“Delahoy.” Alvarez had been hovering by the taped up corner of Leo’s desk for at least five minutes, apparently awaiting acknowledgment. Eric had been hoping he wouldn’t have broken for at least another ten minutes until Leo got back with lunch.
But apparently he would have to interact. “Alvarez.”
“Eddie Alvarez is not a stupid man. Eddie Alvarez is fluent in seven languages and conversant in ten more. Did you know that, Delahoy?”
“I can’t say I did,” said Eric. He kept his voice disinterested, which‒ hey, he was. Always nice when it lined up like that. He had been having problems with that lately, regulating his tone. He had actually sounded excited when he asked Cole about his bible study the other day.
Alvarez was leaning in close, thigh sinking into the padding on Leo’s desk. “Learning a new language is a bit like being a detective. You put together pieces. Which is how I know.”
He was staring at Eric, mustache bristling intensely. Eric automatically slouched in response. The man was far too high strung. “I have no idea what you’re waiting for me to say. Though of course the classic phrase ‘oon, hiam liech ent’ comes to mind.”
“The classic -” Alvarez shook his head, “Nevermind. The prank, Delahoy. I know about the prank, and really I have to say it is in very poor taste.”
Damn, he would owe Walsh twenty bucks if Alvarez broke and admitted he had no idea what anyone was saying to him. (Because, of course, they were just tossing in random sounds into conversation with him. It had been Cole’s idea, actually.) But no need to admit it right away. “What prank?”
“Very funny. The brain tumor, Delahoy. I’ll admit it took a little while to pull together, but Eddie Alvarez appreciates the subtlety.”
Time stopped while Alvarez made that little speech. Or at least Eric’s glitchy brain has lagged. It has been weird lately, time. He would like to blame the world for going too fast or slow, but really, eventually you just had to accept the fault.
He’d gotten better about gauging how out of sync he was with the rest of the world. It was pretty fucking far this time. Eric bet he could run up and snatch the creepy puppet mini-Marvin from Wash’s desk before Alvarez’s mouth snapped shut.
But then either the world sped up or he’d slowed down as Alvarez shoved a folder at Eric, saying, “Asking my wife about estate law was a step too far though.”
Eric made sure his smile was properly insouciant. At least he could keep his twenty bucks for now. “Oh, that prank. My brain tumor prank.”
“Obviously,” said Alvarez, leaning even further in now. If Eric didn’t feel the need to be placating at this particular juncture he would be objecting loudly about this invasion of his personal space.
Eric tried to play it off, opening his eyes wide. “That isn’t a prank.”
“Eddie Alvarez is not an easy man to fool, Delahoy.”
He was undercut a bit by Walsh walking by, nodding his head, saying, “Nimow,” then continuing along his way. So brain tumors were obvious and people spouting random sounds at him was a complete mystery. Good to know.
“What I meant to say is, it isn’t a prank on you,” said Eric, thinking fast. He didn’t really care what Alvarez thought, but he didn’t want him running around gloating about uncovering the hoax. And he couldn’t tell the truth, for one, Alvarez was an awful liar, and second, well, Alvarez didn’t have the right to know now. Not yet. There were things Eric had to do first, people he had to prepare.
“Eddie Alvarez is skeptical,” said Eddie Alvarez.
Eddie Alvarez is a douche, thought Eric. He leaned in even closer to Alvarez, trying to make him uncomfortable too.
“It’s a prank on Leo,” whispered Eric. But Alvarez looked blank. “Leo Banks? You’re leaning against his desk.”
“I know who he is,” said Alvarez, rolling his eyes.
“Well, He’s so afraid of him dying I thought I would see how long it takes him to pick up on the possibility of someone else going down.” The bullshit was so thick it was like they were inside a mudpie.
Eddie tilted his head, processing. Sometimes Eric liked to pretend he was actually a robot. It explained a surprising amount, actually. “That seems mean.”
“What can I say, I’m a bad person, really.” Eric shrugged. “But you can’t say anything to him, not yet.”
Alvarez nodded, “Playing the long game. Eddie Alvarez can appreciate that.”
“You go appreciate that elsewhere then. I gotta get back to a very important case,” said Eric. He gestured down at his desk, which was covered in paper. If those papers happened to be more about surgical options and estate planning than police work, well, why should Eddie freaking Alvarez care.
“I thought you were clear?” He was right, actually; Eric had had to tell Sergeant Brown last week, too many days off for appointments.
Eric tapped a finger against his nose. “Top secret.”
He started flipping through the info Nicole had provided. It didn’t mean much to him, but he was trying now. But he was still thrilled when Leo came back, interrupting him. Even more thrilled when he saw what he was carrying.
“You do love me,” said Eric.
“Sometimes I do listen to you, even if I don’t understand your, frankly scary, cravings. There are so many good delis in the city, hell, on this block. Why these?” said Leo. Eric ignored the snark in favor of snatching away the sandwich Leo had brought him.
“Nah, these are great. They remind me of being a kid, up in the north country. We used to get these awful grinders with cheese that might as well have been plastic and meat cuts that would make a city butcher despair they were so thick.”
“Grinders?” asked Cole faintly, looking over from where he had been quietly sitting at his desk and, apparently, eavesdropping.
“Yup, nice thick and meaty grinders.” Eric waggled his eyebrows.
“Oh look, You made Cole blush,” cooed Beaumont.
“You did not,” lied Cole.
“Oh Cole, are you sad I didn’t get you a grinder?” Beaumont punctuated it with a subtle roll of her hips.
Leo chimed in, “Yeah, you have to be a good partner like me to–”
But Eric really couldn’t pay attention to him now, not with Karen appearing to be perched his desk, sneaking bites of her own imaginary lunch. She had loved ham on her sandwiches, Eric remembered; never got anything else. Weird, what came to mind, well weirder, considering he was talking to a figment of his mind in the form of his high school sweetheart.
“You remember the first time we shared a grinder?” he asked, speaking quietly and covering his lips with his grinder. He didn’t want to look crazy, after all, sitting here talking to a figment of his diseased brain.
“Which kind of grinder are we talking about now?” Karen asked with a smile. It made Eric want to consider less work appropriate memories, even though, sadly, not all of him got interested in those kind of memories these days.
“Well, if I remember correctly, it was the same day,” said Eric, thinking back. There certainly had been enough hours, since that grand event had taken a generous minute, if that.
But apparently the pretty part of his brain remembered better than he did because she told him, “It wasn’t actually. It was the day with the ice cream.”
“Fuck. How could I have forgotten that,” Eric said.
“Forgot what?” asked Leo, turning to face Eric. Cole and Beaumont were apparently cha-chaing now. So that was a thing.
“Sorry, just remembering about the time Dustin Lloyd and I went fishing and when nothing bit, we just kept tearing apart our grinders and tossing them into the lake to try and get the fish.”
“That sounds like fun,” said Leo in a way that made it very clear he thought no such thing.
“I feel a general sense of mockery here. But it was.” Dustin had been a city kid, brought up by his parent for a week in the summer to get in touch with nature. Eric had appreciated having at least one kid around less north country than him. They had become friends in that intense way kids do, short and fierce.
They weren’t exactly friends anymore. Dustin worked on Wall Street these days, wore fancy suits.
“Uh huh,” said Leo, knocking him out of his reverie.
But it had served its purpose and Eric knew what needed to be done. “You want to know what, I’ll show you. Next week you and I are going up north.”
“I have three months to go until I turn 43 and you want me to go way up into farm country with you? There are cows up there,” said Leo. He was screwing his pace up in disgust.
“Really? Cows– that’s what you’re deciding to throw a fit about? Not the bears or coyotes or even those disgusting racoons. You don’t want to be near cows.”
Leo waved his arms around. Possibly he was trying to demonstrating the terrifying nature of cows, but equally likely he was just doing a dance to ward off evil. “There was a school trip when I was twelve. It’s a long story.”
“Great, you can tell me on the drive up,” said Eric. There would certainly be enough time. Saranac was far enough north that you heard more Quebecois accents than Brooklyn.
He remembered the first time he made the trip, rattling in the back of the station wagon, trying to avoid being crushed by the piles of all their belongings towering around him. His Dad had started out rambling about their connection to the Earth and each other. He’d been so happy, at least until hour five of the drive. By the time they reach the property the car had lapsed into tense, tired silence. In retrospect, that might have been a sign.
“I’m not going,” said Leo, adamant. Eric just raised an eyebrow at him and Leo backed down to bargaining. “Maybe next year, when I can ditch the vest.”
“We’re going this year. Ma’ll let us use the house.”
“Why the rush?” asked Leo.
Eric really didn’t like lying to the people who mattered too much these days. Not because he was worried about his eternal soul or anything, but sometimes he thought about being gone, about what they might say about him. ‘Yeah, he was a lying bastard’ didn’t really have the ring he was going for. But at the same time, he couldn't just say, ‘Leo, my friend, I want to show you this place, because some day soon I want to be buried there and I want you to see why.”
So instead of lying, he just said, “Last week when I saw my Ma, we talked about how I won’t be able to use the house more. There might have been some tears involved.”
There had been a lot of tears, actually, from both of them. Also, yelling, ear twisting too. That had been all her though.
“She’s selling the house?” asked Leo.
“Well, she’s getting older and I didn’t go up as much as I should of,” said Eric. It really was one of his big regrets. Because there might be bugs and mud in the spring and snow piled up to the eaves in the winter, but it was beautiful there. Quiet. “Come on, don’t you want to go up and get out of the heat? Maybe sit by the lake, feel the breezes.”
“Eddie Alvarez is in,” said Eddie Alvarez, who had apparently decided to come back and lurk by their desks again.
Leo let out an immediate “No!” then started listing all the reasons that Eddie was not invited.
“Do you remember the time you invited yourself along on a girls trip with me and Ellie?” asked Karen.
Eric swiveled his chair around so he couldn’t see any of it, from Leo’s angry gesturing to Karen’s shiny curls. “We drove up to Plattsburgh and stole lip glosses from the Walmart.”
“And look at you now,” said Karen. “A policeman, badge and all.”
“I miss that me, sometimes. I was happy,” said Eric, thinking about how sticky that lip gloss had felt against his lips.
But because even his brain, or maybe especially his brain, didn’t want him to be happy, she burst his bubble. “You were miserable, or at least you claimed to be. You hated the bugs, plus you were so much better than us, being from the city.”
“Well, clearly you were budding criminals with the makeup thievery. But you want to know what I really remember about that day?”
“You realize I’m in your brain, right?” He could hear the smile in Karen’s voice. He turned around to see it, but when he spun all he saw was Leo and Alvarez looking at him expectantly. Apparently he had missed something.
“Well?” asked Alvarez.
OK, 50/50 time. “Sure, whatever,” said Eric.
“Seriously, you are inviting Alvarez?”
OK, so apparently he had bet wrong. But no need to admit that. “Next week, Tuesday morning. We’re going.”
Which is how he ended up pulling Eddie Alvarez’s impractical city SUV onto the packed dirt that could be generously called a driveway by the Delahoy estate. At least that is what his dad, who had always been a sarcastic bastard, always called it. Everyone else just called it the field house, mostly because none of them had any sort of experience with landscaping. The house jutted out of an overgrown, weedy field, like even it wasn’t sure what it was doing there.
You were supposed to find everything smaller when you went back home, right? But maybe it was some of Eric’s brain fuckery but the house seemed bigger. Maybe it was just that he had helped build it, knew how much time and effort had gone into it. He hadn’t done much, mostly just moved piles from one place to another, but Jesus - he knew this house from the bones up.
But more likely, he was too adjusted to city scale. Eric dropped his head down against the steering wheel, breathing in the stale air, sour from the Stewart’s milkshake Banks had oh-so-accidentally spilled on Alvarez. Then he got out, Leo following wide-eyed and scanning the horizon for errant cows.
“So, is this it?” he asked as Eric ushered him in. Eddie appeared to be wandering into the field rather than the house, so Eric just shrugged and shut the door.
He spread his arms wide. “Welcome to Casa del Delahoy.”
It wasn’t anything grand, crooked walls covered by photo after photo. His dad had been really into photography once the house was built. Or, truthfully, before. Dad had always been leaping from passion to passion, always full throttle. It had always seemed like an exhausting way to live to Eric.
Leo was grimacing a bit, looking around at the living room. Eric tried to see it through his eyes, like he was the stranger here, but he just couldn’t. Where Leo might see a splotch on the carpet, all Eric can see is Ma laughing so hard she knocks a bottle of wine over. “It’s–”
“Shut up,” said Eric. It was going to be a good trip. No negativity– well, besides the obvious.
Leo must have caught that because he just said, “It’s nice. Big.”
“City boy,” said Eric, ignoring the fact that he had been having very similar thoughts not too long ago.
The door clattered open behind them. Eddie had pushed his way in, lugging a large camo bag that seemed to be part of the north country costume he’d adopted for the day, along with the awful khaki hat and bright orange vest. Eric had considered reminding him that hunting season wasn’t for months, but only for a second.
“Hey Eddie, get lost?”
“No, I was looking for your outhouse,” he said, straight-faced.
So, of course, Eric had to nod solemnly and point in a vaguely western direction, “Out past the musaloomal, can’t miss it.”
Alvarez raised his hand like he was going to question the word, finally realizing the actual prank, but simply nodded and wandered outside again.“Thanks, I’ll just go out past there, then.” Eric’s twenty remained safe.
As soon as the door swung closed behind him, Leo turned from where he’d been looking at one of the many gallery walls and said, “There isn’t really an outhouse. You did not drag me out here without indoor plumbing.”
“You did catch we lived here for years, didn’t you? Door to your left.”
While Leo used the builder standard facilities, Eric wandered into the kitchen and gauged the wood pile inside. It was a warm, sticky spring day, but even so, the temperature would drop in the evening. He turned to investigate the fridge next and found himself looking at Karen. “You didn’t always have plumbing.”
“No, no, we did not, and thank you for that memory.” When they were still in the tent, Eric had three choices when he wanted to shower: at the gym at school before the first bell, at their neighbor Mrs. Johnston’s house which was filled with enough taxidermy for ten nightmares, or to go without. He chose the without a few too many times.
“You were a little ripe those days,” understated Karen.
“A little? My nickname was–” It was awful and hurtful and Eric remembers the stinging of his pride every time he heard it but he couldn’t find the fucking nickname in his head. He remembers dreaming about it, and yet he can’t remember the insult. So he asks Karen, “Well, aren’t you going to correct me?”
“I don’t know,” she says, looking young and lost, like the Eric told her his family was moving back to the city.
“Well, then what the fuck use are you?” he yelled, angry at her hurt, angry at this fucking thing in his brain stealing his words.
Behind him, Leo cleared his throat pointedly. “Well, I like to think I’m a pretty good police officer.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” mumbled Eric, looking down at the cracked linoleum. He should have come up and helped his mom fix up the place a bit more.
“No, I got that,” said Leo, his voice soft. His victim wrangling voice, fuck. “Eric-”
“Have you ever tried to build a fire before? It took me forever to figure out the right way to tend it-”
“Hey, Eric, shut up and look at me. Why does Eddie Alvarez think you’re pranking me by faking a brain tumor?”
Eric’s crucial mistake, he was sure, was that as bad a liar as Eddie Alvarez was, he was even worse about keeping pranks secret. He’d elbowed Eric while asking if he had a headache three times today. Also, the ghost story he’d told ‘for practice’ on the way up had involved two different people who had died from sudden brain tumors.
And Eric had already decided not to lie, so, “He saw him some scans on my desk and I thought it would be funny.”
Eric hadn’t been sure how he thought Leo would take it. Sincerity, maybe, like the first time Eric tried, or maybe yelling or tears or some colossal combination of the three.
He would not have predicted Leo grabbing his wrist and dragging him towards the door. Apparently that was a bad call. Good thing no one laid odds on how friends would react to news of your impending death. Eric was surprised enough he instinctively spat out, “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m driving you to the hospital,” said Leo, still tugging at Eric, who was trying to anchor himself to the kitchen doorframe.
“Is this really necessary?”
“You avoid things. See, me? I plan. I have seen more physicians and optometrists and even chiropractors in the past year than in the rest of my life combined. But you, have you even seen a doctor?”
Leos momentum kept them inching forward into the hall, even though Eric was digging his feet down trying to get traction. “I’ve seen a doctor. I’ve seen a whole passle, even. Surgeons and lawyers and even a goddamn coroner.”
“And?” ask Leo, halting their march forward.
Eric filibustered. “And my mom isn’t selling the house. I just wanted you to see it before– go to the lake, make you try and gut anything we manage to catch.”
“Fuck you, this isn’t funny.” And there it was, the anger, just like he thought.
It was still so strange to see Leo here, bundled up in his bulletproof vest. He looked young and hopeless and angry. He was standing in the same spot Eric was when Dad told him they were moving back.
And so maybe that is why Eric did now what his dad did then: reeled Leo in and hugged him. As he nudged Leo’s head down onto Eric’s shoulder he heard a muffled, “I hate you right now, I hope you know.”
Eric huffed a laugh that some suspicious people might claim was more of a sob, “Yes, I can tell how ecstatic this news is making you.”
“Yeah, happiest day of my life. Obviously.”
It’s kind of nice, just standing here clinging to one another. Eric appreciated the solidness of Leo, the reality. That, plus the fact that they aren’t actually looking at one another, allows Eric to open up. A little, at least. “Fucking Eddie Alvarez. I had a plan, you know. I was gonna wait and spring this trip on you as a birthday present, celebrate you making it to 43. But he comes to me saying that he knows about the prank, and I’m assuming it’s, you know--”
“The nonsense words thing, yeah.”
“It’s been almost a month and he still hasn’t reacted once to us just making random noises at him. But he picks up on this thing. The thing.” Eric sighs. He goes to drop his arms, but Leo is still clinging. More hugging, he can do that.
“God bless Eddie Alvarez; somedays he is actually real police,” said Leo. “I still hate you though. You’ve known about this for months. It never was a joke, was it?”
“Nope. One hundred percent awful truth right here.”
“I feel like an idiot,” whispers Leo, low and scared.
But there was only one response to that despite the fact that they were have a Feelings Conversation, in capital letters.“You are an idiot.”
Leo pulled back a little, looked Eric in the eye. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”
Eric shrugged, using the momentum of that to shake off the hug. He leaned against wall, feel a picture frame dig into his back. “I am not dropping dead right here. Plus, why would I want to drive all the way up here to see a lousy local than see specialists in the city?”
“You have a brain tumor,” said Leo, wry and real. Scarily real. And yeah, maybe that was why he had held off telling him for so long. Because while this house, his memories here, they were his dreamy golden days– Leo was his everyday. He spent more time with Leo than he did with his apartment.
So he looked Leo in the eyes and told him what he needed to know. “Yes, Leo, I have a brain tumor, and I’m dying and I’m scared.”
Of course the moment was a bit undercut when Alvarez announced his presence. “Delahoy, you have a brain tumor. That is awful. Please know Eddie Alvarez will help you however he can.” He throws Eric just about the least subtle wink known to mankind.
Leo just looked right back at Eric, ignoring Alvarez completely. “Hey, Eric, yetotto ungluet jalk.”
And maybe fucking Alvarez was right, and the nonsense was intelligible, because he knew exactly what that meant. “Love you too, man.”