She checked her messages until her cell phone’s screen flashed only a drained battery in response. Lily had spent the last few hours in a vicious cycle: call, text, pace, check, repeat. Each time Oliver’s voice came on the other end, she allowed herself to become optimistic before she recognized the voicemail message. She knew something had to be off from the way he’d spoken to her on the phone. Something strange was happening at that girl’s apartment, but strange was not justification enough to call the police over. She knew she’d never be forgiven if the cops burst in on the young couple, well, indulging in the flush of early love.
As she sat at the kitchen table, her palm itched as though fragments of glass still remained just below the surface. She tried not to pay attention to the phantom sensation; to acknowledge the itch would be to confirm that it was based in reality. She couldn’t afford another slip like before. Madness had never been her forte, and she wasn’t sure that she could handle another plunge into that darkness without her brother there to pull her back.
Sleep came as a fitful punishment for spending her night in a stiff wooden chair rather than lounging in her own bed. She knew that when her brother returned, it would be through the kitchen, as it had been the night she had taken to polishing the glass. Each dream was interrupted by the twitch of paranoia shaking her back again. She had to resist the urge to go pacing the halls in case he returned and slipped past her.
The door woke her shortly after dawn, when the sun was yellow and violently glaring through the window. The sound of Oliver’s shoes scraping across the floor was unmistakable. “Lily?” he whispered. His voice was rough, as though he’d been shouting himself hoarse through the night. “Are you awake?”
“I was worried,” she explained simply. When she finally rubbed the sleep from her eyes enough to look at her brother, she nearly drew back in surprise. He was still wearing the same clothes he’d left home in, dark khakis and a button-down plaid shirt, but the garments were helplessly wrinkled. His attire was nothing compared to his body though. He seemed to have spent a year in a desert, with his frame barely looking capable of filling out his clothes. The dark circles beneath his eyes sank in so deeply they resembled bruises. His coloring was toward the grey side of pale, and his hair stuck up precariously. If she hadn’t been worried already, she would have immediately been put on edge.
For a moment, he stopped in his steps and just swayed, as though his body wanted nothing more than to trudge to bed and pretend that there was no reason to have to acknowledge her. “I’m sorry I didn’t call. I lost my phone.”
His voice was so exhausted that she could tell that he didn’t have the energy to deceive her. In spite of herself, she felt a flood of empathy. Her own exhaustion was forgotten in favor of pulling out another chair and shoving his chest gently to guide him down. He could hardly put up a fight and winced as his bottom connected with the seat. The cupboards were as bare as usual, but she found the instant coffee that he’d insisted on buying. She was sure that he would fall asleep soon even if he had twelve cups of the stuff. A loaf of bread was down to the heel, but she felt that he looked famished enough that he needed to eat at least something.
“Where have you been all night? I mean, I don’t want to pry into your business,” she added hastily, “but you don’t look great. Did you get any sleep at all?”
“I’ve been talking to the police.”
She nearly lost her grip on the glass jar of coffee. It rattled against the mug and spoon that she’d set aside for him. “I’m sorry, what?” she asked the kitchen sink. To turn and see his expression would probably be too crippling for her to handle after the night she’d had, trapped between her imagination and the shadows and the snippets of dreams that never had a chance to play out more than halfway. Even with her back turned to him, she could hear the tears that were on the verge of his voice, stubbornly held back because he always put others before himself and refused to show his emotions.
When he didn’t answer, she struggled to catch her breath. “Does it have to do with Marilyn?”
He winced when she said her name. “Her dad’s dead, Lily. He died last night.”
“Oh my God.” For a second, she thought about what would happen to the house, who would buy it and how they would manage to afford what they needed in the meantime. Guilt flooded her as she thought about how the man had flirted with her, and the shame burned her cheeks. “What happened?” she asked to draw the attention away from herself. She busied her hands with the toaster, with filling the kettle on the stove and lighting the range. There were a thousand ways to let on that she wasn’t affected any further than her brother’s agony.
“We were having dinner at her apartment.” He began to rock back and forth a bit, creating a light pattern of stomping against the floor. She worried that the sound would be enough to wake their father, but she said nothing to interrupt him. He didn’t offer a reason why the three of them would be having a meal together, and she didn’t ask. “Everything seemed to be great. We were all having a fine time together. I know I was pretty harsh on him when he was here with you, but you’re my sister. You’re way too young for him, you know? Of course I’m going to be protective. He was okay on his own. I mean, for a politician and out of touch rich asshole. We finished up the food and wine. I was helping Marilyn clean up, throw out the rest of the food and wash dishes, you know?” She was surprised that he would ever do such a thing when he hardly helped out at home, but love changed people. She understood that all too well. “He’d gone to the bathroom. That wasn’t weird, but we finished with clearing the table, and he was still in there. We knocked, just to check, but the door was locked and he wasn’t answering. So we called 9-1-1.”
She couldn’t pretend to ignore him forever. The toaster was working, the water was on its way to a boil. She had to turn back, and when she did, she saw that her brother’s eyes had been desperately seeking out hers. There was something behind those green depths that spoke to an agony she couldn’t even comprehend. She wished she could tell him that it would be all right, but she couldn’t find her voice. He had to continue. “They had to break down the door. By the time they did, it was too late. He’d had a heart attack and fallen down on the floor. His head hit. There was so much blood, Lily. It was just this giant pool. I was surprised it didn’t come out from underneath the door.” He shivered and tried to pull his shirt around him more tightly, but the wrinkles settled in ever more deeply.
“Well, why were the police there? Did they suspect foul play?”
A sharp glare came through his exhaustion, piercing and aimed directly at her. “Of course not. He was just an important member of the community and worth a lot of money. They had to check things out and figure out how to contain the information until they had the facts straight. They didn’t want to have the local news swarming poor Marilyn’s apartment and asking their grim questions when she’d just lost her father. Can you imagine if, God forbid, the leukemia finally did its thing and the first thing you had to deal with wasn’t making funeral arrangements but trying to swat a microphone out of your face?”
The image made her stomach turn, or maybe it was just the smell of the toast getting too dark because the loaf had nearly gone stale. She would have to get the butter out of the refrigerator to mask the charring. She was certain that he wouldn’t even notice if she’d handed him a slap of wood that she’d coated in paint instead. “Is she going to be okay?” She hated to ask the question, didn’t even like the girl, but she had to pretend.
“I think so. I stayed with her for the night, but she insisted that I come home this morning. It was just so scary. I mean, they took the body away and cleaned up for her a bit, but it’s practically a crime scene. She’s spooked by what she saw. I don’t think she wants to stay there anymore. It just doesn’t seem right for her to have to live with her father’s ghost. I mean, don’t you think about Mom sometimes around here?”
“Not really. She didn’t stay.”
If he heard the words, he didn’t show it. Instead optimism started to settle in, as it could only do amongst those who were too tired to feel the grip of reality. “Do you think she could stay here with us for a while? Even if she goes back to her apartment, I don’t think she should be stuck there right now. She might just look for ways to blame herself for what happened to her father. It’s not fair.”
“Where would we put her?” Of course she knew the answer to that, but she hated to think that death would bring the young lovers closer together. It didn’t seem right to be coping in that way. It wouldn’t get them anywhere. “It probably isn’t best for her to get comfortable here when we’ll just have to wind up selling the place.”
“We won’t though.” He seemed to realize that he’d spoken too hastily as he flushed and bit his lower lip. He couldn’t meet her eye anymore. “He was a rich man, you know. And she loves me. I know you don’t trust her, and she did mess around a bit by calling herself his assistant, but she’s his sole heir. She’ll help us, I know she will.”
“How do you know? Have you seen the will?” She could tell that her brother was deeply moved by his grief for his lover, but she had to be realistic. They shouldn’t benefit from a man’s death. She shook her head sadly and nearly yelped when the toaster spat out its offering. She pinched out the bread and hissed as the burnt bits seemed to stick to her skin. If her brother noticed her pain, he didn’t offer any words of sympathy. “We can’t just accept thousands of dollars from Marilyn. I mean, it would be generous if she offered it.” She had to grit her teeth to prevent herself from saying what she really thought, especially through the pain and exhaustion she felt. “It wouldn’t even keep us going forever.”
“This is our home. We’re going to keep it.” He sounded so certain. It was the first thing he’d said to her since walking through the door that hadn’t passed through some emotional filter first. He was just solidly sure about this one. She laughed as she spread enough butter on the toast to make it soggy in the places that weren’t too charred to absorb liquid. She dropped the plate down in front of him, though his eyes seemed to dance around the room, refusing to focus on any one thing.
Lily didn’t want to laugh at him, but she couldn’t take this seriously. They had had so many conversations about their futures and how they no longer had control of fate. It seemed ridiculous to her that he would suddenly decide that he had grasped the steering wheel again when he clearly hadn’t. For a moment, she considered calling a psychiatrist, but she knew that would throw him into a rage. Like the last time… The memory was not a welcome one, and she pushed it from her mind.
“How are we going to do that? The one person who was interested in buying this place, house and property and all, is dead. You can’t just ask your girlfriend to buy our house from under us. If you two break up, then there’s no telling what she might do. Not that I could blame her. It would be weird.”
“He bought the place.”
“He? You mean she.” The sagging of her brother’s shoulders, the refusal to make eye contact, it all began to add up for her. The kettle cried out on the stove, but Lily needed to sit down. Thinking had become too trying for her. “That’s impossible.” She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d seen Oliver talk to their father. There was no way he would have signed the place over.
“You can check the bank statements. We’re rich.” He gave her a tired smile, one that spoke to an exhaustion greater than she would ever know. “I forged his signature. You know I’ve been doing that for years just to keep this place afloat. It’s really not that hard. I’m just telling you this because you deserve to know the truth. I knew Dad would never sell, but I knew we needed to. So I decided to do it. It went through last week. He offered to pay everything up front.”
“A lot.” He waved his hand in the air, as though the number itself hardly mattered. “It’s more than enough to take care of us and pay taxes and give us time to get on our feet, find other jobs, maybe do something about Dad. Marilyn doesn’t want to go back on the offer, but she doesn’t want to take the house from us. She’s so different from her father.”
Lily didn’t know what to believe, but it would be useless to fight her brother when he was clearly in a state. He saw someone die, she reminded herself. It had to remind him of Mom. He’s probably blaming himself right now. “When is she coming here?” she asked instead. He shrugged and finally noticed the toast in front of him. He picked up the slice and tapped it against the plate, then dropped it with a dull thud. She winced as she realized how inadequate the food was for him. And the kettle. Oh God, the water. She jumped up and turned off the burner, but the steam was coming out so aggressively that she knew if she poured any of the water, it would pop and splash and probably burn her. Or he wouldn’t even think and take a drink of it.
“I was hoping you could get her,” he admitted.
The idea of the chore set her on edge. She hadn’t actually driven a car in ages, instead sticking to farming equipment or her bicycle. Still, she knew it was important to Oliver. If she refused, she knew he would walk out the door without a word and do it himself. He might get into an accident, and she could not stomach guilt like that. Plus it would give her an opportunity to speak to Marilyn for herself to try to gauge what her intentions really were. If she was half as upset as Oliver seemed to be, then that would be fair enough.
Fueled by guilt and curiosity, she gave her brother’s shoulder a squeeze. “Of course I can do that. Don’t you worry about it. But do me a favor.” She took a deep breath, hating what she was about to say. Still, he owed her this much for putting her in such a difficult position. “You have to go up and talk to Dad about this. He’s not going to like it if you just bring a girl into the house to live with us. You have to make it clear to him that this is the way things are now.”
He swallowed thickly but nodded. “I did the right thing, didn’t I?” When she looked up to her, she could see every vein in his eyes, red tendrils seeming to branch out and spread to try to devour all the white remaining.
How could she deny him the peace that he would need to admit to his crimes? Even if he had done what was necessary to save the farm, in a sense anyway, he had committed a crime. Nobody would go to the police, but she knew that their father would not treat him as gently as she had. He needed to gather his nerves to face his fate. “Of course you did the right thing, Ollie,” she said gently as she slipped away from him to find her shoes and coat. “You always do the right thing.”
Marilyn was waiting on her front steps when the car approached. She jumped up excitedly and waved those thin arms in greeting. She thinks I’m Ollie, Lily thought. From afar, she didn’t believe that the girl looked that wounded by her father’s passing. She wore a brilliantly red duster jacket and had her flaxen hair arranged in a delicate bun on the top of her head, not a single strand out of place. She looked like she was waiting for a date rather than trying to escape the house where she’d witnessed her father’s death.
Lily took some satisfaction in slowly parallel parking the car, the speed or lack thereof mostly due to her lack of practice rather than meaningful suspense. When she killed the engine and stepped out of the car, she saw Marilyn’s expression drop. The willowy girl had a way of folding into herself, shrinking at a moment’s notice to go from tall to vulnerable. “Lily?” she called.
“Oliver asked me to come get you. He told me what happened.” She thought that Marilyn looked frightened. Of course she does. She found her father’s body on the floor. Stop being so paranoid. She hoped she wasn’t sneering when she found herself snapping internally. “I’m so sorry to hear about your father. It must have been such a shock for you. Oliver’s taken it pretty horribly himself, and they weren’t exactly close.”
“They’re working on it. Were,” Marilyn corrected clumsily. When she moved down the stairs, Lily saw that both of her hands were filled: one with a suitcase, and one with a bag of trash.
“Can I help you with anything?” she offered.
“No.” The answer came quickly, forcefully. The girl had to struggle to put her graceful airs back on. “I’m sorry. It’s just been such a long night. All I really want is to go somewhere and go to sleep. I packed a few things so I don’t have to be back for a while. Since we’d had dinner, I thought I’d take out the trash rather than coming home to all that spoiled food still sitting there. I don’t want to have to think about his last day. How we should have noticed…”
She trailed off, but there were no tears forthcoming. Maybe she’s cried them all out. Lily opened the trunk and then slipped back into the car, giving Marilyn the time she needed to sort her things. When she felt the car bounce as the trunk was slammed shut, she put the key in the ignition. Soon after, the girl slipped into her seat and gave her a tense smile. “I don’t think we’ve gotten off on the best of terms,” Marilyn ventured. “I am sorry about that. I really want us to get along. I care about Oliver, I really do. I love him.”
Lily tried not to wince over the word. She’d expected she would hear it, but to her, it felt grim for this girl to be making such declarations when her father had only recently been found dead. “I haven’t exactly been myself lately either,” she ventured, not apologizing but still leaving room for Marilyn to believe that she wanted to get along as well. “Why did you say you were Mr. Ge…your father’s assistant?”
Lily glanced at the girl in her rearview mirror and saw the way she bit into her lower lip like a ripe fruit. If she kept that up every time she was asked a question, she would surely have a scar soon. “It just seemed easier, in a way. I know that sounds ridiculous now, but I figured you would prefer dealing with someone from the office rather than his daughter. I’m not like him. I’m not interested in tearing things down or putting you all out of your home. I just want to help.”
“And if you hadn’t fallen in love with Oliver? Would you still want to help us out?”
“I’m not sure.” Marilyn rummaged through her purse and found a handkerchief, though she seemed to want the cloth to twist between her elegant fingers rather than to dry the tears that were not forthcoming. “I invited Dad over to meet with Oliver because I wanted them to get along. I thought that if they saw each other as men, then there was no way he’d just kick you out into the night. They seemed to get along great. There weren’t any arguments or anything. I was waiting for a chance to really work on him. I thought after dinner would be the best, probably with another glass of wine or two. Only he didn’t come out of the bathroom.”
Lily tried to concentrate on driving, something she had never much enjoyed anyway, but her eyes kept glancing at the mirror. There was something about Marilyn’s voice that seemed transparent, as though she had gone over the story within her head so many times that she could no longer infuse any emotions. “Things must be happening very quickly for you now,” she ventured.
“They are. We don’t really have much other family, certainly not in the area. My mom walked out a very long time ago. They weren’t married, and it’s easiest for him not to really acknowledge me. Keeps things from getting scandalous. I don’t think anyone would have ever tried to bring him down, he had too many connections for that, but being careful never hurt anyone.” She gave a wan smile, and for a moment, she seemed to actually miss her father. “How much has Oliver told you?”
“Oh, everything.” Was that a wince Lily gave out of the corner of her eye? Lily couldn’t tell as she watched the road. Part of her wanted to pull over and keep the doors locked until she had from Marilyn the answers to every question she could think of. “There’s something I want to ask,” she admitted, “but I’m afraid you might be offended by it.”
“Oh, go on. How are we going to be sisters if we can’t be honest with each other?” Her hand shot out and touched Lily’s knee, which nearly threw off her concentration entirely. She wondered if this was what happened to her brother, some reassuring words and a soft touch to begin to instill the seeds of love.
She licked her lips and slowed the car deliberately. They were all too near the house already, but she wanted to know. She had to know. “Is there a part of you that’s glad your father died?”
Marilyn’s lips pressed together as though they could not decide if it were better to smirk or frown. They settled on something in the middle, a shaky smile that rattled with disbelief. “Well, thank you for warning me that I might be offended. At least I know you’re not just asking me because of who I am,” she said dryly. As for the question, she leaned her head back against the cushion and closed her eyes as though concentrating on which version of the truth to tell. “I suppose it’s possible that part of me that isn’t sad about what happened to him. He wasn’t a particularly good man. He was cruel, to me as much as anyone. Even more so, I think. He put money before people. But he was still my father.” A muscle jumped in her jaw when she clenched it. “Do you ever think about your father dying?”
“I can’t help but imagine it.” She knew she had to open up in return if Marilyn was going to trust her, but Lily still felt nervous. “Everything’s been different since Mom left. Died. I’ve spent so much time trying to take Dad to his appointments, soothe him from the treatments, keep him company, keep him alive. I’ve given ten years of my life to the cause of constantly making sure he doesn’t give up the fight. I feel like things would be so much easier if we knew if it was a losing battle.”
“It’s so different when it actually happens. It’s nothing like you’d imagined it.”
“You thought about it?”
“Sometimes,” Marilyn said, turning to look out the window. With her back turned to Lily, she indicated that it was all she would say on the matter.
“Your sister’s an obligation.”
Oliver was growing frustrated by his lover’s version of pillow talk. They passed the evenings in barely subdued passion, flirting and teasing to the point of combustion, but when they relented and found themselves collapsed in exhaustion in one another’s arms, all he wanted to do was sleep. She seemed to think that he owed her the favor of listening after all she gave to him. He left a hand draped over his closed eyes and did his best not to sigh. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“She hates me. She knows that my father didn’t just have a heart attack. She has too many questions.”
“That’s just what Lily’s like. She asks a lot of questions. You have to understand that she’s…” He trailed off and tried to think of the most generous way to describe his sibling. He didn’t want to be flippant, but at the same time, he didn’t want this ridiculous paranoia to continue. “Not used to dealing with people. She never has been. I always thought that she had some mild form of autism. I don’t know what to tell you except relax.”
“Relax? Relax? We’ve committed a felony, more than one in case you haven’t noticed, and she has the chance to rat us out.”
“She wouldn’t do that. There’s nothing more important to her than family, and we’re family.”
“You’re family. She doesn’t trust me any further than she could throw me.”
“I could throw you around for a bit to take your mind off it.” Oliver rolled over and put his arm around her, but she just kicked at him and moved toward the edge of the bed. She wasn’t the sort to take teasing well, with her lovely pale cheeks glowing red and those blue eyes narrowing. Somehow the frustration only made her seem more attractive, especially as she became impossible to actually catch and calm.
“Oliver, I’m serious. We’re going to have to do something about her.”
“Like what, kill her?” He made his voice breezy, but that was only because he feared what she actually had planned. It had been weeks since they had poisoned Martin George. The funeral had been sparsely attended, and though the local newspaper had published several stories dedicated to such a committed public servant being taken before his time, very little noise actually rumbled in the community beyond the greedy wondering who would pay them off in the man’s absence. There was no mistaking him for a popular man.
Marilyn sat up in bed but didn’t attempt to get away. She was still learning her way around the house, becoming acquainted with the place’s old body and the nuances that gave it character. She hated the groaning floorboards and the random drafts, and trying to get some distance from Oliver could make her collide into Lily or her father in the halls. It was a risk she loathed to take. “I can’t tell you how to act around your sister, but she’s suspicious of me. I think that she thinks everything has worked out a little too conveniently.”
“Well, hasn’t it?”
“That was the whole point.”
She gave his bare chest a shove, as though it would make him focus on her words rather than think about her body and a way to take her mind off the topic of his sister. They were comfortable, weren’t they? They had enough money that they didn’t have to worry for a while. He knew he had to find ambition again, but after falling apart for so long, all he wanted was a chance to just relax into this lack of stress for a short while. He wanted to experience being in love without any of the bullshit creeping back in. But he could tell that she wasn’t going to drop the topic for the night until he took her seriously. “Well, it’s not like you kept the poison or used your own computer to research. There’s nothing that she can use against you.”
“If she starts to whisper to the police that my father’s death seemed suspicious, wouldn’t they investigate it? Or what if they came to talk to you about the night he died, and your father found out that you forged his signature on the deed to the house? Wouldn’t he throw a fit?”
He flinched and remembered when he had tried to explain what had happened. His father was in the twilight haze of pain medication, trying to keep himself awake only due to stubbornness. Oliver had told him that they didn’t have to worry about money any longer because he found a way to sell the house and keep it. The old man had just let out a dry laugh. “We’re keeping it because we’re not selling it.” Those had been his words, confidently delivered through the fog of painkillers.
“We’re not going to get anywhere if you’re always worrying about Lily. Just drop it. We have to trust each other, remember?”
“Well, I don’t trust her.” She pulled the blankets up over her chest and chewed on her lower lip contemplatively. “Can’t you make her like me or something?”
Oliver tried not to laugh, but it was a battle lost before he could even put in the effort. “She’s always been stubborn and thought her own way. There’s nothing I can do about it. Maybe if you acted a bit sadder about what happened or let her know about the abuse—“
“No.” Marilyn’s fair fingers rubbed over the scar on her wrist involuntarily. “It was hard enough to talk to you about that sort of thing. I don’t think that I could open up to her too, especially if she’s just going to be suspicious about everything I say. I don’t want her to exploit what I’m telling her.”
Holding back a sigh was no longer an option. “You have to give her something. You have just marched into the home she’s lived her whole life, bought it out from under her feet and gifted it back without asking for the slightest thing in return except a promise to maybe eventually get a job outside.”
“You know that my father bought it, not me. She shouldn’t be holding that against me.”
“Well, she’s going to. You’re going to have to bond with her in some way if you want her to trust you. I don’t know what to tell you. You’re both girls. Can’t you find something in common?”
“Like talking about you?” Marilyn asked dryly. She settled down in the bed, and Oliver began to hope—blindly optimistic though he was—that she was going to go to sleep.
“We should get married.”
“What?” He nearly knocked over the lamp on his nightstand as he fumbled to turn on the light. He needed to see the intention written across her features, the love in her eyes and the sincerity across her lips. “Say that again.”
She looked uncomfortable. She began to twist a section of her hair nervously. “Well, we’re together, aren’t we? And we’ve been sharing so much. I like it here, I really do, and I want to stay. Plus I love you, and you love me,” she added, almost as an afterthought. “It would really get rid of the suspicion if we were married.”
“You don’t think it would be more suspicious that we made it official now?”
“No. He’s been dead and buried for weeks. And I know how I feel.” Her features began to grow softer, and she leaned her head against his chest. I have to trust her, he told himself. He was surprised by how steadily his heart was beating. He wasn’t panicked in the slightest. No matter how much she challenged or frustrated him, he believed that he was the only person who give her exactly what she needed, the only one who could protect her. Wasn’t that the very duty of a husband? Was there a reason why they shouldn’t?
He’d been single for so long that he’d forgotten what it was like to be hopelessly in love, to feel the need to surrender every last bit of his happiness just to know that she would have a peaceful night’s rest. Her moods, her fits, her fears, they were all worth enduring because they let him appreciate her peaceful moments that much more.
“I guess we should go ring shopping tomorrow,” he said at last.
Liam tried to hide his surprise when Lily walked into the bar. She usually appeared in the early afternoon, but this time she had the company of the post-dinner crowd, all five patrons huddled together in the corner to watch a football game with drunken gusto.
He wasn’t the most observant, but even he knew that Lily had changed. The circles were just as present under her eyes, but she had her straw hair tightly separated into two messy braids. She’d tried to put on some makeup, but the red lipstick was too harsh when her skin was so tan. Some people just couldn’t wear it. He wanted to give her a talk if she wanted to come into his bar and try to pick up men, especially after the last time so many months ago. Pity rolled through him, but he had to be polite. “Well hello, darlin’,” he greeted with a tip of his pageboy hat. “To what do I owe the pleasure of having your lovely place in this establishment?”
She seemed torn between a blush and a frown but ultimately settled on the latter. “I’d like a beer, please.”
“Sure, you’ve come to the right place.” He gestured to the taps, but she just settled into a seat and seemed unbothered. “What kind of beer would you like? We have quite a few.”
“Something that doesn’t taste too much like beer.”
The request made him grit his teeth. He liked his friend’s sister most of the time. Even though she was a few years older than they were, she seemed oblivious about so many things that he took for granted. He thought it was sweet of her. Most of the time. “Well, let’s get you a Corona with a lime. Or would you prefer a lemon?”
“A lemon would be nice,” she said. By the way she looked at him, he could tell that she felt proud that she had made a choice. She watched carefully as he uncapped the bottle without having the beer fizz out, and he sliced up a new lemon just for her benefit. She seemed to be downright buzzing before he even handed her the beer, though once he did, she seemed content to just have the chilled bottle cradled between her hands.
“Anything else that I can do for you?” he asked, sensing that there was something still on her mind. The group of football fans had ordered a bucket of beers. That would keep them occupied for the next ten minutes or so. Long enough for a conversation, anyway.
She let her fingertip trace through the condensation that was beginning to form on the bottle. “When was the last time you talked to Ollie?”
The question took him off guard, if only because the answer didn’t immediately come to mind. He could recall a time when he’d let his friend get drunk and then walk home, and then there was the business of Lily coming in and trying to get drunk herself. He hadn’t really seen either of them since then, but with night after night spent in the same place talking to the same people, he had a poor grasp on the passage of time. “I guess I talked to you more recently than I’ve talked to him. Why?”
“What did you two talk about?”
Not much seemed to stand between Lily and Oliver, the result of being adults still living with their father, but Liam felt awkward betraying his friend’s trust like this. “Money, mostly. The old house. Your old man. How’s he doing lately? Your dad, and Ol, I guess.”
“Dad has his good days and his bad days. Oliver…he’s getting married.”
She finally took a drink of her beer and winced a little, though he couldn’t tell if it was due to the taste of the drink or the fact that she was just so broken up about the news. He could hardly believe it. Unlucky in love Oliver, Ol-love-her, Ollie Ollie Can’t Get Any, had managed to find a girl who was crazy enough to stay with him and marry him? “Well, that calls for a drink to celebrate!” Liam declared, setting up two shot glasses. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea to give her tequila, but if she didn’t want it, he’d help himself. “He didn’t tell me about any girl. Probably didn’t want me to steal her, you know?”
“It all happened very fast.” She looked at the shot glass warily, but when Liam downed his own, she decided to follow his lead. Her response was immediate, a heavy cough that she washed back with more Corona. The beer at least seemed more palatable in comparison. “He met this girl, who lied and said she was this guy’s assistant. She was really his daughter, but he didn’t care. He still liked her. He sold our house, our land to that guy, without telling me or Dad. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t his place.” He’d never seen Lily angry before, but the way she shook could not be mistaken for nerves. Her fury was a barely controlled thing, simply searching for the right outlet to crash out and destroy something. “He only told me this afterwards, of course. After the guy had a heart attack. His daughter got everything. She’s letting us keep the house. And now they’re getting married.”
“Well.” This was more than a tequila situation. He poured himself a pint and prepared another bucket of beers for his patrons. If they weren’t going to order another round soon, then he’d at least have some handy cans to sink into. “That’s really lucky though, the fact that she likes you guys enough. Seems like everyone gets what they wanted. Except the poor dead guy.”
“That’s the thing. Isn’t it just convenient? And what if they get divorced one day? What happens to me and Dad?”
“Well, did you pray for some sort of an answer? Seems to me like you want everything to work out okay, but when the solution finally appears, you can’t accept it because it’s too neat. You just need to relax and be grateful for how things are turning out.”
“How can I relax? I have no place in my own house anymore. I think she hates me. And there’s nothing for me to really do anymore other than serve as my dad’s live-in nurse.”
“Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Maybe you’re supposed to be doing this right now.” He gestured toward her, which made a bit of foam slosh over the edge of his glass. He’d wipe it up later. It hardly mattered. “You’re a nice girl, Lily. You deserve to relax a little. Maybe you’re supposed to do the shit that you never let yourself do in your twenties. Let your hair down and get drunk and meet all the wrong people and mess around. Make some mistakes and get a job you hate and save up and see the world. You’re not dead yet. You have to stop living like it.”
The speech seemed to be sinking in until the last couple of sentences. Then her eyes grew wide, fearful. He could practically see the reflection of the television within them. She fumbled with her purse and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. “I need to go home.”
He was disappointed that his attempt to help was only going to drive her back to the old house. He thought that there had to be something in those walls that drove the whole family nutty, black mold or asbestos or something. “Don’t mention it. You tell your brother to come down and pay your tab so he’ll see me sometime.”
Lily pushed her way out into the early evening, the wind cold on her face. She could not let herself cry, but the wind threatened to pull the tears from her eyes anyway. She wanted to go home, but she knew that she would not be welcome. She wanted to talk to her brother, but with his engagement, she was certain that she could not talk any sense into him. He hadn’t headed her warning about the girl before, and he certainly wouldn’t now. But he had to know.
When she pulled out her cell phone, she was surprised to find that she had a voicemail. She expected it to be Carina demanding she return the salacious book she still hadn’t bothered reading. (“If you want your own copy, you just have to let me know so I can hook you up at Christmas,” she’d likely chide.) Instead she listened to her brother’s voice start out calm before he broke down.
Lily spent so much time at the hospital that she didn’t feel insecure there, but this time she felt her pulse racing out of control. She was usually the one filling out the registration forms, reciting insurance information, paying what needed to be covered for this visit or that treatment. Aside from a quick stop to the gift shop for a pack of gum to mask the alcohol on her breath, she rushed to the kiosk in the emergency room. “Excuse me,” she said, interrupting a pregnant woman in a wheelchair who had been describing her symptoms in a whiny tone, “I need to find my father. He came in here about an hour ago.”
The nurse had clearly seen this sort of pushy behavior too many times to be phased by it. “Name?”
“Darren Pratt. That’s with two r’s and two t’s.”
The woman typed away diligently and ignored the tears that came from her other patient. “Yes, I see here that your father’s been admitted. Please go straight back to the elevators and take one to the seventh floor. The nurse on duty will be able to help you from there.”
“Thank you so much.” Not knowing what else to do, she dropped the pack of gum in the woman’s wheelchair as a peace offering. Every doorway looked like an elevator, and it took her five tries before she finally found a set of chrome doors next to an up button. An older couple was already waiting for the lift, but that didn’t stop her from pressing the button frantically. It was all she could think of to do with her shaking hands.
The attending nurse gave her as much of a reassuring smile as possible, but he couldn’t offer any real details before calling her father’s doctor. He offered her some water, but Lily just worried that the smell of alcohol was still clinging to her, so she excused herself to go to the bathroom to scrub her hands harshly. It would be better to be sterile, she thought, and if she smelled like industrial strength soap, so much the better.
When she returned to the hall, a tall woman in a white lab coat was waiting for you. “Miss Pratt?” she asked. Lily nodded, suddenly shy. “I was told that you’d been contacted. I don’t want you to worry first of all, so I’ll tell you that your father has been stabilized. He’s in critical condition, but we’re doing everything we can.”
“What happened to him?” She felt sick. Her knees no longer wanted to support the weight of her body. The only thing she had to do was look after her father, and she’d left the house and rendered him vulnerable. She had only one duty in life, and she’d betrayed it, betrayed him.
“Your father suffered a heart attack. Your sister-in-law—“
“She’s not my sister-in-law yet.”
The doctor looked through her papers but shrugged. “She presented ID. Well, your brother and his partner were present during the incident, and they were able to drive him here while the attack was still happening. We’ve patched him up as best we can for the time being, but with his cancer, you can imagine that his state is rather fragile. We’re watching him very carefully and want to hold off on checking for further damage until we’re sure that he can handle it. We’d like to keep him under observation for the night and then decide where to go from there. I’ve discussed all this with your brother, but my records indicate that you’re the one with your father’s living will and power of attorney.”
“I am?” Of course she was. She was the one who handled all of his medical treatment, and she was the older sibling. Still, with the way Oliver had taken charge of everything financial, it took her by surprise when something fell upon her own shoulders.
“Yes. Did your brother ask you to bring the form with you? Or does your attorney have a copy?”
“Yes, of course. I mean, the attorney has it. I don’t.” Because you were drinking. Because you weren’t at home with him. Because if not for Oliver, he would have died. Not you. You would have let him die. “I’d really like to see my father now.”
The woman pulled a grimace and didn’t bother to mask the expression from her. “You do have to understand that he’s quite weak and under heavy medication. He probably won’t be able to communicate with you as he needs his rest, but if it will reassure you that your father is in good hands, follow me.”
She twisted her fingers together in impossible knots and felt the joints crack, but there was satisfaction to be gained from the pain. It reminded her that she was alive, that she was deserving of this torment because she hadn’t done her duty. If she punished herself, she felt that her father might survive. She wouldn’t let her guard down again, no. She wouldn’t be as selfish as Liam had encouraged her to be. There wasn’t time for that.
The first thing that struck her about the room was the smell. She knew everything was clean, but rather than smelling like bleach, it reeked of plastic and heat and people. She wanted to keep walking to another place, one that seemed more welcoming, but the doctor grabbed her shoulder and gave it a squeeze before slipping inside. There she saw Marilyn curled up in the room’s only chair, her body swaddled in Oliver’s favorite jacket. Her brother was propped up against the radiator, his hand covering his face.
“Ollie.” Her voice was nearly drowned out by the machines. It seemed to her that gadgets were handling everything for their father, from controlling his breath to assuring that his heart had a steady beat. This was not the strong man who had worked from dawn until midnight, the solid chest that had housed a heart so tender when it came to his workers, his animals, his livelihood. This was a skeleton with a bit of excess tissue and plastic. He was hardly human.
It wasn’t her brother who spoke first but Marilyn, who stretched and then stood to offer her a frail hug. She hated to wrap her arms around this girl. She didn’t want to accept her comfort, but she felt so powerless. She relented and let herself be taken away by Marilyn’s warmth and vanilla cinnamon perfume.
“Oh, Lily, I blame myself,” she murmured against her ear. The regret lanced through every word, but Lily did not feel the slightest stir of sympathy. “We were worrying about the wedding, so we decided we would just elope. It would make things easier on everyone, and we have so few family members between us. It would cut out all the stress. But when we told Darren—“
Lily pulled away and strode over to her brother. “You got married today, and you didn’t even tell me?”
The doctor cleared her throat and left Darren Pratt’s chart at the foot of his bed, murmuring that a nurse would gladly speak to them if they needed anything further. Lily didn’t even hear the door close. Her own blood pressure was rising. She thought she must be drunk to be going through something this ridiculous.
“I think there’s something a little more important going on at the moment, okay, Lils?” her brother asked. His eyes were rimmed in red, but he refused to show any further emotion than was necessary. “But yes, we got married. I didn’t think you’d want to be involved, so I didn’t ask you to be part of it. That’s all.”
She laughed dryly and turned her back to the couple. She felt a wave of nausea building within her. “So you two fall in love, and her father dies of a heart attack. You get married, and Dad has a heart attack. Am I going to have one as soon as you get her pregnant?”
She could sense the outrage brewing behind her. She thought they would whisper to one another, but that didn’t happen. Instead her brother harshly grabbed her shoulder, whirling her around. “What did you say?”
She was too tired to have to go through the insult again. She wasn’t the sort of person to deal with confrontations, so she just tried to twist away. His grip was far too strong though, and the more she struggled, the more his fingers buried into her. “Stop it. You’re hurting me.”
“You don’t get to say that sort of shit about us. This is our father, Lily. I love him, and I love you, but I love Marilyn too. You can’t just go around accusing us of…”
“Of what? Murder?” There was something in her brother’s eyes that she could not recognize. It wasn’t anger or outrage or even sadness. It was desperation. She hadn’t seen the expression in a long time, not since they still had animals who were too dull to recognize their own impending doom, who were practically begging her to find a way to save them after they’d broken a leg or come down with a disease. Her brother was afraid.
Oliver raised a hand to her but was shaking too terribly to do anything but let the physical threat speak for itself. Marilyn was the one to unfurl behind him, letting her hand rest on his shoulder. “I think you should leave now,” she said icily.
“I’m the one who’s the power of attorney. I have his living will.”
“I think you’ll find that your father changed those documents when he found out about our wedding. The paperwork’s still being processed, but it will come out soon enough.”
Lily found herself laughing bitterly. “How do you expect me not to accuse you of murder when you pull shit like this? Ollie? Are you going to say anything to defend yourself? Her dad cuts you a check for like a million dollars, and then he winds up dead? And Dad, who hated the idea of her father, wants to bless your wedding so much that he just signs all legal power over to you? Let me guess, he wrote me out of the will? And he signed it just like he signed that contract you never even showed him—“
“Leave.” Oliver had closed his eyes so he didn’t even have to look upon her. “Go home and pack your stuff. I don’t care where you go, but I don’t want you there.”
“But what about when Dad gets out of here? Who’s going to take care of—“
“I said I don’t care. Just go!”
The male nurse threw the door open and looked alarmed as he took in the scene. It was then she noticed that Marilyn had pulled the panic button next to their prone father’s bed. Her eyes contained a confident smile as the man gently rested his hands on Marilyn’s shoulders. The others had been there for hours. Surely he could tell what threw this equation off. “You’re going to die,” she said as she was guided from the room. She didn’t feel the need to clarify who she meant.