October 2011, New York City
“Sylocet, a recent anti-migraine drug, has been pulled from pharmacies across all fifty states.”
Grace half listens while she sketches by the window. She’s using her little portable emergency radio because the kitchen one is still broken, and she shouldn’t be draining the batteries on it, but it’s hard to get back in the habit of planning ahead. The news is depressing lately, but she listens anyway because if she doesn’t, she’s afraid she’ll forget the outside world exists, that she’ll just fade away. Half of her wants that, but the half that doesn’t turns up the volume.
“Sylocet’s creator, Virtanen Pharmaceuticals, refused to comment, but the drug may be responsible for up to 20,000 deaths across the country. The drug, which had been approved by the FDA, is now linked with fatal heart attacks and sudden death. If you’ve lost a loved one--”
She flips it off.
Sometimes when she’s painting by the window, out of the corner of her eye, Grace sees a man in the park that looks like Harold. She never sees his face, just the back of a brown-haired head on a body that is almost the right height. Sideburns that could be angled like his, and glasses that, if she squints, are exactly like she remembers. She dubs him Not Harold, and he’s the reason she sits and draws by the window every day now, not the soft natural light that’s so perfect for painting. She never puts down her brush to run after him, and never says a word about him to anyone else.
She’s working on the second round of thumbnails for a book deal, a deal that should have been out of her reach. She can’t get into it and she spends an hour tracing over work she’s already sketched.
Two weeks ago her agent called and said, “Grace, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.” She closed her eyes and let Joanna talk it up, even though she didn’t care. Grace doesn’t need the money. Harold left her with more than enough to sustain her mild lifestyle, and he paid for the exorbitant house outright. Even if she decided to paint in precious metals, she’d be all right. But Joanna needed the commission. She’s got three kids and a husband who’s laid off. Besides, it keeps her hands busy, and that’s better than the alternative right now.
“Send me the paperwork,” she said, and now she’s staring at character designs she dislikes for a project that is dull.
“Grace, are you getting out of the house enough? I worry about you.” Eilean calls her once or twice a month to check in. Eilean’s brother died when she was a teenager, and she was the only one of her small circle of friends who didn’t give up on Grace when she started to retreat from the world. But she and her husband moved out of the city in January when he took a job with somewhere big and exciting. She can’t remember where and she doesn’t really care. She’s not actually envious.
She doesn’t tell Eilean that she doesn’t want to leave the house (their house) behind, or that sometimes she still paints by the railing where he first spoke to her (hoping between blinks that he’ll be standing behind her with an ice cream cone) even though she’s past the year mark and she should be starting to move on (but she doesn’t know how). She says, “I’m fine. I promise.” Because that’s the phrase everyone wants to hear.
After Eliean hangs up, the phone rings; a single solitary ring that echoes like a ghost through her kitchen. It’s been doing that lately. There’s never anyone on the other end, just static, and it only ever happens directly after a call. A weird redial in the system; a glitch. It’s become so familiar it’s almost comforting in its predictability. She lets it ring once, picks it up, and hangs up again.
The next time she’s out, which isn’t for another two days, she buys a pair of birding binoculars and leaves them by the window. When Not Harold finally does turn towards the house he’s just some man with glasses and expensive taste. It’s the first time she cries since she buried him. When she watches Really Not Harold stand up from the park bench, meet a woman, and walk away with her arm-in-arm, she cries so hard she drops the binoculars. They hit the hardwood floor. They’re sturdy, they don’t even get scratched, and she hates them for it. She kicks them, hard, and they skitter across the floor and run into the refrigerator. They don’t break for another three kicks, and it’s amazing how good it feels to finally leave a mark on something.
November 2011, New York City
The phone rings every night at midnight now. It started a few weeks ago, after a particularly bad day. It should worry her, make her nervous, but it doesn’t. The grief group she goes to says apathy is normal, but this isn’t what they mean, and she doesn’t tell them about it. She stares at her little nightstand alarm clock with its glowing red numbers as 11:59 turns to 12:00 and the ring echos through the room. Sometimes she picks it up and pretends it’s Harold, somehow, finding a way to contact her from wherever he is now. Sometimes she picks it up and lets the static wash through her until the little clock flips to 12:01 AM and the call drops and falls asleep with the phone on her pillow.
Sometimes, she talks back to it, even after the click and static end.
“You know, I miss you,” she says to the dead line. “It’s not the same with you gone. It never will be. I’m okay, though. It’s okay. I baked a pie today. Rhubarb, the kind you liked because it reminded you of your childhood home. Did you know I couldn’t eat Rhubarb pie for months?
And sometimes she says, “I miss you. I miss being able to be in the same room with someone and just exist with them. We wouldn’t talk for hours, we’d just sit at the kitchen table together. I miss that.”
And sometimes she listens to the static, just for that minute, and pretends its Harold breathing next to her.
There’s a knock on her door. It’s noon, and no one has knocked on her door in weeks. She doesn’t have a peephole, just the small window, and she peers past the lace with her arms crossed. A young man stands on her steps in a baggy jacket and with a beat up bag over his shoulder. She doesn’t recognize him.
She cracks opens the door and a gust of cold air hits her in the face. “Can I help you?”
He stares at her for a second before trying to look over her shoulder. “Um. Hi.” He fidgets like a kid. He looks like one, too, in his sneakers. “Are you Grace Hendricks? Sorry to bother you. I’m Will. I think you know my uncle. Can I come in?”
It’s stupid. She shouldn’t let him into her house. She doesn’t have mace or a taser or anything that could stop him if he was a thief or worse. But it’s freezing out and he’s in a light jacket, so she opens the door and he blows in and stands there, dripping freezing rain onto her rug, until she offers to take his coat. She hangs it up on the rack next to her own jacket, the peg that used to hold Harold’s coat, and ushers him in.
He stands in her kitchen looking lost. “I’m looking for my uncle Harold. And I think you might know him. I think you married him, actually. Is he here?” And he’s looking over her shoulder again towards the back of the house, towards her bedroom. She takes a deep breath.
“Sit down,” she says, and he drops into her kitchen chair bonelessly. His pant legs drip twin puddles onto her floor.
She sits across from him and folds her hands together. “What makes you think that?” She’s proud; her voice doesn’t shake.
The phone rings. Just the single ring, the ghost ring. It doesn’t just come after calls now. She ignores it but Will tips his head.
“You going to get that?”
It clicks off like she knew it would. “No. You were saying?”
It’s fascinating to watch as he deflates. She hasn’t had anyone sit in her kitchen in a long time. Mostly when she forces herself to be social it’s outside of her home: sketch groups at coffee houses, meetings with her agent downtown. Friends stopped coming to visit when she stopped inviting them back. His shoulders slump and he seems to melt back into the chair, Harold’s chair. Harold liked the view, he said with that sly smile she loved on him. It was the chair that overlooked her painting nook.
“My uncle is missing,” he says quietly. He’s fidgeting with something in his hands. It’s a bottlecap, she thinks. Or maybe a key. It makes him look younger than he is. “I hired a private investigator to help find him and, well, she found a photo of you and Harold. And your address. She said he was planning on marrying you. Did he?” He looks over her shoulder again. “Is he here?” he repeats.
She reaches out and snags his hands, covering them in her own and holding tight. She can feel his pulse racing. He startles but she hangs on anyhow. “No.” She says it firmly. “No. I’m sorry. Harold, my Harold, he died, Will. Last year. He was at the pier on September 26th.”
He freezes and she can feel his hands shake under her own. “Oh.” He takes a breath. “Oh.”
It’s been over a year. It’s progress that she doesn’t know the number of days anymore, though. “Have you been looking for him this whole time?”
“I guess it makes sense that he’s,” he stumbles on the word and settles on, “gone. I mean, what else could have happened. My dad died there too,” he says, and nods towards the window as if the pier is just down the road instead of miles away. His voice is airy with shock and she stands up to put the kettle on. “He shouldn’t have been there.” She knows that sound in his voice; she knows the stages of grief like the back of her hand.
“Your father was Nathan Ingram, wasn’t he?” It clicks as soon as she says it. She saw both of their photos in the paper in the days after, even though she tried to avoid it all, it was impossible. His father’s name was everywhere after the bombing happened. It overshadowed anything about Harold. Harold probably wouldn’t have minded, but it left Grace bitter at the time.
The kettle starts to screech and she pulls it off the burner. She should wait until it’s cooled before pouring it into the mugs, but she doesn’t; she needs something to do with her hands and she’s so sick of waiting for the right moments.
“I hope you like green tea,” she says while putting it in front of him. “It’s all I have.”
“He shouldn’t have been there,” Will repeats.
“I know,” she says. She never did figure out why Harold had been at the pier. There was a lot she didn’t understand, a lot more she still doesn’t. “But he was.”
They sit and don’t drink their tea for a long time. “So you and Uncle Harold... you were engaged? He never mentioned you.” Will is looking at her like she looks at the world when she’s trying to draw it; trying to capture three dimensional life and figure out how to transmute it into a two dimensional concept.
She takes a careful sip of tea. “Yes. He didn’t talk about his family either. I never knew he had a nephew or that he had anything to do with your family.”
Will shrugs a single shoulder. “He’s... he wasn’t really my uncle. My dad and him were just old friends.” The Ingrams are practically a royal family of New York. She has no idea how Harold could have been a part of them without making it in the papers, but Harold was always so quiet about his past, and she never asked. She doesn’t regret not asking, but she does regret not knowing.
“Sometimes that means more than actual family,” and then they’re both silent for awhile.
“Do you have somewhere to stay?” she finally asks, because she remembers reading something in the paper months back about the Ingram son going off to do volunteer work after his father’s death. She remembers being angry at about it at the time, that other people could move on so easily.
He shrugs. “I never sold my dad’s old place. I can go there, it’s okay.” He hangs his head. “I just. I really thought he’d be here.”
The tea is cold now so it doesn’t sting when it sloshes over the edge of the mug as she stands up abruptly to crouch in front of his chair and hug him. It’s too much contact for strangers like they are, but he’s Harold’s nephew, even if not quite in blood, and that makes him family. He doesn’t hug back for a second, but when he does it’s with the crushing intensity of someone who hasn’t been hugged in a long time.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” she asks.
He lets go after a long second, and he’s breathing shallowly, like he’s trying to stay in control. “Nothing.”
“Visit me again. Tomorrow.”
He runs a hand over his face. “Okay. Okay, sure.”
That night when the phone rings at midnight she picks it up and listens to the static. When it falls silent she says, “I met Will today. He’s a good kid. I wish you’d told me about him. But I guess it’s better late than never.” She falls asleep with the phone tucked under her head.