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As Fine a Fellow as he Looks

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Jacob slept all through the next day, and wanted to sleep through Monday, and became quite intransigent when told he could not.

“You have to go to school, Jacob,” Kevin said.

“My dog just died,” Jacob rebutted.

“I know that,” Kevin said tersely. “Unfortunately institutions do not recognize pets for bereavement days. Do you think I have not asked before? Raymond and I both have to attend work, so you have to attend school.”

“I don’t need you to stay home with me,” said Jacob. “I’m almost fifteen! I can call in sick.”

“What good would that do?” asked Kevin. “You’ll just wallow here all day. You’ll end up feeling worse.”

Jacob, peeking out from blankets pulled over his head, didn’t respond right away. “I’m sad,” he finally said.

“You’ll be sad either way. You might as well be sad at school.” Kevin looked at their son with fond, weary indulgence. “Don’t you want to see your friends?”

Jacob held his gaze a while, calculating. Then he got out of bed.

When Raymond returned home from work that afternoon, Jacob was in the back garden with his friends Charles and Regina. Charles had brought over Richard, one of Cheddar’s pups, whom Jacob held to his chest in a cradling motion. “Dog bra,” he sang, Raymond’s least favourite of his Cheddar-related amusements. “Dog braaaaa.”

Raymond said hello to the children and then left them to their own devices, figuratively or literally, finding the company of teenagers to be especially trying. He stayed nearby in the kitchen, going over the family’s weekly budget. He wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, necessarily, so he mostly only heard the tone of their conversation rather than the substance.

Throughout their talk, though, Jacob’s voice got progressively sadder, and wetter, and louder, culminating in a pained sigh.

“Come here, Dickie,” said Charles, after the dog made a squeaking noise. He had probably wriggled out of Jacob’s grasp, prompting the sigh.

“Everything sucks,” Jacob proclaimed.

“I know how you feel, buddy,” said Charles. “After Molly died, I was crushed.”

“Pop says that love always ends in separation,” said Jacob. “And the more you love something, the more it hurts when you lose it.”

“Ew,” said Regina. “Guess I’m never falling in love, then. Sounds like a fool’s game.”

“But…” Jacob’s voice hitched. “I can’t imagine not having her. I miss her so much.”

“Oh, no, Jake,” Charles said, clearly already crying.

“Cheddar!” Jacob sobbed.

Molly!” Charles sobbed.

“Meeengnggghh!!!” Regina sobbed.

“Why are you crying,” Jacob said, sniffling heavily.

“BECAUSE MY FRIENDS ARE SAD AND I’M SAD!” Regina wailed. “Don’t point it out, it’s embarrassing! Don’t look at me! DON’T LOOK AT ME!”

Raymond took himself to the parlour.

Despite any opinions they had on the subject, time continued to pass. Mrs. Larson brought over a casserole. The sun rose, and set, and rose again. Kevin shed his tears in the evenings, by himself or only in Raymond’s company. Otherwise he quietly held his grief to his chest, cooking and tidying and carrying on.

Raymond went to work, and stoically endured a hug from Detective Jeffords.

Jacob barely spoke to his fathers. He’d come home from school, and besides that one day when his friends were with him, he’d immediately shut himself up in his room. Some of this was normal teenage moodiness, to be sure. Jacob had cloistered himself in his room before, stormed off from dinner in a fit of rage once or twice. But while puberty was as hard on Jacob as it is on anyone, he was still his mischievous, cheerful self underneath it all. He always went sweet again. His bad moods rarely lasted a full day, if even that. This time, it lingered.

If Kevin tucked his feelings in neatly, Jacob wore all his loudly and raggedly upon his sleeve. He shouted them from the rooftops. If he could be said to take after anyone in the extended Cozner-Holt family, he somehow took after Debbie.

Four days after Cheddar’s death, Jacob deigned to join them for dinner, after being called down several times. He picked at his food sulkily while his fathers discussed the business of the day.

“How was school today, Jacob?” Raymond asked.

“I don’t know,” Jacob mumbled. “Fine.”

“I hope they’ve found whoever was vandalizing teachers’ cars,” said Kevin.

Raymond played a rare gambit to get a reaction out of Jacob. “Imagine painting phalluses on vehicles to get attention.” When there was no response, Raymond went a step further. “Of course, a phallus is a penis.”

Jacob didn’t react, staring down at his plate. When he realized his fathers were waiting for a response, he looked between them suspiciously.

“Jacob, you look like you have something to say,” Kevin prodded.

Jacob scowled. “I wanna stay at my mom’s this weekend,” he mumbled.

Kevin blinked. “You usually stay with your mother on the third weekend of the month. Though I— I’m sure, if we ask, she might not mind switching it.”

Jacob huffed an impatient sigh. “Yeah, I know she won’t mind. She never minds.”

“It’s simply that I thought we could go drive through the pines this weekend,” said Kevin. “Get away from the city for a bit.”

“Why would I want to go for a drive with you guys?” Jacob sneered. “So we can all sit in silence and pretend nothing happened?”

“Excuse me,” Kevin warned.

“You’re excused!” Jacob shot back. “I’m sick of pretending I’m not sad all the time. Why can’t we all just be sad?”

“Jacob, you will keep a civil tongue in your mouth if you’re going to eat at our table,” Raymond scolded.

“Oh yeah, civility is the most important thing,” Jacob cried. “If it wasn’t for civility we might actually share an emotion!” He stood and tossed his cutlery upon the table. “I’ll send myself to my room. I don’t wanna have dinner with a couple of robots anyway.”

Jacob stormed off from the table and ran upstairs. The absence of little dog claws skittering on the floor after him was notable.

Kevin was upset, of course, but he told Raymond not to punish Jacob. “Of course he’s angry,” he said, while they were cleaning up the kitchen. “Nothing we can do will make him stop being angry. And he has nowhere to send that anger except towards us.”

“He crossed the line,” said Raymond.

“I agree,” said Kevin. “And if he does not apologize in the morning, we can talk about it then.” Then he paused, because he had opened the pantry and espied a bag of dog food left untouched for a week, and after that he seemed to not want to talk about anything.

Jacob did apologize to them in the morning, a sullen, token teenage version of an apology, scowling and mumbling at the floor. But it was an apology unprompted, so they knew it was the best they were going to get.

That evening, Raymond drove him to Karen’s house. They said very little, though Jacob now seemed more like a resigned, wet rag than a coiled ball of fury.

Karen answered the door, smiling widely as usual, and was surprised when Jacob, now almost as tall as she was, barrelled into her for a hug.

“Oh, Jakey,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

“Cheddar’s dead,” he sobbed.

She gasped. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.” She hugged Jacob close and they both sobbed.

Raymond was certain that Karen had only met Cheddar a handful of times. Their relationship with her was very strict, laid out under tight guidelines, and extremely appropriate. Jacob was Kevin and Raymond’s son, and he visited her for one weekend a month. Outside of Jacob’s birthdays, and two Passovers so far where Karen and her mother felt observant enough to host, the families did not spend a lot of time together.

And yet here she was, sobbing for a small dog she barely knew.

“Raymond,” she said. “I’m sorry. Come here.” She gestured him into the hug.

Raymond demurred. “I’m quite all right. Enjoy your weekend.”

Raymond and Kevin went for that drive by themselves, and Kevin was right. It was a massive relief to be out of the city at a time like that. Although they found Cheddar missing there as much as she was missing at home. That’s the problem with dogs. They go almost everywhere their owners do, so nowhere was untouched.

Jacob was softer the next week, as he always was after a weekend with his mother. On Wednesday night, when Raymond was held at work late and missed dinner, he arrived to find Kevin and Jacob sitting together in the living room, watching a movie.

“Hey Dad,” said Jacob. “We’re watching Bourne.”

“It’s actually not that bad,” said Kevin.

They were sitting very close. Jacob was generally too big for this sort of thing, and had been claiming he was too big for years. But he sat with his head on Kevin’s shoulder. There was a box of tissues on the coffee table.

Perhaps the reason Kevin felt the movie was not that bad was because they were barely watching. They talked through it, sometimes catching up on what happened in the film, more often reminiscing about some memorable thing Cheddar had done.

“I will have some food, and then join you,” said Raymond. He bent down to kiss them both on the forehead.

Three weeks after Cheddar had passed, Raymond was starting to get concerned about Jacob. This seemed a long time to be so actively distraught by the death of a pet. Kevin still carried grief, he knew, but it came and went in gentle waves. Jacob seemed like he was still a raw wound— scabbing over, maybe, but bleeding anew each time the scab was torn.

One afternoon after work and school, Raymond came home to find Jacob sitting in the back garden, making kissy noises at one of Mrs. Larson’s grey tabby cats. Raymond got himself a glass of water, and after some consideration, decided it would be acceptable for Jacob to have some orange soda.

“Thanks,” Jacob said, surprised, when Raymond gave him the orange soda. He looked even more surprised when Raymond sat on the ground next to him.

Raymond looked at his son. He resisted the urge to run his hand through Jacob’s hair, as Jacob would only push him away because he was almost fifteen now and he hated that, jeez!.

“You seemed morose,” Raymond decided to say. “Is everything okay?”

Jacob avoided his gaze, staring down at his lap. After a long pause, he opened his can of orange soda. “I’m tired of being sad. But then I feel guilty for that, because I should be sad, because Cheddar’s gone. Like today I felt okay in the morning. And then after lunch I remembered, and I felt like a jerk. So now I’m sad and I feel like a jerk for not being sad, and I don’t know what to do. But I can’t not be sad, or not not be sad. I hate it.”

Raymond, after sorting through the negatives to find the meaning, considered his response carefully. What Jacob felt was not something Raymond was used to. He had so many feelings wrapped in layers. Helping Jacob sort through them was a difficult challenge for Raymond, and something he honestly usually left to Kevin. But Kevin had been taking extra office hours lately. Perhaps, Raymond realized belatedly, to distract himself from Jacob’s grief, and his own.

“You feel emotions very strongly,” Raymond said. “They’re always there, on the top, and you always express them. Sometimes I think you feel them so strongly you cannot help but express them. And that’s a gift, really. You get it from your mother, you didn’t get that from us. Kevin uses words to express how he feels. They are not always his own words, but he found a way to… he had to teach me to talk about feelings, you know. Before we met, I truly was a robot.”

Jacob snorted, like he couldn’t imagine Raymond as even more robotic than he was.

“And somehow, despite that, you’re still so open,” Raymond continued. Which we love. It’s a gift. It’s a good thing. But that also means you’re going to feel these unpleasant feelings very strongly.”

Jacob looked troubled. “I like feeling things. Usually. But this is just…” He sighed miserably, petting the tabby in his lap.

“It will fade,” said Raymond. “I promise. It will get easier, and one day you’ll be able to think about her without feeling so sad. And that sense of guilt for not feeling sad— that is only there because you loved her so much. You want her to be properly honoured. That will fade, too.”

Jacob hung his head, listening intently. After a long while, he sniffled. “Why don’t you ever cry? Even Pop cried. With you it’s like…” Jacob scowled and looked away. “Don’t you ever feel anything?”

“I have many emotions,” said Raymond.

“Like what?” Jacob scoffed.

“Like trepidation, and anger,” Raymond admitted. “A lot of trepidation and a lot of anger, about things you haven’t yet had cause to think about. I experience the emotions of regret, and envy. And pride. You know that. I am simply not as demonstrative with my feelings as you are.”

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean,” said Jacob. “I know you’re a robot. But this was Cheddar.” Even now, three weeks out, he could not say her name without his voice breaking and tears threatening. “Why aren’t you sad?”

Raymond fell silent for a moment, watching the rise and fall of the tabby cat’s little chest as she slept, draped across Jacob’s leg.

“When I was young, younger than you, my father died. It was an unexpected illness, and it happened very fast. Debbie was a toddler, and Mother had to care of her, and work, and stay on top of her studies. So I had to be strong. For Mother and for Debbie. I had to be the protector that my father had been. So I had no time to sit and cry. But more than that…”

More than that, it hurt so impossibly bad that he could not stand it.

“Even now, if I try to think about my father…” Raymond gestured vaguely at his own torso. “I can feel it there. Near my diaphragm. If I pay attention to it, it impedes my ability to breathe. So from the time I was eight or nine, I decided it would be best to simply not look at it.”

Jacob stared at him, brows furrowed.

“Love is… frightening for me,” Raymond admitted. “Because of how my father died. I was preoccupied, I think, compared to other children. Preoccupied with the prospect of being left alone. So I became very choosy about who I let in. The list of people I love is small. There’s you and your father. My mother, and my sister. And then there was Ch…”

His voice caught in his throat. He coughed uncomfortably, and looked anywhere but at his son. Jacob only kept gazing back at him, lashes wet.

“It’s hard for me to look at these feelings, because it’s not just Cheddar. It’s not just that she’s gone. It’s also that you aren’t a small child anymore. Your father and I are not young anymore. And it’s frightening to think that…”

Jacob nodded. “That everybody goes away eventually. And nothing ever stays. Like Pop said. Love always ends in separation.”

Raymond nodded.

“So you do miss her,” said Jacob.

“Of course,” said Raymond. “Cheddar was my fluffy—”

His voice broke almost in half. It was like all at once the dam fell apart, and for the first time in years, decades, possibly even since his father had died, Raymond wept.

“Oh, Dad,” Jacob said, crying anew himself. “No, please don’t cry. I’m sorry. This isn’t what I wanted. I’m sorry.” He gently set the confused and sleepy tabby cat aside, got up on his knees, and wrapped his arms around Raymond’s shoulders.

Raymond, foolish beyond words, clutched at his son. It was overwhelming, this disorienting flood of grief and sadness that rushed out of him, overriding any other thought or feeling he might have. He just held Jacob, and wept.

“I miss her, too,” Jacob said, sobbing into Raymond’s shoulder.

After a few minutes— a surprisingly small amount of time, Raymond thought, given how long he had been bottling all that up for fear it would destroy him— they calmed themselves, and sat side by side on the g round. Raymond fished out his handkerchief to dry his eyes, tutting while Jacob wiped his face with the sleeves of his sweat shirt.

“I’m trying to say something to cheer you up,” said Jacob. “But I can’t think of anything.”

“It is certainly not your job to cheer me up,” said Raymond.

“Yeah,” said Jacob, lifting the tabby cat so he could kiss her face. “I guess we just have to feel what we feel, huh?”

Raymond stayed silent a moment, his mind curiously numb and calm after all that crying, like a raging river smoothing out into a placid, still lake.

“Thank you for acknowledging my feelings,” he said.

Jacob smiled up at him. “Thank you for acknowledging mine.”

Half a decade later, while a few archaic strictures remained in place, Jacob could no longer legally or colloquially be called a child.

They had acquired new dogs as time went on: a pair of non-related corgis adopted separately, with two years between them. Haydn and Sakamoto. They were, Raymond had admitted while Kevin smiled at him smugly, a corgi family now— though Jacob declared that when he settled down, he’d probably get cats. (Debbie, who was present at the time, opined that this made sense— Jacob was too much like a dog himself to actually have a dog, and he needed a cat to “balance out his energy.” Raymond refrained from making any statements about Debbie’s “energy,” or her egregiously aloof cats.)

Jacob graduated high school no later than his peers, firmly on the average side of accomplishments and grades, but no less a pride to his fathers. At 18, before leaving for college at Ithaca, Jacob and his friend Regina decided to do a traditional grand tour and backpack throughout Europe. Charles, of course, wanted desperately to go, but was already obliged to work on a cousin’s farm in Iowa for the summer.

Kevin drew up a detailed travel itinerary, and he and Raymond debated the merits of specific cultural sights, both of them choosing to pretend that Jacob and Regina weren’t just going to spend three months sampling various alcohols and flirting with the locals.

It was the first time Jacob would be away from them for more than a week or two. Even then, he’d been at CSI Camp, a short drive upstate. Now he’d be an ocean away, a day’s travel in the event of any catastrophe. He was tall, and his voice had deepened, and he was not a child, though he was somehow still the same tiny helpless babe that Raymond had carried in the crook of his arm on the day they first met. Raymond felt a lot of emotions when he drove them to the airport. Trepidation, and pride, and some other hesitant, small, bittersweet hurt that he could not classify.

After they had checked in and dropped their baggage, Kevin gave Jacob and Regina both a hug. He patted Jacob on the back, and reminded him to text as soon as his flight landed safely in Paris.

Then it was Raymond’s turn for farewells. “Jacob.”

“Sir,” Jacob said, smiling that irrepressible smile of his. He held out his hand for a firm shake.

Up. Down. Separation.

THE END.