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Ben was a lot less annoying, now, as well. Jo remembered him as a baby, born with eyes so pale at first the doctors thought he might be blind. They’d gotten a little darker, but soon it was evident that the boy was other. He didn’t look anything like any of them. Mira, Jacob, and Joseph all had medium brown eyes and dark brown hair. They were fairly tall, and leaner in build. Even in personality, the Carters were quiet, understated. Dignified. When Sean came along, it was further proof that there was something wrong was Ben. That rolly-polly, loud baby never stopped moving, wiggling, getting into things, screaming at the top of his lungs, hugging people, giving sloppy, disgusting baby kisses, and laughing at their repulsion. Jo threw out all the toys that involved making noise: the two-year-old Ben could bang his little toy drums, rattle his little rattles, and blow on little trumpets for hours, nonstop, until Jo’s head nearly split. That kid always made up new lyrics to songs on the radio, ruining all of Jo’s favorites. And Mira always freaked out when Jo tried to discipline the child, make him more tolerable. She didn’t understand how hard it was not to toss the percussive baby out into the woods when Jo was going through morning hang-overs and comedowns that made his head feel like it was going to explode.
He couldn’t stand it when the child started calling him “daddy.” Started following him around, trying to be picked up, trying to get the same treatment that was so easy to provide to Jake. But just looking at the fat baby was a constant reminder of what Mira really thought of Jo. That he was less than a man. Of course, she always denied having cheated on him. No matter how hard he pushed, Mir stuck to her story, shaking and crying until that good ole boy, Jake, pulled Jo off her and told him to go calm down.
So, he hadn’t been that upset when his wife had taken the boy and run off. Good riddance. There had been that weird time when Sean was born, and the five of them had lived together. Jo had tried to ignore Ben, and focus on helping with the baby, but the five-year-old was constantly underfoot. Asking a million questions. Sticking his hands where they didn’t belong. Interfering with Sean’s care. Jo had tried taking the urchin aside for a lesson, but Ben always ran to his mother, and then Jo would have to deal with that.
It wasn’t what he’d asked for. All he’d wanted when he’d retired from the Forces was to find a decent woman, settle down, have a couple of boys to leave everything to, and then pass away in his sleep.
Jo didn’t appreciate Jacob enough when he’d been born. Comparatively, his first son was a dream – really didn’t cry that much, obeyed almost instantly, and did things without even being asked. He was dedicated. Determined to join the Forces. Sure, it was a little disappointing that the boy wanted to be a nurse of all things, not even as a stepping stone to becoming a field doctor, but if anyone asked, Jo just said that Jake was a doctor. No one would ever know otherwise.
It had taken forever, but then Mira had finally got pregnant again, and Jo was satisfied. This time around, the woman learned not to constantly be on his back about everything, harping on him for having a little fun every now and then. As if it was any of her business where he wanted to spend his money and time.
The baby was born too early, and both Ben and Mira had to stay in the hospital for a couple of weeks. As soon as the boy was born, Jacob was no longer interested in listening to Jo’s stories, or practicing cleaning guns or basic training exercises. He walked to the hospital every day after school, and stayed until after dinner. All he wanted to do was help, no matter how messy, no matter how disgusting the baby was.
Ice water went down Jo’s spine when Mira came home with the tiny, skinny baby, only one foot long, the colour of butterscotch with eyes like weed smoke. For his first few months of life, Ben was sickly, screaming and throwing up and keeping the whole house awake. All Jo wanted was for things to go back to normal. For three years he did his best to keep the kid out of his way. Mira and Jacob went a little overboard, especially with the broken wrist incident. It was an accident, for crying out loud. As if Mira hadn’t accidentally dropped all three of the kids at least once or twice when she was high.
She left. And then she came back. Then left again. Then offed herself.
What a selfish cow. It really put a rift between him and his oldest. Jacob thought he was better than everyone else. But he had no idea where his precious brother was now, did he? Jacob thought he could keep Ben from Jo, just by hiding the newspaper. Did Jacob think Jo was stupid?
If it hadn’t been for Jacob’s arrogance, Jo probably would have walked past the silver-eyed boy, sitting in the park on an overcast Saturday and playing “Summer of ’69” for a small group of children. Jo wouldn’t have even noticed, except that the boy had replaced “Jimmy and Jody” with “Seanie and Jacob,” which was instantly recognizable. It was the same thing Ben had done when he was three. That would have been enough. But turning and seeing the boy had been a shock.
At first, Jo thought he was seeing the ghost of his own younger brother. From a distance, without being able to see the spectral eyes, Jo wondered whether he was tripping on something without realizing it. The boy’s voice was crackly, undeveloped, but hinted at a post-pubescent gravelly deepness. He made several substitutions in every song, either with something Canadian, or something alluding to his personal life. The kids laughed at some of them, and looked confused at others. By the time the boy was done playing, Jo was nearly crying. He stayed, but after five more songs, the teen was tired, and most of his friends were gone. Ben stayed, though, and as the sun went down, Jo got up the courage to approach him.
Ben looked up briefly before going back to tinkering with instrument, and the sunset reflected in those terrifying eyes for one brief second. “Yeah.”
Jo wasn’t sure what to say, but tried his best. “That was some real good playing. Real good.”
“Thanks. It’s just a hobby.”
This uncommunicativeness was alien. The last time Jo had seen the boy at six years old, all Jo had to do was glance at Ben to trigger an avalanche of questions and chatter that lasted until kingdom come. Sometimes, all he had to do was think about Ben, and the child would appear out of nowhere with something to say.
Jo lit a cigar, casting about for something to say. “How long’ve you been playing?”
The fat ghost-boy glanced up at the sky. “Mmmm…about five years. I started when I was seven.”
Ah. So a year after his mother had died. “Here, have a puff.”
Ben stared at the proffered cigarette. “I don’t think so.”
“What? Didn’t your daddy teach you how?” Jo smiled at his private joke. The one thing that was guaranteed to shut the boy up was to stick a cigarette in his mouth.
Ben sighed a world-weary, preteen sigh. “I don’t have a father. Or a mother, actually. It’s pretty lame.”
Jo nearly choked on his laughter. “Yeah. That’s a bummer, dude. Here, I’ll show you.”
Then Jo saw something familiar – a spark of curiosity. He knew that it would possess the boy like a demon and wouldn’t let him go until he either ran out of steam or something else caught his attention. And that was all it took to get the ball rolling.
Of course, it started off with some coughing and choking. But a mulish determination descended, and Ben set his mind to mastering the art and doing it like Jo. But just like when he was a preschooler, he talked the whole time.
“So cool!” By his second cigar, Ben was halfway through his life story.
“How do you feel?”
The twelve-year-old coughed, then took another deep drag. “Like a rockstar. Maybe that’s what I’ll be instead!”
Jo cocked his head at his son. “Instead of what?”
“Instead of an architect.”
“You should join the army. That’s what I did. And my brother, and our dad, and our dad before that.”
“No way! I could never kill someone.”
“The point isn’t to kill people. It’s to save people.”
“I’d rather be a rockstar.”
Jo tried to find an excuse to see the boy again, even if he could never tell him who he really was. “Well, I’ve got magical rockstar pills.”
“What do you mean?”
“How about you meet me here next week, and I’ll show you? But you can’t tell anyone.”
“Okay! Thanks, Mister!”
They’d shaken hands, and for a moment, Jo just took in the sight of the boy. His son. He had no idea where those eyes came from. Maybe a genetic anomaly. Maybe some remnant from long ago on either his side or Mira’s. But Jo didn’t care, for the first time. Mir was dead, Jacob was always gone, and Sean barely spoke. Jo had no family left. He knew that if he told the boy who he really was, and what had really happened, he’d lose him, too. Jo wasn’t going to ruin this. After the movie and a couple of hours of horsing around, Jo will sneak Ben back into his latest foster home, and was in a good mood, whistling songs from the musical Annie as he drove back home
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~ Romans 15:13