The decision had been an easy one: the train-ride from Chicago wasn't too much trouble, though he supposed backtracking to get home again would be tedious. But the temptation to return, after all these years, had proved too great to bear, and he found himself now standing on a familiar platform in a familiar train station, steeling himself for what had to come next.
The walk to the old farmhouse was longer than he remembered. Once the landmarks of town gave way to the fields of his youth, every step seemed to transport him to back to a time and a place, a world away but so very close somehow, when these humble surroundings were all he had known. He supposed he was better now, more accepting of his fate, but he wondered if the girl who had once known him best would think the same.
Little had changed about the house. The barn still stood sentry just beside it, flowers still blossomed outside the windows. The maple in the front yard had grown in the intervening years, but the old swing still dangled from its lowest bough. He smiled, images flashing behind his eye of the little girl he once knew, kicking her feet out before her and giggling in the sun, and made his way to the door.
He lifted his fist to knock, suddenly terrified of what might await him on the other side. His cowardice amused him, so misplaced as it always seemed to be, and he knocked sharply and decisively on the door.
Footsteps within, and muffled voices. He waited, twisting his hat in his hands and sucking in a phantom drop of drool from the corner of his mouth.
Finally, the door opened.
There she stood, lovely as the day he had left her, in a faded housedress and her dark, wavy hair bunched up at the nape of her neck. But there was a tiredness to her features now, a world-wary fog.
"Emma," he grunted, unsure whether to smile or look away.
"Oh my Lord," she replied, her hand flying up to her mouth in disbelief. She stared into his eyes."Richard?"
His shudders of pain kept her up at night. She could hear him through the thin walls, feel his agony in her bones with each ragged, guttural moan. He had left Plover as her strong, idealistic brother; he had returned bitter and broken, but to her remained her brother just the same.
She crept into his room, the tiny bottle of morphine in hand, desperate to ease his suffering. She leaned over him in the familiar bed, dripping the elixir carefully past the slackened corner of his mouth and stroking his hair with her free hand as she tried to focus only on the half of his face that was not hidden under a thicket of bandages. "Oh, Richard," she whispered, fighting back the tears that she refused to let him see.
His lips moved, ever so slightly, but she couldn't make out the words. She leaned in closer, his breath hot against her ear.
Her instinct was to recoil in horror at the gravelly voice that had emanated from his throat, but she was too consumed with joy from the sound of him speaking at all. He hadn't said a word in the week since he'd been brought to her door, too weak to walk on his own but apparently strong enough to cross an ocean, in the military's estimation. She threw herself across his chest, thankful for a sign, any sign, that the brother to whom she had bid farewell those years before had finally returned to her.
She continued to stare, jaw slackened and eyes quivering as they soaked up the sight of him. "I…I can't believe it's really you." She pulled him into a warm embrace, but he barely lifted his arms. She pulled away slightly, arms draped around his neck, to stare again into his eye and run her fingers through his hair. Finally, she seemed to shake herself free of the shock, and pulled away. "What are we doing, standing in the doorway? Come in, come in!" She grabbed his hand and tugged him into the house after her.
Everything was exactly as he had left it. The sight of his memories flung into stark reality this way stopped him in his tracks. Surely, she had to have changed something in the years since their parents' deaths, but it was all as it had always been, down to the last curtain. He noticed a framed photograph on one of the small tables that flanked the old Victorian sofa, and lifted it for a better look. A young, unmarred version of himself gazed back in rich sepia tones, his uniform starched and his eyes youthfully clear. The sight made his heart sink.
"Richard!" Emma called from the kitchen; he dropped his hand quickly. "Come in here. You must be starving!"
He replaced the picture gently on its stand and followed his sister's voice into the kitchen. In his mind, he could still see Ma standing over the range, flipping flapjacks or stirring a big, steaming pot of stew. Smiling, he shifted his gaze to the table, where two more familiar faces looked upon him with curiosity. It was a petite blond with a round, plain face, and a roguishly handsome man with the dark features famous of the Harrow clan.
"Richard!" The man said, his voice deeper than Richard remembered it, and rose to greet him with a hand extended. "What a surprise!"
"Richard?" The blond had stood and now peeked out from behind her husband. "Remember me?"
"Jenny Hastings. Of course."
She blushed. "It's Jenny Harrow now. Always knew I'd be one." She smiled at the statuesque man beside her, then leaned up to kiss Richard on his undamaged cheek. He noticed her lips linger for a moment longer than they needed to and couldn't help but look down at his feet.
"So," Fred said, clapping Richard on the shoulder and steering the group back to the table, "what brings you back to Plover? Business or pleasure?"
"I was in. The area."
"'In the area,'" Fred laughed. "Always a joker, this one. Are you joining us for lunch?"
"Oh, please do!" Jenny chimed in. "We would so like to catch up."
The way they forced themselves not to acknowledge his affliction would have been noble had their eyes not betrayed their true feelings. He looked away, avoiding their curious glare, as Emma brought a plate and place setting before him. She brushed his hand with hers as she straightened the fork.
"I'm really. Not hungry."
"Nonsense," Emma said definitively, returning to the stove to attend to the contents of a waiting pot. "You come all the way here, the least I can do is feed you."
"How long you in town for?" Fred had retrieved a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and was now searching for a light.
"Just. The weekend. I'm due back in. Atlantic City."
"Atlantic City!" Fred leaned back in his chair, blowing a stream of smoke over the table. Richard fought the urge to bat it away in disgust.
"What's it like?" Jenny asked, dreamily. "I've heard such wonderful stories about it."
"Where'd you hear these stories?"
"You know," she said sheepishly, "around. I do read."
"Radio Digest hardly counts as reading."
"It's. Very different. From here." Richard was glad to interrupt. "Lots of people."
The others appeared to ignore him. "Why don't you ever take me places?" Jenny whined, resting her chin on her fist like a child.
"Because I am not a big shot like Richard here." Fred stamped his cigarette out on his plate.
"I'm. Not a big shot."
"Maybe I married the wrong Harrow, then."
"Maybe you did." He stared at her menacingly.
"All right, that's enough you two." Jenny returned with the pot in her hand. She spooned thick stew onto their plates, stopping when she reached Fred's. "Jesus, Alfred, your plate is not an ashtray!"
Fred swept the ashes onto the floor and held the plate up to her like the orphan Oliver pleading for more. She rolled her eyes and dished out a portion.
Richard pushed the chunks of meat and vegetables around on his plate with no intention of eating them, no matter how delicious they smelled. Instead, he turned to face his cousin. "Do you. Still live in Stevens Point?"
"Sure do," Fred said around a mouthful of food. "Sold the farm a few years back and got a job as a travelling salesman."
"Do you enjoy. That type of work?"
Fred shrugged. "Pays the bills, lets me see the sights—not like you do, of course, but I've got some pretty loyal customers from Madison to Detroit."
"Sounds like. A fine way. To make a living."
"See Jenny? The war hero doesn't think it's a waste of time."
"I just wish you were home more often is all. The kids sure do miss you."
"You have. Children?" An unexpected surge of jealously coursed through his veins.
"Three little boys," Jenny said with a shy smile. "Our oldest just turned four. My mother's watching them."
Richard glanced up at his sister, her eyes trained on her plate as she chewed her food in silence. Emma would make a fine mother, but he wondered if she would ever find a beau deserving of her.
"Emma here has a few suitors of her own," Jenny said, as if reading his mind. "She has to beat 'em off with a stick!"
"Now, Jenny, don't exaggerate." Emma's cheeks burned a deep scarlet. "There's no one special in my life."
"Except your dear ol' brother here." Fred clapped him on the arm, harder than was warranted. Now both of the Harrow twins blushed.
She did her best, those first few weeks, to ignore her brother's metamorphosis to the best of her ability. Though he hadn't spoken again since that night, she resigned herself to bolstering his spirit just the same. Mostly, she read to him. Books they had enjoyed as a child. Mark Twain, Frank Baum, Jules Verne—stories of adventure, of heroism, of inspiration. Such tales had thrilled them, as sheltered kids, but he barely acknowledged them now. Still, she read on, beating her oars against the current of his indifference.
Before his return, she had often daydreamed about his homecoming. She had planned to bake him a cake to enjoy after a large supper of all of his favorite foods. With Pa and Ma in the ground, she had finally purchased a phonograph, hoping to be dancing around the room with him again by the end of his first night back. When the faithful day finally arrived, he hadn't walked, but had been brought unconscious, to her door. The large meal had burned on the stove, its cook distracted by the shock of her brother's state, and the phonograph sat abandoned in the corner of her bedroom, forgotten in the stress of his round-the-clock care.
No matter how little he responded to her attempts at restoring him, she refused to give up. She knew, as she spooned broth into his mouth or administered the morphine to quench his constant need, that she could pull him yet from the depths of his living hell. Try as the war had to take him from her, he remained her dear brother, after all.
Fred and Jenny excused themselves just after lunch, taking seconds without offering to help with the cleanup—it was a long drive back to Stevens Point, they assured their gracious host, and they needed to hurry onto the road. Fred had always been pampered, the beloved only child of Pa Harrow's younger brother. Richard remembered the envy he had felt as a child as he and Emma were forced to attend to their endless list of chores knowing that Fred was free to play to his heart's content. It surprised him little to see that the self-centered boy had become a self-centered man, though he wondered how Jenny put up with it.
He had always liked Jenny, though clearly not as much as she had adored him. He remembered seeing her across the room at an ice cream social in town, when they were just barely teenagers. He hadn't thought much of her, but had noticed her eyes following him throughout the night as he danced happily with his sister. It wasn't long before she began showing up at the farm on her old mare, begging Ma to let him come horseback riding. Ma liked the idea of him having a sweetheart, moreso than Pa or Emma ever had. Emma would roll her eyes over dinner as Richard described their quiet afternoons. He wondered even then if she would have been satisfied with any girl who showed her dear brother the time of day, and he would grasp her hand reassuringly, reminding her that she was still the most important woman in his life.
They sat across the table from each other, strangers after all these years. Richard's plate had long since grown cold; he couldn't bring himself to eat in front of her. Emma sat back in her chair, taking long drags on a rolled cigarette and trying not to look at him.
"Thank you. For lunch," Richard said finally.
"You barely touched it."
"I'm sure. It was delicious." He could feel his fingers twisting in his hands, the involuntary signal of anxiety. "Do you. See Fred and Jenny. Often?"
"Once a week or so, when Fred's in town. They always end up inviting themselves over."
"They seem. To be doing well."
"What are you doing here, Richard?" She lifted her face, her eyes locked on his.
He swallowed hard. "I told you. I was. In the area."
"I can tell when you're lying, you know." She took another long drag, letting her gaze drift toward the window. "I haven't heard from you in three years. I didn't even know if you were still alive."
"I wanted. To write."
"Then why didn't you?"
He stared at his plate, unsure of the answer. He looked up in time to see her roll her eyes and stand, grinding her cigarette out on her plate and starting to clear the table.
"Can I. Help?"
"No, it's all right. Just go get settled in." She dropped their plates in the sink and turned the water on. He watched her for a moment, her back to him, before standing to leave the room. He could just hear the ghost of a sob behind him as he left her to her work.
He spent the next hour reacquainting himself with his childhood bedroom. He tucked his clothes neatly into one of his drawers, amused that only one had been emptied—the rest still held the shortpants and workman's overalls of his youth. Really, the entire room remained as locked in the past as the rest of the house. Even his old quilt, sewn with care by Ma and Emma as a Christmas gift years before, was spread exactly as it had been over the small bed, not a wrinkle visible in the dusty glow of the afternoon.
He had draped his coat over a chair and went now to move it to the closet. He could feel the hard lump of his Colt in the inside pocket—instinct told him to keep it on his person at all times, but surely he would have no use for it here. Still, he traced its outline with his fingertips, calmed by the cool, dependable metal.
"Ahem." Emma stood in the doorway behind him; he turned quickly at the sound of her clearing throat, still clutching the coat pocket in both hands. "I've drawn a bath for you."
Her eyes flickered to the item in his hands, still shrouded in the silk lining of the coat, but she didn't address it. Rather, she straightened her posture, lifting her chin with self-assurance. "Is there anything else I can do to help you settle in?"
"No. You've done enough."
She nodded and turned, but hesitated. "It's good to have you home, Richard. I never thought I'd see you again." She had disappeared down the hall before he could respond.
The steaming bathwater soothed his aching muscles, and he sank into the tin tub gratefully, breathing in the humid air around him. He removed his mask, setting it gingerly on the nearby windowsill, and closed his eyes to usher in relaxation. Everything in this old house was as it should be, as he'd imagined it whenever the darkness reared its ugly head. So why did he still feel nothing?
He had daydreamed, on the long journey north, that his absence would have made their reunion all the sweeter, that they would immediately fall back into old routines. He remembered fondly how they used to communicate with mere glances and smirks, always aware what the other was thinking after a lifetime of intimacy that no one but the two of them could hope to infiltrate. Perhaps he had been the reason she had so few gentleman callers, despite her striking good looks. She had blossomed from a bright young girl into a truly charming young woman, intelligent and independent. Their small town hadn't known what to do with her then, and it appeared, from the bags under her eyes and the lonely solitude of their remote farm, that they knew even less what to do with her now.
She had made sure he was resting comfortably, or as comfortably as his injuries would allow, before breaking away to take a moment for herself. The bathwater was so invitingly warm on her skin—skin that could have been milky and soft were it not for all the work to be done—and she closed her eyes, drinking in the tranquility surrounding her. She felt the tears building, pressing down on her lungs like the weight of the world, and gave herself one minute to let the sorrow overtake her. It was a practice honed over years of living with their stern, emotionally distant parents: if you must cry, give it only a moment, then get back to work.
A soft hum behind her made her eyes shoot open, but she refused to turn towards its source. She could feel her brother standing in the doorway, watching her, and realized how unfair it was for her to be crying while he watched his once bright future slip away. As he continued to stand there, so close but so far, she wrapped her arms around herself and focused on the window, and the clouds drifting by, waiting for some clue that might help her in her quest to bring him home.
After what seemed like an eternity, she heard the floorboards creak as he made his way back down the hall, and finally she succumbed to the tears.
When Richard awoke the next morning, he found a tray on his nightstand, laden with food. He smiled at his sister's thoughtfulness, scooping eggs and potatoes gratefully into his mouth. He hadn't tasted anything so delicious in years, but then again his sister had always been a skilled cook. With each bite, he remembered how patient she had been, instructing his way around the kitchen—woman's work, their father had derided—and how excited he had been to watch her clear her plate of his handiwork. He made a mental note to cook for Julia, if he ever found himself back in her life.
With the tray cleared, he dressed and made his way around the house, looking for his twin. He found her on the porch, seating in one of the two old chairs with a book in her hand and an icy pitcher of lemonade and two glasses nearby.
"Good morning," he grunted, nervous hands stuffed into his pockets. "Thank you. For breakfast."
"It's the least I could do." She turned a page without looking at him. "I thought you might like to eat in peace."
He hummed in agreement and took a seat beside her, placing his hands on his knees to steady them. The birds trilled around them, but the twins remained silent.
"How is. The farm?"
"It's fine. I bring some workers in every few months to help with the fields, but otherwise it's nothing I can't handle."
"You always were. A hard worker."
"Exactly what a man wants in a wife." She turned another page; she still hadn't looked at him. "Are you going to tell me what you've been up to these past three years, or do you enjoy being shrouded in mystery?"
"Where. Should I begin?"
"Well, I know you went to Chicago; the veteran's hospital contacted me when you arrived."
"I got the books. You sent me."
"I thought you might enjoy them."
"I. Did." He lied; it was a skill for which he had Jimmy to thank, and he remembered handing one of his sister's books over to his old friend on the day they'd met, and felt a pang of grief. "I met a soldier. In the hospital. James Darmody. He brought me. To Atlantic City."
"To do what?"
Richard hesitated. "To work."
She looked at him, finally, her eyes narrowed in doubt. "Really?" she asked sardonically. "And what sort of work do you do out there in Atlantic City?"
"I. Protect people."
"Is that what they're calling it these days?" She set her book down and poured herself a glass of lemonade. "I'm not a fool, Richard. I know what goes on in that filthy town." She raised the glass in mock-cheers. "Remind me to send my regards to Mr. Darmody for your good fortune."
"You can't. He's dead."
She paused, staring at the glass in her hand. "Well," she said, raising the glass to her lips, "to the victor go the spoils."
Another lengthy stretch of silence, broken only by the birds and the wind in the trees. "I've thought. About you," he said softly, cursing the roughness of his voice for spoiling the sincerity of his words. "Every day."
"Not enough to talk to me, though."
"It's. Not that simple."
"It is, though." She stared at him, glass trembling in her hand. "It's me, Richard. Just me. You know you can tell me anything."
He looked away, her insistence disconcerting. "There are some things. I can't talk. To you about."
"Things I've seen. In the war. And after. Things I dream about."
"If you could only try." She reached out to him, grasping his hand reassuringly. "Darling, you're still my brother."
"I am not. The same brother. Who left you for. The war."
"Yes, you are."
"No." He pulled his hand away. "He died. In a blind. In France." He stood, heading back inside.
"That's an awfully convenient excuse to push people away!" she called after him. He could imagine her, seething in the midmorning sun, and knew her book would go unfinished today.