The air is stifling today, more like summer than early autumn, and the breeze stirred up by the traffic only serves to remind Lewis how much he misses the drizzly fog of London. Not least because Lane is very grouchy today.
“No, I don’t want to go somewhere new for lunch—”
“Oh, honestly, Lane,” Lewis straightens his jacket as they get in range of the soda shop doors. A queue has formed on the pavement, causing passerby to push past it in frustration. “It’s three blocks from your office, not the bloody East Side—”
“They give you too many chips—it’s impossible to eat them all—”
“I thought you said you had never been here before.”
His brother looks furious at being contradicted. “Well, I haven’t!”
As they join the queue that stretches several feet past the doorway, Lane suddenly stops walking, and makes a shushing noise that causes Lewis to turn and stare at his brother with puzzled eyes.
“Why on earth are you—?”
Lane’s gaze is fixed on the front doors, his voice quiet. “No, don’t!”
Lewis glances over just in time to see two petite young women emerging onto the pavement. One of them – blonde, bit plump, round-faced – holds the door open for her friend, and has got a bag of sandwiches in her hand, as if they’re out picking up for three or four others, while the second girl – dark-skinned, svelte, in a bright pop of green – follows as she places her wallet back into her handbag.
Lane is clearly trying to remain unseen, practically hiding behind Lewis’s jacket, but he keeps glancing sideways at the women as if he must see where they’re going. Is he looking at the blonde girl? Is it someone who once worked at the agency, perhaps a secretary? How else could he be so familiar with someone her age?
The blonde woman doesn’t seem to know his brother from Adam, and doesn’t even glance at two of them as she walks past, but when the Negro girl notices Lane, she stops short, staring at him in clear surprise. Lewis knows that look intimately: equal parts curiosity and horror.
Good god. They must have been lovers.
Quickly composing her expression, and noticing Lewis’s raised eyebrow, she stands taller, raises her chin, and walks up to them with a determined air.
“Hello,” she says, barely sparing Lewis a glance in favor of Lane. Her voice is low—the practiced kind of smooth. “I didn’t recognize you at first.”
Lane’s turning pink, but at least he’s able to look her in the face when he speaks to her. “Oh. Well, yes, erm, I suppose I could say the same.”
There is a very long pause.
“How have you been?” asks the woman, biting her lip briefly.
“Fine.” Lane doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, first jamming them into his pockets, then pulling them out and crossing them over his middle. He does look away from her now, seeming very embarrassed. “And—yourself?”
A not-insignificant diamond flashes bright on the woman’s left hand as she nudges a stray curl away from her eyes. Lewis isn’t even sure if Lane’s noticed this particular detail, given the way he’s just barely managing to make conversation.
“Hello,” he interrupts, deciding not to prolong an awkward moment. “Lane’s brother, Lewis.”
“More family,” says the woman with a huff of breath not quite like a laugh. They shake hands; her grip is half-hearted, as if she’s already preparing to flee.
What a strange thing to say. “Who did you—?”
“Sorry,” Lane interrupts, shaking his head. “He’s—you don’t have to—”
“No, it’s all right.” The young woman holds up one hand as if he needn’t bother finishing the sentence, her voice turning brisk. A few paces to the right, her blonde friend is still waiting for her, pink lips pursed in amusement as she watches this little scene unfold. “Anyway. I should go. It was nice to see you.”
“Oh, well, erm—goodbye.”
Lane looks utterly defeated as the woman walks away.
“I told you I didn’t want to eat here,” he finally says, and shuffles out of the queue and in the opposite direction, toward the curb, where several yellow cabs sit waiting for fares.
Oh, for god’s sake. Lewis is already fast on his brother’s heels, forcing himself not to roll his eyes at this particular lamentation. “What did she mean, more family?”
“Lane, you can hardly avoid the subject forever!”
The door slams shut behind Lewis as they enter the flat; Lane doesn’t even bother to put his keys in his pocket or to turn around, walking so quickly he’s still carrying his walking stick like a bloody baton. He tosses this aside with a huff of breath, letting it roll over the carpet as he moves down the hallway.
“Stop pestering me, damn it!”
“I shall pester you all I like. You’re being deliberately obtuse,” Lewis growls. His footsteps follow Lane down the long hall, making Lane grit his teeth together in frustration. “Did she meet Rebecca? Or Nigel?”
“No, she bloody well didn’t meet Rebecca, and I think you know that!”
“Why should she have met anyone else in our family? How on earth could—”
“The reason does not matter,” Lane snaps, finally turning around, and fixing Lewis with as good a glare as he can manage, “because it never—” He bites down on his tongue, refusing to let himself finish the sentence. It never should have happened.
“Little brother. Whom, precisely, from our family did she meet?” Lewis matches his brother’s tone, and takes a step forward, his eyes searching Lane’s with an unnerving intensity.
Lane glances right, so briefly it’s only for a second, but somehow his brother can see an answer in this glance, a flash of surprise gracing his features.
“My god,” Lewis breathes, going slightly pale.
It’s the first time his brother has seemed shocked – genuinely shocked – the entire time he’s been visiting.
Lane sets his jaw, angry with himself for having given this much away, and starts walking again, moving quickly toward the door of his bedroom. “I don’t want to talk about it any more.”
“You can’t possibly be serious,” Lewis continues to follow him, sounding less and less glib with every sentence. “How the hell could you have introduced a woman like her to that foul creature? Knowing what he might do?”
Normally, Lane would shoot back with a reprimand, but he can’t get the words to form together, and squeezes his eyes shut against the pulsing terror in his head. “You—you can’t say those things. He’s our—”
“I know precisely what he is,” Lewis hisses. His eyes have grown cold. “I defy you to tell me that he’s changed—”
“Shut up!” Lane pushes past his brother and in the opposite direction of the hallway, into the kitchen. “For god’s sake, don’t you ever tire of the sound of your own voice, all you do is follow me everywhere, asking me questions!”
“Was he in this house? Why did he come here? What did he do?”
The moment he reaches the counter, Lane reaches for the nearest empty pot, still sitting on the counter, and grabs it by one handle, tossing it into the floor. It bounces off the edge of a cabinet and the lid clatters out, rolling toward the icebox. The noise of the crash is practically deafening, and makes the pounding in his head worse. He can hardly speak after all that shouting. His throat’s so tight it’s as if he’s strained his voice.
“Did he hurt her?” Lewis asks quietly.
“Stop it,” Lane pleads, sucking in a sharp breath as he slumps over the countertop, his palms braced against the linoleum, desperately wanting to cover his ears. “Please—”
His brother’s voice is practically a whisper. “Not—you?”
Lane’s gasping in shallow breaths now, struggling to draw air into his lungs. All he can see in his peripheral vision is a shadow standing over him, a dark wingtip crushing his fingers, crushing his windpipe, oh god, he can’t breathe, he can’t move, he feels dizzy, he feels like crying. “God, I—can’t—I c—”
Can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t—
When he comes back to himself, he’s lying on his side on the cold tile—achy and shivering—face damp—completely wrung out, unable to draw in a breath without making a horrible whimpering noise. There’s a crumpled paper bag by his left hand—someone kneeling over him, saying something—fingers stroking over the back of his neck. He startles away from the touch.
“No, it’s all right,” a baritone voice murmurs, but Lane still tries to scrabble away, feels dizzy all over again once he’s pushed himself upright, and has to lean against the nearest cupboard for support. From this angle, even amongst all the swimming in his vision, he can just make out his brother’s lanky figure, crouched a few feet away, now. Oh, god. Did he—did it—
“One of your episodes,” Lewis sounds horrified. Lane cannot see the other man’s face as he speaks. “You’ve started having them again?”
“I’m tired,” Lane croaks in a pathetic way, feeling his eyes sting with fresh tears, and hating it. A young man never shows weakness. “I’m really—very tired.”
He has to close his eyes this time, tipping his head back against the rough wood. He can’t help it. Everything hurts.
Myra sighs and stretches her neck from side to side as Lane walks away from their usual lunch booth. That was a hard hour; he was high-strung today. Two dirty plates, stray silverware and half-full teacups still litter the bright tabletop. He didn’t bring his walking stick with him, either by accident or by design, but it’s clear he won’t need it for much longer. His walk is very steady—he’s one of the fortunate ones—and right now, he’s striding so quickly out of the restaurant it’s like he’s expecting her to rush out and tail him back to work.
Ordering a cup of coffee from a passing waitress, she takes out her legal pad, flips to the first fresh sheet of paper, and makes a few quick notes. He’s not doing as well at work as he’d like, judging by his own admission, and has anxiety about a partners’ meeting that’s happening next week. Or in two weeks. Joan will be back for that one, so Myra’s sure she’ll hear the full story in time, but he was very cagey about describing why it made him so anxious.
Physically, he’s admitted to stronger headaches, but no full migraines that he can remember. Unless his usual reticence about pain is code for they’re actually migraines. She thinks he may have had a bout of them shortly after returning to work, and makes a note to have him start writing down his meals again, in case they’re food triggered. Hm. Mayonnaise, shellfish…and there’s a third one. She’s writing two question marks in the margin of her paper when a movement from the end of the lunch counter draws her attention—a familiar-looking man putting a newspaper aside with an expression that says he’s barely been reading it. A man who has gotten on Myra’s last nerve. Oh, good god.
She closes her legal pad, shoves it into her open satchel, and places the paper napkin that’s sitting in her lap onto one of the dirty plates. It covers Lane’s half-eaten sandwich as she stands up, summons her best don’t-backtalk glare, and crosses the restaurant toward Lane’s brother, placing a hand on the man’s elbow as she deftly takes the sports pages from the slick counter.
“Pick up your plate, and come sit with me right now,” she says first, quietly, in a kind of pleasant-aggressive way, forceful enough to make him turn to stare at her with raised eyebrows but not loud enough to get anyone else gossiping.
Lewis isn’t able to summon up his usual dose of amusement, but doesn’t pretend to have misheard, just picks up his mug – leaving his chicken salad behind – and follows her back to the booth where she and Lane had been sitting earlier.
The plates and trash have now been cleared from the table, along with Myra’s full coffee cup. She lets out a sigh. There are big water rings on the table from where two full glasses of ice sat melting throughout their session, and a glob of mustard is drying next to the bottom of the salt shaker.
“I don’t like people eavesdropping on my private sessions,” she says first, crossing her arms over her chest in a defiant way.
The older man makes a skeptical face. “My dear girl—”
“Stop,” Myra makes her voice commanding, the way she does with unruly patients. “Yes or no, could you hear us talking?”
His eyes snap to hers – with no hesitation, no slight widening or pupil dilation – but she can also see that they’re slightly bloodshot, and drooping at the corners, as if he’s exhausted. Under her watchful gaze, his skeptical expression fades into something more placid, but no less guarded. “Not with the noise.”
“But you wanted to keep tabs on what he was doing,” she says, dropping her arms after another moment, and folding her hands over one another on the tabletop. “Don’t you have anything better to do than play pretend?”
He scoffs out a noise like a laugh. “Forgive me for interrupting your moment of import, but I am not playing at anything.”
“You’re worried about him.” She notices the way he draws himself up for a fight after she says this, and is careful not to follow it with an accusation. “I don’t think you would be here otherwise.”
His expression stays carefully flat, except for a telltale flicker of emotion in his eyes. They sweep the surface of the table in a single glance, then meet her steady gaze. “Is this the moment where you feel compelled to share something very uplifting and prosaic?”
Myra feels the instinct in her gut as surely as she can see it in his disaffected manner. This man is terrified, and can’t admit it. Just like his brother. On an impulse, she reaches into her satchel for her small change purse, opening it quickly and placing a shiny quarter onto the table.
“Look,” she says first. “Give me this quarter, and you’ll be my patient. As your nurse, I’ll be legally obligated to keep any and all confidences.”
He blinks at her, but there’s no confusion in his voice as he speaks.
“You would not be required to answer my questions, should I ask them.”
“Not if they violated the confidentiality of other patients.” She tries to put him at ease. He’s not as easy to read as Lane, and he definitely won’t be as trusting. “Or if it meant danger. But I would answer anything you asked to the best of my ability, and I would legally be unable to share specifics of this conversation.”
“Golly,” he says dryly. “How marvelous that power must seem.”
“Psychiatric help, five cents,” she jokes.
He doesn’t seem to get the reference, but after another moment of thought, leans forward, picks up the quarter that sits between them on the table, and hands it back to her in a very purposeful motion, holding it between his finger and thumb.
“Well, then.” She replaces the coin in her purse. “What’s on your mind?”
“How did you come to be hired?” Lewis takes his cigarette case from his jacket pocket as he speaks. “Did you work with Lane while he was in hospital?”
She holds up a hand, signaling for him not to open it. “I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t smoke. Most of my work is with respiratory cases.”
He pauses mid-motion with the cigarette case still gripped in his hand, and slowly returns it back to his pocket as she continues.
“When my case load is smaller, I sometimes work a few hospital shifts just to keep my feet wet. I was assigned to Lane’s floor—”
“He’d never ask you for help,” Lewis interrupts with a huff. “You’re a stranger.”
Myra smiles, trying to be patient. “You’re right. He didn’t.”
After a moment, understanding crosses his face. “Mrs. Harris, then?”
“Ah. And how, precisely, did the two of you meet?”
“Confidential,” Myra says. Lewis raises an eyebrow.
“But she approached you on behalf of my brother.”
“And I imagine you cannot tell me how she spoke about him, or give me information on his condition at the time.”
“What I will tell you is that she was worried.” Myra lets out a small sigh, spreading her hands in a little shrug. “Which you’ve already guessed.”
Lewis looks annoyed, shifting in his seat. “Guessed. That is all I seem to do in this particular case.”
“Have you tried talking to him?” she asks gently.
Not interrogating Lane, or cherrypicking through his replies, but asking questions and actively listening to the answers, if they’re even given.
The man’s expression turns mutinous. “Do you know that Lane often forgets what he’s had for breakfast?” There’s a suspicious air to Lewis’s voice as he speaks. “Has to write everything down in that little black diary, down to the smallest detail. Even things he was writing less than ten minutes earlier.”
“People get older,” she says quietly. “Things get lost.”
“Whole swaths of time across a period of years,” Lewis continues as if he isn’t convinced, leaning forward in his seat. “Not fool’s details—seminal days. Being sent to school. Graduations. His wedding, for god’s sake, although that’s a bloody mercy in the end, with things as they are.”
“You really should—”
“Lane could figure advanced sums and read novels thick as this table before he’d even turned six. He misplaces his glasses and smudges ink on his nose. He does not lose scores of memories without a reason.”
“You still think of him as a little boy,” Myra observes in an even voice, her brow knitting down for a second.
“This is not a game to me, damn it,” Lewis doesn’t engage on the point she made, although she can tell that it’s struck a nerve. His voice is low and impassioned. “I refuse to be pushed aside when he’s in such a state. Anxious episodes—trouble at work—that bloody walking stick—”
“Please talk to him,” Myra’s heart hammers a quick pulse against her throat. “That’s the only way you’re going to get the answers you need.”
“Why should Lane speak to me about anything?” He flicks two fingers in her direction in a casual motion, as if trying to keep himself from pointing at her again. “Little brother has a team of paid professionals to see to him, and – lest we forget – he also has the imitable Mrs. Harris, to whom and with whom he shares all things.”
Fed up with his nonchalant attitude, Myra decides to lead with the truth. “No one’s trying to replace you.”
Lewis slides toward the edge of the booth, and stands up, buttoning his jacket and pulling out a battered brown leather wallet. “My dear, Lane has made it perfectly clear he doesn’t trust me. I doubt an hour of special conversation is going to change any of that.”
With that, he walks away from her, deposits four dollars on the counter next to his barely-touched food, and slips out of the restaurant as quietly as he’d come in. Bracing her elbow on the table, Myra leans heavily on one palm, sighing out a long breath, and gets the attention of a waitress passing by her booth, who’s headed toward a messy place at the counter with a rag in hand.
“Excuse me, can I get a fresh coffee, please?”
Outside, sitting at the bar under a shady grove of palm trees which line the perimeter of their resort, Joan accepts a refreshed drink from the young, long-haired bartender with a little smile; she can’t help but notice the way his hazel eyes linger on her before he turns away to help another customer.
“Well, it seems someone’s trying to get my attention.”
Joan glances right to see her mother carefully eyeing an older gentleman sitting at the far corner of the long bar. At first glance, he looks like a retiree—grey-haired, on the craggy side of good looking, and wearing a pressed short-sleeved polo and khaki trousers—but if she’s right, he definitely isn’t looking at her mother.
“You think so?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Joanie, I think I know when a man is trying to get an eyeful,” Gail replies sharply, and flutters a hand toward the bartender as she slides off of her barstool, making her voice light. “Honey, would you mind bringing me a refreshed drink in a couple of minutes? I’m just going to make conversation with that nice gentleman, over there.”
“You’re going to embarrass yourself,” Joan points out, as the bartender walks away to get a clean glass.
“So what?” Gail smooths a nonexistent wrinkle out of her pink floral dress. “I’ll never see any of these people again. If you were smart, you’d find company, too.”
Joan raises an eyebrow, her eyes automatically darting to the face of her quartz watch. “Kevin’s been with the babysitter for three hours.”
“And you’ve been going to bed alone for more than a year,” Gail retorts. “We’re on vacation. Nobody’s getting any younger.” She picks up her pocketbook from the lacquered bar, straightens her shoulders, and walks toward the end of the bar, pointing toward the retiree’s shirt as she begins to make conversation.
God. That remark was downright offensive, but it doesn’t make the bare fact any less true. When Joan glances down to the end of the bar a second time, her mother and the retiree are shaking hands. He’s smiling so broadly his teeth flash a little in the setting sun. She can’t help rolling her eyes a little. Her mother can be so desperate sometimes.
A noise across the bar gets Joan’s attention, and when she turns, she sees the bartender standing a few feet down the counter, an empty silver shaker in his hand.
“Would you let me make you something?” he asks, catching her eye. His gaze flicks to her almost-empty rocks glass. “Personally, I don’t think you should settle for a whiskey and coke when you’re out of town.”
Her mouth purses into a little smirk. It’s not the worst line she’s ever heard—and she only ordered whiskey on a whim. “What makes you think I’m a tourist?”
Walking down the hallway toward his flat, Lane gets within a few yards of his doorway only to find three young people in bell-bottomed trousers and casual shirts emerging from his flat, carrying a sort of long metal sculpture between them. It rattles at the joints as it’s carried out. Oh, good lord, is that a—?
“Careful with the chest!” warns a high-pitched voice, and a fourth person sidles out into the corridor and into view from somewhere around the breastplate and neck. Lane can see this person’s arms braced under the suit of armor’s shoulders and back, completely obscuring his face.
“I am!” grumbles one of the others as they turn.
“Oh—terribly sorry,” Lane says as a reflex, after they nearly run him into the wallpaper as they pass.
“No problem, man,” one of the boys calls back. The faceplate snaps back with an angry noise as they continue to ease the long suit of armor down the hall and towards the service lifts.
Lane watches them walk away for a moment, then finally marches into his flat to find Lewis standing in the foyer next to a stack of five large boxes, thumbing through a thick wad of twenty dollar bills.
“Three hundred dollars,” his brother says triumphantly, raising the stack of cash into the air as if in a hello. “Quite a victory, really.”
“Three—“ Lane sputters, putting his briefcase and coat aside. “Oh, for god’s sake, Lewis, we didn’t even pay that much for it in the first place!”
“Really?” His brother looks thrilled. “How much was it?”
Lane’s completely unable to remember, but refuses to admit this, shutting the door behind him instead. “It doesn’t matter! They were children!”
“University students,” Lewis folds up a bit of the money and puts it into his pocket as he speaks, “spending Mummy and Daddy’s money. They’re making a period film. And now they’ve a lovely antique.”
“You don’t even know if it was antique.”
His brother shrugs. “Well, I shouldn’t worry. It certainly could be.”
“That isn’t the point, and you know it,” Lane folds his arms over his chest. “Have you nothing better to do other than barter away half my belongings?”
“That hideous monstrosity,” Lewis says pointedly, his eyes flicking toward the now-closed doorway, “was not yours.”
“It was in my office,” Lane snaps.
“And has since been mildewing in the basement for years, judging by the many layers of grime—”
“I don’t care about that—and I don’t care about any of this!” Lane jabs a hand toward the boxes lining one side of the room. “What does it matter if I’ve things in storage, or things up here? Why should anyone else care what the place looks like? It’s my flat!”
“Well, you ought to care,” Lewis leans against the nearest doorframe with a huff of breath. “And if no one else is brave enough to tell you that much, than I shall. How on earth are you supposed to live with it in this condition?”
“Don’t act as if you’re bestowing some incredible generosity—all you’ve done is get in the way—”
“Everything coated in dust! Food rotting away in the back of the icebox—”
“—boxes in the hall, going through the bureaus—”
“I’ve half a mind to clean out Nigel’s room next.”
“You will not,” Lane snaps, so vehemently it startles him. “Don’t you dare touch any of his things! It’s bad enough you’re sleeping in there.”
Lewis’s eyebrows jump up in surprise, but when he speaks, it’s quiet, as if he understands he’s said something wrong and is now trying not to make a fuss. “It’s a place for a child, Lane. Not a young man.”
“Don’t call him that! He might be—might be—” Lane sputters to a halt, horrified at his sudden lapse of memory, frantically trying to count back the years in his mind. Oh, god. Oh, my god. Fifty one? Fifty two? What year was he born?
“Twelve,” Lewis supplies in a raspy voice, looking stunned. “He’s—for god’s sake, don’t you remember?”
“I know that,” Lane whispers quickly, putting a hand to his forehead. He’s not too far gone to do the maths, and feels his head swim as he speaks again, even more quickly. “Fifty five. Twelve years. I know that. Birthday’s in the spring.”
Still can’t remember the day—only the month. Near Easter.
“What’s happened to you?”
He jerks his head up to meet Lewis’s gaze, who’s staring at him with a distinctly fearful expression, like he’s witnessed something very disturbing and doesn’t know what to do next.
“Nothing,” Lane blurts first, arm extended as if trying to physically push his brother away.
“But you got divorced,” Lewis continues, still quiet, as if this will somehow blunt the blow of his words. “After twenty years, that woman leaves you—”
“She wanted to go,” Lane interrupts, trying not to visibly react to this pronouncement, “and that is her affair—”
“—and your flat is in shambles—”
“—and you missed months of work.”
This brings Lane up short. “Who told you that?”
“Everyone in your office mentions it,” Lewis lifts his hands as if in surrender, “but none of them have the same story. You were sick, or took leave, or went back to England—the only thing they agree on is that you were gone.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” Lane says quickly, scowling at the idea of gossip. “Everything’s…fine.”
“You can’t remember your son’s birthday. The same man who phoned me in tears the day Nigel was born, telling me he was so proud he wanted to burst.”
Lane lets out a great whoosh of breath, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opens them again, Lewis is studying his face, mouth pressed into a thin line.
“You downplay and pretend and call it nothing. I’ll never believe that.”
Lane’s so tired of avoiding all the horrible questions that he nearly just gives up and admits the truth.
“It’s not—” he begins, but then stops, feeling the telltale dread thump to life in his temples and stomach. He’ll hate you. “You would never understand.”
There’s a long silence.
“You used to talk to me about everything,” Lewis says softly.
“Well, we don’t talk now, do we?” Lane counters, then sighs again. His head is beginning to ache in a way that suggests he ought to have a lie-down.
“I’m going to bed,” is all he says, and waves a hand in Lewis’s direction before he goes. “Just—do not change anything in that room. It’s bad enough you’re staying there in the first place.”
“I have a hotel room—”
Lane’s tired of hearing this excuse. “So you keep saying, but you’re always here, aren’t you?” He doesn’t even bother to say good night before escaping into his room and shutting the door behind him, slumping back against the doorway and breathing deeply in an attempt to calm his nerves.
The next morning, there’s voices in the hallway at an indecent hour. Lane gets out of bed and walks into the hall to find his brother standing by the front door – slightly open – and only dressed in his housecoat and slippers. After a moment, Lewis closes the door with a soft huff of breath. Why on earth would anyone be knocking?
“Who are you talking to?”
Lewis turns toward him and holds up the paper in wordless explanation, then foregoes the silence. “Your paperboy has an entire route to follow before attending his classes. He’s stopping at the second floor next, then on to the building next door. Shall I go on?”
“For god’s sake, Lewis, I know what a paper route is,” Lane snaps. “I am asking why you needed to speak to him at all!”
“Common courtesy, little brother.” Lewis’s eyes flick Lane up and down as if he’s judging Lane’s disheveled appearance, making Lane pull his housecoat more tightly around his middle. “I happened to open the door as the lad was passing by. Perhaps you’ll understand the impulse for conversation one of these days.”
Tucked under Lewis’s right arm is a small bundle of fabric with a bright print—why would that—hang on, are those Nigel’s bedsheets?
“What are you doing with those?” Lane demands loudly. “I told you—”
“Don’t shout, please.” Lewis holds up his free hand as if stopping an argument. “Just putting them in the wash. They haven’t been cleaned in ages.”
“Oh.” Lane can’t find fault with that at all, which is disappointing. “Well, I suppose that’s, er, fine. Erm. I’ll just—” he doesn’t know what he’s going to say until the words come tumbling out of his mouth— “go in early.”
Lewis stares at him like he’s grown four heads. “At half past five?”
In the end, Lane gets to work just before seven. He’s alone in the office for the first morning in several days. The absence of clicking typewriters and jingling telephones is no loss, and the quiet in creative is nice, also. But after forty minutes sitting at his desk, he's frustrated. The paperwork in his inbox is badly done – credit Harry Crane – he's certain he's misplaced the billings file for Topaz though it was in his hand only moments ago, and for god's sake, have the fluorescent lights always buzzed so loudly? The noise drives him so mad that he actually makes a note in his diary – ask Joan. She’ll know how to fix it, he’s certain.
It's a relief when the door to reception bursts open down the hallway, and a moment later, Stan Rizzo's voice echoes down the hallway, all flirtation and charm.
Girlish laughter ensues, followed by a single secretary’s voice. “Hi, Stan.”
Lane’s relief lasts as long as it takes for Stan to open creative’s door, sling his rucksack into the floor, and start up the record player, which blares rock and roll at what will probably prove to be migraine-inducing volumes.
When the lad begins to sing—in a very off-key falsetto—that becomes the final straw in the matter.
“Oh, honestly,” Lane grumbles aloud, slanting a knowing glance toward Joan's usual place on the sofa, and feeling melancholy when no one is there to return it.
“So, I’ve got another shift at the tiki bar tonight.”
Lying half-naked on top of the sheets, Joan turns her face away from the window to glance at Joseph, who’s standing at the foot of the bed. He’s already put on his slacks and is shrugging back into his button-down. The sight of him towering over her double bed in only half his clothes almost makes her laugh. With his height and build, and that five o’clock shadow, he looks like a Greek god. In any other situation, she definitely wouldn’t kick him out of bed, but it’s two o’clock already, and her mother and the baby are due back from lunch any minute.
“Sounds exciting,” she says, waiting for the unspoken invitation that’s already tacked to the end of that sentence.
He snorts out a laugh, continuing to button his shirt. “Sure. Pouring seven and sevens for drunk old broads.”
Joan quirks an eyebrow. “You shouldn’t talk about my mother that way.”
“We both know she only drinks bourbon,” he answers dryly.
They share a smile. He finishes buttoning his shirt, and straightens the cuffs, walking to the nearest chair to grab his tie and his dark uniform blazer. She takes the opportunity to watch him walk away.
He knots the tie at his collar in an easy, practiced motion. “So, can I, uh, count on seeing you later?”
She scrunches her nose up in apology, attempting to keep things light as she gets to her feet and pulls her floral robe around her, tying it tightly around her waist. “I have a date with my son tonight.”
“Oh, come on.” He buttons his blazer and moves toward her, his shoulder-length hair falling gently around their faces as he leans in for another kiss. “Bring him by the bar. People do that all the time.”
“Trust me,” she sighs when he pulls back, and leans down to kiss her neck, hoping her voice comes out patient. “No one wants a two year old at the counter knocking down all your salt shakers.”
He kisses her pulse point, making her hum out a happy noise. “Wouldn’t your mother watch him for you?”
Joan’s eyes flutter open, and she gently presses her palms against Joseph’s shoulders to get him to look at her, pushing down the spike of irritation that threatens to ruin the moment. She’s not going to cancel on a little boy for someone she just met, for god’s sake. “She’s on vacation, too.”
Joseph’s brow creases in a frown, and so Joan puts one hand to his face in an attempt to keep from arguing about it any more. His strong jaw twitches under her palm as she speaks. “I had a lot of fun today.”
After a moment, he nods, and a broad smile stretches across his face. “Me too.”
That’s all they’re able to say before there’s a loud thump and a high-pitched voice at the closed door—Kevin’s. “Mama! Mama!”
“For god’s sake, honey,” her mother says, “don’t beat the door down. We’re unlocking it. Look.”
At the noise, Joan’s eyes widen and she steps backwards, putting over a foot of distance between them, and motioning that Joseph should be ready to go once the door opens. He glances around the room to make sure he’s got the rest of his things, and begins talking in a professional voice the second the others step into the room.
“Of course, Mrs. Harris. I’ll have housekeeping sent up immediately.”
“Thank you,” Joan says quietly. Joseph gives her a perfunctory nod, and walks toward the door, offering a pleasant hello to her mother as he leaves.
Judging by the wide smirk on her mother’s face, she doesn’t buy this little show, but Joan doesn’t care. It’s mostly for Kevin’s benefit, not that he’s noticed. Her mother’s holding him by the hand, but he pulls away from her to run to Joan and hug her leg.
“Mama go sleep?” he asks, frowning up at her.
Her mother actually snickers.
Joan pretends not to hear this, and just smiles brightly at him, nudging his hand away from the hem of her robe. “Mama’s up now.”