Warnings: het and gay sex, Sean/Grace and Sean/OMC. NC-17 please.

Set post-movie, this contains spoilers for all of "Ash Wednesday." For those who haven't seen the film, Elijah Wood plays Edward Burns' younger brother, Sean Sullivan. There's a good plot summary at the IMDB.

The movie is about fate and religion and betrayal and second chances. It isn't a great film, but it made me think and I liked the mood it set. However, I particularly thought Sean's character was short-changed. So this story came out of my attempt to fix the script's shortcomings, and answer a question the movie didn't raise: Why did Sean suddenly go home after three years in hiding?

Maundy Thursday
by Laura Mason

Night in Toronto. Grace is a sweet warmth beside me and Seanie sleeps peacefully under the window in the living room.

I dream of Francis as I remember him from my childhood, already a grown man, but so much younger than the last time I saw him. He's going out the door with Dad and I'm jealous. Dad tells me to shut up when I ask questions, but he trusts Fran to work alongside him.

It's a memory, not a dream, and when I wake I remember crying while Mom held me close, rocking me but never explaining any of it. Fran always said Dad favored me, but I never saw that. Dad never seemed proud of me when my report card came home; he'd only tell me to study harder. He didn't want me in the business with him. I didn't know why, but I felt I wasn't good enough. Not like Fran.

They fought when Fran showed me how to use a gun, saying I needed to know how to handle one, in case there was trouble at the bar.

That night in 1980, when I heard those guys casually discussing killing my brother, I believed it was divine intervention that had put me there and equipped me with the skill I needed to save Fran's life. I never thought twice. Until three bloody bodies were crumpled on the floor, and I was running to the church.

I close my eyes, tired of seeing that image. I mumble a prayer, an apology, a promise to do better, and wonder why I haven't been struck dead.

Hell's Kitchen was never this quiet at three in the morning. The silence keeps me awake for a long time, listening to Grace's soft snuffling and Seanie's congested snores. I remember Father Mahoney's voice. He taught me my catechism, but sounded much more authoritative with the commandments he drilled in my head to keep me alive while in hiding.

"Stay out of construction work. Too many Irish in that, no matter what city you're in. No dock work either. Stay inland. Everyone knew your father."

Maybe it would have been better if they'd let Moran kill me.

I wrote Father Mahoney when we found an apartment. The money I'd saved for the last three years bought us some secondhand furniture and clothes for Seanie and Grace. But even living in this ratty one bedroom apartment, I didn't have enough left for a community college class. I'm working again, janitorial work, and we're trying to save. I wrote the Father about all of it, and asked him to let Fran know we were okay.

When he wrote back and told us Fran was dead, that he'd been shot the same night we left town, Grace fell apart. I was the calm one, taking care of my son -- a stranger to me -- and letting her grieve. Fran's death seemed inevitable, after what he'd told me that night. As if I'd been the priest to hear his final confession.

Letters have gone back and forth since then, letting us know the police are searching for Moran, who's been missing since that night. Father Mahoney doesn't say anything against my brother, but I know he thinks Fran killed Moran and went back to his old ways. He's probably right, but wrong, too. He wrote that it seemed as if, three years later, fate finally caught up to Francis. What a crock of shit.

My brother was murdered, but not by fate or that fucker Moran. It was me. My colossal ignorance killed him.

I start to cry when I remember our stupid handshake because the Irish don't hug, even to say farewell. But I don't know if I'm crying for my brother, or because I did the same damn thing to Billy.

***

Grace is exhausted and doesn't wake up, thank God. I'm tired of lying to her.

We found Seanie a preschool so Grace could take a job in a boutique, easy work that keeps her mind off things and lets her make friends in the neighborhood. She gets an employee discount and brings home new outfits on payday, modeling them for me after Seanie falls asleep. When we make love, she usually keeps her eyes closed, but she always holds on tight.

I've never asked Grace if there was someone else, though I watch her dream and wonder if she's seeing another lover. But I can't ask her what I wouldn't answer.

Gracie doesn't ask me to share my dreams, either. She has nightmares of her own, perhaps from being in hiding with me. She understands the danger; she knew more about the neighborhood than I ever did. I wouldn't try to keep it from her, either, so I'm glad Fran was honest with her about his past and what our future will be.

I wish Fran had told her I was still alive, or sent her to me back in '80. I suppose if she'd disappeared, Moran would have known that chopped up corpse wasn't me. Grace never complains about what Fran did. It's painfully apparent that she was never coddled or protected from the realities of Hell's Kitchen in the way I always was.

Instead of preparing me for the world I lived in, my family tried to keep me innocent. Ignorant. Unequipped. I nearly got us all killed because of it: Grace, Seanie and Father Mahoney. And Fran paid the price for all of us.

Fran sat in that bar and he told me what he and Dad did together, naming all the people they'd killed. I was shocked, I was appalled to know that my father and brother are killers. But more than anything, I was angry.

If anyone had trusted me enough to tell me these things before, maybe I wouldn't have fucked up.

Fran was so angry that I'd gone out that night, and it didn't make any sense at the time. He talked about people wanting to kill him, and I thought he was exaggerating. Why would anyone kill Francis? They wanted me dead, because of the horrible murders I'd committed, but Fran was a big man in the neighborhood. No one would want him dead. I still couldn't believe those guys I shot were going to kill him, over a stupid thing like a gambling debt.

Twelve years is a big age difference. I suppose Fran couldn't help thinking of me as a child, even though I'm not one. We'd been apart three years, and Fran treated me as if I hadn't changed -- or aged since I was 15.

I'd spent three years on my own, totally alone. I'd abandoned my wife, left all my friends and family. I'd missed my own mother's funeral, hiding in a place that was alien in every way. I'd even fallen in love again.

For nearly a year I'd told myself I was alone, just waiting and saving until I could send for Grace. But it wasn't true, and I no longer missed her, my family, the neighborhood, or my old friends. I'd made a new life, and I loved it. I loved him.

But that last night, when Billy told me he loved me and finally took me, all my fears twisting into a wild and triumphant pleasure I'd never experienced before, it scared the shit out of me. What we did in the dark seemed so right, but in the morning I couldn't look at him. Or hug him, even though I knew it was goodbye.

I fled back to Hell's Kitchen. Showed up that afternoon without a call or a letter. Scared the shit out of Fran, and fucked up his life. I was trying to pretend nothing had changed. I hadn't changed into an ankle-grabbing fudge packer, all the gay-bashing terms that had rushed into my head that morning, so degrading. So unlike what I felt for Billy.

I grabbed onto the idea of wanting Grace and taking my old life back. Fran didn't question that, so I guess being seen as a stupid, immature child worked to my favor for once. Because if he'd asked why now, why it was suddenly so urgent to be with my wife after three years apart, I couldn't have answered him.

***

Of course I'd changed, even if Fran couldn't see it. So I was pissed off when he tried to treat me like a kid, and then I reacted just like the child he still saw, sneaking out and lying about it.

Was I supposed to know how dangerous it was? I didn't.

I knew our father was a bastard who'd smack my mother around if he'd had too much to drink. I knew he never went to confession and only attended Mass on Christmas. My father not only forgot birthdays and anniversaries, he often forgot to come home to my mother, who was dutifully serving dinner at seven as he'd ordered. He cheated on her; that was obvious to everyone -- even me.

But even knowing all that by the time I was 15, I never knew my father routinely murdered people for Whitey. How could I know that? Is that something anyone would guess about their father? He worked, that's all I knew, and he was a big man in the neighborhood. Fran worked with him and was a big man, too.

I'd changed, but they changed, too. Grace became a mother and raised our son by herself for three years. That changed her -- how could it not? And Fran had changed, too. I thought he'd simply lost his ambition, somehow become boring and dull. I didn't realize he was trying to save his soul until he talked to me in that bar.

Confession. Was it good for his soul? I couldn't absolve him, but I do finally understand him.

Grace and I light candles for him every week, and have masses said for his soul. Francis might make it to heaven before I do. The lies I told Billy blight my soul and seem much worse than the sins we committed together.

***

I dream of Billy kissing me. Holding me down, his hot mouth on my body as I writhe and cry out my incredible pleasure. I dream of Billy and my wife wakes me, hearing my gasps and sobs and believing I'm afraid. Gracie rubs my back to soothe me, even makes love with me. It takes away the panic as it adds to my guilt.

Grace watches me get up to take care of Seanie in the mornings, and she believes I'm upset because I've disturbed her sleep. She tries to appease my guilt about Fran's death, saying we don't really know if it had anything to do with my reappearance. I nod but don't say anything. She's wrong about that, but it's a convenient excuse for my behavior. It's horrible that I use my brother's death as an excuse, but I do it anyway.

That night Fran said I turned out to be just like him after all. He was talking about having to look over my shoulder, worried that my past would catch up with me. But I'm like Dad, too. I have blood on my hands and I'm a bastard. I lied to people who love me, and I'm still lying by omission. It's a sin I confess every week, but there's one thing I don't do. I can't lie to myself anymore. That's what got me here, that's what got my brother killed. I'm honest with myself now because I owe it to Fran.

Much of my guilt, and all my attempts to be a good father and husband, are because of what I did to Billy before I stopped lying to myself.

***

I wake when Seanie starts coughing again, a little disoriented. I'm almost grateful for his cold, since it pulls me out of the dream before I'm sobbing and waking Grace again.

I slip out of our bed and into the living room, where he's in a single bed under the window. He doesn't feel feverish, and there is still steam rising from the vaporizer Mrs. Astanze lent us. I pull on my jacket and sit beside him, rubbing his back and humming a little. I remember my mother singing to me when I was sick, so many years ago. Soon he's back asleep, without Grace being disturbed. I'm grateful for that; she needs her rest. The stress of this new life is exhausting her, and no matter how she denies it, I know she misses her friends and her mother.

When I climb back into our warm bed, she's awake, naked, spreading her legs to let me kneel between them. She kisses me, caresses me, smooths a condom on and I make love to my wife. Grace has beautiful brown eyes, luxurious dark hair, and olive skin. She smells like fruit and tastes soft and sweet. We're quiet because of Seanie, and maybe because both of us fear whose name we'd call.

When it's done, Grace falls back to sleep with a smile on her face. I kiss her breasts, knowing if I sleep I'll dream of stormy grey eyes, unruly dirty-blonde curls and sunkissed skin. Billy smells like spice and tastes hard and sweet. I can still feel the wiry strength in his arms as he pushed me down, ripped me apart, and remade me into his lover. His slave, until I ran away.

But before any of that happened, he was my friend.

Billy taught me how to survive on my own. Nothing in my sheltered city life had prepared me for living alone in Texas. Which sounds ridiculous. I knew how to take the subway and not get mugged and about fistfights in the bar on St. Patrick's day. I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in New York. I even knew how to fire a gun -- I'd killed three men, something I wasn't proud of, but I'd actually done it.

In Texas, I knew nothing.

When it came to ranching, I was useless. Mr. Barton only hired me out of pity, I think, and to make sure I had one good meal before I moved on. But that afternoon, Billy worked beside me, taking the time to teach me how to do everything. Everything. I was so green, so stupid.

When the end of the month came and we were given our checks, Mr. Barton smiled at me with pride. I was sunburned, but Billy had given me an old baseball cap. I was exhausted, but building muscles. Billy and the others took me out that weekend, and my entire check would have gone to standing them rounds of drinks if Billy hadn't insisted that first I buy some new jeans, some work boots, and a pair of gloves. At the bar that night, when I announced that I was broke, Billy told them he'd cleaned me out at poker and bought everyone a round.

We worked side by side for a year, ate our meals together, slept in the bunkhouse not five feet apart. I had a new brother, a new family, a place. I was too tired at night to think about Grace, or to miss anyone at home.

***

When I met Grace, it was love at first sight. She was dancing with some Spik and she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen. I didn't care that my father would be furious -- dating a Mexican! -- or that she obviously had a boyfriend. I just walked over and started talking to her. She left the other guy to dance with me, and we were together from that night. It was magic, Fate, terribly romantic.

Then we got married, and I learned about everyday love, which is different from romance. It's the comfort of waking up next to a warm body, and even though the body isn't wearing makeup or fancy clothes it's wonderful that it's the same body everyday, and you know what she looks like before she's brushed her hair. Different, but still good. And in many ways, I'm still learning about marriage now. Having a child, paying bills, being responsible for others again after three years on my own.

I didn't run that first time Billy kissed me. I was surprised. Stunned, really. But when he pulled away and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, I just stared. His lips were so red just then, and now I knew that they tasted of beer and peanuts from the hours we'd spent at McCrady's.

"What the fuck, Billy," I finally said, still staring at his mouth. Wanting him to do it again, and wanting to react like a normal guy and be angry. But I wasn't, and I couldn't.

Billy laughed and walked away, out of the alley. After a minute I followed him back to the truck. When I climbed in he smiled at me, the streetlight illuminating his face. And I knew it then, I recognized that lightness and joy surging in me. I'd only felt it once before.

It made no sense, but I was in love again. With Billy.

Until that moment, I didn't know I was falling in love with him. It was so different from what I'd had with Grace. I'd known him for months -- I didn't just see him across a room and know. We were friends, buddies, pals. We worked side by side and played hard on weekends. We talked constantly. I know more about Billy than I do about my wife, my brother, my own family. And he knows absolutely everything about me, even about the murders.

Now he even knows that I'm a coward.

***

Night in Toronto. Grace is beside me, sound asleep. But it's too damn quiet here.

We're going to move, find some place warmer. Noisier, too, so the voices in my head are drowned out at night.

"Come here and kiss me, Sean. Lots of tongue, I like it that way." Billy, the first night he fucked me. The only night.

"You're so beautiful, Sean. Open up, take me in. God, you feel good." There was pain, but the pleasure of it was more powerful. Hearing the passion in his voice, feeling his arms shake, I felt beloved.

We'd messed around plenty, blow jobs and hand jobs and kisses that were like a battle, triumph and surrender. But this, giving myself to him this way, was so much more. I'd been afraid for so many months, and Billy had promised to wait until I was ready. Now I knew the truth -- I would never be ready to love it this much.

"I love you, Sean Sullivan." But I didn't know who Sean Sullivan was anymore. It had all changed with Billy's cock up my ass, making me his.

I want to turn on the radio, stomp, scream -- anything to block his voice. But I don't. I owe Grace some peaceful sleep. And more.

She's taken a more demanding job, working a lot of hours. She caught me reading over the community college brochure that came in our mail, and told me she wants me to make something of myself. Oh, she loves me, even as a janitor-bum. But for Seanie's sake, she said, she'd like a better life.

I'm taking classes already. Working full-time, going to school. I should be sleeping, but that remains elusive no matter how long my days are. Too damn quiet in Toronto.

Grace smiles at me as I study. She's even thanked me for working so hard to improve myself. You'd think she would feel I owe her at least that much. I dragged her away from everyone and everything she loved, except Seanie. And me, I guess.

To me, it's a debt I'll work the rest of my life to repay. I think Fran would approve.

The debt I'm not repaying, my debt to Billy, is the one that keeps me awake at night.

 

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