Milestones Need Not Always Be Celebrated
Here’s one that I know people have been waiting for.
“You’ve been sitting there staring at that page for half an hour,” Ron said, putting a hand on James’s shoulder.
“Sorry.” James shook his head, smiling up at Ron. “I didn’t mean to make you worry. I just lost my concentration is all.”
“You’ve only been at the table for half an hour, though,” Ron added. He’d just finished washing the breakfast dishes and putting everything away. “Is something bothering you?”
James had been a bit down the last few days in Ron’s estimation, but when he’d asked if James was okay before, he’d just gotten a smile and an assurance that nothing was wrong. But Ron wasn’t assured of that. It wasn’t like James to just space out like that.
“No, not…” James trailed off. “I guess a little bit, yes. But it’s nothing you need to worry about.”
“I’m already worrying about it, though,” Ron told him, gently. He didn’t want to make James feel bad. “I can tell something’s bothering you.”
James looked at Ron for a minute, indecisive, before sighing. He pointed at the other chair and Ron sat. “It isn’t important. I don’t want you to make a big deal or…do anything about it, Ron.”
“Okay.” Ron wasn’t sure what James meant by that.
“I mean it. Take it as an order, or a rule or whatever you need to take it as to make you listen to me. It’s not…it’s not something you can fix, so I don’t want you to waste time trying.”
“Alright.” Ron nodded, frowning. “What is it?”
“It’s just…” James hesitated, playing with the corner of the page of his book about rabbits. “Today’s my birthday.”
“What?” Ron sat straighter, looking at James. “Why didn’t you say anything? I’d have…”
“That’s why,” James interrupted, holding up a hand. “That’s why I didn’t say anything. I don’t want you to do anything. I can’t…I just don’t want a big deal made of it. Please, Ron.”
“O…okay.” Ron looked away. Obviously something had happened on James’s birthday to make him not like it. And James was right—without knowing what it was, there wasn’t anything Ron could do about that. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up anything that hurts.”
James smiled sadly, shook his head. “You didn’t. I was already thinking about it, like you saw. I’ll be okay in a few days. Don’t worry about me, okay?”
I always worry about you, Ron thought but didn’t say. Instead he nodded. “Okay. You could take the day off if…”
“I’d rather work,” James said, looking down at the book for a moment. “It gives me something else to think about. Would you catch some fish for supper?”
“Yeah, sure.” Ron stood, seeing that James didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “I’ll do it now. Call me if you need anything.”
“I will,” James promised.
Ron smiled and, impulsively, reached down and gave James a hug. James was getting better at not freezing up before hugging back, though he still paused for a moment before reciprocating. “It’s…okay,” he said after a minute. “For you to be sad. Don’t feel like you can’t be sad because of me, okay?”
James made a sound through his nose that might have been a laugh. “I don’t want to be sad when you’re here,” he said quietly, hugging Ron a little tighter. Ron was glad at that moment that James couldn’t see his face. “It’s just hard sometimes, is all.” He let go and Ron moved back. “Tell me when it’s your birthday,” James said, looking almost fondly at Ron. “We’ll celebrate then.”
“You don’t have to force yourself…”
“I’m not. And you’re allowed to be happy, Ron. Just because I’m sad doesn’t mean you have to be too.” Ron was always happy when he was with James, but before he could say that James went on. “I’ll make you a cake.”
“No, you won’t. You can’t bake.”
James paused, thought about that. “I’ll ask Julia to make you a cake,” he amended, looking away. “When is your birthday?”
“We missed it,” James muttered, smiling sadly at the table, not looking back up at Ron for a moment. He nodded as if to himself. “Okay. Go and catch the fish. Be careful of the chokevine in the river, Ron.”
“I will,” Ron promised, and he gave James one last look before departing the house. It was nice of James to say that Ron didn’t have to be sad too, but seeing James sad made Ron sad in return. Concealing a sigh, he grabbed his hat and a basket, closed the door and trotted out into the garden, noting that the jiggletufts were ripening on the way by. James would want to harvest the shaking seed pods before they exploded everywhere.
Ron waded out into the cold river, shivering even as the sun beat down on him. It had really gotten hot quickly, and he’d stopped wearing James’s charm for the summer. Maybe he should have taken it with him so he didn’t freeze in the water.
Going still so the fish wouldn’t flee him on principle, Ron took a deep breath. The first few times he’d done this he’d feared death by hypothermia before he would catch anything, but he’d gotten a lot better at it. In some ways he preferred it to regular fishing with a rod. It was less boring, for one.
Ron’s concentration was entirely on the water, and he saw a fish headed in his direction and was poised to strike and grab it out of the water. “Hey, you.”
Ron jumped, nearly losing his balance in the rushing water. The fish darted away and Ron looked up at the voice, which had come from to his right.
Spike was fluttering in the air there, and came closer to Ron with a nervous glance across the river. “Hi,” Ron said after a second. “Uh, what are you doing here? Is something wrong?”
“No.” Spike shrugged, and landed on the arm that Ron had been holding outstretched to catch the fish. “Just wanted to check up on the kid. How’s he doing?”
“He’s okay,” Ron assured him, since that was what James would say too. Deciding it was safe to assume that Spike knew what day it was, he continued, “He’s a little sad.”
“Well, yeah.” Spike nodded, looking a little upset himself. “I mean, I don’t get it—saying that today is the same day as a day that’s already happened, but if you accept the dubious human logic inherent in the idea, it makes sense why he’d be sad.”
“He says he’ll be okay in a few days,” Ron said carefully. Obviously Spike knew what was going on.
“I wonder if he will,” Spike mused quietly. “I mean, would you be?”
Ron didn’t answer immediately. “I don’t know.” Was what he decided on as an answer.
Spike looked up at him. “You don’t know if you’d be sad about five people dying on your birthday?”
“I mean…” Ron hesitated, processing that. “I mean I don’t know what happened. James doesn’t like to talk about it and I don’t like to make him uncomfortable.”
“Oh.” Spike frowned, and now he looked almost annoyed. “Why hasn’t he told you?”
“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” Ron repeated.
“Hm. You care a lot about him, don’t you?”
Ron blinked, taken a bit aback by that. “Yes,” he said, nodding. “I do.”
“I do too.” Spike lifted off from Ron’s arm, rising to buzz in front of Ron’s face with another glance over the river.
“Are you going to go see him?” Ron asked. “I think he’d like that.”
“Yeah, I am.” Spike smiled a little. “Good chat, Ron.” And he flitted off, over the garden and around the corner of the house, peering in all the windows as he went, obviously looking for the one James was closest to.
Watching after him for a minute until he was out of sight, Ron sighed. Maybe James would be more willing to talk with Spike than with him, and that was okay. At least now he knew James wasn’t by himself in there.
Ron went back to fishing, trying to become one with the river and all that bullshit as he focused on the fish again. Trying not to worry too much about James. A fish swam by and he grabbed for it. It darted away.
Ron tried not to get frustrated while this happened several more times. Normally he was better at fishing than this. He was thinking too much, he knew, worrying about James and wondering what had happened to make five people die. Ron felt like he had half of the pieces of a puzzle, just enough to work out what the picture was without getting all the details—between that, and things that James had said about his family before now, and what he’d overheard about James’s mother at the meeting of the Grand Coven, it was clear that something awful had happened—probably, Ron thought, James’s mother had done something awful. He could understand why James didn’t want to talk about that, though a part of Ron wondered if James was worried about how he would react to the news—and a little upset that James might think that Ron would react badly.
He shook his head. Ron knew better than to stand here and start making up motivations for other people in his head. He wasn’t going to get upset over something that he’d decided James was thinking; that wasn’t fair.
A fish came into Ron’s view and, without overthinking it, Ron snapped his hand into the water and plucked it from its path, came up with it wriggling in his hand. Carefully holding the fish with both hands, Ron smiled. “Sorry, buddy,” he said to it, carrying it out of the river and putting it in the basket while it flailed around in panic. “We’ve got to eat you today.”
Careful not to let his passenger escape, Ron carried the basket around the back of the house, to the tree stump where he cut firewood. There was a cleaver stuck in the wood there, and he got down on his knees and put the still-struggling fish on the stump, holding it in place and taking up the knife. “I’m pretty sure this doesn’t hurt,” he said, bringing the knife down and taking the fish’s head off in one strike.
With a sigh, Ron went about deboning the now-headless fish, putting the head and bones and extra guts into the basket and carrying them all to the river, tossing them to be carried away by the stream. He washed out the basket and his front from the mess, and collected the meat to take into the house.
Ron had definitely never appreciated how much work went into preparing food before he’d come to live here in the woods.
Taking the basket of fish around the house again, Ron hesitated at the front door. He didn’t want to interrupt James and Spike if they were talking. But at the same time, he couldn’t stand out here all day with a dead fish, so he compromised and knocked once on the door before opening it and going inside. “I think you’d feel better if you did, James,” Spike was saying from the table. Both of them looked up at Ron as he came in.
“Sorry,” Ron said, noting that James looked close to tears. “I can wait outside…”
“No.” James took a deep breath, and stood. He nodded down at Spike, worrying at his lip. “Okay. I’ll try.”
Spike flew up and brushed a hand against James’s cheek. “I’ll be okay, you’ll see.” He buzzed over to the open window and, with one last smile in James’s direction, went outside and left the two of them alone.
Ron watched him go, and watched James. He set the basket down on the table. “James…”
“On my birthday five years ago, my parents tried to kill me,” James said, looking down at the floor at first, but bringing his eyes up to Ron at the end. “They killed my grandfather and my Uncle Joey and Aunt Delilah, and their baby, my cousin. And my brother and sister helped them and I…” James faltered, and started to cry. Ron moved forward, but James shook his head, holding out a hand. “My Uncle Timothy was helping them and when I ran from them, I found him. He was threatening to hurt Julia, so I killed him. And then me and Julia and Grandma went to go…to go kill them. My parents. They ran away, and Johnathon and Kayla went with them. And I…I couldn’t stop them. I tried, Ron, but I couldn’t. And I didn’t know. They were like that and I didn’t know until that day. And if I’d known earlier maybe I could have stopped them but I didn’t. I don’t know how I was so stupid, but I…”
“Shhh..” Ron stepped forward, pushing James’s hand aside and wrapping arms around him tightly. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“You don’t know that,” James cried, clinging to Ron in a way that he normally never would have.
“I’m so sorry,” was all Ron could think to say. Even having assumed something awful had happened hadn’t prepared him for the truth of it. “I’m so sorry, James.”
“I thought about going with them,” James whispered into Ron’s shoulder. “I thought really hard about it. Even after they tried to kill me, I still thought about it.”
“Of course you did,” Ron said, stroking the back of James’s neck. He couldn’t even imagine what that must have been like. He didn’t even know how James got out of bed in the morning, or afternoon as the case may be. “They’re your parents.”
“I know, but…”
“You were just a kid,” Ron asserted. “I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to go with them. But you didn’t, and that…it must have been so hard, James.”
James nodded, sniffing a little. “If we find them we have to kill them,” He said quietly. “But even now I wish I could bring them back. Make them the way they were. The way I remember them. But the way I remember them isn’t true, and I…” He broke off again, crying quietly.
“It’s okay,” Ron said, rocking them back and forth. “I think that’s a normal thing to want.”
“It’s um…it’s hard to talk about,” James said after a minute, and Ron heard him trying to get his breathing under control. “Which is why I don’t. But also…I should have told you before now, I wanted to. But I was too scared, of what you would think.”
“I know.” Ron nodded, holding back his own tears. “I know you were. I think that you must be so strong to be able to live your life every day after that, James. And even if you were scared, you still told me about it.”
“I’m…” James broke off, hugged Ron tighter. “Thank you. I don’t deserve you.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Ron said quietly. I love you. He wanted to say it, he did. But it seemed so wrong right now. He didn’t want to add to everything James was already dealing with.
James nodded again. He’d stopped crying now, at least. “Can you…can you hold me for a while longer, Ron?”
“Of course I can,” Ron answered, thoughts of doing anything else not even entering his mind. “As long as you want, James.”
“Okay,” James said. “Okay. Can you…do one more thing for me, please?”
“I’ll do anything for you, James.” Ron meant that, meant it more than he’d meant anything ever in his life.
“Would you…could you wish me a happy birthday?” he asked, in a very small voice.
Ron hesitated, and shifted just a little so that he could look at James. Their eyes met and Ron smiled at James, leaned in and kissed him on the forehead. “Happy birthday, James.”
James nodded, eyes watering again, and hugged Ron all the tighter, burying his face in Ron’s shoulder again. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you, Ron.”
They stood there for a long time like that, and Ron held James and let James hold on to him. It was the only birthday gift James asked him for.