Loose Cannon Outtakes, Tidbits, and Assorted Stuff
CAUTION! THIS SECTION IS SPOILER HEAVY.
Last updated 12/29/17--Posted with older stuff at top; scroll down for new stuff
*** Church and Miller Extended Meeting Scene (First included in the May 2017 newsletter)
So a while back I ran a very informal poll on my website asking what kinds of things people most wanted to read in my post-book content. The overwhelming winner was off-screen moments, and that's what we've got here.
This scene was taken from a very early draft of the book, a draft where Miller and Church's developing friendship from back in the day was given a lot more time and space. Unfortunately I simply didn't have room for pages that didn't affect the present action of the story, but I loved a lot of things about these flashbacks, so I'm happy they'll finally get to be read.
This scene gives you a look at Church's perspective of the night that he and Miller met. As a brief reminder, that means that Miller has just caught Church trying to steal his television. In the book, Miller feeds Church and offers to let him stay the night, which Church refuses, but in this earlier version, Church decides to stay, and that's where the scene veers off into the new material. I haven't updated anything, so it's pretty rough, and you'll see some small things that contradict what happened in the final draft, but the vast majority of this is part of the actual backstory. If you haven't read the book yet, don't worry too much about spoilers--nothing happens here that you probably can't figure out from reading the blurb. I hope you enjoy it!
“I have a guest room,” Miller says. “Door has a lock and there’s a window.”
Church bites his lip and keeps rubbing Francis Bacon with one hand, using the other to keep the cat from tumbling off his lap.
“And I was thinking I might have pancakes in the morning,” Miller continues.
“And then what?” Church asks quietly, not looking up.
“Is home out of the question?”
Church hesitates, then says, “Streets are better.”
“Okay,” Miller says. He rubs a hand across the stubble on his jaw. He hasn’t got the first clue what to do next. “You mentioned shelters earlier. What are those like?”
“Okay mostly. Sometimes people hassle you, but I can kick any ass that needs kicking.”
“What’s it take to get into one of those places for a while?”
“It doesn’t work like that. It’s only for the night. They kick everybody out in the morning and then it’s first come, first served all over again that evening.”
“All of them?”
“All the ones that’ll take me.”
“The other ones will tell someone who’ll take you home,” Miller guesses, and judging from the way the kid still won’t look at him, he figures that’s a yes. “There’s got to be another option.”
Church shrugs, and Miller’s tired, gritty eyes make the decision for him. “All right. Here’s the deal. I’ve got to get up for work in about three hours. If you’re still here then, you can have your share of the pancakes. And if you’re still here after that, you can come with me to work. I’ll find something for you to do and I’ll pay you under the table, assuming you do a decent job and you don’t start any trouble.”
“What kind of shit do you do?”
“It’s the kind of shit that means you’re gonna spend the day hauling rocks and boxes and whining about it,” Miller says, not unkindly. “It’s boring and hard and you’ll hate it, but you’ll do it anyway because a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks.”
Church’s eyebrows skyrocket. Miller figures that a kid who won’t sell himself or drugs probably hasn’t seen that kind of money since he ran away.
“We’ll come back here afterwards and we’ll figure out whose job it is to deal with you then. How’s that sound?”
“You don’t know me,” Church says, apparently captivated by the soft fur behind Francis Bacon’s ears. “I could be anyone. I could do anything to your place. You’re stupid if you let me stay here.”
“You gonna hurt my cat?”
“Fuck no.” Offense, sharp and hot, colors the words. Nonetheless, Church’s fingers remain gentle where they stroke the cat’s stubby tail.
“Well, he’s the only thing in this place that can’t be replaced. So it’s not like it’ll be the end of the world if you turn out to be a jerk.”
Church still won’t look up. “Why are you doing this?”
Miller exhales hard. He’s not going into it, but he can offer a half-truth at least. “Because if you go out there and get stabbed trying to steal some asshole’s TV I’m gonna feel like shit. And I’m tired as hell, but I’m not gonna sleep if I think you’re bleeding in an alley, so it’s in my own best interest to let you crash here. Do me a solid and just…stay put, will you? Until pancakes, at least?”
Church buries his face in Francis Bacon’s patchy fur, but not before Miller catches the small smile. “Until pancakes,” the kid says, his words muffled by the purring cat.
* * *
When Miller heads back to his own room to sleep, Church locks the door to the guest room, sits on the bed with the ugly cat in his arms, and tries to think.
It’s a nice room—double bed, desk with a straight-backed chair, empty closet, but plain. Nothing on the walls or anything. There were already clean sheets and blankets on the mattress; Miller had said his sister and her kid sometimes stayed over after hanging out, so he kept the room ready for them.
It feels weird to be in a bedroom again. Good, but weird.
It’s got to be a scam. It’s got to be. It’s the only thing that makes sense, because people this nice don’t exist. The dude wants something; everyone does.
Who the fuck sees a jerk like Church trying to steal his TV and decides to feed him and give him a bed instead of calling the cops?
Pervs, that’s who.
He doesn’t seem like a perv, but Church’s whole experience with pervs comes from avoiding Bleeker St. whenever Eight-Ball Eddie’s been booted from the shelters, because he hits on the teenagers by telling them about how he ran afoul of the government’s medical experiments in the 70s. Eddie’s sort of an extreme case, though, so Church isn’t sure that’s gonna help him figure out Miller’s motives. So he decides to be logical about it. What does he know about Miller?
Well, he’s good-looking, that’s for sure, with his square, strong face, thick red-brown hair, and those thoughtful, warm brown eyes. His chest and face bear a light spattering of tiny freckles; it’s sort of pretty, actually. Then there’s those nice broad shoulders—Church has known that he’s gay for a while now, and the guy wasn’t wearing a shirt, so yeah, Church looked. The guy’s pretty ripped, but that makes sense if he spends all day hauling rocks around. Church doesn’t know what kind of job involves hauling rocks, but it seems like a shitty one to him. Still, if it gets a guy muscles like that, maybe Church should re-evaluate. He glances down at his own long, skinny arms where they’re wrapped around the cat and makes a face.
Church guesses that even pervs can be hot, though, so he can’t make a decision based on that. What else does he know? Miller’s probably in his middle twenties, but he seems older—who says do me a solid anymore? Jesus. But mostly he seems…well, for lack of a better way to put it, he seems like a grown-up. Quiet and steady, like some of Church’s old teachers. Or a Boy Scout, maybe. Like you can count on him to do the right thing if shit goes bad.
But that could just be a way of making kids trust him enough that sex can happen.
Church knows about sex; he’s had it before. Well, once. It’s awkward and nothing at all like the movies, but he likes it, and having some more seems like a good idea, but he’s sure as fuck not interested in having it with a perv who’s too dumb to know when to call the cops. Church has got enough problems.
Whatever. It’s late and he’s freaking tired. Church dumps the cat carefully onto the bed and double checks the door; it’s locked. Church glances around, then gets the chair from the desk and jams it up under the doorknob. After a brief hesitation, he goes to the window and opens it wide enough that he could get through it easily. It’s instantly cold in the room, but if he has to run, all he has to do is give the screen a shove and he’s home free. That done, he brushes his hands against his filthy jeans. They haven’t been washed in a couple months now. They’re sort of crusty and he wishes he was brave enough to take them off to sleep between the cool, clean sheets, but he doesn’t dare. If he needs to make a quick get-away, he doesn’t want to do it with his ass hanging out.
He hopes he doesn’t have to make a quick getaway.
It’s probably a sex thing, he decides, pulling the duvet up and around his shoulders, because nothing else makes sense. The dude seems to have a job, and he doesn’t look like the addicts Church knows; coke, pot, and meth are all pretty damn identifiable when you’ve seen them on enough faces. Heroin and reds are harder, but even so, Church is pretty sure Miller had been heavy-eyed from exhaustion, not using. So it’s not likely that Miller thinks Church’ll be able to give him anything.
Church doesn’t have anything worth taking.
So it has to be a sex thing.
He decides it’s too dangerous to sleep.
He lies down, sighing a little at the feel of cotton and the scent of detergent. It’s been a long time since he’s been in a bed—almost eight months this time, he figures. Francis Bacon curls up next to him, a warm, soothing weight against his side. His eyelids get heavier and heavier, and despite his best efforts, soon enough he’d defeated by a soft mattress, a full belly, and a purring cat.
* * *
He wakes up when someone knocks on the door, jumping up with a sense of such violent disorientation that he scares the cat into running under the bed. Sunlight’s streaming through the open window, but it’s fucking freezing. He’d been rolled up in a duvet like a burrito and so deeply asleep that he must’ve been snoring—his mouth feels dry. He has no idea where he is at first; it takes Miller saying his name through the door to remind him of what’s going on.
“Fuck,” he grunts, and runs his hands through his hair, fingertips coming away greasy. Miller says his name again in question, and Church grumbles loudly, “Yeah, all right, hold your horses.”
He’s got so much adrenaline going through his veins someone might as well have electrified him. He licks his lips and moves the chair, pulling the door open and immediately stepping back towards the window.
Miller’s in the doorway, wearing jeans with a white paint stain on the left thigh and a black t-shirt. His eyes rake over Church before moving to the open window, but all he says is, “Breakfast will be ready in twenty minutes. Have you given any more thought to coming to work with me?”
Church is feeling nervy enough that the idea makes him want to bolt, but he can already smell bacon frying, so he tells himself to get a grip. He can always take off after he gets another meal. So he shrugs, and Miller nods, apparently unsurprised.
“Okay. Well, if you want to earn some money, I can see about finding you some clothes if you like. Not sure how well anything will fit, though.”
Church studies him for a second; Miller’s eyes are red-rimmed from lack of sleep, but he’s still projecting that quiet sense of ease, and before he knows what’s happening, Church is asking, “Can I take a shower if I come with you?”
Miller nods. “Towels are in the hall closet. Let me get some clothes for you first, though. That way you don’t have to come out until you’re dressed.” Miller turns away, heading back up the hall.
Church goes over to the bed and kneels, taking a minute to coax Francis Bacon out from under the bed. When he’s got the cat safely in his arms, he whispers, “You’d tell me if he was a perv, wouldn’t you?”
Francis Bacon begins to purr. Which might be an answer, considering the source. Church lets his fingers trail gently over the scarred portions of the big tom’s hide and thinks that just maybe Miller Quinn is the kind of sucker who tries to feed strays.
He goes to the window and slides it closed.
* * *
An hour later, Church is seat-belted in Miller’s F-150, freshly showered, stuffed with pancakes, and wearing clothes that don’t remotely fit him. The pant legs are rolled up, the t-shirt’s hanging off of one shoulder, and Miller had to get an awl out of his toolbox to make a new hole for his belt so the jeans would stay up. Over all of it, he’s wearing an old snow jacket of Miller’s that has duct tape holding a tear in the sleeve closed. Like everything else, it’s way too big, but it’s got a matted sheepskin lining, and it’s the warmest Church has been all winter.
Church bitches about feeling like a damn toddler playing dress up, but it’s mostly for form’s sake; he feels clean for the first time in months, teeth slick and minty because Miller had left him a toothbrush—still in the package—and it’s hard to keep the sneer on his face. He suspects Miller can tell, too, because the guy doesn’t even look annoyed by all the complaining.
They pull up to a huge white warehouse with a big sign on the front that says "Quinn's" in big red letters. Beneath that are the smaller words "Contracting Supply." The parking lot’s small but almost full, and Church can see a bustling yard off to one side behind a chain link fence where people are wandering among neat stacks of different colored bricks and stones. Forklifts are stationed nearby.
“You own this?” Church asks, incredulous, as he gets out of the truck.
“No,” Miller replies, waiting for him to walk around the bed. “It’s a family business. My dad runs the place now, but he wants me to take over when he retires.”
“Shit,” Church says. “That’s cool. Built in job.”
Miller’s mouth flattens slightly, and then he’s gesturing Church towards the front door with a hand. Inside, there’s a long, narrow room with several glass-paned doors and a counter at the far end. A woman with hair the same color as Miller’s is sitting behind the computer there, although she stops typing and lifts her eyebrows when Miller and Church walk in.
“Oh, my,” she says, giving Church a long once-over. Judging from her expression, he doesn’t pass. “Mill, what have you done?”
Miller sighs. “Church, this is my sister, Shelby. Shelby, this is Church. Be nice.”
Shelby’s older than her brother, Church decides, and she’s not as attractive—her eyes are tired and her mouth turns down at the corners. “I’m always nice,” she says.
“No, she’s not,” Miller says to Church. “And don’t worry, I don’t have any intention of leaving the two of you in a room together anyway.” He turns back to his sister. “Church will work in the back with me today.”
“Hmm,” Shelby says. “Mill, I need to talk to you for a minute.”
Miller doesn’t seem surprised by this. He simply says, “Let me get him settled in first. Then you can say whatever you want.”
“Dad’s supposed to get back from Seattle this afternoon.”
Church isn’t the most observant guy in the whole world, but even he can see the way Miller’s shoulders tighten up at that comment; he can also see the way Shelby’s sharp gaze softens at the sight, even though she only goes back to typing instead of saying anything.
Church doesn’t have any siblings. He doesn’t know why they only say the mean stuff.
“C’mon,” Miller says to Church, and then leads him through a glass door marked Employees Only.
Inside is a locker room. Church shoves the sheepskin coat into Miller’s locker, then watches as Miller slides on a black back protector. When Miller goes to a closet and pulls out another, smaller one, Church says, “Uh-uh. That’s gonna look stupid as hell.”
“Imagine how stupid you’ll look walking around with a back spasm like you’re eighty when you haven’t even finished puberty. Put it on, or you’ll be spending the day counting bricks.”
“Shit,” Church says, but slings the thing over his shoulders. “This is dumb.”
Then Miller’s beside him, studying the straps. “Can I…it needs adjustment.” Miller pauses. “I’ll just show you on mine?”
Church realizes Miller’s asking for permission to touch him to fix the straps, and he gets a weird, warm feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Nah, it’s okay.”
Miller’s slow but not tentative, tightening here, loosening there, easing two fingers under the elastic at the small of Church’s back to make sure the thing is snug. His hands are perfectly impersonal, and something in Church relaxes further.
“Okay, you’re good,” Miller says, and leads the way through another door—this one heavy and metal. At the far end of another long hallway, Church and Miller emerge onto a loading dock, and Miller grabs a clipboard from a nail on the wall. He starts walking around, checking deliveries, scrawling notes and checkmarks on the pages as he goes. There are huge pallets of big bags, pallets of stone and brick surrounded by heavy plastic wrap, and smaller stacks of boxes.
“This place is huge,” Church says, trying to peer at everything without looking like a slack-jawed yokel. “Did you ever used to get lost?”
“I’ve been coming here just about every day since I was a kid,” Miller replies absently as he studies a packing slip. “If I ever got lost, I don’t remember it.”
Eventually, he gestures for Church. “Here’s where you come in,” Miller says. He points at several hip-high stacks of cardboard boxes. “These are full of tile. It’s fragile stuff, so you can’t drop it. They’re heavy, too, about thirty-five pounds each, so you’ve got to carry them correctly or you’re going to screw up your back. Lift with your legs, okay, and don’t rotate your spine while you’re straightening. Like this.”
Miller demonstrates, picking up two of the boxes at once like it’s nothing. Church is already certain he’s going to have a hard enough time just doing one, so he doesn’t even bother trying to impress anyone. When they’re both loaded down like camels, Miller leads them through yet another door, one that swings open on its own when he hits a button with his elbow.
Soon they’re walking into an immense space filled with dozens of big scaffolds and crates, each of them loaded down with various materials. The walkways are wide, and distantly, Church can hear one of the forklifts beeping. When Miller gets where he’s going, he shoves his two boxes onto a nearly empty shelf.
“These’ll go here. They’re 9x9 ceramic tile flooring, Sandstone colored.” He points to the nearly-empty slot next to it. “Pueblo colored. That one there is named Sienna, but we call it Dog Shit Brown. Read the labels, put the right colors in the right slots. Don’t break anything. Watch out for the forklifts, and if you touch any of the machinery or go beyond any of the lines that say you need a hard hat to cross, I’ll boot your ass out so hard you’ll end up in New Mexico. If you run into trouble, ask anyone you see to come get me and I’ll find you. Bathrooms are down the hall. Questions?”
All of this—even the threat about New Mexico—is delivered in such a mild tone that Church can’t bring himself to get mad at how bossy Miller is, which is saying something because Church can get pissed off by a cold wind.
As Miller starts to walk away, though, a small flicker of anxiety flutters in Church’s stomach. When Miller’s gone, Church will be alone here in this warehouse, out in the middle of nowhere, and everything suddenly seems foreign and too large. Church stammers, “Uh, wait…”
Miller pauses. “Yeah?”
Church doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know Miller, and he sure doesn’t trust him. Why he suddenly wants this guy to hang around to tell him what to do is beyond him, but he can’t help the tiny kernel of fear in his gut. The part of him that fights everything wants him to tell Miller to get lost, to fuck off, that Church doesn’t need him or his hundred bucks. But he doesn’t say any of that—he’s worried Miller will listen and kick him out on the side of the road, miles from the familiar parts of the city, leaving Church to make his way back alone.
Then Miller cocks his head to one side. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,” he says casually. “I just need to let Shelby rip me a new one first. Then I’ll be back here with you.”
“Whatever,” Church says, but he’s reassured. Things slide back into place and the warehouse suddenly isn’t so intimidating. He tells himself to suck it up. He’s not some loser who’s scared to be in a new place with people he doesn’t know. He just needs to carry some stupid boxes from one place to another. And at the end of the day, he’ll have fifty bucks, assuming Miller holds up his end, and Church kind of thinks that he will.
Then Miller’s walking away, pausing at one point to talk to a guy in a hard hat, who glances over at Church all obviously. Clearly the baby-sitter. Church rolls his eyes. Like he needs one. Then he figures he might as well get started, and heads back the way they came to pick up more tile.
“Dog Shit Brown,” he mutters to himself, and grins.
* * *
When Miller comes back from talking to his sister, he looks tired. Well, more tired than he already had, seeing as he’d had a pretty bad night’s sleep because of Church. But he doesn’t say a word about the conversation even though Church would have to be dumb as a rock not to know that they were arguing about Church being here.
Church fidgets a little as he and Miller walk back to the loading dock. He wants to ask if Miller got in trouble for him, but doesn’t know how, and it’s not really his problem anyway if Miller wants to do stupid shit that makes people yell at him. But he feels hot and flushed and guilty all the same.
“She’s pretty mad at you, isn’t she?” he asks finally, because he can’t just not say anything.
Miller nods. “Yeah. She’ll get over it.”
“You gonna get fired?” Church is surprised to find that he really hopes the answer is no. He’s a little offended when Miller chuckles, because hell, Church is just trying to not be a dick and take advantage, and here he is getting laughed at.
Miller sees it and shakes his head. “I’m not laughing at you, Church. I’m laughing because I’m…Look, you got any brothers or sisters?”
“Well, in some families, one of the kids is the screw up and one of the kids is the good one. It probably shouldn’t be that way, but Shelby and I sort of found our roles early and then they stuck. So she was the one who always got in trouble, and I was the one who always tried to smooth things over. This is my first serious…well, transgression, I guess you could say. So I’m not likely to get more than a slap on the hand from my old man. Besides, I might not be religious, but he is, and he’ll understand about wanting to do the right thing, even if he doesn’t think it’s the smart thing. So don’t worry about it, Church, I’m not gonna get fired.”
“Oh.” Church thinks about that for a second. “Isn’t a transgression one of those things that sends power to your house?”
“You're thinking of a transformer,” he says, chuckling, but it’s not mean, not the way Miller says it, and not the way he laughs, either. It’s like he thinks Church is in on the joke with him. “A transgression is more like a crime.”
It’s weird. Church doesn’t like being laughed at for saying stupid things—it used to happen in school all the time, and it would get him in trouble a lot, because when Church gets mad, he tends to hit. But Miller’s eyes are friendly where they crinkle up at the corners and his smile is sweet and Church's stomach flips over with surprisingly pleasant warmth. It makes him nervous, so he pastes on a smirk.
“Whatever, dude. Your sister’s the boss of you. You’re scared of a chick.”
Miller laughs again as they get to the stack of tile boxes and he picks up two more. “Yeah, she is, and yes, I am,” he admits, watching Church carefully to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself as he gets a box of his own. “But you don’t know her the way I do. She’s got a mean right hook. And she bites.”
“But you’re an adult now,” Church points out. “How long’s it been since she’s bitten you? Years? Time to put your big-boy pants on, man.”
“She bit me last week,” Miller says, sounding faintly indignant. “I’m not joking. She’s feral. She’s worse than Francis Bacon.”
“Say it how you want. You’re scared of a girl,” Church says, and cracks up, the nervousness vanishing entirely.
* * *
By the time Miller drives them back to the townhouse, Church is physically incapable of laughing. Every muscle hurts. He’s sweaty and filthy again. His pinky toe is throbbing from where he accidentally dropped some rebar on his toes, something that had made Miller’s face take on tense lines until he’d examined Church’s bare foot and decided nothing was broken.
Church doesn’t remember the last time someone looked so worried for him. Between that and the sensation of Miller’s careful hands on his skin, his stomach had been in knots the whole time—the kind of knots that actually felt pretty good.
He’s also got ten crisp ten-dollar bills in his sock.
But none of that stuff really matters, because he’s about to pass out and die from exhaustion.
He might even be too tired to eat, even though Miller’s talking about tacos and asking if Church likes jalapenos, and it sounds awesome.
So he stumbles out of the truck and leans against the wall while Miller unlocks the door, and then he more or less falls inside. He can hear Miller chuckling softly, but he so doesn’t care.
“Give me twenty minutes, and then you can sleep, okay?” Miller asks.
Church makes a sound that might be general agreement. It could also be a death rattle. It’s hard to tell, and he’s the one who made it.
He slumps onto the sofa, watching while Miller puts the TV back where it belongs and hooking the cable back up. Church watches a program he’s never seen before—it’s something to do with building houses—as he pets Francis Bacon (who is clearly a cuddle slut) and tries to stay more or less vertical.
Soon there’s ground beef sizzling, and he can smell spices and there are the distant sounds of Miller moving in the kitchen, and Church has a second to think—well, notice, really—that he feels…safe.
When the tacos are done, Church eats four, and Miller doesn’t say a word about what a pig he is. He just keeps putting more food on Church’s plate.
Then he looks Church over carefully, and says, “Okay, why don’t you take a nap before you pass out? We can have the talk about what to do next when you wake up.”
Assuming he ever does; Church nods and yawns and stumbles his way to the guest room. He’s aware enough to put Francis Bacon down to one side so he doesn’t land on the cat when he collapses, but that’s it. At that point all he can think is mattress.
* * *
When he wakes up around five in the morning, he has enough brain power to realize that he hadn’t locked the door before he’d gone to sleep. Hell, he hadn’t even thought to close it. He’d left himself utterly vulnerable—stupid, stupid Church—he’d left himself wide open for anything, anything could’ve happened.
And all Miller had done was cover him with a blanket and close the door on his way out.
Church wriggles around so he can reach down; the money is still tucked in his sock. Francis Bacon opens his one green eye sleepily at the disturbance.
“I know some guys who would take this sucker for all he’s got,” Church tells the cat, who only blinks at him. Then, in a whisper, Church adds, “He’s lucky I’m the one who broke in.”
Now onto the good stuff! Because it's been so long since I've done a newsletter, I've decided you get two deleted scenes, one that focuses on Church's relationship with Tobias, and one that focuses on the first meeting between Church and Ghost. I'll introduce each one with a little context so it makes more sense.
This first one is a deleted scene. It takes place after Miller and Church have sex for the second time. And after Miller has walked away from Church for the second time. Church is freaking out (as one does in these circumstances, let's be honest), so he turns to his buddy Tobias for a little emotional support.
While I liked the scene, there's another one that's similar a bit earlier in the book, so it's a little repetitious. And while it was a nice moment between Church and Tobias, it didn't move the story forward that much. And you'll find it's in present tense because I took it out before I made the switch to past tense, and I'm way too lazy to switch it over now for the newsletter. :D
Church sprawls on the crisply-made bed, staring around at Tobias’s childhood bedroom, at the vacuum tracks in the carpet and the utterly mystifying lack of clutter—Tobias is a ridiculous neat-freak. Tobias is perched at the foot of the mattress, watching him worriedly.
Church has only a vague idea of why Tobias ended up in Woodbury; group therapy gave him an impression of medication and coping skills for stress and self-destructive tendencies, but when he’d asked Tobias about the specifics, Tobias had simply shrugged and looked away. Church does have some manners, so he hadn't pushed, but he's always wondered.
Tobias is the definition of a Good Boy. Church can't imagine what he could possibly have done to get sent to a place like Woodbury. And he has zero idea about what to do to help Tobias stay on the right path now. "Hey. You, uh, you know you can talk to me, right? I’m kind of shitty to talk to, I think, but I’ll try.”
“You’re not shitty at all,” Tobias says loyally. “You ask questions and poke at things you don’t understand and you…you care, Church. You’re a very good friend. I wish you wouldn’t talk like that about yourself. I don't need to talk, thank you, but if I did, I would come to you."
Church finds himself squirming for the second time in an hour. So he says, “I slept with Miller again,” to change the subject.
“Are congratulations the right thing to say?” Tobias asks. When Church only shrugs, he fidgets a little, then aims a speculative, not-at-all-casual glance up at Church while asking, not-at-all-casually, “How was it?”
Church groans and shoves the heels of his hands against his eyes, more gently on the side that still hurts. “I don’t even know. It was angry and good, God it was good, but now it’s all weird and horrible and…”
And I can’t stop thinking about it.
Random details from the sex keep popping up in his mind—Miller’s surprising, exhilarating hedonism, the way he’d let Church kiss him, so deeply and thoroughly, the way he’d let Church touch him. The way Miller’s body had felt clamped around his fingers, hot and silky and tight, and Church has jerked off several times in the shower with that sensation foremost in his mind. He keeps wondering what would’ve happened if he’d tried to turn Miller against the wall, if he’d pressed his cock up between Miller’s ass cheeks. Would Miller have run? Gotten angry?
Church thinks about the way Miller had bucked into his mouth as Church’s fingers delved deeper and deeper.
Would Miller have let Church fuck him?
God, Church wants that. He wants it so bad it hurts.
But the idea of how Miller would look at him afterwards—the way Miller would hate himself…it’s almost enough to kill the want entirely.
“I’m all up in my head,” Church admits, clearing his throat. “Being with him like that…Jesus, Tobias, I’ve never felt anything like it. He gets so desperate, but I’m not sure if it’s because he wants me that much or if he’s just hard up after years of sleeping with people he’s not all that attracted to.”
“Either way, it’s all I can think about. I feel like I’m fifteen again. Which is not an improvement in my thinking, let me tell you. I need my brain cells, Tobias. Every single last one of them. They’re no good to me if they’re all in my dick.”
Church grins back, but only briefly. “We’re barely talking. Every time we’re in the same room, he gets very, very polite. As if saying please and thank you will prevent me from pointing out that I’ve had his dick in my mouth. I don’t know if he’s in denial or scared or just doesn’t know what to say. It all makes me want to break something, and then I feel guilty for getting mad.”
“It’s okay to be upset.”
“Is it? He’s not jerking me around out of selfishness or carelessness. He would never. He’s going through something, and however confused I am, he’s got to be feeling about ten million times worse. But it’s still making me crazy, because I never know where I stand and he…matters.”
He tries to ignore the ache in his chest, with mixed results, and instead groans, long and loud. “God, change the subject, okay? Please? I’ll owe you forever, just don’t make me talk about this anymore.”
“Did you ask your parole officer about going to see the man you…back then? George…what was his last name?”
“Kontakte,” Church supplies. “Wow, you suck at picking easier subjects, dude. But yeah. I called her. She said she’d check with him. Still willing to go with me?”
And because even the idea of going to see the man he left bleeding in the street has his stomach in knots, Church asks, “Can we play video games now or something?”
Tobias smiles. “Yup. Mindless entertainment, coming up. You want some cookies?”
"Be right back.” Tobias hesitates at the door. "Don’t, um, don’t move anything, okay?”
“I remember,” Church says, thinking back to how particular Tobias had been about his stuff back in Woodbury. It had never particularly bothered Church to be careful with Tobias’s things—he’s got the sneaking suspicion that his and Ghosts’ easygoing acceptance of the quirk is a big part of why Tobias is so loyal to them.
He slips out of the room and Church lies back on the bed. The sheets smell like detergent—there’s no hint of sweat, and Church has the sneaking suspicion that Tobias washed them just in case Church ended up crashing here overnight. He's considerate like that. Tobias has his own TV and PlayStation console; his phone, lined up with the edge of his nightstand, is more expensive than anything Church has ever owned. All of his comics are in plastic sleeves on a rack, and he actually hides his bedside lotion and tissues, unlike every other dude Church has ever known.
Sometimes Church wonders if Tobias’s neat-freak tendencies are a sign of a deeper issue—his perfectionism is only held in check by rubber bands and thumbtacks, and it’s almost entirely self-directed. He’ll forgive anyone anything without blinking, but he’s a nightmare to himself. Tobias had gotten a B on a paper for a class in Woodbury once, and he’d been tense and apologetic for days, turning on his flashlight in between bed checks to get in extra studying.
But it’s hard to think Tobias is struggling while Church is here, in Tobias's house. They're the only ones home, but there are pictures of the family on just about every available surface, so the place doesn't really feel empty. Tobias's dad has a stern, intelligent face--he doesn't smile much, apparently, but when he does, it's bright against his dark skin. Tobias's mom has kind eyes, but she's in far fewer photos than anyone else, so she's probably the main picture-taker. Tobias's many brothers and sisters range in age, the littlest ones crawling all over each other, the bigger kids corralling them. Even if Tobias is the only white person in the group, it's clear that it doesn't matter. There's love in the way they look at each other, acceptance in every touch. The candid pictures are full of laughter and vacations and kids making sullen, hilarious faces after they've been squeezed into suits and dresses for boring special occasions.
It’s nothing like Church had growing up.
He thinks of Miller’s stiff mouth and awkward, ashamed glances. It’s nothing like Church has now.
Church puts the pillow over his face and lets out a muffled, half-hearted yell.
This next scene was taken out of chapter one, and it provided a more thorough glimpse of what life was like for Church after he left Roseburg and came to Woodbury. It also provided a longer introduction to Ghost's first full day in Woodbury. The scene was taken out for two reasons--first, it was just too long, and second, because the part about Ghost wasn't working. The scene between Church and Ghost was meant to give a hint to how screwed-up Ghost's head is, but it was a little too revealing about Ghost's character for that point in the story, and I didn't like how it wrapped up. It was just a little too much of everything for that point in the book. It might even be too much for a newsletter, but what are you gonna do? Newsletter readers deserve cool stuff. Warning for mild NSFW content, folks.
Over the following weeks, Church settles in.
The guys aren’t as violent as the ones at Roseburg—Church is one of the more hard-core offenders here, and at 20, one of the oldest—but a lot of them have psych problems, so it’s harder to predict what will set someone off. During the week they all go to the on-campus school and eat in the cafeteria. On the weekends they stay in cottage, engaging in activities worthy of much eye-rolling, except for the game where they all stand outside in a circle and stretch a giant parachute between them, flapping their arms like maniacs to bounce a beach ball around on the surface. Although it’s supposed to be an exercise in communication, they mostly just try to hit each other in the face with the ball, and it’s fucking hilarious.
The rest of the time is spent doing homework, attending therapy and doing their assigned chores. The more trustworthy kids, like Tobias, get kitchen detail. Church never does—he’s pretty much on permanent bathroom detail. Whatever. Cooking for thirty complaining bastards on the weekends isn’t Church’s idea of a good time anyway. Besides, trust is relative in a place like this; the knives still get counted after dinner every night and locked up in the office.
The main reason Church is cleaning toilets is that residential treatment isn’t treating his anger so much as exacerbating it. Roseburg was all about punishment and learning to fear the idea of going back inside; Woodbury’s supposed to be teaching him the tools he needs so that he can make better choices. However, sometimes he wants to tell his therapist that the attempts to prepare him for community living don’t come close to replicating what the actual community is like. Take a kid like Jamal, who got mad last Thursday because he’s going through an anti-religion phase and Church’s name apparently offends him, which obviously means that Church deserves to have trash thrown on his bed. When is Church gonna come up against this sort of shit out in the real world?
Besides, in the real world, he could just throw the dumbass out of his house. Here, his options are sort of limited. If he doesn’t kick Jamal’s ass for that kind of crap, Church might as well put a target on his back that says PLEASE FUCK WITH ME BECAUSE I WILL TAKE IT. Of course, even if he pulls his punches so he won’t actually hurt the kid—who is, let’s face it, nuttier than a bag of pistachios, and sorta can’t help how his brain works—Church still gets busted back to safety level, which means giving up his razor and his right to go outside alone, and the whole treatment process starts all over again.
It’s what the philosophers refer to as Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t.
Plus, half the time, Church doesn’t even get a chance to think about his best option before he’s taking a swing. There are a lot of jerks in Woodbury, and Church has never been long on patience.
He wants to get out. Really. He just can’t seem to figure out how to disconnect the part of his brain that gets mad and makes a fist.
* At this point, the scene introduced Ghost for the first time, and that's the part that actually made it into the book. In case you haven't picked Loose Cannon up in a while, that part of the scene talks about a kid that Ghost attacked with a shiv for climbing into bed with him--that's what Tobias is referring to. For space reasons, I'm not going to include that part again here, but if you've gotten to this point in the newsletter, you probably remember Ghost anyway. ;D
So yeah, everyone likes Ghost, but no one fucks with him.
“I was his roommate then too,” Tobias tells Church later, when they’re alone in their room getting ready for bed. “I don’t know if there was a shiv or what—I was sleeping. I woke up when the kid started screaming and Ghost was standing there covered in blood, calmly waiting for the staff to arrive. They took the kid to the hospital and Ghost spent three days in the Intervention Unit, and that was that.”
“What happened to the kid?”
“I dunno,” Tobias says, frowning like he’s trying to remember. “The staff told us he’d be okay, but he didn’t come back to Woodbury.”
The bedroom door opens, sounding the chime that alerts staff that someone’s coming or going, and Ghost walks in.
“Tobias,” he says politely.
“Hey, Ghost. This is Church.”
“Enchanted,” Ghost says, not even looking over. He kicks his boots off and slides under his covers completely dressed, turning to face the wall. Tobias shrugs, and they go back to talking about The Avengers, which neither of them have seen, although that doesn’t keep them from speculating.
Later, when Church gets up to go to the bathroom, he sees that Ghost has rolled over in his sleep. One fine-boned hand is hanging off the edge of the bed and the fingertips are black with fingerprint ink.
The next day, Church wakes up to find Ghost sitting on the foot of his bed, staring at him.
“Jesus fuck,” Church snarls, kicking at him and jumping down from the top bunk. Tobias sits up, knuckling sleep from one eye.
“Good morning,” Ghost says to Church. “Did you sleep well?”
“Until I found you crouching there like a fucking gargoyle, yeah.”
One corner of Ghost’s mouth twitches. “I apologize. I’m a bit of night owl. I got bored.”
“So read a book.”
“In the dark?”
“I’d rather you turn on the light than be creepy.”
“Duly noted. Now get up, roomies. Breakfast awaits.”
Ghost uncrosses his long legs and nimbly jumps down. He walks over to Tobias and pokes him hard in the stomach so that Tobias says “Oof.”
“Up, miscreant queer,” Ghost says. “Before I pull you down by your heels and make you my bitch for the day.”
“Over my dead body,” Church says, and before he knows what he’s doing, he’s shoving Ghost away from Tobias. He’s bigger than Ghost, who isn’t that much shorter but really is rather underweight, but his heart’s thumping in his chest all the same. The thought of a shiv getting jammed in his testicles flashes through his mind.
“Church,” Tobias says urgently. He’s got an expression on his face that says didn’t I tell you not to start shit? “I’m fine. He’s just teasing. It’s okay.”
“No, it fucking isn’t.” Church gives Ghost a second shove, lighter but more purposeful. “You don’t talk to him like that. Don’t touch him without his permission, you got that?”
Ghost leans back against the bed frame, studying Church thoughtfully. It’s a little embarrassing to note that Ghost doesn’t look remotely intimidated. If anything, he’s slightly amused. “Is he yours, then? Why, Tobias, I’m impressed. Such a conquest.”
Tobias laughs nervously. “He’s not…uh, not mine, but he’s a good guy, Ghost.”
“Oh, an excellent specimen, I agree. The arms especially. He seems like the type who wouldn’t return the favor, though.”
“Fuck you,” Church says, and now his blood’s heating up. His hands curl into fists.
“Church,” Tobias whispers. “Don’t.”
“He’s a big boy,” Ghost murmurs. “Let him try if he likes.” He tilts his head to one side. “Come on, Churchy. Make a move if you’re going to. The day marches on.”
Church tries to think past his anger. If this were anyone else—if it were someone acting normal, he’d just punch the fucker in the face and get it over with. But if he’s honest, he finds Ghost a little unnerving.
So he stands there. He doesn’t push forwards, but he doesn’t retreat either.
“What if I were to say that I’m only going to wait until you’re out of the room before I fuck with him some more?” Ghost asks idly. He picks a bit of lint off of one sleeve and flicks it away as if bored. “Would that get the lead out of your ass, pendejo?”
Things go a little red then. There’s flesh under his fists, and for a second he nearly loses himself in the glee of violence. Then there’s Ghost's hand in his hair yanking his head to the side, the unmistakable line of cold along his skin, the trickle of his own blood, and he instinctively freezes.
He’s straddling Ghost, whose lips are bleeding, although that’s not keeping him from grinning viciously. And well should he be; Church might have gotten a few hits in, but it's suddenly obvious that Ghost had let him, that Ghost had maneuvered them into this position, that Church is fucked good and proper now.
Ghost’s hand shifts and the blade at Church’s throat digs in slightly deeper.
“Oh, don’t,” Tobias whispers. “Ghost, please, he’s my friend. He’s nice to me. Don’t hurt him. He won’t do anything, I promise. He’s not like that. He’ll leave you alone.”
“Is that true, Churchy?” Ghost asks, lifting one eyebrow. For a guy who’s on his back with a split lip and a weapon at a guy’s throat, he’s awfully chill.
“I won’t let you hurt him,” Church says, trying hard not to swallow. His bravado’s in the toilet, but he means it. He’ll fight dirty if he has to. Tobias’s one of only two people in his whole life to ever accept him entirely as he is, no questions, no qualms, and that’s worth everything to him.
“I don’t give a shit about him,” Ghost replies, matter-of-fact. “If he keeps his hands to himself, he’s safe as houses. You’re the one on my shit list at the moment. Now we’re going to roll to your left. Slowly.” They move in tandem, the blade at Church’s throat the entire time, until Ghost is the one on top. They sit there for a moment, while Ghost studies him. His eyes narrow, and then his hips rock once, rubbing their groins together.
Church jumps, staring up at Ghost in shock. For a second, his entire brain goes blank. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asks, careful not to move more than he has to. The pressure of the knife is playing havoc with his libido. His body’s never been this confused in his life.
“You want to?” Ghost asks, tilting his head. On the surface he seems casual, even inviting, but there’s something downright disturbing in those green eyes. “We could. Maybe it’ll make us friends. We can put this whole mess behind us. Just say so if you want to.”
In his peripheral vision, Church can see Tobias shaking his head furiously and mouthing the word no, but Church doesn’t need the help figuring out what to say. Everything abruptly makes a sick kind of sense. He’s known kids in Roseburg who do this sort of thing—albeit never on this scale—and Church can’t be mad anymore.
“I’m in love with somebody else,” he says, and the choked feeling he has now has nothing to do with the knife at his throat. “I don’t think I’ll ever want anyone else.”
He means it. He's never felt particularly safe or special, except for that brief period of time when he had Miller in his life. It’s not really the sort of thing you get over, so he’s pretty sure his heart is toast for good.
“You’re pretty and all, but I don’t want you,” Church says honestly. “I’m not going to try anything.”
“Please listen to him, Ghost,” Tobias says. He’s all but wringing his hands now, throwing worried glances at the door; it’s almost breakfast. A staff member will come looking for them soon, wondering why they aren’t ready. “He’s a good guy.”
Ghost rocks against him once more, and Church grits his teeth. It feels good, it does, although the knife goes a long way towards helping Church stay unaffected, thankfully. He’s not sure what Ghost would do if he got hard right now. So Church thinks about math and pretends Ghost is ugly as fuck, and after a minute, Ghost eases back, standing up with lazy grace.
“If you come at me again, I’ll leave you bleeding and take the consequences. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” Church says.
“Excellent.” Ghost reaches down, and before Church can protest, he’s being hauled to his feet. Ghost’s considerably stronger than his frame suggests. By the time Church has caught his balance, the blade in Ghost’s hand has vanished, back into whatever fold of clothing he’d concealed it within in the first place. He has a politely interested look on his face that, considering what just went down, is clearly bullshit. “Well. It seems they’ve stuck all the gay boys together. I suspect a nefarious plot.”
“Maybe they thought we could use supportive relationships to ease our adolescent struggles with sexuality,” Tobias suggests, eyes flickering back and forth between Ghost and Church.
Ghost sighs. “I despise you, Tobias Benton. When we get to breakfast, I’m going to throw Cheerios at you.”
Tobias laughs, and the last of the tension in his shoulders fades. “I missed you, too.”
Church puts a hand to his neck and wipes at the blood there. “That knife better be clean, asshole,” he says, but without much heat.
Ghost’s lips curl up in a wicked smile.
Extended Early Scenes- First included in the Nov 1, 2017 newsletter.
Author's Notes: The original version of Loose Cannon was very, very different from the version you've read. I started it while I was still shopping Bad Judgement to publishers, so this was back when I was still pretty free to do whatever I wanted. And what I wanted, apparently, was to write 40,000 words of Miller saving teenaged Church from his crappy home life.
Alas, I had room for barely any of it. Only one chapter of this backstory made it into the book, and what did survive was greatly altered. I'm a little leery about providing this sort of deleted scene, if only because it's bound to be a little confusing, but I love the original version of their backstory, which involved Church moving in with Miller entirely as opposed to just stopping by from time to time in order to crash on his couch and eat his food. So read on for a long scene from a version of Church and Miller's history that never happened and which isn't canon for the actual novel, although you might recognize a few details (for example, Chelsey is still here, just as Church's CASA worker instead of his probation officer). Still, the spirit and relationship between the boys is pretty consistent.
Again, this is out of context, unedited, and may contradict what happens in the actual book--just go with it. The inconsistencies could drive you crazy. There might be some foul language, too, so be aware. ;D
Miller’s cell phone jolts him out of sleep. He blinks, blurry and confused, and looks at the clock. Just after eleven pm. He’s been asleep for less than an hour. He fumbles with the stuff on his nightstand until his fingers wake up enough to find the phone and then he says, “Hello?”
His brain clears quickly and he sits up, adrenaline already thrumming. “Church? Are you okay? Where are you? Are you hurt?”
There’s a soft, weird sound on the other end of the phone, like a laugh and a sniff at the same time. “No, I’m…” He trails off, sounding young and lost. “This isn’t your problem, I know, but….” He breaks off at the sound of something hammering in the background and a bellow of anger, and Church’s voice returns, quick and clipped. “I don’t know what to do. I gotta go, I gotta. I can’t stay here. But I don’t have any shoes, and it’s snowing, and…Miller...”
“Are you in danger?”
“No. I don’t know.” Another sniff, and Miller realizes the kid’s trying not to cry. “He’s drunk. They’re yelling. It’s just like before, when…I don’t want to be here, but I don’t have any shoes…”
Miller tries to think. “Okay. Give me your address. I’ll come and get you. You can clear out for a night and we can call Chelsey in the morning.”
Church rattles off the address—it’s in a nearby neighborhood, a twenty-minute drive—and Miller writes it down. “I don’t want—” Church breaks off. There’s a click and then a distant yell. Something smashes.
“He’s hitting her,” Church says, and his tone is hard, furious, and suddenly much older than fifteen.
“Church, listen to me,” Miller says. “When we’re done, call 911 and then stay in your room. Do you hear me? Don’t get in the middle. I’m on my way. Twenty minutes. Call 911.”
Church hangs up on him.
“Fuck,” Miller says, already bounding out of bed. He trips over blankets and the jeans he’d left on the floor before going to sleep, but he manages to get himself dressed without breaking his neck. He jams his feet into his work boots because they’re the closest, and knocks the coat rack over in his haste to grab his coat, hustling down the stairs as he shoves his arms into the sleeves. He’s in his truck fewer than three minutes after his cell phone rang, and he’s driving before the windshield wipers are even done clearing the glass.
It’s a twenty minute drive normally, and should probably take him thirty, considering the state of the roads, but Miller makes it in fifteen.
It isn’t hard to find Church’s house once he’s on the right street.
An ambulance and two cop cars, lights flashing, are sitting in front.
Church is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the ambulance near the bumper, his frozen toes pressed to his thighs, a gray wool blanket wrapped around him, when he hears Miller’s voice.
The last thread of panic in his gut unknots.
He gets up, ignoring the EMT behind him—pawing through a red box of gauze—when she says, “Hey, kid, sit back down. I need to bandage that!”
Instead, Church wanders past the nearest cop car. He can see Miller there, talking to one of the cops, who’s nodding, and Church crosses the icy asphalt carefully, wincing at rocks and cold. When he gets to Miller’s side, he catches the sleeve of Miller’s coat and tugs once, making him whirl around.
“There you are,” Miller says, and the relief in his tone is gratifying. “Are you okay? You look like you’re bleeding.”
“Okay.” Miller looks back to the cop. “Soon, then?”
“Yeah, she said she was on her way. Any minute, probably.”
“Great, thanks,” Miller says. Church lets Miller ease him to one side for a critical look from tip to toe. “Oh, hey, can someone get him some socks at least?”
The cop, Miller, and Church all stare at Church’s bare feet for a few seconds. The cop says, “Jesus, kid. Yeah, I’ll grab ‘em right now.”
“We’ll be at the ambulance,” Miller says, and before he knows it, Church is being guided back the way he came. Miller pushes him gently back onto the bumper. “Where are your shoes?”
“My father threw them in the trunk of his car.”
“Why did he do that?” Miller asks, sounding bewildered.
“So I couldn’t run away again.”
“Is Chelsey coming?”
“Yeah. Soon. You guys getting along okay?”
“Sort of. She keeps showing up, anyway.”
Miller’s mouth curves slightly, very briefly. He lifts one hand with slow caution, his eyes asking for permission, and when Church nods, Miller’s fingers gently tip his chin to the side so Miller can see the rapidly-forming bruise at his temple. There’s a cut at Church's hairline, but it isn’t bleeding anymore. “Anything else?”
Church holds up his left wrist, which has been splinted. “Paramedic lady says it might be broken. They’re making me go to the hospital.”
Miller studies the swollen, purplish joint with his brow furrowed. He’s also clenching his jaw, and Church realizes that this is what Miller looks like when he’s really mad. Then he realizes he isn’t scared, and that idea is new enough that he’s not really sure what to make of it—not having to fear a man who’s angry.
“Where’s your mom, Church?”
“Inside,” he says, jerking his chin in the direction of the house. “She said I should get the ambulance first even though she’s way worse off.” He snorts, but it comes out soft and sort of pathetic instead of scornful. “Like that’s gonna make up for anything.”
“And your dad?”
Church points with his good hand. “He’s in the back of the other police car. He’s passed out now, or you couldn’t have missed him. I think my favorite part was when he called the cop a train-digger.”
Church shrugs. “Who the hell knows? He was at the slurring, talking-to-trees stage by then.” He studies his house, where the front door is wide open, allowing him a glimpse of the empty recliner in the living room. He knows his mom is at the table talking to one of the cops—or at least she had been when the paramedic had guided him out to the ambulance. “One of her teeth came out.”
Miller’s low, “Jesus,” makes Church feel better somehow.
The paramedic lady is there again, putting a damp cotton swab against the cut, dabbing some brownish stuff that stings, and Church hisses. A couple of Band-Aids later, he’s told that they’ll be heading to the hospital as soon as his mom’s ready to go.
The cop shows up, handing over a thick pair of socks. “Couldn’t find any shoes, though.”
“This is okay,” Church says. “I can get them later.”
The cop shrugs and walks away.
Chelsey appears as if from nowhere, making Miller and Church both jump. She’s wearing jeans with a faded, oversized t-shirt—her pajama top, probably—under her parka, and her afro is wrapped in a pink silk scarf. Her mouth is pursed, her eyes so narrowed that they’ve almost disappeared, and she studies Church’s cut and wrist for barely a second before she mutters, “Heads are gonna roll.” Then she’s eyeballing Miller with the same disapproving look.
“That’s Miller,” Church says.
"Quinn," Miller adds.
Chelsey says, “Hmm. And you’re here why?”
“I called him,” Church snaps. “He came to help me.”
“I gave Church my number so that if he ever felt the need to run away, at least he’d have a place to run to,” Miller says. “I figured my guest room’s better than huddling under an overpass.”
“He came to help,” Church repeats.
“Hmm,” Chelsey says again.
“Stop making that noise,” he tells her. It’s pissing Church off, and he’d thought he was too tired to get pissed off about anything else tonight.
“You’re not the boss of me,” she replies. Over the last weeks, he’s noticed that she’s gotten more and more informal with him, and he’s come to like her more in response. Probably why she’s doing it, but Church doesn’t feel manipulated. It’s more like she’s trying to speak his language. She’s not always great at it, but he guesses it’s nice of her to try. Still, it doesn’t make up for the way she’s looking at Miller.
“Okay,” Chelsey says, “Let me talk to the cops and let your mom know what’s going on, and we’ll head to the hospital, get that wrist checked out.”
“Wait, what?” Church asks. “The ambulance is taking me. Me and my mom.”
“Church,” Chelsey says, and it’s the tone she only breaks out when she’s about to say something she knows he isn’t gonna like, which immediately makes him tense. “I’ve talked to the police officer. Your mom is probably going to have to stay the night at the hospital.”
He starts to interrupt, but Chelsey adds, “You can’t stay with her there. You won’t be supervised. And even if she were to return home, I’m not comfortable with you staying here until I’ve had a chance to investigate this incident thoroughly. So I’ve arranged for—”
“You’re gonna take me back to Lisa’s?” Church bites out. He'd hated Lisa's house, with the nine-million screaming toddlers and the weird-smelling bedrooms.
“Lisa doesn’t have a bed anymore. I’ve arranged for a different foster situation.”
Church swallows hard against the rising anger. “I don’t want to go there.”
“I know,” Chelsey says. “But there’s no other option.”
“I could stay with my mom,” Church snaps. “There. That’s the option. Solved it.”
“Hey,” Chelsey says. “Don’t be a pill. I’m not doing any of this to make you suffer. But if your dad makes bail, I don’t want you here when he gets out.”
“Then we’ll make him go someplace else,” Church says loudly, but even as he’s saying it, he knows how unlikely that is to happen. He doesn’t remember a time when his mother locked the door against his father.
Chelsey’s using her patient voice now, which Church has learned is usually a sign that she’s out of patience. “You know that’s not going to—”
“Church’s mom has custody of him, right?” Miller interrupts. “She’s not gonna lose her kid because of what his dad did.”
“They have joint custody,” Chelsey says slowly, “and she will not lose rights as long as I can determine that she didn’t contribute to what happened to Church—”
“She’s not the one who hurt me!” Church cries, but Miller gives him a look and a quick shake of his head. Church settles back, glaring at her, as Chelsey finishes telling Miller sharply, “...and as long as she doesn’t allow her husband to return if or when he makes bail. And we all know we can’t depend on that happening.”
Miller says, “But until his dad posts bail and comes home, it’s up to her where he goes, isn’t it?”
Chelsey pauses, giving him an unfriendly look, and Church abruptly gets where Miller’s going with this. “Let’s go ask her,” he says, and takes off across the yard, his blanket flapping in the cold air, leaving Miller and Chelsey to follow or not.
His mother is sitting in one of the dining room chairs, her black hair wild, her lip cut and puffy, her throat deeply bruised. The sight of her sends a pang through Church, and he’s torn between wanting to do something sappy and stupid like touch her hair, and wanting to grab her by the arms and shake her until she sees how dumb she is for letting his dad pull this shit over and over.
He can hear Miller and Chelsey coming in behind him, and the cop talking to his mom says, “I’ll give you a couple minutes.”
“Mrs. Hamilton,” Church’s mom says, looking up at Chelsey. Her voice is rough from being choked out, and Church has a moment of blind rage for his fucker of a father. He shakes with it. He wants to hit something, anything, but Miller says, “Easy, Church. We’ll figure it out. Just keep breathing.”
“I’m okay, baby,” Church’s mom says, and Church wants to say, yeah, this time, maybe.
But he just says, “Mom, this is Miller.”
“Oh.” She sits up straighter. “Mr. Quinn. I…what are you doing here?”
“I called him,” Church mutters. “During. He told me to call the cops and stay in my room.”
“Oh,” his mother says again, more quietly this time.
“Mr. Quinn was right,” Chelsey says. “You did good calling the cops, but you should’ve stayed in your room.”
“You try staying in your room when your dad’s trying to fucking kill your mom,” Church grinds out.
“Edgar,” his mom whispers.
Miller says, “It was brave of you.”
Church glances up at him, his anger derailed by confusion. “It was?”
“Yeah.” Miller gives him a wry smile. “Stupid, but brave.”
Church screws his face up in something that’s part glare and part laugh. “Asshole.”
Miller only says mildly, “Language.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever.”
When he looks up, Chelsey and Church’s mom are watching them like they just turned into bugs or something.
“What?” Church asks.
His mom shakes her head. She says, “Mr. Quinn, I wanted to thank you for helping Edgar. He told me what you did for him, and I…I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.” Miller pauses. “Mrs. Hamilton was talking about having Church taken to somebody’s place—”
“A stranger,” Church interjects, at which point Chelsey corrects him sharply with, “A foster situation.”
Miller doesn’t miss a beat. “A stranger’s foster situation, I suppose, and I wanted to offer to let him use my guest room instead.”
“For the night?” Church’s mother asks, sounding confused. “Because he’ll have to go somewhere else tomorrow if I can’t bring him home yet—”
“If your husband will be returning to this home,” Chelsey says, cold and hard enough that Church’s mother quails, “then Church cannot and will not be remanded into your care. He can stay with someone of your choosing, or I’ll see him placed with an appropriate person, but—”
There’s a sinking feeling in Church’s stomach at Chelsey’s tone. He can feel the possibility of getting away from all of this bullshit—the strangers, the sirens, all of it—and escaping to Miller’s shrinking.
“I don’t want to go stay with someone I don’t know,” Church says.
“I know, baby, but Mr. Quinn’s done enough—”
“Then just don’t let dad come home.”
“Edgar, you know I can’t make that decision on my—”
“Then let me go to Miller’s. Please.”
“Mrs. Church,” Chelsey starts. “It could be that Mr. Quinn could receive a stipend eventually—”
Church’s mother says, “My husband won’t want to pay for Edgar to stay with someone else when he could stay here.”
“Then we don’t have any more options,” Chelsey concludes.
And that’s it, Church figures. He clenches his teeth, wishing he could burn holes in the carpet with his eyes, wishing he could light the whole fucking house on fire. Raze the whole place. Run and start someplace new. He’s so tired of all of these fucking people who say they want what’s best for him but won’t even listen to him.
“He works hard for his money,” Church’s mother is saying. “His back—”
“Then I’ll pay for whatever Church needs,” Miller snaps. “He can live with me as long as he needs to. I’ll take him to the damn doctor if he gets sick, he can eat all the food in the place, he can stay until he’s eighteen if he wants to, I don’t care. He needs someplace safe, someplace stable, and I’m offering.”
Church jerks his head up and stares up at Miller, his heart suddenly in his throat. Part of him is aware that Miller’s snapping at his mom, and that’s not cool, even if Church kind of wants to yell at her too, but the other, bigger part, is entirely hung up on the fact that Miller’s willing to pay to keep him. That he’ll do whatever it takes to make sure Church is okay. And Church can’t breathe, because he’s never had anyone offer something like that to him. Or for him, really. He didn’t even know shit like this actually happened. He can’t think, not past the painfully warm, terrifying feeling starting in his chest. All he can do is stare.
Miller hesitates, then glances at Church. “I mean, if you want to. You don’t have to live with me if—”
“I want to,” Church says instantly.
For a second, Miller looks at him blankly. He seems sort of stunned, actually, like he doesn’t know what just happened. He takes a breath. And then his mouth firms and he nods his head definitively.
Church’s mother touches his hand. “Edgar, baby, I—”
“I don’t want to go to some other place with a bunch of crap people I don’t know just because I can’t stay here,” he says. “Miller’s good. I told you what he was like. Besides, this way I can fix the hole I put in his wall.”
“Damn straight,” Miller says, and the glow in Church’s chest only gets stronger.
Church’s mother says, “And you feel safe with him?”
“Safer than here,” he says quietly, apologetically, because he’s afraid that’ll hurt her as deeply as any bruise his father’s ever left on her, but she surprises him. She smiles instead, and squeezes his hand. She turns to Miller.
“We could arrange for me to come visit tomorrow? And then regularly? Every week or so, perhaps?”
“I will be visiting tomorrow too,” Chelsey says. She’s gripping the strap on her purse like she wants to strangle someone with it.
“Anytime,” Miller says. “You guys just let me know what you want to do. I’m easygoing.”
Church’s mom now looks to Chelsey. “Do I need to sign something?”
“For him to stay the night?” Chelsey asks pointedly.
“For him to stay as long as Mr. Quinn and Church are happy with the situation.”
Chelsey gives Miller a sour look. “I’ll get some forms for you tomorrow, Mrs. Church. For now, it’s enough that you’re giving verbal permission. I have to warn you, though…”
Chelsey keeps on going, but Church tunes her out when Miller nudges his shoulder.
“You need help packing a bag, kid?”
Church shakes his head.
“Get on it, then. Bus is leaving. I’ll get your shoes out of your dad’s trunk.”
Church pauses to kiss his mother’s cheek, making her let out a weary sound that’s half-laugh, half-sob, and hurries upstairs.
As he goes, Church hears Chelsey ask, sounding both hostile and baffled, “Why are his shoes in the trunk?”
He knows Miller won’t leave without him, not after everything he just did for Church—showing up in the middle of the night, offering to let him live in the quiet, clean townhouse with the purring cat, offering to pay—but he can’t help rushing all the same. He doesn’t want to annoy whatever higher power finally decided to give him a break. He throws clothes and shit into a trash bag, grabs as much as he can manage, picks up his backpack, wondering if maybe he’ll be able to bring more stuff later, because Miller maybe wouldn’t mind, and then Church has to sit on the floor for a second, because there’s…it’s all too much. The weeks of low, constant anxiety of wondering when it would all break down, and the fight tonight, and coming down the stairs to see his father’s fingers clenched around his mom’s throat, and then the pain when Church was knocked away, and to think that everything was going to shit, to absolute shit, and now Miller’s here, and it’s better.
Miller watches as Church kisses his mother good-night at the hospital after his broken wrist has been set and wrapped up in a blindingly neon-green cast. They make plans for Mrs. Church and Chelsey to stop by the next evening to check in and see where Church will be living, and then Miller leads the kid out to the truck.
They make it to the highway before it really sets in.
Miller has a…a…he doesn’t even know what the right word for the kid is. He has a Church.
He isn’t exactly sure how that happened. One minute he was thinking he’d done everything anyone could reasonably expect from him, and the next minute he was remembering that hug in the doorway two weeks ago, with the yowling cat squished between them, the way Church had been so awkward, so red-cheeked, so damn adolescent, and Miller’s mouth had just started moving without any permission from his brain whatsoever. He knows this is true, because ever since, his brain has been saying things like this: he put a hole in your wall, remember? He threw a temper tantrum. It was obnoxious. Shelby’s going to throw a fit. Your father’s going to talk to want to give you a talk about how to raise a boy so that he turns into the right kind of man. They’ll be right to think this is stupid. You’re 23 years old, you idiot. How are you going to raise a fifteen year old? You can barely remember to pay your cable bill.
Those things are all true. But he reminds himself that if humanity threw back all the teenagers who have temper tantrums, there’d be hardly any left. It doesn’t make Church a bad person. It makes him a little bit of a shit sometimes. Like any normal kid. Miller doesn’t really have a comeback to any of those other concerns though. He does keep forgetting to set up auto-pay with his cable company.
Jesus. What the hell is he doing?
He wonders if this could even be enough, if this snapshot into a peaceful time can possibly provide enough of a foundation for Church to find some kind of happiness eventually. Yeah, it’s great that the kid isn't getting hit, but that’s not good enough, is it? This isn't some slapdash job where Miller can hold on with both hands and fly by the seat of his pants, hoping for the best. This is a life, a future, a human being, soft and fragile and dependent, and if he doesn't stop thinking about this right now, Miller’s going to hyperventilate.
“You’re freaking out, huh?” Church asks, and Miller glances over at him. The boy’s mouth is screwed up and shunted off to one side, his dark eyes enormous and anxious. The responsibility conferred on Miller with that look is terrifying. He concentrates on driving while he fiddles with the heater; it’s almost too warm in the cab of the truck and the windshield is fogging up.
“No,” he says finally, then pauses, because that’s such a blatant lie that a toddler could see through it. “Well, yes. But not…” He can see Church getting worked up, and that tiny voice in his head says here it comes, but the rest of him has had enough drama for one night, so Miller adds, “Hey, remember how you’re supposed to listen to my actual words instead of the ones you’re making up for me in your head? No more throwing punches, okay? I like the windows in my truck intact.”
Church flushes. “Yeah, okay, but for that to work, you’ve got to say some actual words. You’re just sitting there staring like a fish.”
“A fish,” Miller repeats. “Thank you. That’s lovely. And yes, I’m freaking out, but not because I don’t want you to stay with me. It’s more that…I’m probably not supposed to admit this, but this whole thing is really big and important. Taking care of you, I mean.” He hesitates, then decides that brutal honesty has worked for them in the past, so he adds, “I don’t want to fuck it up. And doing it right means a lot of stuff has to change for me. I’m not gonna back out, and I don’t even want to, but there’s gonna be a period of adjustment for me, that’s all. You’re not the only one who’s gonna be doing stuff differently.”
“Like…” Miller’s mind goes blank, and then he ends up saying the first thing that occurs to him, which is, “I’m not gonna be able to have sex in the living room anymore.” Not that he does that now, but he could, and he takes a moment to miss the idea of casual sex in inappropriate places, then realizes what he’s said and to whom. “I probably shouldn’t have said that either,” he admits.
Church cracks up, laughing so hard he ends up hitting his head on the window. He sounds sort of like a hyena when he laughs, and Miller finds himself having a hard time keeping a straight face. In the presence of a snorting kid, it’s difficult to feel too overwhelmed.
Maybe it’s a throwback to all the shit with his own family, and the way that Miller had been painfully powerless about how it all fell apart.
He sees exhaustion in Shelby’s eyes almost every day. He knows she loves Em, and she’s a great mom, especially considering that she was only sixteen when she got pregnant, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t old before her time. He wonders sometimes if things would’ve been better for her if they’d had a relative step up and offer a change of scenery at some point. Not that anyone else had the responsibility. He just wonders.
And even though no one would say this is his responsibility, he’s having a hard time justifying any other choice he could have made.
He wants Church to have a chance, even if he’s still laughing at Miller.
“Shut up,” Miller says wryly. He waits until the kid manages to calm down some before saying, “I guess we need to figure out what to do with you tomorrow. I figure you’ve earned a day off school, but I’ve got some things to do at work. I could probably make it a half-day though. What do you think? Want to come in with me?”
“I’m old enough to stay on my own, dude,” Church says. “If…if you trust me alone in your place.”
“I’d have to be pretty stupid to take you in if that wasn’t the case,” Miller replies. “I was more thinking that there’s not really anything for you to do since you don’t have much of your stuff and daytime TV sucks. Plus, that way you can earn some money.”
He can see Church swallow, and his voice, when it comes, is a little rough. “Yeah, whatever. I’ll help you move some stupid rocks, I guess.”
“Very kind of you.”
There’s a brief pause. Then Church says softly, “I missed the cat.”
“Yeah,” Miller replies, some of the panic in his chest subsiding. “He missed you too.”