Yet another No Books story. This one is intended as a direct sequel to the last one (i.e. “History Lesson”) and features the same James who wrote that essay, despite him not appearing in a speaking role here. Instead, this focuses on his immediate family: his wife Maria and their adopted son Eustace. This serves two purposes. The first is to set up James and this part of his family (there are more to his family, specifically Friday and Tom who are his adopted sister and brother-in-law respectively). The second is to close up the “backstory” chapters for the beginning of the book. Whereas the previous chapter was a broad overview of the Schism War and the general history of magic users in this setting (and generally optimistic), this chapter shows what’s changed in the twenty years since that was written and the personal (very negative) impact on the author of that piece.
It had been long night again. Every year, this night proved a long one. This morning, surveying the damage of the night’s efforts, seemed almost too calm after the prior evening.
With a soft sigh, Maria pushed herself out of the chair which had been the closest thing to a bed she had managed. She stood and stretched, sore in ways which defied definition. Gingerly, she stepped around the pile of empty bottle strewn across the floor of the living room and made for the couch.
Upon the couch, James snored lightly and frequently tossed in his sleep. Clearly, despite the momentous amounts of liquor he had consumed over the last twenty-four hours, he was still being haunted by his dreams. His memories.
Maria knelt down next to him and with practiced skill she checked him over. Pulse was stable. Breathing was steady. Sleep fitful but complete. He was out and likely wouldn’t regain consciousness for hours. All said, one of the cleaner anniversaries she had seen of that night in years. No need to call the doctor or anything.
With a soft smile she kissed James’s forehead, ignoring the smell of alcohol and sweat which permeated the air. Softly but sternly, she reached down and plucked the bottle of bourbon from his hands and placed it gently on the nearby coffee table. Quietly and carefully, Maria went about gathering the dozens of bottles which lay strewn about the room. Only two were broken. Another sign of a lighter night than she had seen in years.
Twenty minutes of cleaning later, Maria sat down at the kitchen table. A plastic garbage can full of empty liquor bottles sat on the floor next to her. Through the doorway, she could just make out James’s chest rising and falling. Only, only after the next day had dawned and he was sound asleep did she finally let herself relax. She was tired, so very tired. Perhaps she could sleep here… It wasn’t comfortable, but it could do…
Before she had a chance to nod off, Maria was jolted awake by the ringing of the telephone. Who coud that be? She glanced at the clock. There weren’t many who would call this number, let alone at this hour. Not today anyhow. Insistently, the phone rang again. Standing slowly and stiffly stretching as she walked over to the phone, Maria still wondered who would be bothering. Lifting the phone and pressing its power button, she held it up and softly muttered, “Hello?”
“Morning, Mom.” The voice was cool and calm, almost seeming detached. It was also unmistakably her adopted son’s.
“Buen dia, Eustace. How are you? How is Portland?” She pushed away her exhaustion and tried to put forward her normally warm and happy demeanor.
“I’m doing fine and Portland’s alright. Been selling some of my designs, enough to pay the bills at least.” Eustace had long ago left the Columbiana Valley to pursue a passion for fashion in New York. Eventually, he had graduated at the top of his class and opened a business to support himself and his girlfriend in Oregon. “But we both know that isn’t why I’m calling.” His voice was blunt, having the tone he used when he wanted results instead of platitudes. “How’re you? How’s dad?”
Maria’s eyes trailed over to the doorway where she could still see James still deep in slumber. “Oh, we are doing alright. Same as always, I would say…” She forced a smile, knowing that it would help her fake things better.
“Humph…” Eustace’s harumph made it clear that he wasn’t buying what she was selling and he followed it up with the same cold tone. “Bullshit.”
“Language, mijo…” Maria’s tone was gentle but admonishing. She had raised him better than to use such language.
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry. But we both know it is. That’s a load of bull…” He paused for a moment, looking for words he wanted to say next. Maria waited patiently, knowing her son well enough that to push him would only make him more flustered. Finally, he found the words and continued: ” He did it again, didn’t he. He spent all day and night drinking yesterday and you were left to take care of him and keep him from killing himself, weren’t you.”
Maria didn’t much care for his admonishing tone. “Eustace, you need to calm down.” Maria caught herself waving a finger at empty air, much as she had years ago when she and a teenaged Eustace had first had this conversation. “Tu papa has his faults, and we must respect and support him even when he is at his weakest, yes?”
“Maybe so mom, but he’s been doing this for years and years. It never gets any better. He drinks himself into a stupor almost every night anyways and then once a year he drinks himself into the hospital. It isn’t right.” He sounded so very angry. “It’s wrong for him to do that to himself. To do that to you…”
“Do not worry about it, mijo. He is sleeping soundly and last night was so much better than it has been…” She was about to say more, but Eustace interrupted her.
“Better? Bad is still better than awful. Doesn’t make it good.” He harumphed again. “I remember those nights. He’s been doing this for years. Drinks his alcoholic ass into a stupor, tries to hurt himself, and leaves you to make sure he doesn’t pull it off. I even remember, when I was younger there were times I wished he would just do it already…”
“Eustace!” Maria shouted increduously at what her son had just said. Only after a moment did she realize how loud she had been. Glancing to the living room, she saw that James remained sleeping undisturbed. She lowered her tone again before continuing, “That is a horrible thing to say and I know you don’t mean it.”
She heard Eustace sigh. “Yeah, I know I don’t. Didn’t then either. I was angry, just like I am now. Dad… He just… I dunno. He’s just such a mess and it always gets worse this time of year.”
Maria nodded. “Si. It does. There is a reason for that.”
“Yeah. I know… It’s because of Leng or whatever. That school that was destroyed in the War.” He sighed. “My point is that it doesn’t matter. That was nearly twenty years ago. Hell. I was like ten years old when it happened. I’m damned near thirty now. Its about time he got over it, or at least asked for some help or something…”
“Eustace.” Maria paused, waiting until she knew he was listening. Really listening. “Eustace, tu papa was a good man.” She paused. “He is a good man. That day was a terrible thing. He has always had a gentle soul. It is part of what I love of him.” She smiled and watched James sleep for a moment before continuing. “He wanted the world to be better. He wanted it to be as good as he saw it could someday be. He believed, mijo. Dios mio, did he believe that we would see the Schism War’s end and the foundations of a better world placed down…”
Maria sighed. “Then the Seventh War came. Even as the battles began across the world, tu papa did not give up hope. He traveled all over, talking of peace and the future tat could come with it. He preached to all who would listen and knew that God and righteousness were on his side. Then, he visited the Academy in Leng on the day of the attack. There was so much pain and suffering and death…” She trailed off, tears streaming down her cheek. “Of the thousands there, less than one hundred survived. Children, teachers, and even his friends were lost. It tore out his heart.” She wiped the tears from her eyes. “He only drinks to forget the pain, to hide the scar where his innocence used to be…”
Eustace didn’t say anything for a time. After Maria trailed off, they simply sat in silence for a time. Finally, he spoke up again. “I know all that mom. I was there when you brought him home. I saw the cuts and bruises. I remember being so happy he survived, but I also remember that look in his eyes. I knew, even then, that something had changed in him. He wasn’t the man from my childhood anymore.” He sighed and said nothing for another moment. “You know. I spent most of the last fifteen years wondering why you stay with him? He doesn’t treat you well, he treats himself worse, and he drove me away… I figured it out a while back, but hearing you say all that just confirms it…” He trailed off, clearly wondering if he wanted to continue.
“Eustace…” Maria started before he interrupted her again.
“…You still believe he’s in there, don’t you?”
“Que?” She hadn’t expected that.
“You still think he’s in there. Beneath the drinking and the self-loathing, you still think the man he used to be is still in there somewhere. Don’t you?”
“Si. I do.”
There was long time when neither of them said anything. They just sat in silence on the phone. Maria watched James sleeping and a sad smile traced across her face. Finally, Eustace broke the silence.
“You’ve always been frustratingly optimistic, you know that mom?” There was a lot of bitter amusement in his voice.
“I have faith,” Maria said matter-of-factly. “Tu papa sometimes says, when he is too far into his liquor to realize he says it, that God has given up on him. I know that He has not. He would not have survived if there was no future in God’s plan. Someday, tu papa will remember himself and will continue His work. Until then, we must be patient…”
Eustace scoffed. Maria knew that her son had strayed from the church and claimed to reject religion, but she knew that part of him remembered and at least respected her faith even as he mocked it. “Well, someone has to think he’ll get better. None of the rest of us do. Especially not him…” Eustace sighed again before adding, “Just make sure that you don’t forget to take care of yourself too? Y’know…? He’s not getting better anytime soon, and if I had to pick I’d rather you be alright than the guy who won’t even take care of himself?”
“I cannot promise that, mijo…” Maria smiled. “But I will try.”
“Well. I’m guessing you haven’t slept much in a while, since you never did on this day.” His voice sounded both admonishing and amused. “So I should probably let you go do that… I love you, mom. Talk to you later.”
“I love you too, mijo. Have a good day and we will talk more later.” She smiled. “Adios.”
Maria hung up the phone with a sad smile. He was a good young man, but Eustace was often too headstrong to notice anything beyond the obvious. Though she’d never tell him so, he reminded her of James in that way. Even before the tragedy of Leng, James had been stubborn and bull-headed. It was part of what she loved about him, even now when he had turned that stubbornness upon himself. She knew he’d recover eventually, for now it was simiply a matter of when…
Maria was truly exhausted though, Eustace had been right about that fact. She was tired before the phone call and now she was almost dead on her feet. It was time for bed, despite the mid-morning hour. Before turning in, she walked over to check on James. His dreams seemed to have left him finally and he was sleeping soundly. She brushed some of thinning and sweat soaked hair from his face before leaning down and kissing him on the forehead again. “Buenos noche, James. Dulces sueños.”