BY TIM CYPHERS
This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
We all went to the airport to pick up Nick. Thomas, Ava, Belle, even my mother-in-law, Nancy, who made more of a fuss than needed when we loaded her into the van on the way.
“With my aches, it’s hardly worth the trouble,” she’d said, though she’d confirmed the time with us repeatedly in the days leading up to Nick’s arrival. She called the house so often I stopped answering when I saw her number on the caller ID. Thomas had told me, half-joking, that she’d never miss the chance to greet her favourite son.
Nick sauntered off the jet-way, rolling his gray luggage, in sunglasses, a flat-brim hat and loose jeans. His short-sleeved red button-up, covered in tiny bicycles, looked like it was picked up in a thrift shop. His appearance shouted chiseled California surfer guitar player, not football star, but we’d all seen him play many times at Texas Tech, and though it hadn’t worked out in the pros yet, we knew how talented he was on the field.
The girls ran to him and hugged him around the legs. He was unshaven, more shaggy-haired than I remembered, which Nancy commented on right away after he kissed her on the cheek.
“It’s my unemployed look,” Nick said as his mother squeezed his cheeks. I don’t think he meant it as a slight to Thomas, I really don’t, but I watched Thomas’s jaw clench at the word — unemployed.
“Your father would never approve,” Nancy said. “Of course, with him around, maybe you wouldn’t look so unkempt.”
Nancy always did this, not that I blamed her. She always brought up their father who died over 10 years ago when they were teenagers in a road construction accident. He was the boys’ youth football coach, and I get it, fatherly life lessons and all of that. Discipline, hard work, honoring commitments. But boys with their fathers are weird, and from my standpoint I didn’t think Nancy ever properly grieved or moved on from the tragedy. And from the way Thomas tightened anytime his late dad was brought up, I often wondered if he hadn’t either.
“I thought he grew his hair out for the disco craze,” Nick said, to which I laughed and Nancy even allowed a tiny laugh that didn’t sound forced. She never laughed but it was a good joke. Mr. Mason had been a marine and never would’ve let hair grow over his ears, or come to dinner without first shaving the day’s stubble. Thomas never showed the ability to joke about his father, and I didn’t quite know why. Maybe it was his age versus Nick’s when the accident occurred. He put all this pressure on himself as the oldest son while Nick was so happy go lucky.
“Take off those glasses, let me see you,” Nancy said. “How’re you feeling?”
Nick listened and removed the shades. His bright blue eyes were something to see, like the clearest of balmy bay waters. When he joked or engaged someone in conversation, it was like he knew a secret and could share it non-verbally, with just a flash across those blues.
“I’m supposed to wear them,” he said. “Light makes it really sensitive, especially off the snow.”
The east coast was still dealing with a recent snow and ice storm that left piles of brown crud dotted around the runways and shopping center parking lots. The morning sun made it look warm outside but it wasn’t. A frigid chill had descended on the region that re-froze any day-melt into black ice at night. The girls had been off all week, at home with us, and Monday wasn’t looking promising for schools re-opening. To say the least, our house had contracted severe cabin fever and everyone, I think at first, welcomed Nick’s buoyant presence.
“And the headaches?” Nancy asked.
“God-awful,” he said. “They still say it’s the worst concussion they’ve seen, so that’s worked out for me.” He smiled. “But I’ll get back on the field.”
“Heavens, I hope not,” Nancy said. “Even your father would recommend retirement after that hit. You could get into coaching with your resume.”
“I’m a player, Mom,” Nick said.
Nancy shook her head and turned away from the circle we’d formed around Nick. She made a protest of muttering to herself and pacing a few steps before turning back. It was no secret, she wanted Nick out of football for good. I wished for him to be able to play if he still had the desire—I couldn’t imagine how he did — but without saying it out loud, we understood that medically he might not have a choice.
“It’s not about me though,” Nick said. “How’re you all doing?”
Thomas and I murmured the standard responses of okay and good, even though things had been the opposite. The girls bragged about their snow-cation and told him about all the movies they’d watched. They were obsessed with Cars, an animated film I did enjoy until about the millionth showing. Nick was good with them, asking who their teachers were and what they’d been learning this year, about their best friends and hobbies. He knelt and held their hands when he talked to them. His undivided attention was endearing to watch.
“You did get cracked pretty good out there,” Thomas said, as Nick got back to his feet. Thomas had barely said a word since Nick arrived. Nick, still without his sunglasses, seemed to give his brother a brief look from head to toe. A brief look that I read a lot into. That might’ve been saying, “At least I made it that far,” in equal parts disdain and disrespect. I knew there’d been some discussion, at my request, between them about a loan. After we missed two mortgage payments, I didn’t see another option.
“If the throw’s on-target, you would’ve seen my new end-zone dance,” Nick said, another half-joke but he wasn’t smiling.
“You never quite had the height,” Thomas said.
Nick stepped forward and for the smallest instant I thought I was about to watch a fight. Surely, in front of their mother in public, cooler heads must prevail. I’d be lying if I said part of me didn’t pine for Nick to sock Thomas in the chin.
“Did you bring a jacket at least?” Nancy clearly sensed the same tension. “Is that all you packed? This isn’t the beach.”
“Should have one in here.” Nick unzipped his luggage. He pulled out a windbreaker that was way too thin for the weather. “Figured Tommy boy here could lend me some threads.” Nick slapped Thomas on the shoulder. “If I can grow into them.”
Thomas grinned and for the moment our upside-down world reached a balance. Two brothers, one wife, a mother, two little cherished girls, and a partridge in a burning pear tree.
“Let’s get out of here and get some breakfast,” Nick said, pulling on his light jacket, giving me that knowing blue-eyed smirk before he dropped his sunglasses down from his flat-brim. “Flying makes me hungry.”
After a relatively peaceful trip to the diner, Nick asked for a stop at the CVS pharmacy. He said he’d only be a minute and we waited in the car. He jogged across the parking lot to cut through the freeze.
“Nicky seems to be doing quite well, considering,” Nancy said. I’m sure it had been itching her to talk about him when he wasn’t present. She loved to sit with her friends and gab around the weekly Bridge game. No one offered any response. The girls were in the back coloring, off in another world. Thomas fiddled with the radio dial and I watched out the window, full from French toast and not feeling very energetic. Traffic was starting to pick up as people shopped and ran errands on their Saturday. Streams of cars splashed through the wet slush on the four-lane busy roadway, the sound rising and falling with churning motors. Nancy pressed on. “I just wish he’d find a nice girl and settle down, become a coach. He always had that knack for instruction, like your father. You know?”
She was sitting behind Thomas. I imagined the nasally float of her words hitting his ear and driving him near-mad. If he didn’t say something, she’d keep poking until he had to.
“Nick will figure it out,” Thomas said. “He’ll have options. He’s always followed his instincts.”
“It must be nice to be able to do what you want,” Nancy said.
With a mother-in-law, you never quite know. I’d hope that she didn’t intentionally want to ignite Thomas, but she had this way of making loaded comments that were obvious to any listener. We’d heard enough just this morning to conclude she preferred one son over the other.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” One hand on the wheel, Thomas turned toward the backseat. A small vein above his temple protruded.
“Don’t snap at me,” Nancy said, raising a hand to her chest. “We both want what’s best for Nick.”
I reached and patted Thomas’s leg. “It’s okay,” I said. He spun suddenly and glared at me, something aflame and distant in his expression, like he may have already been starting to lose it. He put both hands on the wheel, and then dropped them into his lap, twisting his fingers.
“Nick’s well-being is our top priority,” Thomas said, oiled in sarcasm. “We did agree to him staying.”
It takes two to tango. Thomas didn’t have to project his mother’s comment about doing what one wanted onto himself. He knew and she knew he couldn’t do whatever he wanted. When the securities firm he worked for laid off his division in the fall, six months after we extended ourselves on a beefy mortgage for a house along the Hudson now worth less than we paid for it, we both knew he couldn’t do what he wanted. I knew I couldn’t do what I wanted. I’d since gone back to work part-time at a CPA firm, doing audits and tax returns that were about to majorly pick-up, using my accounting degree. I had no problem with working to chip in but we all knew it wasn’t going to be enough. The job market was abysmal.
Even Belle, who had definitely started listening after her father’s sharp tone, at aged seven, knew it wasn’t going to be enough. We’d already lost the ability to temper foul moods in the presence of our young daughters, and that was the worst part, yet even in recognizing this, it still felt uncontrollable. But Nancy didn’t have to say what she said either. Part of me got that she couldn’t help it. The other part of me hated her. Outwardly, as was my way, I said nothing.
“He’s still your brother,” Nancy said. “And here he comes.”
In surfer mode, Nick was bobbing toward the car. He let out a roaring whoopp, took a few quick steps and slid across a patch of black ice, his right arm leading, extended for balance. The movement surprised me considering his injury. Ava and Belle smacked their hands against the glass and giggled, loving their uncle’s antics. The window would need thorough Windex, and I cringed about that, knowing it would fall on me. But watching my daughters’ elation, the severity of my husband subdued, and the man delivering the chance for progress, I felt a warmth spread through me while biting my lip.
“I know,” Thomas said, “and the concussion’s gotten worse.”
In Nick’s left hand were two white paper bags from the pharmacy, weighted with contents.
That night after another big meal of spaghetti, salad, garlic bread and wine, after the girls were in bed, the three of us opened another bottle of wine, and then another. Nick got to talking about the football play and the injury, candidly, how I hadn’t heard before. The way he described the field, insanity of the crowd noise, running across the middle of the defense, I had chills. Maybe from the wine, but I almost cried. He had the scariest job in the world, especially for someone of his size. It ran in the blood, he was toughness personified.
“I remember how freaked you were in the hospital,” Thomas said. “All out of sorts, confused newborn.”
Thomas dutifully had flown to Kansas City, where they kept Nick in the hospital for a week, the Monday following the game. Wasn’t even a question, he’d said, for his brother, foe or not, they used to share a bunk. He had the obligation, not because he didn’t have a job or anything to do. There was deep-rooted loyalty between them, despite their rivalry. I found it admirable, especially that night in the dimmed kitchen with refilling glasses and all of our eyes a bit bleary.
“I knew you were someone familiar, like I had recognition,” Nick said, “but I couldn’t place you at first. Thought you were my teddy bear from growing up.”
We laughed. I almost snorted wine. It was a story that was becoming sort of legend in the family. Groggy, defeated Nick, re-learning how to be a human after he was bashed silly. Not funny, but at this run-through of it — hilarious.
“Could you do it again though?” We’d had enough to drink and I couldn’t help but ask. “Over the middle like that, wouldn’t you just be thinking about it?”
“The thought scares the hell out of me, but not as much as not playing. It’s my lifeblood. Nothing touches the rush.”
“When will you know if you can?” I was asking detailed questions that I never would have under usual circumstances. To the Masons, I was the silent, present wife who didn’t lend many opinions, not unless asked. To most of our friend group, to most people, except my sister, mother and college roommate, I was a blender into the background, at parties, the girls’ activities, gymnastics, brownie troop, the work functions around the holidays and one in the summer. Our family uncertainty, the lowered inhibitions, were bringing to life something different. I didn’t know if it was temporary or here to stay.
“Few months,” Nick said. “They’ll put me through the tests again, make sure the swelling’s down, levels back to normal. I’ll get the final call.”
“You’ve been feeling better?”
“Little by little, seen progress.” A grin, as if one he couldn’t help, opened his lips. “The other medicine’s helped.”
“I was wondering about the feed bag you came out of there with,” Thomas said. He gulped a quarter-glass, swallowed, wet his lips, and reached for the wine bottle. “Kind of stuff they have you on?”
“One I’d recommend is this little orange dream, OCs. The Oxy,” Nick said. “Like a background kind of thing, you just float along.”
“Painkiller?” Thomas asked.
“Never felt less pain than right now,” Nick said, and laughed at his own absurdity.
“You’re taking them now?” Thomas’s eyes grew. “While drinking?”
“Don’t see the doctor around,” Nick said. “Or else I’d ask permission.”
“And you’re holding out on me?”
I’d heard of the stuff before but never came close to dabbling. Our social circle in college wasn’t into the drug scene. We’d split a joint every now and again but never considered abusing prescriptions. Thomas in his football frat had a different experience. I wasn’t a prude or unaware of it. They drank liquor, snorted powder, took pills, smoked, chased the girls, didn’t have difficulty catching them. I had to assume Nick was from the same life in Lubbock, Texas. College wasn’t a four year blackout for me. I had to work for my grades, get my degree, and think about my future. I wasn’t proud to have married someone cut from the cloth of macho womanizing, but I did fall in love with him, full-on and like never before or since, in New York City when I was 22 years old. Whether planned or not, marrying and joining the family of a smart and handsome junior Wall-Streeter on the rise became my future, and like I always had, I settled comfortably in the backseat for the ride.
“They’re small,” Nick said, returning with a tiny plastic bottle.
It was easy to agree to go along with Nick and Thomas, swallow a tasteless pill smaller than a tic tac. Gradually but in a way that felt sudden, a new turn took hold of the room that drooped our eyes further and uplifted us into a new realm of feeling. It was like being equal parts heavy and light, simultaneously. My arm felt like it weighed a hundred pounds and was glued to the table, yet when I lifted, it shot into the air as if from a launch pad. I practiced back and forth with each arm, stretching my elbows, and stared at my fingers in front of my face. They seemed to move without me doing anything, pulsing and waving, getting smaller, getting bigger, while all I did was watch. The cause of everything became totally funny and happy.
We giggled a lot and started talking about Nick’s love life. Thomas was interested in the beautiful models endlessly hanging around the league. The gold diggers, as Nick called them. My curiosity equally piqued by this world of wealth I hardly knew a thing about.
“You’d be surprised,” Nick said, responding to Thomas’s enthusiasm. “Actually gets old. I could sleep all over the place every weekend. Getting into bed isn’t a problem. These girls know the roster and what everyone makes. It’s disheartening in that sense. I’d honestly prefer something stable.”
Nick looked at me after he said this, flashed the blues, and quickly glanced away.
“Trust me,” Thomas said. “Enjoy it while you can.”
An asinine comment that deserved a smack across the face, but I stayed quiet. I didn’t want to start an argument. We’d had so many in recent weeks. The good mood felt like a gift.
“I will, and I have.” Nick’s cheeks either flushed with embarrassment or from the substances, probably a mixture of both. We were close to needing another bottle of wine.
“Good boy,” Thomas said. “If you ever want to switch places for a week, or a month, I’d be happy to.” Thomas saw me scowling. “Only kidding.” He laughed and jabbed me on the arm, and we all laughed. None of us wanted this giddiness to end.
“You’ve already done that, brother,” Nick said. “You’ve been me, before I even had a say in it.”
“I have?” Thomas exaggerated a look of surprise.
“Remember Becky Gibson, the lifeguard at the pool.”
“That doesn’t count,” Thomas said. “She was my age.”
“You knew I had a major crush,” Nick said. “I told you.”
“You’re going to have to fill me in here, boys,” I said.
They told a back and forth errant tale about a girl they’d both liked who Thomas wound up dating and taking to prom. Nothing overly out of the ordinary. Confused teenagers figuring themselves out. It was an endearing story to hear to an extent, until I wondered if it had left a grudge Nick still carried. In our shared inebriation, we were all too jolly to know where the truth lived.
“I still remember how the cherry snow-cone dyed her mouth red,” Nick said. “Goodness that drove me wild.”
“Believe it or not, so do I,” Thomas said. “Maybe that’s what drew me in.”
“You men are gross,” I said, though Thomas and I were having more fun than we’d had in years.
“I think it was me liking her that drew you in,” Nick said. He popped the cork from another bottle of red and started pouring glasses. I put a hand over mine, declining. It was getting close to calling it a night.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Thomas said. “You were a scrawny kid.”
“I started on JV in the fall,” Nick said. “I dated older girls that year. I told you I liked her, and then you acted on it, plain and simple.”
“Funny thing was,” Thomas said, sliding his wine glass around in a circle, “she and I talked about you all the time. She felt really bad about it. For what it’s worth.”
“No shit,” Nick said. “You knew and now you’re changing the subject.”
“Boys,” I said. No doubt Nick was letting the old anger refresh. Thomas had kept his cool but that wouldn’t last if the pressing continued. “No use getting agitated over this. We’re talking ancient history.”
“You’re right,” Nick said, but he and Thomas were still staring at each other, as if my presence and commentary were afterthoughts. “It’s silly, but —”
“Yes, it’s silly,” I said.
“But what?” Thomas said.
“It’s nothing,” Nick said.
“He says it’s nothing,” I said, and reached for my husband’s forearm. He pulled it away and knocked over his wine glass. It didn’t shatter but a liquid ribbon streaked across the table, cascaded to the hardwood floor in quick rhythmic drips. For a minute, it was the only sound. No one made a move to clean it up.
“Doesn’t seem like nothing,” Thomas said. “What do you have to say?”
“I said it’s nothing.”
“I asked what you had to say. Say it.”
“The girls are sleeping upstairs,” I said. “Lower your voices, or I’ll be your problem.” I stood for the first time in half an hour to get a paper towel. The four hanging cylinder lights above the kitchen table had taken the form of alien heads. Nick and Thomas’s faces reflected in the glow, their purple rage. The pattern of our black-brown granite counter swirled with motion.
At the outset of taking the pills, I’d worried about the girls in their rooms, but everything had felt more than okay, until now. A mother’s concern for her kids came over me. I told myself that they were fine but I wasn’t easy to convince. Currently no one was fine and never would be. My hand gripped the paper towels, I felt so lightheaded.
“Your children are trying to sleep,” Nick said.
“Tell me what you were going to say before I jam this glass through your neck.”
Thomas had his fingers white-knuckled around the wine stem.
“Stop this,” I said. Ava or Belle could easily drift down the stairs to check the commotion. “I’m going to bed.”
“I think you did it on purpose,” Nick said, standing and pointing at Thomas. “Because of what Dad said. That you earn the pretty girl on your arm by scoring the touchdowns, and you stop at nothing to get there, and get her.”
“Oh, Dad,” Thomas said. “Give me a break.”
Nick sat back down and was breathing heavily, catching his wind.
At the mention of their father, neither man said anything. They sat in silence, each seeming to stare in separate directions, at something on the table or floor.
I wiped up the spill with a wet paper towel, collected the glasses and put them in the sink. When I left to go upstairs, they were still both there, wordlessly sitting. I was too tired to brush my teeth or wash my face. I crawled into bed. The down comforter a warm cocoon. I fell into a deep dreamless slumber. Whenever Thomas made it to bed, I didn’t stir.