these skeletons got ways of coming out
k so I actually published this a few days ago but tumblr was being a butt so I couldn’t cross-post it til now anyway This is a Pope Heyward character study that ABSOLUTELY NO ONE ASKED FOR and I wrote anyway bc I needed to fix him before I could use him as a character in the rest of this series. If you disagree with the way that I've extrapolated very little data into detailed headcanons, I don't blame you but also just like
title from "Brother" by Kodaline
And that -- the intersection of John B and Kiara -- the overlay of his two best friends in his heart -- that’s what scares him.
Pope realizes some things after the Phantom goes down. Things that change the way he lives his life
I used to be free
Of any fear of emotion
But these skeletons got ways of coming out
I used to believe
That someday you'd see
That baby you got devotion in every little motion
And I won't see the storm
When the rain's coming down
Never let you go
Never let you go
Even when the madness has broken you apart
Even when the madness has broken you apart
Objectively, Pope is not an idiot. He knows this. He gets good grades, and he knows more about computers and physics and a lot of other things than the rest of any of his friends. He’s a smart kid. Even though he skipped out on his scholarship interview and his grades took a very sudden dip at the end of last semester, he has a solid GPA, a fantastic ACT score, and a glittering array of colleges waiting for his application in the fall. He’s spent his entire life waiting for his chance to get out of the Cut and prove all of those motherfuckers on Figure Eight wrong. He has potential. So why, when it comes to the simplest of things, does he feel so lost?
He was sure he was in love with Kiara. Dead certain. Everything lines up. She’s kind and beautiful and intelligent, everything that matters. He feels comfortable around her, natural, like he doesn’t have to try to be funny or charming, like he’s not constantly afraid of fucking up. Everything he’s read about being in love, all the books and the articles -- it all follows. And it’s a good story, one other people will nod their heads and smile at, high school sweethearts, best friends who found solace in each other during the most difficult part of their young lives. But there’s something about it that still feels -- wrong. Uncomfortable. Like there’s the Pope that everyone else sees and then the Pope that he is, and the one in love with Kiara isn’t the same one who lays in his bed at night and stares at the ceiling fan begging for his brain to shut up.
It’s strange, to feel so separate from himself and the life he lives. He doesn’t think it’s normal. He wishes he could talk to his friends about it. It’s not like they’re dumb, the rest of the pogues. Well, not fundamentally so, anyway. John B and JJ definitely make interesting decisions sometimes. But they all inhabit their bodies without question, so sure in their skin and the feeling that they belong with each other. He slips in and out of that too readily to feel completely comfortable at every boneyard party and through every misinformed adventure. The ease is less a standard and more a pleasant surprise; there are some nights when his friends fall quiet around a bonfire and Pope realizes he can’t stop smiling, that he loves every single one of them with his whole heart and he knows they love him, too. And then he starts doubting himself, and gets nervous and quiet and weird again, and they all brush it off as Pope being Pope -- but he’s an outsider even in their little chosen family and that starts to chafe, after a while.
Honestly, he was doing a pretty excellent job of not thinking about it until John B died. Or disappeared. Or whatever you call it when your best friend goes out in an open boat in the middle of a storm and disappears off the radio and the capsized boat is found three days later with no sign of him or his kook girlfriend. Pope’s angry at him, for that. He also really, really hates Sarah, for driving him to make that choice. For her. If it was him, he would have made John B turn around. He should have tried to stop him in the first place. He shouldn’t have helped get him to the Phantom , shouldn’t have let him go.
He hasn’t been haunted by guilt like this since JJ took the blame for sinking the wakesetter, and, for some reason, this is worse. It chews at him, a constant gnawing in the center of his chest that leaves him empty and hurting every second, swallowed by a hunger consuming itself. He hasn’t stopped thinking about John B since that deadly, neverending moment of radio static. Memories flash on a constant film reel through his head. Surfing at Rixon’s, parties at the boneyard, bonfires at the chateau, afternoons on the HMS Pogue. All the moments this summer when John B smiled and Pope followed, unquestioning.
Surfing the surge. That was so beyond stupid, and Pope knew it, even before they got to the beach and saw the huge, angry waves. But John B asked, with that insane glint in his eye that he always got when he caught hold of an idea, unable to let it go, so Pope went. Someone had to keep him alive when Kie wasn’t around. And that -- the intersection of John B and Kiara -- the overlay of his two best friends in his heart -- that’s what scares him.
The whole summer, he’d watched them, first their strange tension with an undercurrent of possibility that tugged at his stomach and made him feel sick, and then their familiar platonic intimacy as they finally became comfortable in what they were to each other. Jealousy pinched and prodded at every moment of eye contact, every kiss on his cheek or lighthearted shove of her shoulder. And the way his heart soared at the salvage yard when John B told them she’d rejected him. That had to have meant something -- and what followed logic was that Pope was into Kie, and he wished himself in John B’s place.
The night the Phantom goes down, Pope thinks he’s the one who should be dead. His parents arrive to take him home, talking to him about how worried they were, how happy they are to see him safe, but his head is still full of that gut-wrenching radio static. He doesn’t hear anything they say as he watches red and blue lights dance across their faces. They pull him into a fierce hug, JJ tugged in next to him, and all he feels is hollow.
Every step he takes echoes off the side of the tunnel of his thoughts, black and void. He stays as still as he can, spread-eagle across his bed, still dressed, just to avoid the clanging of the empty air when he moves. The barest stimulation is too much, the dimmest light blinding. His chest feels like someone has reached in and turned his ribs inside out, split them with a chest-cracker and opened him up on a steel table. In the far, unexplored regions of his imagination, he can see his own autopsy, surgery performed on a perfectly silent boy, hands at his sides, eyes still open, heart still beating.
Night falls around him, from grey dusk to the unforgiving ink-black you can only get in power outages on a tiny island fighting to breathe through the salt marsh. The only thing that drives him from his bed is the urgent cry of his bladder, and it’s easier to get dressed for bed once he’s already moving across the floor. The floorboards creak under his feet and while he would normally walk lightly for fear of being hassled for waking the house the next morning, his steps are heavy and dragging. Staring at the counter, he reaches for his toothbrush and squeezes toothpaste out onto the worn bristles. He puts it in his mouth and looks up, making eye contact reflection for the first time.
You love him.
The realization hits him as clearly as if someone had whispered directly in his ear. It’s like an icepick through the center of his exposed, defenseless heart. He lowers the toothbrush slowly, the silence of the house ringing in his ears like sirens. His breath quickens, his bare chest rising and falling as he backs away from the counter, fear and grief and disappointment and a thousand other things he can’t name swirling in him like the storm that ended life the way he knew it. The tears start, flowing down his face silently at first and then, as he loses all control of his breath and his hands find their way into his hair, accompanied by gut-wrenching, heartbreaking sobs, broken sounds of grief and loss in too many respects.
Heyward rushes down the hall, throwing the door open, fear for his son wild in his eyes. He finds Pope doubled over, hyperventilating, face a mess of snot and tears, eyes squeezed closed, as he shakes and sobs. After a moment in the door, he pushes in, pulling Pope into his chest, wrapping firm, solid arms built from hard work and weather-beaten skin around him. “It’s gonna be alright, kid,” he whispers as Pope shivers violently against him. “It’s gonna be alright.”
Pope doesn’t remember being folded into his bed, or how the glass of water and bottle of Advil ended up on his bedside table. He wakes up well into the afternoon, the room heavy and sticky with the day’s heat, the air conditioning rendered useless with the lack of electricity. The golden light fools him into a pleasant kind of ignorance for half a moment before the reality of the previous night crashes over him ,and suddenly the comfy nest of his bed feels like a prison, sucking him down like quicksand into the mattress. He puts his hands over his face, pressing fingertips into aching eyes, trying to keep himself calm by counting backwards from four hundred, a number with each breath. When he reaches three hundred and fifty four he feels like he might be able to move again, and he reaches for the water and gulps it down, a note stuck to the bottom fluttering to the floor.
He swings his legs out of bed to pick it up, recognizing his mother’s handwriting on the pink post-it note, smudged and running from the condensation. Breakfast in the fridge , it says, don’t worry about the store. Rest. We love you. It makes his skin itch, rather than being comforting. The storm in his head turns a tide toward guilt, like he’s keeping a secret that he just learned, himself. The bed calls, but he knows that if he collapses back into it he won’t move for the rest of the day, and that he should stand before he changes his mind. The ache in his belly forces him up, and he pads through the empty house, feeling halfway like a ghost. Eggs with peppers and cheese, sausage, and hashbrowns are on a covered plate in the fridge, and he unwraps it and puts it in the microwave, watching the food rotate as his mind comes to grips with consciousness.
He’s in love with John B. The boy that taught him how to play beer pong and smoke a bowl, the surfer that pushes him while they’re out on the water, daring him to bigger and bigger tricks, making him better. The idiot that chases gold and kook girls without a glance at impossibility, simply because he has no understanding of the idea. The John B that died last night.
The microwave beeps and he takes his food to the counter, hunched over it, twisting a fork between his fingers and feeling like his stomach might feel better on the outside of him. He takes a few bites, to see if maybe just the potatoes might go down easy, but they taste like ash, and he sits back from the plate, sore and exhausted. He wanders through the house and eventually back up to his room, standing in front of his closet, knowing he should get dressed but overwhelmed by even the simplest choice. Finally, he just pulls on a plain t-shirt over his basketball shorts, and, after catching a glimpse of his hair, puts a snapback on backwards. He doesn’t feel like sitting, so he doesn’t, tucking his keys in his pocket and sliding on a pair of flip flops, leaving the house without his phone or any sort of destination, just walking as his thoughts churn and crash over each other without being much of anything at all.
The heat sends sweat rolling down his temples and between his shoulder blades but he barely feels it, keeping his eyes on his feet as he shuffles down the side of the road. Normally, he’d be listening for any sound that might indicate Rafe or Topper coming up behind him, constantly judging the proximity of the cars, quietly bemoaning the blister forming under his left big toe from the strap of his sandal. But the only thing he senses is the slap of his shoes against the asphalt, carrying him aimlessly across the island.
His own denial fights vocally to be heard under the stifling realization, but it’s something he’s been pushing down for years, ignoring even as the obvious signs wiggled their way into his every day life, like the goosebumps at John B’s touch or the expansion of his chest when John B laughed. It was always there, waiting for him to see it, quietly growing and climbing its way like ivy from his heart to his head, finally bursting from underneath his skin at the worst possible moment.
He’s going to have to tell his dad. There won’t be any way to explain the grief crashing over him without the truth. That settles itself on his shoulders right next to the realization itself and everything else he’s been holding up for months. Knowing the name of it, at least, makes it easier to handle. He’s been carrying around his feelings for John B without knowing what they were, mis-assigning them to Kiara and fucking up what’s probably his favorite friendship. He’s gonna have to tell her, too. He’s not looking forward to that.
As he walks, it settles in, making a home along with all the other true things about him. Pope Heyward. Black. Sixteen years of age. Six feet tall. Pogue. And, he guesses, gay. Maybe bi. But probably gay. Looking back, no girl has ever made him feel the way that John B makes -- he swallows. Used to make him feel. With his stupid floppy hair and his kind brown eyes and that absurd jawline. Tears cloud his eyes and the path in front of him blurs. His best friend is dead . And it took that horrible, heart-shattering tragedy for him to figure out how he felt about him.
He keeps walking for a while, choking back tears and half-planning conversations with his parents and Kie, listening to the slap of his sandals on the cracked asphalt littered with long, dry pine needles and cracked seed pods, signalling the nearing end of summer. He feels, gratefully, a little more clear-headed, less freaked out than he thought he would be. He always feels better, having a plan, no matter how vague and ineffectual that plan may turn out to be.
After a while, he looks up, and finds himself in Figure Eight -- a very dangerous place to be, given the current social climate of the island -- not very far from Kie’s house. He heaves a sigh. Better now than later. Pausing before mounting the porch, Pope spares a second of a regret for his appearance. Kiara’s parents have never been keen on him or either of the other boys, and he knows that showing up in tattered shorts and flip flops won’t exactly help his case. Anna opens the door, looking surprised to see him, and Pope is momentarily relieved it isn’t Kie’s father.
“Good morning,” she says, wary.
“Hi,” Pope replies, lacking his usual magical parent-charming abilities, exhaustion and grief sapping the energy from his bones. There’s an awkward pause as Mrs. Carrera awaits the explanation of a rattily dressed pogue boy on her porch and Pope scrambles for one. He settles on the obvious. “Is Kie here?” He doesn’t know where else she’d be, honestly, but it’s the usual go-to for when they’re dragging Kie back to the Cut for nonsense and potential delinquency, and he’s hoping her mom won’t question it.
“She’s not,” Anna says, concern coloring her tone. “She isn’t with you?” Pope feels his eyebrows draw together, a betrayal of his own confusion, an immediate admittance of guilt.
“I, uh --” he says eloquently as panic overtakes Anna’s face. “I mean, she --” He’s saved by the girl herself riding down the sidewalk on a bike that looks like it’s seen better days, rattling loudly as she cruises toward the house. “There she is!” he says, with a disturbing amount of forced enthusiasm that puts the same expression on Kie and Anna’s faces. “So, we’re all good. Thanks, Mrs. C!”
But Anna isn’t gonna let her daughter slide so easily. “Kiara,” she says, “You weren’t in your room this morning.”
“I went for a bike ride,” Kie replies coldly. “I needed to think.”
“For three hours?” Anna asks, crossing her arms over her chest.
Kie shrugs. “I needed to think a lot.” Anna looks like she wants a little more information out of her daughter, but she looks at Pope, clearly reluctant to start a fight with him around. He feels caught, standing on the porch between mother and daughter, like he’s in a room with a half-constructed bomb. Kie’s hands fidget with the handlebars. “C’mon, Pope,” she says.
“No way,” Anna interjects. Kie opens her mouth like she wants to argue, but her mother’s words cut her off. “You two can hang out on the porch for a while, but when you’re done,” and here, she looks at Kiara like she might actually commit murder if her daughter doesn’t listen to her, “Come inside. We have a lot to talk about.”
Kie heaves a heavy breath. “Fine,” she says. Satisfied, Anna turns and goes inside. Pope drops off the porch and walks with Kie as she walks the bike over to the garage.
“Hey,” he says, his heart in his throat. This is a complete turnaround from the emptiness of earlier, every inch of him hyper aware of her body language, the changes in her expression and her attitude towards him. His entire life feels like a shipwreck, dashed against the rocks after careful years of building, after months of planning the perfect voyage. “Bike ride?” he asks, because he always knows when she’s lying.
She props her bike up against the side of the garage. “I was with JJ,” she blows out on a sigh. She doesn’t look at him as they walk around to the back porch. “At the Chateau.” Pulling her hair out of it’s ponytail, she splits it over her shoulders, fidgeting nervously with the ends. “I didn’t want him to be alone.”
He’s about to say that he was alone, that maybe he wanted to have his friends around him, too, but then he remembers his father catching him in the bathroom, waking up in his own bed, water and a note on the bedside table. JJ wouldn’t have gotten any of that. He can’t even go home, not after Luke Maybank finds out what happened to his precious Phantom . With John B -- gone -- JJ doesn’t have anyone left. Except for them. And Pope was too wrapped up in his own grief and bullshit to think about something like that. He takes a second to be grateful for Kiara.
They reach the steps to the Carrera’s back porch, and she sits down on the second-to-last one. “I have something to tell you,” she says, and she still won’t look at him. Half of him wonders what she’s upset about while the other hopes she can’t hear his heartbeat, it’s pounding so loud in his own ears.
Slowly, he sinks down next to her, the morning sun radiant across her skin, amplified by the reflection off the channel. He takes a deep breath. “I have something to tell you, too.” Her eyebrows draw together. He licks his lips. She pulls her knees up to her chest. He stares at his feet. They’re afraid of each other, and the awkward tension in the air makes him hate every wrong thing he said, every lie he told her, even though he believed them when he said it. She doesn’t say anything else, and he takes that as his cue to go first. He looks up, before he says anything, taking in her kind brown eyes, the soft lines of her kind, intelligent face. He wants one last picture of her before he changes everything. “I don’t love you,” he says.
Her face contorts in an expression of surprise and offense, and he rapidly backpedals. “I mean, I do.” he says. “Of course I do, but like, like a sister.”
“A sister,” she says incredulously, confusion rising in her eyes.
“Not -- Oh, fuck, that’s not --” He drops his head in his hands, his blood rushing so loudly in his ears he can’t hear himself think. “This is not going well.”
“No shit,” she says, but there’s a little bit of relief in her voice. This bumbling, tripping-over-his-words Pope makes a lot more sense than the one that lost his shit and nearly killed Rafe Cameron the previous day. (And God, was that only yesterday?) He digs the heels of his palms into his eyes, and she notices his breath start to quicken. “Pope?” she asks, leaning forward and putting a hand on his shoulder.
“Kie, I’m gay.” It falls out of his mouth like a boulder, hitting the ground and shaking the earth with its weight. It’s the first time he’s said it out loud, and it’s terrifying, to have it so concrete in front of him, no longer nebulous and trapped in his head. He can’t take it back, can’t lie about it anymore, to her or himself or anyone else. He has to live with that truth, now, no matter how he feels about it. Part of that, while intimidating, makes him feel just a little bit more free.
“Oh,” she says, and he’s too panicked to discern anything in her tone. “Okay.” He doesn’t want to look at her, doesn’t want to see the horror or anger or whatever else must be settling there.
He rushes to explain himself, like he didn’t hear. “I’m sorry that I thought I was in love with you,” he says, even as she feels a thousand worries slip from her shoulders like coming up from diving under a wave. “I just, I was jealous, and I thought that it was John B I was jealous of, but it wasn’t, it was you, and then he--” Pope blows by his name before he chokes on it, realizing what he’s said aloud, how dangerous and loaded a once-familiar thing has become. “It wasn’t him I was jealous of,” he repeats, lacing his fingers over the back of his head, dropping it to his chest. “It wasn’t him.” He squeezes his eyes shut, swallowing down the tears fighting their way up his throat.
Kie hesitates in reaching for him, but the moment her fingertips brush his shoulder, she falls against her best friend, wrapping her arms around him as best she can. “Oh, Pope,” she whispers, as tears well in her own eyes. “Oh Pope, I’m so sorry.” He falls into her embrace, all his anger and uncertainty dissipating like fog at dawn. They both cry for a while, her silently, him shaking. She does her best to comfort him, but his grief has taken on a different tone she can no longer imagine.
When his breath finally slows, he sits up out of her arms, wiping under his eyes. “You aren’t mad?” He asks, in true Pope fashion.
“Why would I be mad?” she asks, disbelief echoing in her words.
“Well, I was…” he sniffs, watching his hands fold over each other. “I was kind of a jerk about it.” He feels bad, about the way everything went down. He was drowning, in disappointment and confusion and a million other things he still doesn’t have words for that he wishes he could explain. He was an asshole to her when he should have listened and
She knocks their shoulders together with half a sly smile. “Yeah, you kind of were.” It feels good to be joking with him like this again, after the last couple of days of chaos and anger and disappointment after disappointment. They’re best friends for a reason, her boys and her.
“And then --” he swallows, remembering the moments at the Dump after John B disappeared into the marsh, moments he still doesn’t understand. “Y-you kissed me, and --”
The smile falls off her face. “I shouldn’t have done that,” she says. She shifts her weight between her feet, her knees moving back and forth as they sit side by side on the porch steps, picking at her nails. “That wasn’t --” she looks at him, and he looks back. “I shouldn’t have done that.” She stretches her legs out in front of her, knocking her sneakers together, her hands dropping to her lap. “I have my own shit to figure out, Pope,” she says. “I shouldn’t have dragged you into it.”
Pope leans over, “You wanna talk about it?” he asks pointedly. He knows she likes to talk things through, make sense of them by pushing everything out into the atmosphere so she can see it all, pick out the pieces that make sense. He also doesn’t want to talk about him, anymore.
“No,” she says abruptly. He leans back into his own space, holding his hands up a little, and she bites her lip, like she does when she’s thinking too hard about what to say next. “I’m sorry,” she admits. “I just --” she knocks her feet together again before pulling them back up to the last step, her chin falling onto her knees. “I gotta think about it some more, I guess.” She looks at him, screwing up her face in that way that makes everyone agree that she’s adorable. “I’ve got some more I’ve gotta work out.”
“You know you can still talk to me, right?” he reassures her. He used to be the best listener, before he went and fucked everything up. Kie would talk to him about things John B and JJ would never understand, usually about parents or family pressure, things she felt guilty discussing with either one of their practically-orphaned friends. Pope understood, and it was easy to let Kie just let everything out, answering her own questions, defining problems and putting together solutions in the same breath. It’s part of the reason he assumed they would end up together, before -- well. Before. She trusted him, and he fucked that up, and now he can only hope that he can earn it back.
“I know,” she says, folding her arms on top of her knees and looking back out across the channel. “It’s not because of --” she stops, unsure of how to define it.
“Yeah,” he answers. He doesn’t want to talk about it either.
“It’s just --” she goes quiet for a second, picking through words like the wrong ones are rotten, and he watches her, the slight breeze off the water picking up strands of her hair. Her shoulder drops as she moves her head, and a few curls shift enough that he can see dark red marks tracking up the side of her neck. Hickies? “I don’t think I have words for it yet,” she says, finishing her sentence. JJ , he thinks, her confession about her absence this morning circling back through his mind. The word is JJ .
Pope isn’t blind. He sees the way JJ looks at her. He always has. It never unsettled him like the shared glances between Kie and John B, and now he knows why. It’s a little relieving, to not have to manufacture false jealousy in the pit of his stomach, to have to lie to himself in order to make his constructed, false worldview make sense. JJ and Kie -- they’re going to be something else to handle, with the inherent chaos of how they both handle their emotions and the forced bravado they both put on, but he supposes they were… inevitable, in a way. Kiara was misinterpreting her own feelings, just like he was, forcing herself to believe she loved someone who made more sense, someone that was easier to accept than confronting the truth. John B was his truth -- JJ is hers. He’s grateful, in a way, that they’ll have each other, through this -- once she gains the same clarity he’s come to.
“It’s okay,” he says, as everything slides into place. He’s not gonna rush this, not gonna make her take steps she’s not ready for. “You don’t have to talk about it if you’re not ready.” She smiles at him -- a weak thing, but genuine.
“Thanks, Pope,” she says.
He shrugs. “What are best friends for?” She drops her head against his shoulder, and for the first time since Shoupe confirmed their worst fears, he feels like things might, someday, be okay again.
They stay like that for a while, and then she asks him if he wants to talk more about it, and Pope recounts the moment of clarity in the bathroom, his thought process on his walk across the island. Kie listens, because he’s still her best friend, and it’s one of his favorite things about her, the way she makes it so easy to let everything out, the way she makes him feel seen. She doesn’t say much, but she doesn’t have to, because everything is still so fresh and bleeding that he doesn’t know what he wants to hear, yet. She reassures him she still loves him, that she’ll stick with him no matter what, just like she’s always promised to do, and that seems to do the trick.
Eventually, Mrs. Carrera comes out and offers to drive Pope home, a very pointed instruction to the both of them. She goes to get the car, leaving the two of them to say goodbye on the porch. Kie stands with her arms crossed over her stomach, like she’s holding herself together. “My parents are probably gonna have me on lockdown for a while,” she says, biting on the corner of her lip.
“Mine too,” he answers, with some inkling of what she’s about to ask him.
“Do you think you could --” she starts, and she’s staring somewhere around his collarbones, because JJ means more to her now, and makes this request, somehow, different. “I mean, with service down, it’s gonna be hard to keep in touch and I just --” She sighs, frustrated with herself, that she can’t get the words out. “When his dad figures out what happened --”
Pope interrupts her this time, reaches a gentle hand out for her arm. “I’ll keep an eye on him,” he promises. “I’ll talk to my parents…” he says, automatically, his usual main resource for help or assistance, and pauses, remembering the note he left on with his father, how things might go without the overhang of a recent disaster. His parents. They’ll be out all day, at least, won’t know about his sojourn to Figure Eight. But they’ll be back, and he has a lot to face.
“Will you just make sure he’s safe?” she asks, small and scared, and, in true Kiara fashion, ashamed to be asking for help.
“Yeah,” he answers. He wraps her in a tight hug, grateful to have his friend back, to be centering somewhere at least slightly left of normal, to be spiralling down from the insane high of failure and the chaos of being half a fugitive. “Yeah, of course.”
Mrs. Carrera drives him home, and even though she tries to ask him how he’s holding up, he answers monosyllabically, avoiding small talk by staring out the window and doing his best to stave off the encroaching panic as he anticipates the upcoming conversation with his father. Anna watches him carefully, and he can feel her eyes on him. It makes him uneasy.
Watching Figure Eight slowly melt into subdivisions and condominiums and then, as houses get smaller and the weeds get wilder, into the Cut. In a matter of minutes, fantastic wealth descends into abject struggle and poverty, a jarring display of privilege and elitism that Pope and the others are no longer shocked by. They grew up in it, cut down over and over again by a system that simply wasn’t built for them, grew up before their time because the kooks never will, abdicating responsibility and ignoring the fallout. Pope’s thoughts wander to Topper’s wakesetter, bile rising in his throat. His impulsive mistake ruined JJ’s life at sixteen, and the Thorntons, well. They’ll just buy another boat.
When they reach the Heywards’, Anna cuts the engine, and Pope doesn’t move, staring at his family’s little house, shabby but well-kept, his mother’s vegetable garden in full swing, bursting with a physical manifestation of love and care in an explosion of green leaves and colorful fruits and vegetables. He thinks about the Carrera’s neatly kept lawn, the decorative plants placed carefully on their wraparound porch, the contrast between the two images. Chaos and love, wealth and precision.
“I love your mother’s garden,” Anna says, almost like she doesn’t mean to. “I wish she’d tell me her secret.”
You can’t have it , Pope thinks, selfishly. He wants this one thing, for his mother, for his family. Instead, he answers; “I wouldn’t know.” This, he realizes, is unfortunately true. When was the last time he helped his mother with her garden? Asked her what she wanted to do on a Saturday? He helps with the store, of course, but in that, he doesn’t have a choice. He’s spent so much time chasing John B, first his promise of adventure, and then his approval, and then, desperate to help him in his hour of need. When was the last time he helped with the yard work? Helped make dinner? Stayed in on a Friday night?
His parents love him violently, work hard to give him opportunities they never had. His father breaks his back, works the store, the delivery service, any hard labor job he can get, used to being a tool, something to be taken advantage of, a means to an end. He does it so Pope can go to school, have a laptop to do homework and apply for colleges on, have a phone to text his friends and stay in contact with his parents. His throat thickens with the realization that his father was right -- he has been ungrateful. He’s been disrespectful, and rude, and if it was him, he wouldn’t even let himself back into the house, much less comfort him, leave him breakfast and reassuring notes.
Anna takes the emotion in his eyes for something else, and she puts a hand on his shoulder that feels so distinctly different from Kiara’s that it’s fundamentally wrong, and he freezes under her touch. “I know this is hard,” she says, in a tone that tries for concerned mom and lands somewhere closer to patronizing school counselor. “But you’ll get through it. You have each other, and that’s the most important part.”
“Thanks,” he says coldly, reaching for the door handle before climbing quickly out of the car. When his feet hit the packed-dirt drive, he stops, feeling like an asshole. “And thank you. For the ride.” He goes to shut the door, but she interrupts him.
“Pope,” she says, and he looks up at her, making eye contact for the first time since he got in the car. “If you -- or your family -- needs anything…” She bites her lip the same way Kie does. “Just, don’t hesitate to ask.” Pope usually rankles under the suggestion of charity, pride bred into him alongside a stubborn willfulness that rivals even his father’s, but she knows life in the Cut, has faced the same things he and his family deal with every day. It’s an odd juxtaposition, her inherent compassion and her dislike of her daughter’s friends. It’s what, at the end of the day, separates her eternally from Kie.
“Yeah,” he answers. “Of course. Thanks, Ms. Anna.”
When he reaches the door, he hears tires twist in the dirt, and Anna Carrera drives away, back to her house, her daughter, her life on Figure Eight. Pope lets himself in, showers off the sweat from his trek to Kie’s, and sets about cleaning the house, both as a distraction and a desperate appeal for his parents’ forgiveness. The whole afternoon, he rehearses a million different versions of the same speech, apologies and admittances, going back and forth about copping to the sinking of Topper’s boat, afraid of his father’s wrath and the legal consequences, but still guilty and anxious to the point of nausea over it, desperate to do the right thing.
Pope was raised with a strong sense of right and wrong, a deep and little-discussed Catholic faith, and a strong sense of familial pride. What Heywards are and aren’t, what they do and don’t do -- it was all drilled into him from a young age. Heywards pay their debts. Heywards don’t complain, don’t argue, don’t talk back. Heywards work hard. Heywards work honest.
Heywards aren’t gay.
It was never said, but Pope knows his dad. He knows what counts as acceptable behavior, the future his father imagines for him. A college degree, a Good Job, a house, a wife, kids -- he knows what’s expected. He tries to wrestle with the disappointment that he’ll never own up to that image as he scrubs the stove, tears welling up as he works at a particularly stubborn grease stain. He’s already disappointed them so much, just in the past few days. What will they say? What will they think of him?
He knows he’s lucky, as a kid in the Cut with both parents still around, still willing to work, still willing to love him. There are too many kids like John B and JJ, left behind, ignored and neglected, the victims of vicious cycles and cruel tragedies. Pope still has a whole family, as small and broken as it may be. He should start acting like it.
He’s just finished dusting the living room when he hears tires in the driveway, the rattling engine of his father’s old pickup, and he freezes like a prey animal caught in an open plain. They’re home. His mother makes quiet comments on the improved state of the house as they toss keys in bowls and remove shoes, speaking calmly to each other, the soft noises of domesticity and routine. Routine he is about to monumentally disrupt, more than he ever has.
Pope has a speech planned. He has things he wants to say, sentences he needs them to hear in the same way he has them planned. Everything needs to follow the course he’s laid out, or it could be open to misinterpretation. He’s prepared. That’s what he does -- he plans, he structures, he researches and prepares. All of that disintegrates the moment his father walks into the living room.
“Pope,” he says. “You cleaned.”
“Dad, I’m sorry,” Pope says, and the words choke him, tears welling and spilling in the same instant, like a faucet turning on after winter. He tells him everything, about Topper’s wakesetter and the failed treasure hunt and the impossible hope that drew him from his scholarship interview, the desperation and the certainty that he was following, determined to be the final piece of the puzzle, the thing that saved his friends. He begs for forgiveness, crying and broken, looking for himself in his fathers eyes. Heyward doesn’t say anything for a long time, soaking in the information. His wife is struck dumb, at Pope’s heart breaks with the horror in his mother’s eyes, at his admittances of all he’s done.
“Please,” Pope begs. “Say something.”
The silence that hangs in the living room feels like a gun against his temple, his father’s finger on the trigger. “Well son,” Heyward says, “What are you gonna do about it?”
“What --” Pope’s brain stops, too overwhelmed to process this reaction from his father. There is grief and anger, guilt and fear, and a thousand other things he cannot name. He is out of words, out of ideas and out of power. He wants someone to tell him what to do, because cannot possibly summon the energy to determine a path himself.
“You sunk that boy’s boat?” Pope nods, dumbfounded, answering on instinct. Heyward looks tired. “You let your friend take the fall?”
“I --” It’s hard, to hear it in his father’s voice, to hear the disappointment there, to feel it, real, metallic, and cutting in the air. “Yeah.”
Heyward shrugs, like it’s simple. “What are you gonna do about it?” Maybe it is. Pope got himself into this mess, and now he needs to get himself out.
“I don’t --” he starts, with nowhere to go.
“You gonna do the right thing?” His father asks, his tone implying that there is one answer.
Pope straightens up, closes his mouth, swallows down all the tears, all the uncertainty and vulnerability. He has asked for guidance, and his father is providing it. There is no more room for weakness here. “Yes, sir.”
Heyward nods, and turns to Yvonne, who has tears in her eyes. “He’ll be fine, sweetheart,” He says to his wife. “We’ve got a good boy here. He’ll be fine.” He wraps his arms around her, folding her into his chest in a familiar, nostalgic gesture. Pope feels awkward, watching his parents comfort each other, but he knows that his feelings are not the most important in the room. His chest hurts knowing he’s the one who caused their pain.
But this conversation still isn’t over. “Dad, um,” he says, and Heyward looks at him with exhaustion in his wizened eyes. “there’s one more thing.”
Heyward turns toward him again, leaving one arm around his wife. “Well I don’t know if you can shock me anymore today, Pope,” he says, “so go ahead.”
The words dam up behind his lips, and his hands flex at his sides, clenching into fists and spreading out again, and there’s no way out of this, not anymore. It was easier with Kie, for some reason. “Dad, I’m gay.” It hangs there, bigger and somehow more terrifying than anything he’s said since his parents came home. The air in the living room doesn’t move, stale and muggy in the North Carolina evening, without the hum of the fridge or the air conditioner for reprieve.
Heyward blinks. Once, twice. Yvonne shakes on a silent sob, a noise that cracks Pope’s ribs open. “Okay,” his father replies.
It is somehow relieving and disappointing all at once. Pope doesn’t lie to his parents, at least, as much as he can help it. “Is that all?” he asks, because he expected -- something more? Something beyond indifference. Maybe rage, maybe affirmation. Maybe some indicator that this was just as big of a deal as he made it out to be.
“What else do you want me to say?” Heyward asks, knowing this is the most he and his son have talked about anything in years. The last mention at vulnerability came before the ill-fated scholarship interview, less than a minute of conversation before Heyward left his son to take a job. Sometimes he kicks himself for that, wondering about what might have happened if he’d waited, been there when his son made one of the most impulsive decisions of his young life. Could he have caught him coming out the door? Talked him down? What would today be, if Heyward had been there?
Pope looks at his father through a haze of tears, his breath somewhere other than his chest, uncontrollable and foreign. “You don’t hate me?”
Heyward shrugs. “You’re still my son, ain’t you?” Pope nods, sniffling and backhanding tears off of his face. “Well then, I guess I still love you.” Pope doesn’t remember the last time his father said that to him. “Pope,” Heyward sighs, heaving himself off the couch. “You’ve done a lot these past few weeks I don’t understand. I’m not gonna pretend I’m not upset with you.” Pope looks at his father’s feet, weary and sore on the threadbare carpet. “But you bein gay? That ain’t why.”
And that, that breaks the tenuous control he has over his emotions, and he sobs, loud and hard and echoing in the small living room. “I thought maybe -- maybe you might --” Pope tries, his arms at his sides, fists clenched, chest shaking. Heyward steps forward, wrapping his arms around his son, because he may not know what Pope is going to do, what he’s going to do as a father, as a man. Even though neither of them know how they’re going to get through this, how they’re going to deal with the police department, the Thorntons, John B’s death, and the rest -- they know this, they know the faith they have in each other, the love and respect that lives there, even after everything.
Pope’s father pulls back from the embrace, places his hands on his son’s shoulders and levels him with the same stare that Pope has known his whole life. “What are you?” he asks, the same way he’s asked a million times before. This is a routine, between father and son, in moments of desperation, a way of taking a step back up from the most crushing of lows, of taking back control, setting their shoulders and facing into the wind.
Pope knows the answer. “I’m a Heyward.”
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