The Murphy’s dining table has certainly seen better days.
It had been an exquisite piece of furniture when it was new. Dark, sleek mahogany with cherry hardwood accents, classic and timeless, yet modern enough to suit the marble breakfast bar. It was one of the first pieces Cynthia and Larry had bought together, once Larry had made senior partner. It had cost a fortune.
But time and two kids eventually takes its toll.
It’s chipped in places now, and the wood is dull and faded. There’s red wine stains and scratches, and a pale, milky spot where someone spilled nail polish remover and the varnish never quite recovered. Both Zoe and Connor blamed each other, and despite the threats of groundings and cut allowances until the damage was paid for, neither of them ever confessed. It remained a Murphy family mystery.
Cynthia talks about refinishing it to cover up all the marks. We’ll make a weekend of it, she says. She and Larry can drag the big, heavy thing out into the garage and do it up. Larry tells her not to bother. They can buy a new one.
Cynthia thinks that’s a waste. The old one still has potential. It’s a fixer-upper.
And she wants to be the one to fix it up.
God knows there are plenty of other things in her life that she never had the opportunity to fix.
Cynthia Mur phy spends a lot of time at the dining table. It’s damaged, but sturdy. Reliable. It’s the perfect surface for folding laundry, and a nice spot to sit and read when her children are at school and Larry is at work and the day stretches on in front of her, lonely and lagging and empty.
There’s a lovely view of the garden.
It also becomes a quiet place for her to sit and think when Connor first starts skipping school. When, at fourteen, her clever little boy with his sunny disposition suddenly loses his way. When his eyes look glassy no matter what lighting he’s in, and his skin turns mottled and sickly from lack of sunlight, and he seems to lose ten pounds in less than a week.
When he starts wearing long sleeves in the middle of summer.
Cynthia lies awake at night and cries.
Larry tells her she’s being melodramatic. It’s a phase, he tells her. Connor Murphy has everything. A beautiful home, decent grades, a family who loves him. What has he got to be depressed about?
Cynthia finds herself staring obsessively at the chips and scratches on the mahogany dining table.
How long has it looked so battered and bruised? When did it go from being pristine and perfect to... this?
Which chip pushed it over the edge?
Connor won’t talk to her about it. He won’t talk to her about much of anything anymore. Some days he’s so lost in his head he can barely find it in himself to look her in the eye. He avoids being in the same space as her; skulks around the house like a shadow, haunting the dark, silent corners of empty rooms.
Which is why it’s so strange when, one quiet Tuesday afternoon, Connor emerges from his bedroom and, without a murmur of explanation, sits opposite her at the table.
It’s just the two of them in the vast expanse of the house. Larry’s at work, and Zoe’s at school, as Connor should be, too. Cynthia had tried to peel him out of bed that morning, but he’d just turned his head to look at her with those dull, vacant eyes, looking like a hard drive wiped blank, like there was just... nothing going on beneath the surface.
It hurt to look at him.
She’d let him sleep. Called the school to let them know Connor Murphy was unwell, and he’d be absent today. Again.
What’s one more day, in the grand scheme of things?
She’d fully expected Connor to hole himself up in his room again, as he always does on days like this. So silent and still Cynthia almost forgets he's at home.
So, when she’s folding laundry at the table and Connor pads quietly downstairs and just...sits directly in front of her, she’s not entirely sure how to respond.
She feels like she’s approaching an easily startled animal; one wrong step, and he’ll dart away. Maybe forever.
She begins with a small, cautious smile.
Keeps folding laundry.
Connor doesn’t smile back.
But he looks at her.
And then, eventually, gives her the tiniest half-nod of recognition.
It shouldn’t feel like a victory, to be acknowledged by her fourteen year old son.
But it does.
“Hi,” she says softly, still feeling very much like she’s teetering on a knife’s edge. “How are you feeling?”
Connor shrugs gloomily.
Cynthia almost weeps.
Connor runs his fingers over the scrapes in the tabletop. His eyes follow the path of chips and gouges, but she gets the distinct impression he’s not seeing them.
“This table sucks,” he mumbles.
“It’s...a little worse for wear,” Cynthia agrees, hesitantly. She takes in a deep breath through her nose. “I think we could fix it, though.”
Connor contemplates this for a moment.
“I dunno,” he mutters. He runs the tip of his index finger over the filmy nail polish remover patch, like a ghost pressed into the wood. “I think it’s maybe too fucked to fix. You’d be better off to toss it out.”
Cynthia bites back the urge to scold Connor for the casual F-bomb.
Because...it’s the most he’s said to her in a long time. Months.
And she might not know anything about her son anymore. She might not know about all that’s been whirling around in his head this year.
But she knows enough to see that he’s so obviously reaching out.
He’s reaching for her.
Cynthia takes the seat closest to Connor.
The laundry is forgotten.
“Why do you think that?” she asks gently.
He shrugs again, wrapping his arms around his chest and staring down into his lap.
“Not everything’s fixable. Sometimes when something’s broken it just is. Sometimes things... deserve to be thrown away. Like...if it’s weird, or gross, or it like...thinks bad things, things that aren’t... normal , or... ”
His metaphor is slipping.
“Things like what, Connor?”
Connor flings his gaze up to her, eyes wide and scared, like he’s only just become aware of the stream-of-consciousness slipping out of him. He retreats almost instantly, curling in on himself, and she hears the shakiness of his breath with every forced inhale, like he’s emerging from underwater.
“Nothing. No, I just meant--”
Cynthia reaches forward and grabs her son’s shoulder.
He feels frighteningly bony beneath the bulkiness of his sweater.
“Connor,” she says tenderly. Imploringly. “What are you trying to tell me, honey?”
Cynthia is shaken to her very core when Connor turns white, and his eyes suddenly flood with tears.
“Mom,” he croaks, and Cynthia’s heart just breaks.
She wants to hold him, wants to shield him from the world, from his own brain if that’s what she needs to do.
But she also knows that right now, she needs to listen. She needs to hear him.
“I, um. I don’t. Um.”
Connor sniffles. The tip of his nose is turning red.
“You don’t…?” Cynthia prompts.
He lets out a big gust of air, his lips in an o-shape, so it whistles out of him, and avoids her eyes in this fearful way that makes something in Cynthia’s chest shatter into a million pieces.
He wipes his palms over his wet cheeks.
“I don’t...I don’t like...girls.”
Whatever Cynthia had been expecting, it certainly hadn’t been that.
Connor’s sweater feels scratchy beneath her fingers. Itchy. The wool rubs abrasively against her fingers as Connor instantly tries to twist out of her grasp, like he’s straight away regretting saying the words out loud.
"Listen, I'm sorry if you're like... disappointed , or whatever, and you probably think I'm like...too young to know , and that this is just a phase , but--"
"I don't think that," Cynthia says immediately.
And it’s the truth.
But it's like the words don't reach him.
And his sudden mood shift is…
It’s honestly alarming.
The train of thought whirls off the tracks, the frustration and the paranoia just pouring out of her son, uncontrolled and growing increasingly wilder by the second.
“You...you don’t mean that, you...don’t say that if you don’t mean it, you’re just saying that , you’re just telling me what I want to hear , that’s all you ever do , you don’t mean that , you don’t actually care nobody actually cares nobody gives a fucking shit--”
“Connor,” Cynthia says, and she’s aiming for soothing, calming, but it comes out a bit robotic instead. Because she feels a bit robotic; still and frozen with red lights flashing behind her eyes, warning bells blaring, because Connor is suddenly furious and it’s just so abrupt , and it's manic and jarring and Cynthia doesn’t know what to do.
What is she meant to do?
Connor hurls himself to his feet, and his chair falls violently onto its side behind him. He takes no notice of it.
“And you’re gonna tell dad, I know you are so don’t even fucking bother lying you’re going to tell him what a fucking faggot I am and that I’m disgusting and that , that’s the worst fucking part is that you’d be right you’d both be right you’re right you’re right--”
Cynthia briefly considers reaching out and grabbing his hand, but she can’t seem to move her arms. She’s frozen solid; paralyzed by his anger.
God, she’s scared of him.
She’s scared of her own son.
“So fuck you , say what you wanna say, OK? Just tell me I’m--”
“ No, you tell me.”
Cynthia’s voice comes out too loud, too shrill, and far far too aggressive.
But it stops Connor in his tracks.
His vicious tirade wobbles to nothing in the back of his throat.
And he stares at her, his face unreadable.
Cynthia never shouts at her son.
She takes a deep breath.
“ You tell me,” she repeats, quieter.
“Tell me what I can do to help you. Tell me what you need from me right now.”
Connor is clearly taken aback by this.
He fixes piercing eyes on her, staring at her searchingly, like there’s a right answer and a wrong answer Connor doesn’t know which is which. He opens his mouth, then snaps it shut again, and Cynthia can practically see him turning her question over and over in his head; like he’s trying to read himself, analyse himself.
To figure out what he needs.
What he expects Cynthia to do.
“If--if I knew I wouldn’t fucking be here, would I?” he retorts impetuously, but Cynthia sees right through the baby-faced attitude.
“This is...there’s more going on for you right now, isn’t there? More than...than what you just told me,” Cynthia says, trying to control the pounding of her heart; slower, slower, slow. “I want to help you. How can I help?”
“ I don’t know!”
Connor kicks the knocked-over chair, hard, and it slides across the floorboards until it hits the opposite wall with a bang.
Cynthia physically startles at the noise, but she does not make a sound.
“That’s OK,” says Cynthia. “You...you don’t have to know. Why don’t we just...just sit for a while until we figure it out, OK?”
Connor stands in the middle of the dining room for a long time; breathing hard, staring at the chair on its side across the room.
To Cynthia’s amazement, Connor sits.
He takes one of the remaining chairs, and he sits beside her.
They don’t talk.
They just sit together. For over an hour, they sit.
Connor tears up here and there. Silently. He rubs ferociously at his eyes each time, so hard he’s probably ripping his eyelashes out.
He never figures out what he needs.
But foolishly, naively, Cynthia hopes that this is good. It’s a good sign.
Her son is still willing to listen. To try.
To sit with her, and wait, and do his best to figure himself out.
Things were going to get better.
They’d be OK.
But things don’t get better. They don’t.
Cynthia tries. She tries and she pushes and she fights until she feels there’s nothing left in her to give.
And Connor just...drifts further and further away.
His grades slip. His friends, god he’d had friends once, they all abandon ship. The sinking ship that is Connor Murphy.
He makes a few new friends. College students, mostly. He meets up with them in parks and comes home numb and vague with his eyes stained red and the smell of smoke clinging to his hair.
It takes very little to make him snap. He seems like he’s tethered to a single thread of the thinnest cotton; the smallest tug, and the thread breaks, the fabric’s unraveling, Connor dissolving into nothing, just rage and screams and blood.
One night, he tells Zoe that he’s going to kill her.
Hours later, Cynthia drives him to the emergency room to have his arms stitched up.
It’s a bad night. The worst one yet.
Cynthia tries to talk to Larry. Connor’s getting worse, she tells him. Over and over.
Connor is getting worse. Connor needs help.
But Larry and Connor are cut from the same cloth. And Larry, too, just. Slips away. The harder she pushes, the faster he slides out of reach.
It comes to a head that night; the night Connor tries to break down Zoe’s door and then slices himself open in the bathroom.
Cynthia has had enough.
Connor is disappearing. He’s disappearing, Larry. And if you do nothing. If you let my little boy disappear I will never, ever forgive you.
That’s what she tells him.
I will never, ever forgive you.
The following week, Connor is enrolled at Hanover.
He doesn’t get better, exactly. There’s still something almost catatonic about his eyes. Something lost about the way he holds himself, like a puppet with cut strings.
But his grades pick back up, a little. The anger fizzles, kind of. Sort of. It’s hard to say when most of the Murphys avoid speaking to him, for fear of setting him off.
He still wears longs sleeves on 80 degree days. And he still comes home with eyes streaked red and the musty smell of smoke permeating his clothes.
But he smiles, sometimes. He smiles when he thinks nobody is looking at him. He checks his phone under the still-ruined dining table at meal times, and when he looks up again his mouth is all relaxed and gentle, and the tension in his shoulders has eased.
M, his name is.
Cynthia overhears him on the phone one night. He’s talking to someone who he calls M. He talks in this way Cynthia’s never heard him talk before; all soft and shy, and a little higher-pitched than usual.
Connor doesn’t know she knows.
Things are fine, kind of. For a while.
It doesn’t last.
There’s phone calls home, first. An incident , administration says primly. Involving the possession of narcotics says the principal. We take incidents such as these very seriously, Mrs Murphy, as I’m sure you understand.
Cynthia doesn’t understand much of anything anymore.
Least of all her son.
Larry rants and raves. Red in the face, practically drunk with authority. We give you these opportunities, Connor, and you throw them back in our faces. You’re damn lucky the school didn’t get the police involved, young man.
For once, Connor doesn’t yell back.
The whites of his eyes look gray, and the hollows of his cheeks so sunken he looks corpse-like, rotting away. He slumps lifelessly in the backseat, staring blankly out the window the whole drive home as Larry picks away at him like a vulture.
Larry demands Connor’s phone.
Connor gives it up without a word of protest.
It’s horrifying to watch.
Completely and utterly horrifying.
Connor spends three whole days in his bedroom, after that.
Cynthia spends every minute of those three days with her own cell phone in her pocket, ready to call 911 at any given moment.
Every time she walks past his doorway, lacking a door now thanks to Larry, this grating little voice in her head convinces her that she can smell blood, sharp and metallic; that her son is dying, her son might be already dead , until she just has to poke her head into the room to check.
And he’s never bleeding, or suffocating, or vomiting up pills.
But whenever he meets her eyes, she’s still somehow convinced that he is dead.
At two o’ clock on the third day, Cynthia is sitting at the dining room table, taking tiny sips of tea, long gone cold.
Her nerves are shot to pieces, and she feels trembly and unwell.
Cynthia is so, so tired.
Connor looks tired, too.
It takes her a moment to even register that he’s sitting opposite her at the dining table, running his fingers over the scratches, just like he did all those years ago.
He’s seventeen, now. Grown so big and somehow still so little.
“Hey, honey,” she murmurs, voice crackly with exhaustion.
She stares into her mug instead of at her son.
Connor says nothing for a long time.
Cynthia continues sipping her tea. She regards the table with something akin to dismay.
Three years on and still, nothing has been done to fix it, despite her constant efforts.
“I think it’s time we did something about this table,” she says quietly. “It’s been like this long enough. What do you think?”
Connor sucks in a shaky breath.
And, to Cynthia’s absolute horror, when he lets it out, it’s on a deep, wracking sob; one the reverberates in his chest and seems to tear his entire soul in two. He crumples into a ball, dropping his head onto his arms as he cries and cries and cries.
Cynthia is at his side in an instant.
She holds him, rocking him soothingly back and forth like the child he still is.
And he lets her.
“I can’t--” he chokes out, voice catching on the swell of tears. “I can’t…”
“You’re OK. It’s going to be OK, Connor.”
“He...he left me, mom.”
It’s the first time he’s actually acknowledged...whatever he had with that boy. M. The first time he’s said a word to Cynthia about it, only when it’s all come crashing down.
“Oh, baby, I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry, Connor.”
“I don’t...I don’t know how to…”
“Nobody ever does,” she tells him gently, rubbing his back as he continues to cry into her shoulder.
“I know. I know, honey. And there’s...nothing I can do to make that go away. I wish there was. I really, really do.”
Connor lifts his head from her shoulder, ever so slightly, eyes and nose and cheeks inflamed and wet and looking so heartbreakingly lost.
“Maybe I’m just...too fucked up. For anyone to ever…”
He drops his head into his hands, pawing aggressively at his tear-stained face.
“Hey,” Cynthia says gently. “Listen to me, Connor. There’s a lot of people who like to throw that phrase around. The whole ‘before you expect anyone to love you, you need to love yourself’. But can I let you in on a little secret?”
“It’s complete and total bullshit.”
Connor lets out a shocked bark of laughter at hearing his mother curse. His voice is still shaky, his eyes still bleary, but the corners of his mouth curl upwards, just a little.
“It is,” Cynthia insists, feeling encouraged at that tiny quirk of his lips. “You don’t have to have yourself completely together to be loved, Connor. You don’t. Because the right person is going to adore you no matter what. Whether it’s a good day, or the worst day, or anything in between. The right person is going to look at you and see the sun.”
For a moment, she’s worried that perhaps she’s said the wrong thing. Because Connor is nothing if not unpredictable. His bottom lip wobbles dangerously, and his eyes are brimming with tears again.
And then he’s hugging her.
Her son is hugging her.
She hugs back. She hugs him so goddamn fiercely that her muscles ache, her bones, her heart. Everything. Everything hurts.
She hugs Connor the way she’s been longing to every single day for years.
“He didn’t deserve you, honey,” she tells him.
Connor lets out a strained almost-laugh of disbelief.
“Nobody deserves me. You’d have to be the worst person in the world to deserve me.”
He says it like there's no room for debate. Like it's a fact. Indisputable.
Not for the first time, Cynthia cries herself to sleep.
The dust settles.
It takes time, as all difficult things do.
And not every day is perfect. Far from it.
Connor tries to get out of going to school on the first day of his senior year. He’s sullen and moody and clearly high as a kite, staring expressionlessly into his cereal bowl as Larry admonishes him with cold apathy.
When Connor storms off, practically flipping his chair over in his hurry to return to his bedroom, Cynthia is the only person in the room that recognizes Connor’s behavior for what it is.
It’s so obvious that he’s terrified of the prospect of starting again, of returning to his old school, to his old reputation, at the most critical turning point in his life. He’s frightened.
He ends up going to school.
Cynthia’s a nervous wreck about him all day.
And she’s genuinely, honest-to-god surprised when Connor returns home at 4pm looking...not alive, exactly. Not happy.
But not...miserable, either.
Cynthia asks both her children about their first day back, as she’s done every first day for the past twelve years.
She’s even more surprised when Zoe’s not the only one who answers her.
“Signed some kid’s cast,” Connor mumbles. “We swapped numbers. I think we’re friends now?”
Cynthia keeps her joy locked up tight, fearing that if even the most meager shred escapes it might scare Connor away.
Days pass. They don’t drag, they just...pass. They pass normally.
Her children go to school. Zoe goes to band practice. Connor goes... somewhere. Larry sometimes insists on knowing where, but Cynthia’s just glad that he comes home without smelling of smoke; without looking pale and empty.
Without looking like his soul has been bruised.
Connor comes home smiling.
Usually around six or seven in the evening, on school days.
He mutters to Larry that he’s been at a friend’s place.
Larry continues to regard him with irritable suspicion.
Until one day, said friend makes an appearance at the Murphy’s dining table.
It’s the boy with the cast, the cast that Connor has signed; gargantuan letters stretching over the entire width of the thing, and Cynthia wants to give Connor a talking to, for being so inconsiderate and not leaving room for any other signatures, until she realizes that there aren’t any other signatures. Not a single one.
Big, messy, all-caps Connor.
The boy is introduced to her as Evan. He’s quiet, with a very young face and a gentle disposition. He holds himself in such a way that he looks like an intruder in her home; like he feels as though he’s not meant to be there. His jaw is clenched and he swallows excessively and he fidgets with his shirt like he can’t bear to stop.
He shakes her hand.
He calls her Mrs Murphy, and his voice audibly cracks.
And Connor snorts at him from across the room, relaxed and jovial, face splitting into a wide grin, a real grin, and he makes some comment about how Evan’s going through second puberty, and Evan’s shoulders immediately loosen and then he’s laughing too, going yeah, but um, at least I, I don’t keep having growth spurts like some people, and they’re both laughing, laughing and laughing, going back and forth and teasing each other, like friends do.
Connor has a friend. A real one.
And they sound like they have fun. They have fun together.
They sound like they calm each other.
Cynthia says something about leaving you boys to it , about not getting in the way .
But the truth is that she needs to leave before she completely embarrasses all three of them by visibly tearing up.
Days pass, and they don’t drag, and things are OK.
There are still days where Connor can’t get out of bed. There are still days where his eyes look dark and his skin looks pale and it seems a genuine effort not to hurl his cutlery at Larry over the dinner table.
There are still days where he wears long sleeves even though it isn’t cold, and Cynthia finds fistfuls of tissues, scrunched up and stained with blood, hidden in the bottom of the trash.
She doesn’t pretend everything is perfect. It isn’t. In fact, it’s still downright terrifying, because Cynthia still doesn’t know what to do about it. She still doesn’t know how to help, not without getting Connor therapy, which Larry still won’t agree to. So it’s not perfect. Things haven’t been perfect in years.
But it’s better. Just the tiniest little bit.
And Cynthia will take what she can get.
She’ll take it, take all the moments where Connor shows her that he’s still... Connor . Hurting and lost. But still Connor.
One day he gets home from school and wordlessly slides a sheet of paper across the breakfast bar in her direction, without meeting her eyes. It’s a literature quiz, 97%. Connor has always been analytical and intelligent and good with words, and Connor is still Connor.
One Sunday morning she’s got some playlist going from the new Spotify account that Zoe had helped her set up; shuffling through some of her favorites from when she was in high school. Golden oldies now, she supposes. She’s straightening up the living room when Love Will Tear Us Apart comes on, and she’s quietly singing along to it when Connor’s head peeks into the room. And he goes “Joy Division, cool,” and awards her a little nod of approval, and Connor is still Connor.
One night, Cynthia is chopping vegetables for dinner and she accidentally slices her thumb open. The knife just sinks right in, and suddenly there’s blood everywhere and she’s cursing under her breath and it stings, it hurts , and it just bleeds endlessly, and the sight of all the red makes Cynthia feel a little dizzy, a little panicky, and…
And then there’s an alarmed face in the doorway, then footsteps hurtling up to the bathroom and then pounding down again just as quickly, and then he’s there, Connor is there, juggling a pressure bandage in one hand and a handful of bandaids and a tube of Neosporin in the other, like he wasn’t sure what to bring. And he sits her down and goes Jesus, mom, what’d you do? and helps her bandage her hand up, gingerly, slowly, talking to her the whole time like he cares , and Connor is still Connor.
He's still Connor.
Cynthia is sure of it.
She needs to be sure of it.
Because she's so used to looking at her son and seeing a funeral shroud.
And for the first time in years, she's starting to see that the person beneath the shroud is still breathing.
The third and final time Connor comes to sit with her at the scarred mahogany table, it’s around late afternoon/early evening on a Saturday.
Cynthia’s in yoga clothes, finishing off her coffee and trying not to wince at every sip.
She’d read about the benefits of soy milk in a magazine the other week. Turns out she really, really hates soy milk.
“Are we gonna start buying whole milk again?”
His voice makes her jump a mile, almost upending her remaining coffee all over herself. She hadn’t even heard him come downstairs.
“ Jesus , Connor!”
Connor gives her a tentative little smile.
He plops down into the chair opposite her, regarding her almost with...amusement?
“You hate that stuff,” he tells her plainly.
“The soy milk,” he elaborates. “You obviously hate it.”
Cynthia can’t help but laugh. Her son doesn’t miss a beat. He’s always been that way.
“I do,” she admits. “I’ll buy real milk while I’m out.”
Connor responds with a hum of approval.
They sit in silence for a while, but it's not uncomfortable. Connor stares absently out the window, picking at his nail polish. He snickers every time Cynthia cringes around a mouthful of soy milk coffee, and Cynthia tuts at him in mock-annoyance, even though she’s not annoyed at all. It’s almost like a little game.
But Cynthia can’t help but wonder why Connor’s here.
The table has sort of been...their place for the past few years. The place where Connor goes when he needs her.
The table is where Connor goes when his heart needs help.
Except this time, he’s holding himself a little awkwardly, sure. He’s a bit fidgety, a bit uncomfortable being the sole focus of Cynthia's attention.
But he doesn’t seem distressed. It’s not like the other times. Not at all.
Cynthia opens her mouth to speak at the exact moment Connor opens his. He notices this, and immediately snaps his mouth shut, gesturing vaguely that she should talk first.
Cynthia’s heart warms a little at that.
“I was just going to ask if you...needed me for anything?”
Connor rubs at the back of his neck. Clears his throat a couple of times.
And he blushes .
Connor’s whole face turns bright red, down his neck and up to his ears, and Cynthia had never noticed before that she and Connor are one and the same in that way; that neither of them can hide when they’re feeling embarrassed about something. Cynthia’s a blusher, too.
“Yeah, um. Kind of,” Connor says, and Cynthia notices that he never quite looks at her; always past her; over her shoulder or out the window or towards the kitchen doorway.
“Well, what is it, honey?”
“I just, um. How would you...if you were going to...Like, if you wanted to ask someone, if, um. If…like…”
Cynthia has never seen her son struggle like this before. It’s equal parts amusing and concerning, watching him flushed red and stumbling all over his words. Usually Connor’s all impulse. If he wants to say something, he says it, seemingly with no regard for what anyone thinks. But now, here he is, stammering all over the place, choppy little sentence fragments bitten off like Connor’s realised it’s more than he’s able to chew.
And Cynthia thinks she knows why.
She will not burst into elated giggles. She needs to hold it back. She needs to.
“I just...I just…”
“Yes, Connor?” she prods, doing her best to keep her voice level.
“I, um. Like... there's... there's this… guy…"
Connor shifts from foot to foot. He coughs, rubs the back of his flushed-red neck, and he will not look her.
Cynthia feels the edges of her mouth twitch, quiver; a grin desperate to escape.
"And I, uh...I like him, OK?"
"I see,” says Cynthia.
The grin is out.
Connor notices. Too late to take it back.
Much to Cynthia’s relief, Connor just rolls his eyes at her and mutters ugh, mom , under his breath. He’s biting back a teeny-tiny smile of his own; bashful and embarrassed and just a little exasperated.
It makes him look so young, and brings out a sparkle in his eyes that Cynthia hasn’t seen in a very long time.
“I just...I dunno, like. What to do. About that.”
He’s back to picking at his nail polish, actively avoiding her gaze as he hunches over awkwardly, blushing so dark he looks fit to explode.
But he doesn’t leave.
He hasn’t left yet.
Cynthia takes another overly casual wince-sip of her coffee, and does her very best to play it cool.
“Well...perhaps things are different with your generation, but back in my day if a boy was interested in someone, he’d ask them out on a date.”
Connor visibly balks at this.
His eyes widen in comical alarm, and he stares at Cynthia like she’s just told him to chop off a limb.
“...Like...like a date date?”
“As opposed to a non-date date?” Cynthia teases. “Yes, like a date date. Dinner or the movies or a stroll around a park. It doesn’t have to be anything over-the-top; just whatever you think he would enjoy.”
Connor chews his lip thoughtfully. His cheeks are still drowning in color, and his eyes flicker back and forth between incredulity and careful consideration.
Like he's thinking about it.
Like he can't believe he's thinking about it.
"He...the park thing's not a bad idea. He likes...nature 'n stuff," he admits, tentatively. It comes out a little muffled, because his hands have crept up to his mouth and he's chewing on his thumbnail.
"There you go, then," says Cynthia encouragingly. "That's a start. Check what the weather is going to be like, choose a day and--"
"But," Connor interrupts, sounding very much like the word has burst out of him without his consent. His eyes are still big and open with bewilderment, and he looks more anxious than Cynthia has ever seen him.
Which means this is important to him.
This boy. This boy is very important to him.
"But," Connor continues, composing himself. "But how do I...like, what do I say when I…?"
"I'd say 'Evan, would you like to go on a date with me?' should get the message across just fine."
Connor's head shoots up so fast his neck audibly cracks.
His mouth drops open in astonishment, his hand dropping limply from his mouth to his lap like he's someone's pressed his off-button, and he stares at her, dumbfounded.
"You aren't subtle, sweetheart," she tells him fondly. “Of course it’s Evan.”
Connor swallows roughly. Stares down at his hands dangling in his lap.
“Oh,” he whispers.
“Oh...oh shit , d’you think he--I mean, if it’s obvious to you , you don’t think that--that he--?”
“No, no,” Cynthia soothes, reaching out and giving Connor’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “No, honey. I don’t think he has any idea.”
Connor lets out a little sigh of relief.
Cynthia dips her head, trying to get her son to meet her eyes.
“But...you do understand that if you want something to come of this...he’s going to find out. That’s...kind of part and parcel of the whole thing.”
“I...yeah, I know,” Connor mumbles.
He lets out another uncertain, quivery breath.
“I just...what if he...what if he doesn’t…?”
He glances up at Cynthia doubtfully.
And Cynthia. She needs to get this right.
From what she’s seen, she’s rather certain that Evan boy likes Connor in much the same way.
No false promises. No cliches or lies to placate him.
Connor sees right through all of that anyway. He always has.
She owes him her honesty.
And hope. Always hope.
“There’s a chance he doesn’t,” she admits slowly. “There’s a chance he does, but it doesn’t work out in the long run, anyway. There’s a chance it all falls to bits. But if you spend your whole life waiting for certainties, you’ll be waiting a very, very long time, baby.”
Connor sits quietly for a moment, letting this sink in.
“It’s just...he’s my best friend. I don’t want him to. To leave. Like M did. I don’t think I could…”
His voice breaks.
“I know,” says Cynthia. “But you know I’m here, right? No matter what happens, Connor. I’m here.”
Connor nods, ducking his head, letting his long hair hang over his eyes and hide his face.
“Yeah. Yeah, I know. And, like...thanks. Thank you.”
Connor hasn’t thanked Cynthia for anything since he was fourteen years old.
She squeezes the shoulder under her palm.
It feels less skeletal than she remembers.
“Besides,” she says lightly, determined to brighten the mood, “Evan would be crazy not to like you back. Completely out of his mind.”
Connor chuckles at that.
“He is crazy, that’s the thing. We both are. We’re both, just. Insane.”
“A perfect fit, then,” Cynthia teases, and Connor laughs again; a warm and open and unfamiliar sound.
He leans back a little in his chair.
“Go now,” Cynthia says.
His gaze snaps to her.
“You’re just going to be turning it over in your head if you wait. Worrying about it. Why don’t you go now? Go and ask him right now.”
“You mean...like, now now?”
“Why not? Go get him, kiddo.”
Connor stares at his nail polish for a long moment, frozen in terror.
Then he stands abruptly.
His chair teeters unsteadily behind him, rocking on two legs.
Connor’s hand shoots out, and he catches it before it falls.
“OK,” he breathes. “OK. I’m gonna...I need to change my shirt. And do something about my hair. And then I’ll, um. Yeah. I’ll…”
And with that, he’s off; darting up the stairs with newfound energy; with purpose, still looking half scared out of his mind, but with sparks of something else, something that lights up his face, his whole body, shining bright.
He throws Cynthia a grateful look over his shoulder as he stumbles up the stairs.
Cynthia makes another coffee. To drink while she waits for Connor to come home.
She’s told him that she’ll be here. No matter what happens, she’ll be here.
It’s going to be a long night.
Connor returns home almost six entire hours later, rosy-cheeked and biting back a tiny, affectionate smile.
Cynthia’s on her fourth cup of soy milk coffee, and she wishes she'd had the foresight to buy decaf.
Connor meets her eyes, just for a second, as he crosses the dining room to head upstairs.
The smile doesn't falter, not even for a moment.
"It's late," Cynthia says gently. “I was getting worried; you’ve been gone a long time.”
Connor pauses on the landing.
"Yeah, I know, sorry. Should've texted. We, um. Lost track of the time."
Cynthia takes in Connor's appearance; the brightness of his eyes and the dimples popping out in his cheeks and the fact that he's not wearing a jacket when she's absolutely positive he'd left the house with one.
One that, if Cynthia's got it right, Evan's probably still wearing.
There's a leaf in Connor's hair.
"You didn't waste any time," she comments lightly, and Connor laughs, sounding almost in awe; bewildered that whatever happened tonight actually happened.
"Yeah, um. Yeah. He said yes. So. We just...we decided to just go tonight. For the park date. Like, it was really spur-of-the-moment; he said yes and we just...went."
Connor turns impossibly red for what has to be the tenth time that evening. He picks at the hem of his T-shirt.
"Yeah, it was... really nice. It was...yeah," he says softly, and his eyes look far away and he's smiling secretively and he's young and in love and Cynthia can't even taste the sickly pastiness of the soy milk anymore.
Connor starts up the stairs again; one step, two, then stops.
"That table sucks," he says, and Cynthia feels an odd wave of deja vu. "You want me to help you clean it up tomorrow?"
Cynthia looks down at the table; the stains and the abrasions and the chemical burn of nail polish remover.
"I've been talking about doing it for years," she says.
"So let's do it. No more talk."
"Your dad wants to get a new one."
"Fuck what dad wants. You like this one, right?"
"I’m attached to it, I suppose. So many memories associated with it. And I think...I think it could be restored. I really really do.”
“OK,” says Connor simply. “OK. Tomorrow, then.”
Cynthia stares wistfully down at the tabletop, and the years of damage stare right back.
But it doesn’t hurt like it normally does.
Connor actually does help Cynthia drag the table out into the yard the following morning, is the thing.
It’s early, far too early for Connor to be awake on a Sunday, and it shows on his face. His eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep, and there are dark circles under his eyes like he’s been up on his phone all night.
He's never looked happier.
They drink icky soy milk coffee together, and laugh at each other’s matching grimaces, and Connor’s phone buzzes and he looks at it and smiles.
Then they drag the table out, and Connor suggests the garage but Cynthia’s worried it’s not well-ventilated in there so they decide on the backyard instead, and it takes a whole lot of pushing and shoving and shushing each other because Larry and Zoe are both still asleep, and they have to flip the damn thing onto its side to get it out the door.
And once it’s out, Connor checks his phone again.
They sand the table down; scraping off the old varnish bit by bit, the years of ruin rubbed clean from its surface. It takes a long time, and they’re both sweating by the time they agree it looks good enough. Connor’s old bleach-stained sweatpants are covered in a fine dusting of powder, and his hair is starting to escape the messy ponytail he’s tugged it into. Cynthia’s sure she looks no better.
And the table looks just as bad.
And Connor checks his phone. Again.
As he taps back a message, fingers moving so fast over the screen Cynthia’s not sure how he’s even able to form the words, she pulls up Spotify on her own phone and picks out a Joy Division album, and Connor’s briefly distracted by that, looking up at her with a grin.
“Good choice,” he tells her.
They brush the table with thin coats of varnish, and Cynthia hums along to Joy Division quietly. A little tunelessly.
With each new layer they paint, they watch the remaining traces of scratches and cuts and stains vanish; sinking beneath the varnish like drops in the ocean.
And then they step back, paint brushes still in hand, silently admiring their hard work.
It looks good.
Almost better than it did when it was new.
“You know,” says Connor quietly, hesitantly. “You know this isn’t...you know just because it looks good now, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna be that way forever, right?”
Cynthia turns her head to look at him.
“You...you know that, right?” he repeats, sounding kind of concerned now.
Cynthia knows that.
Of course she knows.
“Like...tables get scratched. And stained and worn down after a while, and...and this one hasn’t exactly been looked after all that much?”
Connor turns the paint brush over in his hands.
“It looks good now. It is good now. But...it could end up all kinds of fucked up again. It could end up right back at the beginning. I don’t want it to get like that and I hope it doesn’t because I’ve put a lot of work into fixing it up but...but it could .”
The table gleams wetly in the morning sun.
“Then we drag it out and we do this again,” Cynthia says. “We put in as much work as we can, and we take the time we need, and we ask for help if it ever gets too much. And we...we don’t ever let it get this bad again. We treat it with the care it deserves.”
“We?” says Connor, his voice small.
“I’m your mother,” Cynthia tells him. “Of course, ‘we’.”
Connor’s teary smile reflects off the glossy finish of the tabletop.
His phone buzzes from his pocket, and he heads into the house with a lightness to him; a weightlessness, like his feet are barely touching the ground.
Cynthia lingers in the yard.
When she squints; really looks hard at the table, she can still faintly make out some of the old marks. Just barely; the deepest of the scratches, the nail polish remover stain. They're still there, some of them; hiding just beneath the surface.
But it's a good table. The best.
Cynthia packs up the varnish, the wet paint brushes, the sandpaper, and makes a mental to-do list for the day as she heads back into the house.
- Buy whole milk.
- Start researching therapists in their area.
Because enough is enough.
- Drag the table back inside once the varnish has dried.
She thinks hard, feeling like there’s something missing. Something that maybe she’s forgetting to do.
And then it dawns on her.
It’s something that’s been on her mental to-do list single every day for months, over and over again; something she does obsessively, compulsively, because her brain can’t let her rest until it’s done.
Check on Connor.
Peek into Connor’s room and check that Connor is still alive.
And it’s funny, but.
For the first time since Connor was fourteen years old, Cynthia doesn’t add it to her list. She doesn’t need to.
Because she knows.
For once she actually knows, and she’s certain, she’s confident, and she doesn’t need to check.
She knows her son is still here .