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Ben, You Beautiful Consumptive Waif

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There’s a knock on the door, then April is inside his room.

Ben inhales, disoriented. His hand is sandwiched in a novel. The window’s grey.

“Do you like how I knocked?” April asks him, looming over the bed.

Ben sits up too fast. His book falls on the floor. “What?”

“I knocked because I respect you.”

Her voice is flat. Her face is blotted out with stars. “April…”

“Wow, you look even shittier than this morning.”

Ben palms his hot face. “Well, I’m sick.”

“Anyway, can I borrow this? Thanks.”

The comforter slides off Ben and he’s alone again.

*

Ben’s homesick for Leslie’s house. He thinks about her fireplace.

*

There’s a pillow fort in the living room. Of course there is.

He shivers in his Letters to Cleo shirt. “Hello?”

“You’re just in time for tea!” Andy holds a flap open. “Get in here, brother!”

“Andy, I need my comforter.”

“You’ve come to the right place, good sir! Welcome to the games fort.”

“Right.” Ben swallows and puts his head between his knees. “What?”

*

It’s the nicest fort Ben’s ever been inside. There are string lights and sleeping bags and a stack of board games. Ben spoons his comforter.

Three mugs slide into the fort. April follows. “Who wants chamomile?”

Ben looks at the steam. “April—“

“Here.” She throws a row of saltines at Ben. They bounce off his shoulder.

“Ow!” Ben breaks a sweat. “All right…”

April opens a bag of Pirate cookies. “What do you want to play?”

“Can I talk to you?”

Andy swallows a cookie whole. He opens the fort. “Did you see we took down the Hallowe’en decorations?”

Ben gapes. The apartment is spotless. Suddenly he’s spilling tears. “Wow!”

Andy pats his shoulder. “Pretty awesome, right?”

Ben weeps into his blanket. “What is happening?”

April shuffles three decks together. “We’re playing War. Keep up.”

*

Someone’s hand is in Ben’s hair. It ruffles and strokes. His scalp is tingling. He hums and licks his lips.

The string lights are still there, and the board games, and Leslie.

“Ben, you beautiful consumptive waif. How are you feeling?”

Ben stares. “Pretty.” He sits up. “What?”

“Correct as always. You are pretty, as am I.” Leslie’s eyes are the warmest grey. “We all missed you at work today. I’m here to read you Harry Potter. As friends do.”

Ben smiles despite himself. “I thought—”

“April and Andy are out. And I parked around the corner.” Leslie’s hair is in those cute low buns. “So can I tuck you in?”

He notes his hand is on her thigh. He pats her briskly. “Yep.”

*

Wildflowers in a vase brighten Ben’s room. A plush Yoda perches on his pillow. Harry Potter waits on the bedside table.

Leslie drapes his comforter over him. She puts a box of tissues in his hands. “Poor Ben. What’s going on?”

“It’s uh!” He snuffles and gasps. “It’s not— your fault. I m-miss— you! I’m so— h-h-happy— you’re here!” He blows his nose and sops up tears and blows his nose again. “Do we have medicine?”

*

The fort has been raided for pillows. They form a small mountain against Ben’s headboard. Ann and Leslie lounge against them, nursing hot chocolate which is mostly whipped cream.

Ben’s nestled between them. A cool cloth covers his eyes. He’s busy keeping pills down.

“Ann, you beautiful enchanted oak tree. What can’t you do?”

“Just doing my job, ma’am.”

“Stay for the story.”

“I should get back.”

“Please let me read to you!”

Harry Potter’s not really my thing.”

“One chapter?”

“One chapter.”

*

Ben’s listening to Leslie’s heartbeat. Her voice vibrates through her chest. His head rises and falls with her breath. Her body is warm. He nuzzles her shirt. He feels so safe he can’t stay awake.

*

There are so many letters falling into Harry Potter’s house. Leslie smiles at him. The letters fly around her and whip up her hair. Outside the sky is full of owls. They won’t be stopped.

END <3