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A Dark Place

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The next 24 hours were a nightmare for the Grey brothers. Hal came and went, trying not to arouse Benedicta’s suspicions. Once, she caught him in the hallway and grabbed him by the arm.

“What’s going on, Hal? Where’s John?”

“He’s home safe, don’t worry. Just sleeping off a late night. I doubt if you’ll see him at dinner.” He avoided his mother’s eyes.

“What are we going to do about him? Where are you going? I thought you were as concerned about him as I.” She stood on her toes to look into his face.

“I am concerned, Mother. And I’m looking out for him. Truly. I’ve made sure he’ll not be going out again, and he knows he’s to do nothing but rest and regain his strength.”

Alarmed, she raised an eyebrow at this. “Regain his strength? Is he really doing so poorly?”

“No, no. I just mean his moral strength. To give up the drinking and the wandering at all hours, you know.” Hal patted Benedicta’s arm soothingly.

“I’ll bring him something to eat,” she said, turning to go.

Hal felt his heart jump. He tightened his grip on her arm. “He’s sleeping, Mother. Don’t wake him. Really, I would just leave him alone, if I were you. He’s ashamed enough with just me poking my nose into his business. You and I may think of him as a boy, but he is a grown man, after all. He doesn’t want his mother fussing over him like he’s still in nappies.”

She frowned, thinking. After a pause, she looked up at her son. “All right. I suppose I should leave him to sort it out in his own way. You will tell him I’m thinking of him, won’t you?”

“Of course.” Inwardly, Hal sighed with relief. “I’ll pop by later to check on him. It’s all firmly in hand, trust me.” He kissed her on the cheek and left the house, wishing he had no responsibilities to keep him from tending to his brother.

***

In his room, John fiddled with the doorknob, trying to open it but finally giving up. Sweat was pouring from his forehead and dripping from his chin onto his already-soaked shirt. He wiped his sleeve across his face and sat down on the bed. He was still trembling, but the clenching pain in his guts had at least ceased for the time being. He thanked God that he had only abused his body with the vile stuff for a week. He couldn’t imagine how anyone who’d been addicted for months—or years—could possibly survive this.

He resented Hal for locking him up like a child, yet he understood why it was necessary. He probably would have done the same, himself, had the roles been reversed. You’ve been through battles, seen men die—killed men—surely you can get through this, he told himself. But he’d never felt so insecure before—so out of control. As he sat, shivering yet perspiring, he distracted himself from the physical symptoms by going over his recent behaviour in his mind.

As drunk as he’d been, he could remember how he’d felt that night at Lavender House: lost, empty, sick. He had put himself at risk, given up control to a band of anonymous Marys—and even the memory of it terrified him. He was surprised they hadn’t stolen his possessions, but then why should he be surprised? He wouldn’t steal another man’s things, especially not his weapon, and wasn’t he a Mary, too? He’d had talks with Hector about it. About whether lying with a woman might change his nature, make him normal again.

“You’ve never been normal!” Hector had laughed. “Neither have I. Don’t worry about it, Johnny.”

“But I have lain with a woman. Two of them, in fact.” John had glared at his lover, daring him to deny it.

Hector had not been surprised, however. “At a brothel? So have I. How old were you, the first time?”

“Fourteen. I… I was having thoughts…”

Hector had laid his hand on Grey’s shoulder. “About whom?”

John had blushed. “About our groom. I thought that if I lay with a woman, the thoughts would go away.”

“And did they?”

“Obviously not!”

Hector had squeezed the younger man’s shoulder gently. “Johnny, you were born this way, and nothing you do will change it. You need to accept yourself. Love yourself. As I do.” He’d kissed him then, and from that moment on, Grey had entertained no more notions of trying to change who he was. He was not ashamed. He was not even ashamed, now, of taking on more than one man at once. It was more the way he did it, and why, that he was ashamed of.

He clutched his stomach as a sudden cramp seized him. Would he need the basin or the bedpan this time? Luckily, the feeling subsided almost as soon as it had begun. He was freezing, though, teeth chattering loudly as he looked around the room for his banyan. He threw it on over his clothes and tied it snugly, wrapping his arms around himself in a one-person hug. Hal had embraced him, for the first time since their father had died. He could still feel those strong arms around him and wished his brother was still there with him. Hal had work to do, though, and a family of his own to care for. He couldn’t sit here forever with a man who had deliberately destroyed himself.

I’ll make you proud of me, Hal, John thought, turning to gaze out the window. In the same moment, he thought, “Can I fit through that window?”

***

When Hal returned late that night and unlocked Grey’s door, he found John lying on the floor under a pile of blankets. He hurried over to him and was relieved to hear the steady breaths of a deep sleep. John’s arm was extended outside the blankets, his hand curled loosely around something. Hal took a closer look. It was a ring—Hector’s ring. He knew his brother had worn it ever since Hector’s death. If it could somehow give him strength now, Hal would not mock him for it. There were things he didn’t understand and probably never would, but Hal knew all he needed to know. He knew he loved his brother.

“John?” He shook the thin shoulder gently. “John, why are you sleeping on the floor?”

Grey awoke and sat up, quickly slipping the ring onto his finger and rubbing his eyes blearily. He yawned and stretched out his sore limbs. “The bed was soaked. It was disgusting.”

Hal smiled. “Are you feeling any better yet?”

“I think so. I think I can do this.” He looked into Hal’s eyes as Melton pulled him up. “Thank you for coming back.”

Hal’s eyes watered against his will and he cleared his throat gruffly. “Why ever would you think that I wouldn’t? You’re a Grey, aren’t you?”

The End