Apart from funerals Nicholas hadn’t been inside a church in years, yet he made the sign of the cross whenever he passed St Joseph’s on his way home and thought of his daughter. He’d never considered the world such a scary place until Kate was born. To leave her every night to drive the taxi was terrible. When he first went back to work, it had been a physical pain to shut the front door behind him. He’d never managed a full eight hours without checking on her. Within a few hours working, he’d invariably go back to Summer Street and the house he’d known all his life. He’d lived there with his mother and brother, and now with his family, if that’s what you’d call it.
In the depth of night, he’d close the front door gently. He never liked making much noise when he came back to check on Kate. He liked to step inside and listen to the quiet house. He thought the silence had changed since his daughter’s birth to a softer quiet that had the ability to envelope him. Sometimes, he thought he could hear Kathleen, but her presence would make him stiffen, reluctant to step into the house in case he woke her. It would take several seconds before he walked to the bedroom in the back to look in on his daughter with the streams of hall light barely reaching her. He’d feel the house tick around him, before retreating to his taxi and driving to Davis Square in time to meet the customers from the Burren where Irish music drifted out in strands, or the sports bar across the road. On the quiet nights he’d make the trek to Logan Airport, hoping to get a longer fare, but he was always back by 7am to wake Kate.
Early February, the streetlights were still on and people were starting to wake. He parked in front of his house and from across the street, he heard the Jacobs’ dog yapping. Nicholas could time his day around Mr. Jacob’s. 7.05 on the dot the insurance broker would leave for work. His wife stood at the door in her dressing gown to wave goodbye to her husband, and Nicholas preferred to be in the house at that stage. The woman still looked at him as she did at the trial, and it didn’t matter that it was sixteen years ago. Most of the time, Nicholas wished he didn’t have neighbors, or at least neighbors who had known him since he was a boy. When his mother died, he thought he’d sell the house. He’d called the real estate agent, but she only started wandering through the rooms when he decided he couldn’t go through with the sale.
For the last two mornings, he’d finished work early so he had time to go to the house next door. The house was painted blue and had potted plants on the porch. Skirting around the sides were flowers in their beds. He’d watered the plants yesterday and would do so again later. Once his daughter was at school, he’d open the blinds and let some air into the house. Now, he only had time to stroll to the back door where he’d found his elderly neighbor Tilly two days ago. She’d been on her way to feed the birds when she’d slipped on some ice. Tilly had been unconscious when he’d found her, and days later it was still shocking to think of her lying in the cold, and what might have happened if he hadn’t noticed the blinds weren’t up. She was an early bird, a creature of habit; she liked to say, so the change had concerned him. He’d gone to the front door and rung the bell before running around to the back to find her by the door with her leg badly twisted. He’d covered her up and called the ambulance and went to the hospital to learn she’d suffered a broken hip. Kathleen was upset that he hadn’t let her know where he was. Kate didn’t make it to school that morning.
The back door showed a reflection of his thin face and sandy hair reaching for his shoulders. Apart from the eyes which were more watchful and the laughter lines around his mouth that were due to Kate, he hadn’t changed much since he was a lanky teenager running to this very door.
Inside, he found the bird seed and brought some to the birdfeeder. The air burned his cheeks and he could feel his breath move upwards. He liked this few minutes of the day when he could think of nothing but the food and the birds that might appear. During the night, there were the passengers and the traffic and concern for his daughter, and once he went into his house, there would be Kathleen and the business of getting Kate for school. In the back garden of his neighbor’s house, there was stillness and silence and his breathing and nothing else.
It had been late in the afternoon by the time he’d phoned Tilly’s daughter to let her know about the fall. Years had gone by since he’d heard her voice, and still his heart stopped when she said hello. Ina was due to arrive any day now and the thought unsettled Nicholas. Each morning, coming home he found himself looking for signs of arrival, and at nighttime too, he had to admit that he looked for lights in the house.
At home, he heard Kate’s voice the moment he stepped inside, but he didn’t go straight to her room. In the bathroom, he let Kathleen’s pills fall into his hand, and grabbed some water. Kathleen was curled up in bed. There was a gap in the curtains letting in grey light, and he was aware of the blue house beside them and how he used to stand at that window waiting for the girl who used to live there. Since the phone call, the house loomed large.
He said Kathleen’s name and she murmured something but didn’t move until he sat beside her and put a hand on her side. “Kathleen,” he said again, and she stretched and sat up. She hardly opened her eyes before taking the pills and then the water.
“You have an appointment at 10.30,” he said, and immediately wished he hadn’t reminded her when he saw the effect. Kate’s voice was a soft murmur from the back of the house, a car alarm started somewhere, and he said, “You can’t miss another one.”
She said, “Okay I know.”
He’d seen her pause and flash of fear and knew it was not okay, but he said nothing.
She said, “Go on, get Kate.”
He glanced at the pills in her hand.
She said, “I’m not a child.”
He could have said that if she wasn’t a child, she could get the pills herself. He could have said they all knew what happened when the responsibility was left to her. The first time she’d stopped taking her meds he’d known her six months. It was hard to think of the beginning when they’d spent their time in bed or taking long walks. He’d loved everything about her then. The gray dancing eyes and pale skin, the way she walked with her arms swinging, the disorder of her apartment. He’d been stupid not to see the signs, and he was too tired to argue now.
In Kate’s bedroom, Kate had her teddies lined up on the floor in front of her. She was reading to them and she glanced at her father and put a finger to her lips. This was her classroom. He was used to this, though he missed how she used to cuddle and let him read. In the last few weeks, she’d grown too independent, and wanted to pretend to read the books she’d memorized. She had red hair like her mother, tossed now at the back, and was sitting cross-legged in her pajamas. He sat against the wall by the door.
“The very hungry caterpillar then ate one green leaf. He started to feel better,” she said. She leaned forward towards the oldest of the teddies, a brown one with a torn nose she called Minty and told him to hush and listen.
“Now the caterpillar wasn’t small, he was so big. He was a big fat caterpillar.” Her voice had risen by the last words and she nodded to herself and turned the page.
“He built a small house called a coco, and he ate a hole in the coco and pushed his way through.”
“A cocoon,” Nicholas said.
She looked at him and then back at the book. For a moment she was silent, and he had an urge to apologize. Later in the car, she might ask him what that word was again, but not in front of her teddies. She turned the page and smiled and said, “And then what did he become?”
After listening for a second, she clapped and said, “Yes, a big beautiful butterfly.”
She closed the book, “That’s all for now.”
Nicholas smiled hearing his words coming from her.
“Are you hungry?”
She asked for pancakes and he said no, not today, pancakes were for weekends, partly because she’d need a bath to get the maple syrup out of her hair. Kathleen was still in her room when they had their cereal. Kate didn’t ask for her, and it had been a long time since Nicholas had come home to Kate sitting outside her mother’s door. If she woke before he came home, she’d read to her teddies or play with the toys until Nicholas came back from work and got her ready.
When she was leaving for school, she ran to her mother’s room to give her mother a kiss, and her mother sat up in bed and took her in her arms so red strands of hair blended into one another and their pale skin was bright in the dim light. They looked so alike, daughter and mother. Kate slid away and Kathleen looked a little lost, watching her daughter go.
Kathleen was gone when he came back from dropping Kate off at school. He stood at the bedroom door and stared at the tossed bed and cursed at the thought of having to make the phone call again. He’d hoped to bring Kathleen to her appointment and wait outside. He could have dozed in his car for those precious minutes when she was someone else’s concern. He dialed the doctor’s number and thought of the office with the sterile walls and the messy desk where he’d first heard about Kathleen’s illness. She’d been pregnant, and Nicholas had sat in that office hating her doctor for his worry that had cost him nothing.
Nicholas didn’t see Ina arrive. He might have been in the shower or in the kitchen making his tea, and he was probably thinking of her. He’d last seen her six years ago when she’d come for Nicholas’ mother’s funeral. They’d stood in this house; and even then, it had been hard to be in the same room. By Kathleen’s bedroom window, he saw the light was on in the living room next door and the window was opened. His eyes were starting to sting. He put his mug to his mouth and realized it was empty. He was about to make more tea when Ina came out of her house. Her hair was down and lay on her shoulders; the dusky strands were as frizzy and wild as he remembered. She was wearing a bulky black jacket and a pair of jeans. She kept her head down, yet he stepped back from the window, suddenly conscious of his survey and the possibility of being seen. She turned left towards his house. Her face was pale, and she kept her gaze towards the ground, like she used to when they were at school. Then it had been a sign of nervousness. He watched her disappear and stood by the empty frame of the window until his doorbell rang. He thought immediately of Tilly, and the worry propelled him forward. Through the living room window, he caught a glimpse of Ina’s dark hair. She was leaning against the porch railing when he opened the door, and the smile she gave him was shy and uncertain. Her ‘hi’ was quiet. She hadn’t changed much, but he saw a new tightness around her mouth and her russet eyes had lessened in intensity.
“Is Tilly okay?” he asked.
“She says she is, but when I saw her this morning, she seemed in pain. She refuses to admit it.”
Ina glanced at the house next door where she had grown up. “Well, at least I’m here to help.” She didn’t sound happy about it. And she seemed a bit expectant of him, as if he was the one who’d gone to her. He wanted to go inside and close the door. Yet he was watching her glance at his car and letting her ask, “How long have you been driving a taxi?”
He told her not long after the funeral. He’d moved back to the house and needed a new job, but he didn’t bother add this. She nodded and waited but he refused to ask her any questions and pretend this was a normal occurrence when the last time he’d talked to her alone, she’d sat on the other side of the glass and cried.
Besides, he was conscious of Kathleen as if she lay curled in the bed, and it made him feel off-balance.
A horn blasted a street away, punctuating their silence.
Ina asked. “Can I come in?”
“Why?” he said, or maybe it had gone off like a blast in his head and all she heard was the rustle of the leaves on the sidewalk, because she said. “Nicholas, can I?” in a voice that sounded concerned. She was stepping away from the railing and he’d have to block her from entering. She was his sister-in-law, his childhood love, and the last person he wanted to let inside.
But he couldn’t stop her. She was still his brother’s wife and had a right to this house. He stepped aside and let her enter. The door clicked behind them and in the shadows, Ina was like a girl wrapped in women’s clothes, a girl who used to run into his house barefoot, screaming for him to ‘come on’. Still, she followed him to the kitchen as if it was her first time and she hadn’t spent her childhood running around the rooms. The door of his boyhood bedroom was open. He heard her steps slow as she glanced inside. She would have seen the clothes tossed on the floor, and maybe the place smelled different with Kathleen. He’d noticed the flowery scent when she’d first moved in but had gotten used to the change.
Ina stopped at the kitchen door while he went for the kettle. At home, he drank nothing but tea thanks to his Irish mother. He offered her a cup, mindful that during her years in California she might have lost her taste for the bitter drink.
“Sure, thanks,” she said. She had not moved from the doorway. The kitchen was small, with a table against the kitchen wall to her left and the chairs tucked neatly underneath. The fridge was behind the door and ahead was the sink and the window. A round clock hung on the wall and ticked through each second while Nicholas filled the kettle and put it on the stove. He took two mugs from the high cupboard and placed the tea bags inside, and she was watching him as if she had a right to. There was recognition in her gaze. Violin strains filled the room.
“Your Mom always listened to that station,” she said.
He said yes, he’d taken the habit from her.
“Mom still really misses her,” she said.
“I know,” he told her.
He leaned against the sink and caught her sad smile and her glance around the room and living room. She asked where his daughter was, “Kate, isn’t it?” she said.
He said yes, Kate. He could hear his neighbor, Adrial, in the garden next door and turned to see her running after her son Manuel. Not long ago, the boy had run out the front door and Adrial had screamed for him to stop. It had been a shocking sound of fear that had shaken Nicholas.
“She’s at school,” Nicholas said, when he finally met Ina’s gaze.
“Already, God, it doesn’t seem that long ago.”
His gesture towards the chairs freed Ina from her spot at the door. She took the seat facing the window. Her hands were on the table, pale and fragile. They reminded him of small birds. When the fingers entwined, he had to look away, and met her gaze. He was caught by her face and his inability to read it.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “I thought I could say hello. Is that so crazy?”
“Like old friends,” he said. The kettle was starting to whistle. He sensed her apprehension in the pause. But she said yes, and it was impossible not to feel irritated with the sight of her at the table, as if she had never left.
He reminded her that they hadn’t spoken in a long time.
She said, “I know. I’m sorry.”
He wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness. I’m sorry, she said, when she had not come back to visit him, but that was nothing compared to the shock when he heard about Stefano. Within the year she had moved across the country with him.
“I thought of you often, but I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
He said, “And now what? Are we supposed to fill each other in on the last fifteen years?”
She looked taken aback. Her hands dropped to her lap. He turned the gas off and poured water into mugs. Their silence was disturbed by the spoon hitting the mug. He remembered she took milk and no sugar. The DJ was asking for sponsorship. Her voice was low and deep, while Ina’s silence was infuriating. He put the mug in front of her.
“Okay, where should I begin?” Nicholas asked. “Let’s see, I stayed in Malden for a while after I got out.”
A ripple of unease made her shoulders straighten and he had to pause to hold the anger that shot through him. Too much time had passed for her to act this way.
“I drove a truck for a few months, but I didn’t like the long hauls. There were other jobs that are hardly worth mentioning, other apartments too but I won’t bore you. After Mom died, I thought of selling the house, but I couldn’t, so I moved back and started work in the taxi. Within a year I was a Dad.”
He took a sip of tea. “I’m sure Tilly’s filled you in on the things I’ve missed.”
He thought Ina would say something about Kathleen. He was sure Tilly had told her what had happened, the bits Tilly knew at least.
Instead she said, “What it’s like being a Dad?”
And he felt the thaw immediately, a loosening of his shoulders with the thought of Kate. Maybe Ina still knew him. At least she knew how to push through his defenses. He shrugged and took a sip of his tea. The smile was automatic. “It’s great,” he said.
It was also scary and overwhelming and life-changing, but he kept that in.
“She’s an amazing little girl.”
“I’d love to meet her,” Ina said.
Nicholas shrugged, and thought he saw a flash of her hurt in her eyes, but he couldn’t be enthusiastic about Ina coming into his life after so long. There was a distant sound of a car passing and the following silence was like being under water. Ina was watching him, and he said, “Go on, your turn, fill me in.”
She sighed and glanced down at her mug before looking back at him and he felt the stone in his gut. He knew something was coming because for a long time he’d imagined her looking at him that way.
“I’m not going back,” she said.
He said, “I think you’ve missed a few years.”
“Can you stop being such an asshole?” she said. “I’m trying to tell you we’re getting divorced.”
“Am I supposed to be happy about that?”
“No,” she said, “you’re not supposed to be happy.”
“What do you want then?”
She told him, “I don’t want you to do anything. I just want to talk to you.”
He said, “Fuck sake, Ina, it’s a bit late for that.”
“You’re acting like everything is my fault. You were so angry. I didn’t know what to do.”
He felt drained suddenly. They’d been so young, and all the years that had passed seemed to hang on him now. She didn’t appear to notice. She said that they’d be living next door to each other again and she’d hoped that they could learn to talk to each other. She said, “You have your family, a child…”
His chuckle stopped her, and he hated her anxious gaze and the way she brought everything back to him. He was not the same boy she’d once known. That angry boy had started to disappear the moment he’d heard the injuries he’d inflicted. His shame hadn’t let him meet Ina’s gaze. His shame made him plead guilty, but people saw what they wanted.
He emptied his mug into the sink. The piano on the radio was making him sleepy. The room had darkened, and he was conscious that Ina had not moved. She sat at his kitchen table and he felt the rigidness in his body with an urge to shout at her to leave that he withheld by asking about Stefano.
She said, “He’s fine. How’s Kathleen?”
And the softness in her voice was worse than the anger. He wanted to close his eyes and open them to her gone.
“Fine, she’s gone for a walk. She should be back soon.”
Ina said ‘oh’ and he saw in her straightening back her urge to look around and her sudden unease.
The sink ledge was digging into his back and he had a sense of floating. It wasn’t just the exhaustion, but the inability to know how to end this meeting and get Ina to leave so he might breathe.
Finally, he said, “I’m sorry about your marriage, Ina.”
“It wasn’t good for a long time,” she said. Her shoulders looked slack now, as if she was falling within herself. Gloom from the grey winter day gave him the added impression that she was disappearing before his eyes.
“Did you know already?” she asked.
He shook his head and said he hadn’t talked to Stefano in a while.
She said. “I always wondered what you talked about…I mean it surprised me when he started to phone you regularly.”
Nicholas straightened. Her attention was seemingly fixed on the mug in front of her, though he had no doubt she felt his annoyance.
“Why?” he said, his voice low and even. “We’re brothers after all.”
Ina looked at him for a long time while the radio hummed in the background and the clock marked time between them. She hadn’t changed at all. He could see her stubbornness in the dark eyes and small mouth, and he felt it in her lingering presence.
She said, “Nicholas.”
He pushed from the sink and was ready to run from whatever she was going to say.
“I’m tired, Ina,” his voice came out sterner than he’d planned, but he had to stop her before she said anything else. She was scaring him. “I worked a night shift,” he added.
She apologized and rose.
“I just wanted to thank you. I should have been here with her, that’s what I kept thinking, I had no reason to be away, but I was afraid to tell her it was over, and then,” she paused and a cloud drifted by and sent a gloom through the room while Nicholas was struck by her face; how lovely it still was, and the sorrow he saw from the thought of her mother in the cold. Ina didn’t need to say Tilly could have frozen that morning, the fact stood between them in the room, but she did. Nicholas told her there was no point in thinking like that.
He said, “Everything’s okay.”
She smiled, and said, “Is it, is everything okay?” And before he could react, she said, “I’m sorry, it’s just weird being back. It’s all changed. The Johnsons’ house is gone.”
“Apartments,” Nicholas said, to ease the tightness in his chest.
Ina glanced to where Adrial and her son had been moments ago, “The O’Keefes are gone too. They said they’d never leave.”
So did you, Nicholas might have said, but he kept it in.
The two of them watched each other, so close he could see the rise and fall of her chest. She thanked him for the tea.
He said, “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” which made her glance at the full mug. She smiled and, in that instant, he wanted her to stay, but he fought the urge, and listened to her steps through the living room, the opening of the door, and her pause. He knew the exact moment she stepped outside.
L. M. Brown is the author of the novel Debris and the short story collections Treading The Uneven Road and Were We Awake. Her stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines such as Eclectica, Chiron Review, Litro, Fiction Southeast, and more.
‘The One Who Got Away’ is taken from her novel Hinterland, forthcoming 2020.