4. In Which a Boy Breaks Up with his Off-Again-Off-Again Girlfriend for the Last Time

By the time Banner High’s football team called it quits, the storm had swallowed most of the horizon. The large picture window in Dad’s office framed the black clouds still miles out from town almost perfectly, and Jeremiah, watching lightning arc silently across the sky, tried to find the words to explain what was bothering him. The office sat above the shop garage, a single room that had begun life as a storage unit, but though the large desk in front of the window was utilitarian (as were most of the chairs, snagged from the remains of a church rummage sale), there was a squashy loveseat wedged between two filing cabinets along the wall. It was older than he was, with the most comfortable butt indentations in the world molded into the cushions.

Brittany sat next to him on it, a dark beauty in the half-light coming from the lamp next to the door, arms folded and leaning into her armrest; they touched on the barest outside edge of their legs. Jeremiah noticed only distantly, bowed over his lap with his elbows on his knees. They’d come upstairs fully planning to turn back around again once he’d grabbed the truck keys, but Brittany had parked herself in the loveseat with the finality of a game show contestant in the final round and, rather than insisting that they get a move on to Cody’s house where the rest of the team was congregating, Jeremiah had joined her. He didn’t mind. He wasn’t really in the mood to socialize.

Neither, apparently, was she. Silence sat like an unwanted guest in the space between them. From downstairs you could just hear the laughter from Dad’s poker night buddies, but it was the only sound.

“That was a better practice than I was expecting it to be,” Jeremiah observed at last, because he couldn’t figure out how to say what he really wanted to.

When Brittany said nothing to this Jeremiah went on, halfheartedly trying to keep the conversation going. She’d been in a mood since they’d left the game. “Yeah,” he said without feeling, settling back into the loveseat. She promptly shifted so that their arms weren’t touching. He glanced at her. “Better than I thought. Still wish Stanton had told us they weren’t coming.”

Brittany sniffed and continued to stare at the wall.

Jeremiah looked again at the encroaching weather, set like an impossibly monstrous backdrop behind their small town. According to Villain Watch (which had Emergency Broadcast permissions on the radio) it was gathering mass but had still produced nothing but dry lightning; no news on BASH’s progress or emergency prep should the storm break. He wondered if they needed any help.

He promptly laughed at himself, though it was an internal reaction and his expression remained neutral. What, from you, Jer? he thought. He opened his mouth to explain, unaware that the laugh hadn’t made it past his filter, and Brittany crossed one leg over the other, breaking the last contact point they had.

Jeremiah gave it up. Even if he found the words, she wouldn’t be receptive to them. He indicated the door with his head. “Do you want to get going?”

“Are you even going to ask me why I’m annoyed?” she demanded.

…and there it was. Jeremiah silently sighed off the urge to remind her that he had not only asked her what was wrong five minutes ago but that she had answered with “nothing,” and obediently asked, “What are you annoyed about?”

Brittany regarded him, arms folded and one manicured nail tapping a tattoo on her upper arm, then said, very coolly, “Nothing.”

So it was going to be this kind of night, was it? Clearly he’d made her angry in some way. Clearly she wanted him to know how. Did it have to be a guessing game?

“Glad to hear it,” he said, putting all the blandness he could muster into his tone. She wasn’t going to make him mad. He didn’t want this fight. “In that case we should get going.”

“First,” she said, putting a finger up, and he sat back again into the loveseat, glad he had broken her so quickly, “you ignore me at the game.”

He tamped down on the sudden urge to point out that it hadn’t been a game, reminding himself that he didn’t want to push her buttons right now. He made himself look her in the eyes instead, giving her the “I’m listening” face.

“Second,” she said, and up went the second finger, visually helping him along, “you were totally dismissive of me when I was talking. Every time I opened my mouth you cut me off. It was—it was so rude, Jeremiah, and I really didn’t appreciate it.”

He continued to regard her, waiting for the rest of it. That couldn’t possibly be it. She still had eight fingers left.

Brittany, however, didn’t go on. “Well?” she demanded.

“Oh,” he said, thrown a little. “Well what?”

Brittany was the type of girl that looked pretty even angry. She brushed her hair off her neck, crossly flipping it over one shoulder as she sat up straight, releasing her folded arms so she could talk with her hands. “Well?” she repeated. “Aren’t you going to defend yourself?”

Admittedly, Jeremiah’s first reaction had been to object. Fortunately, one of the advantages of thinking before opening your mouth was that you were less likely to act like a jerk. “No,” he said, having processed her accusations. “You’re right.”

She blinked at him. “What?”

“I was ignoring you at the game. And I hadn’t realized I’d cut you off while you were speaking, but that’s no excuse. I’m sorry I haven’t been paying much attention to you.”

It stymied her completely; he’d have to remember that for the future. Still, she was right – he’d owed her an apology. She almost said something, but when she closed her mouth he filled the hole in the conversation, hoping that the argument might actually be over. “So. Do you want to get going then?”

But this, for some inexplicable reason, triggered her temper.

“You!” she snapped, leaping to her feet. She stared down at him and he stayed where he was, granting her the power position. She wasn’t all that much taller than he was, even with him sunk into the loveseat cushions. “You are…you are so impossible. See, this is why…you’re never honest with me!”

That annoyed him. For all that he’d apologize for something he’d done, he wouldn’t for something he hadn’t. “Since when?” he demanded. He tried to come up with a way to ask for specific examples, but there wasn’t anything besides, “Give me a specific example,” and that was asking for a sarcastic comeback.

She didn’t seem to care though, gaining momentum on her rant. “Something’s obviously been bothering you all week, but do you tell me about it? NO,” she answered for him. “You never tell me what you’re thinking, I always have to drag it out of you like I’m this huge inconvenience. I have to drag everything out of you. Like, why do you hate Frank Hill?” She caught his surprised look and explained, icily, like she thought he’d assumed she was an idiot, “I saw you glaring at each other at the game.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it.

“Well?” she demanded.

About five or six years ago, back when Jeremiah was a scrawny middle schooler still waiting for his growth spurt, he and Teddy had cut through the alleyway that went past the Hills’ house on their way home from the park. Frank, sitting on his back porch, had worked his way through quite a few six packs at that point; he’d followed them for at least a block, holding a bottle opener and threatening to bleed that pussy little robot just to find out what color it was. He had a bet with a coworker that he wanted to settle.

Jeremiah had occasionally overheard adults wondering exactly what Teddy was (and what he was made of), but this was the first time anyone had directed the question right at his face. And in a way that was terrifyingly plausible to a twelve-year-old that had only just breached eighty-five pounds. Still, Jeremiah had finally turned, asked him to stop – which he had, amazingly enough – then walked the rest of the way home with his heart pounding in his throat.

It was only later that he had remembered that it wouldn’t have mattered if Frank had followed through. The only one he could’ve bled was Jeremiah.

The memory embarrassed him now. If he told her he’d have to explain his idiocy, and his pride wouldn’t allow it.

“Nobody likes Frank Hill,” he pointed out instead.

“See!” she cried with the outraged triumph of someone who’d just had their point proven. “Nothing. You tell me nothing.”

“Seriously, Brit, do we have to do this right now?”

He knew, as soon as he said it, that it was a mistake. He waited for her fury to go into a tailspin, but a second passed, and another, and then he saw that, though her arms were crossed and her mouth was set in a pert, angry line, those were tears in her eyes.

Jeremiah – who’d grown up in a houseful of men and saw crying very rarely and then only as a serious sign of distress – had his feet under him and was standing before he’d consciously decided to go to her.

Brittany turned away from him, escaping his hands and holding herself like she was cold. “You don’t really care about me,” she stated in a small, overly broken voice. Jeremiah held his arms awkwardly, knowing that he ought to comfort her in some way but unclear what to do since physical touch was apparently out. She glanced back at him, brown eyes still wet. “Are you trying to break up with me?” she asked. “Is this your way of telling me?”

“No, of course n—”

“There are more direct ways to tell me you’re tired of this relationship,” she told him, ignoring his attempts to pacify her. “You don’t have to shut me out to do it. If you want out, then get out.”

“I don’t want—”

“But you need to learn to open up or you’re going to drive everyone away. Like you have with me. Open up, Jeremiah. Tell the people in your life what’s going on with you. Don’t keep us out.” There was a pause in which he had just enough time to start cottoning on to what this was actually about, then, “I’ll always remember—”

“You know I had my meeting with Mrs. Grayson on Wednesday,” he interjected before she could get into her goodbye speech, finally picking up what she’d wanted him to guess that she was laying down. For Pete’s sake, if she wanted to know what was going on in his life she only had to ask. Brittany had overly convoluted methods for giving him a clue. “We had our talk, and I’ve been distracted the past couple of days thinking about my future.”

Brittany had turned to face him directly, and when he didn’t go on she raised her eyebrows at him. Her hands still clutched her arms, but she didn’t look cold anymore. Simply like she was waiting for him to impress her.

Jeremiah, not sure what she wanted, added, “And trying to figure out what I want to do. Can do, that is.”

“Oh,” she said when it was clear that that was it. “That’s very interesting. Thank you for all the details.”

Oh good, the anger was back. “So I can be just about anything, right?” he asked in lieu of acknowledging her abrupt mood swing. Ignoring them hadn’t worked so far, but there was nothing like tilting at windmills to really keep the spice in your relationship. “And go anywhere. I’m good at just about everything and I’ve already got a couple of scholarship offers for both sports and academics, and that’s without applying for anything. But the one thing…see, I asked Mrs. Grayson…”

He struggled for a moment with the words, but Brittany was watching him impatiently so he finally demanded, “What did you want to be when you grew up?”

“What?”

“Ballerina?” he asked. “Astronaut?” She didn’t give him a yes or no, but he went on because it had been rhetorical and he couldn’t think of a better way to explain. “Well I wanted to be a super hero.”

“You don’t have any powers,” she pointed out, tone petulant.

“Yes,” he said, hanging onto his temper. “Thank you, I am aware. I’m just saying…you don’t really expect to be what you dreamed about when you were a kid, but sometimes I thought…sometimes I still think…maybe…”

He couldn’t say it. Go figure, he still couldn’t say it out loud. Because once you put something out in the open, you couldn’t ever reel it back in.

“Well that was the most tortuously unhelpful explanation I’ve ever heard,” Brittany said before he could muster the courage to actually verbalize his ridiculous dream. “At least I know your self-esteem is alive and healthy.”

He was not going to defend his own self-awareness. Yeah, it sounded bad when you described your own skillset, but it would be worse to pretend he had no idea that he was in any way talented and go fishing for the compliments he didn’t need. He wasn’t a genius, he wasn’t an athletic superstar, he was just good at a lot of different things and aware of it.

And he knew Brittany well enough to know when she was fishing for a fight.

“You know what?” he said, keeping every bit of annoyance out of his tone because she was not going to draw bait with him tonight, “Fine. Let’s just go to Cody’s party and—”

“Oh there’s a shock, so you don’t want to talk about—”

Lightning struck startlingly close, cutting off the argument as the flash threw everything in the office into stark relief, both instinctively jerking their heads toward the window. Another strike followed – it was an awesome display of raw power, crackling with impossible speed from ground to sky – but more noteworthy was the fact that Jeremiah could suddenly see a very recognizable face flicker in the reflection of the window. Right out from where the enormously irritating little goober was hiding under the desk.

“TEDDY!” he shouted, coming around the desk to grab his arm and pull him out.

“Well hi, Jer,” Teddy said with the hopeful smile of someone who knew he’d blown it. Realizing that trying to force his little brother to his feet was impeding Teddy’s own attempts to let him, Jeremiah abruptly released him. Sometimes he forgot how heavy he was.

“Don’t ‘well hi’ me,” he bit out. Good night, Jeremiah realized, quickly running through the implications of Teddy’s current location. There was no way to have snuck past them, so he’d been in here for the entire conversation. “Don’t you EVER—”

“See, this is what I’m talking about!” Brittany cried. Both Dunn brothers looked at her, not exactly having forgotten that she was here, but having assumed that she’d stay out of their family squabble. “You never emotionally respond to me!”

Teddy beat him to it. “What?”

“You!” she said without looking at the freshman, glaring at her boyfriend like he was the only one in the room. “You’re always so…so irritatingly calm with me! It’s like I don’t exist on your emotional spectrum! But as soon as Teddy shows up, out it comes, so I know it’s there. Just not for me.”

“Are…are you saying you want me to yell at you?” Jeremiah asked, baffled. Out of the corner of his eye Teddy began to inch away and he shifted – a reminder, without looking at him, that yes I do still see you there – so that the fourteen-year-old couldn’t get around him.

“Yes!” she retorted, and then immediately: “No! I don’t know!”

Jeremiah bit down on a sudden incredulous laugh. Was she actually annoyed that he kept his cool during their fights? He wasn’t sure if he found that funny, endearing, or just exasperating. “If that’s all you want, I can certainly—” he started, but she wasn’t done.

“You’re empty,” she said, which froze him. He let it go a second later – rocking back on his feet to lock Teddy in more effectively, even though he was no longer trying to get away – because she didn’t mean it. Just another test of the emergency broadcast system. “I used to think you were this, this deep well—” that got Teddy to glance at him, but Jeremiah didn’t acknowledge the look, calm gaze locked on Brittany’s angry one “—but now I’m not sure you have much of anything in you. You’ve got a, a cup–no teaspoon–of emotion in there—” he did an excellent job not snorting at her metaphor (“teaspoon,” because “cup” was giving him too much credit) “—so you have to pick carefully who to give yourself to. And I don’t make the list.”

“Oh c’mon,” Teddy started, distinct annoyance in his voice. Jeremiah shook his head at him; it wasn’t Ted’s fight, and Jer definitely didn’t need a shield. Particularly one wielded by his enthusiastic but rather ham-fisted brother. Either the gesture was too subtle or Teddy chose to ignore it. “Jer’s not some stupid well, he—”

Brittany cut him off without appearing to, a skill she had honed through years of practice. She had her arms crossed and was looking at Jeremiah like Teddy hadn’t even spoken, sitting back on her heels to really convey how little the freshman bothered her. “Typical. A chorus of noise from Mr. Roboto, and absolutely nothing from the great Jeremiah Dunn.” She leaned forward. “Who here’s the real puppet?”

And that hit him. Hit him like “what color does he bleed?” because what she was really implying was that Teddy was a real puppet.

He spoke without considering the words. “I may be an empty well,” he conceded, anger very, very tightly controlled under the taut tone, “but you’ve got the heart of a tomb.” She hissed in a breath, possibly preparing to respond, but he went on without waiting for it. “You want to talk about emptiness? You’re cold,” he explained, though there was absolutely no way she would’ve asked for the clarification. “You’re the most passionately cold person I’ve ever met in my life. I have no idea what I ever saw in you.”

For a second he thought she was going to fly at him. Her jaw clenched and her eyes widened, nostrils flaring, but then she contained herself to a frigid, “We’re done.”

“Fine with me,” he agreed.

The door hit the office wall and nearly closed itself again on the backswing, Brittany stomping down the stairs as Jeremiah caught it. He had an unthinking hand on Teddy’s arm, pushing him forwards because that (currently distant) part of himself that operated by right-and-wrong still remembered that he needed to be reprimanded for eavesdropping. Wordlessly, Teddy let him.

They hit the bottom of the stairs and Jeremiah actually had to lengthen his steps to catch up to her, striding past the card table. Poker night – four of them in all, including Dad – had turned, greetings dying in their mouths as they caught the mood. Jeremiah released Teddy at the table, wishing that Dad had set up the game somewhere else tonight. They were only about the deep-end of the pool away from the door, and could definitely hear every word.

“Let me drive you home,” he said, knowing she was a good couple of miles away and had no ride.

“Forget it,” she spat, jerking open the door. A blast of air hit her, throwing her cheer uniform skirt back and high, but Brittany slapped it down and looked like the next person that offered her so much as a word was going to get it with both barrels. She grabbed the door, trying to slam it closed behind her. Jeremiah thrust a hand in the way, stopping it.

“I’ll drive you home,” he stated, not asking. The door fought his grip, trying desperately to obey the gusting wind. “That last lightning strike was close and you really shouldn’t—”

“You, Mr. Superhero” she interjected, coolly picturesque in the open door, the wind tugging at her clothes, “will always be a big fish in a little pond.”

It stung him like nothing else could have. She yanked the door out of his hand and slammed it, leaving him with nothing but a red groove in his palm and a hole in his stomach. She had been listening. Not only listened but understood his embarrassingly vulnerable rambling. And then thrown the truth back in his face so that he had to look straight at it and face the fact that even someone as shallow as Brittany Lewis recognized that the great Jeremiah Dunn had limitations.

“Whoa,” Mr. Berber said as Jeremiah turned, searching almost blindly – automatically – for the truck keys to make sure she made it home safe. It was still the right thing to do. He saw them in Teddy’s hands, only remembering now that he’d handed them off as they passed the card table. He’d been so angry he hadn’t paid any attention to what he was doing with them. “Uh…” the plant supervisor continued, mouth about to break into a grin, “So date night’s going well then?”

Mr. Berber was basically a good man, but he’d never been particularly tactful; Teddy thought he was a hoot and Jeremiah had a time of it convincing him that that wasn’t a characteristic he ought to admire or emulate. Bill’s dad, who had the same easy humor as his son, was also visibly trying to keep the smile off his face, as was Jeff. To the sheriff’s credit, he was doing the best job of it, eyes on his cards like he was simply amused with his hand.

“Not exactly,” Teddy answered, grinning at all three of them.

Dad glanced sharply at his youngest, but simply said to Jeremiah (over Jeff’s amused, “Been working on that understatement, have you, kiddo?”), “You are going to drive her home, correct?”

Jeremiah ignored Teddy’s laugh, holding his hand out to his little brother.  “Yeah. Of course. Just need the keys.”

“So is this the famous reoccurrence of part two in on-again-off-again?” Mr. Berber asked, grinning at Jeremiah (whose temper flared but held), because Banner was small enough that Brittany and Jeremiah’s tumultuous relationship was actually standard gossip around town.

Teddy missed Jeremiah’s wordless request for the keys, busy enjoying all the attention this evening had afforded him. “More like off-again-off-again.”

Mr. Berber guffawed and Teddy went on, hugging his arms to himself and jumping into his version of Brittany’s voice. The tone was mockingly, girlishly high, but he had her cadence down pat. “You don’t really care about me.” Jeff shared an amused look with Bill’s dad, before a glance at Jeremiah’s face had him back to pretending he was engrossed in his cards. Dad was frowning at his youngest, but Teddy missed it, wiping a fake tear out of his eye as he got into it, using his recall function (perfect, but short-term) to recite what Jeremiah had thought was a private conversation. “You need to learn to open up or you’re going to drive everyone away!”

“Teddy…” Dad started warningly, but Jeremiah didn’t wait for it to do any good.

“Teddy, let’s go,” he insisted, trying to simultaneously pull the keys from his closed fist and move him towards the door, hand around his brother’s upper arm. He did not need to leave the tattletale here, spilling all the gory details. “They don’t want you here, messing up their game.”

Dad knew what Jeremiah was really saying. “Go on. Both of you.”

Teddy, of course, didn’t move. First, because he was clearly having a good time, second, because he could lock his joints like they’d been welded into their factory setting when he didn’t want to be moved, but mostly third, because it would take two or three more requests from Dad before he really meant it. They both knew the pattern. Jeremiah tugged his brother harder, bicep bunching with serious effort under his shirtsleeve, and not an inch of Teddy’s five feet so much as leaned towards the door.

“She basically made Jer pick between me and her,” he continued in his own voice, smirking at his audience like yes, she really was that stupid.

“Let’s go,” Jeremiah insisted over Dad’s, “It’s time for you to be getting home,” but Teddy, good mood in full force as he fed off the subtle and not-so-subtle grins he was getting from the rest of the table, added, “Classic mistake. Hasta la vista, baby.”

Jeff, still staring at his cards, barked out a laugh.

Jeremiah lost it.

“Don’t you dare,” he snapped, words crackling like pieces of safety glass on the highway. The table – moments before sharing a few chuckles at his expense – went dead quiet, as did Teddy, turning to him with a surprised look on his face. Jeremiah never lost it like this. Ever. But he couldn’t hold it in anymore. “You don’t get to make jokes about this. You embarrass me in front of my friends, you humiliate me in front of my girlfriend—”

“Ex-girlfriend,” Teddy pointed out, and Jeremiah could see in his face that it had slipped out involuntarily, his wince obvious and the, “Sorry” already half on his lips. But Jer was done being the understanding older brother.

“Yes: ex-girlfriend,” he ground out. “I hadn’t realized. Thank you for pointing that out to me.”

“Look, Jer, I’m sorry but it wasn’t as if she was the nicest pers—”

“What do you know about it?” he exploded. He couldn’t believe he was losing it like this in front of an audience. He could feel them staring at him, cataloguing the fact that yes: calm, serious Jeremiah Dunn really could get angry, but his vision had narrowed and, though there was a part of him that was still aware of them, the rest of him was stuck on Teddy and his smug, stupid, android face. “What do you know about love? Or heartbreak, or—” He took in his little brother’s open-mouthed astonishment, and the sight of him standing there, surprised that using his abilities to mock his older brother over the things he cared about might actually hurt, pushed Jeremiah right over the edge into livid. “What do you have in your chest but a bunch of wires?”

Dad stood immediately, accidentally jolting the table on the way up as his chair scraped across the floor. Poker chips hit the concrete with a clatter of plastic on plastic. “That is enough.”

Jeremiah, suddenly aware of how far he’d just crossed the line that he’d spent the last ten years blocking other people from crossing, could see the whole table again, staring at him with their mouths open. He couldn’t believe…he’d just…

Teddy laughed.

Jeremiah looked at him, as did the rest of them, but he was too busy laughing to notice, arms crossed and leaning back against the card table like Jeremiah had just given him his best shot and it hadn’t so much as grazed him. The table bent suddenly, likely in protest to his weight, sending the rest of the cards and poker chips sliding toward the center. Teddy caught himself, straightening before it gave out entirely and collapsed. He apparently found that even funnier than his brother’s rage, laughing fit to be tied.

Jeremiah couldn’t remember ever being this angry before in his life. Angry because he hadn’t hurt Teddy like he wanted to. Angry because he shouldn’t want to hurt Teddy no matter what he’d done. Angry because Teddy had blatantly been trying to make him mad all week, and now that it had worked he was just going to sit there and laugh?

Angry because of the guilt, quietly pointing out that what he was truly grieving about was the fact that Teddy had something he didn’t.

Nice going, you selfish, powerless fish.

“You okay, Jer?” Jeff asked, tone both hesitant and contrite.

I wanted to save the world when I grew up, but then I grew up and found out that I couldn’t, he admitted to absolutely no one, and oh the absolute immaturity of the thought almost made him laugh too, because it was pathetic and cheap and so devastatingly true.

“You may both head home,” Dad interposed, before Jeremiah could think of an answer he could share. The anger in his eyes was very clear as he locked gazes with his eldest. “Pick up Brittany, take her wherever she wants to go, and then both of you will go home. I will talk to you later,” he added, and Jeremiah nodded in acknowledgment. He realized that he was grounded; a first for him.

But Jeremiah didn’t care. Never mind that Dad was only angry with Jeremiah, because what had Teddy done but picked at him until he couldn’t take it anymore?  Dad, who had a soft spot for goofy grins and tactless jokes. Dad, who had needed someone after Mom died. Dad, who had come home ten years ago and announced that they’d adopted Teddy in the same sort of voice he might’ve used to say that he’d bought an extra box of Lucky Charms at the store. Enjoy, son.

“Let’s go,” Jeremiah said again to Teddy, whose laughter had petered out, leaving just the smirk on his face. He wouldn’t look at his brother, eyes on the floor as he handed off the keys. What, was he afraid if he looked up he’d start laughing again?

“I’d appreciate it…” Jeremiah started, but he had to look at Dad’s poker night buddies in the face to do this right, so he did. There was no judgment there, and that was worse than the scorn he’d expected. He’d prefer to get what he deserved. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t repeat any of the things I said here.”

He turned for the door without waiting for them to agree, knowing that Teddy would follow. Because what was that, if not another instance of defending someone who couldn’t bleed?


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