Actions

Work Header

Lay Your Burden Down

Work Text:

Tom paused on the doorstep, trying not to outright stare at the house. Compared to the trailer he'd been living in the last few months, it was a palace. Contemporary, with a high arch and a three-car garage. For a brief moment, he wondered how she'd come by the money, then decided it was better not to know. At its best, it was a sign she'd moved on. He found himself wanting to believe it, that she'd found peace. But there was something about the feel of the place, the dead grass and cracked sidewalk, the cars parked in the driveway, that kept him from believing it wholly.

He didn't want to know, suddenly. Didn't want to find out what was up with Lucy, didn't want to disturb the past, or the tether that still connected them in a legally binding way. He forgot it for days on end, and then something'd stir the memory, remind him that he had a wife still. It struck him as strange now, strange and a little perverse. He felt the urge to turn around and walk away rise up in his chest. Drive back to Arkansas, let that official bond between them stay slack and undisturbed. Might have done it, except the curtain in the window of the living room shifted, then fell back into place a moment later. He'd already been spotted.

Tom never had known when to walk away.

When he put his thumb on the doorbell, the button gave no resistance, like someone had cut it loose in its casing. Lucy always had hated the sound of the doorbell, it drove her absolutely crazy. So he knocked. As he waited for an answer, he realized he was bouncing on the balls of his feet. He made himself stop. 

Through the door he could hear a muttered curse, then the sound of stomping, and the deadbolt turned in its lock. The door came three inches open before catching on a brass chain that probably hadn't been there when the house was built. Behind the chain, narrowed eyes peered through ashy blonde hair.

“Tom,” Lucy said. Her eyes flickered, looked small and startled for a moment, then she twisted around, shouting over her shoulder. “It's Tom."

“Shit, I didn't even recognize him.” Behind her, a man appeared in a bathrobe hanging open and pajama pants his greasy hair hanging in strings, several days’ accumulation of stubble now flecked with gray. Couldn't say he was surprised to see Dan with Lucy. Was even less surprised by the twist of loathing in his stomach. “Looks different without the 'stache," Dan observed, like Tom wasn't even there. "What the fuck’s he doing here?”

He willed his anger down. This wasn’t his house, Dan wasn't the intruder here. Not really, not after five years. Tom was, this time.

“I don’t know why he's here,” Lucy swung her eyes back to Tom. “Maybe he'll tell us.” Her voice was impatient, but there was real fear in her eyes, like a ghost had lurched out of the shadows at her. He imagined their positions reversed. In her shoes, he would have bracing himself for news. Wondering if there was something about Will and Julie, after all this time? He wondered if Lucy also woke up, and for a minute in the morning also forgot that the case was closed, that this wasn't forever November 1980, when any knock on the door would bring his children back to him or bring the worst news of his life. 

"You gonna tell us what the fuck you're doing here?" Lucy's harsh voice brought him back. 

“I just wanted to talk, about our future."

Lucy pulled away from the door, eyes searching for Dan in a kind of bemused horror. Dan snorted. "Why don't you get on gone, Lucy don't want you here."

"Jesus, it's not like--I want a divorce, Lucy."

That caught her attention. She paused, and then barked out a rough laugh. "What's the rush? You getting remarried?" Dan's lips quirked like she'd just told the funniest joke he'd ever heard.

"Just thought it was time to put this behind us. Would have called, but it turns out your phone number's a hard thing to find.” he was losing his patience, talking through a three-inch crack in the door. "Can we talk, Lucy? Alone?"

 “Anything you can say to Lucy, you can say to me.”

Lucy made a face at Dan trying to move his body between Lucy and the door, and shouldered him out of the way. "I don't need protecting, Dan. Go back to rolling a joint, and let me handle it.” She turned to Tom. She seemed to have recovered from whatever momentary fear she'd been startled into when he’d appeared. Now she was relaxing back into that bitter contempt he knew so well. “Jesus fucking Christ, Tom. You show up on my goddamn doorstep to talk divorce after five years?”

“You're supposed to send somebody else to serve the papers,” Dan informed him lazily, looking like he spoke with the wisdom of experience. “Maybe you should have looked into that before driving out here. Makes things a lot less uncomfortable for everyone.”

Lucy waved her hand, ignoring him. She was looking at Tom, eyes small and hard. "You better not be looking for anything from me in this divorce."

He almost snorted, asked what the hell either of them had that was worth fighting over. The kids' things, old pictures, maybe, but Lucy had barely touched that stuff, like she couldn't bear the sight of any of it. “I ain’t after money. I ain’t asking anything from you. Just thought it’d be something we’d both want, and it seemed I owed you the decency of talking it over in person, first.”

“Christ, Tom.” Lucy leaned her head on the doorframe, sizing him up with a hint of amusement.“Fine. I wasn’t expecting to get divorced today, but sure. Why not? Love to do it.”

She closed the door, then reopened it a moment later. Dan had taken a few steps back, all the lazy condescension gone from his posture, frowning between the two of them. “Guess I’ll leave you two alone for a minute,” he snapped, casting eyes at Lucy as he picked up a beer off the table and walked out. Tom wondered if he was planning to stay somewhere within earshot. Dan listening in on the two of them fighting again: just like old times. It seemed to Tom from the way they'd stood around each other that some of the shine had gone off Lucy and Dan's relationship, now that they were living together, apparently. Tom would have thought he might feel something about that, but he didn’t. He felt only a kind of muted sorrow as he looked at Lucy holding her arms tight around herself as she led him into the kitchen. She seemed thinner and more brittle than he remembered.

"Goddamn Dan," she muttered, hardly even seeming to be addressing Tom. "Probably going off to worry about me getting divorced, fret about whether I'll expect something from him now or what." 

"Didn't know that was legal," he said.

Lucy's jerked her head back, shot him a look of complete contempt. "You're one to fucking talk," she snapped. She led them into the kitchen, which laden with dirty dishes and a floor speckled with spills. She made straight for the fridge. "How'd you find us anyway?" she asked, pulling open the fridge door with a jerk. "Didn't think there was anyone still living in West Finger knew where I am."

“Someone with the police did me a favor, tracked down your address.”

"Oh You got a friend in the police now? Doing digging on us?"

"Just finding you. Wouldn't have had to, if you'd been easier to get in touch with."

She snorted again, and pulled viciously on the pull-tab of her beer. "Police. Any chance this is one of those assholes who stood around with their thumbs up their asses five years ago, not finding our kids?" She took his silence, and his glare as confirmation. "Figured. Well, that's great, knowing I got one of those assholes digging into my information."

"I don't give a fuck what you and Dan are getting up to here." He didn't much like how easily he slipped back into the same old habits of talking. The way lashing back felt so natural, when it was Lucy. Jesus, had he really done this for twelve years, so much it felt like instinct? "Even if I did, ain't much Arkansas state police could do about whatever meth Dan is cooking up in the basement or what the fuck you got going on here. Detective was just helping me out because I asked him to."

She slammed the beer can on the counter, and let out a short, hoarse laugh. "Sure, Tom, we're cooking meth. Why the hell not? Guess I'm just a strung-out junkie crack whore now, just like your parents always said I was. You come in here and talk like you know anything about my life or what I've been through these past five years." Her voice softened and cracked by the end.

The urge to fight died. "I'm sorry. I really am. You're right, I ain't in a position to judge. I made a mess of the last five years."

A tiny, hard smile, like some kind of tart underripe fruit flashed across her face as she studied him. "There's a reason I didn't offer you a beer. I can always tell when you're on the wagon." 

“This time is different,” he said softly. Lucy’d watched him try to quit before, and he’d learned not to court her thoughts on the subject. He ignored her skeptical look and put the papers on the table. "I didn't come here to fight with you. Look, here's the divorce papers, everything we need to sign. If we aren’t disputing anything, it’s an easy process.” 

Lucy sank down into one of the bar stools by the island scattered with plates. A snort as she flipped through the pages, giving them a desultory glance. “You just woke up, five years on, and decided to you want a divorce, huh?"

He thought of the little basement underneath the Presbyterian church on Main Street. The circle of folding chairs. Step five. His sponsor, an older man, good churchgoing man, holding both of Tom's hands clasped tight in his, saying, I know you’ve got a future ahead of you. I know God’s got plans for you, Tom. God's got another family in store for you, you just don't know what form it'll take. Tom had been helpless to do anything but cry, wanting a taste of the other man's faith, the confidence that there was a future for him, that his nature and his failure of those kids hadn't damned him forever. 

"I thought we both deserved to be free from the past."

Lucy snorted, waved the statement away. “Yeah? Free from the past? And you're still living in West Finger?"

“I went away, and I came back.” He wondered how much of the outline of the last of five years she could read on him--the criss-crossing across the south, drifting from one shitty job to another, the nights sleeping in his car, the styrofoam cups of coffee in a church basement. He had to remind himself she really didn't know any of that, and she thankfully didn't know what'd finally brought him back to West Finger. The night his car had finally given up by the side of the road, that car he'd spent so many nights working on in the garage while Will and Julie paused to lean over the hood and watch him work. He'd been broke, unemployed for a month and drifting, when that car he'd been so proud of finally stalled out and died near the Oklahoma border. No family he wasn't too ashamed to call. Only a scrap of paper with a number on it in his pocket. 

“Why you’d want to hang around that fucking town, I don’t know," Lucy was continuing. "Place was always full of a bunch of self-righteous busybodies. Don't miss that fucking place for a minute."

He hadn't intended to come back either, not until Detective West had shown up on the lonely stretch of highway, not commenting on Tom's beard or the backseat that was full to the brim with everything he could fit back there. Roland had just greeted him like an old friend, not like the unlucky near-stranger sonofabitch he was. Like they had known each other for something other than a few weeks five years ago in a waking nightmare. He had allowed Detective West to take him to his apartment, let him sleep in his guest room, because he was too tired to fight. Too weak to keep running.

He looked at Lucy, old habits kicking in, the instinct to hide vulnerability around her, all too familiar. "West Finger's dying, now that the chicken plant closed."

"Read something about that." Lucy finished her beer in a long draught, tossed the can in the trash. "Good. Fuck that old plant. Fuck all those housewives in the neighborhood, used to wave their money around, act like they were better than, just cause their husbands had a foreman's salary."

"It wasn't easy there. I don't blame you for leaving," he said. That was true. Lucy's dislike of West Finger had been the one thing he'd always known about her. The thing he'd always liked in her, and recognized in himself. That bristling intensity, a chip on the shoulder about small town life and a willingness to fight about. That was the one thing they'd ever bonded about, those three months they'd dated, driving around his mint green car like it was hot shit. Goddamn West Finger, and all the white-toothed assholes thought they knew something they didn't about Lucy and Tom. Of course, that summer and that fumbling in the back of his Ford Falcon, trying to prove something he couldn't, had only dug them in deeper. Wasn't that the fucking irony of it all.

Lucy was fiddling with her lighter now. They'd both been silent for a while, both lost in similar thoughts, maybe. "Why the fuck did you go back?" she asked. "You were better off leaving, forgetting that place."

 He thought for a moment. Thought about Detective West bringing him there, because he had nowhere left to turn. But he couldn't say that, and it wasn't all the truth anyway.  “Being there makes me feel closer to the kids.” He tried to explain about his weekly ritual of going to the cemetery and cleaning the graves, the way it felt, tending and protecting them. Lucy listened, her eyes going cold as he spoke, stiffening up like a frightened cat. "Everyone's probably judging me for not throwing myself into my dead kids’ graves like a mother’s supposed to, I guess.” 

A breath caught in his throat. With effort, he released it slowly. Set aside the rage. Lucy was just another person, hurting just like he was. “I don't think that. I think you're carrying a heavy burden around. Blaming yourself. It ain't your fault."

Lucy laughed, harsh and the first laugh that sounded well and truly drunk. “Jesus Christ. Sober and in therapy. I don't have time to deal with this today. I got friends coming over,” she said. 

“Friends?”

“Yeah, friends." She fumbled across the island for the sink, where a gold-plated watch lay between the dishrags, and she cursed as she looked at the time. "Goddammit, it's later than I thought. I need to get showered and you need to get lost. I’ll sign your papers tomorrow."

"You're going to put this off?"

"We’ve waited five fucking years to end this marriage, God knows it can wait another day.”

_

Tom didn't have the money for a motel. He'd been hoping, naively, that they'd get it all over and done with in one day and he'd be back on the road to Arkansas. He ended up curled up in the backseat of his car on a side road in town, with the sleeping bag and the pillow he'd used before, in those final few months of drifting. That was when he'd been living out of his car, near the end of his spiral. His back was still fucked up from eight weeks not able to lie down properly. A shiver ran through him tonight, as he burrowed deeper into the sleeping bag, feeling the warmth leech out of the car, He had a small flashlight with him that would have let him read for a while, if he had anything to read. He shivered again. At least this seemed like the proper way to end things with Lucy, spending one more night miserable and not sleeping.

As he shifted his body, he felt the crinkle of paper in his breast pocket against his chest. With trembling fingers, he drew the piece of paper out of his pocket. Flipped his flashlight on. He knew he wasn't going to find anything on it but Lucy's address, written in Detective West's loose scrawl.

-

“I need your help,” Tom had said to Roland. They were halfway through breakfast, cold eggs still on his plate, hands shaky and nervously tapping his feet under the booth. It'd become a sort of ritual, meeting at the diner every Sunday morning, before the church crowd flooded in. Roland always inviting him, and Tom never pretending he had any other plans. Roland looked up now, putting down his fork on the plate and raising his eyebrows expectantly.

"I need help finding Lucy."

Roland shot him a look that Tom he'd seen most often in the days when Roland had still been coming to pick him up from bars with blood running down his lips and knuckles. A kind of mild concern that made him more ashamed than a look of outright disapproval would. “What for?”

“Thinking about getting a divorce." He looked down at the table and started tearing one of Roland's empty sugar packets into thin strips. Feeling like he was admitting something strangely private and vulnerable.

Roland nodded, chewing that one over. He took a sip of coffee, winced, and reached for the sugar. “You got other options than tracking her down, don’t you?”

"I could put a notice in the paper. Don't really want to, though."

Roland didn't question that, just took a long sip of sweetened coffee, nodding thoughtfully, like he was satisfied.

"Feels like I've seen our names in the paper enough to last a lifetime."

Roland put his coffee down. "You can send someone to serve her. Easier option, especially if you're worried she'll put up a fight about the divorce."

"She never liked being married to me before. Don't see why that'd change now."

Roland shrugged. "Hell, I think it's great, you being ready to move on." Those goddamn earnest eyes staring straight through him. Boring into his. Tom tried to avoid his gaze, but he could still feel it on him.  "You've come real far this year, and you done all this for yourself. I think it's time you cut yourself free. See what the future brings."

Roland never talked about the future. Never talked about Tom's love life like he had any thoughts on it. It was strange, hearing him do it now. He felt a queasy thrill run through him at it, aware of the painful gap between what Roland must imagine would bring Tom happiness--another wife, more kids--and the sorry, unnatural reality. Even sober, even going to church and praying to God, he couldn't seem to purify every part of himself. But he still tried, tried to open his heart to the possibility of his own change. He still prayed for some kind of miracle to take place, even if God had never been in the practice of giving him miracles. "I need to talk to Lucy first," he said. "I owe her that much. I ain't been much of a husband to her."

He recognized the little twist of Roland's mouth, like he was fighting back a sharp remark. Tom wasn't sure he was ready to hear whatever Roland was biting back. "I'm asking you because I need help finding her. I don't know where she is, ain't heard from her in years. Will you help me?"

The little furrows between Roland brows met and deepened. He seemed to be thinking the matter over.

"You can tell me to fuck off if that's against the rules or whatever," Tom muttered, feeling suddenly embarrassed that he was asking Roland for one more thing.

“It's no problem. I can't make any promises, but I'll find out what I can.” 

He felt the weight always drawing his mouth down easing for just a second.  A strange twist of hope and longing unspooled in his chest as Roland leaned back in the booth, shifted his attention to his toast, making sure he scraped strawberry jam over every of it. Roland talked about Tom moving on, that made anything seem possible. Roland had never tried to promise him things would be all right, that God had a plan for him. Whatever Roland really believed about God, he wasn't that way. But even if Roland was nothing more than the backslid Baptist he claimed to be, he gave Tom faith. 

_

Roland had shown up at his garage a couple weeks later. Standing by Roland's car, leaning against it in the midday sun. Roland had handed him the slip of paper with the address on it. "Current as of three weeks ago. It's a long drive. You can still get someone else to serve her. Shit, I’d drive there myself, serve the fucking papers myself, except at this point I don’t think I count as any kind of disinterested bystander.”

Tom had startled at the words. “I guess not. You, uh, ain't ever been any great fan of Lucy, have you?" 

"Can't say I have." Roland looked at him, nodded.

"I got to do this," Tom said, and Roland had nodded. "Feels like a part of my recovery."

Roland had nodded, raised his hand to his own forehead, like he was briefly forgetting he wasn't wearing a hat. "Then do what you got to do. Just give me a call when you get back, would you? I like to know you're okay." 

-

Back in his car, the memories of Roland and whatever stupid impulses had drove him out here to seek Lucy's opinion on divorce flashed through his mind. He curled deeper into his sleeping bag. As he drifted off to sleep, Lucy's address still in hand, he thought of that other scrap of paper he'd kept in his wallet as he criss-crossed the country all those years. No matter how many times he scoured his wallet for spare bills and threw away other remnants of those awful months when the case was open--the number from the prosecutors's office, the cards of therapists and church pressed into his hand, he’d hung onto that plain piece of scrap paper. Didn't know why he'd hung onto it then, didn't know why he was thinking about it now. He guessed there was just something comforting about having one of Roland's notes on him, glancing at those familiar cursive looping letters, schoolboy neat.

_

Lucy met him at three, exactly as she’d said she would, in the parking lot of some flat little strip mall with a photocopy shop and a notary public. He kept rolling his shoulders, trying to get the crick out of his neck from sleeping in the car, but he couldn't seem to work it out. They signed the papers together, sitting side-by-side. He couldn't help but think about them signing their marriage license seventeen years earlier in the courthouse. Lucy's granite-faced aunt had been beside them, with her eyes fixed on Lucy, her upper lip curling. Lucy had leaned into him as they signed, like she was trying to disappear into his side and out of her view. He had put an arm around her shoulder, trying to offer her what strength and comfort he could. They had never felt that close again.

He glanced sidelong at Lucy now, sitting a good foot-and-half away, her legs swiveled away from him for good measure as she dutifully signed papers. Tom hadn't asked after her night. Didn't register that he noticed the tired bags under her eyes or Lucy trying to rub her nose inconspicuously with the back of her hand.

The papers were finished. Divorce was a surprisingly smooth process with no money or shared property to fight over. No custody to dispute.

Back outside, they walked in the same direction towards their cars. High plains clouds had massed overhead while they were inside, and the wind had picked up. Tom fought with the zipper on his jacket. Lucy tightened her sweater around her, glowered down at her feet. He felt some age-old instinct to wrap his coat around her. It would have been ill-received even back when they were married.

“Glad that’s over with," she said. "Should have done that years ago.”

Whatever he’d been hoping to feel, whatever tension he’d hoped would have been loosened in him felt tighter than ever. “I got something else to say." Better say it now, before he ran out of time. "Want to sorry. I wasn't any good at being a husband to you. I've had time to think since I've gotten sober. Faced up to my sins, how much the drink poisoned things between us--”

 "Jesus, Tom," she said, throwing her hair. "What step is this? Fifth?"

"That's not...I'm trying to apologize, dammit."

But he'd already lost her, her earrings bobbing as she shook her head. "It never fails. Any one of those puritans ever think maybe not everyone from your past wants to get roped into some bullshit penitence ritual?”

"I ain't bullshitting, Lucy. It's the goddamn truth."

She was shaking her head, with hard glittering eyes. "You know, it's the strangest coincidence. One of those friends over last night. He was an old buddy from West Finger, finally just up and left for good six months ago. And he told me before he left, though, he heard gossip. You came back to town. You were living with a man. A cop from Fayeteville."

"What the fuck's that supposed to mean?" he said, trying to push aside the way his skin on his neck was prickling.

"This the same cop you sent digging up my address?"

He rolled his eyes. "I didn't have anywhere to go when I came back, and he took me in. I'm on my own now."

"Guess it makes sense. Cop getting off to misery and misfortune, deciding he likes you."

"You've got a fucked-up mind."

She was shaking her head, like she'd seen all the way through him. “Me? Jesus, that's rich. You know I can't believe for the longest time, I thought it was me that was the problem. Thought I was the reason you wouldn't touch me. You know how unnatural you made me feel, how worthless, not giving me what any normal man would want? And you're still pretending the problem was, what, you drinking too much?”

But I have them both under control now, he wanted to say. Thought, for a bitter second, that he might have also said them. 

"What the fuck does it matter? I made a lot of mistakes. And you need to shut your fucking mouth about him." He took one step towards her, then stopped. She was leaning into it, all too eager to meet him. She laughed.

"You think you can just show up in my life again, acting all sober and mighty, looking all pitying at how I live my life?" she snorted. "You don't get to judge. I know what you are Tom, and I know what you're really like."

There were a hundred things he could have snapped back, but his mind felt eerily blank of all of them for a moment. He must have looked thoroughly disarmed, because she snorted, and turned away and didn't look back. "Have a nice life, Tom.”

-

He felt a kind of pervading numbness as he sat in his car, keys in his lap, staring out the windshield. Lucy doesdn't know shit kept recurring angrily through his head. Which was bullshit. Getting called a faggot at work or at the bar had never failed to put him in a fighting mode, and it wasn't because it was complete bullshit. It seemed to him now that it'd been stupid of him, to try to apologize. To try to give her the version of events he told in AA meeting  when she knew otherwise. When they both knew better. 

But why was she saying shit about him and Roland? She didn't know fuck-all about Roland. Just threw her accusations around wherever they might land, whether they stuck or not. 

He leaned his head against the cool glass of the window. Realized the fantasy of a family, of God's plan for him, was just a fantasy he'd gotten swept up in. If he allowed himself to chase it, he'd end up making some other woman miserable, and making himself more miserable than he already was. If it took Lucy saying it to make the blindingly obvious clear, then he was a fool. Or had just gotten swept up in things, the promise of recovery, the sight of Roland's eyes soft and fond, him saying, "I'm proud of what you done with yourself this year."

Tom groaned. Fuck.

When he finally put the car in gear and headed for home, the rest of the night passed in a blur of headlights and highway markers. At two in the morning, when he started to scare himself with swerving, he pulled over to the side of the road and tried to sleep. He fell into a thin and restless sleep, and when he woke up with another crick in his neck, he decided that whatever else happened in the future, he was never going to spend the night in his fucking car again. As he drove, he realized that he wanted a drink like he hadn't in weeks, but he didn't want to give Lucy the satisfaction.

He'd been an angry, frightened kid desperately trying to convince himself he was anything but when he'd started drinking at seventeen. The same as he'd been at nineteen, when he'd got Lucy in trouble.

Lying to himself about what he was seemed to lurk at the center of so many of his mistakes.

 He came to a stop at an intersection, and glanced down at the paper he'd tossed in the passenger seat beside him beside him. Certificate of divorce by the state of Texas. He sighed. The last bonds of the only family he'd ever made for himself, neatly severed and preserved in carbon copy. God took and took, that was the mystery of Him.

He got home around nine in the evening, to a ringing phone from a telemarketer and a cold trailer that seemed that much smaller, after being in Lucy's house. Smaller, but neater.

Even food seemed like too much trouble, tonight. His bed was calling to him and he decided not to resist, unplugging the phone as he did, because he'd already spent the last two nights getting woken up by roaring semi-trucks along the road, like fuck was a telemarketer going to interrupt him now. He stretched out across his bed, barely bothering to kick off his shoes, and he marveled at the simple pleasure of stretching out across the length of a bed, his toes uncurling under the covers.

He woke to knocking on the door. For a second, he was so disoriented that he thought it was a knock on the windshield, some cop telling him to move along. He pulled himself up on his elbows in bed and looked around the room at light pouring through the windows. He must have been more tired than he realized, because it was almost noon.

The knock on the door came again.

Forcing himself up, eyes still scratchy and head still foggy, he went to the door.

It didn't occur to him Roland might be on the other side until he pushed open the door and saw him standing there, hands in pockets, dressed casual in jeans and boots. Tom stiffened up.

"Hey," Tom said. "Everything alright?"

"Now, that was going to be my line," Roland said, looking the room. "Sorry to come all this way and bother you. Tried to call but your phone was disconnected. Hope that wasn't a signal to stay away, not bother to you."

"Just to salespeople," he squinted at the noonday sun. It seemed wrong to him that the sun should be so bright, Roland's smile so easy in it. "Didn't sleep too well on this trip, needed to catch up on all the sleep I could before Monday."

"Should have thought of that."

Tom blinked at him, eyes adjusting. Roland was looking at him with evident concern in his eyes. Not the kind of look he usually got from people worried he might have been drinking, barely restrained suspicion. He looked at him gently, like he was trying to hide some kind of fondness. Was that a real look, or had Tom imagined it.

"How was Lucy?"

He struggled with the urge to offer some kind of answer, but couldn't wrestle one into words. It was too much, too many conflicted emotions there, too many feelings of failure he didn't think he'd ever quite be clear of. "Still trucking. She ain't my wife anymore, though."

There was no mistaking it. Roland's smile was genuine. "Good for you, son. Feel alright?"

He took a heavy, shaky breath. Considered it. "It feels...right. Feels more honest."

"So, any chance you still want breakfast? The church crowd should be clearing out by now. It'll be more like brunch now, but my treat."

Tom had a feeling he knew where this was in danger of going, if he let it. Looking at Roland, he heard himself say, "No. Let's save ourselves the trip into town. I'll make breakfast."

Roland's eyes got a startled look in them, like he was seeing Tom afresh. Sensing something new there. Tom didn't want to know what that was, but whatever it was, it seemed to make Roland smile, an honest, hopeful kind of smile Tom didn't think he'd ever seen on his face before. He decided he liked it. "I'd like that."

Tom followed him in, wondering what he was doing, hosting Roland for breakfast for the first time, still in his road-stiff clothes that he'd slept in. Roland didn't seem to mind that. Guess he'd seen Tom grimy and unshowered plenty of times, in those blurry first weeks when Tom was back in West Finger. Lurking like a ghost around his apartment. Tom having been stiff and sullen the whole time, mostly prone to sleeping and staring at walls. They had barely moved around Roland's kitchen at the same time. But they slipped into Tom's kitchen together all right. They ended up standing side by side, Tom chopping peppers, and Roland beating eggs, the two forced to maneuver close together for empty counter space near the stove.

"I think maybe you were right," Tom muttered. Feeling his heart just about pounding from being so casually close, their elbows almost knocking. "Maybe should have sent someone else to serve her."

"Goddamn. She that hard on you?" Roland sounded kinda pissed. It made Tom glance nervously at him, though his eyes were fixed on the egg.

He shrugged. "Some of it was true."

Roland shook his head. "I'm just an interested observer, but personally I think you're better off not taking life advice from Lucy fucking Purcell."

"It really wasn't as bad as I'm making it sounds. She gave me some things to think about." Tom fell quiet, the only sound the one of the knife and the eggs whipping in the bowl.  "I miss having a family," he whispered, trying not to choke on the words. "I miss my kids. But this made me realize I ain't ever gonna marry again."

He could see Roland's arm stop whipping, the fork going still in the bowl as he turned to look at Tom. Study him, almost. "Lucy help you decide that?"

His knife kept right on slicing, keeping an even rhythm. "Well I certainly wasn't made for Lucy."

"No one was," said Roland. Tom had to bark out a laugh, so loud and sudden it must have left no mistakes about his nerves at that moment.

"No. But really. I'm just not made for that. Having a wife."

Roland was still, the bowl of eggs mixed into a smooth yellow beside his hand. He wasn't making any move toward the stove, but he wasn't moving out of the tight space either, wedged between Tom and the washer. Tom had lost the rhythm on the knife, and finally stopped cutting altogether. "I get that," Roland said. "Can't say that's ever felt like it fit me all that well, either."

"Yeah?" Tom swallowed. "I guess it took me way to long to figure that out."

They looked at each other, and Tom looked away first. Roland was still for a long time.

Tom looked again. Steady this time, meeting Roland's gaze. Aware of what he was opening himself up to. New kinds of hurt, just waiting to be experienced. 

Roland stepped forward, murmured, "It ain't so bad, not being made for that." His hand was hanging between their thighs, brushing up against Tom's fingers ever so gently. It tickled. Tom expected to jerk his hand away. Instead, when Roland's fingers kept brushing his, gentle but persistent, he caught Roland's hand in his, held it. Roland let him hold on tight to his hand, gazing with implacable kindness in Tom's eyes. "People can find family in all kinds of places."

Tom tried not to exhale as Roland brought his free hand to brush Tom's face. Tried not to shudder against the pad of his thumb sweeping the sensitive skin beside his lip. Tom realized he was squeezing Roland's hand so tight it hurt, but Roland didn't seem to mind. Just stepped closer, toe-to-toe, warmth rushing against each other through their clothes. They kissed, breakfast momentarily forgotten.