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Passing In The Night

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The house felt quieter when Camilla returned home, although her grandmother had been dead for three weeks before the funeral and almost all of that time, she had spent alone. By now she was used to the stillness that had taken over the living room towards the end, after it became her grandmother’s bedroom once the stairs became too difficult – how silent it was even when Camilla listened to the ventilators and the TV, even when she listened to the phone ring and ignored it; to how she’d fall she’d fall asleep some nights alone in her bed, certain that if she just twitched her hand she’d feel someone else’s right next to hers, either Henry’s or Charles’, depending on the night; and after her grandmother finally died, she grew used to how certain she was that behind every door she would be there, talking and smiling and sitting up on her own and alive, with busy hands, apologising with her soft, sad smile for how she’d burdened Camilla over the decade. But now Camilla stepped inside and felt nothing as closed the door behind her, nothing as she turned the lights on and walked through the house, nothing as turned on the oven and sat in the kitchen.

Well meaning friends who she hadn’t heard from for years, except for the occasional phone-call or letter near Christmas, had offered to come keep her company, but Camilla had politely declined their offers. It had been an exhausting day, to top off an exhausting few weeks, and she wanted to be alone – although now that she was alone, waiting for the oven to turn on so that she heat up a pair of chicken breasts that she’d picked up from the supermarket on the way back, she knew that that wasn’t true. Not entirely.

Richard had been at the funeral, although they’d only had a few moments together. Their conversation played out like most of the conversations they had.

“Francis offered to come, when he heard,” Camilla had heard herself say. They were standing to the side of the church, by this small table that looked like hadn’t been dusted for years. “I’ve heard that he’s doing well.”

“Yeah,” Richard said. “That’s what I heard, too.”

“You’ve been in touch?”

“Occasionally,” he said. “He says that the two of you still talk.”

“I write to him when I can,” Camilla said. “These past few years I’ve just been so scatter-brained, all the time. He’ll write to me and it will slip my mind completely, until I come across his letter again…” Usually when she was digging through stacks of mail that had been messily discarded, searching for some hospital reference or utility bill, or another letter from the government about the limited assistance that she was given to look after her grandmother. Then she’d see her name written on some dusty, water-stained envelope, in handwriting that she’d recognise anywhere after reading it for three years, and Francis’ letter would make its way to the top of the pile. Eventually, she’d find something to say to him.

Mostly she wrote about times that no longer existed, recollections of moments that never happened – at least not in the way that she described them. Once she felt very silly for the romantic qualities she’d given her life – very silly and very stupid, after everything – but now she was grateful for that. It was easier to talk about than what had actually happened, and there was simply very little that she could say about her life as it was now. Francis’ letters were much the same, in that regard, when he didn’t accidentally let something terrible slip through.

“Now that the funeral is over,” Richard said, “do you have any plans?”

“I’m going to go home, run a bath, and sleep. Other than that, I have nothing immediate.”

“Come with me to Massachusetts,” he said. “We’ll find Francis. I don’t think it’ll be hard.”

“He’s probably exactly where we left him,” Camilla agreed. “I’ll think about it.”

She’d felt a brief moment of elation when he suggested it – her time was her own and it was completely within her power to do what she wanted. There was no one who expected anything from her. Money wouldn’t be an issue, because Francis would surely pay to see her. Nothing tied her to this house; nothing tied her anywhere.

Yet she came home, knowing that she’d decline his offer. Now she took the cutting board out from beneath the cupboard, chopped some carrots and put them on to boil, took out a bottle of wine from the fridge and two glasses from the drying rack. Instead of going back the kitchen table, Camilla leaned against the counter. This was the exciting life that she’d returned to. How thrilling! She could spend the whole of the next day sleeping, or apply for a new job, or start making plans to sell the house and go back to school. She could sort through the thousands of boxes that were scattered through various rooms and cry about what she found, or arrange for someone to take everything and burn it. It would make no difference. Richard was still in Virginia; it wasn’t too late to call him.

Before she did, Camilla walked through the house, closing every door she came across. The doors to the living room had been taken off to move her grandmother’s hospital bed in there, so there wasn’t anything that she could do about that. She reached the front door, paused, and opened it.

There was nothing that she could think of to say, when she saw Charles. Ridiculously, she realised that she didn’t feel anything towards him, either – just a sense of resignation that he had shown up, as she’d known he would.

“She was buried today,” she told him.

“I know,” he said. “Can I come in?”

“Of course.” Camilla stepped back. “The house is as much yours now as it is mine.”

Charles took his shoes off, glanced around but didn’t touch anything; he held his jacket in his hand as though he couldn’t decide where to put it, and when Camilla wrapped her own hands through the fabric he offered marginal resistance before letting her take it, and hang it on the wall.

“There’s food in the kitchen, if you want any,” she said. “Did you drive?”

“I took a plane.”

“When did you fly in?”

“This morning. About six o’clock.” He followed her through the kitchen. Neither of them turned a light on. She returned to the counter and stirred the pan, watching Charles from the corner of her eye; he stood in the middle of the room, hands in his pockets, still not touching anything.

His clothes were clean, although it looked like he’d slept in them, and he looked recently shaved, but perhaps not that day. His hair was longer than she’d ever remembered it being, and starting to curl at the edges; there were bags under his eyes. He’d put on some weight in his face and around the middle, although his wrists looked unnaturally think and his shoulders stuck out uncomfortably through his shirt. If someone saw them together for the first time, now, Camilla doubted that anyone would guess that they were twins – he looked nearly a decade older than she did, and she knew that she’d not aged gracefully.

Finally, just as Camilla began to look too closely at her brother, and see things in his features that she didn’t want to see – torn fingernails, an ugly scar that looked new around his nose and what looked like a cigarette burn on the inside of his wrist – Charles asked, “Can I smoke?”

“You have to go outside,” Camilla started to say, but then considered it for a moment – her grandmother had been dead for nearly a month, now. Who was there to care if they smoked in the house? “Give me one, will you?”

He did, and once he finished lighting his own cigarette he passed the lighter to her. “I didn’t think that you were coming.”

“I didn’t plan to.”

“What made you change your mind?”

“I thought about it,” he said. “Decided to just do it. She’s only going to die once.”

“That’s quite an impulsive choice, flying so far. Are you still in Texas?”

“Last I heard.”

She stomped out the last half of her cigarette on one of the old plates sitting on the drying rack, then drained the carrots and took the chicken from the oven. Once the food was served she took the wine glasses and poured them each a half-glass, before delicately returning the bottle to the refrigerator. Charles watched, almost wary, as she walked past him and took a seat. “Are you going to join me?”

“It’s not really fine dining,” he said once he was sitting across from her.

“Like either of us would be able to taste it, after that,” she said, but paused. Quickly she looked up to Charles. That particular complaint had been directed at Francis more often than not, although towards the end Henry had said it to Charles as well – never to Camilla, although she’d never slipped outside before dinner to smoke.

Charles said nothing, but stabbed through the chicken in front of him. For the first time in ages, Camilla realised that she felt embarrassed – was she really serving this to someone, much less to someone who knew that she could do better than this?

“What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I could do anything. I might even go back to school, finish my degree.”

“With the money you get from the house, right?” Charles asked.

“You’ll get your half – that’s why you’re here, right?”  

“I didn’t say that.”

“But it is.”

“I was just asking.”

“I don’t see why you’d worry about that now, when you haven’t been bothered about it for the past decade.”

“I was just. Asking. It’s called making conversation,” Charles snapped. “You wouldn’t know much about that, though. Would you?”

“I can speak to anyone I want, now that you’re not here.”

“I can’t imagine you doing anything, to be completely fucking honest,” he said. “But if you really have to know, it’s because I’ve heard it from someone else. Every time Francis calls to ask what I’m doing, and if I need anything, it’s always the same – call Camilla, call your twin, she’s so lonely without you. She doesn’t have anyone to talk to. How could I be so heartless, right?”

She hadn’t noticed before, but there was a twinge of a Texas accent in his voice. It was a very specific harshness that accented each sentence that he spat out.

He reached for his wine glass. Camilla gently touched his hand, and then held his gaze when he glared at her. “I didn’t ask you to come here.”

“No,” he said. “You didn’t.”

She laughed, but pulled away. It surprised her to find that she still felt his skin on her fingers, dry but unnaturally cold. “Should I?”

They ate in silence for most of the meal. Over the years she’d thought extensively about what she’d say when she saw him again, if she ever did. She wanted to ask if he still hated her; if he ever had. And if he didn’t, why had he hurt her, or done that to her? How was he living without her now, after years and years of treating her like the only thing that kept him going, his only anchor to himself, lest he should slip away and drown himself in alcohol or his own melancholy, or just drown himself once and for all? Or how would he prefer to do it, if he decided to follow in Henry and Francis’ footsteps? Did the woman he live with take care of him – protect him? What would he do when the child that she’d abandoned came looking for her? Did Charles mistreat her, or expect too much from her? Had he arranged for a way for her to be notified in the event of his premature death?

For a long time the only question that had nagged her was if he still hated Henry, or if it was enough that he’d died for all of them, but she’d long buried that question; no conclusions that she’d drawn about Henry either before or since that night ever really allowed themselves to take root, and so eventually all the questions that she wanted to ask him faded into his strange absence. He had been with her, once; some days he still was. All the questions that she wanted to ask others about him seemed irrelevant; his name appeared sporadically in some of Francis’ letters, but they were both dancing around whatever it was that they wanted to say.

If Charles hadn’t mentioned it yet, Camilla doubted that he would. His name kept rising to her own mouth, though. She felt like she should be able to call out to him and have him appear, just walking through the door to stand behind her, and she thought that she might have liked to have that.

Might have. It felt strange, but for the first time in a while she didn’t feel like she needed protection.

(You are the stronger twin, he had once said to her.)

“I saw Richard today,” she said.

“What’s he doing?”

“He wants me to go with him to Massachusetts,” she said. “We’re going to Francis.”

The suspense when he didn’t answer right away was enough to drive her mad, or to kick her heart up a notch. Well? For a brief moment she played with the idea that it wasn’t her heart that was fighting with the question of what future waited for her now, but his. When they were younger, it had sometimes been so hard to tell the difference.

“Well?” he asked. “Are you going?”

“I might,” she said, and then, bravely, feeling completely elated as she even considered it, “Why don’t you come, too?”

“Just like old times, right?”

“It’s never going to be like that again,” Camilla said, “and you know it. But you can come with us. There’s nothing keeping you away.”

He grunted; he’d finished his food, and he pushed the plate away from himself. His wine was done, too, although he held the stem of the glass between his thumb and forefinger and twirled it.

“Sell the house,” he said. “Come to Texas. Live with me.”

“I’m not going to do that, Charles.”

“Fine,” he said. He stood up, pushed his seat in. “Thanks for dinner. Sorry I didn’t make the funeral.”

“Are you leaving?”

“You’re a smart girl, Milly. Go back to school if you want. Have fun in Massachusetts. Tell Richard or whoever that I say hi.”