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Despise Me If You Dare

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Tuesday, September 6

Evening

Elijah Bennet, janitor by day and historical fiction author by night, enjoyed putting his characters through bloodshed, heartbreak, and the attempted crushing of their various noble causes. It was how the readers would see what they were made of. Thus, he was just trying to decide how his 1862 nurse protagonist would react when faced with an infected bullet wound when his brother Luke burst into his bedroom. "Hey, listen! We need you."

People often burst into rooms Elijah was in and shouted some variation on those words. Usually rudely. Or they yelled down the phone. Also usually rudely. On a good day, Elijah didn't blame them for that—it really wasn't fun to have a kid throw up in your classroom, or to have said classroom be hovering at the eighty-five degree mark because of a perpetually-broken thermostat. On a bad day…on a bad day, he would think up witty, insolent things he wished he had the guts to say. That he would say, if he hadn't needed his janitor job.

There was no knowing what Luke needed now—it could be literally any of a hundred different things—but Elijah was yet to persuade his family that his career in historical fiction deserved uninterrupted time, despite the fact that it was finally bringing in money. "I'm working, Luke."

"No, seriously. This is important. Jason said to come get you."

Damn. If Jason thought whatever-this-was deserved his attention, he should probably go. If Luke and Kevin had just been skipping school again, Jason would've given them the lecture himself. Not that it would have worked. Jason couldn't discipline anyone. "Okay, I'm coming." He shut his laptop and went downstairs with Luke.

Jason was cooking dinner while their mother consulted a book on feline evolution—her reading tastes ran the gamut—and Mark, Kevin, and their dad were gathered around a laptop. Mark looked up when Elijah and Luke came in. "Hey, Elijah. We've, uh. Got kind of a favor to ask of you."

If it had been Luke or Kevin asking, Elijah would have been tempted to roll his eyes and ask, which shady liquor store this time? But Mark never really asked for much, except that his family listen to his music. This could, admittedly, be a trial of its own, at least the music that involved singing, but at least it wasn't illegal. "What kind of favor?"

"It's the start-of-semester barbecue," Mark said. "They're making it into a bigger event this time, a chance for the high school clubs to tell the freshman about what they do—"

"I know," Elijah said patiently. The school principal, Wilma Lucas, had seen fit to inform he and the other janitors of this, since it would mean hauling out twice as many tables as usual. At least he was on day shift and would not be responsible for the cleanup afterwards.

"Right, of course you do." Mark ran a hand through his hair. "Well, we just got an email from Ms. Lucas. She's invited a couple of sponsor-type people to check out the clubs and give them funding for the next year."

Elijah blinked. Their town of Meryton didn't have a lot of people who could afford to be sponsors like that. High school clubs raised money through bake sales and the occasional donation from a parent. "Who are these people?"

"One of them," their dad pronounced with excitement, "is the gal who just rented Netherfield. She apparently just does this, you know. She's a philanthropist or whatever you call it."

Kevin gestured to the email. "Ms. Lucas says her organization lends to colleges, some high schools, all along the West Coast! They have a ton of money. And they'd, like, never come here if she weren't renting the house. This is our chance!"

"Your—" Elijah suddenly realized. "For your GSA."

"Yeah." Mark's hair was now standing up quite straight from running his hand through it. "If we got some money, we could do events. Educate people, you know. So they don't freak out about us even existing."

Elijah nodded. The Genders and Sexualities Alliance Mark and his friends had been attempting to form, with the sporadic but enthusiastic help of Luke and Kevin on the straight side, had not been well-received by many of their parents. The Bennet parents had no problem with it—their dad was happy with anything that made Luke and Kevin happy, and their mother had read several books on having a gay child when Mark came out and then announced that it all seemed legitimate. But other families remained suspicious. "That's a great idea. But I don't see where I come in."

"Thing is," Luke said, shifting from foot to foot, "we need a faculty advisor and a parental advisor, or we can't have a table at the barbecue. And the teachers either don't want to get in hot water with the parents, or they're already advising clubs. We thought maybe you could help us out."

"I'm not faculty or a parent," Elijah pointed out.

"We talked to Ms. Lucas," Kevin said. "She said you're close enough to faculty."

Of course Wilma Lucas would feel that way. The Lucases had known the Bennets since before the oldest kids could walk, and Elijah had been working at Meryton K-12 for almost ten years. He didn't love the idea of giving up any more of his very limited free time, but he also knew how much the GSA meant to his brothers, and to the other kids who were part of it. And even if he hadn't been bi himself, he'd always had a soft spot for anyone who rebelled for a righteous cause, or for the chance to be themselves more fully. "We can try it. I'll go to the barbecue to start, if it helps you."

Luke punched him on the shoulder, a gesture of male bonding that always made Elijah roll his eyes. "Thanks, Elijah. You're the best."

"We still need a parental advisor, though," Mark said. "Amy said her mom would do it, but her mom's got the flu." His eyes skimmed straight over his dad—nobody with sense put the Bennet father in charge of anything—and landed on his mother. "Mom?"

"Yes?" Their mother turned a page.

"Can you—look, I know you hate socializing, but can't you help? Just for the barbecue. When Amy's mom gets better you won't have to keep doing it."

"Yeah, Diane," their father broke in. "Just for one night, right?"

"You go," their mother replied, with the calculated absentmindedness that always meant she was teasing somebody, a fact to which her husband had not caught on in their thirty years of marriage. "And try not to distract this Netherfield girl with the good looks you've got left."

Their father rolled his eyes. "I've heard she's twenty-nine; I'm not a complete creep." Elijah and Jason exchanged exasperated looks. They'd tried multiple times to explain to their father that hitting on uninterested women made him creepy no matter how old those women were, but it hadn't worked yet. One of the many reasons his going to this barbecue was a bad idea.

"Let's not just call her this Netherfield girl, at least," Jason said, turning off the burner where the pasta was cooking. "What's her name?"

Kevin consulted the email. "Bindy Lee."

"Come on, Mom," Luke said. "You have to."

"I'll write Wilma a letter telling her I'd come if my book weren't so interesting," their mother replied, still deliberately absentminded. "I'll tell her that this Bindy Lee is welcome to give my sons' GSA as much money as she wants, though it might be better to give a little funding to Elijah's fiction career."

"You won't do anything like that." Their father glared. "Elijah's no better than anyone—maybe not so good, wasting his time writing, like that's ever going to pay the bills. Jason's got my looks, and I'm sure Luke's friendlier." Jason shot an apologetic look in Elijah's direction, but Elijah used to his father's casual unkindness, waved him off.

"They're all men, aren't they?" Their mother turned another page. "Always being led by everything below the waist. Elijah at least uses his head sometimes." Now it was Elijah's turn to give Jason an apologetic look, but Jason seemed more amused than anything else.

"You're driving me mad," their father complained.

"Well, I hope you'll get over it, and live to see many rich philanthropists come and visit school barbecues."

"It won't be any use to us if twenty should come, since you won't go to the barbecues."

Their mother gave a charming smile. "Depend upon it, my dear, when there are twenty, I'll go to any barbecue you want."

Elijah was fairly sure their mother was perfectly ready to go to the barbecue and was simply waiting for the right moment to reveal it, so rather than hang around after dinner and continue his brothers' arguments to persuade her to do it, he again hid in the room he shared with Jason and took up his writing. This was the start of his third historical fiction trilogy—he'd been writing and self-publishing for several years now—and it was, he hoped, the one that would tip the scales and finally earn him enough money to move out of his family's house. Out of Meryton altogether.

Please.

His 1862 nurse protagonist, Elijah decided, would not cope well with the sight of the infected bullet wound. There was no point in writing a character who could face down every struggle with grace immediately. He set about writing the United States Civil War hospital setting as best he could after a day cleaning bathrooms and floors and changing light bulbs and dusting computers and…

"Hey, Elijah. Wake up."

"What—" Elijah jerked up and looked around the room, which now contained an obviously concerned Jason. He glanced at one of the three alarm clocks he used to wake up, and saw that it was…way too late. "I fell asleep writing again, didn't I?"

"Yeah, you did."

It wasn't a surprise. Elijah had to get to Meryton K-12 by five in the morning, but the lure of his writing always seemed greater than sleep—until he literally nodded off over the keyboard. "Okay. I guess it's bedtime."

"You guess." Jason shook his head. "You know, you could take things slower. Prioritize, oh, your health over your writing. For once."

Elijah didn't know how to say, even to Jason, that the writing was the only thing keeping him sane after doing the exact same tasks day in and day out. The writing, and the idea that he could maybe make his living with it someday. "I'll be okay."

Maybe.

Wednesday, September 7

Late Afternoon

Elijah had just taken down the flag from outside Meryton K-12 and was getting his backpack from the janitors' office when his best friend Carlos Lucas came in. "Hey, Elijah. Mom has this form she needs you to sign if you're really going to be the faculty advisor for the GSA." Carlos did paperwork in the principal's office, and saying hi to him was an occasional bright spot in Elijah's day.

"Sounds like a plan." Elijah grabbed his backpack and followed Carlos. "Do you know anything about this Bindy Lee who's supposed to be giving funds or whatever?"

"Only that she has a ton of money," Carlos said. "Or she couldn't rent Netherfield. She was going to come see Mom this afternoon, though, and hear some about the school."

Wilma Lucas was on the phone when they arrived, but soon hung up and smiled. "Come on in, you two. Elijah, here's the form. You just sign there. Thanks for helping those kids out. I know they weren't feeling supported."

"You know me," Elijah said with a grin as he read the form. "Anything for the underdog. Carlos said you talked to this Ms. Lee. What's she like?"

"Very kind," Wilma replied. "Very excited about helping us out. One of those people with a real passion for her work. She asked if it was alright for her to bring some family and friends along. I said of course, and she said she'd rope in twelve or so, just to be sure she was making the right decisions."

"You're liable to get twelve different opinions, then," Elijah said, signing the form. "I hope Ms. Lee is decisive."

"I think I must have looked kind of alarmed, because she told me right away she was joking," Wilma said with a laugh. "She's only bringing four—her brothers, her sister-in-law, and a friend. The more the merrier at a barbecue, in my opinion."

"That's a very Wilma Lucas thing to say," Elijah said, handing back the form. "Thanks for sticking up for the GSA at the last PTA meeting. I heard about that."

"People need to accept that it's not 1950 anymore," Wilma said. "Have a good afternoon, Elijah."

"You too."

Elijah left the building with relief—the place had been built in the '60s and had only minimal air conditioning. He couldn't wait for fall to start in earnest. The summer cleaning they always did might be quieter than the school year, but it was hot.

He almost always walked home, rain or shine—the Bennets only had one car and their mother and Jason used it for their jobs as housecleaners. When he came in, Luke and Kevin, already home, were busy trying to give Mark tips on singing. Elijah could tell that this was, as usual, only making Mark feel worse. Luke and Kevin knew nothing about music and could only state the obvious of you sound terrible. Elijah sighed in the hall, where nobody could hear him. It might seem like a small unfairness that they could never have afforded voice lessons for Mark, but the trouble with small unfairnesses was that they tended to add up fast.

At least Mark's instrumental music actually did sound good.

After showering, Elijah hid in his and Jason's room and took up the writing again. He'd finished his first chapter and was about to switch to the point of view of his second protagonist, a Union soldier from New York, when Jason poked his head in. "Dinnertime."

Though he tended to get completely caught up in his writing while he was actually doing it, upon being interrupted Elijah realized he was hungry. Besides, he liked using the dinner his family ate together to prove they weren't altogether dysfunctional. This sometimes even worked. "Coming."

Luke and Kevin and Mark, getting fried chicken from the pan, had switched topics to the barbecue and the incoming Bindy Lee. They'd apparently been at it for a while, because not a minute after they'd all sat down, their father interrupted. "I'm damn sick of Bindy Lee."

Their mother looked up. "I'm sorry to hear that. Why didn't you say something before? If I'd known you were sick of Ms. Lee, I wouldn't have signed up to be the parental advisor for the GSA."

A glance at his brothers told Elijah they were as surprised as anyone by this. Their father's mouth fell half-open. "You—you did what?"

"It's too bad. We won't be able to avoid her now."

"You—I knew you'd do it!" Their father kissed her sloppily on the cheek. "And you never said a thing until now. That's a good joke!"

Elijah choked on his glass of water. Luckily, he was pretty sure only his mother and Jason knew he was covering up a laugh.