Actions

Work Header

an island in your arms

Chapter Text

Facing the mirror in everything but his suit jacket, Lane takes his comb in one hand and carefully brushes his hair back from his face—once, twice. His hand trembles a little as he lowers the comb for the usual part down the side, and in the end he musses up the front in a way that makes him look rumpled and ridiculous.

Oh, for god’s sake! He shoves the comb down onto the counter in frustration, glaring at the mirror. Why won’t it come out right?

Just as he’s trying to part his hair the other way instead, someone pounds on the closed door with an open hand. “For Christ’s sake, little brother! Are you ever going to leave the toilet, or shall I drag you out by the ear?”

Lane opens the door to peer out into the hallway, and make some innocent remark, but the second there’s room to spare, Lewis pushes his way past and into the small room, his bathrobe already untied, sliding a hand into the front of his pajamas the second he gets to the toilet.

“Good lord!” Lane quickly averts his gaze to keep from being blinded by this particular horror. “Use the other one!”

“It’s broken, and you’ve been in here twenty minutes,” Lewis says on the edge of a sigh.

Lane fixes his gaze on a corner of the ceiling by the doorway, to his left. “Br—what did you do to it? I am getting ready for work!”

The toilet flushes, and there’s a rustle of fabric. When Lane risks a glance back at his brother, Lewis is decent again, and nudges Lane aside with an elbow in order to rinse his hands.

“Been fixing your hair, all this time?” he asks with an amused sniff, as he turns off the taps.

Lane flushes red. “If you must know, I have a very important appointment.”

“At seven o’clock in the morning.” Lewis’s face says he doesn’t believe this for a second. “Who will you be meeting?”

Fine. The appointment in question is with Joan, so they can catch up a bit before her first day back. Not that his brother needs to know this piece of information.

“Will you stop bothering me?” Lane yanks at the bottom of his waistcoat in order to straighten it, pointedly avoiding the question.

As Lewis dries his hands on a nearby towel, he jerks his chin toward their dual reflections in the mirror, mouth pursed in a way that means he notices something out of the ordinary. “Spot on that shirt, you know.”

Lane’s eyes widen in horror, and when he pushes up his glasses and squints at the mirror, he can see what Lewis means—a purple-blue blob next to his waistcoat. “Oh my god.” He pulls off his suit jacket with an expression bordering on panic, and lets it fall to the floor. “I'll have to change!”

Without another word, he marches toward the bedroom, mouth set in a determined line.

“Oh, will your appointment notice such things?” Lewis says slyly. A moment later, he appears in the doorway holding Lane’s suit jacket in one hand.

“I should never have eaten that toast,” Lane snaps, trying to ignore his brother’s jab. When he finally pulls a new shirt from the master closet, he wonders if he should change waistcoats, as well, and takes a red and blue-checked houndstooth out for inspection. Bit tropical, perhaps.

“They won’t go together,” Lewis gestures toward the waistcoat in Lane's hands with the jacket. “Not with that tweed.”

Lane shoots his brother a glare. “Well, it doesn't matter!”

But he still stares down at his trousers as if the fabric’s personally betrayed him. After another moment, he reaches into the closet again, yanks out a brown houndstooth suit on a hanger, and stalks back toward the toilet, in an attempt to change in peace.

“Try something in navy,” Lewis calls from the bedroom.

“Will you be quiet?”

Lane slams the lavatory door with as much force as possible, and feels very satisfied when Lewis doesn’t say anything else in return.

**

“Oh, blast it, you again.”

Mark answers the phone without so much as a hello or any other conventional greeting.

Well, Lewis supposes that’s what comes from calling collect. He relaxes into the pillows of the single bunk, and places his brandy onto the side table next to the half-full ashtray. Perhaps it really wasn’t fair to extend the telephone line into Nigel’s bedroom when the electrician was round—and buy a new handset on top of it—but if Lane didn’t want drastic measures to be taken, he really ought to have kept closer watch on his utilities.

And that chair in the sitting room was getting to be damn uncomfortable.

“God, I knew it.” Lewis checks his watch as a force of habit, shifts the phone to his shoulder. Not even nine o’clock there. How terribly disappointing. “You’re a dreadful bore without me.”

“Yes, it’s ever so dull, not watching you fling plates into the sink when you don’t get your way. I think I now understand why some insects eat their mates.”

“Well, no one would possibly eat you, darling.” Lewis reaches for his cigarette, still burning in the ashtray. “You’re geriatric.”

“Says the ancient relic. I’m sure we can convince some archaeologists to come and have a look at you eventually.”

Lewis heaves out a sigh. Oh, it is nice to battle wits after so long away. “Have pity on me, damn it. Little brother’s bloody exhausting.”

Mark sounds as if he is not surprised. “Mum’s the word, then?”

“No words at all, rather,” Lewis says sourly. “Only reliable thing he tells me is to bugger off—with less color, if you can possibly imagine it.”

“Charming.”

“Spends all his time with his nurse therapist and his lady love—the latter in hideous denial. He tells her everything. She’s told me nothing. It’s abominable.”

How can he trust a complete stranger, but not his own goddamn brother?

“Oh, are we being jealous or curious?” Mark simpers.

“Bite your tongue, cat.” Lewis slams the phone down in a fit of pique, and feels very proud of himself when he decides not to ring back straightaway.

**

“Scarlett, what do you mean, they’re on vacation?” Lane pushes his message slips to one side of his desk with a frustrated noise. This single motion accidentally displaces a stack of folders, and nearly upsets the cup of tea at his right hand. By some miracle, he’s able to steady the cup before it tips across his entire desk.

His secretary stands a few feet away, with her hands twisted in a nervous knot. “I’m sorry. That’s what the, um, solicitor said.”

“For god’s sake. Nigel’s supposed to be in school,” Lane grumbles to no one in particular. “Not on some ridiculous holiday.”

Why the hell would Becca have taken him anywhere, this time of year?

On the sofa, Lewis sits hunched over two sheets of paper, and begins tapping his pen against the top of the side table, which sets Lane’s teeth on edge. The idiot is pretending to write someone very intently while just using it as an excuse to eavesdrop. God, Lane has never hated him more. Why doesn’t his brother have anything better to do than be a bloody nuisance?

“I’m sorry,” Scarlett gives him a sympathetic look, which sets Lane’s teeth on edge. He isn’t to be pitied, thank you. “Did you want me to try again tomorrow? He didn’t say when she’d be back.”

“No,” growls Lane, closing his eyes against a growing headache. Every time he and Rebecca attempt to speak through the lawyers, he ends up with migraines. She never gets back to him on time. “Just—thank you. You may go.”

Once the door shuts behind her, Lane fixes Lewis with the nastiest glare he can muster. “Why can’t you do that somewhere else?”

“Can’t hear you. Trying to concentrate,” Lewis replies with a blithe shrug, repositioning himself so his letter is now laid out on the middle of the sofa.

Lane waits for the biting comment he knows will follow this inane proclamation. Thankfully, his brother is almost frighteningly predictable.

“Old Becky having a sex romp through Majorca, or something?”

“Don’t be vile,” Lane snaps, and gets to his feet, folding his arms across his chest before deciding that this is not enough. He needs privacy; he needs to think, and he can’t bloody well do it with this idiot around, making ridiculous assumptions and sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong. “You don’t know anything.”

“Well, I shouldn’t think she’s having too much in the way of excitement. The boy’s with her, after all.”

A flash of anger burns through Lane’s chest as he pictures Becca on some expensive holiday, accompanied by a handsome, carefree lover. Refusing to show how much this image pains him, he storms over and snatches Lewis’s letter off the sofa cushion, evading his brother’s attempt to yank it away.

“Stop talking about her! Why did you come here, if all you mean to do is be horrible?”

“Look here.” The older man jumps to his feet immediately, holding out his hand. “Give it back.”

Lane raises an eyebrow, and tightens his grip on the stationery. It’s probably just the same idiot phrase written over and over again, and the fool is acting as if it’s some prized possession. “Why? You don't give me any privacy. You arrive on my doorstep, disrupt my work—”

“Oh, I'm terribly sorry to disturb you!”

“Stop avoiding the question! Why did you come here?”

“You're acting like a child,” his brother says scornfully, his hand darting forward.

“I asked you a question,” Lane counters, stepping out of reach at once.

Lewis moves forward again. “I'm writing a letter. You told me to keep busy because you didn’t want to make conversation. Forgive me for obeying your idiotic wishes.”

Lane scoffs at the paper in his hand, and scans a few lines in the middle without even reading them properly. “Yes, because it’s obviously so important, how dare you not be able to gossip about—whatever the hell this is—?”

On second glance at the letter, he catches two distinct phrases:

We shall rage together

…come off like a spout…

before Lewis snatches the paper out of his grasp.

Oh, good god. Lane can’t even look at him—can hardly speak for embarrassment—and his cheeks flame hot with the humiliation of what he’s just read.

Meanwhile, his brother says nothing, just folds the paper into an uneven mess and shoves it into his inside jacket pocket. Lane steps back by reflex at the taut anger on Lewis’s face, but his brother does not move an inch, doesn’t raise his voice, just sets his jaw in a mulish way.

“I—I'm sorry,” Lane rubs an anxious hand over the back of his neck. Worry pounds in his chest and makes his palms sweat and his headache get worse. Meant for his lover. “I-I didn't mean to—”

“Oh, that is shit, Lane!” Lewis holds himself very still as he continues, but one of his fists is balled by his side. “You bloody well meant it. Own up to that much.”

Before his brother can say another word, Lane turns on his heel, walks straight out of his office, and slams the door behind him, bypassing Scarlett as he immediately turns his attention to Bridget.

“Is she in?” he asks tersely, nodding toward Joan’s closed door.

Frowning, the young girl nods. “Yes, but—”

Lane doesn't wait, just keeps walking past her desk, turns the doorknob and sails inside.

Joan glances up from her paperwork, obviously startled, as Bridget's voice crackles over the intercom.

“Um, Joan, Mr. Pryce is....”

“Sorry,” he says first, shutting the door behind him and sinking down into the chair opposite Joan's. “Do you have a minute?”

Joan studies his pained expression with concern. “What happened?” She reaches for the cigarette case on her desk, then, just as suddenly, retracts her hand with a guilty look.

Wordlessly, Lane takes one, to prove she can smoke if she likes, but he doesn’t light it, just fumbles the cylinder around in his hands, not looking at her. “No. Erm, it’s nothing—it’s silly, but—Lewis and I just had a row. And we're supposed to take lunch together in a few minutes but I—I'd rather not.”

Once he finally glances up, he notices she’s watching him carefully, her mouth pursed in a considering way. “So don't go.”

Lane huffs out a sigh. “You make it sound very easy.”

“It is easy,” Joan closes an open folder, and then folds her hands into her lap. Like she can’t keep them unoccupied. “Leave without him. He can’t chase you out into the street.”

Lane sighs again, stares out into the creative lounge, where Peggy and the strange skinny boy are trading papers over the round table, and giggling over some private joke. They look so happy.

“I was planning to go in a few minutes,” Joan says next.

He fidgets in his chair, and glances back to her, feeling stupid for not realizing she had plans. “Oh. Well, don't let me keep you.”

The look she gives him plainly says don’t be an idiot. “I'm inviting you to come with me, if you're hungry.”

“Oh,” Lane says again, surprised. They haven’t taken a meal alone together in a long time. She brushes a speck of something from her desk as he keeps talking. “Well. Erm. What would you—where would we eat?”

**

Around their corner booth, the diner bustles with the end of the lunch rush: waitresses brushing bits of food from their yellow uniforms as they take orders, refill drinks, and bus away stray dishes. The counter is full of single people in suits and dresses, reading newspapers and dime-store paperbacks, absently picking at food, or trading quips with the cooks amid the frenetic movement in the kitchen.

Joan orders tea and a Cobb salad, while Lane gets an orange soda and stares at the menu for several minutes without coming to a decision. In the end, he points at some type of roast beef item, and surrenders his menu with relief.

After several minutes of silence, she finally speaks. “Does it upset you that your brother's queer?”

He does a bit of a double take. Trust her not to bother with inanities. “Well. Lewis is—very fussy, but I wouldn't call him—”

Joan gives him a hard stare that says she isn’t under any illusions. “Honey, if he ever looked at a girl the way he sometimes looks at Pete Campbell, I'll have to warn him about preserving reputations.”

“You’re joking.” The room suddenly feels very warm. Lane does not want to imagine what she must have seen.

She shakes her head no. Lane sighs.

“Well, all right. Lewis is...” making a vague gesture of surrender with his hands, “but he's just—very bold about it here. I—I don't understand.”

“So you’re not angry?”

Lane is surprised to discover that this is more or less the truth. Not angry, no, just uncomfortable. Which is no worse than he feels about his brother on a normal basis; Lewis is always trying to push people up against their limits because he thinks it’s hilarious. And as to the rest, they’ve never spoken about that directly, not in a way that would matter. He can’t imagine what such a conversation would even entail. It would be utterly impossible.

“No, but he—well, he’s always been odd. You understand.”

Lane expects her to judge him for the lenience, but Joan just takes another sip of her tea, her mouth quirking up a bit after she lowers the cup back to the table.

“Aren't you a romantic.” A smile plays around her lips as she reaches for the sugar. “I just wondered what you'd argued about. You hate fights.”

“Oh.” Lane considers his next words carefully. “Well.”

Briefly, he explains about the phone call and the ensuing row; how he'd grabbed the letter from his brother's hands only to realize exactly what type of message it was. By the time he reaches the end of his explanation, Joan's studying him with a steadiness that makes him rather nervous.

“So he wrote his lover a dirty letter? That’s it?”

“It was much more than dirty,” Lane tries to convey the precise degree of obscenity by raising his eyebrows in a significant way. “It was very, very blue.”

The smile on her face is practically wolfish. “How blue was it?”

Lane glares at her. Obviously, he isn’t going to spell out the details!

“Really?” She hums out a disappointed noise when he doesn’t reply.

“Absolutely not.”

Joan leans forward, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. Her long gold pendant dangles onto the countertop. “Come on. Who would I tell?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care, because I’m not saying any of those words to you,” Lane tells her firmly. “Full stop.”

Her eyes are dancing with amusement, but she simply leans back in her chair, and makes an impressed face. “So it was purple prose?”

Lane puts his face in his hands with a groan, remembering the last phrase all over again. Come off like a spout. Good god. How on earth could you put that in writing?

“How hilarious,” she sniffs.

When he looks up, Joan is grinning at him. He rubs at his eyes again.

“Augh. It’s bloody horrible.”

“For god’s sake, Lane,” she barely lowers her voice this time, now toying with the handle of her fork, “the man may be odd, but he isn’t a priest. How long has he lived with that roommate, anyway?”

Lane winces as a succession of hideous thoughts tumble into his mind at once. “Oh, stop it! That is not funny.”

She laughs even harder at his horrified expression, and shields her nose with one hand. “What? I’m just being honest. It’s probably been happening for years.”

“You’ve got to stop staying that,” he huffs, but he’s actually smiling despite his better judgment. “This is very serious.”

**

Roger’s halfway to Draper’s drink cart with an empty vodka bottle and a case of the crazy clients when he notices a guy around his age sitting at Dawn’s desk, wearing a three-piece suit and leafing through the middle of a purple Photoplay with Julie Andrews’s face on the cover.

Automatically, he glances right, looking for Caroline. No dice.

“Who the hell are you?” he finally asks.

“New hire,” says the man without looking up. “Nothing to look at, sorry.”

Roger laughs in spite of himself. “Jesus.”

“Think your friend’s gone out to buy more grog,” the man says next.

“Ah, shit.” Roger glances down at the neck of the bottle in his hand. “Are we out of vodka? What the hell happened to the supply closet?”

The man flips another page. Roger briefly wonders if there’d be sexy pictures in there, before deciding Julie wouldn’t go for that kind of thing. She’s classy.

“Wrath of Joan, apparently.”

Okay, that makes more sense. Joanie’s gotten downright puritanical about the liquor consumption these days. Probably because Draper goes through a hundred bottles a week and hoards it all to himself. Walking forward, Roger drops the empty into Dawn’s trash with a smirk, thumbing a hand at Don’s open door.

“You know, this guy’s terrified of her.”

“Hmph. So’s my brother.” The man looks up from his pages with a shit-eating grin, as he plants his feet back on the floor and leans forward to shake Roger’s hand. “Lewis Pryce.”

Jesus. Really? “Roger Sterling. Pleased to meet you.”

There’s something weirdly familiar about the guy, but Roger can’t quite piece it together until Pryce pulls his hand away, two fingers flicking toward the anchor cufflink pinning Roger’s sleeve.

“Pacific or Atlantic fleet?” he asks, and it clicks into place.

“Pacific. Hang on a second, were you in the South China Sea?”

“More like Siberia. HMS Ursula.”

“No shit!” Roger laughs; he can’t help it. Nobody in his unit wanted to serve on a u-boat, not unless they’d killed a man or hated seeing a girl for more than eight seconds every year. “The tin cans. What’d you do, slap your C.O.?”

Pryce shakes his head. “No. Volunteered.”

Roger pulls an impressed face. “Braver than I thought.”

**

A few days later, close to five o’clock, Lane’s phone rings just as he’s getting his things together to go home. Scarlett is chipper before patching it through – “nice to hear from you, Nigel!” – and so Lane answers the phone in a relatively good mood.

“You’re back already?” he says first, pushing his glasses higher up his nose. “How was it?”

“Back?” His son sounds puzzled, then makes a surprised noise. “Oh, Christ, no, I didn’t go with them.”

What is he talking about? “Your grandmother didn’t go, did she?”

“No,” his son scoffs, in a tone that means it should be very obvious. “Only Mum and Graham, obviously.”

Lane sits up in his chair as a shock jolts him into awareness. His brain goes scrambled with a sudden, sick confusion. “Who—who is—Graham?”

Perhaps it’s some companion of her mother’s. (Did Becca’s father pass? He was very ill at some point, but Lane can’t remember if the man actually died or not.) Perhaps it’s the husband of some toff friend. Or—or—some distant relative he can’t remember?

Nigel makes a kind of groaning noise. “Shit! Sorry. Erm, I’ll just—“ he raises his voice for a moment. “Mum! Dad’s on the phone!”

Lane’s stomach sinks as he catches the next few pieces of conversation.

“Why would you—?”

“No, you’ve got to…the holiday or something…I didn’t know you hadn’t…”

Nigel hands the phone off. There is a second of rustling, and then—

“What is it?”

Rebecca’s voice is cool and flat, and so familiar that it sends a chill down Lane’s spine. He doesn’t remember the last time he heard her voice; it may the first time they’ve spoken without the lawyers. Or perhaps the first time since...well, since it happened.

“Who—who did you go with on this holiday?” Lane is careful to keep his voice even, hoping he imagined hearing that some elderly beau or boyfriend is now hanging around the Winters house. “Nigel said—someone named Graham. You—went together.”

A short pause.

“We got married.” Becca says this quickly and with little inflection, as if she’s describing some awful errand instead of a momentous life choice. “Took a honeymoon. Nothing to fuss over.”

Something stalls in Lane’s brain.

“Married,” he repeats, floored. “But—but you didn’t say a word.”

“Well, I assumed your father told you.”

“For god’s sake.” Lane pinches the bridge of his nose with one hand. He can’t even count back the months in his head. Becca can’t have been seeing anyone very long at all. How on earth could she have gone out with anyone since the divorce, let alone been married? And how the hell would his father have found out first? “Why?”

“I don’t have to justify myself to you,” she says coldly.

“No,” Lane sputters through gritted teeth, “I mean, why are you speaking to my father?”

Unless she was seeing someone before, in England.

“He wants me to be happy,” she replies crisply. Lane barely has a handle on that before she’s passing him off. “I’ll put you back on with Nigel.”

“No, I-I don’t need to say anything to him.”

“Ah. Well.” She clears her throat as if it’s physically painful to say anything nice. “I’ll have Mr. Prentice phone about the alimony tomorrow. Good-by.”

“Good—” The dial tone sounds. Lane stares at the phone for so long, receiver clenched tightly in his fist, that he feels like the ground freezes solid underneath him. Married. Married. And she didn’t even have the decency to share the news before it happened.

I assumed your father told you.

“Unbelievable,” he spits, and slams the receiver down.

**

As he paces up and down the length of carpet in his living room, in front of the credenza, Lane decides that if he had any of Becca’s precious china at hand right now, he would smash it into tiny bits. There’s still a wedding portrait, hidden in Nigel’s room, and it’s taking all of his current effort not to storm in there and slash it right down the middle.

Sod it. Lane sheds his suit jacket and tosses it onto the sofa, not even bothering to hang it up. He barrels down the hall and into Nigel’s room before he can second-guess the impulse. Inside, Lewis is lying on the single bunk with the phone gripped in one hand.

“What on earth—” Lewis cuts him an alarmed look.

Lane just snatches the picture up, still facedown on Nigel’s tall dresser, by the piece of wire on the back of the frame. He’s storming out again and back in the living room before he can really process what he wants to do, and growls out wordless frustration as he realizes he didn’t even go into the kitchen. There’s nothing out here to cut it with.

For a moment, Lane forces himself to stare down at their beaming faces, unblinking: at Becca on the right hand side in her white gown, with her parents next to her, and at himself on the other with his father looming over his shoulder.

His father’s smile is an oily thing, nasty and false, and Becca’s is very strained—I feel faint, he thinks he remembers her telling him, the veil’s so heavy—as if he can already see the shadow of unhappiness in her face.

(Perhaps she’d told him nothing of the kind? Perhaps she’d just smiled and done her duty the way they were brought up to do, until everything went wrong?)

He looks back to the picture. Her parents are standing there the way they always do: serene and smug and so goddamned demanding. Everything about Lane was wrong. Everything they did together was wrong. Nigel wasn’t accepted at Eton and they didn’t redecorate the house every year and Becca got married again, for god’s sake. She didn’t even wait a single year.

Was it so easy, to cast off twenty years together?

From the doorway, Lewis clears his throat, walking into the room with slow, careful steps. “What are you doing with that?”

Lane rolls his eyes at his brother’s question, still gripping the picture in one hand. He can’t remember why he even brought it in here, now, but he can’t keep the news to himself anymore. It’s too much; it’s too painful.

“Becca—got married,” he chokes out.

Lewis’s jaw drops, but he closes his mouth after a moment. “Good god.”

“She’s getting everything she wanted,” Lane gestures toward the frame with his free hand, not sure whether he wants to laugh or scream over the unfairness of it all. “New life. New husband. Perhaps this chap can raise Nigel, too; he’ll probably do a better job of it.”

“Now—now, look here,” Lewis says quietly, holding up a hand in a way that says careful, but Lane ignores the gesture, and tosses the picture onto the ground with a petulant growl. The glass doesn’t break, but the right corner of the wooden frame splits straight down the seam, and he feels satisfied that this, at least, reflects the honest truth. Broken. Always broken.

“She was probably seeing someone long before any of this happened,” he says aloud. “How—how else could she have done it?”

“Why does it matter? Why should you care?” Lewis looks boggled, as if such a show of tantrum is absolutely beyond the pale. “She’s not worth it, Lane.”

“Don’t trifle with me, damn it! You have no idea—”

“You can’t honestly tell me you’re still in love with her! She’s ridiculous!”

"She was my wife!" Lane bellows, and on an impulse, he picks up a glass from the credenza and pitches it into the wall with a resounding smash.

Lewis stands frozen, staring at him as if he’s gone insane.

"How stupid can you possibly be?" Lane despises the gobsmacked look on his brother's face, as if he is so surprised by this piece of knowledge, as if it's so damned shocking. "How can you not understand? She's the one who left, and she’s already—obviously, I meant nothing to her! Our marriage meant nothing to her!"

Anger swirls inside him, the old rage creeping slowly into his bones, infecting him with its poisonous pull.

"She hates me, you know," he continues in a low whisper. "She never loved me at all. She didn't even like me, in the end."

"Lane, let’s just—"

"Shut up!" Lane shouts, and to his great surprise, Lewis does, his mouth snapping closed the way it used to when they were children, sitting stiffly together at the dinner table, waiting for Father to speak, to move, to bat an eyelash in a way that meant trouble

"You have no idea how long this has been hanging over my head, without my being able to talk about it to a single person! We spun out the same argument for years, over and over, ever since Nigel was a child!"

Lewis still does not speak, and although Lane had commanded his brother to be silent, for some reason the quiet is more infuriating than the arguments.

"After all the—after—Nigel was born, she didn't want—she wouldn’t allow me to touch her. She didn't want to be in the same room with me. She didn't even want me to speak to her. And we almost—god, we could have been rid of each other two years sooner if I hadn't gone to London and begged her to come back! We could have divorced, but I let our father force me into staying miserable!"

Lewis's face goes white.

"I was too afraid to stand up to him." Lane's voice shakes. "The second he arrived, I saw what he wanted, I knew what he would do, and I p-pretended it didn't matter. I pretended that I wasn't a coward."

He glances at Lewis, expecting to be interrupted, and keeps talking in a rush to prevent this. His voice shakes over the next sentence.

"And he still—struck me. And she still hated me, even though she came back."

"Lane." His brother clears his throat, now standing by the sofa, one hand reaching out for him as if he wants to clasp his arm.

"Don't!" Lane roars, all his rage contained in the single word. "You got free of him, for Christ's sake! And you have never cared what he thought of you, and you've never had a woman—never had a wife or a child! You have no idea—the kinds of responsibilities my family and my father put on my shoulders! All the work I did to support her, all the time I put aside, and she gave me nothing! All she could think about was keeping up with her ridiculous friends—she bought that damned car like it was nothing! And it would have ruined us!"

Lewis's eyes flash as he slowly lowers himself into a seated position. Christ, he’s probably horrified, he’ll probably hate Lane for all of this, but Lane doesn't care about that anymore. He’s too exhausted to hide the truth any longer; it has weighed on him for so many years, like a low-hanging fog that’s impossible to shake. He’s almost short of breath from talking for so long, but he can’t stop; the words keep spilling out of his mouth, faster and faster.

"And she'd ask about money, and I'd tell her we were fine, when we weren't. She'd ask about work, and I'd tell her it was fine, when it wasn't. Everyone hated me. And—god, we just kept drifting from day to day, and week to week. Nigel was acting out and things were so miserable between us. I could see our lives stretching out together over the horizon like an endless grey cloud, and I-I couldn't do it anymore."

He shifts his gaze directly into the steel of Lewis's eyes, waving one arm toward the corridor in a vague way.

"And the—that night she left, I begged her to stay. I pleaded and wept—got down on my knees, just there in the hallway—and she didn’t care."

His voice trembles again. Lane puts a palm to his forehead as he glances down toward his shoes.

"And I drank everything we had in the house. I thought—I thought about how disappointing I've been, all my life; to Father and Mother, to you, to Becca, Nigel, to Joan and all the others—"

He has to stop talking. He feels as if his throat is closing.

"And after a few days, I got up. Put on a clean suit and tie, combed my hair, straightened my tie pin. And I took a paper grocery bag from underneath the cupboard, just—filled it with a few odds and ends. Garden hose. A rag. A scarf."

He risks a glance at Lewis, who still says nothing, sits hunched pale and mute on the sofa, jaw clenched so tightly it's as if he barely even breathes. At his side, his hands are gripped into vice-like fists.

"Even wrote out a note for the landlord." Lane heaves out a sigh as he swipes at damp eyes with one shirtsleeve. The memories are blurring together at this point. He can’t even recall where he put the note or what it said, just remembers carrying the yellow notepad around for days and days. "And then I—well, I must have taken the paper bag out into the garage to get the car ready."

The empty whiskey tumblr on the credenza sparkles in the dim lamplight. Lane stares at it for a moment as he braces himself to say the next few words aloud.

"That bloody Jaguar." He actually laughs a little; the absurdity of the next statement is not lost to him, even among the miasma of horror. "I was going to make it all stop, you know. Once I was gone, I wouldn't be such a disappointment. I wouldn't put my family through any more pain. I wouldn't be the penny-pinching—“ shit, he’s lost the word “—something that everyone hated. I was going to feel peaceful. I-I was going to drop off and never wake up, and—and everyone would be better off. It was supposed to be very, very easy. Like falling asleep after a long day."

He feels water well up in his eyes again; closes them briefly so he doesn't have to see Lewis's horrified face. Two hot tears spill down his cheeks.

"But it didn't work."

And it wasn't easy. It was nothing like I thought it would be.

head splitting lungs searing lights blinding

After several long seconds, Lane opens his eyes and waits for his brother to speak—for the sharp comment or droll volley that always follows their serious conversations.

But Lewis still says nothing. After nearly a minute without speaking, Lane turns and studies his brother, not sure how to prompt him or what to say next. Lewis’s elbows are braced on his knees. His eyes are red-rimmed and glassy, although no tears have fallen, and he’s staring soundlessly into the distance, jaw set and eyes unfocused, as if he’s been concussed.

“Do you think it matters now?” Lane finally whispers.

His brother snaps to attention. With one eye twitching, he flashes Lane a wretched, lemon-mouthed look meaning he can’t speak, and bolts to his feet. Without a word—with only a raised arm pushed in Lane’s general direction—he rushes from the room, toward the kitchen.

The door to the freight staircase swings open and slams shut.

Lane sits down hard on the carpet, his legs like rubber, and tries to focus on his breathing and his usual exercises. It’s only for a moment. He’ll come back. He always comes back.

He thumps the side of the couch with a single fist, once, twice, as many times as he can stand, until his knuckles accidentally smash into the wood of the armrest, and pain blooms bright against red, angry skin.