Ms. Heyward doesn’t have time for many regrets. It’s how she was raised, how she’s tried to raise her son. There are, though, always a few things that slip through that. A few conversations she wishes she could do over, choices she could make again. Most of those choices, she realizes as she watches one clumsy blonde teenager crumple in on himself like a deflated balloon, center on JJ Maybank.
Kildare is a small island, and so even if her Pope hadn’t found his people with JJ she’d known him around. Known him by his last name, at least, because Kildare is a small enough island that everyone knows the Maybanks. Know they’ve got a mean strike a mile wide, a shared interest in drinking and bringing down misery on the island.
When JJ’s momma left the island, people had talked about her finally having the good sense to leave her piece-of-shit husband, about her having the courage to get off the island and try and live a little better somewhere life wasn’t so hard.
Ms. Heyward figures those people probably didn’t know much about the situation, didn’t know about the kid JJ’s momma was leaving behind too. Ms. Heyward did, though, because she works enough odd jobs to know just a little more usually about what’s gone down.
Heard the rumors about what Luke Maybank did to his wife, what he was no doubt still doing to that kid, John Jacob. When Pope started bringing JJ around, or more likely sneaking around to do god knows what with JJ, Ms. Heyward got a lot more than rumors to go on about just what went down at the Maybank house.
But. Sure, she knew what she knew and she saw what was right there to be seen, but it wasn’t like she didn’t have her hands full. She had Pope and the work, so much work, because things were only getting more expensive, and there just wasn’t much that she could do.
Sometimes, when Pope and JJ are still young enough that their time together is always ringed by parental presence, Ms. Heyward slides some food into his backpack- not much, because they didn’t have anything extra, but something like the ends of a loaf of bread, or pop-tarts from the store. Eggo waffles, in the plastic sleeve.
Because how do you face all those rumors, how do you face yourself, knowing what you do, and doing anything but that?
The night the Phantom went down, Ms. Heyward thinks about her son first, but she thinks about JJ in the same breath.
Because she’s been around the boys, at the edges of the picture, for years now. Knows that there’s only a few places that he could have gotten such a nice boat from. Only a few people in the Cut who’d have a boat like that hiding in the wings.
And she knows the rumors about what Luke Maybank was like, knows what the name Maybank means. Knows that clumsy blonde maniac who seemed like he’d do just about anything for Pope and them.
Her and Heyward drive down to the bay when they see the news, drive a little faster when Shoupe asks if they’re on the way, came up to the tent where all the commotion seemed to be coming from.
They get Pope and pull him, collapsing together the way only a family (blood or found) is capable of achieving. And then they pull JJ into them, because he’s standing alone and Ms. Maybank knows what she knows.
After a moment, Pope wiggles away to hug Kiara, but Ms. Heyward doesn’t let go of JJ. It’s funny, she realizes in a faraway part of her mind, that she’d never really registered how much smaller he is than Pope. He’s a few inches shorter, even with his stupid hair adding some, almost bird-like as he sobs against her.
It only took a second for him to hug back, when they first pulled him to them.
Ms. Maybank figures she sort of knew he’d react like that, really. Sure, her baby was growing up, and weren’t they all sort of her babies once upon a time, and she didn’t know as much about their lives as she once did, but:
She sees the little things in the margins. Her Pope riding on the back of JJ’s bike, arms wrapped around his shoulders smiling like the sun itself. JJ curling into Pope on the dock before a dawn grocery run, one of Pope’s old sweatshirts hanging on him.
She’s busy, but not too busy to notice what her baby was up to, at least some of the time.
They stay huddled-- the Heywards and JJ and Kiara and her parents, who are managing to (mostly) suppress their snooty Figure Eight attitudes to comfort their daughter in crisis-- there until the cops start giving them looks.
Eventually crisis goes from feeling like ants under your skin to like a foghorn, a heavy weight of nothing setting in over your whole body. Ms. Heyward’s worked enough jobs to know this, too. She knows the thing the boys need now is a hot shower, some food in their bodies before they feel too much nothing to eat at all, and to get somewhere to sleep.
Knows from feeling JJ’s little twitches in her arms he could use all of that and more.
They drive home too fast, probably, but the streets are emptier. Everyone home watching a tragedy unfold on their TV screens, holding their loved ones close and thanking god it wasn’t them in that storm, or their kids.
Ms. Heyward briefly wonders what Luke Maybank is up to, if he’s watching the news. If he’s sober enough to put two and two together. And then she doesn’t think about Luke Maybank, because she can’t do anything about him, but she can probably do a whole lot for JJ.
JJ hasn’t said anything at all by the time they get back to the Heyward’s little house by the marina, still hasn’t said anything when they’re sitting down to eat spaghetti in the kitchen, or after that when Pope goes to shower and he’s left sitting where he ate dinner, knee bouncing up and down and looking at the ground.
It’s the longest Ms. Heyward’s seen him be quiet, in all the years she’s known him hanging around Pope. It’s freaky. Like something out of a movie.
“Do you want me to set up the air mattress for you, JJ?” She asks, voice soft and quiet.
Heyward went upstairs, out of things to say when it seemed clear that there wasn’t much to say. Pope was in the shower or just about to leave it, and Ms. Heyward is sitting across from JJ at the kitchen table while he stares blankly at his plate.
He doesn’t look up, just raises one shoulder in a limp version of a shrug. Ms. Heyward wants to hold him again like they did when they first got the news, but she thinks if she goes to touch him now he’ll bolt.
He’s skittish, even more than usual dead silent with his eyes full of tears and puffy and red. He’s swallowing heavily, and Ms. Heyward thinks he looks a little sick. Not ideal.
And again, Ms. Heyward tries not to have too many regrets. Life is too full of thinner things that need doing and people to take care of to being messed up about things n the past that can’t be undone.
But just then, looking at this boy she’s seen since he was a scrawny little maniac be so scared and sick and sad in her kitchen, with no one in the world she could call to take him home and get him whatever he needs -- well, it’s hard not to look back and wonder, is there some way this could have all gone down better?
Pope comes back downstairs from showering, and Ms. Heyward knows she raised her baby right when he goes right over to JJ and puts his hands on his shoulders and pulls the other boy into a hug. She goes into the kitchen, then, because she doesn’t think JJ is going to explode if she gets up with Pope there, and she puts water on the kettle. Figures tea can’t hurt things.
They’re sweet together, she thinks, watching out of the corner of her eye as Pope leans down, tucking his head against JJ’s and pressing a kiss to his neck.
The tea is ready soon enough, camomile with honey and a splash of milk the way Pope’s grandma took her tea. It isn’t until JJ’s lifting the mug with hands shaking so hard he just about pours the mug out that Ms. Heyward realizes that JJ is still wearing a wet coat.
She feels awful, truly failure-as-a-mom-bad, but Ms. Heyward’s life works out because she doesn’t sit around feeling awful. She goes up to Pope’s room without asking because she’s a mama and this is what her job is, gets down the softest sweatpants and sweatshirt she can find. Wool socks, too, and a t-shirt lying on the desk chair.
JJ stares at the pile of clothes like he’s never seen anything like it before, when Ms. Heyward drops them on his lap.
“Go on and take a shower, take off those wet clothes before you catch a cold, JJ,” She keeps her voice gentle the way she did when Pope was tiny.
JJ looks back at her with those blank, damp, eyes. Blinks a few times, nods. Ms. Heyward remembers, very suddenly, the time some year of Elementary School where the flu was going around, and one day she’d come home from work to see JJ asleep on the floor of Pope’s bedroom. He’d had a fever, no doubt, couldn’t have been more than eight or nine at that point, but he’d woken up right away when she’d come in. JJ tiny as he’d been hadn’t even waited for her to say anything, just rubbed his eyes and gotten his bag and scuttled out down the stairs.
That’s one of the moments. One of the regrets that isn’t shakeable. The moments that Ms. Heyward could have done better by this boy.
Later, after JJ’s showered and put on the clean clothes, the four of them-- the Heywards and him, sticking out like a white q-tip and somehow fitting in perfectly with it all-- settle into the living room and watch some TV, some silly movie that they’ll all fall asleep to quickly after all the excitement.
Ms. Heyward doesn’t fall asleep, not really, because moms never really sleep when their babies are hurting. Once Heyward is asleep a snoring in the armchair, Ms. Heyward sees JJ start crying again, breathing shaky like he’d been holding it in. Pope reaches an arm around him and pulls him tight and Ms. Heyward thinks she sees Pope carding through his hair like she’d done when he was little.
It’s not long after that then when both boys are asleep, the blue light of the TV washing the whole room in a pale glow. JJ looks like a kid again, Ms. Heyward thinks, trying not to think again about little boys who needed more than anyone ever offered.
Eventually, she falls asleep too, in the soft blue TV light. A family, collapsed into one another like you do in crisis. A family, falling together.