It has been a very long time since Jess last saw her brother Mick, but every so often, she is reminded of just how much she adored him.
This song, while about missing a father and not a brother, seemed perfect to me to describe how she feels.
Bruce Springsteen - My Father's House
Last night I dreamed that I was a child
Out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest
Before the darkness falls
I heard the wind rustling through the trees
And ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin' at my heels
I broke through the trees and there in the night
My father's house stood shining hard and bright
The branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell shaking in his arms
I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each others hearts
I got dressed and to that house I did ride
From out on the road I could see its windows shining in light
I walked up the steps and stood on the porch
A woman I didn't recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story and who I'd come for
She said "I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore"
My father's house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining 'cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned
"Very well done, Stephanie. You've been very brave." Jess affectionately patted the blond girl on the head and began to wrap an elastic bandage around the bony knee she'd just finished stitching up. "Just promise me you won't go knocking down any more pedestrians with your bike, will you?"
She winked at her seven-year-old patient who managed a smile and asked a little timidly, "Will I have a big scar now?"
"Well, I can't promise it will all heal without a trace …", Jess began hesitantly. "The cut on your knee is quite deep, and the stitches in your brow …"
"Great!" was Stephanie's surprising answer. "Greg, that's my brother, he's always bragging about his scars and how he got them. Now I've got one, too, and I even got to ride in an ambulance. He'll be ever so jealous!" She grinned, looking quite smug.
Stephanie's mother shook her head in exasperation and rolled her eyes.
"Kids!" she said, adding in a lower voice, "To be honest, Stephanie is almost worse than Greg when it comes to doing stupid things. It's just that she's usually luckier getting away without injuries."
"You know, Greg is terrible", Stephanie told Jess in a loud stage whisper. "He's always so nasty to me. Once, he put a living toad into my bed, can you imagine that?"
Jess gave an appropriate "Ewww", trying hard not to laugh, and Stephanie continued, "Do you have a brother? Is he nasty, too?"
Jess quickly shook her head and was grateful when Priscilla knocked on the door with an urgent question, giving her an excuse to see Stephanie and her mother off quite curtly.
Still she felt this sickening little pang that always stabbed her when she thought of the brother she had loved so much.
Mick had never been nasty. He had been the most wonderful brother she could have wished for until it all fell apart and he disappeared from her life without a word of goodbye.
She had never forgotten him, but she had taught herself not to think too much about him.
She tried not to think too much about him now and focused on the next young patient who was waiting for her, tearful and trembling in his mother's lap, to have his bleeding lip looked after.
Then came the next kid, and the next, and yet another, and Jess was surprised when she heard a knock on the door that was subsequently being flung half open, while Priscilla sternly declared from behind her reception desk, "Wait a minute, young man. Dr. Cleaver is still seeing a patient!"
She allowed herself a quick stealthy smile as she scribbled a prescription. Oliver and his boisterous streak never ceased to exasperate Priscilla, or at least she pretended it did. Jess knew the seasoned nurse had a soft spot for Oliver, that handsome, good-naturedly mischievous cardiology resident, but certainly knew to hide it well.
Sometimes Jess herself couldn't quite believe that she and one of the most gorgeous guys of all the hospital staff had been an item for well over three years and were planning to get married next summer.
She thought herself quite okay but anything but a bombshell. She'd probably still look more like a girl than a woman by the time she was forty, with no breasts to speak of and long thin limbs, a pale oval face and fine brown hair that didn't have the slightest inclination to curl no matter what she did to it, and she knew there were a few young nurses rather jealous that Oliver Corelli should have picked such a plain Jane for his girlfriend.
But one of the things that had most attracted Jess to Oliver apart from his looks and his brains and his wicked sense of humour had been his remarkably underdeveloped vanity.
Jess said goodbye to her last patient and walked from the room with a big smile on her face.
She was looking forward to a nice weekend with Oliver. For once, wondrously, neither of them would be on duty, not even on call, so they planned to spend all the time until Sunday evening doing nothing but whatever it was they would feel like doing.
Oliver rose from the chair he had occupied in the deserted waiting area and kissed her on the cheek. "What do you think, dinner at Maddie's tonight and the cinema afterwards?"
"Absolutely!" Jess relished the idea of beginning their weekend at their favourite steakhouse, kicking back over a fine rib-eye and fries and perhaps a beer to wash it all down, and a good movie instead of dessert. "But I guess I'll have to grab a quick shower first, though. I'm feeling all hot and grubby."
"Whatever you need, my lady." He winked and, apparently remembering something, got out his wallet to check its contents. "I'll need to stop by at home, too, and stock up on cash. Five dollars won't get us very far, I fear."
"Oh, I can pay for my own dinner, you know", Jess replied, laughing.
"I know." Oliver gave her another kiss. "But I won't let you."
Forty minutes later, she gave herself one last critical once-over in the hall mirror and pulled on a short fitted jacket over the blue polka-dot dress she was wearing, one of Oliver's favourites.
She picked up her purse when the doorbell rang and thought about which film to choose as she clattered down the stairs in the white heels that matched the dots on her dress.
She still hadn't seen Roman Holiday despite her long-standing crush on Gregory Peck, and Oliver had promised to go see it with her, but now he was so excited about The Robe which had been released just a week ago that she wasn't sure she could persuade him to trade biblical epic for romantic comedy.
Well, Richard Burton wouldn't be bad to look at either even if she did get bored with all those Romans and Galileans, she decided. Nothing was going to spoil this evening, not even centurions and crucifixions.
And a beautiful evening it was, with a good long chat and lots of laughter over a simple but tasty dinner. Jess loved how they never ran out of things to talk about – serious things, emotional things, and utterly silly things, too.
After dinner, Oliver graciously let Jess pick the movie, and she thoroughly enjoyed watching Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn's romance unfold before the gorgeous backdrop of Rome.
She found herself dreaming of a similar holiday with her beloved as they walked from the theatre into the night that was still surprisingly warm. If they didn't splurge too much on the wedding, they might be able to afford a honeymoon in Europe …
She smiled to herself, and Oliver nudged her affectionately. "So, did you have fun drooling over your Californian dreamboat?"
"Aw, come on, you have to admit it was a lovely movie. And didn't you think it was a lovely leading lady?" she added slyly.
"Lovely leading man was what you really wanted to say, wasn't it? Well, I'm ready to concede he did an okay job, but even you have to admit that this man has ridiculously long legs. How can a man's legs be so disproportionately long?"
Jess shook her head and, knowing that Oliver just couldn't resist ribbing her about her girlish adoration of Gregory Peck and would get all the more exhilarated the more staunchly she defended her movie-screen hero, only laughed and made no comment other than "You're simply impossible, Oliver."
"And that's exactly why you love me, isn't it?" He grabbed her round the waist, pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead.
They decided to walk the short distance home, with the night so balmy and taxis quite expensive, and when they turned into the street where Oliver lived, just around the corner from Jess, he asked, "You coming upstairs with me? Patrick's always out with Charlene on Fridays, so we'll have the place to ourselves …"
"Sounds tempting", Jess said longingly, but hesitated, not daring to believe her luck.
With Oliver sharing a tiny house with his best friend back from elementary school and herself lodging with an elderly couple who explicitly ruled out male visitors, considering it their foremost duty to watch over their young tenant's modesty, opportunities to indulge in a certain kind of physical closeness were rare and coveted.
"But … are you sure he won't be back soon?" she asked cautiously.
"He's never back before midnight. One, two o'clock, more like. Don't you worry, the coast will be clear."
Oliver gallantly offered her his arm and ceremoniously escorted her up the three steps that led up to the front door, but had to let go of her to search the pockets of his sports coat for his keys.
Jess was relieved when they found the hallway dark and deserted and the house all quiet, and she gave a throaty little laugh in anticipation of pleasures to come.
Oliver flicked the switch of the small lamp on the hallway table and made a big show of taking her jacket off her before he reached for her hand and eagerly led her towards the narrow stairs, whispering into her ear in a raspy voice that made her body tingle from head to toe.
They were halfway up the stairs when there was a shattering noise in one of the downstairs rooms.
Jess's dreamy smile died on her lips, and Oliver frowned and murmured something rude that sounded very much like "what the fuck".
There was another sound, something scraping across a tiled floor, followed by a loud bang.
Oliver swore, and Jess dryly remarked, "Looks like we're not actually alone."
Oliver looked around for a weapon, just in case, but dropped the large umbrella he had seized back into its stand when muffled curses and more scraping and tinkling became audible. He strode over to one of the doors and tore it open.
"What the heck are you doing here on a Friday night?"
Jess could see a figure cowering on the kitchen floor, busy cleaning up some debris, all but hidden from view behind the table. The red hair spoke for itself, though – Patrick obviously was home after all, and in quite a state, too.
Oliver took the brush and dustpan off his friend, who was mumbling inconsistently all the time, and quickly swept up the shards of what seemed to have been a beer bottle, then picked up the overturned chair and made Patrick sit down.
Jess ventured closer, hovering insecurely in the doorway. Even from this distance, Patrick was looking dreadful – ashen-faced and dead-eyed, not a bit his usual confident self.
Normally, he was an attractive redhead, not handsome in any classical sense but striking with his intelligent eyes of the clearest, palest mountain-stream blue and a full, expressive mouth framed by two long vertical creases that deepened when he laughed. His tour of duty in the Pacific had left him with a very slight limp that somehow added to his extraordinary charm.
What the crumpled heap in the kitchen chair exuded now was not charm but a dangerous mix of misery and anger, simmering right beneath the surface. It would take but the tiniest spark to make him explode.
From his drunken mutterings, Jess deducted that Charlene had walked out on him after they'd had a terrible row.
It was not the first time that his irascible girlfriend had left him in a huff only to wheedle her way back into his life and his heart not much later.
It had happened twice before, and Jess remembered the dire consequences very well.
The first time, Patrick, who was usually the kindest soul in the world, had raised hell in the local bar and ended up in the drunk tank with a split lip and a black eye.
The second time, he had guzzled half a bottle of cheap whiskey before he trashed vast parts of the living-room and then collapsed on the ripped-up sofa in a half comatose state.
She wondered what they were in for now and if they could do anything to prevent another disaster.
Oliver must have been thinking along the same lines, for he threw the broken glass into the trash, walked over to his friend who was still hanging his head by the kitchen table, patted him on the shoulder and said, "It's a goddamn shame about that stupid woman, but promise me one thing, will you? No shit this time, okay? We can sit with you for a while, and we can get drunk together if you think it helps, I'll even clean up after you if you start throwing up, but please, no smashing up anything. Or anyone. Remember there are ladies present."
He pulled up a chair and sat down while Patrick looked around and stared at Jess bleary-eyed as if he had not noticed her before.
For a split second, she wasn't sure what he was going to do and instinctively prepared to flee in case he flipped his lid, but he only murmured in a drained voice, "Oh. Yeah. Jess. Hiya."
"Hiya, Patrick", she replied shyly and, when he didn't acknowledge her words at all, added, "Do you … do you want me to leave you and Oliver alone?"
From behind his friend, Oliver mouthed, "Stay", and finally, Patrick cocked his head and said mournfully, "It's okay, Jess. You're one of the good girls. Ollie's got no idea just what a lucky man he is to have a girl like you."
Jess was uncertain what to make of his weepy praises and increasingly miffed about the turn the lovely evening had taken, and she decided it was better not to make any comment.
Instead, she said, "Have you eaten, Patrick?"
"Eaten?" Patrick asked stupidly, as if he had never heard the word before, and after a considerable pause, he added, "Not since lunch. I'm not hungry. I just want a beer, or two or three or eight."
Jess shook her head and told him drinking on an empty stomach was a very bad idea, and not just from a medical standpoint.
She went on to rummage in the fridge, but all it held apart from a lot of beer was a couple of eggs, a chunk of butter and an unappealing bit of sausage. She snorted disdainfully, threw away the dried-up sausage, cracked the eggs into a pan and left them on the stovetop to fry while she continued searching the cupboards for more comestibles, finding nothing but half a loaf of bread and a bag of potato chips.
Sipping the beer Oliver had opened for him, Patrick watched her in silence as she tipped the fried eggs onto a plate, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, cut off a few slices of bread and put the steaming plate in front of him.
She hadn't expected any reaction, but he gave her a thankful, sheepish grin and began to tuck in with surprising appetite, and suddenly she wasn't all that angry any more.
She still would have preferred to spend the rest of the evening doing something very different from sitting at the kitchen table, trying to console Patrick, but she liked Oliver's impulsive friend well enough that she was ready to put on a good face for his sake if it helped to keep him from doing anything rash.
Once he had cleared his plate, Patrick started talking and just couldn't seem to stop.
First it was Charlene he talked about, pretty, seductive, pouty, bitchy Charlene.
While Oliver occasionally made compassionate noises, Jess sat back and kept her mouth shut, wondering why on earth an otherwise smart guy like Patrick allowed this bottle-blond floozy to treat him like dirt over and over again.
Finally, the topic was exhausted, and Patrick began reminiscing about his previous girlfriend and how he had met her at the wedding of an old army comrade.
This inevitably led to two of them eagerly swapping wartime anecdotes. Inseparable from first grade on, Patrick and Oliver had joined the army together and somehow even managed to get into the same training camp.
Jess suppressed a yawn and tried not to look too bored as she pretended to listen. What was it with boys and their war stories?
Hoping they wouldn't spend too much time talking shop about their tours of duty, she grabbed another fistful of chips and decided not to get up and go home just yet.
Maybe she'd be lucky and Patrick would nod off some time soon, so that there would be time enough to go upstairs with Oliver after all before she left.
Oh no, she thought when Patrick, walking ostentatiously erect, went into the tiny living-room and produced a box of old photos from a drawer in order to prove some obscure point.
"See, that's him you mean, Ollie! Rogers, his name was. Not Macauley. Macauley was that fat little sergeant in charge of marksmanship training. Wait, I've got one of him, too, I think …" He searched the box, dumping little stacks of photos on the table left and right, until he triumphantly thrust a blurry snapshot into Oliver's face. "Here's good old Macauley for you. Remember him?"
"Ye-e-es." Oliver winced. "Only too well. Oh, what's this? Dear God, you and me and Bobby Heck and Julian … Julian …"
"Prendergast." Patrick's voice became soft as he added, "Poor sod."
Oliver handed the photo on to Jess, who cast a polite glance at a bunch of grinning young privates in training camp, posing with their hats on sideways, Oliver and Patrick framing two guys she didn't know.
"What happened to him?" she found herself asking, almost against her own volition. "Julian … Prendergast?"
"Got blasted off his feet the moment we landed in the Philippines. We had barely arrived when he got hit." Patrick swallowed hard.
"Damn, yeah. Remember Gordon Banks, Patrick? Gordon and his poisonous roll-ups?" Oliver chuckled for a moment and became serious again quickly. "We had only just deployed among those God-awful hedgerows in Normandy when he …" He couldn't continue speaking and shook his head silently.
Jess nervously toyed with the pack of photos she had picked up randomly, trying not to listen.
She didn't want to hear all that. She didn't want to imagine that her fiancé and his best friend had been out fighting a bloody war when they had hardly been out of their teens.
Flipping cursorily through the snapshots of boys in uniform, some dashing, some ridiculous in their army getup, she idly wondered why they delighted so much in talking about all those horrible memories.
Finally, the last picture. Patrick and some other young soldiers, this time in lightweight tropical gear, grouped around a senior man who seemed to be giving them directions, captured in a clear three-quarter profile as he looked over his shoulder and pointed at the person behind the camera.
She was about to put it aside when something about him caught her eye and she took a second, closer look.
She set the glass she had been about to put to her lips back down on the table with a clatter and felt her heartbeat quicken.
"Who's this?" she asked, pointing at the man in the foreground of the picture.
"Oh, that was a fabulous guy", Patrick said, gazing fondly at the photograph. "I didn't know him for long, but he was a great man. Like a big brother to us youngsters, especially poor Joe Kowalski and Richard Conway and me. He had only just joined up himself, but he was at least eight or nine years older than the rest of us, so we often called him Grandpa. I'm not sure what his actual name was, though. Dammit." He screwed up his face thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes to slits. "Mike … Mike something. No, wait, it wasn't Mike … Michael … Mick! Yes, Mick … can't recall his last name, though, I'm sorry. Carruthers, Carrington … something like that. All I remember is that he made corporal quickly. Lost track of him entirely after I'd been out with my broken ankle. When I came back eventually, I got assigned to a different unit and …"
"Carpenter", Jess whispered tonelessly.
Both men turned toward her."Huh?" Patrick mumbled.
"Did you say something, Jess?" Oliver asked.
"Carpenter", she repeated, louder.
Oliver frowned, flabbergasted, but Patrick exclaimed, "Yes, that's it!" He gave her a puzzled look and added, "How'd you know his name?"
"He … he's my brother." Her voice failed, and she hugged her arms around her chest, suddenly shivering.
The men were struck silent, too, looking at each other uneasily before Patrick said, "I didn't know you had a brother."
Jess only nodded wordlessly, blinking back tears, before she explained, "I haven't seen him in a very long time. We got … separated when I was still a kid." She choked and felt a trail of wetness trickling down her cheek after all. Oliver passed her his hankie without saying anything.
When she felt she could trust her voice again, she asked, "Did you know him well, Patrick?" To her chagrin, it sounded thin, like a pleading child.
"Not all that well, but he was my squad leader until I wrecked my foot. He was one of the finest. Not exactly by the book, but he had good instincts, and he was frightfully fit. I think he'd been living somewhere in the Pacific area for a while, on one of those tiny islands, which was why he was much better suited to the climate than the rest of us were. He was pretty tall, a little over six feet, I think, and quite a handsome guy. We used to tease the sergeant, who was already quite bald at twenty-five, because Carpenter was so much older and still had that mop of curls. Needed to get a haircut every couple of weeks." He allowed himself a little smile at the memory. "And I remember he had somewhat funny eyes. It wasn't exactly a lazy eye but …"
A droopy eyelid, Jess thought.
She had almost forgotten about it, but now she could picture it clearly. Normally, it had been hardly visible, but it tended to show when he was tired or stressed. She wondered if it had become permanent as he grew older, or if maybe the immense strain of the war had made it show more pronouncedly.
"It's really a shame I lost touch with him", Patrick went on. "I only heard that he got hit some time after I'd been shipped off to hospital and that he didn't return to the company until the war ended, but I never actually got around to finding out more."
"Do you think he … ?" Jess's voice failed.
Patrick quickly assured her that it didn't have to mean the worst. "He probably came back at some point but got transferred to another unit, like I did. I never saw any of my comrades from Delta Company again until after the war, and there were a few of them who'd have sworn I was dead." His attempt at a grin faltered under Jess's worried look, and he hastened to add, "You know what, Jessie girl, I might be able to find out where he went off to. Or rather, Dad might. I'll speak to him if you want me to."
Jess's eyes widened. She knew that Patrick's father was some kind of bigwig in the army. Could it really be she would finally learn what had become of the brother she had adored so much?
She had never dared contact the Red Cross because she was too afraid of having her worst fears confirmed, but she couldn't possibly pass up this opportunity.
"If you'd do that for me …", she said shakily.
Patrick nodded and handed the photo back to her. "I will. Until then, you'll have to make do with this. Yeah, c'mon, girl, just take it."
Stammering her thanks, she carefully stowed it away in her purse, and she hardly spoke a word when Oliver escorted her home not much later, her mind racing.
Although she was bone tired, she found it hard to sleep. She just couldn't stop thinking.
She tried to imagine Mick as a soldier, Mick who had never engaged in any brawls if he could help it, and wondered what had led him to join the forces.
It wasn't the kind of thing she'd have thought her brother would do, but then, she had no idea what kind of man he had come to be. And besides, so many people had done so many untypical things during the war.
She herself, who had never had a great interest in medical things, had volunteered as a nurse's aide at a military hospital towards the end of the war because she felt she had to do something good in this world gone crazy, and it had pointed her towards a career entirely different from what everyone, including herself, would have expected.
Her brother might have felt a similar urge to do something worthwhile.
She wasn't sure if risking life and limb for your country was actually a good thing, though.
She had seen her fair share of horrible injuries during her time in Baltimore, and her head was involuntarily spinning with dreadful visions of all those maimed and crippled servicemen she had encountered there.
The thought of Mick's beautiful features brought terribly disfigured faces to her mind and raised unbidden questions in her mind.
His sharp vivid eyes, blinded? His elegant long limbs shattered, his determined stride, his graceful movements forever stopped by a bullet to the spine? The vigorous-looking stranger in the photograph incapacitated permanently by a shot through the lungs or intestines?
More and more cruel scenarios swam up from the gloomiest depths of her unconscious, and she couldn't shake those images too gruesome to talk about.
It was one thing to have found a trace of him after she had searched for him in vain and kept telling herself he might well be long dead, but not knowing what kind of life he led, whether he had recovered from whatever injury he'd suffered, whether he was well, or happy, left her restless anyway.
When the sun came up outside her window, she was still tossing and turning and wondering if Patrick would think to ask his father for help.
She told herself not to become overexcited just yet, even if the prospect was utterly compelling.
Chances were that Patrick had been way too drunk to remember his promise in the morning, and, in that case, it would be awkward to remind him.
But still …
She reached for the large photo on her dressing table, an old picture into whose frame she had tucked Patrick's snapshot before she dropped into bed.
She had snaffled it from among Mom's things when they had moved house and kept it on her nightstand in their new home, no matter how often Janie overturned it on purpose or how many poisonous looks Aunt Dorothy shot into its direction. Her father had never commented on its presence.
Until last night, it had been her only photo of her brother - fifteen-year-old Mick, perfectly beautiful with his big expressive eyes and sensitive face and longish curly hair, flanked by two little girls, one tall and thin and the other short and chubby, flashing a dazzling smile.
And suddenly she had this other photo to prove that the pretty boy had, inconceivably, turned into an impressive man with broad shoulders and a lean, masculine face, his tumble of curls replaced by a practical but unfashionable army haircut.
She did the math quickly – he must have been around thirty when this was taken. No wonder he had come a long way from the slim teenage boy she remembered.
But there couldn't be any doubt about who it was.
She knew that squint, and the set of his mouth, and the shape of his nose.
She would have recognized this face among a thousand others, even if it had been more than twenty years since she had last seen it in the flesh, on the platform of the station in what had been her hometown then, on a freezing day in January.
After that, there had been only letters.
And after a while, nothing at all.