We ate dinner in silence, the three of us, huddled in the living room in front of the TV. I had been afraid, when we saw Ned, his face drawn and serious, that Susie would demand an explanation, or make some comment about Mary. For once, though, Susie seemed happy to stay quiet, and keep her questions, which she definitely had, to herself. We sat together, half-watching Law and Order, half in our own worlds, waiting for it to be late enough to pretend to go to sleep.
I didn't expect Ned to tell me what had happened, not yet. If he was going to confide in me, it would be alone, and late, but really it wouldn't happen for a few days. Not until he was ready. And until he was ready, I knew, he would throw himself into his daily routine, trying to make everything as smooth as possible in the world around him. So while Susie threw the occasional glance his way, brow furrowed, I propped my feet up on the coffee table and watched the cops on screen banter over someone's motive.
It had been coming a long way off, Ned's breakup with Mary. I had seen it, and Ned had seen it. He had told me that they'd been on-again, off-again, that he knew it wasn't working. It was possible, given their history, that this was another one of their smaller breakups, that they'd be back together again soon. It was entirely possible. There was no way I could know.
I finished my pasta and sat back into the couch, trying to settle into a comfortable position. The only time I'd ever been in love had been with Ned, and it had been massively unrequited. The other relationships I'd been in since I'd left Mansfield had been lovely, brief, and largely casual. My heart had only broken once in my adult life, but not for love. I didn't know how to comfort Ned. I didn't know if I could.
The episode came to an end, and another began before Ned stood, silently collecting our bowls and forks and making his way out of the doorway toward the kitchen. Susie turned the TV off, and we watched him disappear into the shadow of the house.
"Is he okay?"
"I don't know. Probably not, though."
"She was the worst."
I laughed quietly, turning to look at the blank TV.
"Sorry, were you still watching that?"
"What? Oh, no. Anyway I've seen most of them before, I think."
"Word. Do you think he's gonna, like, freak out or something?"
Now I did look at her, my face so amused that she snapped, "What? I don't know him that well!"
"Fair enough. Just give him his space, you know?"
"Imagine losing sleep over Mary."
"She loved him. They loved each other. It was different for him."
"Mind your manners, kid."
"Pssssh, kid," she chucked a pillow at my head halfheartedly. It overshot its goal and flopped onto the ground behind the couch. Neither of us moved to pick it up. The air seemed heavy, and quiet, and still.
I woke up later on the same couch, the small, digital clock on the side table reading 2:15. Susie was curled up where she had been sitting, and there were blankets over both of us. I didn't have to think too hard about who had put them there. I stood, stretching, my back cracking into place, vertebra by vertebra. Debating, briefly, if I should wake Susie and walk her upstairs, I decided against it. Instead, I lay my blanket on top of hers and made my way, soft-footed out the door and up the stairs. Sure enough, there was a beam of light visible under the door to Ned's room. I hesitated, my hand up, ready to knock. Should I let him come to me?
I knocked, then opened the door. Ned sat on his couch, book in his lap, his eyes distant.
"Hey. Go back to sleep."
"Do you want to be alone?"
"You should be asleep," he rubbed his hands over his face and stood up, looking down belatedly as his book fell and hit the floor.
"I was. I will be. Do you want some company, or would you rather be alone?"
"Uh…" his hand came up to rub the back of his neck, "I'm not sure, actually, but you don't need to be up while I figure it out."
"Okay," I put my hand down on the side of the door, near the knob. "Do you need a hug, though?"
He gave me a small, crooked smile, and stepped toward me, his arms open. We hugged for a moment, then separated. He gave me a wry smile, which flickered. "I'll have a story to tell you in a few days."
In the end, it was Tom who told me the story first, not Ned.
He was sitting up in bed now, hands folded in his lap quite nicely, gazing about him beatifically, his face innocent and fresh. Susie and I watched him with identical looks on our faces: amusement, exasperation, and fondness in equal measure.
"I suppose you'd like me to tell you a story?" He asked in a slight falsetto, turning his eyes on Susie. He blinked cherubically once or twice, before Susie, now glaring suspiciously, said, "A story?"
"Ned says you enjoy them. I like them, myself. And I happen to have one to tell." Now he shot his eyes to me, raising an eyebrow.
"No, you can't," I said, holding up my hands. "That's not your story to tell."
"I was there, you know. In the room. They decided to have the conversation over my prone body, without even having the decency to ask me if I were still awake. I think that makes this story mine, too. Since I experienced it. Wouldn't you agree, Price the Younger?"
"She's Price the Younger, I'm Price the Youngest."
"Touche. But if Price the Younger doesn't want to hear it, she can always leave and wait for Ned to tear his heart out again while he has to tell the whole thing to you, in the vivid detail he feels is most appropriate. Or she can hear it from me now and not press Bertram the Younger for more details when he's a man in pain." The look Tom gave me now was a bit more serious, a warning. I sat and considered my options. I stayed where I was.
Susie said, "So, you were lying here, minding your own business, when…"
Tom was lying there, minding his own business, when Ned asked us to clear the room so he could speak to Mary alone. Mary was silent as he closed the door to the hospital room, as he rustled with his takeout dish, as he rearranged one of the chairs.
Finally, Ned said, "That was rude. You were rude to them."
"If Fawn was offended by my attitude, she should tell me herself."
"Maybe she doesn't find your attitude offensive, but I do. And the fact that you don't call her by her name offends me even more."
"And here we go again. You coddle her all the time. If she has a problem with what I call her, she can tell me."
"She has told you. You just don't listen."
"Can we just not talk about her anymore? We talk about her all the damn time. Where she is, what she's doing, what she's thinking, how she's feeling. How guilty you felt when she left, and on and on and on, Ned, I'm so done with it. Why can't we talk about something else?"
"What do you want to talk about, Mary? What would you rather discuss?" Ned's voice was quiet, but Tom knew what that meant, and apparently, so did Mary.
She sighed. "Sit down, would you? It hurts my neck to look up at you like this."
A pause, then the rasp of a chair on linoleum. "I would suggest that we take a step back for a second, and look at things a little less emotionally, a little more rationally, okay?" Her voice was quiet, as well, but more conciliatory now. "It's been a rough few weeks, and we're all riding a little hot, and you know me and I know you and we can just blow up sometimes, you know? In the interest of maintaining the peace, let's just calm down. Agreed?"
"Good. Okay. Now, just to be clear, I have no hard feelings for Faw—sorry, Flannery. I've always thought she was adorable, haven't I? I was closer to her than I was to you for a while, back at the beginning. I'm just worried that you're focusing too much on her and not on your own life. And you're not letting her live her own life. She learned how to speak without you, Ned. She can do a lot more than people give her credit for, including you."
A tense silence, then, "Fair point."
"If I seem a little tense around her lately, it's not because I don't like her. I love her. But I also love my brother, and that makes twice that she's broken his heart, now. As friend, I want her to follow her heart, but as a sister, I want my brother to get whatever he wants, and he wanted her. And now that everyone's treating Henry like he's persona non grata, I'm just having a hard time with it."
"Henry and Flannery were never together. He can't claim a broken heart like that, not if Flannery—"
"We can let Flannery speak for herself on that one, yeah? Personally, I find it hard to believe that Henry would be so, like, obsessed if Flannery hadn't encouraged him. He's not a love-in-the-face-of-hopelessness kind of guy. Whatever happened, I agree, he shouldn't have gotten involved with Mireille again, because disaster, but I think it's fair to say that he never would have done it if Flannery had just put him out of his misery and dated him, instead of leading him on."
Tom, already uncomfortable lying motionless in bed, fought hard to keep his eyes from rolling. Ned, just a few inches to Tom's right, was silent for a long moment.
"Just to be clear," he said finally, and again his voice was very quiet, "you're saying that you blame Flannery for what happened with Henry and Mireille?"
"Oh, no, obviously not entirely. Like, they're adults, and they're stupid, so they made a stupid decision. But Henry was free to make that stupid decision. Anyway, can we not talk about it? I'm starting to get annoyed."
"Didn't you want to talk about this?"
"No, I didn't want to talk about Flannery, again, and here we are, talking about Flannery, again."
"You brought her up this time."
"Because every conversation we have had, every real conversation we have had, the ones that weren't about breakfast or the weather or what shirt you're going to wear tomorrow, all the serious ones we've had for the last forever have been about Flannery. We always find a way to get back to her. She's like Rome. She's like Kevin Bacon."
Tom wanted to snort with laughter, but held it in. He remembered worrying about bruising a rib if this conversation went on for longer.
"Listen, I know she's like your pet project, or something, but don't you think it's a little strange that you have spent more time worrying over your stupid mute, spineless cousin-in-law than you have over us, and what we want? Don't you think that's a little unbalanced?"
"You're out of line."
"Cool. Fine. So I am. Fine. But I think it's a pretty valid point."
"Okay, leaving aside for a second all the times you've insulted my best friend for a moment, let's talk about us for a second. Let's talk about what we want for a second. Since you brought it up. I'm going to be a minister. That's what I want. I want you to want that for me. That's what I want. I want you to stop acting like this is a temporary phase. That's what I want. I want to be a minister and help people and talk about God and be proud of the work that I do, and to do that for the rest of my life. When I die, I want my plaque to read Reverend Ned Bertram. That's what I want. What do you want?"
"I want for you to see that you're worth more than that," Mary's voice was starting to choke with tears. Tom spared her a moment's half-pity, but that feeling wasn't terribly strong, and didn't last a terribly long time. "I want you to see what a waste that is. You could do anything. You could be a politician and change the world, or a lawyer and improve the legal system. You're Ned Bertram. You could do anything, be anything."
"But you don't want to be a minister's wife. That's really what you're saying."
Silence, except for a few muted sobs from Mary.
"You'd rather be the wife of someone important. That's what you're saying."
"That's only part of it."
"Then I think you need to tell me the other part," Ned's voice, which had been so full of anger, was quickly losing steam, and he sounded old, now, and tired, and ready to be done.
"Every time you talk about Fawn, you call her your best friend. I should be your best friend. You're worried about how she feels. How do I feel? You know what you want them to put in you epitaph, but you won't change even one thing for me. Not even one simple thing. You're always right, and I'm always wrong, but I know I'm right. I know it. We can be better than this. We should be better than this. All you have to do is compromise, just a little."
"Lay it out for me, then. What would you have me compromise on? Explain."
"You can be a minister, if that's what you want. But we agree to talk about it again after you've been practicing for two years, to figure out your other options, and you agree to consider my suggestions, find some grad programs. We live in a city. Not a second city. I don't want to live in Portland. I just can't. We see your family regularly, but not every week. You can go as often as you like, but I'm not going to go with you whenever you go."
"What else?" There was a pause. "There's something else."
"You're not going to like it."
"We've come this far. Might as well lay it all out on the table."
"I don't want to have to compete for attention. I don't want to always be looking over my back to make sure your best friend isn't waiting in the wing for us to fail. I can't do that. I don't want that."
"She's my friend. We've never been anything more."
"I don't think you understand normal friendships, or you wouldn't say that."
"I can't share you with Fawn. I won't. If you want to marry me, you have to drop her."
In the same hospital room, two days later, Susie and I exchanged looks, wide-eyed, over Tom's legs. I sat back in my chair, my sweaty hands clutched together, my heart pounding. I watched Tom's face closely, looking for a sign that he'd been joking, that he'd made that part up. He smiled at me gently, a rare thing from him, "I would bet money that Ned would have left that part out of the version he gave you. I thought you had a right to know, though."
"Well, he obviously chose Flannery, then," said Susie staunchly. Her arms were crossed over her chest now, one leg jiggling incessantly.
"That would definitely be the implication," said Tom dryly, "given the way everything worked out. The conversation didn't last much longer after that."
"Well, what did Ned say? When she said that?" Susie sat forward, elbows on knees. But Tom gave me another considering look before reaching over to pat Susie's head as if she were a puppy.
"Do you know, I don't remember exactly."
Ned wasn't inside the house when we got back. Nor was he, I discovered, anywhere in our usual haunts. The pond was silent and seeming undisturbed. The rock wall was unoccupied. My attic room was empty, and Dr Grant, who showed me in and out without apparent confusion, told me he hadn't seen Ned all day.
"You look worried, Flannery. Is everything alright?" It was the first sentence he'd said directly to me since I'd come back.
I looked back at him, this funny little man, remembering all the times he'd tried to help me, all the times his help hadn't been quite right. I'd resented him in Boston. I thought I still resented him, a bit, even if he'd started me thinking about treatment. But really, all I wanted to do was find Ned.
"He's having a rough couple of days. If you see him, can you tell him I'm looking for him?"
"If that's what you want me to do, I'm happy to." He opened his mouth as if to say something else, but I turned away, headed back toward the main house, searching without hope of finding him.
It was early evening, and the humidity had died down after an afternoon thunderstorm. My sneakers squelched on the lawn as I headed out for the big tree in the middle of the park. A wind picked up, and I shivered as the grass rippled in waves over the park, the spot that I usually occupied under the tree blending in with everything else so it was just a piece of motion, darkening grass under a darkening sky, shorn leaves twisting in the wind. I stopped for a moment, my socks soaked, as I felt a rush of memory wash over me, so powerful it almost knocked me down. It wasn't a single memory, but a feeling of being my younger self, crossing this lawn as I had done a thousand times. I was myself at ten, and thirteen, and sixteen, and eighteen, desperate for a place to hide, and I was myself at twenty-one, seeking. It was a nostalgia like I'd never experienced before, and it filled my chest so full that for a moment I thought I'd have to cry to let it out. It was so beautiful and hateful at the same time, a feeling of being all the selves I'd left behind, of being my own self, of standing in my own shoes in the grass as it moved and shifted around me. I had lain in that grass for eight years, but it wasn't the same. Every blade had been replaced, over and over. I was myself but I was not the same. I had been replaced, over and over.
It wasn't fair. Life wasn't fair.
I stepped forward to the tree's trunk, and putting out a hand, leaned against it. I rested two hands on it, feeling the roughness of the bark, the divots and peaks and canyons in it, trying to read it. The wind whipped up and I shivered, and then I was crying, and I didn't know why.
I hadn't cried like that in a long time. When I had sobbed in Ned's arms, it had been about something, related to something I could name and understand. But this, this was beyond loneliness or sadness that I'd felt before. It was a longing for something I didn't want, a homesickness without a home, and the sheer stupidity of it made me cry even more, because now I was sad about leaving a childhood I'd mostly hated. And of all things, it was grass that had made me cry. A long time ago, I had sat in the branches of this tree and watched as Mireille gave up searching for me. A few years later, I had been not too far from here, on the side of the hill in the pouring rain, looking wildly for anywhere to run to. And now I was here, sobbing for a girl I wasn't and I would never be again. Did I miss myself as Fawn? I didn't know. How could I know? I sobbed, and kept on sobbing.
Finally, after what felt like hours, I nestled myself on top of one of the roots, the most comfortable one for sitting. I wasn't crying anymore, but I wasn't ready to go in. From past experience, I knew my eyes would be puffy and bloodshot, and there was something about the idea of being inside that felt a little like death. I leaned my back against the tree and watched as the door of Mansfield opened, light pouring out on the drive, then as the door closed behind Ned, who made his way quietly to me, hands in his pockets, head down. If I hadn't been wrung dry already, the sight of him walking as he'd done since we were children, so distinctive I could have recognized him a mile away, might have brought me to tears again.
Without a word, he settled not too far away from me, on the root that was closest but, I had reason to know, the least comfortable to sit on. He didn't seem to mind, though. His back against the tree, he watched Mansfield Park's windows light up, breathing in as the breeze rippled he grass before us like a blanket.
"I was looking for you." My voice was hoarse.
"I needed to be alone for a bit. Sorry if I worried you."
"You didn't worry me. Not really."
"Are you okay? I saw you from the window. I would have come out, but I didn't want to disturb you."
"I'm fine. I don't know what that was."
"Did it help? The crying?"
"Don't know. Too soon to tell, maybe?"
"Maybe." He rubbed his back against the back, scratching it. I reached up to twist a piece of my hair.
"We have to go back home soon."
He nodded. "I figured you would. I need to go back to school. Now that things have died down a bit. You two stayed longer than you thought."
"Things got interesting. We had to stay."
He chuckled, looking down at his hands. "Tom told you, didn't he? The story. I could see it on Susie's face."
"Part of it. Not all of it. He told me some of it was about me."
Ned rubbed the back of his neck. "Some of it."
"Don't. There's no need."
"Are you gonna be okay?"
Ned took a deep breath in, then let it out. I hugged my arms to myself, feeling cold. "I'm not sure. Too soon to tell?"
"So what do we do, then," I said, letting a strain of hopelessness into my voice, "just sit and wait to feel better, or to see if we're okay? How do we know?"
He turned his head, and his eyes on me were calm, with no judgment at my outburst. "We know we're okay when nothing is wrong outside of us and nothing is wrong inside of us. Or, when things are wrong, and we can handle them, even piece by piece. You're okay, and I think you'll be more than okay, because you can handle more than anyone else I've ever met. You can overcome things I can't imagine. And when you can't, you have the people who love you to help you through."
"So you? Are you going to be okay?"
His mouth quirked up in a real smile. "By that token, of course I am. Everything I've ever learned about resilience, I've learned from you. So I'll be fine because you showed me how."
I didn't know what to say to that, so I didn't say anything, and neither did he, not even when the sky was totally dark and we walked each other back over the lawn, back over the gravel, back up the front steps, back across eleven years. Back and back and back, and on and on and on.