It started off small, and then snowballed out of control, as most things in their lives were wont to do.
It was a perfectly ordinary Thursday, and Klaus was trying to make Merry the cat wear a neon orange bow around her neck long enough for Ben to snap a Polaroid. He looked up from where she was yowling her objections in Klaus’s lap to see Diego watching him with the strangest expression on his face.
Ben lowered the camera. “You alright, dude?”
Diego blinked a few times, seeming to wake up out of a fugue state.
“Yeah.” He rubbed at one eye, and when he drew his hand away, his face was schooled back into something more neutral. “Yeah, just, uh. I’m gonna go out for a run.”
Ben frowned. “In leather pants?”
Before he got a response, the cat leapt through the gap in Klaus’s arms, and he dove after her with a battle cry.
“Take the picture!” he ordered, crawling in a zig-zag pattern to block her escape. “Serpentine!”
“You are so freaking lucky that she’s not a biter,” Ben muttered, and by the time he’d gotten the photo, Diego had already slipped out the door.
So that had been a little strange, but Diego often was. He got in his head about stuff, Ben knew. All you had to do was punch him in the tit or something to distract him, though, like hitting a reset button.
Nothing to worry about.
Vanya came over for dinner that Sunday. Ben was brooding over the carrots he’d prepared, wondering if ‘glazed’ was supposed to mean that they looked like they were dipped in plastic, when she wandered into the kitchen and stopped short.
“Hey,” she greeted him. She took a hesitant step beyond the doorway, as if she was unsure if she was welcome. “How are you doing, Ben?”
“Pretty good.” He speared a carrot on a fork and held it up for her to see. “Does this look funny to you? I feel like it looks funny.”
“It looks good,” she said, without sparing it a glance. She twisted her hands together. “I, um. I have something for you.”
Ben’s lips quirked into a surprised smile. “Oh. Okay.”
“Yeah.” Her brows drew together for a second. “I just—Well. Here.”
She dug into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a small cardboard box. Ben accepted it from her hand.
“Uh-huh.” She stared at it, looking every bit as confused as he felt. “I was out, and I saw it, and… You remember that time someone sent you one? When we were kids?”
Ben considered it. “No,” he admitted.
“Oh.” She shuffled her feet a bit. “Well, somebody did. Like, a fan. But Dad took it away before you got to play with it, so I just thought… I don’t actually know what I thought.”
Ben smiled. “Well, thank you.”
Her shoulders hunched. “No, it’s weird. Sorry.”
“I like it,” he insisted. “Do you want to go push it down the stairs?”
Vanya shook her head, now distinctly embarrassed. “It’s fine. You don’t have to.”
“Oh. Alright then.”
The ensuing pause was awkward.
Ben tentatively offered her the carrot. “Well, um. Try this and tell me what you think?”
Vanya’s eyes widened for a split second when she took a good look at it.
“Uh. Is this a new recipe, or…?”
So that had also been strange, but it didn’t mean anything. Just Vanya trying to do something nice for him. Random gifts were more Klaus’s or Allison’s style, but Vanya could be spontaneous, too. Occasionally. When she felt like it. That one time.
No deeper meaning there at all.
The following Tuesday, Ben was reading a book at the patio table while Luther watered his tomato plants.
“Hey,” he called across the yard, eyes glued to the page. “Luther. Is honeysuckle poisonous?”
Luther squinted up at the sky. “Yeah, I think the berries are. Why?”
“I knew it,” Ben said smugly. He closed his book on his finger and held it up in the air. “I solved a murder! The groundskeeper did it.”
Luther flashed him a smile. “Congratulations.”
Ben dropped his book onto the table. Not much point in finishing it now, he guessed, since he was clearly the superior detective here.
A warm breeze rolled in, and he tilted his head back to feel the sun on his face.
“Maybe we should plant honeysuckle,” he said absently. “Isn’t it supposed to smell good?”
Luther didn’t answer. Ben cracked an eye, mouth already open to repeat himself, but he had obviously been heard—Luther was standing there staring at him, letting the hose spray all over the place.
“Do you want me to plant honeysuckle?” he asked in a solemn tone.
“Uh… You know, it was just a random thought I had.” Ben gestured to him. “Your shoes are getting wet.”
Luther moved the hose away. “Because I can, if you want,” he went on. “Or… I don’t know, I could plant you a tree?”
“I think I’m good on trees, actually.” He strummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “You’re sort of drowning the tomatoes, dude.”
Luther shifted his weight to his other foot. “What’s your favorite flower?” he asked.
His jaw was set with a determination that seemed wildly out of proportion to the situation at hand.
“God, I don’t know,” Ben said on a half-laugh. “The garden is more your thing—do whatever you want with it. Like not killing the tomatoes, maybe?”
“The house belongs to all of us,” Luther said earnestly. “We should all get an equal say in it, and… Well, maybe Allison and Vanya get less of a say. I mean, they get some say, but if they don’t live here—Oh, not ‘live’ in the literal sense! That’s not what I meant. They don’t, um… inhabit here. So…”
He trailed off, raking his teeth across his bottom lip. Muddy water began to trickle from the vegetable patch and puddle around his feet.
“I forgot where I was going with this,” he confessed.
Ben sighed. “Luther, turn off the hose.”
So that had been super strange. In-your-face, something-is-afoot, can’t-play-dumb-anymore strange.
It was very inconvenient.
“Ben-juju-beads.” On Thursday evening, Klaus rolled over on his bed and toed at Ben’s knee. “Let me cut your hair.”
Ben lowered his book and glanced at him side-long from his spot against the headboard. “Why?” he asked suspiciously.
“Because I need to practice men’s styles. And I already asked Diego if I could trim his, and he said if he didn’t like how it turned out he got to do mine, so that was a non-starter.”
Klaus kicked his legs up straight in the air and used the momentum to swing himself upright. “Come on! It’ll just poof back to normal in a couple hours anyway.”
Ben studied him. “That’s the only reason?” he asked. “Because you need to practice?”
Klaus donned his confused face and made a show of peering around the room like he was looking for a clue.
“Alright,” Ben relented. He set his book aside and got to his feet. “Fine. Just don’t do anything crazy.”
Klaus guided him to sit at the vanity table and began unpacking his school supplies.
“Welcome to Chez My Bedroom,” he sang, shaking a spritz bottle to gauge how much was left inside. “Where coupons can always be combined, and we aim to turn your frown—“ He drew a smile across his own face with a finger—“upside down.”
Ben rolled his eyes in the mirror, and Klaus gave him a squirt of water down the back of his shirt.
“That was me asking why you’re being such a sourpuss,” he said testily. His reflection put his hands on his hips. “What’s your deal?”
“Nothing,” Ben muttered, wiping water off his neck. “Just—Nothing.”
Klaus stepped closer and gave his left shoulder a squeeze. “What’s wrong?” he asked in a much gentler tone. “Five and Diego are already filling up all the spots in my life for Moody Monkeys, I don’t need you going south on me, too.”
Ben snorted in spite of himself. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be.” He fiddled with the zipper on his hoodie. “It’s just… the anniversary of the day I died is coming up. And everyone’s being sort of weird about it. That’s all.”
Klaus made a low sound and stroked his hair. “Well. That’s going to be a rough time all around.”
“Yeah,” he said softly. “I know.”
Klaus massaged his scalp in slow circles, and he let his eyes drift closed. At least he had one person who wasn’t going to make this into a bigger deal than it needed to be.
“We should throw you a party.”
Ben’s eyes snapped open and he stared at him in the mirror in disbelief. “Jesus Christ, dude, you’re like a human record scratch.”
“No, I’m being serious!”
“I know, that’s the problem!” He twisted around in the chair to face him. “You want to celebrate me dying? What the hell, Klaus?”
“Nooo, that’s—“ Klaus tsked and swatted Ben’s shoulder. “I’m not happy you died, you goofball, you know that. No, this would be about…”
He twirled a hand as he thought. “About reclaiming the day. We can slap some new, good memories on top of that old pile of garbage, and voila! Now it’s something to look forward to every year.”
“Klaus, you…” He rubbed at his face. “I don’t think that’s how that works. You can’t just eat cake on a sad day and now it’s a good time.”
Klaus scoffed. “Of course not!” He began ticking things off on his fingers. “You need to eat cake, and play a party game, put some good music on, everyone else can have some drinks, we’ll rent a bounce castle…”
He raised his eyebrows hopefully. Ben shook his head.
“A trampoline, then? No? Well, fine, we can table that for now. Think about what kind of decorations you want. Oh, we can do a theme party!”
“I don’t want any kind of party,” Ben moaned, resting his forehead on the chair back. “Like… I get what you’re trying to do, but I don’t think it’s going to help. It’s not that easy to forget bad things that happened.”
Klaus put his hands back on his hips, gaze flinty. “How would you know?” he demanded. There was something brittle in his voice. “You haven’t tried. Maybe it is that easy.”
It wasn’t. Ben knew that. But looking up at Klaus, he got the sense that his brother desperately wanted it to be.
“Okay,” he said. It was a horrible idea, and he couldn’t even wrap his head around all the ways it was probably going to come back to bite him in the ass—but what could he do? “Okay. Let’s have a party.”
Klaus lit up like the sun. “Wundebar! This is going to be such a good time—you’ll see.”
“Hm,” Ben said vaguely as he dove for his haircutting supplies.
At least it couldn’t be any worse than his funeral. Klaus had been so stoned that when their father had unveiled his memorial statue, he’d squinted up at it and asked ‘Wait, who’s that?’
“Alright!” Klaus brandished a comb with a flourish. “Now let’s make you dashing. What kind of cut do you want?”
Ben rubbed his hands over the legs of his pants. “Well… I don’t know? I thought you were going to pick.”
Klaus released a long-suffering sigh as he misted his hair with water. “What kind of practice is that?”
Ben mulled it over. He’d never given much thought to what hairstyles he liked, seeing as he was bound to the same one for the rest of eternity.
“How about… Oh, you remember a few years ago, everybody had that thing where it was short on the sides, and kind of longer on top?”
Klaus spritzed water into the air in excitement. “One Mohawk, coming up!”
Ben studied his own reflection in the mirror.
“If I let you give me a Mohawk,” he asked seriously, “do you promise you won’t tell anyone?”
Several hours later, Ben stuck his head into the living room to see if Dave had come downstairs for the night yet. He hadn’t, but Corpse-odile Dundee sat half-sunk into his favorite armchair, watching the cats chase each other up and down the bookshelves.
Ben felt a twinge of relief at the sight—whenever more than a few days passed between visits, he worried the guy might have moved on to phase two of the afterlife without saying goodbye.
“Hey.” He flopped onto the couch. “How have you been?”
“Can’t complain.” The old man lolled his head sideways to look at him. “Yourself?”
“Not bad. We got a new TV, and Klaus just told me he wants to have a party on my death-iversary.” Ben crossed one leg over his knee. “So, you know. Business as usual over here.”
The old man snorted. “Listening to a different drummer, that one.”
Merry suddenly froze in the middle of the room and stared into Ben’s face with a twitching tail and pupils shot wide. Just as he was about to decide once and for all that yes, the kitties could see him while he was invisible, she reared up on her hind legs to swipe at nothing, then raced under the coffee table.
Ben slumped lower in his seat, a bit disappointed. “He thinks it’s going to cheer everybody up. I probably should have tried harder to talk him out of it.”
The old man glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “You reckon?”
“Well, yeah,” he said. “All it’s going to do is get everyone upset for no reason.”
Himself included, although in a different way.
His death was a painful memory for the rest of them. Ben understood that—he’d have to be heartless not to. The frustrating thing was, though, he wasn’t just a memory anymore. He was right here.
Was that not enough?
The old man was watching him with an expression he couldn’t read. Ben expected him to look away when he met his gaze, but he didn’t.
“Must be quite a thing to have you back, running about again,” he said. It sounded casual, but there was something very deliberate in the words. “M’sure your family’s chuffed about it. But it don’t make years of grief disappear.”
There was a sudden thunk, and they both turned to see that a photobook of bridges had fallen to the floor. Cthulhu Cat sat proud on the shelf, admiring his handiwork.
The old man looked back to Ben. “Can’t mourn how they used to now you’re sitting there with them at the dinner table, can they?” he asked. His tone was as blunt as ever, but not unkind. “Got to find something new. Seems to me a party's as good a way as any.”
Ben studied his boots while he let that sink in. The old man directed his attention to the blank television screen, as though to give him the illusion of privacy. Cthulhu knocked down a guide to fixing pocket watches, and then began to work on the dictionary.
He was right, Ben decided. It had to be an awfully strange thing, living with the ghost of your brother alongside the ghost of your grief over his passing. Because ghosts did have a way of sticking around, as they all knew.
There was no playbook here, and there were no rules. There was only the seven of them, muddling through as best they could.
In that sense, it almost swung all the way back around to being their normal.
He raised his head with a rueful smile. “This is all pretty backwards, isn’t it?”
“Everything you lot do is backwards,” the old man said dryly.
Ben laughed as Cthulhu succeeded in toppling A Farewell to Arms.
“You like it,” he teased. “You wouldn’t keep coming back here if you didn’t.”
“The cheek on you, boy.”
“It’s true.” Ben grinned. “You miss us too much to stay away.”
“Like watching a bloody train wreck,” the old man said without heat. He jerked his head at the TV. “Who set this up? You can’t have the telly, the stereo, and two lamps in one outlet, you’ll start an electrical fire.”
Ben’s smile grew wider. There was a joke about the Safety Dance somewhere in there, but Klaus could make it.
He didn’t want to get grounded, after all.
Luther’s face had taken on a grayish cast, and Diego’s contorted as a wild flurry of emotions played across it. If it wouldn’t have been an entirely inappropriate move to pull at a family dinner, Vanya appeared as though she would have happily slithered under the table to escape. Even Five looked scandalized.
“A party?” Allison echoed. Her tone suggested that she thought—hoped—she had somehow misunderstood.
“Yeah!” Klaus gesticulated with his fork, accidently launching a roasted potato at the wall. “A rebranding of Ben’s untimely demise. From now on, don’t think of it as dying—think of it as having a reverse birthday.”
Ben cringed. He should probably just be thankful Klaus hadn’t said anything along the lines of ‘putting the fun in funeral,’ but yikes.
Diego was tense and trembling with excess feeling, ready to shoot out of his chair like a bottle rocket.
“The fuck is the matter with you?” he demanded. His jaw ticked, and Klaus shrank in his seat. Dave draped an arm over the back of it, one hand cupping his shoulder. “You’re such a massive fucking—I can’t even—You—“
He whipped around to face Ben. “Do you want this?”
His voice was raw with misplaced anger, but the question seemed genuine.
Ben darted a glance around the table. All eyes were on him.
“Well… Sure.” Too late to back out now. He tried to smile. “Why not, right?”
Next to him, Klaus made a small, pleased noise. Vanya’s mouth moved in a silent ‘Oh.’
“…Okay.” Diego took a deep breath in through his nose, picked up his spoon for no real reason, and then set it back down. “Okay.”
Allison cleared her throat. “So, what did you have in mind?” she asked, over-cheerful. “Do you have a list of demands for us?”
“Uh… cake.” What else went on at parties? Ben had been to a fair few with Klaus, but he wasn’t keen on the idea of everybody doing ecstasy and then rolling around naked on the living room floor because the carpet felt amazing. “Maybe we should get chips?”
“And we need to come up with a theme!” Klaus interjected. He pushed his plate away and brought his elbows up to rest on the table. “So far, my ideas are ‘Roaring Twenties’ party and ‘Communist’ party. Should we take a vote?”
“I vote to send you to a gulag,” Five muttered as he used his fork to decapitate a broccoli floret.
“Spring,” Luther said suddenly.
Ben leaned forward to see him down at the other end of the table, and his cheeks started to color.
“Because, you know—spring is, like, symbolic, so…” At the look of incredulity Diego was giving him, he trailed off and began fiddling with his napkin. “Or, uh. The 1920’s thing might be good?”
“No,” Ben said quickly. “No, I like it. A spring party.”
That sounded nice, really. Cheerful, and a gentle reminder that he wasn’t gone—only reborn, in a way.
Also, nobody would have to dress up. The first and only time he’d seen Vanya wear heels had been at his funeral, where she had awkwardly goose-stepped across the courtyard until Allison told her to stop walking like a Nazi.
A tiny smile flickered across Luther’s face. “Oh, okay. Cool.”
“Alright,” said Klaus, though he sounded slightly disappointed. “I can work with that. We’ll get lots of flowers, I guess, and…”
He frowned into the middle distance. “What’s other spring stuff?”
“Rabbits,” suggested Dave.
“No, that’s just Easter.”
“Oh. Well, there’s…” After a second of thinking, Dave shook his head. “I dunno. Now I’m stuck on Easter eggs.”
“David,” Klaus said in disappointment. “Do you remember that you’re Jewish?”
Five made a noise around his mouthful of food. “Chickens,” he proclaimed after swallowing.
Ben exchanged a brief glance with Allison across the table, both of them silently asking a question neither had an answer to.
“Ah… Do you mean chicks?” asked Vanya. “Like… baby chicks?”
Five shrugged one shoulder and speared another potato. “Same thing.”
“No they’re not, and that’s still Easter.” Klaus snapped the fingers of both hands above his head. “Come on, guys, spring stuff. Dig deep!”
Vanya picked absent-mindedly at a cuticle. “Well… not chickens, but… ducks?”
Luther smiled at her over his glass of water. “That’s what I was about to say. Great minds, I guess.”
Ben gave Diego a pre-emptive kick under the table.
“I don’t see why ‘ducks’ is an acceptable answer but ‘chickens’ isn’t,” complained Five.
“Oh, neither one is acceptable,” Klaus said pleasantly. “Chickens have nothing to do with springtime, and ducks were nature’s biggest mistake. I’m not throwing a party to celebrate bitch birds.”
Dave raised an eyebrow at him. “I didn’t know you felt so strongly about ducks.”
“They’ve done me wrong,” Klaus said ominously.
Ben leaned around to him to speak to Dave. “One time he fell asleep at a park and they stole his Funyuns.”
Klaus pressed a clenched fist over his heart. “My fight for justice has been tireless.”
Vanya’s worried gaze flickered between them. “I just thought of them because it rains a lot,” she said meekly.
“Oh!” Allison looked up from where she was attempting to use a dinner knife as a mirror to reapply her lipstick. “Rainbows!”
“Mud,” said Five.
“No, not mud.” She tapped the knife on the table. “Then… there’s butterflies. Ladybugs.”
“Are you just fucking with us?” Diego asked in suspicion.
“Does it sound like I’m fucking with you?” Five took a long sip of his seltzer. “Pollen.”
Dave brought the back of his hand to his mouth to smother a fake cough.
Klaus draped himself over Ben’s shoulder, and he got a strong whiff of coconut shampoo and cigarettes.
“A ‘Dirt and Allergy’ party does sound like a real banger, but let’s hear from the people in the back before we make any decisions,” he said. “Diego?”
“Fuck, I don’t know.” He slumped in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, an equal mix of contemplative and surly. “Green shit, I guess. Grass. Frogs.”
Luther perked up. “Lilypads.”
“Turtles,” Diego countered.
Klaus waved a hand to get their attention. “Quick clarification! We are trying to plan a party, not listing off things you might see in a pond.”
Five snapped his fingers. “Mosquito larva.”
“Stop naming bugs.”
“Ducks,” Ben chipped in.
Klaus’s eyes narrowed to slits, and Ben smiled back at him widely.
It was his party, and he could be a tool if he wanted to.
The early morning light filtered soft and golden into the kitchen, and Mom’s hair seemed to glow as she whisked the batter for breakfast crepes.
“Now we’ll put this in the refrigerator for an hour,” she said. “When there are no bubbles, they’re less likely to tear as we cook them.”
Ben watched her from his seat on the counter. “You should have your own cooking show,” he commented. “They could call it ‘Say Grace.’”
She walked away without responding. He was invisible, after all. But she knew that he was there, and she would explain what she was making step-by-step, anyway—this had been their morning routine for some months now.
Footsteps echoed down the hall, and Diego’s voice called “Mom?”
She turned away from the fridge with a carton of strawberries. “In the kitchen, dear!”
He trudged in a moment later, looking like he’d been through a war and smelling like he’d been through a dumpster. When he laid eyes on their mother, though, all the stress of his night seemed to melt away.
“You probably shouldn’t hug me,” he said, even as he wrapped his arms around her. “I’m all gross. Had to go through the trash for evidence.”
“And yet you give Klaus shit for bringing home sidewalk furniture,” said Ben.
“I don’t mind, dear.” Mom let him go and took a step backwards, still holding both of his hands. “Are you hungry?”
“Nah. I’ll eat later, I need to get to bed.” He swung their joined hands back and forth, smiling softly. “Just wanted to let you know I got home safe.”
Ben snorted and leaned his head back against the cabinets. “You’re a sap, dude. You’re a puddle of feelings wrapped in leather.”
Mom rocked forward a little on her toes so that her skirt flounced. She had already put the coffee on, and the pot made a low gurgle behind them.
“Oh, my thoughtful Diego!”
Ben could practically see his ego swell under her praise. Ew.
“Thank you for letting us know,” she continued, retrieving the strawberries from the table. “Get some sleep, dear, and we’ll see you later.”
Diego’s brow creased. “’Us?’”
She smiled over her shoulder from her post at the counter. “Ben and I,” she clarified.
Diego went very still.
“Right,” he said after a moment. His voice had gone rough, and his eyes scanned the kitchen in search of something he wouldn’t find. “He’s here?”
“Oh, I imagine so, yes.”
“Guess he’s always around, huh?” To Ben’s dismay, his throat worked at nothing. “Hey, bro.”
Oh, no. There he went, getting in his head, and Ben didn’t even have a solid hand for tit-punching.
“Hey,” he said back, somewhat pointlessly. “You remember that we were hanging out just last night, don’t you?”
Diego thumbed at his nose. “I, uh… I don’t know what to say.” He smiled weakly. “Good morning, I guess.”
Ben kicked a leg against the lower cabinets. “You spent like, a full hour and a half telling me how fake wrestling is.”
“Um… Klaus has me making a mix tape for you.” Diego gestured at nothing. “For your party thing. Maybe it was supposed to be a surprise, I dunno.”
“Then you put me in a headlock. Do you remember that, dude? Less than twelve hours ago, you had me in a headlock.”
Diego looked off into space, toying with a buckle on his knife harness. “It was really easy. I was kind of surprised, actually, that I knew so many songs and junk that you like, and then I realized…”
He swallowed. “Then I realized that it was all stuff I’d found out about you in the last year.”
Ben’s heart sank. “Don’t,” he warned. “Diego, don’t. Come on.”
“If you asked me when we were seventeen, I couldn’t have said what music you listened to.” There was a crack in his voice, widening by the word. Mom hummed as she sliced the strawberries. “I didn’t know what was your favorite book, or color, or that you’re not a bad singer, or…or all the dumb stuff. Like that we both love how chlorine smells.”
“They should make it into cologne,” Ben agreed softly. “How is it so good?”
Diego drew in a deep breath. It shuddered a little, at the end. “I don’t know what I’m trying to say here,” he admitted. “I guess just—it’s cool having you around. It’s cool having, uh. Having a second chance.”
Ben sighed. Diego wasn’t just a sap, he was the entire forest. But then, maybe he was, too, because if he’d had a real body at the moment, he would probably be getting teary right about now.
“We’re both embarrassing,” he conceded.
To his great surprise, Diego’s head snapped to the left to look him full in the face.
“What the fuck?” he burst out. “What the fuck?”
Mom straightened up from the strawberries. “Oh, good morning, Ben dear! Don’t sit on the counters, please.”
“Sorry.” He hopped down and glanced at the ceiling. “Guess Klaus is awake.”
Diego crossed his arms with a scowl. His ears were turning red. “How long were you there?”
“Uh… Forty-five minutes?” Ben estimated. “You knew I was.”
“Like hell I did,” he snapped. The blush had begun creeping across his cheeks. “Fucking spying on people and shit.”
“Language,” said their mother.
Ben smiled in confusion. “Dude, you were talking to me.”
Diego narrowed his eyes, his whole face rosy. “I wasn’t talking to any-fucking-body. I was just talking.”
Ben suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. He supposed there was a difference between knowing on an intellectual level that he was around and seeing it with your own eyes, but was it really that big of a deal that he had caught Diego being sweet for five minutes?
Well. At least he was consistent.
Before Diego had the chance to react, Ben hooked a fist straight at his pec.
“Go to bed,” he said. “I’ll save you a crepe.”
Diego uncrossed his arms and took a menacing step forward. “If you wanted to go back in a headlock, all you had to do was ask.”
The threat was somewhat diminished by the glint of playfulness in his eyes.
Ben grinned. “Try it, dumbass,” he taunted, then sprinted for the door with a whoop of laughter, Diego in hot pursuit.
The slinky did somersaults down the main staircase, a bouncing, shimmying rainbow.
From his seat on the top step, Ben watched as it reached the floor and flopped onto its side.
“How does it do that?” he wondered out loud.
“Compression waves,” Five said next to him. “Energy shifts from where the coils are compact to where they’re stretched, and that creates movement.”
Ben cocked his head at him questioningly.
He nodded. “Cool.”
Five leaned back on his palms and stretched out his legs. His feet were bare on the marble, and Ben marveled for a second at how much smaller they were than his own. They wouldn’t be for much longer, he guessed, but still.
“It’s an educational toy,” Five agreed, which was high praise coming from him. “Where did you find it?”
“Vanya gave it to me last week.”
He snorted. “And you all say I’m bad at giving gifts.”
“Well, we are playing with it,” Ben pointed out.
Five shot him a small frown.
In a bizarre twist, he had become the ‘fun’ sibling to hang around with in the last several days. He didn’t give a flying fuck about the party, and he was the only one of them who seemed unfazed by reminders of Ben’s death. He hadn’t been there for it, after all.
And anyway, Ben thought as he watched him from the corner of his eye, from Five’s perspective, they were all back from the dead.
He shifted uncomfortably. “Hey,” he said. “Can… I ask you something?”
“Can I stop you?” Five asked wryly.
“Is this ever weird for you?” Ben motioned between them. “Like… Having us all around again. And alive. Or at least talking to you.”
Five tilted his head at him, expression mild. “Having people around in general is weird for me.”
“Oh. Yeah, that makes sense.” Ben clasped his hands between his knees. “You handle it pretty well, though.”
Five looked dubious.
“It’s just that everybody’s still sad about me dying,” he went on, before he could lose his nerve. “And I get it and all, but… I keep wondering if something I’m doing is making it worse.”
He glanced over to see his reaction. “Like, I wonder if there’s something they want me to say, or… or if there’s a certain way they need me to act, or… I don’t know.”
Five studied the ceiling in thought. It was plain to see, sometimes, that for all he looked like a child, he had the soul of an old man.
Then he shrugged and flopped backwards onto his elbows. “Whatever. They’ll get over it.”
Ben scratched at his temple to hide the face he was making. The body of a child, the soul of an old man, and the emotional intelligence of a dead frog.
“You might want to soften your approach a little bit there, dude,” he advised. “Tip for next year.”
“Yeah.” He twisted around to face him. “The anniversary of the day you disappeared? No offense, but you were kind of a dick for the last one.”
Five just stared at him blankly.
“Oh my God, are you kidding me? Klaus started crying at breakfast and then I tried to give you a hug, so you threw a banana at me?”
“That’s what that was about?” he asked incredulously.
Ben lunged forward and threw his arms around Five’s shoulders.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he demanded, trying to wriggle free.
Ben squeezed him tighter. “Shut up,” he said as he rested his cheek against his hair. “This is happening. Deal with it.”
“Don’t think I won’t push you down these stairs,” Five warned.
Ben released him with a laugh. He couldn’t die a second time, but he wasn’t in the mood to find out if he could still break a bone.
“Wanna go play Scrabble?” he asked as Five smoothed his rumpled shirt and mussed hair back into place.
He leveled Ben with a look of pure venom.
The rain was coming down in sheets, and Ben stopped to watch a car speed towards the enormous puddle forming by the curb.
He braced himself to get splashed—but the driver slowed to a crawl at the critical moment, and left only ripples in their wake.
“Asshole,” Angelo commented in disappointment.
It came out sounding more like ‘ahthulgh,’ since Angelo’s death had robbed him of a lot of his face, but Ben was getting pretty good at interpreting.
Two of Dave’s friends—his friends, now, too, he assumed when he was being bold—had stopped by the house earlier to invite them on a walk through the storm. Getting rained on as a ghost was strange, an almost-there tingle that had made Ben nervous when he was newly dead. He didn’t experience any other sensations, so why this one? Or was he actually experiencing it at all? Could it be a figment of his imagination, brought on by the bone-deep knowledge of his living self that of course he would feel the rain on his skin?
Dave had just shrugged and said it was fun. He’d already agreed to let Klaus bleach his hair, but he had pushed Ben to go. And so had Cora and Angelo, and even though Ben wasn’t completely sold on the idea himself, it was nice to hang around with people who had a different last name from time to time.
Cora stepped right through him with a soft hum. She did that a lot, and he tried very, very hard not to over-analyze what it might mean.
“There’s always another puddle,” she soothed. “Anyhow, Ben. I think it’s nice your family wants to have a party for you.”
Ben shoved his hands into the pockets of his hoodie as they resumed walking. He hadn’t wanted them to know about that, so naturally Klaus had told them all about it.
“I guess. It’s more for them than me, really.”
Cora flashed him a smile. “Ah. Funerals always have been for the living.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Angelo. “My greaseball cousin Bobby showed up to mine, so I dropped my slacks and shoved my ass in his face. Whole time he was sitting there eating lasagna, he had a full moon an inch from his nose. Best party I ever went to.”
Ben frowned down at the pavement. At his funeral, Diego had furiously called their father a ‘fuck knuckle’ and then taken an unprovoked swing at Luther. A good time had been had by no one.
“It’s not really going to be a funeral,” he said. “It’s like… a ‘Let’s All Sit Around and Be Sad’ party, or something.”
Cora let her hand phase through his. “Oh, don’t be so KJ!” she chided, though her eyes were bright with laughter. “You’re too serious, Ben. Go to your party, and smile, and don’t let that David choose any music—he has no taste.”
“Tell them to get you a dancing girl,” Angelo suggested, scuffing his elegant wing-tipped shoes through a dirty puddle.
Ben looked at him askance. “What’s that?” he asked. “Like, an old-timey stripper?”
Angelo shrugged, then took a few steps sideways to stand in a puddle he seemed to like better. “Nah, just a girl who dances. Get one with tattoos.”
Behind his back, Cora caught Ben’s gaze and winked. Even when you could understand what Angelo was saying, understanding what the fuck any of it meant was the bigger hurdle.
Someone blasted by them on a motorcycle just then, sending a tidal wave of water over the sidewalk. Cora—who had died soaking wet, and would remain so for the rest of her existence—yelped in surprised delight, and Ben reflexively threw out an arm to shield her.
The water sprayed him full in the face. As it splashed through him, he felt a wild fission of… something. Something that was almost like being really alive again, but was also nothing like that, and then it was gone before he could pin it down.
“See?” Cora laughed. “It’s fun, isn’t it?”
Was it? He thought it was bizarre, if not quite bad. He thought it was too complicated a thing to call ‘fun.’
Looking down at Cora’s brilliant smile, he thought maybe he should stop thinking altogether.
“Yeah.” He smiled back. “It is.”
Some things were better if you tried to just enjoy them for what they were.
She raised her arms to show off the forever-sodden sleeves of her blouse. “And look, you kept me dry. Such a gentleman!”
Ben crammed his hands back into his pockets and ducked his head. “Oh, well,” he said self-consciously. “It was just… You know…”
“I fucking missed it!” exclaimed Angelo. He kicked a foot in his puddle, looking as disgruntled as a man with half a face could. “Who do you have to screw around here to get splashed by a car?”
Cora laughed and continued walking up the street.
“There’s always another puddle.”
It was quiet in the library. Ben was playing Chinese checkers with Five, and Luther and Vanya were sorting through old boxes of loose sheet music, and then Klaus tripped in trying to eat an apple, put on a shoe, and not drop his house keys all at once.
“Why hel-lo, you beautiful people!” he called. “Did I just walk into a supermodel convention? Which one of you tall drinks of water wants to give me a ride to the store?”
“Not it,” Five said without looking up from the board.
Luther pulled down another box and set it next to Vanya on the table. “Where do you need to go?” he asked. “I just went shopping yesterday.”
Klaus hopped in a circle as he struggled with his shoe, and Dave strolled in just in time to stop him from falling over.
“I need to go to a craft supply store,” he said, shoving his apple into the pocket of Dave’s vest. “And a party supply store. The grocery store, the liquor store, where ever it is you buy garden gnomes—“
“You need to make a list,” Dave interrupted kindly. “Like we just talked about. Before you yelled ‘Flamingoes!’ and ran away.”
“That’s what I’m doing! Vanya’s got a photographic memory, we’re all Gucci.”
Vanya blinked up from the music she was sorting into piles. “What? No I don’t.”
“Oh.” Klaus regained his footing and regarded her with a small frown. “Well. That’s a letdown, isn’t it?”
Ben rolled a green marble between two fingers. From under his lashes, he watched Five’s face. He looked perfectly at ease, but…
If Klaus felt he was at a point where he could watch other people drink without it being a problem, they should defer to his judgement. Alcohol had never been his poison of choice, anyway. But there had been a time not so long ago when Five had been drinking a lot, and they’d never really discussed it, and then he had suddenly stopped, and they’d never discussed that, either.
“I don’t think you need to go to the liquor store,” Ben announced as he made his move. “We don’t have to have alcohol.”
Klaus opened his mouth to argue, but Dave jumped in before he got the chance.
“If the guest of honor can’t drink, maybe everyone else should stay sober, too,” he said. “Fair is fair, right?”
Klaus dropped into an armchair with a whine of despair. “But I was going to make pretty cocktails,” he said woefully, his arms and legs thrown out at odd angles. He looked like a squished spider. “We could pretend we were Southern ladies drinking mint juleps on the veranda, and—“
A shadow passed over his face.“Hold up. Am I a racist?”
Luther put another box down on the table and squinted off into space like he was considering it.
“You could make cocktails without alcohol in them,” said Vanya.
Five twisted in his seat to look at her. “What’s the point of that?”
“Well… I don’t know.” She shrugged as she tossed a bundle of music into the discard pile. “It’s just a fancy drink, I guess? People like them.”
“What people?” demanded Five.
He sounded ready to start compiling a list of names.
“It sounds alright to me,” said Ben. He tapped the board. “It’s your turn, by the way.”
Five sniffed as he picked up a marble. “That appeals to you?” he asked icily. “A cup full of sugar that ends in disappointment?”
“The colors are nice,” Vanya said with a hint of defensiveness.
Klaus leaned over the arm of his chair and pretended to shoot her with finger guns. “She gets it!”
“Hmm.” Five turned the marble over in his fingers, pensive. All of a sudden, he made 14-jump combo and landed in Ben’s triangle.
“Alright,” he said. “Fake cocktails. That will be my job.”
Ben glanced up from his dismayed surveil of the board. “What? You don’t have to do that.”
“I know. But I can make a good margarita.” His tone was dry, but his mouth quirked into a small smile. “And I’m definitely not about to make butterflies out of construction paper.”
Luther stepped back from the shelf with a look of vague alarm. “Wait, are we doing that? Is it optional?”
“Yes we are, and no it’s not.” Klaus kicked his legs over the side of his chair, then patted the four inches of free space he’d created for Dave to come and join him. “And we still need to agree on a party game. How does Never Have I Ever sound?”
“Can I volunteer for a different job?” wondered Luther.
Vanya picked up the keeper pile of music and tapped it into a neat stack. “I’m not sure Never Have I Ever is good to play with family,” she said with some trepidation. “It always sort of turns into… You know.”
“What?” asked Ben.
“Well…” She lowered her head and jerked one shoulder, looking uneasy. “You know.”
“I don’t know,” said Luther. He searched her face curiously. “What don’t I know?”
Vanya bit her lip and shifted her weight around. “Sex stuff,” she said in an apologetic whisper.
Dave, now perched on the edge of the chair, looked frankly delighted by this turn of events, but Klaus made a loud gagging noise.
“Ugh, yeah, alright, that won’t work since you guys are all smooth down there, anyways,” he said in disgust. “How about charades? Do we like charades?”
Luther threw him a puzzled smile from where he’d joined Vanya at the table. “Allison has a daughter.”
Klaus jammed his fingers in his ears. “La la, immaculate conception, la!”
Maybe that was childish, but Ben could relate. Fucking gross.
“I don’t want to play that game,” he said firmly. “Ever. With any of you. And Dave could get us all out really easy anyway, so let’s never talk about it again.”
Dave nodded, thumbing away the tears of laughter welling up in the corners of his eyes. “Never have I ever had superpowers,” he said in an unsteady voice. “Never have I ever time-traveled. Ah… I’ve never owned a cassette tape? Or eaten at McDonald’s.”
“I’ve never eaten at McDonald’s, either,” said Luther.
Five rested his chin in his hand. “I’ve had their coffee. Does that count?”
“We could play this,” Ben suggested, flicking the Chinese checker board. “You can have six players at once. We could take turns, I guess.”
Klaus peeked around Dave to give him a dirty look. “Right. Nothing says ‘raise the roof’ like a quiet strategy game.”
“I’ve never seen a movie in a theater,” Luther was musing out loud. “I’ve never been to a beach.”
“I went to Hawaii once,” said Five. He delicately fingered a marble as he contemplated his next move. “I killed a man at a waterfall. Didn’t see any of the beaches up close, though.”
“I don’t want to play this game anymore,” Dave remarked.
Vanya put a lid back on one of the boxes with an air of decisiveness. “That’s what I’ll do,” she said. “I can find us a game.”
Klaus swung his leg back and forth, giving her a critical look. “And I suppose that’s going to keep you so busy you won’t have time for arts and crafts with everyone else?”
“Oh, well…” All of her confidence drained away, and she fiddled with the cuff of her sleeve. “There’s another concert coming up, and I’ve got rehearsal, so…”
“I can take you shopping,” Luther told Klaus with an edge of desperation. “I can take you shopping, and then, uh. We can go to McDonald’s if you want? And I’ll pay for your food.”
Klaus wriggled in delight, and Dave got to his feet to avoid being ejected from the chair.
“Ooh, it’s a date! Let me go change my shirt real fast. This is not a ketchup-eating shirt.”
Dave helped him up as he rolled sideways to stand and trailed after him out of the room.
“I hope the milkshake machine is working,” Klaus said in excitement. “I know it’s never working, but I still hope it is. Also, you still have to help make butterflies—we’re going to have so much quality time today!”
Luther watched the door close behind him.
“Is McDonald’s even good?” he asked despairingly.
Vanya gave him an awkward pat on the arm.
Ben hadn’t stepped foot into his bedroom in fourteen years.
It was small, and the window let in a draft, and after Five disappeared, it had felt spooky up there on the third floor all by himself.
He really had no attachment to that shitty little prison cell, so it threw him for a loop when he opened the door and saw Allison sitting on his bed with a lit cigarette and a glue stick.
“Are you smoking?” he asked in shock.
She stared at him like a deer in headlights.
“You said you quit!”
“I did!” she said. “…For like, three days.”
Ben shook his head in silent disapproval, and she leaned over to stub it out in a candy dish shaped like a pineapple.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “I didn’t think you ever really came in here.”
He took a step closer to the bed. “I don’t. I’m just looking for ‘M’ from the encyclopedia set—I thought it might be in my dresser still.”
“Yeah?” Allison grinned at him. “You were looking up ‘magic,’ weren’t you?”
“Yes,” he lied. He’d actually been looking up ‘mammary gland.’ It had pictures, and he’d been a very sheltered seventeen, and shut up. “So, um, what are you doing?”
In answer, she picked up a paper butterfly off the bedspread. The base was royal blue, overlaid by mint green and white tissue paper that fluttered when she moved it. The topmost layer looked like gift wrap, in shimmery gold.
“Oh, wow,” said Ben. “It’s really pretty.”
“Thank you!” She dropped it back to the bed and ran the glue stick over her next creation. “Klaus was sort of party-planning his way into a nervous breakdown, so I offered to make the decorations. I think we’re going to put them on a string and hang them up outside someplace.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to do this downstairs?” he asked, watching her work. “There’s more space.”
Her hand stilled for a second over the paper.
“I’m good here.” Her voice was neutral, but she wasn’t looking up at him. “It’s quiet. Easier to think. You know.”
“Oh.” Ben pulled at the drawstring of his hoodie. “Okay.”
The bedspread wasn’t the one he remembered, he realized. Mom must have changed it at some point over the years. Part of her cleaning schedule, probably. He didn’t want to consider the possibility that she’d swapped it out because someone had taken the original. Or slept under it.
“Can I help?” he heard himself asking.
Allison glanced up, startled, but smiling. “Sure.”
He climbed onto the bed opposite her. There were already a number of pieces cut out, and he picked a pink base and red tissue paper to put on top.
“Why do people stop doing arts and crafts when they grow up?” he wondered. “Remember the time Mom had us make Christmas stuff while Dad was away? That was such a fun day.”
“I remember that! God, she was brave letting us play with glitter.” Allison eyed the butterfly bits in his hands. “Red and pink?”
“Yeah.” He watched the corner of her mouth twitch downwards. “Or not?”
“It’s fine,” she assured him, giving a wave of her glue stick. “It’s just a little ‘Valentine’s Day,’ don’t you think?”
He set the red paper aside, and moved to take a green piece. Allison reached out and seized his wrist.
“You know what goes well with pink?” she asked with calculated lightheartedness. “Yellow and purple. Not green, so much.”
Ben rolled his eyes the second she wasn’t looking. Allison had changed so much over the years that at times she seemed like a whole different person, but at heart, she was still the girl who’d used to hiss ‘Fix. Your HAIR,’ at them all whenever it looked like they were going to be photographed.
Unbidden, the memory of watching her fix her makeup to cover the dark circles under her eyes on the day of his funeral floated through his mind. Their father had taken her along to address the reporters congregated on their front steps, and she’d gotten her wires crossed between saying ‘This is a difficult day for our family’ and ‘This is a difficult day for the Umbrella Academy.’ What came out was ‘This is a difficult day for the family umbrellas,’ immediately followed up by ‘Fuck!’ on live television.
In a different context, it would have been hilarious.
He got the yellow and the purple pieces, per her orders, and glued them together as sloppily as possible.
She looked up from where she was carefully applying the glue on her own butterfly and took in the fruit of his labors. It was like watching someone’s soul die. Ben felt a little like an ass, but more like laughing.
…He might have been spending too much time with Five.
“I worked hard on this and I’m very proud of it,” he told her earnestly. “Art.”
She sagged with visible relief when she realized he was messing with her.
“Jesus, Ben,” she said, a reluctant smile tugging at her lips. “You’re lucky I love you.”
He flipped the butterfly around to study it. It looked like a visual representation of a stroke.
“We should frame it,” he declared. “Let’s take down Dad’s Matisse and put this up instead.”
Allison reached over and smushed her glue stick on the side of his face, smiling all the while.
“AHHH, it’s Van-YAAA, and she’s done with or-ches-traaa!”
Klaus smiled at her in anticipation out of the van’s window when he’d finished.
Vanya fiddled with the strap on her violin case. “Uh… hi?”
“It’s The Lion King!” he explained as Luther unlocked the door so she could get in. “Remember the opening part? AHHH, it’s Van— You know what, forget it.”
Ben took the violin and stowed it in the far back so Vanya could slide in next to him.
“No, it’s great,” she promised him. “Very, um. Creative.”
“Thank you!” Klaus got up on his knees in the front seat and leaned over the headrest. “I’ve been practicing.”
“For the whole ride over here,” said Luther. His voice sounded strained. “Can you sit down so we can go?”
“Just a second.” Klaus flapped an eager hand in Ben’s direction. “Show her the thing.”
Ben sank lower in his seat, keeping a death grip on his raised hood. “No.”
“Oh, come ooon,” he wheedled. “It’s funny!”
“It really isn’t.”
Luther fixed Klaus with a look that was probably supposed to be authoritative, except it was obvious that he was deeply curious to know what ‘the thing’ was himself.
“Leave him alone, Klaus. And sit in your seat the right way.”
“Just hold on a second!”
Klaus leaned over to snatch at Ben’s hands, so he extended a leg to keep him away.
“You’re such a spoilsport!” he complained, pressing forward without regard to the foot planted square in his chest. “Come on, Ben, this is the whole reason I made you come with us!”
Ben batted at his hands as Vanya edged away from them. “You said you were going to show me the street where you saw the deer!”
“I lied! We live in the middle of the city, there was no deer.”
“Guys,” Vanya cut in, “it’s okay. I don’t need to see… whatever it is.”
“Oh, trust me, you do,” said Klaus. He lunged for Ben again, but before he could reach him, Luther wrapped one massive arm around his midsection and hauled him back into the passenger seat.
“Leave him alone,” he repeated.
Klaus gazed up into his eyes soulfully. Luther always caved when he used that look, no matter how absurd/inconvenient/physically impossible Klaus’s request was, but this time, he stared back unmoved.
After a moment, Klaus grumbled in resignation and buckled himself in.
Weird, Ben thought as Luther started the car. They hadn’t been horsing around any rougher than they normally did.
Well, whatever. He wanted to get a move on before it got dark, probably.
Some minutes later, they came to a red light, and Luther glanced at Vanya in the rear view.
“How was rehearsal?”
“Good.” She frowned a little. “Or, not that good, actually? The new conductor is having us do a cover of a No Doubt song for the concert, and… I don’t know. It seems kind of gimmicky to me.”
“Gimmicky or fucking amazing?” asked Klaus. He cupped his hands around his mouth to do his ‘old-fashioned radio announcer’ voice. “Join us for an evening of Mozart and Madonna! Brought to you by the same people who remixed Kesha with Swan Lake!”
“Is Kesha a singer or a whole band?” Luther asked as he made a right turn. “I was never clear on that.”
“Neither,” Klaus informed him sagely. “Kesha is a lifestyle.”
“I don’t think it sounds that bad,” Ben said to Vanya. “I always liked No Doubt.”
Up in the front seat, Klaus made a rude noise and waved a hand. “Oh, that’s just your lifelong love for Gwen Stefani talking.”
Ben glared at the back of his head. “I never had a crush on Gwen Stefani.”
“Oh, no?” Klaus twisted around and grinned at him. “Then why’d you used to sleep with a picture of her under your pillow?”
How did he know about that? Fucking Klaus.
“I liked their music,” Ben lied.
“You’d never heard their music.” Klaus’s grin spread. “We were all busy being creepy cult children, there was no time in our schedules for ska.”
“We weren’t creepy,” protested Luther. “…Were we creepy?”
Vanya’s eyes darted between them. “It doesn’t really matter, Klaus,” she said.
“Of course it matters!” He reached around to grab her hands. “Vanya. If we can’t make fun of each other, then what’s this all about? I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t ruthlessly mock Ben for something he did when we were twelve, do you?”
“I do remember that we had that language we made up when we were really young,” Luther was musing out loud. “That was sort of creepy, looking back.”
Vanya pursed her lips. “Klaus, just stop,” she said. “Okay?”
Ben raised an eyebrow. Since when did Vanya take sides in other people’s arguments? Around Christmastime, Allison had asked her to be the tie-breaker in helping decide which Lego set she should get for Claire, and she’d panicked so hard she wound up pretending she didn’t know what Legos even were.
Klaus dropped her hands with a pout. “When did you join the Fun Police?” he asked sadly. “I had no idea they were recruiting. Luther never said.”
The car rolled to a stop at an intersection, and Luther turned around to address them all. “Guys, we can never tell anybody about our pretend language,” he said in grave tones. “People might think we’re strange.”
Two blocks later, as they pulled into the left turning lane, Klaus tapped on his window.
“Hey, can we stop and get a movie?” he asked. “There’s a rental place just up this way.”
Luther’s eyes stayed glued to the traffic light. “I’m in the wrong lane for that.”
“So do a loop.”
Luther sighed. “Klaus, it’s getting late, and Vanya’s had a long day—“
“She can come back to the house with us.” Klaus arched his back to look at her upside-down from over the headrest. “You can come back to the house with us.”
Vanya squeezed her elbows. “Well… it is getting late.”
“It’s seven o’clock,” Klaus said with a note of frustration. “What time do you people go to bed?”
Ben leaned sideways into his line of sight. “I’ll watch regular TV with you,” he offered. “We can have a movie night with everybody some other time.”
The only response he got was sad warbling, which he was going to go ahead and assume meant ‘okay.’
Ben let his head fall back. For several seconds, the only sound in the car was the ticking of the blinker.
Then fabric rustled in the seat next to him, and looked over to find that Vanya was watching him, her face pinched.
“Is that… Do you want to do that?” she asked. “Get everyone together for a movie?”
Ben felt another pair of eyes on him. When he glanced at the rear view mirror, Luther quickly looked away.
“Well… sure.” He shrugged. “It’d probably be fun.”
“Oh.” Vanya slumped back against the door, sounding inexplicably abashed. “I guess I can stay out for a few more hours.”
The light changed, and Luther made his left turn. Then, without comment, he made a second left turn, to swing back around in the direction of the video store.
Klaus let out a muffled squeal of glee while Ben frowned. What the shit had just happened? Had he just made plans for them all by mistake?
“What are we gonna get?” Klaus asked excitedly. “Comedy? Action? Nobody say documentary, or else you’re not invited to my birthday anymore.”
“I’ve never seen Fargo,” said Ben.
“No, we need a crowd-pleaser.” Klaus flicked his wrist in dismissal. “Watch your downer murder movie on your own time, Ben-jack-o-lantern. How about Princess Bride?”
Ben leaned forward. “Fargo’s a crowd-pleaser,” he insisted. “Everybody I know who saw it liked it.”
That list, in its entirety, was Dave and Cora, who had seen it together when it first came out twenty-some-odd years ago, and Five, who’d caught the last ten minutes on TV one time.
When it came down to it, Ben just didn’t know all that many people.
“We’re not getting Fargo,” Klaus told him. He rapped out a rhythm on the door handle with his knuckles. “Ooh, Rocky Horror?”
Ben looked from Luther to Vanya. His attention was focused on the road. She had the trance-like haze in her eyes that she got when she was mentally playing music. Neither of them actually gave a fuck about Family Movie Night, did they? They just thought he did.
Back when Klaus first discovered the ability to render him visible to other people, it had been like this all the time. His siblings bent over backwards to make him happy, and he could do no wrong, and his wish was their command, and etcetera, etcetera.
It’d been annoying. He didn’t want to be a celebrity guest star in his own family—he wanted to be part of the main cast. He honestly couldn’t wait until this anniversary business blew over and everything went back to normal.
…But in the meantime, celebrity status had its benefits.
Ben flipped his hood down.
“Klaus shaved all my hair off,” he announced loudly.
Vanya’s eyes went wide as Luther sucked in a breath.
Klaus burst out laughing at the sight all over again.
“I did!” he chortled, twisting around in the front seat. “I was trying to do that thing where you shave the one side and then have swoopy bangs on the other side, and I fucked up so bad. Oh my God, I… Wait, why are you guys not laughing?”
“Oh, Ben,” Vanya breathed, stricken.
“It’s going to grow back,” said Klaus. He glanced between her and Luther, who was staring ahead with the face of a man who had met true horror. “He’ll just look like a sick turtle for a few hours.”
“You don’t look like a turtle,” Vanya rushed to assure him. “It’s… You look… Uh…”
Luther shook his head gravely. “You shouldn’t have done that, Klaus,” he said. “You really shouldn’t have done that.”
Klaus kicked at the dashboard. “It wasn’t on purpose!” he said. “It was just a happy accident. Stop pretending this isn’t hilarious!”
“I guess it is sort of funny.” Ben smiled half-heartedly. “I don’t mind everybody laughing at me.”
He worried for a second that he sounded almost too pitiful, but then Vanya reached over to squeeze his hand. In her eyes, he could see that her heart was breaking for him and his goofy bald head.
Ben squeezed her hand back. “So anyway, what movie do you guys want to rent?”
“I’m okay with Fargo,” Vanya said quickly.
“Yeah.” Luther threw a smile over his shoulder as he pulled up to a stop sign. “That sounds good.”
“Really?” demanded Klaus.
Luther shot him a warning glance, and he sank into his seat with his arms crossed.
As the van sped up again, he angled his head to the side and glared at Ben in the mirror.
‘Bitch,’ he mouthed.
Ben stuck out his tongue.
Ben watched as his reflection’s hair changed slowly back to normal in the bathroom mirror. Klaus had given him the gelled spikes of a boy band circa 1998, and he wasn’t sorry to see them go. Who had decided this was a good look?
Then Five wandered in with a towel and his pajamas, and he bolted through the door before things got awkward.
Honestly. His siblings all knew there were invisible people around—you’d think they would give a little warning before taking their clothes off.
Mom was carrying a load of laundry down the hallway, humming, and Ben blew her a goodnight kiss she couldn’t see.
“Boo,” a voice said in his ear.
He whipped around to see Dave standing there with a grin.
“Wow. How long have you been planning that out?”
Dave laughed. “Aw, that’s the best ghost joke there is! Everybody loves that one.”
Ben shook his head. Sometimes, he wondered how two people as different as Dave and Klaus could be so happy together. Other times, it made perfect sense.
“What do you want to do tonight?” he asked as they descended the stairs. The lack of footsteps on the marble was still eerie, even after all these years. “Is anything going on?”
Dave hopped down the last step and hummed. “Last I heard, Ange was planning to camp out at the zoo to find out what giraffes do with their necks while they sleep. Oh, and you’ve never met my friend Ethel, but she’s visiting New York right now.”
He turned on his heel to face Ben before they passed through the front door. “She was a Vegas showgirl. And she died in costume, so she’s got, you know—“ He held an arm over his head and wriggled his fingers—“feathers.”
“Oh, cool.” Out on the front porch, Ben shoved his hands into his pockets and tried to look casual. “What about Cora?”
Dave grinned, but didn’t make any smart comments, because—unlike some people—he did not take pleasure in unmitigated assholery. Ben appreciated that about him. It was a nice change of pace from what he was used to.
“I’m not too sure about Cora. My best guess would be the waterfront.” With studied nonchalance, he added, “She’s crazy for boats.”
Ben filed that information away for another time. “I’m up for a walk if you are.”
The waterfront was far, but they had all night, and Ben didn’t mind. There was a lot you could do as a ghost—go see what treasures the Met had in storage, for instance, or spend all night watching raccoons fight over dumpster food—but his favorite thing was long walks and people-watching.
“So, you didn’t hear this from me,” Dave said as they passed by a pizza place a few blocks from home, “but your party’s going to have a piñata.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Ben muttered.
“Yeah.” He laughed a little. “Klaus is having Luther take point on that. I kinda figured you might want a heads’ up.”
Now he was going to have to pretend to love it, no matter what. Luther got so upset when he felt like he’d failed at something.
It was especially unfortunate because his plans had always had a tendency to go awry. Ben remembered how, at his funeral, he’d read a poem Ben had liked out loud, and it was actually very nice and touching—except he’d sneezed halfway through, and then had to finish while they all stood there acting like he didn’t have a hand full of snot.
He slowed his pace to watch a drunk guy on a bicycle careen into a mailbox. “This is going to be a disaster, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Ahh, it’ll be fine,” Dave promised. He tore his gaze away from where the bicyclist was punching the mailbox in retaliation, and offered a smile. “It doesn’t matter how shitty a party is— what matters is that you’re in good company.”
“Yeah?” Ben shot him a glance. “What kind of shitty parties have you been going to?”
He always liked hearing Dave’s stories. They were just so reassuringly ordinary. A little glimpse into life as a regular person.
Dave made a thoughtful sound as they rounded a corner.
“We-e-ell… When I was in high school, I went to my friend Florence’s Confirmation. I thought it was going to be like a Catholic bat mitzvah, but it was terrible. Like, ninety percent church, and ten percent party. Totally farkakte.”
He waved a hand. “But all of our friends were there, and her mom was too busy to notice us stealing beer, and everybody managed to have a good day.”
Ben smiled down at his shoes. “Sounds rough.” He paused. “One time Dad took us to this charity dinner thing. We were all pumped for it, but when we got there I got nervous and I ended up hiding in the bathroom all night. The guy who handed out towels was really nice, though.”
Dave put a comforting hand through his shoulder.
They came to a corner store where the owner was trying to power-wash graffiti off the side of the building, and Ben took a quick step to the right to let the water spray him. He stared at where it hit his chest in mild amazement. It almost tickled.
“Are you ready for it?” Dave leaned back against a telephone pole, arms crossed. “The party?”
“Dave, I’m thirty-one. I’m past hiding in the bathroom.”
“No, I—“ He cut himself off with a burst of laughter. “Well, congratulations! But what I should have asked is, are you alright with having a party in the first place?”
His mouth pulled into a crooked smile. “I know it wasn’t your idea.”
The owner of the convenience store gave a sigh of defeat and turned off the power washer. Ben skirted around him as began to coil up the hose. He didn’t like walking through living people—it felt rude.
“Yeah, it was Klaus’s idea,” he admitted. “But I think it was a pretty good one. It’s keeping everyone focused on music and decorations and… piñatas, I guess, instead of the depressing stuff.”
Dave let his head fall back against the pole, his gaze never leaving Ben’s face. “I’m glad everybody else is feeling good about it,” he said lightly. “But how do you feel?”
“It’s more for them than for me,” Ben recited.
“Ben.” Dave’s tone was amused, and his eyes were gentle. “You were the one who died, man.”
There was that.
Ben lowered his head to study his boots.
He wasn’t sure how he felt, if he was being honest. Not about the party—he was still firmly in the ‘kind of dumb, but whatever’ camp on that one. He wasn’t sure how he felt about… well, the dying part.
He’d used to know. He remembered the anger and the despair, so overpowering it felt as though he had swapped out one writhing monster inside of him for another. He remembered feeling heartsick over how his family had torn itself apart afterwards. Feeling both terrified and resentful as Klaus nearly got himself killed every other week for years on end, like he’d learned nothing about what a life was worth.
That had changed, at some point. There hadn’t been any big epiphany—the sharp edges of his emotions had just been smoothed down over time, while he wasn’t even paying attention. He still got sad on occasion. Frustrated, that he couldn’t do all the things the living could. Still turned reflective some days and wondered ‘what if…?’
But for the most part, he was content with what he had. Maybe… maybe happy, even?
He still wasn’t sure what happy was supposed to feel like. But if being in good company was really the thing that mattered most, he couldn’t be far off.
Ben met Dave’s eyes. “I’m cool.”
“Yeah?” Dave scanned his face. After a moment, his mouth eased into a smile, seemingly satisfied with whatever it was he’d found there. “Good.”
He pushed himself away from the telephone pole and stretched out his shoulders. “Anytime you want to talk, or just rant about shit, though, I’m around.”
Ben smiled back. “I know.”
A dog trotted in between them then, its leash in its mouth and not a human in sight.
They both stared after it.
“…Is that dog walking itself?” asked Ben.
“Looks like it,” said Dave. “Must’ve got away from its owner, I guess.”
“Right.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I… kind of want to go see what its deal is.”
“Oh, yeah, me too,” Dave agreed cheerily. “Race you.”
“So, my thought was, instead of a sit-down meal, we could have a bunch of finger foods,” Allison said. She toyed with the pen in her hands. “Cheese and crackers, little savory pastries, those mini tea sandwiches. Stuff like that.”
Klaus gestured across the table with his soda can. “Mini tacos.”
“You think?” She scrunched up her face. “I don’t know that tacos are really on-brand with the spring theme. They seem more like a summer food to me.”
“Tell that to all of Mexico,” Klaus said haughtily.
Ben kicked a foot against the rung of his chair. As the party got closer, Allison and Klaus had been… having some creative differences. Just that morning, they’d had a roving argument all over a party supply store about what color plates to get.
The only reason they weren’t still there was because Ben had finally told them they needed to compromise in the next two minutes, or else he was going to insist on the SpongeBob ones.
“We can have some of each,” he suggested. He glanced to his left, where Mom was sitting. “We can do that, right?”
She offered him one of her sweet, fluttery smiles. “Of course, dear. I can make whatever you children would like.”
“Alright,” Allison sighed. She leaned over the pad of paper in front of her and wrote something in quick, sharp jerks. “Sandwiches and tacos.”
While she was distracted, Klaus mouthed the words back at her with an exaggerated wiggle of his shoulders.
The door to the dining room banged open, and Diego stormed in trailed by a guilty-looking Dave.
“Did you guys take my fuck…” He stopped short when he noticed Mom sitting at the table with them. “Did you guys take my car this morning while I was asleep?”
“Oh, well that depends,” said Klaus. He fixed Dave with a penetrating look. “Did someone tell you we took your car while you were asleep?”
Dave held up his hands in defense. “I thought he knew.”
“Sorry,” Allison said, without much sincerity. “I have a hard time with the van and Five wouldn’t let us take his car without putting down a security deposit first.”
“I’m sure no one thought you would mind, dear,” their mother jumped in. “You’re always so generous letting your brothers and sisters borrow your things.”
“Yeah, well, I—That’s—You can’t—“ Diego grunted in defeat and glared at Allison. “Just ask next time.”
She jabbed her pen at him, smiling. “You got it.”
“We’re planning the menu for Sunday,” Ben told him. “Want to help?”
Diego was going to be more of a hindrance, he was sure, but if he got to be part of the process, at least he couldn’t complain later that there was nothing healthy enough for him to eat. He had ruined a lot of family dinners by expounding on the deleterious effects of cholesterol.
“Oh. Yeah, alright.” He leaned over to see what was written on the pad of paper so far, and did not come away looking impressed.
“So are you guys all carb-loading or what?”
Klaus shot Ben a ‘see what you did?’ look as Dave settled into the chair next to him.
“This may come as a surprise to you,” said Allison, “but party food generally isn’t diet-friendly.”
“Are you all running a marathon the next day?” Diego went on. “Is that what’s going on here?”
Mom folded her hands on the table. “I’ll make something just for you,” she offered. “How does the baked chicken you like sound?”
“…Oh.” He shifted his weight around. “No, that’s okay, Mom. I don’t want to make more work for you.”
She smiled. “You’re very sweet, dear.”
Ben forcibly reminded himself not to pretend to puke while everybody could see him.
Klaus took a swig of his soda and turned the can around in his hands. “Before I forget, we need a dip,” he said. “Not ranch. Never ranch.”
Allison propped her chin up in her hand. “For the crackers, you mean?” she asked. “Pate might be better.”
Klaus pulled a face. “Okay, two things,” he said, holding up a finger. “One, pate is liver, which no thank you, and two, it’s not for crackers, it’s for chips.”
“I like liver,” Diego commented.
Klaus swung his arm around to point at the door. “Get out.”
Diego glanced at Ben, who shook his head.
“Do we need chips?” Allison wondered. She gave Klaus a winning smile. “They’re sort of overdone, don’t you think? Sort of boring? We can do better than that.”
He leaned forward to stare into her eyes. “Are you trying to trick me into not liking chips?” he asked coldly. “Do you think I’m a clown, Allison?”
“Well, you’re wearing polks dots,” Ben pointed out.
Klaus brightened up. “I am! You know, I got into this habit of wearing solid colors for a while there, and then I was looking through my closet and I thought ‘God, I miss prints,’ so I’m phasing them back in. You like it?”
Dave smacked a kiss against his temple. “Love it.”
“Should’ve left when I had the chance,” muttered Diego.
“Oh!” Allison clicked her pen. “You know what’s a great springtime food? Figs. Do you know any fig recipes, Mom?”
Her gaze turned distant for a moment as she whirled through internal databases. “Yes,” she announced. “Forty-three.”
“Great!” Allison laughed as she began scribbling on the notepad. “Gosh, now I want a fig. One time I had ones that were like, wrapped in bacon, and then cooked in some kind of glaze, I guess, and they were—“
“Wait,” Klaus broke in. “Did you put chips down?”
“I did,” she said. “Thanks for interrupting me, by the way! I love it when men take charge of the conversation like that. Very macho.”
Klaus unwrapped his arms from around Dave’s neck. “Show me.”
“Show you what?”
“Where you wrote chips.” He nodded at the list. “Let me see it.”
She folded her hands on the table and fixed him with an icy smile. Before she could speak, Klaus hurried to add, “Ben wants them. That was one of literally two things he asked for—cake, and chips.”
Ben shifted in his seat. That was technically true, but it wasn’t a hill he was going to die on. Or, not die, but… God, there were a lot of turns of phrase that just didn’t work when you were already dead, weren’t there?
“I don’t actually care, guys,” he said. “It’s not like I’m going to be eating them.”
“Hold on,” said Diego. “If we’re only going to have garbage food, it better be good garbage food. Add barbeque chips.”
Allison turned to scowl at him. “Seriously? This is the time you decide you’re cool with eating junk?”
“This may come as a surprise to you,” Diego said, smirking, “but party food generally isn’t diet-friendly.”
Allison closed her eyes briefly, then, her mouth set tight, leaned down to write ‘BBQ chips’ on the paper. Klaus and Diego exchanged an air high-five across the table.
“Boys,” their mother said in disappointment.
“Chips,” Allison announced, holding up the notepad for Klaus’s scrutiny. “Happy?”
“Tickled! Now add ‘cake’ while you’ve got both hands where I can see them.”
She set the paper down. “Oh. Actually, I had an idea for that, too—What do you think about macarons?”
“What are macarons?” asked Dave.
“They’re these pretty pastries you can get in all different colors and flavors,” Allison explained. “They’re nice. Very spring-y.”
“No, they’re bougie little rainbow burgers that taste like cardboard,” Klaus said, frustrated. “But I actually just got the Queen of England’s RSVP back and it turns out she can’t make it, so how’s about we get normal food that people like and stop pretending we’re French aristocracy?”
Allison smiled at him. It didn’t reach her eyes.
Dave looked between them, then gave a decisive rap on the table with his knuckles.
“You know what,” he said, leaning back in his seat, “the last time I could eat at a party, the height of class was suspending everything in aspic, so I’m probably not the best person to weigh in on this.”
“We could have cupcakes in different colors,” Ben suggested.
He didn’t understand why Klaus was gung-ho for colorful cocktails, yet ready to declare class warfare on colorful pastries, but his tastes made about as much sense as the rest of him.
Instead of answering him, Allison flicked her hair over her shoulder and fixed Klaus with a frosty look.
“There’s nothing wrong with trying to be a little more elegant,” she said. “Trying to make a special occasion a little more special.”
Klaus threw his hands in the air. “There is if it stops being fun!” he argued. “Nobody ever went to a party and thought ‘Pretty good, needs more liver.’”
“I still like liver,” Diego reminded them all.
“You can still get out, too,” Klaus shot back.
“Guys?” said Ben. “Cupcakes? Yes, no, maybe?”
Next to him, Mom shifted in her seat. “I know one hundred and twelve recipes using aspic,” she announced.
“Okay, Klaus,” Allison said irritably. “You win. Let’s just melt a bucket of cheese and give everyone a straw, how does that sound?”
“Gross, but I would eat it on principle,” he said with an air of self-righteousness. Diego’s mouth twisted in disgust.
Ben slapped a hand on the table.
“Dessert is cupcakes, or else I’m not coming,” he declared.
Klaus threw him a look of reproach while Allison chewed her lip.
“Yeah, okay,” she said after a second. “That’s… actually a good idea.”
“Could’ve done without the yelling, though,” muttered Klaus. “Sergeant Screechy over here.”
Ben scrubbed a hand over his face. This was going to be the whole rest of his day, wasn’t it?
Diego leaned over the table to watch Allison write.
“Jello comes in different colors, too,” he said. “Add that. Or at least add the lime flavor, that’s the best one.”
Klaus bared his teeth in a vague approximation of a smile.
“Diego dearest. Get out, or I will put you out.”
Klaus’s long, bony fingers fretted anxiously at Ben’s scalp for a moment more, and then he made a satisfied sound and took a step backwards.
“C’est fini!” he declared with pride. “What do you think?”
Ben tilted his head one way and then the other to get a good look in the mirror. The sides were shortened up, the top combed forward and gelled into an artfully messy cowlick.
“It’s different.” He paused. “I like it.”
Klaus bounced on the balls of his feet in pleasure. “I do, too! You look like a hipster, but not the douchey kind. Like, the kind who still thinks it’s unironically cool to be a hipster because you’re from a small town in Nebraska and you don’t know any better?”
Ben gazed at him sadly in the mirror. “Why can you never give a normal compliment?” he lamented.
Klaus leaned down and pinched both of his cheeks. “Just a sweet little farm boy, trying to make it in the big city! Watch out for older men who say they’re looking for a friend, farm boy, that’s code for something Mama would never approve of.”
“Thanks for the tip,” said Ben. “Can you please let go of my face?”
Klaus released him with a soothing pat.
“Want me to style your hair before the party tomorrow?” he asked, flopping down on his bed. “I can do this look again, or just give you a trim.”
Ben winced. “No, that’s okay.”
Their siblings would undoubtedly have comments, but what he was more worried about was Cora and Angelo showing up. He didn’t want it to be like, a ‘my family who’s still alive is throwing me a party and I changed my hair just cuz, lOoK aT mE’ sort of thing. It felt like that would be the ghost equivalent of bragging about how much money you made.
“Suit yourself.” Klaus stretched out his back with a long sigh. “Cheez-itz, I’m ready for this to be over.”
Ben looked away from the mirror with a frown. “The party? It was your idea.”
“And it was a great one, thank you very much,” said Klaus. “But these losers are wearing me down. Like, fuck, I can only pretend to care about piñatas for so long, you know?”
He rolled over on the bed, eyes wide. “Oh, shit, that was supposed to be a surprise! Act like you didn’t know, okay? Scream and jump around a little so it’s convincing.”
“What do you mean you can only pretend to care?” Ben asked, bewildered, and a touch frustrated. “Klaus, you were the one who seemed to care about all this stuff the most. Why did you want a party in the first place?”
“To cheer everybody up,” he said. “We’re rebranding, remember?”
Ben gave him a long, hard look. By degrees, Klaus’s smile dimmed, and then he turned away to pluck at a loose thread on his bedspread. “…And maybe because it’s a little bit my fault they’re all so sad?”
Ben blinked in surprise. “How would it be your fault?”
Klaus shrugged on shoulder, still not meeting his gaze. “Everyone missed you a lot,” he said in a low voice. “But I had you with me this entire time. And… I don’t know. Maybe if I wasn’t such a fuck-up, I could have convinced them I wasn’t making it up, or I could have figured out I could manifest you earlier, or… something.”
Something painful squeezed in Ben’s chest. “Do you really think that?”
Klaus hazarded a glance at him from where his face was mashed into the blankets. One green eye peeking out from behind a lock of hair, as vulnerable as Ben had ever seen it.
“No,” he said forcefully. “No, Klaus—“
Ben got to his feet and sat on the bed. He couldn’t pull Klaus into a hug, sprawled out as he was, but he leaned down over top of him, pressing his cheek to his shoulder.
“I never thought that,” he promised. “Not for a second. You didn’t do anything wrong, okay?”
He felt, more than heard, Klaus’s disbelieving snort.
“Well, alright, you did lots of stuff wrong,” he amended, brushing circles across his back. “But not by me. You were… You were always a good brother. The best.”
“I tried to be.” Klaus rolled over to face him, and offered a watery smile. “Have to take care of my baby bro.”
The angle was still awkward, but Ben wrapped both arms around his waist anyway. Klaus was infuriating and ridiculous and practically begging to be smacked most of the time, and he wouldn’t trade him for the world.
How could he? For a long, long time, Klaus had been his world.
“I’m not your little brother, though,” Ben said as he let him go.
“Not technically.” Klaus scooted closer to put his head in his lap. “But in spirit.”
“No way.” Ben gave his hair a gentle tug. “If anything, you’re the little brother.”
Klaus scowled at him. “No, you.”
“I’m not either! Remember you used to make me check under your bed for snakes every night?”
“Okay, well, remember how every time you wanted something from the kitchen, you made me go in first to make sure Mom wasn’t running the garbage disposal because you were scared of the noise?”
“And I tied your shoes for you every fucking day until we were nine, because you were like, dyslexic at knots.”
“Oh, alright, how about the time you got your head stuck in the railings on the staircase, and I was the only one who helped you? Because everyone else was too busy laughing? Because we were sixteen.”
Klaus sulked down at the bedspread for a moment. Then, “Diego’s the baby.”
“What?” Ben asked. “How do you figure that?”
“Because he…” Klaus waved a flippant hand. “I don’t know, he just is.”
Ben thought about it. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Okay.”
Sound reasoning, that.
The weather was beautiful, and the courtyard looked fantastic.
The big tree and the bushes were tangled with fairy lights, and Allison’s paper butterflies hung from the patio umbrella. Klaus had bullied Luther into moving every plant he had in the greenhouse outside for ambiance, the greenery spilling off the table around the plates of food and pitcher of pale-pink strawberry drink Five had concocted.
“Klaus,” Ben said slowly, examining the garden gnomes arranged in tableau around a mound of dirt. “Are the gnomes digging a grave?”
“Oh, good eye!” He clapped his hands together. “Yeah, I saw the one holding a shovel at the store, and I figured it might be funny. Gallows humor!”
His smile wavered as he admired his work.
“…This is in poor taste, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Ben confirmed. He shoved his hands in his pockets. “It is kind of funny. But I don’t think anybody else will laugh.”
Klaus sucked his teeth in thought, then pulled off his wristwatch, which Ben thought was actually Vanya’s wristwatch.
“There,” he said, nestling it into the dirt. “Now they’re archeologists.”
Ben nodded. “Better.”
Luther wandered outside carrying a piñata shaped like a duck and looking more grim than a man carrying a piñata shaped like a duck had the right to be.
“Where am I putting this?” he asked Klaus. His gaze slid to Ben. “Oh, um. We got you a piñata.”
Ben forced a smile that he hoped seemed genuine. “Really? Cool! Thank you.”
“It’s a duck,” Luther told him, pointlessly.
“Let’s hang it on the tree,” said Klaus. “I forgot to get a bat, but I found a hammer last night, so we can just—Oh, and here comes Vanya, looking chic as always!”
“Hey, guys,” she called as she trudged across the lawn. “Happy… um… thing, Ben.”
“Thanks,” he said. “What’s that you have?”
“Oh.” She held out the box in her arms in offering. “Pictionary. Someone let me borrow it.”
Her mouth curled into a grimace and she gave the box a rattle. “Pictionary,” she repeated solemnly.
Luther held up the piñata. “I got a piñata.”
There was a long, bleak silence.
“Okay!” said Klaus, clapping his hands. “I’m going to go see how Diego’s doing with the stereo, and you three try not to have too much fun out here without me.”
Whatever hopes Ben might have had that the mood would lighten as they added more people were quickly dashed.
Allison drifted outside with her hair hanging limp like she’d given up halfway through styling it, and gave him an over-long hug.
Five guided their mother into a chair. She sat there looking vaguely confused while he took up his post as the protector of the food, looming over the table with a fly swatter and a scowl.
Diego and Klaus emerged from the house together, not speaking. They must have had an argument, Ben thought—Klaus was sullen and glued himself to Dave, and Diego pushed buttons and fiddled with dials on the stereo like what he really wanted to do was throw it against something.
Happy reverse-birthday to me, he thought ruefully.
Once they were all seated at the table and picking at the food in gloomy silence, Mom clasped her hands over her knees.
“My, such lovely weather today,” she commented. “How nice that you children can all enjoy it together.”
Five swatted a bee to pieces against the arm of Vanya’s chair. She looked down at the smear, dismayed.
“It’s sunny,” Allison said woodenly. Her eyes were red.
“It might rain later,” said Klaus. He turned an unlit cigarette over in his hands. “Or it might not. Weather be wild.”
Dave shifted in the seat next to him, looking, for once, like he had no idea what to say or do next.
Luther was staring with unseeing eyes at Diego as he cut a taco into ever-smaller pieces, and Vanya was staring down at her lap, and Five was staring at a circling fly like if he could just kill it then everything would be right with the world, and then ‘Party Like It’s 1999’ came on the stereo and Ben couldn’t take anymore.
“What the hell are you laughing about?” Diego demanded.
“I’m sorry!” he wheezed. “I’m sorry, just—“
Ben scrubbed at his face, trying to regain some level of composure. “This is ridiculous,” he choked out. “Guys. What are we doing?”
Klaus stiffened in indignation. “We’re having a wonderful time,” he said stubbornly.
Allison sniffled her agreement.
“Oh, come on,” said Ben. He looked around the table, still smiling. “We’re not having a good time. This isn’t fun. We can admit it.”
There was a moment of uneasy silence, nobody wanting to be the first to speak, and then Allison let out a little sob.
“It didn’t feel real when you died,” she said in a rush, voice quavering. She wiped at her right eye. “I kept thinking, ‘How am I never going to see him again?’ and then I’d try to tell myself I just had to accept it, but it felt like—like—“
“Like a bad dream,” Diego muttered at his hands. “Like any minute, I’d wake up and you’d be there.”
Klaus leaned forward to give him a cautious squeeze on the shoulder. He didn’t pull away.
Vanya cleared her throat. “I, um…” She swallowed, looking at Klaus. “I remember how you said you could see him, afterwards. See Ben.”
She twisted a napkin between white-knuckled fingers. “And then Dad said you were lying, so I decided he must be right, even though I kind of knew he wasn’t, and… and I’m sorry. To both of you. I’m sorry.”
“Water under the bridge,” said Klaus.
A bizarre sort of pride stirred in Ben’s chest at the grace of his answer. A few years ago, Klaus would have responded to an apology by crowing ‘I told you so!’ and taking a victory lap.
“What was it like for you?” Luther asked, voice raw, gaze steady. “Did you know right away what happened?”
Allison ducked her head to dab again at her eyes and Diego’s jaw clenched, but Luther didn’t waver, ready to meet his answer head on. Five, too, was watching him, curious.
“Within a few minutes, I did,” said Ben. He paused. “I couldn’t believe it at first, either. It felt—for a little while, it felt like it had happened to someone else. And then for a long time it felt like nothing was ever going to be okay again.”
He smiled, surprised by how easily it came. How natural it felt. “But things are okay, now. And… and being sad is okay, too.”
Mom sighed in the seat across from him. “It was a difficult day for the family umbrellas,” she agreed.
Diego’s head snapped up so fast it had to hurt. Allison released a startled burst of laughter, then covered her mouth like she wasn’t sure if that was allowed.
“Mom,” Luther said, slightly awed. “Did you just make a joke?”
“Oh.” She stared off into space for a second. “Yes, I suppose I did. Should I not have?”
“No, it’s fine,” Diego rushed to reassure her. “But—who taught you to make jokes like that?”
Five sat back in his chair, frowning. “I don’t get it.”
“You, um…” Vanya ducked her head, fighting off a smile. “I think you sort of had to be there.”
“Was it Klaus?” Diego was asking. “Did he tell you to say that, Mom?”
Klaus tipped his head back to make a face at Dave, as though asking if he could believe what he was hearing.
“Mm.” Five leveled Ben with a piercing look. “I am sorry that I wasn’t, you know.”
Ben shook his head. “Don’t be,” he said. “You’re here now. That’s all I care about.”
On the surface of things, Five appeared entirely unmoved by that response, but Ben noticed that he allowed Vanya to brush the tips of their fingers together. Just for a second. Under the table.
Silence descended once more. It still had a weight to it, but no longer an oppressive one. It felt more like being under a blanket. It felt intimate.
“Okay,” Ben said to the group at large. “So, it’s still okay to be sad and everything, but maybe get it out of your systems now? Because some of my friends might come over later, and I don’t want them to think all of our parties are like this.”
Allison rubbed at both eyes and came away with a smile. “Fair.”
Next to her, Luther glanced up from where he was taking a second helping of sandwiches. “Friends?” he repeated. “Like… ghost friends, or…?”
“Yes,” Klaus jumped in, doing spirit fingers. “Tortured spirits who have been wandering the earth for centuries.”
“They pretty much just go to the movies and hang around at skate parks,” said Dave.
“Hungering to be alive again and developing powers far beyond my ability to control!”
“One of them can knock over soda cans and stuff,” Dave explained. “It’s a cool trick. She’ll show you if you want.”
Judging by the look on Luther’s face, he did not want.
“How does this game work?” Five was asking at the other end of the table as he scrutinized the box Vanya had brought. “All you do is draw the word?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I played it once a long time ago. It’s pretty fun.”
Their mother leaned forward with interest. “Motorcycle,” she guessed.
Vanya blinked. “No, Mom—that’s just the picture on the box. We’re not playing yet.”
“Oh.” She smiled. “Dirt bike.”
Five and Vanya exchanged a glance. Allison leaned around Luther to touch their mother’s arm.
“You can be on my team,” she offered. “But I think we should probably reboot you later tonight.”
“Hey, Ben,” said Diego, squinting off into the distance. “You care if I hit your piñata?”
“Go for it, dude.”
“Cool.” He grabbed the hammer off the table and rose from his seat. “Five bucks I can nail it through the head from here.”
Five propped his chin up in his hand. “Who do you think is going to take that bet?”
Ben watched Diego get into position, and then, as if on cue, a familiarly cranky voice said in his ear, “I know he’s not about to throw that clear across the yard.”
He turned in his seat to find the old man standing behind him, watching Diego with glowering disapproval.
Klaus was cackling at something Luther had said—or maybe just cackling at Luther—and Dave was watching him with a chagrined smile. Neither was paying any attention to their newest guest.
“I was wondering if you were going to come,” said Ben, turning back around. “The party started a while ago.”
“I was in the house.” The old man rocked on his heels. “Didn’t want to intrude.”
“Oh.” Ben squirmed in his seat, a touch embarrassed. “You, um. You heard all that stuff, then, I guess.”
“You missed!” Klaus howled in delight behind them. “Really? Really, Diego? How is that even physically possible?”
“Hammers aren’t as aerodynamic as knives, okay, and I wasn’t focusing, and—I’m going again.”
“No, no do-overs,” called Allison.
“Do you still want to bet?” Five asked. “Because I do.”
Ben hunched his shoulders. “It’s okay, I think. For right now.”
There might be more tears later. That was fine. They would be ready for them.
The old man nodded and looked out across the yard.
“Got yourself a good family,” he said, in an offhanded sort of way. “You’ll all be ‘right.”
Ben tucked his face into his arm to hide his smile. “I hope so.”
“’Course you will.” He jerked his chin at where Diego and Klaus were wrestling over the hammer. “Now put an end to this nonsense before someone gets hurt.”
Ben made a non-committal sound and turned around to watch the show.
“I’ll give them a minute,” he said serenely.
It was his party, after all.