Summer Island Page 15

Ruby gazed down at her. “I'm not a kid anymore, and dusting was one of the many things Caroline and I had to learn to do after you left us.” She saw the pain move into Nora's green eyes; it made her look old suddenly, and fragile.

That word again. It was not something Ruby particularly wanted to see. She grabbed the wheelchair and pushed her mother into the center of the room, where the ancient Oriental carpet sucked up the metallic thump of the chair's wheels and plunged them into silence again.

“I guess I'll have to sleep in your old room. There's no way we can get me upstairs.”

Ruby dutifully wheeled Nora into the downstairs bedroom, where two twin beds lay beneath a layer of sheeting. Between them was a gingham-curtained window. A painted wooden toy box held most of Ruby's childhood.

The wallpaper was still the pale pink cabbage roses that she and Caroline had picked out when they were children.

Ruby refused to feel anything. She yanked the sheets away. A fine layer of dust billowed into the air. She heard her mother coughing behind her; so Ruby leaned forward and wrenched the window open, letting in the sound of the waves slapping on the shore.

“I think I'll lie down for a minute,” Nora said when the dust had settled. “I'm still fighting a headache.”

Ruby nodded. “Can you get out of the chair by yourself?”

“I guess I'd better learn.”

“I guess so.” Ruby turned for the door.

She was almost free when her mother's voice hooked her back again. “Thanks. I really appreciate this.”

Ruby knew she should say something nice, but she couldn't think of anything. She was too damned tired, and the memories in this room were like gnats, buzzing around her head. She nodded and kept walking, slamming the door shut behind her.

Chapter Seven

Dean tossed his garment bag on the floor of his old bedroom and sat down on the end of the bed.

Everything was exactly as he'd left it. Dusty baseball and soccer trophies cluttered the bureau's top; posters covered the cream-colored walls, their edges yellowed and curled. If he opened the toy chest, he’d find all the mementos of his past, G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip, Rock 'Em-Sock 'Em Robots, maybe even his old Erector set. An autographed GO SEAHAWKS pennant hung above the desk, a reminder of the year Jim Zorn had visited the grade school.

Dean hadn't taken anything with him when he left here, not even a photograph of Ruby. Especially not a picture of her. He got to his feet and crossed the room. At the bureau, he bent down and pulled at the bottom drawer; it screeched and wobbled, then slid open.

And there they were, still stacked and scattered exactly as he'd left them: reminders of Ruby. There framed pictures and unframed ones, shells they'd collected together on the beach, and a couple of dried boutonnieres. He reached randomly inside, drawing out a small strip of black-and-white pictures-a series that had been taken in one of those booths at the Island County Fair. In them, she was sitting on Dean's lap, with her arms curled tightly around him and her head angled against his. She was smiling, then frowning, then sticking her tongue out at the unseen camera. In the last frame, they were kissing.

It was bad enough to remember Ruby in the abstract; to follow this photographic trail of their childhood would be like swallowing glass bits. They'd started together as kids, he and Ruby, kindergarten best friends. Then they'd fallen into the sweet, aching pool of first love, and ultimately washed up on that emotion's rocky, isolated shore. He remembered the ending, and that was enough.

He dropped the photos back into the drawer and kicked it shut.

Someone knocked at the door, and Dean opened it.

Lottie stood there, clutching her big vinyl purse. “I'm off to the store,” she said. “The fridge isn't making ice; we need a bag.”

“I'll go-”

“Of course you won't. You'll be needing time with Eric.” Smiling, she thrust a champagne glass at him. Inside was a thick pink liquid. “This is your brother's medicine. He needs it now. Bye.”

She left him standing there, a grown man in a boy's room, holding pain medication in a fluted champagne glass.

He walked slowly to Eric's bedroom. The door was closed.

Dean stared at it for a long time, remembering the days when these doors had never been closed. They'd always come bursting into each other's room whenever they wanted.

He turned the knob and went inside. The room felt stuffy and too warm. The curtains were drawn. Eric was asleep.

Dean moved quietly toward the bedside table and set down the glass, then he started to leave.

“I hope that's my Viagra,” Eric said sleepily. In a second, the bed whirred to life, eased him to a near sitting position.

“Actually, it's a double shot of Cuervo Gold. I added the Pepto-Bismol to save you time.”

Eric laughed. “You'll never let me forget MaryAnne's going-away party.”

“A night that will live in infamy.” Dean opened the windows and flung back the curtains. The windows boxed a gray and rainy day and let a little watery light into the room.

“Thanks. Bless Lottie, but she thinks I need peace and quiet. I haven't the nerve to tell her that I'm getting a little scared of the dark. Too damn coffinlike for me.” He grinned. “I'll be there soon enough.”

Dean turned to him. “Don't talk about that.”

“Death? Why not? I am dying, and I'm not afraid of it. Hell, another week like this one and I'll be looking forward to it.” He gave Dean a gentle look. “What am I supposed to talk about-the Mariners” next season? The next Olympic Games? Or maybe we could discuss the long-term effects of global warming.“ Eric eased back into the pillows with a heavy sigh. ”We used to be so close," he said quietly.

“I know,” Dean answered, moving toward the bed. He saw Eric move, try to turn slightly to look up at him; he saw, too, when the sudden pain sucked the color from his brother's cheeks. “Here,” Dean said quickly.

Eric's hands were shaking as he reached for the glass and brought it back to his colorless lips. Wincing, he swallowed the whole amount, then wiped his mouth with the back of his bony wrist.

Eric tried to smile. “I'd kill for a margarita from Ray's Boathouse right about now ... and a platter of Penn Cove mussels ... ”

“Tequila and shellfish-with your tolerance for booze? Sorry, pal, but I'll have to pass on that little fantasy.”

“I'm not seventeen anymore,” Eric said. “I don't slam alcohol until I puke.”

There it was, the sharpened reminder of how they'd drifted apart. They'd known each other as boys; the men were strangers to each other.

“Will that medication help?” Dean asked.

“Sure. In ten minutes I'll be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Eric frowned. “What is a single bound, exactly? And why have I never wondered about that before?”

“Whatever it is, it's better than flying. Even first class has gone to hell. My flight up here was godawful.”

Eric smiled. “Even first class is bad? You're talking to a high-school English teacher who was disinherited, remember?”

“Sorry. I was just trying to make conversation.”

“Don't. I'm dying. I don't need time-filler. Jesus, Dean, you and I have spent our whole adulthood talking around anything that mattered. I know it's genetic, but I don't have time for it anymore.”

“If you remind me that you're dying again, I swear to God, I'll kill you myself. It's not like I'm going to forget.”

Eric laughed. “Praise Jesus! That's the first hint of my brother I've seen in a decade. I'm glad to know he survived.”

Dean relaxed a little. “It's good to hear you laugh It's been a long time.” He moved idly to the chest of drawers beside the bed, where a collection of pictures sat clustered together. Most of them were photographs of Dean and Eric as boys.

But there was one-a shot of the brothers and another boy from the football team--all standing with their arms around one another, grinning.

It looked ordinary enough, but when he turned back to Eric, Dean couldn't help wondering. Had it been there all along, the difference between him and his brother? Had Dean simply missed the obvious?

“I wish I'd never told you I was gay,” Eric said.

It was as if Eric had read his mind. Slowly, Dean turned. He wasn't ready for this conversation yet, but he had no choice. Eric had thrown him into cold water, now he had to swim. “It's kind of hard to keep a secret like that when you're living with a man.”

“People do it all the time, keep that secret, I mean. I was so naive, I to tell you.” Eric lifted his head off the pillows and stared at Dean. “I knew our folks wouldn't accept it. But you ...” His voice cracked a little. “You, I didn't expect. You broke my heart.”

“I never meant to.”

“You stopped calling me.”

Dean sighed, wondering how to say it all. “You were away at college, so you didn't know what it was like back here. The technicolor meltdown of the Bridge family. It was front-burner news. And then... Ruby and I broke up.”

“I always wondered what happened between you two. I thought-”

“It was fucking awful,” Dean said quickly, unwilling to delve into that particular heartache. “I called Mother and demanded to be transferred to Choate-where, I might add, I met a bunch of snotty elitist rich kids. I hated it there. I couldn't seem to make friends. But every Sunday night, my brother called, and that one hour made the rest of the week bearable. You weren't just my best friend, you were my only friend. Then one Sunday, you forgot to call.” Dean remembered how he'd waited by the phone that day, and the next Sunday and the next. “When you finally did call again, you told me about Charlie.”

“You felt abandoned,” Eric said softly.

“More than that. I felt like I didn't know you at all, like everything you'd ever said to me was a lie. And then all you wanted to talk about was Charlie.” Dean shrugged. “I was seventeen years old and nursing a broken heart. I didn't want to hear about your love life. And yeah, the fact that it was with another man was hard for me to handle.”

Eric leaned deeper into the pillows. “When you stopped returning my calls, I assumed it was because you hated me. Then you went to work for the family biz, and I wrote you off. I never thought about what it was like for you. I'm sorry.”

“Yeah. I'm sorry, too.”

“Where do these apologies take us?”

“Who the hell knows? I'm here. Isn't that enough?”


Suddenly Dean understood what Eric wanted. “You want me to remember who we used to be, to remember you, and then ... watch you die. It doesn't sound like a real kick-ass plan from where I'm standing.”

Eric reached up, placed a cold, trembling hand on top of Dean's. “I want someone in my family to love me while I'm alive. Is that so much to ask?” He closed his eyes, as if the conversation had exhausted him. “Ah, Hell ... I'm going too fast. I need time damn it. Just stay here until I fall asleep, can you do that for me?”

Dean's throat felt tight. “Sure.” He stayed at his brother's bedside until long after Eric's breathing had become regular and his mouth had slipped open. And still he didn't know what to say.

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