble this. how many points.)
some kids played tag, touch and go, freeze tag, don’t move, hide-and-seek-tag,
once you close the closet door you’re safe, you’ll never be
found tag. (get back here, get back, we’re not finished. we were never finished, like midday rain
on the farm next door was never finished; like how was work? it’s never finished. like the
Lego brick house i never finished.)
but i was a pinball kid:
i bounced, baby, blipped and cracked and snapped with no abandon
by bats that weren’t
no control in this typa game.
and, when it was done,
sit in the corner and wait. (how long? count a minute for every year you’ve been alive. how long
have i been alive? don’t you know? i’m still in the womb, devouring.)
sit in the corner and wait. get ready. think about it. the next game starts