Absurd, Mother had declared at first, but Eric had worked on her relentlessly, wearing her down. As a child, Eric had been every bit as formidable as their mother, and in the end, he’d won. At the time, it had seemed a monumental victory; with age came wisdom, however. The truth was, Mother was so busy running Harcourt and Sons that she didn’t care where her children were. Oh, occasionally she tried to do the “right” thing, as she called it-make them transfer to Choate-but in the end, she simply let them be.
Dean closed his eyes, then opened them quickly, startled by the sound of laughter.
But it was only an echo in his mind, an auditory memory. He hated what had brought him home at last, hated that it had taken a disease to bring him back to his brother. Even more, he hated the way he about Eric now; they’d grown so far apart. And all of it was Dean’s fault. He saw that, knew it, hated it, and couldn’t seem to change it.
It had happened on a seemingly ordinary Sunday. Dean had moved off of the island by then, gone to prep school; he’d been a senior, nursing a heart so broken that sometimes he’d forgotten to breathe. Eric had been at Princeton. They were still brothers then, separated only by miles, and they’d spoken on the phone every Sunday. One phone call had changed everything.
“I’ve fallen in love, … get ready a shock … ” name is Charlie and he …"
Dean had never been able to remember more than that. Somehow, in that weird, disorienting moment, his mind had shut down. He’d felt suddenly betrayed, as if the brother he’d known and loved was a stranger.
Dean had said all the right things to Eric. Even in his shocked confusion, he’d known what was expected of him, and he’d complied. But they’d both heard the lie beneath the words. Dean didn’t know how to be honest, what words he could mold into an acceptable truth. He’d felt-ridiculously-as if he’d lost his brother that day.
If they’d gotten together back then, talked it through, they might have been okay. But they’d been young men, both of them, poised at the start of their lives, each one faced in a different direction. It had been easy to drift apart. By the time Dean graduated from Stanford and went to work for the family business, too much time had passed to start again. Eric had moved to Seattle and begun teaching high-school English. He’d lived with Charlie for a long time; only a few years before, Dean had received a note from Eric about Charlie’s lost battle with AIDS.
Dean had sent flowers and a nice little card. He’d meant to pick up the phone, but every time he reached for it, he wondered what in the world he could say.
He turned away from the water and walked down the dock, then climbed the split-log stairs set into the sandy cliff. He was out of breath when he finally emerged on top of the bluff.
The sprawling Victorian house was exactly as he remembered it-salmony pink siding, steeply pitched roof, elegant white cutwork trim. Clematis vines curled around the porch rails and hung in frothy loops from along the eaves. The lawn was still as flat and green as a patch of Christmas felt. Roses bloomed riotously, perfectly trimmed and fertilized from year to year.
It was something his mother never forgot: home maintenance fees. Every house she owned was precisely cared for, but this one more than most. She knew, or imagined, which to her was the same as certainty–that Eric occasionally visited the summer house with that man. She didn’t want to hear any complaints from them about the property.
Dean headed toward the house, ducking beneath the outstretched branches of an old madrona tree. As he bent, a glint of silver caught his eye. He turned, realizing a moment too late what he’d seen.
The swing set, rusted now and forgotten. A whispery breeze tapped one of the red seats, made the chains jangle. The sight of it dragged out an unwelcome memory …
Ruby. She’d been right there, leaning against the slanted metal support pole, with her arms crossed.
It was the moment-the exact second-he’d realized his best friend was a girl.
He’d moved toward her.
What? she’d said, laughing. Am I drooling or something?
All at once, he’d realized that he loved her. He’d wanted to say the words to her, but it was the year his voice betrayed him. He’d been so afraid of sounding like a girl when he spoke, and so he’d kissed her.
It had been the first kiss for both of them, and to this day, when Dean kissed a woman, he longed for the smell of the sea.
He spun away from the swing set and strode purposefully toward the house. At the front door, he paused, gathering courage and molding it into a smile. Then he knocked on the door.
From inside came the pattering sound of footsteps.
The door burst open and Lottie was there. His old nanny flung open her pudgy arms. “Dean!”
He stepped over the threshold and walked into the arms that had held him in his youth. He breathed in her familiar scent-Ivory soap and lemons.
He drew back, smiling. “Hey, Lottie. It’s good to see you.”
She gave him “the look”-one thick gray eyebrow arched. “I’m surprised you could still find your way here.”
Though he hadn’t seen her in more than a decade, she had barely aged. Oh, her hair was grayer, but she still wore it drawn back into a cookie-size bun at the base of her skull. Her ruddy skin was still amazingly wrinkle-free, and her bright green eyes were those of a woman who’d enjoyed her life.
He realized suddenly how much he’d missed her. Lottie had come into their family as a cook for the summer and gradually had become their full-time nanny. She’d never had any children of her own, and Eric and Dean had become her surrogate sons. She’d raised them for the ten years they’d lived on Lopez.
“I wish I were here for an ordinary visit,” he said.
She blinked up at him. “It seems like only yesterday I was wiping chocolate off his little-boy face. I can’t believe it. Just can’t believe it.” She stepped back into the well-lit entryway, wringing her hands.
Dean followed her into the living room, where a fire crackled in the huge hearth. The furniture he remembered from childhood still cluttered the big space. Cream-colored sofas on carved wooden legs faced each other. A large, oval-shaped rosewood coffee table stood between them, a beautiful Lalique bowl on its gleaming surface.
The room was gorgeously decorated in a timeless style. Not a thing was trendy or cheaply made. Every item reflected his mother’s impeccable taste and boundless bank account.
The only thing missing from the room was life. No child had ever been allowed to sit on those perfect sofas, no drink had ever been spilled on that Aubusson carpet.
Dean glanced toward the stairway. “How is he?”
Lottie’s green eyes filled with sadness. “Not so good, I’m sorry to say. The trip up here was hard on him. The hospice nurse was here today. She says that the new medication–something called a pain cocktail–will help him feel better.”
That was something Dean hadn’t thought about, although he should have. “Jesus,” he said softly, running a hand through his hair. He’d thought he was ready. He’d been mentally preparing himself, and yet now that he was here, he saw what an idiot he’d been. You couldn’t prepare to watch your brother die. “Did Eric call our parents?”
“He did. They’re in Greece. Athens.”
“I know. Did he speak to Mother?”
Lottie glanced down at her hands; he braced himself. “Your mother’s assistant spoke to him. It seems your mother was shopping when he called.”
Dean’s voice was purposely soft. He was afraid that if he raised it, even a bit, he’d be yelling. “Did Eric tell her about the cancer?”
"Of course. He wanted to tell your mother himself, but … he decided he’d better just leave a message.
“And has she returned his call?”
Dean released his breath in a tired sigh.
Lottie moved toward him. “I remember how you boys used to be. You’d walk through fire for one another.”
“Yeah. I’m here for him now.”
“Go on up.” She smiled gently. “He’s a bit the worse for wear, but he’s still our boy.”
Dean nodded stiffly, resettled the garment bag over his shoulder, and headed upstairs. The oak steps creaked beneath his feet. His hand slid up the oak banister; polished to sleek perfection by the comings and goings of three generations.
At the top of the stairs, the landing forked into two separate hallways. On the right was his parents" old wing; his-and-hers bedrooms that hadn’t been occupied in more than fourteen years.
To the left were two doors, one closed, one partially open. The closed door led to Dean’s old room. He didn’t need to enter the room to picture it clearly: blue wool carpeting, maple bed with a plaid flannel bedspread, a dusty poster of Farrah Fawcett in her famous red bathing suit. He’d dreamed a million dreams in that room, imagined his unfolding life in a thousand ways … and none had presaged a moment like this.
Tired suddenly, he rounded the corner; passed his old bedroom, and came to Eric’s door.
There he paused and drew in a deep breath, as if more air in his lungs would somehow make things better.
Then he walked into his brother’s room.
The first thing he noticed was the hospital bed. It had replaced the bunk bed that once had hugged the wall. The new bed–big and metal-railed and tilted up like a lounging chair dominated the small room. Lottie had positioned it to look out the window.
Eric was asleep.
Dean seemed to see everything at once–the way Eric’s black hair had thinned to show patches of Skin … the yellowed pallor of his sunken cheeks … the smudged black circles beneath his eyes … the veiny thinness of the arm that lay atop the stark white sheets. His lips were pale and slack, a colorless imitation of the mouth that had once smiled almost continually. Only the palest shadow of his brother lay here …
Dean grabbed the bed rail for support; the metal rattled beneath his grasp.
Eric’s eyes slowly opened.
And there he was. The boy he’d known and loved. “Eric,” he said, wishing his voice weren’t so thick. He struggled to find a smile.
“Don’t bother; baby brother. Not for me.”
“Don’t bother what?”
“Pretending not to be shocked at the way I look.” Eric reached for the small pink plastic cup on his bedside tray. His long, thin fingers trembled as he guided the straw to his mouth. He sipped slowly, swallowed. When he looked up at Dean, his rheumy eyes were filled with a terrible, harrowing honesty. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Of course I came. You should have told me … before.”
“Like when I told you I was gay? Believe me, I learned a long time ago that my family didn’t handle bad news well.”
Dean fought to hold back tears, and then gave up,They were the kind of tears that hurt deep in your heart. He felt a stinging sense of shame.
Remorse, regret, boredom, anticipation, ambition … these were the emotions that had taken Dean through life. Those, he knew how to handle, how to manipulate and compensate for. But this new emotion … this feeling in the pit of his stomach that he’d been a bad person, that he’d hurt his brother deeply and known it and never bothered to make it right …
Eric smiled weakly. “You’re here now. That’s enough.”
“No. You’ve been sick for a long time … by yourself.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Dean wanted to smooth the thin strands of hair from Eric’s damp forehead, to offer a comforting touch, but when he reached out, his hands were trembling, and he drew back.