At first, Michael didn’t recognize his brother. The homicide detective said to take his time, whatever time needed to be certain. Certain the man lying before him was, indeed, his younger brother.
Head and shoulders propped against pillows, the man’s face familiar to Michael, of course. But with the heart monitor and IV lines, a breathing tube taped to his dry, cracked lips, gauze wrapped around his forehead and across his shoulder, Michael struggled to find something, anything conclusive to identify him as Danny. Daniel Waterson, the brother, son, husband and father who disappeared, thought to be among the thousands who’d died nearly ten years ago at the World Trade Center in New York City.
It took Michael several minutes in fact, to get past Daniel’s battered appearance, the tangle of long, filthy hair, the obvious wounds, and the fact that this man was far older than Michael remembered Danny, and so lean, his ribs protruded out from under skin deeply weathered by the hot, arid Sonoran desert.
But, as he examined the unconscious man before him, three distinct factors helped convince Michael, without a doubt, that the half-dead man before him was his brother, Daniel.
The first identifiable sign Michael looked for was the scar on the right side of Daniel’s neck, a burn mark from when they were kids. They’d made off with a box of fireworks from their dad, who’d taken the boys to a roadside stand to buy a mix of sparklers and fountains to celebrate 4th of July at their family cottage in Michigan. While their dad, Dutch, napped on the sofa, Michael lifted the box and motioned for little Danny to follow him outside onto the porch. Michael placed a Piccolo Pete in six-year-old Danny’s hand.
“Hold it tight,” he’d said.
His brother’s eyes wide with excitement, Michael lit the fuse and seconds later, red-hot flames shot upward toward Danny’s face, missing his cheek by only a few inches. But the fire had singed the side of his neck before the boy dropped the fiery tube on the white painted boards of the porch. Veritable, high-pitched whistling blasted out from the wild Piccolo, masking Danny’s screams, as sparks flew amongst old, grey wicker chairs and clay pots of yellow marigolds and bright pink petunias, nearly threatening to burn down the entire cottage.
But like a fierce, angry bear with a sharp thorn in his paw, Dutch shot through the screen door, almost ripping the entire doorframe from the hinges, all blurry-eyed and red-faced from his nap, shouting expletives as he kicked the fireball onto the lawn, let it peter out, then dowsed the remaining flames with the garden hose as Danny collapsed on the porch.
Michael remembered now being more annoyed with his brother than afraid of his dad. He’d shouted something inane at Danny. “I told you to hold on tight.” Then felt the crisp smack of his father’s hand across the back of his neck. He’d shut his mouth after that and sat down on the bottom step of the porch while Dutch tended to Danny.
Later, after the emergency room, Michael glanced at Danny at the other end of the backseat, propped against the passenger door, white gauze taped to his neck, his cheeks still reddened from bawling the entire time the doctor worked on him. Michael was as riled by Danny now as he was then. But that’s how it always was between them. Like night and day, they were so different. It was hard to believe they were related. Michael still wondered how they’d grown up in the same house.
With an innate passion for sports, Michael loved any athletic pursuit where he could run fast, and catch, toss, kick, pass, or hit a ball. Still to this day, he often coached his kids, and tossed a football or baseball in the yard with them. He liked the fresh air, and breaking a sweat. But Daniel was different. He was the bookworm. A kid happy to watch TV all day, never leave the house, hang out by himself or with his loner friends. Their mother shoved him outside during the summer, and locked the door behind him until dinner. Michael would ditch him to keep him away from his friends.
Michael stepped back from the bedside for a moment, wiped the sweat from his brow with both hands.
“You okay?” the detective said, from where he stood on the other side of the bed.
“Yeah,” Michael said. “Just give me a minute.”
“Like I said, take your time.”
“Right.” Michael felt sick, like the air was too thick inside the room. He glanced at the air conditioner blasting away from under the window, the type at older motels. Seemed odd, a modern hospital with a room like that, but maybe it was for fugitives, the other rooms were updated, but this space, near the stairwell, seemed to have been left off.
The guard outside the door had all but searched Michael when they first arrived, kept a serious eye on him while the detective explained the circumstances. The younger cop stepped aside for them, took a seat on a folding chair near the door. Michael noticed his gun, the Billy club, or was it called a baton now? He’d heard that term before on TV police dramas. But he didn’t ask, instead he’d followed the detective inside the sparse room. A single bed, plenty of medical equipment, the shades pulled closed on the window, a single chair near the side of the bed, no phone, no TV.
Michael couldn’t tell now if there were bars installed on the window. He wanted to be alone with Danny, but knew enough not to say anything then. Instead, he shifted nearer to the bed again.
That July 4th, when everyone else was free to run and play, Michael had to pay penance by doing yard work. All the while, tucked inside a red and white hammock, tied between two lofty Sugar Maples, Danny sorted baseball cards, his dark blue t-shirt blended so well with the patriotic fabric, it seemed as though he was stitched inside an American flag. Lake Michigan sparkled under the bright sunshine all day, and right across the street, the shoreline called out to Michael to dive into the cool water, but there would be no flips off the end of dock for Michael. Instead, he mowed the lawn, weeded the beds, and rolled the wheelbarrow full of clippings back and forth to the compost pile at the far end of the yard. But every time Michael passed by Danny, he got even with a swift kick beneath the hammock.
Near his bother’s bedside now, Michael shook his head. The same irritation welled up inside his chest, forced him to take a deep breath and let it out again. “What the hell, Danny?
The detective stepped away, leaned against the wall near the window, his arms crossed while Michael examined his brother.
The same embossed scar, Danny always formed keloids on his skin as he healed. The doctor told their mother when they’d gone for a checkup it was rare to see keloids on light skin, more common in people of color. Looking at Danny now, it seemed as though he had plenty of color, similar to the Native Americans selling jewelry by the side of the road. His skin was like worn leather. But the scar, still unchanged, about two inches in diameter, jagged, raised edges, an ugly pinkish color right above the collarbone a few millimeters shy of the carotid artery.
“For God’s sake,” their mother had said, her voice shrill as she screamed the words inside the car after they’d left the hospital. “He could have been blinded or even worse, he could have died.”
“Well,” Dutch said, as he drove the car toward the highway. “Maybe not died.”
“You heard what the doctor said.” Their mother, Jean often turned bright red when she was angry, her skin a creamy color and cheeks rosy under normal circumstances, but right then, her face was nearly crimson, the vein on her forehead bulged as she glanced over her shoulder at Michael in the backseat. He tried to look away, but he couldn’t, her face terrifying, like he’d never seen before. “It just missed the artery,” she’d said, and then glanced back out the front windshield, her eyes now on the road, her right hand directing Dutch which way to go. “Here, turn here, go right,” she said, her voice still strange, not at all acting like the refined and elegant mother Michael knew her to be. “If he’d fallen just right,” she continued, waved her hand again, as Dutch made the right turn, as requested. “That damn thing could have cut right through his neck like a knife, and he might have died.”
“He’s alive,” Dutch said. “That’s what matters.”
He watched his mother cross her arms over her white summer sweater, the one that always smelled like flowery perfume when she draped it over the back of the chair in the kitchen. “I want those fireworks gone.”
“Yes, dear.” Michael caught eyes with his father in the rearview mirror as he glared in Michael’s direction. Dutch never liked when Jean was upset, and neither did Michael.
“You got us in trouble, stupid.” Michael tried to whisper, but Dutch heard him, swung his big arm over the seat, smacked Michael on the leg, hard. He shut up again. Stayed quiet all the way home. But he retaliated later with every jab he took beneath the hammock.
Danny took his punishment well, never cried out for Mommy. Although, Michael wished he would. He’d have taken the belt over yard work anytime, faster, and no punk brother on watch from the hammock.
Jean made it clear after her rant that the boys were not to bother Grandmother Lacey about what happened. “You go straight to bed when we get home,” she’d said. “I don’t want you worrying my mother.”
Jean always referred to Grandmother Lacey as her mother, never called her Grandma, or even Grandmother. It was always, ‘my mother’. As if she was some separate entity, not a regular grandmother, like their father’s mother. Dutch’s mom was Grandma. Even Jean called her Grandma. But Grandmother Lacey was another type, and Michael never liked her, she wasn’t grandmotherly at all. She paid little or no attention to Michael and Daniel when they visited. Sure, sometimes she’d have gifts for them, but they were placed in the guest room at the end of their beds and all toys were to be kept inside the bedroom. She really only spoke to Jean when they were there, out on the porch or in her bedroom with the door closed. Private conversations. Michael didn’t know why, never asked. He just figured Grandmother Lacey was strange. In fact, he’d often thought his brother was just like her, odd as he was, even teased him about it.
“Weirdo,” Michael said, that day in the yard. Tossed a few clumps of weeds on Danny’s head as he went by. “Why don’t you go stay in your room all day like her,” Michael said, and nodded toward their grandmother’s windows along the forbidden wing of the old cottage. He’d nearly let go of the wheelbarrow when he thought he saw her peering out from behind the sheer curtains. After he paused to regroup and get a better grip on the handles, the shadow disappeared, she’d moved away from the window. “You’re as freaky as her,” he’d said to Danny. “Like a freakazoid.”
But when he’d glanced back at his brother in the hammock, Danny brushed the dirt from his hair, as if he didn’t even notice him.
Michael breathed in deep again. He’d never felt comfortable in hospitals.
Better here than at the morgue, I guess.
He noticed the detective watching him again.
Michael’s nerves were frazzled from the flight to Phoenix, the headache at the car rental counter and the long drive north to the address Margaret had given him.
When he arrived, police swarmed the grounds. Said some guy, called Alex Gershom, lived there. Michael almost left, thought he had the wrong place, but the detective stopped him.
“What’s your name, sir?” the man had said. Dressed in a dark sport coat and khaki slacks, instead of a uniform, Michael could tell he was in charge.
“Michael Waterson.” He didn’t hesitate, even reached out to shake hands, as if he was visiting a client. He’d left his own jacket inside the rental car, the temperature too high for coats. He wondered how the man could tolerate wearing lightweight wool in that type of heat, not a drip of sweat on his forehead, his hand cool and dry when they shook hands.
The detective interrupted Michael when he once again tried to explain he had the wrong address. “I think you might know Alex Gershom,” the detective said. “We have reason to believe he’s actually Daniel Waterson.”
Michael stood in the gravel outside the gates certain the officer was wrong. Danny wouldn’t live in such an elaborate home, especially if he was trying to hide. And Margaret said he stayed in a tiny room out behind a house. This was an estate. Not a house. She hadn’t said anything about Danny using another name. Or had she? The conversation was quick. Maggie wanted to get off the phone. Had cried, in fact, she’d sobbed. He hadn’t known what to do. Didn’t know if she’d gone crazy. But somehow, he believed her. She was too upset to be lying. In his gut, he knew it was true. Daniel was alive. After he hung up, he’d driven straight to the airport, got on the first flight west, connected twice before landing in Phoenix.
The man was still talking and Michael realized he hadn’t heard a single word. He tried to step forward toward the house again, but the detective grabbed him by the arm, led him further away. Michael saw the yellow tape along the front gate. That’s when he blacked out.
When he came to, he was actually still upright, leaning against the detective, his head spinning. The detective helped him inside the backseat of a black sedan, not the rental car he’d driven, a different car with the engine running. Inside, the leather seat was cool, the air chilly compared to outside.
“Wait here,” the detective said. “Cool off, I’ll get you some water.” Before Michael knew it, the detective handed him bottled water through the door. “The heat can sneak up on you out here.”
Michael gulped swigs of water, tried to explain again that he had the wrong address. Even got back out of the car. “I need to find my brother.”
“I’ll take you to him.” The detective asked if he could see Michael’s identification and check for concealed weapons. Michael nodded, and then realized when it was too late, he’d agreed to a pat down. “He’s at the hospital here in Flagstaff, but they might move him to Phoenix, so I’d like to head over right now, if it’s okay, so you can get a look at him, maybe ID him for me.”
Michael hadn’t responded for a moment. His heart raced. “Is he still alive?”
“Yes, he’s stable, but he needs surgery,” the detective said. “I need you to take a look at him, see if you can identify him as Daniel Waterson.”
Michael would learn later about the woman they’d found in the barn at the estate. That Danny was suspected of murder. But when they first arrived at the hospital, all Michael knew was that there was a man there, who had two driver’s licenses in his wallet, one for Alex Gershom, and the other, Daniel Waterson.
Michael took another look at this man who claimed to be two people, leaned in closer, even though he already knew the truth. “He’s Daniel Waterson,” Michael said, his eyes on Danny’s face. “He’s my brother.”
They were just kids back then, at the cottage. He thought his mom liked Danny better than him that weekend. That maybe she always did. God knows she always protected Danny, like he was some angel. He had this way, a kind of gift for being able to charm women. Even their Grandma in Ohio preferred Danny to Michael, always cutting a bigger slice of cake for him, sneaking cookies to him in the loft. Michael saw it. Dutch had even talked to him about it once.
“He’s the youngest, the baby, don’t worry about it,” Dutch said, when Michael had stormed out of the farmhouse kitchen, stomped straight down to the creek and was tossing stones into the water by the time his dad caught up. “Just the way it is,” Dutch said. “You’ll understand someday when you’re a parent,” he explained, “The baby is always the favorite.” Michael wasn’t satisfied with what his dad said. “But, here’s the good news, son,” Dutch said, as he rested his strong hand on Michael’s shoulder. “Don’t tell anyone, but the truth is, you’re my favorite.”
They stood together for a long while, silent, his dad skipped a few rocks across the top of the water. Michael reached for a few pebbles himself and mimicked the way his father had tossed the stones, held his wrist flat the same way, and then flicked the rock sideways, watched it bounce across the currents.
“See there,” Dutch said. “You’re a quick learner, and you’re athletic like your old man.” He smiled at Michael, a big, broad smile. The type of smile Michael always craved from him, even now. Approval from his father meant the world to him. He knew his dad would be proud of him for going to find his brother now. “Let your little brother have the women,” Dutch said, with a wink. “You and me, we’ve got something different. We’re men’s men. And son, it’s a man’s world,” he said. “Your brother, he’s what you call a lady’s man, and they don’t do as well.”
After that day, whenever Danny brought their mother bouquets of buttercups from the yard, and Jean would go on about how sweet he was at dinner, Dutch would wink at Michael, and somehow Michael didn’t care as much anymore.
But even so, Michael had still tried to get his mother’s attention, and knew he’d win her over in the end. It’s what drove his competitive nature, made him want to win, with sports, in business, and even with Margaret.
After Brian drowned, Michael didn’t need to try very hard to be favored by his mother. She grew to resent, even hate Daniel, after Brian died. Even Michael began to feel sorry for Danny.
He realized long before Danny left for New York, before that fated day when the planes crashed into the towers that he’d gone too far with his jealousy toward Daniel. It wasn’t enough that he’d made his brother take the fall for Brian’s death back in high school. After all, he’d been there, too. He knew Brian stayed at the dock after Danny came up to the house without him. But, Michael had done nothing. The thing was, Michael wasn’t drunk that night, not like Danny and Brian. He’d been the one to hand them beers all night, maybe to see if they could handle their alcohol, or just so they’d get sick. He didn’t remember now. But, he did know, he was the one who got them drunk. And he also knew, he’d seduced Margaret when Danny first started going wild.
Michael saw it coming. He followed his brother several times, worried about him. Michael witnessed his reckless behavior, how he drank so much, drove too fast, slept with strange women he’d pick up at hotel bars where they stayed for business. Michael knew all about it. He saw it happening and never did anything to help Danny. His own behavior wasn’t much better, and in fact, Michael was glad, maybe even relieved, when Margaret broke it off for good, said she wanted to save her marriage.
Michael knew why Daniel never came back to Cleveland. It was because of him. He’d driven his brother off. Taking Danny down had become an obsession.
With Danny as his target, Margaret had become Michael’s main fixation. He’d wondered how he didn’t notice her in high school. She was beautiful when Danny brought her home to meet the family. Intoxicating. Maggie was stunning, but more than her physical looks, it was her essence, the softness in her voice, the way she tossed her head back when she laughed. Michael found himself falling for Maggie, every time she listened to him, laughed at his jokes. She was the perfect audience, even told him to date nicer girls, marry someone special, that he was worth it. When Daniel announced their engagement, Michael’s heart shattered into a million pieces. He was in love with her, too.
His heart beat fast now as he stood next to his brother’s bed. Michael had already confirmed Danny’s identity, but it wasn’t only the scar on Danny’s neck that proved he’d found his brother. There were other reasons, too.
The next indication at almost the same moment Michael thought of the scar, were the prominent veins on the back of Danny’s hands. Michael could almost see the blood pumping through the thick blue-green lines. Michael had tortured Danny about that, too. Called him, Hulk, freak, even an animal. Anything to get a rise out of Danny, but it never worked, because Danny always walked away, sulked by himself in another room. Eventually as adults, Danny would just have another drink when Michael tried to bust his balls.
Michael tried to ignore the tattoos on his brother’s arms. Sure, it flashed through his mind, Danny at a tattoo parlor. Made him nearly break down right there and cry. But he didn’t. He held himself together. Instead, he focused on being certain. Like the detective had said. That was easy when he looked at Danny’s hands. The tattoos were not an identifying factor. To Michael it was a personal matter between brothers. He knew exactly why Danny got those tattoos.
After the wedding, when Danny married Margaret, Michael went out with some friends the next weekend. He got stupid drunk downtown at an Indian’s game. Danny was somewhere in Canada by then with Maggie, and Michael couldn’t stand the thought of them up there in the woods together. So he drank a ton of beers at the game and afterward, ordered shots of tequila on a bar crawl with the same group of friends. After they took the Red Line to Cleveland Heights to search for more bars, but Michael walked inside a tattoo shop instead, paid good money to have the Chinese letter for strength tattooed on his upper arm. He wouldn’t do it again, even though he couldn’t remember the sting, having been so inebriated, but what he did remember, was the look on Danny’s face, fresh off his honeymoon with Maggie, as she said she liked the tattoo.
“I love the simple lines,” she’d said, and traced the black symbol with her fingertip. “Did it hurt?”
“Not really,” Michael said, smirking at Danny. “I wanted something strong.” He’d flexed his muscle as Maggie examined the tattoo. “Kind of a crazy night, but I’m glad I did it.”
“You’re an interesting guy, Michael.” Maggie smiled and tilted her head, glanced into his eyes. “Like peeling back an onion, you’ve got so many layers.”
Michael knew right then, it wouldn’t be hard to get her attention if Danny didn’t watch himself.
He couldn’t look at Danny’s tattoos now. It all seemed so pitiful.
“What happened, Danny?”
Michael shook his head.
Funny what you remembered about someone.
Danny always had bigger hands than Michael. He could palm a basketball. But Danny had no use for those types of skills since he never liked sports, other than from the sidelines of an armchair in his den. Danny inherited their father’s large bones, and his prominent cheekbones like so many from the Netherlands. Michael, on the other hand, took after his mother’s side of the family. An athletic build, yes, but not lanky and durable like Dutch and Daniel. They were both solid. If Michael paused his workouts for long, he went soft fast. His dad had great posture even now as an elderly gentleman, maybe a bit thicker around the middle, but still quite sturdy, even robust for a man his age.
Danny’s hands were proof even without studying his face. The only difference, the calluses, nicks with new keloid scars, the hands of a builder or a bricklayer. Not Daniel. Not the Daniel he knew anyway. The most strenuous thing Danny ever did was flip steak on his backyard grill.
But he was obviously a different person now.
People could change.
Michael knew firsthand, because he was different now, too. He wasn’t the same loud mouth guy who needed all the attention. Over the years, he’d grown up, tired of the same old stories, living in the past, his glory days.
So one day, he stopped, like an alcoholic who decides never to drink again. Michael ended his braggart behavior.
It was after he’d lost Daniel, called Margaret on his way to find him, figured out he’d lost her forever, and then later when Patty got sick, it all began to sink in. He needed to change. So he did.
Patty wouldn’t let him tell anyone about her condition. It was enough for the family to mourn the loss of Daniel, and besides, she’d been ill for a while, long before Danny disappeared. The medicine never worked, so several months after Danny disappeared, she went in for surgery and received treatment with radioactive iodine to kill what was left of the over-active tissue.
Even though they cut away the tumor on her thyroid, Michael thought for sure, he would lose her. The boys would grow up without their mother. She was so weak afterward. But like a miracle, she began to rebound, even gained some weight back, and eventually became healthy enough to give birth again, to their third son, who was still so young. Their baby, the one who was a bit spoiled just like Dutch said. Michael vowed then to be a good husband, to love Patty the way she deserved. But out of the blue, last year, Patty was diagnosed with Leukemia. She was thinner than ever before from the chemo, but despite all the side effects, she was still the best mom to their kids. Dutch knew about it now, but Michael hadn’t told Margaret, there was no reason, she’d moved on with her life by then and Patty didn’t want her to know anyway. She didn’t want anyone to know. He realized for so many years, he’d been an ass. Promised everyday, he’d be a good person if God would let Patty make it through. Michael only hoped his prayers weren’t too late.
The tubes and white tape masked Danny’s face, but it didn’t keep Michael from knowing him. There was no reason to even see his face, because Michael had known the moment he walked into the room. Even more than the two physical facts, Michael knew this was his brother, because he’d know Danny anywhere. Every breath his brother took, Michael remembered him, recognized him. He’d always know Danny, no matter what. They were brothers, and Michael loved him, he did.
When he first came in the room, a nurse was prepping Danny for surgery. The nurse mentioned she’d shaved his beard, but would come back to cut his hair, after Michael had time to see him. No matter. Danny’s long hair couldn’t obscure the fact of whom he was, and just like Margaret, Michael had known Danny right away.
Michael’s eyes filled with tears now. His brother was hooked up to machines, fighting for his life. And Michael wanted Danny to live.
He sat down in the chair near the bed, hunched over, and dropped his head in his hands. “It’s Danny, he’s my brother,” he said, between sobs. “I’m certain.”
Danny was alive.
He’d walked away from his life.
And Michael might be the only one who’d ever understand why.
Daniel opened his eyes, mouth parched, dim lights overhead. There were voices nearby, muffled. When he eased his head to the right, he noticed the door ajar, held open by the arm of a man, leaning into the hallway, broad shoulders, grey dress slacks and wingtips. Inside the room, to the left of the door, in the corner, Brian stood dressed in translucent silvery robes, his eyes peaceful. The door swung open wider, and blocked Danny from seeing Brian for a moment, then shut all the way. Brian had vanished, and so had the man in the wingtips.
When Daniel woke again later, his eyes searched the room for Brian, still gone. But next to him, slumped in a chair, arms folded across his chest, eyes and mouth shut, same wingtips and trousers, Daniel knew him right away.
“Michael?” His voice raspy, throat sore, he gasped for air. “Water,” he whispered.
His brother stood up before he could choke out another word.
“It’s okay,” Michael said. “You’re going to be fine.”
Michael’s hair was grey now. Fine white strands mixed with dark brown, same face, exactly the same, in fact.
Michael seemed puzzled, his forehead wrinkled, a deep line formed between his brows that Daniel hadn’t noticed before.
“Brian died when we were kids, Danny, remember?”
Daniel glanced toward the corner trying to make sense of what he’d seen before. He remembered now, they swam together again, one last time.
Was it a dream?
It all seemed so real.
He tried to speak again, but the words caught in his throat, he couldn’t get enough air. He grabbed for Michael.
“Stay calm,” Michael said, and used some type of damp pad to moisten his lips and dry mouth. “They removed the tubing, so you’ll feel dry, but you can’t have water yet, only these swabs for now.” Michael held the swab for him to see before he ran it inside his mouth, across the top of his tongue and along his lips again.
A temporary fix, but water was what he needed.
Michael placed a new swab in Danny’s left hand, and that’s when Danny realized he couldn’t raise his arm, locked against the sidebar of the bed.
“Sorry,” Michael said, and motioned to the guardrail. “I forgot about the handcuff.” He grabbed the swab from Danny, ran it over his lips several times. “They’ve got you on lockdown, your ankles, too.”
Daniel could feel the shackles on his feet now.
“You know you’re in a lot of trouble, right?”
“Why are you here?” Daniel said.
Danny felt the cotton sheets beneath him. His chest bare, his upper right arm felt stiff, strapped against his side. A large white dressing was taped to his upper chest and shoulder. An IV line poked his arm. He couldn’t raise his right arm either, could only move his hands, so he tried to reach for Michael’s sleeve.
“Where are we?” he said.
Michael took his hand and placed it down against the mattress again, held it there with his own. “You’re in Flagstaff at the hospital,” he said. “You had surgery for a gunshot wound to your shoulder.” Michael nodded toward Daniel’s right arm, and then squeezed his hand. “Don’t make any sudden moves, you’ve also got a drain for your head injury.”
His skull felt different, the burning pain had subsided, but he could feel the heat in his shoulder now, and he could see in Michael’s eyes that his injuries were serious.
“How long have I been here?”
“Three days or more,” Michael said, and glanced over his shoulder at the doorway. “You don’t remember being awake before?”
Daniel stared at his brother.
Did Margaret call him?
“Maggie,” he said, his voice weak. “Is she okay?”
Did Sonia hurt her after all?
“She’s fine,” Michael said. “She’s with the detective at the police station for questioning.”
Questioning? What’s he saying?
Daniel tried to get up again, but Michael held him down.
“Stop, or you’ll hurt yourself, stay still now.” Michael let him go once he relaxed again. “Try to be quiet.” Michael glanced at the door once more. “The officer could come in anytime,” he said. “They only let me in here because you were unconscious.”
Daniel closed his eyes, tried to make sense of what Michael said. He wanted to go back to the lake, to lie in the grass, to wait for God.
“No, don’t go to sleep, not yet.” Michael was over him now, near his face, he could feel his brother’s breath on his cheek. “Open your eyes, Danny.”
Danny was his real name.
How long had it been since he’d heard his brother’s voice? Why did it sound so comforting now?
“I’m awake.” Danny squeezed his eyes open again, but struggled to focus on his brother’s face.
Danny remembered the bright lights now, the dogs barking, and the loud blast.
“I called a lawyer,” Michael said. “So don’t talk to the police before you meet with him, be careful what you say.” Michael spoke in a low, husky voice, his breath smelled like scotch and peppermint. “Did you really kill her?”
Panic rose inside Daniel’s chest.
Michael slipped the monitor from Daniel’s finger. “Your blood pressure will trigger the nurses.” He slipped the device on his own finger and checked the monitor. “Mine’s not much better.”
“Mike,” he said, tried to clear his throat, nodded toward the swabs on the tray nearby.
Michael took a new one, doused the inside of Daniel’s mouth and lips again. “Better?”
Daniel nodded, using his tongue to lick the fluid from his lips. He realized Michael was talking about Sonia.
They found her body.
He pictured the scene, Sonia crumpled inside Maxwell’s stall.
The horses would be with the vet by now. They were safe. Bill called them. Of course he did.
“I choked her,” Daniel said. “I killed Sonia.”
Michael moved back several inches, stood up straight.
“But, why?” he said, his voice a whisper. “Who was she?”
“It doesn’t matter why, Mike.” He remembered the truck ride up the highway, the ski lift operator, and the blast, so loud. “I did it,” he said. “I killed her.”
Michael leaned back in. “Quiet, they might hear you, you don’t want to say that around the cops.”
“It’s the truth.”
“Just talk to the lawyer first.” Michael covered his own eyes, but the tears escaped onto Daniel’s bandages.
Daniel realized this was real. He was alive. His brother was right there, crying. Had he been dreaming before? When he saw Brian?
“I’m sorry, Michael.”
Michael wiped his nose on the back of his hand. Daniel could see his eyes again. Michael’s thick brows were mixed with grey now, too.
“I’m the one who’s sorry,” Michael said. “I’m the reason you left.” Michael shook his head now.
Daniel had more to say, but waited.
“I was thinking about that night,” Michael said. “When Brian fell under the ice.” Michael stared straight into Daniel’s eyes. “I was sober, never drank a single drop all night.” He wiped his nose again. “I got you guys drunk, knew Brian didn’t go home, and the ice was thin, I should’ve helped him, it was all my fault.”
Michael stood still as tears streamed down his face.
“I got you guys drunk on purpose,” he said, again. “I let you take the blame, never told anyone the truth.”
Daniel didn’t know what to say. Michael had seemed drunk that night. “What?” Daniel shook his head.
But, Michael just stood there, took a deep breath. “It’s true.”
Daniel glanced across the room to his left, the silver blinds were closed on the window, a bit of sun sparked along the edges of the sill, a line of light shot across the beige linoleum floor, red and grey patterned wall paper covered the adjacent wall with a door open to a bathroom, where he could see the sink and the mirror and over to the right was the other door, to the hallway, he assumed, to where the officer must be on guard. He was a prisoner, chained to the bed, he tried to scream, but when he opened his mouth nothing came.
Michael swabbed his mouth again. “You must have known the truth,” he said. “You knew about me and Margaret.”
So it was true. Daniel did know that much. He’d seen them together in the kitchen. But, he’d never thought about Brian, about his brother getting them drunk. That was the first time he’d ever had a drink.
After that horrible night, after Brian drowned, Daniel snuck into his father’s study all the time, to sip from his collection of whiskey and bourbons. When he went away to college, he kept it up, a steady supply came from a guy on the floor above him, a transfer student from Kentucky who always had plenty of alcohol stashed in his closet.
Daniel never stopped drinking and before he left for New York, and escaped to Arizona, his was worse than ever. He drank throughout the day, a flask, and the bottle under the seat in the car, another in his desk drawer at the office, hotel bars, and dark taverns on back roads. He was drunk all day, everyday, he’d just learned to hide it, to be quiet at meetings, hold it together until he was home. Maggie always got the fallout, and when the rage would escape, his moods were out of control. He knew he was sick. But he didn’t care. He’d killed his best friend. He’d ruined so many lives.
“I seduced Maggie,” Michael said. “It wasn’t her fault, I knew she was lonely, I knew you guys were in trouble.”
The streak of light from the window cast a thin trail through the air, dust particles floated in the beam, and Daniel remembered the brilliant colors of heaven, how he wasn’t afraid anymore.
Daniel glanced back at his brother now. He tried to see his face, but Michael’s head was down, looking at the floor. He could see his brother’s hair had thinned toward the back, a small circle with strands of grey and brown combed across.
“I fell in love with her that first time you brought her home.”
“We played croquet,” Daniel said. “I remember.” And he did. He remembered the way his brother showed Maggie how to hold the club, and hit the ball, how he’d held her wrists and circled around her, giving instruction, sat next to her before Daniel could in the dining room.
“That’s why you left, and I don’t blame you,” Michael said. “I was a shit to you, your whole life.”
“Jacob.” Daniel could see his son’s face now, how he’d turned to catch eyes with his dad.
“He’s your son, Danny.”
Daniel already knew that, he’d seen the boy. Jacob was his son.
“Does he know about me?”
Michael nodded. “He saw the news before Maggie could get to him.”
The door opened wide and Michael stepped aside as the officer came toward the bed. “What’s going on in here?”
“He just now opened his eyes,” Michael lied, his face stained with tears.
“I heard voices.” The cop wore a dark uniform, silver badge above his left pocket, two pens and a pad of paper in the other, a radio microphone tucked between the buttons on his shirt, a thick belt with holster and gun, a black club tucked into a holder on one side, a wedding ring on his finger.
Daniel wondered if he and his wife had children, lived nearby, if he was a rookie, seemed young. He was stocky, dark brown closely trimmed hair, how Daniel kept his once. The top was spiked, and he almost looked like a younger, more athletic Carlos. Hispanic. Handsome like he took care of himself, worked out, ate right, probably had a wife who loved him, worried about him when he was on the job. He wondered if this young man was one of the officers who’d hunted him down in the woods, flashed bright lights on him, aimed their weapons at him, did he know the officer who’d shot him?
Everything came fast now. Daniel’s mind was in overdrive. His senses were alive and he felt clearer than he had in weeks, maybe even years. He shifted in the bed, could feel something taped to his lower back, noticed the line feeding out and off the side of the bed, hooked to a plastic container, the sheet and thin blanket covered him to mid-waist. He wasn’t cold. In fact, he was a bit too warm if anything. Maybe he still had a fever. Margaret had put cool towels on his forehead, had run her fingers along his skin, made love to him with the moon shining in from the skylight, her hair shiny as it fell against her skin. He understood now that she’d only tried to show him the love they once shared, so he’d snap out of his lost mind. She’d almost succeeded, but in the end, he didn’t want to go back.
He hoped Margaret wasn’t afraid now at the police station, a cold metal chair, one of those wooden tables with a lamp overhead. Were they interrogating her? Did they think she had something to do with Sonia’s death?
Daniel met the officer’s eyes. “I was telling my brother I wanted to confess.”
A sudden stillness fell over the room, only the buzz of the hospital equipment and the light above his head. The officer asked Michael to step away, to move over toward the door, to stay quiet, not speak to his brother. “Sir, you need to move aside, right now.”
“Michael, do what he says.”
Daniel nodded to Michael, and his brother gave up his post and moved away, wiped his face with the inside of his hands and then folded them in front of him, and lowered his head again.
“Sir, I need to read The Miranda Rights to you, but first I need to know if you are fully awake, are you aware of what you just said, of where you are and of what this means?”
“I know what I’m doing, yes.”
Daniel could see the young officer was looking him over, noticed the blood pressure clip unattached next to his finger.
“I’d like to call for your doctor or nurse to make sure you are okay before you say anything else.” He pushed the button on the side of the railing, and a female voice said they’d be right there.
Daniel closed his eyes for a moment, his mouth felt dry again, he wished he could have a drink of water, soak the walls of his throat with fluids. It was hard to breath deep, so he kept his breathing shallow, afraid to cough, knowing the pain he felt in his chest would be worse if he did. He focused on each breath until the nurse came in, hooked him up to the heart monitor again, swabbed his mouth and lips, checked the level of fluid in the container dangling from the side of the bed, felt for his pulse while she watched the second hand on her watch and then checked the bandages on his chest and forehead.
She had light, golden hair like Maggie, pulled back into a ponytail, younger, but pretty like Maggie, too. Feminine. Wholesome. It was then that Daniel realized his long hair was gone. Shaven. He could feel the smoothness of his skin against the pillowcase.
She seemed to have noticed. “They shaved your hair before surgery, it was so tangled they decided to take it all off. You’ve had two procedures this week, they removed most of the bullet and debris from your shoulder, and the next morning opened your skull to relieve the pressure in your brain. The surgeon can explain everything when she comes in for rounds this evening. You’re stable, but still in the ICU for observation. We might move you to another room tomorrow. We’ll see how you do tonight. Are you thirsty?”
Daniel nodded. Her fingers were cool against his arm as she adjusted the IV line.
“I’ll bring you ice chips when I come back with a new IV bag.” She squeezed the bag hanging on a tall metal arm next to Daniel’s bed. “Be just a few minutes, can you hold on till then?”
“Yes, I’m okay.”
“Are you cold?”
“No, I’m fine.” He was warm, but it was okay, he didn’t want to stop her from leaving.
“You seem alert, how’s your pain?”
“I can give you something more for pain if you need it, just let me know, I’ll be here all night, just push this button.” The nurse pointed to the side of the railing. “My name is Sally, if you need anything.”
She spoke to the officer for a moment in a low voice, too quiet for him to hear what she said, and then squeezed past Michael near the door to leave. Daniel closed his eyes again, pictured his grandmother’s house, the bed where he would sleep, could almost smell the applesauce cake in the oven.
“Sir,” the officer said.
But, Daniel couldn’t open his eyes now. He was too tired and drifted off again, dreamed about the orchards, running between the rows of trees.
“You have to tell the truth, Danny.” He heard his grandmother’s voice at the end of the orchard.
She stepped from the trees, a basket at her side, the same apron she always wore when she was in the kitchen, her hair up in a twist with a long gold comb holding it in place, wisps of silver hair that had escaped blew in the breeze.
“You need to do the right thing and put this all to rest now,” she said.
Daniel felt the breeze against his own skin now, his grandmother slipped back behind the trees, the fruit ripe and low on the branches, he caught sight of her hand on the basket before she disappeared all together and he was back in the hospital room.
“Are you okay, sir?” The officer stood nearby. “Do you want to make a statement now?”
Daniel nodded and the man read to him from a small black notebook – his rights. The officer explained that he’d record what Daniel said and would need Daniel’s signature on a form. He asked if Daniel understood.
“Yes, I understand.”
Michael stood nearby as a witness, Daniel realized, his brother was asked to stay for his confession.
It was okay. In fact, it felt right. Daniel was ready to come clean about everything. And he realized now, he’d already forgiven Michael. Now they could make things right, together. He didn’t want a lawyer to talk him out of a confession, and he wanted his brother in the room. Things needed to be said.
Michael wasn’t guilty for anything more than being a competitive older brother, for falling in love with Margaret. She was easy to fall for, her tender voice and gentle nature. Maggie was the kind of woman a man wanted to protect and somewhere along the way, Daniel got lost, drank too much, forgot to love her, turned himself over to his insecurities, the voices so loud inside his head, he’d gone deaf.
As far as Michael’s confession about the night Brian died, it was something Michael would have to deal with on his own, with God. Daniel knew he was responsible too. His brother wasn’t the only one who’d made poor choices that night. Everything else -- Michael was right -- was stupid, all of it. Both of them had been fools.
But worse than anything, Daniel had ended Sonia’s life with his own bare hands. He could have stopped, but he didn’t and now he needed to tell the truth.
Daniel told the officer everything. How he’d walked away after the planes crashed into the buildings, assumed a new identity, had hidden away -- deserted his wife and child.
He told him about Sonia, how she’d stalked him. That she didn’t deserve to die. “I killed her,” he said. He didn’t cry. Her life meant more than him being weak. “She came at me with a knife and I pulled her into a headlock, squeezed her wrist until she let the knife drop, and then I pulled my arm even tighter around her neck until she was gone. I remember it all, very clearly. I left her in Maxwell’s stall and took off on the motorcycle.”
Daniel stopped then -- turned his head away from the officer.
Michael had stayed silent the whole time.
Daniel closed his eyes again. The room felt cooler. He heard the nurse’s voice on the speaker nearby, pretty Sally, said she’d be right in. Within minutes her hand was on his wrist and he opened his eyes to see her hang a new IV bag of fluids on the hook, and then she held a plastic spoon to his mouth, the ice slipped onto his tongue, instant relief.
Her eyes were hazel, not blue like Maggie’s, and she wore thick black mascara, her brows penciled in light brown, more make-up than Maggie ever wore and her scent was lighter, citrusy, like lemons, probably from the soap she used between patients. Not the same spicy perfume as Maggie.
Daniel closed his mouth, let the ice melt on his tongue as he signed the report with his left hand, still cuffed to the bedside rail, then he shut his eyes again. He let a single tear escape down his cheek. For Sonia, Maggie, Jake, Michael, Dutch and his mother.
He was finished now. And at the time of the end, when he waited in the meadow again, Daniel would know the lies had ended, forever. He’d pay for his sins, and while he was still alive, he’d spend everyday for the rest of his life, doing what was right, being the man he was meant to be.
Across the room, Daniel could hear the quiet voices of his brother and the officer, Sally rearranged the IV pole near his bed, the wheels squeaked against the floor, the hum of the air-conditioner kicked in by the window and Daniel breathed in deep, his chest rose and then fell as he released the air from inside his lungs in a slow, deliberate fashion. He could breathe again.
The swish of the door against the linoleum meant Michael and the young officer had moved into the hall, and as the door inched shut again, Daniel kept his eyes closed.
Sally’s cool hand on his wrist now, his pulse pumped in even beats under her fingertips before she straightened the blanket across his lap. As Sally pulled the door wide open again to leave, Daniel peaked out from under heavy lids, and there stood Maggie, several feet beyond the young officer and Michael now in deep conversation with another man. Henry was at her side, concentrated on his cellphone.
Their eyes met, and Daniel saw the glisten of tears as he held her gaze, her golden waves of hair fell against a sheer, cream-colored sweater, which illuminated her sun kissed skin.
Maggie tilted her head, her eyes shown bright under the hospital lights, a faint smile formed across her lips as she nodded to him then wiped away a tear as the door crept shut all the way, the room empty and still.
The Lies We Keep Copyright © 2015-2016 By Caron Kamps Widden
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