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Double Jeopardy

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Michael is seven and practically mute and there’s always too much noise, all the time, so much that he can barely make sense of what’s happening around him. He seeks out quiet wherever he can - creating spaces for himself in dusty stairwells and unfrequented hallways, refuge from the never-ending chaos.

After dinner each night, the kids are all sent to their rooms for the rest of the evening. Michael hangs back, fading into the hallway’s shadows, yearning for a few moments of quiet before returning to the room of six boys. The door to the common room is slightly ajar, and he slips inside, wondering how long he has until someone comes looking for him.

He freezes when he enters. The TV set is on, and the oldest nun, Sister Catherine, dozes in a chair in front of it. He’s seen the pictures on the screen before, though he doesn’t quite know what to make of them. There’s a man on the screen, talking. He looks kind. Michael doesn’t quite get what he’s saying, but the sound of voice is soothing. Words fill up the screen, white block letters on a blue background. Three other people appear on screen. One speaks, briefly. “That’s right,” says the kind man. It sounds like approval. Michael carefully lowers himself to the ground and sits. It’s quiet, save for the kind man’s voice. He breathes.

Michael attempts the same trick the next night, slipping off the back of the crowd heading from dinner and into the common room. Sister Catherine is awake, this time, and she looks at Michael in surprise. “Shouldn’t you be getting to bed?” she asks him. He has to focus hard on way her lips move, the sounds they make, the expression on her face, so that he can understand the words. He thinks he gets it. He shrugs – a strange gesture at first, like all the things these people do, but one that’s becoming more natural – and points towards the TV, where the kind man’s voice plays over the white letters on the blue background. Sister Catherine sighs and speaks. Michael isn’t paying enough attention to catch all of what she says, but he understands the words for what they are: permission to stay.

He returns nightly, after that, to sit in the peace and quiet and listen to the kind man’s voice. The other three people on the show tend to change, but he is always there: a steady, constant presence. Eventually, Michael understands that his voice is reading the words that appear on the screen. He listens carefully, trying to match up what he hears to what he sees. It slowly starts to come together. He has lessons with the nuns every day, lessons on words – on speaking, and reading, and understanding. But the nuns aren’t patient, and they certainly aren’t kind. Not like the man on the TV, who reads so carefully, who teaches Michael more about language each evening than he learns in a whole day at the group home.

The world starts to make more sense to Michael. He doesn’t talk much, but he listens, and he finds that he’s understanding almost everything being said around him. Reading comes easier, and he spends any time he can get buried in the books the group home has. His understanding of the show solidifies. It’s called Jeopardy!. The kind man is the host, and he’s reading clues to the contestants, who respond with questions that are actually answers. His name is Alex Trebek. He reads a clue one day about a god and a lightning bolt. Michael freezes. He’s been reading a mythology book and he thinks he knows the answer. “Who is Zeus?” he blurts out, eyes glued to the screen. A contestant buzzes in. Alex calls on her.

“Who is Zeus?”

“That’s correct!”

Approval. A warm feeling bubbles up inside Michael’s stomach. Sister Catherine is staring at him, eyebrows raised, surprise on her features. He’s grinning stupidly; can’t keep it off his face.

Michael starts going to school. There are too many people and it’s hard to sit all day, but he’s learning so much, and he loves it. He reads whatever he can. He starts answering more and more clues correctly. Each time – he knows it’s silly, he knows – he glows at the thought that Alex Trebek would be proud of him.

He leaves the group home for a foster home, and when 7:00 rolls around he asks if they can watch Jeopardy!. His new foster dad laughs, then slaps him for good measure. “Not in this house,” he sneers, and Michael endures four horrible months without his evening appointment with Alex Trebek. Eventually, he gets sent back, and settles back into the rhythm of watching each evening with Sister Catherine.

Over the next several years, he’s in and out of homes. Some families are Jeopardy! watching families. Most are not. But even after long absences, Alex Trebek is always there to welcome him back to his 7:00 ritual.

He misses it for almost the entirety of senior year, when he’s sick of the endless shitty homes and starts living in his truck. High school ends and he scrapes together enough to buy an Airstream, but he never springs for a television set. Too much painful shit has happened, he has a different Alex to miss, and he starts a new evening ritual: getting so hammered that he doesn’t have to think about any of it.

A few weeks after Alex Manes kicks his chest in at the drive-in, Michael slouches into the Wild Pony for an early start to an evening of drinking. He’s halfheartedly paying attention to the baseball game on the bar TV when he stiffens, aware of Alex’s presence before he even hears his voice. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches as Alex and Liz slide into a table across the bar.

The baseball game cuts suddenly to a breaking news alert, and the U.S. President appears on screen, announcing the declaration of a national emergency at the border. Michael rolls his eyes. DeLuca comes running, eyes blazing and brandishing a remote. “Not in my bar!” she cries, and changes the station.

A long-unheard but instantly familiar sound effect rings out. Michael can’t believe his ears. Alex Trebek’s voice: “And it’s the daily double!” The contestant makes a wager. Alex starts to read the clue. Something softens inside of Michael; the ever-present knot in his gut loosens. He sighs. Closes his eyes. Lets the kind, familiar voice wash over him.

“What is Manitoba?” He says, his eyes still closed. He’s smiling. This is ridiculous. It’s been over a decade and Alex Trebek is still there, at 7:00, reading clues like he’s just been waiting for Michael to tune back in.

He doesn’t even realize he’s answering out loud as he sweeps a category on the periodic table. He hasn’t missed a clue by the time the commercial break rolls around, when he discovers that he has an audience. Several of the bar’s patrons have tuned in, half-watching the show and half-watching Michael’s rapid-fire delivery of answer after answer. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, glancing around the bar. Alex is returning from the bathroom. They almost make eye contact, but Michael glances away quickly. The show returns from the break. Trebek reads off the Double Jeopardy categories. Hank is trying to get Maria to turn back to Trump. She shushes him. She looks at Michael.

“Alright, Guerin, let’s see what you’ve got.”

“DeLuca…” he glares at her. He regrets drawing this level of attention to himself. Particularly with Alex Manes in the bar.

Maria levels her gaze at him and smirks. “You can’t back down now,” she says, and he knows she knows he’ll rise to the challenge in her words. Shaking his head, he turns back to the TV. Alex is reading a clue about 1980s pop.

“Duran Duran” Michael mutters.

A contestant rings in. “Who is R.E.M.?”

“Ooh, sorry,” Alex says. The crowd at the bar boos good-naturedly. Another contestant gets Duran Duran, and a cheer goes up. Hating himself a little bit, Michael realizes he’s kind of enjoying this. After ripping through a category on college football mascots, he flinches a little to discover that Alex Manes has come to stand next to him, leaning forward on the bar, his gaze turned up at the TV screen. Michael tries to breathe, tries to focus back in on the show, letting Trebek’s gentle tone wash over him. He feels a little burn in his cheeks as he correctly answers the last clue in the round (“What is Spanx?”) and another cheer goes up. Trebek announces the Final Jeopardy category. Shakespeare Characters.

Alex is smiling at Michael. “Have you missed a clue yet?”

He bites at his lip and shrugs, unsure how to talk to Alex right now, unable to stomach the look in his eyes that might just be admiration. His gut reaction is to make a snarky remark about how Alex shouldn’t be talking to a criminal in front of all these people, but he also definitely shouldn’t say that in front of said people, so he says nothing and sips at his drink, pretending the commercial about some fibromyalgia drug is riveting.

Trebek returns to read off the Final Jeopardy clue. “This name is shared by a tragic heroine & Uranus' innermost known moon”

“Cordelia,” Michael says, almost before Alex has finished reading the clue. He can feel the Alex at the bar’s eyes on him. The 30 seconds of the think music creep excruciatingly by. Trebek reads off the first contestant’s response: “Who is Cordelia.” She’s correct. She adds $6,400 to her total. The rest of the game is lost to the cheers as the bar erupts at Michael’s perfect game. People are patting him on the back, offering to buy him drinks. It’s more than a little overwhelming, and almost unwillingly, but unable to prevent it from happening, Michael meets Alex’s eyes.

The emotion there is like a blow. He has been carefully constructing a defensive structure around his feelings for Alex since the drive-in, and it’s now a splintered wreck in the face of those eyes shining at him with pride and – he thinks, but doesn’t want to hope – affection.

Alex leans in and Michael swallows hard. He drops his mouth close to Michael’s ear, his voice cutting through the din around them. “Do you want to come over for 7:00 tomorrow? I just got a TV up at my cabin and wouldn’t mind some company to watch Jeopardy!.”

Michael stares at him, not quite understanding what this is about, but agreeing. Of course he agrees. “Sure,” he says. “Text me your address.” It’s not really what he wants to say, but this isn’t the place for it. Alex nods and heads back to his table with Liz. Michael turns back to his drink, shaking his head. Of all things, apparently his resurgent Jeopardy! skills cracked through Alex’s icy distance. He’s not even going to pretend it makes sense.

Michael shows up at Alex’s the next evening just before 7:00, precluding the possibility of any talking happening before the show starts. Regardless of Alex’s intent, he was asked here to watch Jeopardy!, and he is going to do so before whatever other nonsense this is about comes out.

They settle onto the couch as the familiar intro plays. Alex Trebek walks out and greets the audience, and some weird emotion rises in Michael’s throat. He feels like he’s going to cry, but he’s not sad. It’s so strange and so entirely unlike anything he’s felt before that he can’t help but look to Alex next to him on the couch, who gazes right back, seems to read whatever is plain on Michael’s face, and tentatively reaches out a hand to place on his knee. The weight of it grounds him just a bit, and Michael reaches out to cover the hand with his own. He tries to smile a bit. “Fuck,” he says, just to have something to say, but that seems to cover it.

Alex laughs a little. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Michael waves his hand in some sort of futile gesture. “I don’t. But, I do?”

Alex just nods encouragingly. Michael sucks in a breath. How does he name the way he’s feeling right now? He thinks back to that first time he came across Jeopardy! at the group home, before he had the words to express any of the chaos he had inside of him. How Alex Trebek’s calm, kind presence had helped him more than he could quantify over the years.

“I… don’t have a lot of happy memories from being a kid, when I look back. But when things got rough… Jeopardy! was like this constant. No matter how shitty things were, Alex Trebek was there every night, reading clues, like my kind old TV grandpa I could always count on. Pretty sure he taught me how to read.” Michael lets out a chuckle, embarrassed at how shuddery it is. Alex’s hand tightens on his knee; he holds Michael in his steadfast gaze.

Fuck it. Might as well just get it all out there. “And tonight, sitting down with you to watch Jeopardy!... I just got hit by the thought that I’d want to do this with you every night for the rest of my life.”

Michael knows his eyes have been close to spilling over for a while now. Alex’s are now filling up too. Alex leans in and rests his forehead against Michael’s for a moment. Michael breathes in deeply. Something trembles in his chest. “I’m a fucking idiot,” Alex says, his face scrunching up as he does, and it’s so painfully, wonderfully Alex that Michael just nods and reaches for him.

Their lips meet in a gentle kiss. Gentle, but with a promise, and an apology. Alex pulls back and narrows his eyes. Trebek’s voice carries on soothingly in the background. “What?” Michael asks, trying to drawl but fairly certain he’s shaking all over.

Alex cups his face with both hands. Michael nuzzles into the left. “It’s alright if I’m not the most important Alex in your life,” he says. “I can handle being second to Trebek.”

Michael laughs and shakes his head, allowing himself to be pulled in for another kiss. It’s a lot, all of this, and he’s not quite sure what any of it means, but there’s hope back inside him and plenty of time to do more talking after 7:30. He pushes Alex away. “Come on, man, Jeopardy!’s on.”

Alex groans and presses a kiss into his neck. “You’re such a fucking nerd.”

Michael wraps an arm around him and pulls him in tight against his side. “What is Morse code?” he says to the TV, just a beat before the contestant. “That’s correct,” Trebek responds, and Michael grins and presses a kiss to Alex’s hair. It seems like he’s finally gotten something right.