It wasn't like Richard to be gone all night. His unerring sense of responsibility was what had convinced her to hire him in the first place, helping her to see past the off-putting mask and the voice that sent chills down her spine. Well, that and his obvious affinity for Tommy, but look how that had turned out.
It infuriated her that he hadn't thought to call, as if her needs had no value to him. It was downright selfish, in fact. She knew that he was plotting to take Tommy away from her, as if his position as the boy's caretaker entitled him somehow to make decisions for his supposed well-being. But she was Tommy's real family; his place was with her, no matter what.
Her bedroom was bathed in the azure glow of approaching dawn, and she accepted that sleep had evaded her for the night, as it so often had since Jimmy had been ripped away from her. The old house was disturbingly quiet, almost as if she really were alone within its aging walls. She rose and dressed in the first frock she could find, a steely grey velvet number that made her look sophisticated, if a tad out of fashion. Hoping that perhaps he had returned in the brief moments of sleep she had managed to procure for herself that night, she decided to check Richard's room for a sign of him.
That it was empty did not surprise her. She stood in the doorway, her hand quivering on the handle and eyes shut tight while she fought back a wave of frustration. It would do her no good to let her anger get the better of her just yet, not when she could not use it to her advantage. Instead, she opened her eyes with the calm and control that made her lifestyle possible, and found herself looking into the modest room with newfound curiosity, acutely aware of how little she knew of the man she had charged with the most important parts of her life—her business and her child. Surely, it wouldn't hurt to take a little peek.
She took a seat at the desk, taking a moment to consider what use it might have for the room's occupant. Until recently, she hadn't believed that he had any friends, and he had never spoken of family. Just then a sepia-toned photograph caught her eye, of a young man and young woman seated side-by-side on an old porch. The man looked vaguely familiar, like he could be Richard's brother, but his face was whole and the hopeful glint in his eye was something she couldn't possibly imagine in her battle-hardened helper. She realized that she had never really considered his life outside of their old house, but the lipstick on his mask several weeks ago had shown her that he clearly had another life entirely that he felt he must keep from her. His reticence offended her, but she tried not to dwell on it much.
She opened a drawer to find a small stack of notebooks—one of them appeared to be a bible—and suddenly couldn't contain her curiosity. She gingerly lifted the bible's cover to reveal pages covered in clippings—newspaper articles, magazine illustrations—of lovesick couples and happy families. It was sweet, if not a little strange, but she could easily relate to the unrealized desire for normalcy. She had wanted the same for herself for as long as she could remember, but she'd been little more than a child when Jimmy was conceived and any prospects she'd had proved to be pipe dreams, in the end.
She continued to flip through the paste-thickened pages, pausing towards the book's end on a sketch of him sans mask (a sight she had never, in the many years she had known him, seen with her own eyes). On the opposite page was a photograph of a strikingly handsome young soldier, his dark, intense eyes cutting to her core. She felt a swell of attraction for him before realizing that it was only Richard, pre-injury. She thought for a moment of what might have been, had she met him before the war had taken half of his face and God knows what else.
She shook herself from her increasingly naughty thoughts and closed the bible, then lifted it to move onto the next little book in the stack. On the first page was a photograph of Richard, Tommy, and a girl she didn't recognize. The girl was quite pretty, with flaxen hair and a sweet face. Richard's face was turned toward her, awash in admiration, hiding his mask in the process. The three of them looked like a normal, happy little family. The thought made Gillian's blood boil.
How dare he? She knew he was plotting to take Tommy away from her, and this photograph proved it. He was going to steal the only thing she had left in this world in order to create some illusion of a perfect life for himself. But Tommy wasn't his to steal. He belonged with her, and without him she had nothing. The longer she stared at the picture, the more her worry built up inside of her. She could not let this happen.
She pulled another notebook towards her, and an envelope slipped out from between its pages; it was addressed to PFC Richard Harrow with a series of numbers and accented letters reminiscent of Jimmy's address during the war. The return address read "E. Harrow," Plover, Wisconsin. Gillian had never heard of Plover, but she opened the envelope all the same.
It was immediately clear that "E. Harrow" was Richard's sister, and from the tone of the letter, they were very close. Yet, in three years, he had never spoken of her. She slipped the letter into her pocket, well aware that it could prove useful in the future.
Suddenly, the door opened and Richard stood at his room's threshold, staring quizzically at her. She closed the book quickly and looked up at him, immediately regaining her composure. "I hope you don't mind," she said, as sweetly as she could manage. "You were gone all night. I was beginning to get...rather worried."
He avoided her eyes as he growled something about losing track of the time. The lie only added to her anger.
"That happens when you're in love," she said, though she herself knew little about it. Still, she could read it on the good half of his face, as she had in the photograph before her. "You are, aren't you?"
He looked at her for a moment, his chin raised defiantly, but quickly turned again so that his emotions were blocked by that discomforting mask.
"No need to be embarrassed," she continued. "I envy you—a little. But—" She rose from the chair, choosing her words carefully. "—you have to be careful."
He looked at her, his expression difficult to decipher. "About what?"
"Dreaming of things," she went on, the photograph still fresh in her mind, "that cannot possibly come to pass; that were never yours to begin with. Because that will only end up hurting you."
She walked towards the door, the envelope with his sister's letter burning a hole in her pocket. As she passed him, she caught a whiff of salty air, and with it a host of hopes and dreams that she had once entertained but had long since abandoned. An image of a sunny little island, and of a handsome suitor with a sailboat who had made love to her on the beach while young Jimmy played nearby, rushed to the forefront of her memory. She had been so young, her whole life ahead of her; it seemed another life entirely now, but the scent still brought the memory flooding back. "You smell of the sea," she said softly, dreamily, then left him standing in his own doorway.
The plan seemed to formulate itself in the long, lonely hallway. In the solitude of her room, she retrieved a pen and paper and set to work writing a letter, a letter that would save her, a letter that would keep Tommy here with her.
Summer had come early that year. Emma stood on the porch, arms akimbo, surveying her little farm and considering the damage that a lengthy spell of heat might cause come autumn. She had hoped for a bountiful harvest this year, but she'd be lucky to grow a thing. Perhaps it was time to finally sell the farm and seek occupation elsewhere, but she knew it was a silly idea. Farming was all she knew, and she would not abandon it. Not like Richard had.
The thought of her brother filled her with an odd mixture of hope and hopelessness. She hated him for leaving her, for rejecting her love when they both needed it most. It had been three years since she'd heard from him, and still the wound felt fresh as the morning she had awoken to find his bed abandoned. She shuddered at the thought.
"Hello, Ms. Harrow!" It was Mr. Kimble, the postman. He'd brought the mail for as long as she could remember, only taking a day off when his son had died in the war. She remembered the special little whistle he would give her when bearing correspondence from her brother, and she felt a pang of sadness for his loss as he approached the porch.
"Hello, Mr. Kimble. How's Marla?"
"She's fine. Still nagging at me to retire."
"That's what wives are for."
"What about you? When are you going to settle down?"
"Now, now, you know I'm needed here. Have you brought me untold riches today?"
"Oh, just a few bills." He shuffled through a few letters and paused on one. "Tell me, who do you know in Atlantic City?"
Emma shrugged. "No one I can recall."
"Well, you've got a fancy-lookin' envelope here from someplace called the Artemis Club. Must be a secret admirer."
"Real secret." She took the letter from him, studying it inquisitively.
"I'll leave you to it, then."
"Thank you, Mr. Kimble." She hadn't taken her eyes off of the envelope, studying the looping handwriting and searching the recesses of her memory for some clue as to its contents. Coming up short, she slit it open with her finger.
"Dear Ms. Harrow,
My name is Gillian Darmody, and I am the proprietor of the Artemis Club in Atlantic City. I believe your brother, Richard, is our caretaker."
She fell into an empty chair, knees weakened at the prospect that her brother's whereabouts might have finally been revealed. Heart pounding in her chest, she continued to read.
"I am writing to you out of concern for you brother's mental state. It has come to my attention that he has engaged in questionable practices, some downright dangerous. As one of his duties is to watch over my son, you can see why I feel that something must be done. I urge you to come to Atlantic City to try to lead your brother home. I care very much for him and fear that this city has done him irreparable harm, and I hope that you will understand."
Emma dropped the letter to her lap, mind reeling. She had no idea how he could have ended up in such a place as Atlantic City, and even less what he could possibly be doing that might be considered dangerous. True, his role in the war hadn't been to tuck the enemy soldiers into bed at night, but surely there had been some mistake. And yet the letter was addressed to her, and this was the closest she had come to having any idea of his location in years. As if in a trance, she rose and went inside to pack.