Polyamorous Family Unit
Pete and Dee Myers spent fifteen years building their family. It took them less than two months to destroy it. If they’d known the devastation that was coming, they never would have called their children—Lyle, Dan and Abby—into the living room the third week of summer vacation to tell them about the changes they were about to bestow upon their home.
Dan sat next to Lyle on the floor and they stared up at their parents on the edge of the couch, holding hands. The television that was turned on in the morning and stayed on throughout the day was off, making the room eerily quiet.
“We’re adding a new member to the family,” Dee said. She was smiling the way she did when telling them how much fun they were going to have when visiting their crazy grandmother and her ten cats for Christmas.
“Are you having a baby?” Lyle asked.
As soon as he said it, Dan thought it, too. Being fourteen, almost four years older, Lyle was usually a couple steps ahead.
“We’re not having a baby,” Dee said, “we’re having a Kent.”
“What’s a Kent?” Abby asked.
“Kent’s a who. He’s going to live with us as part of the family.”
Dan looked to his dad who just smiled and nodded.
“Do I have to give him my room?” Dan asked.
At the end of the school year, he and Lyle had moved into the basement where Pete had built them their own rooms. Dan chose blue for the walls. He loved the way the sunlight came through the two windows near the ceiling, his small desk in the corner, his books neatly lined up on the small bookcase behind the door. It was the first space he could call his own.
The thought of losing it made his hands sweat.
“Kent will be sleeping with me and Daddy.”
“We’re adopting a baby?” Dan asked.
“Kent’s an adult. Like us,” Dee said, pointing to herself and Pete.
They waited to see if she was going to add more.
Lyle broke the silence. “Your bed’s not big enough.”
“We’re getting a bigger bed,” was the first thing Pete said.
“This is silly,” Abby said. At six, silly was her favorite word and she used it to describe anything from having to go to bed to being hungry.
Dan and Lyle nodded in agreement.
“Nothing’s going to be any different,” Dee said, her smile faltering for the first time. “We’re just going to have a new person in the family, that’s all.”
Pete smiled and nodded.
Kent had red hair and beard. He was tall. He had to bend his head down to clear the kitchen doorway.
“You look like a Viking,” Dan said when he first saw him.
He was reading about the Vikings and could picture Kent with a bull’s horn helmet, pillaging villages. Over time, he would add taking other men’s wives.
Kent threw his head back and laughed, exposing straight white teeth, three silver fillings and a bright red tongue. Pete and Dee joined in.
“You must be Daniel. Your mom said you’re funny.”
“It’s Dan,” he mumbled as he shook his hand.
“Dan it is. Your dad said you like to read. I do, too. Maybe we can go to the bookstore sometime.”
He shrugged and went downstairs to Lyle’s room.
His brother was sitting on his bed playing his Nintendo DS.
Dan lingered in the doorway until he noticed him.
“What’s he like?” Lyle asked.
“He looks like Leif Eriksson.”
Lyle rolled his eyes.
Dan picked at some loose paint on Lyle’s door. “They’re going to have to get a much bigger bed.” Lyle didn’t respond. “How long do you think he’s going to stay here?”
“I don’t know. Just don’t tell anyone. They’ll think we’re weird.”
Lyle looked up from his game. “Do you know anyone else’s family that has two men to one mom?”
The anger on his face made Dan take a step back.
“Where did he come from?” Dan asked his dad.
Ten years had passed, he was a junior in college and the question plagued him, made everything else in his life seem trivial.
“We met him at your mom’s shop. He’d just moved from Asheville.”
He knew his dad didn’t like talking about that time, none of them did, but it was important to Dan. He needed to fill in the gaps so he could find a place for it.
“And she just invited him to live with us?”
“There was more to it than that.”
“Like what?” He was frustrated with his dad’s evasiveness.
Pete sighed. His hair was peppered with gray and he was getting a paunch. “Just more. It was a long time ago.”
Dan wanted to tell him that it wasn’t such a long time ago for him, how he could see that time clearer than any other in his life. “I want to understand,” he mumbled at his hands.
“Me, too,” Pete said. He went to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.
Dan knew that after his dad filled his cup, he would add a heaping spoonful of sugar, lick the spoon and put it in the sink. He would look out the small kitchen window with the same yellow curtains his mom made when they moved in and stare out at the backyard.
His dad’s sadness reached Dan through the walls.
It took all of his willpower not to leave without saying goodbye.
Dan started seeing Lauren in the university’s therapy center after that visit home. His academic advisor encouraged him to go. He was failing two of his classes because he skipped most of them. The first three sessions were spent talking about classes and motivation, what was keeping him from taking advantage of the amazing opportunity of receiving a first-rate education.
Abby called when he was on the way to his fourth appointment.
“I saw him, Danny,” she said.
He gripped the phone. “Are you sure?”
“I’m pretty sure it was him. He was in the coffee shop on Main. I saw him after school when I was with Missy.”
“You were in the coffee shop?”
“I was on the street. He was sitting by the window.”
Dan reached the Psych building. “I have to get to class,” he lied. “I’ll call you after.”
“What should I do if I see him again?”
“Nothing. Don’t go near him. Promise?”
He hung up and tried to calm himself. His hands shook as he pulled the door open.
Lauren was in the waiting area. Her smile faltered when she saw him. “Come on back.”
In her office, he sat on the couch and put his head between his knees. His chest was tight and he had trouble pulling in a breath.
Lauren handed him a bottle of water. He finished it and she gave him another one.
“Take your time.” She sat across from him and waited.
“My sister called.”
“Your younger sister, right?”
“Abby. She was upset.”
“Is she okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“My family’s kind of strange,” he said after the silence became too heavy.
“In what way?”
“The strange kind of way.”
“Strange is a relative term.”
“No pun intended.”
Lauren smiled. “Most people think their family is weird. What makes yours different than others?”
He took a drink of water.
“We’re a Greek tragedy.”
She waited to see if he was going to add more. When he didn’t, she asked, “What does that mean?”
Dan thought if he didn’t speak about that time, he could leave it behind. He could become someone new. The problem was he hadn’t yet figured out who that new person was he desperately wanted to become. He was floundering. He said, “I love my family.”
“Loving your family and understanding them are two very different things.”
“When you first started coming to see me, you said that you have a brother and sister. You didn’t mention your parents.”
“Abby is my younger sister and Lyle is my older brother.”
“Are you close?”
“Abby and I are closer now that I’m in school. Weird, huh? I had to move out to have a better relationship with my sister.”
“That happens more than you think. All the little day to day annoyances are gone. What about Lyle?”
He looked above Lauren’s head at the picture of a woman sitting in the lotus position and the words JUST BREATHE floating above her.
He took a deep breath and said, “He’s in prison.”
“That must be hard for both of you.”
“Pretty sure it’s harder for him.”
“Do you want to tell me why he’s in prison?”
Dan forced the words out from around the lump in his throat. “He killed our mom.”
For years, Dan held tight to the belief that his family was like all other families before Kent moved in.
A decade later, he was no longer sure that was true.
Dee had been a free-spirited mom. She wore long flowing skirts and colorful scarves, rarely wore shoes when she was home and only wore sandals when she went out. She had a small shop downtown called The First Chakra where she sold Aromatherapy oils, crystals, local artists’ jewelry and paintings, homemade soaps and jams, estate items thrown in if she knew the person who wanted to sell.
Dan liked stocking shelves and checking out customers on the weekends.
Pete was a woodworker. Their garage was his workshop where he made one-of-a-kind kitchen tables and cabinets. On weekends, he opened the double-doors on the garage and people filtered in throughout the day to buy his pieces. Even as a kid, Dan knew what his dad created was good. Beautiful, even. The care he put into his work was evident. Each piece had intricate details that people couldn’t help but reach out and touch.
Pete let the kids come out to his workshop whenever they wanted. He insisted there was no horsing around.
“These tools can be dangerous,” he reminded them if they started to bicker.
He tried to teach Dan how to use the table saw once. His warnings of the hazards that lurked in the fast moving machine made him anxious. Dan was so nervous he couldn’t lift his arms to guide the wood.
“Get out of the way,” Lyle demanded, stepping in front of Dan.
The saw went through the board like a shark fin through water.
Lyle started helping in the workshop after school and on weekends.
Dan would venture in when the doors were gaping open and strangers peppered in. He liked to watch their faces as they ran their hands over the smooth cherry and white oak tables and the designs hand-carved into the table legs. He felt proud that his dad had made the pieces that made people smile.
Even though they weren’t rich, Dee reminded them regularly how important it was to do what they wanted to do, not what the world demanded. She used herself and Pete as examples of the freedom that could be found in following your passions.
“People like to put other people in boxes. It makes them feel safe. Resist getting in that box, even if others don’t like you for it.”
That last year, the Myers family ended up inside a box.
Dan blamed Kent for putting them there.
Kent moved his things in the Saturday after the family meeting. He didn’t have much: four boxes that were stored in the basement, stacked on one wall in the open area between Dan and Lyle’s rooms, two suitcases, and an old white Smith Corona typewriter.
The Corona was put on the small desk in the laundry area and the suitcases disappeared into Dee and Pete’s room.
That first night when they sat down to eat, Kent sat across from Dan. He was so tall his knees bumped the table whenever he shifted in his seat. Kent and Dee talked while the rest of them ate. Dan watched his dad push his food around on his plate, not joining in the conversation.
“Don’t you think so, Pete?” Dee asked him. He didn’t reply, just stared at his plate. “Pete?”
He looked up and shook his head like he was clearing away fog. “What?”
“I asked if you thought the town could use another yoga studio? Kent and I were discussing the empty space near the shop and how it would be perfect.”
“I’m sure it would be.”
“I’ll take a look this week. Get an idea of how much they’re asking.”
Dee and Kent kept discussing the space. They didn’t seem to notice when Pete left the table.
Lyle followed him out, leaving Dan and Abby. Dan wasn’t sure what to do. Typically, they had to ask to be excused.
The rules he’d lived with most of his childhood were becoming malleable.
He liked knowing what was expected of him, it was his nature. Not knowing made him feel unsettled.
“May I be excused?” he asked.
His mom and Kent kept talking. He asked again. When neither responded, he slipped from his chair and left the dining room.
He went out the back door and sat on the steps. It was his favorite time of day. The bright Florida sun was almost down, leaving just enough light to see by.
He listened to Pete’s saw slicing through boards until the sun went down and the mosquitos started to bite.
When Lyle turned thirteen, he started not wanting to have much to do with his younger brother. Dan’s attempts at getting him interested in anything were usually met with a closed door or a string of insults.
After that first dinner, Lyle, who never ventured across the 30 feet that separated their bedrooms, wandered in. Dan was reading. After meeting Kent, he’d left the Vikings behind and moved on to the Greek gods.
Lyle picked a book from Dan’s bookcase, carried it around the room, then put it down on the dresser.
“Dad’s really mad,” were the first words he said.
“What do you think? Kent being here.”
“He should tell him to leave then.” It seemed like an obvious solution to Dan.
“Then she might go with him.”
Lyle shook his head in disgust. “You know you’re an idiot, right? I mean, I don’t want you walking around not understanding just how stupid you really are. It’s my job, as your big brother, to make sure you realize that you’re a half-wit.”
He left the room without closing the door.
Dan put the book back in its proper place.
He marched over to Lyle’s room and went in without knocking. His brother was sitting on his bed looking at a magazine that he quickly shoved under the covers.
“It stinks in here,” Dan said, wrinkling his nose at the sour smell.
“Then get out.”
“Who would go with him?”
“Who do you think, asswipe?”
“She wouldn’t do that.”
“You’re an asswipe.”
“Good comeback. Now get out.”
Dan grabbed Lyle’s blanket and tried to pull it off his bed.
Lyle held on to it. “Knock it off.”
“Take it back.”
“Fine, I take it back. Now let go.”
The magazine slid to the floor. Dan picked it up. A topless woman was on the front.
Lyle lunged at him and tried to take it.
“Where’d you get this?” Dan asked.
“Give me it.”
Dan danced back. “I’m telling.”
Lyle pushed Dan against the wall and pried the magazine from his hands.
“If you don’t tell, I’ll show you.”
Without waiting for a response, Lyle went to Kent’s boxes and opened the top one. It was filled with the same kind of magazines.
“Why does he have so many?”
“Who knows. If you tell, I’ll say you were going through the boxes first.”
Dan took one out and flipped through it. He put it back. “You’d better make sure Kent doesn’t know you’re in his stuff.”
Dan was curious but didn’t want to look at the magazines in front of Lyle. He said no and went back to his room where he tried not to think about what Lyle said about their mom leaving and what was in the cardboard box so close to his room.
When Dan went upstairs the next morning, Kent was wearing one of Dee’s aprons that said Cook Like No One Is Eating and showing Abby how to flip pancakes.
“Where’s my dad?” he asked.
“He and your mom went out for breakfast. They’ll be back in a while.”
Lyle came in behind Dan. He didn’t say anything, just poured a glass of orange juice and left. Dan sat at the table and waited. He usually helped his dad by getting the butter and syrup, pouring milk, putting out the silverware, but the table was already set.
“Look at what I made, Danny,” Abby said. She held up a pancake that looked like a heart. “Do you want one?”
He shrugged. He didn’t want Kent to know he was impressed.
“When will they be back?” he asked Kent.
“Soon. Do you need something?”
Ignoring him, he opened the back door.
“Don’t you want any breakfast?”
“I’m not hungry.”
The day was already hot. He stopped on the steps and waited for his eyes to adjust to the bright sun. Lyle came out of their dad’s workshop still drinking his orange juice.
“You’re not supposed to be in there,” Dan said.
Lyle came over to the steps and sat down. “Where did he say they were?”
“Breakfast. They’ll be back soon.”
“Abby shouldn’t be left alone with that guy.”
“Because we don’t know him. He might be a perv or something.”
“Dad wouldn’t let a perv live with us.”
Lyle handed him his empty glass and stood up. “I’m going to Ben’s house.”
Ben was Lyle’s best friend. Dan wanted to ask if he could come, but knew Lyle would say no.
The last time Ben hung out at their house, he and Lyle were playing Resident Evil and Dan overhead him say, “Your brother walks like he has a stick up his ass.” He then heard the sound of a punch landing and Ben saying, “Dude, that hurt.”
He hadn’t been over since then and Dan doubted Lyle would bring him around now that Kent had moved in.
“Keep an eye on them, okay?”
Dan watched him walk away.
He waited until sweat trickled down his back before going inside. The kitchen was clean except for his place where a plate of pancakes waited. He coated them with syrup and ate them quickly. He didn’t want Kent to see him enjoying what he’d made.
“Where were you?” Dan asked his parents as soon as they were in the door.
Dee brushed the hair off his forehead. “Did you have breakfast?”
“Just cold pancakes,” he mumbled.
Kent came into the room carrying Candy Land. “Abby and I are about to have fun. Care to join us?”
“I will,” Dee said.
“I have some work to do. Want to help?” Pete asked Dan.
“Go on, it’ll be fun,” Dee told him.
Dan followed his dad to the workshop and waited while he turned on the lights and the small window air conditioner.
“Where’s your brother?”
“Went to Ben’s.”
Pete laid out boards for a table he was making for a lady in Orlando.
“Lyle said Kent’s a perv.”
Pete laughed. “He did, did he? Hand me the measuring tape,” he said, indicating the one closest to Dan. “I’m going to show you how to measure properly.”
Pete measured then made a pencil mark on the board.
“The rule of thumb is to measure twice, cut once. If you’re ever in doubt, cut on the side of caution. Do you know what that means?”
Dan shook his head.
“It means that you can always cut extra if you need to, but it’s harder to add more if you’re too short.”
After the first few boards, Pete left the measuring to Dan and started cutting. It was the first time Dan felt comfortable in his dad’s workshop.
They worked until after one. When Pete turned off the saw, Dan’s ears rang in the quiet.
Pete removed his goggles and wiped the saw dust off his face with a towel. “I want you to know that I would never let a perv near you guys, okay?”
“That’s what I told Lyle.”
His dad patted him on the back and said, “Good boy.”
Lyle spent most of his time at Ben’s house and hanging out with friends. When he was home, he stayed in his room with the door closed. If he had to spend time with the family, he only spoke if asked a direct question. If the person speaking to him was Kent, he ignored him altogether.
At the end of the fourth week, Pete and Dee asked Lyle to stay at the table after they ate.
Abby went to the living room to watch television. Dan went into the kitchen and stood by the door to listen.
Dee spoke first. “Lyle, we know that there have been a lot of changes. You can talk to us about what you’re feeling.”
Lyle didn’t respond. Dan could picture him glaring at the wall across from him, refusing to make eye-contact.
“Tell us what you’re thinking, son,” Kent said. “We can talk about it.”
Lyle said something that Dan couldn’t make out.
“What was that?” Kent asked.
“I’m not your son.”
“We’re all family,” Dee said.
“He’s not part of our family,” Lyle responded.
“We invited him to live with us and that makes him family.”
“You invited him. Not dad.”
“You mother and I made this decision.”
“Watch your mouth,” Pete said.
“It is bullshit. You don’t want him here any more than I do.”
“You don’t get to speak for me.”
“Lyle, your parents and I are choosing to have an unorthodox relationship. Just because it’s not traditional, doesn’t make it wrong.”
“You’re so full of shit. You just want to fuck my mom.”
Dan looked around the corner as their dad banged his hand down on the table. “You will not speak about your mother in that manner. Do you understand?” His face was red.
Dee started to cry. Kent patted her arm.
“You don’t have to approve of our decision, but you do have to be polite to other members of this family. Do you understand?”
“I don’t have to do anything,” Lyle said, pushing himself away from the table. “This family is fucked up.”
Kent reached out to grab him as he went around the table. “Get off me,” Lyle yelled and started punching him.
Pete and Dee rushed toward Lyle. His arms were flailing. Kent covered his face and turned away. Lyle kept swinging. Abby stood across the room, her eyes round, grasping her stuffed unicorn. Kent, trying to avoid Lyle’s punches, fell out of his chair.
Pete wrapped his arms around Lyle from behind. Even that didn’t slow him down. He kicked at Kent and tried to break free from their dad.
Kent crawled to the end of the table and stood.
“Go,” Dee yelled at him.
He hurried out of the room.
Dan heard the front door open and close. Only then did Lyle start to calm down.
“If I let go, will you sit down?” Pete asked him.
Lyle nodded. He was crying so hard snot dripped from his chin.
Dee tried to wipe his face. He shoved her hand away. She handed him the napkin and told him to wipe.
Dee went to Abby crying in the doorway and picked her up. “It’s okay, baby.”
Abby cried harder. They went in the other room.
Dan was afraid to move. He knew Lyle would be angry if he knew he’d seen him melting down.
“Take a drink,” Pete said, handing Lyle a glass of water.
Dan could see his dad’s hands shaking, something he’d never seen. He said that a steady hand coupled with patience is what makes a good woodworker.
He hurried downstairs to his room. He pulled his covers over his head. He stayed that way until he heard Lyle come downstairs and close his bedroom door. Only then did he get up and change into his pajamas.
Years later, Dan would tell Lauren that even more than having Kent move in with them, Lyle’s outburst felt more like the beginning of the end for the Myers. At least the family they’d always known.
The next morning, Dan went upstairs where his parents, Kent and Lyle were sitting in the living room.
“Come here, Dan,” Dee said. “We’re having a family meeting to discuss some things.”
He glanced at Lyle who sat at the far end of the couch, his shoulders hunched, picking at his fingernails. He looked defeated.
“We want to explain to you guys what having Kent here means,” she said. “Kent’s not just staying with us for a while, he’s now a part of the family.”
“You adopting him like a dog?” Lyle mumbled from his corner of the couch.
Dee ignored him. “We are now a polyamorous family. Do you know what that means?”
Dan shook his head no. Lyle stared at his hands.
“The word poly means many and the word amorous means love. So it means many loves. And that’s us, right? We have many people to love in this family and now Kent is someone we love.”
“I don’t love him,” Dan said.
“I love you, buddy,” Kent said.
Dan didn’t know how to respond. A stranger had never told him they loved him before.
“You guys don’t have to love anyone, yet,” Pete said. “But you do have to be respectful. Do you understand?”
Lyle and Dan nodded.
“Can we go now?” Lyle asked.
“Be back by dinner,” Pete said.
Dan followed Lyle out the back door and watched his brother get on his bike. “They’re so full of shit,” he said then rode away.
Dan went back inside and poured a bowl of cereal. His parents and Kent were still in the living room.
“Give him time,” Pete said. “It’s a big change.”
“I just wish I could make him understand how amazing this is,” Dee said.
“He’ll understand one day,” Kent added.
Dan shook his head, knowing that Lyle would never understand.
“Danny and Abby are fine with it,” Dee said.
“The younger ones are always more accepting,” Kent said. “They just feel all the love they receive and embrace it.”
Dan rolled his eyes. He wondered what kind of love he was supposed to be feeling.
Later that morning, Dan looked up p-a-u-l-y in the dictionary. He then looked under polly, thinking it was spelled like the girls name. He narrowed down the options and found what he was looking for. Polyamorous: many loves. Just like his mom said.
He wondered why his parents needed more love. Didn’t they get enough from each other? From them?
Dan’s birthday was July 17th. He hated that he was born in the summer and couldn’t take cupcakes to school for his classroom and only celebrated with his family every year.
That summer, Kent took it upon himself to give him a special birthday week.
He told the family about his plan during one of the rare dinners Lyle attended. He’d started missing family dinners after his meltdown and the ones he did show up for, he ate quickly then sat, sullen and withdrawn, speaking only when spoken to.
His parents ignored his behavior. They seemed to have taken the path of least resistance. Dan knew Dee and Pete believed that if they gave Lyle enough space, he would come around.
He knew his brother never would.
“You only get one day for your birthday, silly,” Abby said when Kent shared his plan.
“One day is never enough. I think everyone should have a whole week just for them, where they get to do all the things they want.”
The Myers were never one of those over-the-top birthday celebrating families. Dee baked them a cake and, as a family, they went out to a restaurant chosen by the birthday boy or girl.
Dan was intrigued. “What kind of things?”
“What do you like to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then let’s ask your parents. What does Dan like to do?”
“He likes to go to the bookstore,” Dee said, wearing the same overly-large smile she’d worn the morning she announced that Kent was joining the family.
“He likes to wash the car and take out the garbage,” Pete added.
“I do not,” Dan said, making everyone laugh. “I like to go to the beach.”
“We have the bookstore one day, the beach the next.” Kent went into the kitchen and came back with pen and paper. “Keep thinking. Five more things and we have a birthday week.”
“He likes to eat the special pancakes I make,” Abby said.
“Special Abby pancakes are now on the list.”
“He likes to ride bikes with me,” Lyle said.
They all turned and stared at him. In the quiet, Lyle’s face turned red.
“That’s four things,” Dan said, trying to get the attention off Lyle before he blew. “And I like going out to eat and then have Mom’s birthday cake. That’s five things. Do I need to pick them all now?”
“Just let us know the week of your birthday. It starts that Sunday and will last until the next Saturday.”
“We’ll go out to eat on your birthday and I’ll bake the cake,” Dee said. “You pick the place.”
“Cool.” He’d never been the center of attention for an entire week. He tried to hide his excitement.
Time dragged before Dan’s birthday week. He lay awake at night trying to decide what his last two days should be. He didn’t want to waste them, but nothing seemed big enough.
The evening they talked about his birthday plans was the first time all summer they felt like a real family again.
He wanted to recreate it.
After much deliberation, he decided on movie night. Everyone liked the idea. He chose Transformers because he knew Lyle liked it.
The Saturday before the special week, Kent asked him what his last day would be.
“I thought maybe, if it’s not too much, we could all go to the fair.”
“All of us?” Lyle asked.
“It’ll be fun. We can go on the rides like we did last year and eat cotton candy.”
“The fair it is,” Pete said. “Can you read us the list, Kent? So we know what Danny’s birthday week entails.”
“Will do, Pete. Tomorrow, we start off with Abby’s special pancakes, then on Monday, Dan and I will head to the bookstore. On Tuesday, we go to the beach, Wednesday is movie night, Thursday Lyle and Dan ride bikes. Friday, the big B-Day, will consist of dinner out and Mom’s birthday cake, and then the piece de resistance, the county fair.”
“I’m exhausted just hearing them read out loud,” Dee said.
“Does Thursday work for you?” Kent asked Lyle. “If not, we can switch it to another day.” Dan had never heard an adult be so cordial to a kid before.
“It’s fine,” Lyle said, tearing his napkin into pieces and piling them on his plate.
“What do you think, Danny?” Dee asked. “Sound like a fun birthday week?”
He nodded, trying to ignore Lyle’s mood. He was irritated with his brother and his antics. Why couldn’t he just let it go, play along? They didn’t get to make the decisions, so it was best to find a way to be happy. At least that was his thinking then.
Abby made her heart-shaped pancakes on Sunday. Dan’s chair was decorated with green and blue balloons and Abby had drawn him a picture of the family. Dan tucked it into his pocket before Lyle could see Dee sandwiched between Pete and Kent.
On Monday, Kent drove him to the bookstore. It was Dan’s first time in Kent’s silver BMW with black leather interior.
“As soon as I got to Florida, I had the windows tinted as dark as I could get them. I feel like a movie star, but at least the seats aren’t so hot you can’t touch them.”
Dan had never been in such a nice car before and he imagined that people were impressed. Kent turned on the stereo, a “first-rate sound system” is what he called it. Dan nodded his head to the beat, even though he didn’t know the song, and checked to make sure the twenty dollars his dad had given him was still tucked into the front pocket of his jeans.
The night before, Pete came to his bedroom. Seeing his dad lingering in the doorway looking nervous was unsettling. The last time he’d seen him in the basement was when he was finishing the remodel.
“Still like your room?”
“You got enough light to read by?”
“Let me know if you need more. I can always run some wires to add a couple of sconces.”
“Here.” Pete handed Dan the twenty. “This is for your trip to the bookstore. Get whatever you want.”
“Don’t stay up too late, you have a big week ahead.”
Pete went back toward the stairs. Dan watched him stop next to Kent’s boxes. The one with the magazines had one flap pulled partially up and Dan wondered if he could see what was inside.
His heart beat fast as his dad reached over, pushed it back into place and went upstairs.
Dan loved everything about bookstores. From the moment he walked in the door, he felt the tension in his shoulders release and the tight feeling in his chest that he’d carried since Kent moved in and Lyle started growing angry, dissolve.
He particularly liked this bookstore. The building was long and the shelves were well-spaced, making the books easy to reach. A cat named Hemingway lurked in the aisles and on the shelves, never in the same place twice. Hemingway was impossible to find when you were looking for him, but as soon as you stopped, there he’d be, cleaning himself in the non-fiction section or sleeping near the ceiling on one of the tallest bookshelves in Science Fiction.
The woman behind the counter waved. “Hey, Kent. Who’s your friend?” She was pretty with dark hair that had purple on the ends.
“This is Dan. He’s a good friend of mine,” Kent leaned on the counter, looking like he’d leaned on that same counter a hundred times before. “His birthday is Friday and this is one of his birthday wishes, to hang out at the bookstore.”
“Happy birthday, Dan. How old are you? Twenty?”
She laughed and Dan saw a gold stud in her tongue.
“Eleven. Or I will be on Friday. I’m still ten.”
“Ten and eleven are good ages. My name’s Stef. Let me know if you have any questions.”
Dan wandered into the nearest aisle and watched Kent talk to Stef like they were old friends.
Stef was the type of person that came to his mom’s store and talked to her about art and religion, sometimes discussing the best herbal teas and aromatherapies. A lot of them smelled like Patchouli. He liked the animated way they spoke even though he didn’t always understand what they were talking about.
He took his time finding the fantasy section. Kent and Stef’s voices floated through the aisles and slowly faded as he moved to the back of the store.
Dan found three books he wanted. He only had enough money for two.
Kent came down the aisle, hands tucked in his pockets, a big smile on his face, while Dan was debating which ones to buy.
“Did you find anything good?”
“I can’t decide.”
“A Sophie’s choice, huh?”
Dan didn’t know what that meant. He nodded anyway.
“How much money do you have?”
“My dad gave me twenty dollars.”
“Let me cover the rest. It can be my birthday present to you.”
Dan hesitated, uncertain if his parents would approve.
“You brought me. I thought that was my present.”
“And a book is part of the bookstore experience.” Kent took the books and said, “Let’s go. I need a cup of coffee.”
Dan followed behind him, gripping the twenty tight in his hand. Stef was finishing up with a customer when they got to the front and she gave Dan a wink when Kent placed the books on the counter.
“Did you have fun?”
He nodded and blushed.
She checked out the books. “All three of these are good. Maybe you should work here.”
“Can I?” he asked, excited at the idea.
Kent and Stef laughed.
“In a few years. We’re always looking for smart, well-read employees.”
He tried to hand Kent his money. He told him to keep it.
“My dad gave it to me for books.”
“You can use it at the coffee shop.”
Dan knew that Lyle would say Kent was trying to buy him.
He tucked the money back into his pocket anyway.
They went to a coffee shop that Dan had passed a hundred times before but never been in. The workers knew Kent there, too.
“The usual?” the guy behind the counter asked him.
“And whatever my friend Dan wants.”
“I don’t drink coffee,” Dan told him in a quiet voice, overwhelmed by the activity and the newness.
“They have other things. How about an iced Chai?”
“Try it and if you don’t like it, we’ll get you something else.”
They went outside to the patio where a group of teens was sitting at a table on the far end. They were louder than any other table and the other customers kept glancing in their direction. Kent’s back was to them. Dan had a direct view.
He saw Lyle’s friend, Ben, before Ben saw him. He watched as he lit a cigarette and took a drag. That summer, Lyle smelled like cigarettes. Dan had assumed it was because Ben’s mom smoked.
A tall guy from the group went inside the coffee shop and that’s when Dan saw Lyle. He was sitting in a chair with a girl on his lap, a cigarette gripped tight between his lips. The girl said something and Lyle laughed, the cigarette falling from his mouth. She screamed and jumped up as Lyle juggled the lit cigarette.
Kent turned to see what was causing the commotion and when he did, Ben noticed him.
“Hey, dude, isn’t that the guy who’s banging your mom?” His voice carried above all of the other noise.
Lyle froze, the lit cigarette forgotten at his feet, and stared at them.
It was the last time Dan would see him outside of a locked facility.
The Chai Dan had been enjoying suddenly tasted too sweet and his heart started to pound.
Kent stood and said, “Why don’t we go now? You can bring your drink.”
Dan followed behind Kent. He glanced back. Lyle was gone.
The girl was still there. She was already sitting on another guy’s lap, whispering in his ear.
Lyle called on Monday night to say he was staying at Ben’s house.
Dee insisted he join them for the trip to the beach the next day. He told her no and hung up.
They went to the beach without him. Dan tried to act like he was having fun, but all he could think about was Lyle sitting at the coffee shop, smoking cigarettes, instead of at the water that he loved.
Dan had never been to the beach without his brother. Lyle was the one who took him out to the buoy, the farthest he’d ever been, and he was the one who taught him how to body surf the waves two years before.
He had no memories of the beach that didn’t include Lyle.
After listlessly jumping into oncoming waves, he joined Dee under the large umbrella Pete had lugged from the car.
“Having fun?” she asked as she reapplied sunscreen to his back and shoulders.
“I heard Lyle was at the coffee shop yesterday. That must’ve been surprising, to see him there.”
Dan didn’t say anything.
“What Ben said, you know it was disrespectful, right?”
He hesitated, then asked, “Does Kent hit you?”
“Of course not.”
“Ben said that he was banging on you. And that means hitting.”
She didn’t say anything, just kept smoothing sunscreen on his back.
They watched Pete and Kent toss Abby back and forth in the waves. Their laughter rose above the sound of the surf.
“Your father, Kent and I have made a lifestyle choice. We’re not doing anything wrong. Do you understand?”
“I want to get back in the water.”
“Do you want a sandwich?”
Dan ran down the beach away from his family and all he didn’t understand.
“I thought you’d never get here,” Abby said. She was 16, almost 17, and she looked more and more like Dee each passing year. She wore her red hair long and curly like their mom and even preferred long, flowing skirts over the tight jeans most of her friends wore.
She tucked her hair behind her right ear. Dan noticed she’d added another piercing near the top.
“In his workshop.”
“Have you said anything to him about Kent?”
“You told me not.”
“Good. Let’s not upset him unless we have to.”
She carried Dan’s duffel bag downstairs to his room. It still looked the same.
“Have you seen Kent again?” he asked her.
“Once. He was going into a restaurant near the south pier.”
“And you’re positive it was him?”
“I looked in one of the newspapers in your closet. He’s lost some hair, right here,” she waved her hand over the crown of her head, “and he looks older, but it’s him. Why do you think he’s back?”
“Who knows?” he said, unpacking his clothes so she couldn’t see his face. Dan had a pretty good idea of why Kent had returned.
“Dad’s excited you’re home.”
“How do you know? Did he crack a smile?”
“He bought groceries and rented a couple of movies. He only does that when he’s feeling good.”
Guilt started at the top of Dan’s head and worked its way to his feet. It was easy to forget when he was living in his one-bedroom off campus that Abby was still with their dad who wore all that happened ten years before like a cloak of gloom. She’d taken over the household chores Dan had done without missing a beat. She cooked the meals, went to the grocery, and did the laundry. She even had Pete add her to the banking account so she could pay the bills after the electricity was shut off for the third time.
Abby told Dan she was going to make pancakes. “Just like you like them.”
After everything happened ten years before, the only thing that calmed Abby when she started to cry was making pancakes. They’d eaten a lot of pancakes. He didn’t have the heart to tell her he’d sworn never to eat another one after he moved out of the house.
Dan stepped outside and listened to the sound of the saw. It took Pete months before he was able to go back into his workshop. The day Dan saw his dad open the garage doors, he was able to breathe a little easier.
Dan had wanted to help clean it. Pete told him absolutely not and forbid him to enter the space until he gave him permission. Pete spent the day removing the black fingerprint dust that covered the saws and tools that lined the walls. He used bleach to clean the large, dark stain near the side door and the splatter marks that ran up the far wall and spotted the ceiling. He painted the walls with primer followed by a dark green, ensuring no other color would come through. It took him a better part of a week.
Once it was done, he went back to work. There was even an increase in sales—everyone wanted to see where the tragedy had taken place, but didn’t want to be crass about it, so they ended up making a purchase to ease their conscience.
Dan waited for the saw to stop before going in.
“There you are,” Pete said, removing his goggles and wiping the saw dust from his face. “Did you make good time?”
“Traffic was light.” Dan ran his hand over the large piece of brown maple on the saw platform. “What’re you making?”
“A curio cabinet for a woman in Orlando. Her mother left her a collection of music boxes and she needs something special to display them. I got the job because I told her I could make the legs look like a piano’s legs. She loved the idea.” He laughed. “Now I just need to figure out how to do it.”
“You’ll do it. You always do.”
“Good. Hard. You know.”
“Keep at it. You can get a good job and work with your head, not your hands, like your old man.”
Dan nodded. His dad had been saying the same thing for as long as he could remember.
“Abby stocked the fridge and insisted we get some movies to watch while you’re here. You up for a movie night?” Pete asked him.
“I need to study this afternoon. Tonight I’m free. I’d better get back in, Abby is making me her famous pancakes.”
“I swear that girl is going to open a pancake house. Tell her I was too busy to come in. I can’t choke down one more flapjack.”
Dan left the workshop and waited for the saw to start back up before going inside where Abby was reading at the table.
“It’s about time. They’re getting cold.”
“Doesn’t matter. Hot or cold, they’re delicious.” He sat down and coated them in syrup. “He does seem different. Chipper, even.”
“He’s been that way for weeks.”
“Before he knew I was coming home?”
She tilted her head to the side and scrunched up her face, thinking. She looked so much like their mom that Dan had to look away.
“I guess so. He’s also been going out in the evenings after we eat.”
“Where’s he go?” he asked, shoving a fork full of pancakes in his mouth.
“I don’t ask.”
He emptied his plate and took it to the sink.
“Don’t you want more?” Abby asked.
“I’m stuffed. They were good, though.”
“I’ll make you more tomorrow.” She stood and hugged him, her head resting on his chest, like she used to do when they were kids. “I’m glad you’re home. Things always feel better when you’re here.”
On his way to the coffee shop, he drove through the neighborhood, taking the route he and Lyle took when they rode bikes together.
He’d sat for hours on the back porch the Thursday of his birthday week and waited for his brother to come home. Ten years later the ache was still there, lurking beneath his ribs, when he thought about the waiting, believing in his heart that his big brother would honor his promise.
When the sun started to go down, Dee came outside, handed him a glass of lemonade and sat down beside him.
“You know it’s not you, right?”
He didn’t know how to express how the hurt belonged to him so it must somehow be about him.
“Your dad and I have been talking about making another change that might make Lyle more comfortable.”
“Are you going to make Kent move out?”
“He’s offered to leave the family. What do you think? Should he?”
“We were Lyle’s family first.”
Dee smiled, took the glass of lemonade from his hand, took a drink and handed it back.
“That is very true. With that logic, you and Abby shouldn’t have been allowed to stay since he was here first.”
“No way. That’s different.”
She laughed, pulled him close and kissed his cheek. “I know it is, baby. I’m just teasing.”
Nothing else was said on the matter of Kent leaving so Lyle would come home. They sat on the back porch, passing the glass of lemonade back and forth, watching the sun go down until Pete opened the back door and told them dinner was ready.
It was the last time Dan would be alone with his mom. If he’d known, he would’ve made it last longer. He wouldn’t have resisted when she pulled him close. He would have let the cool kiss stay where her lips planted it, not wiped it away.
Dan went to the coffee shop where Abby had seen Kent. He took his books with him, under the guise of studying, and set himself up at a corner table that had a direct view of the door. Whenever a man came in that resembled Kent, he sat up straighter and studied his face.
After Lyle’s trial was over, Kent left town, his boxes still in the basement, the Corona in the laundry area. When Kent lived with them, he would sit at the child’s desk that had been in Dan and Lyle’s room before Pete built their new ones and work on what he called his opus. Dan asked him once what it was about and he said that it was a story about “man’s struggle to break free of society’s chains.”
Kent’s things stayed where they were, untouched, until a little over a month after Lyle’s trial.
Dan had been microwaving pizza for their dinner. Once people stopped bringing covered dishes and casseroles, meals consisted of microwaved dinners, sandwiches, and cereal for breakfast, Abby’s pancakes whenever she had a bad dream or missed their mom.
Pete spent most of his time in front of the television, eating anything Dan put before him.
The microwave was running and Pete had the TV turned up full volume, something else that was new. Dan wondered if he was trying to tune out his thoughts, block the images. Forget. Dan knew, even at eleven, his dad was fighting a losing battle. When the microwave stopped, Dan heard the sound of the typewriter keys and froze. The volume on the TV went down. Pete stepped into the kitchen and motioned for Dan to stay where he was and walked toward the laundry area. Dan leaned against the counter, his legs weak.
When Pete got to the door, he slowly pushed it open. The typing stopped.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Abby said, “Writing a story.”
Dan let out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
“I don’t want to see you touching this thing ever again.” Pete’s voice shook. “Do you understand?”
Abby started to cry and ran to Dan.
Pete picked up the old typewriter and threw it through the glass storm door. A noise that wasn’t completely human came from some deep part of him. He shook his hands at the ceiling and the sound got worse.
Dan grabbed Abby’s hand and pulled her down the basement stairs. In his bedroom, he knocked the books from the bookcase and moved it in front of the door, barricading them in. He put Abby in his closet, climbed in after her, closed the door and waited.
They heard the front door open and close.
Dan counted to a thousand.
He opened the closet door and listened.
When he was certain his dad was gone, he stepped over the mound of books and moved the bookcase. Abby followed close behind as they made their way back into the kitchen.
Since the night when everything changed, Dan had kept the innocent belief that they were okay because they still had Pete. Their family might have been cut in half, but as long as their dad was there, he and Abby were protected.
He looked at his sister, not even seven, and realized that without Pete, they were two kids alone, parentless.
“Is he coming back?” Abby asked.
“He’ll be back,” Dan reassured her, even though he wasn’t confident.
He removed the pizza from the microwave and cut it into four pieces. Abby carried the milk to the table and poured two glasses. They ate in silence. They were both bone-weary tired, motherless, their brother was in jail and their dad had lost his mind. There didn’t seem to be anything to say.
Dan had woken that night to the sounds of Pete cleaning up the broken glass. He listened to his footsteps above him as he checked on Abby, then as he came down the stairs to his room. Dan turned away from the door and pretended to be asleep.
Pete then went to Lyle’s room. As far as he knew, his dad hadn’t been in there since Lyle went away. As Dan lay in the dark, he listened to his dad cry and apologize over and over to his wife and oldest son.
He was too afraid to go to his dad.
In the morning, Dan went to Lyle’s room and found Pete asleep, clutching Lyle’s pillow like a lifeline.
When Kent didn’t show at the coffee shop, Dan staked out the restaurant near the south pier. It was a seafood place that had been there for as long as Dan could remember. In high school, a lot of the students liked to go because the bartenders played loose with checking IDs.
He sat so he could see the other customers in the mirror behind the bar as he milked a couple of beers then ate a late lunch.
Dan watched a table of women, tipsy on afternoon drinks, celebrate one of their birthdays. After their plates were removed, a server carried a large cake glowing with candles to the table.
The last birthday cake Dan had was that summer. On his birthday, while his cake was baking, he overheard his mom talking on the phone to Ben’s mom.
“Thank you, Erin. We’ll be at Ted’s Pizza at seven. Just tell him that it’s not for me or his dad, it’s for Danny.”
Dan spent the evening watching the door of the restaurant, hoping to see his brother walk through it. When the server brought out the cake Dee had made to look like a book, he’d closed his eyes and wished for Lyle to come home.
He never did.
Ten years later, he was still watching the door of a restaurant.
He resisted covering his ears when the women at the table sang Happy Birthday at the top of their lungs.
The afternoon lull set in and he was left with only the staff who eyed him out of curiosity and boredom.
He’d decided to leave when Kent came in.
A couple of the waitresses greeted him by name. He came to the bar where the bartender shook his hand.
“Good to see you, man. The usual?”
“You bet,” Kent replied, sliding onto a stool at the other end of the bar. “Good business today?”
“Really good. Your coffer is full.”
“What’s good for me is good for you. We all win.”
It took Dan a minute to realize that Kent was somehow involved with the restaurant.
Dan stared into his beer. He wanted to force Kent to look at him, make him see him. He waited. His hands were clammy and his heart pounded. He’d imagined this scenario a thousand times and each time he was fearless, demanding answers to all of his questions. Now that the moment was there, he felt like the boy he’d been whose once solid foundation had crumbled.
The bartender walked to his end of the bar and asked him if he wanted a refill. Dan nodded. He felt Kent’s eyes on him. Then he saw him walk his way.
Dan stood and turned toward him.
Their eyes locked.
Kent stopped. “Danny?”
Kent stepped forward, looking like he might try to hug him.
Dan stepped back.
Kent stopped and said, “I can’t believe it’s you.”
“What’re you doing here?” Dan asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Why’re you back? No one wants you here.”
“I’ve been back for over a year. Didn’t your dad tell you?”
Dan was confused. “Why would he?”
Kent held his hands out in front of him. “I think you need to talk to your dad.”
“If you’re here to try and keep Lyle in jail, you need to think twice.”
“Danny, listen, there are some things you need to understand.”
“I understand all I need to. You destroyed my family.”
Hurt settled on Kent’s face. “I never meant to hurt you or your family.”
Rage rose up inside of Dan. “You got my mother killed,” he shouted.
The bartender stepped out from around the bar. “You need to calm down, man. Why don’t you sit and I’ll get you a cup of coffee.”
Dan’s chest hurt and he had trouble breathing. “I’m leaving.”
He went toward the patio so he wouldn’t have to go near Kent.
When he was at the door, Kent called out, “Talk to your dad, Dan. And to Lyle. They’ll explain everything.”
His stomach was upset from the beers and the adrenaline rush. He drove away from the city to the beach where his family, minus Lyle, spent one of their last days together.
Lyle had been sent to a juvenile detention center after the trial and, when he turned eighteen, he was sent to the Florida State Prison. Pete visited him weekly when he was in the detention center, taking Dan and Abby once a month. They would arrive at nine in the morning on the first Saturday of the month and wait in line with mothers and siblings who were there to see someone they loved. Pete was usually the only man in a sea of women and children.
The visiting area was white and orange with fluorescent lights. When they sat at the orange tables, the color would reflect onto their faces and arms, giving them a strange earthy glow.
Lyle’s hair was shaved down to the scalp and the inmates were dressed in blue t-shirts and thick jeans that no one in school would’ve been caught dead in. The last time Dan saw him, a week before Lyle’s eighteenth birthday, he’d grown tall enough to look their dad in the eye and his once skinny arms were ropy with muscle.
Abby had made him a birthday card and Dan had brought him books. Lyle had completed his GED the year before and had told Dan that he wanted to finish college. Dan asked his English teacher what books he should read before college and she’d given him a list. He’d spent every last penny he had buying Lyle all the books on the list.
“What’s up, Squirt?” Lyle asked Abby. She smiled shyly at him and then looked to Pete for reassurance.
“You holding up?” Pete asked him.
Lyle shrugged. There were dark circles under his eyes and Dan noticed a faded bruise on his right cheek. If their dad saw it, he didn’t mention it.
“I talked to Tom and he wants you to see the psychiatrist before next week. He thinks some medication might help.”
Tom Swenson was Lyle’s lawyer. Pete checked in with him weekly to see how the appeal was going. It’d been Pete’s goal to keep Lyle out of the state prison. His efforts had failed.
“I brought you some books,” Dan told Lyle. “Ms. Hayley said you’ll need to read them before starting college work.”
“Thanks, Bro. You keeping your grades up? You’re the family’s great white hope.”
Lyle had started saying things like “great white hope” and “you have to redeem the family name.” It made Dan uncomfortable and the pressure made his chest tight.
“You’ll finish college before I do,” he told Lyle.
“Not the same, Bro, not the same.”
Dan didn’t know how to respond.
Pete started talking about the appeal. Dan looked around the room at the other families just like theirs. These guys were no different than his brother. They’d made one bad decision that had changed the trajectory of their lives. The certainty about life he’d felt that summer before Kent moved in was a fleeting memory. He ached to get it back.
When the hour was up, Pete hugged Lyle, even though they weren’t supposed to touch. One of the guards shifted on his heels and kept his eyes on his brother.
“I guess this is it, Bro,” he said to Dan.
“I’ll see you next month.”
“I don’t want you coming to the State Pen. That’s no place for a growing boy like you.”
“But I want to come.” He looked to their dad. Pete kept his eyes down. “I’m coming.”
“I’ve already talked to Dad. He understands.”
“I don’t.” Tears filled Dan’s eyes and he covered them so Lyle wouldn’t see.
“It’s better this way.”
“No, it’s not.”
“We can still write. Then I can reread your letters when I’m bored.”
“I want you to come home.” Dan knew as the words left his mouth how ridiculous they were and how selfish he was being.
Lyle stared across the room at the wall. “Me, too.” He looked like the fourteen year old he’d been when first being sent to the detention center. Dan cried harder.
Abby started to whimper. Pete picked her up and hugged her.
Pete squeezed Dan’s shoulder and told Lyle to keep his chin up. “Tom’s working on it. I’m not going to let up on him. You just need to keep your nose clean and think good thoughts.”
The alarm sounded, letting the visitors and prisoners know that visiting hours were over. Lyle and the others lined up and were led from the visiting area.
None of the families spoke as they watched their boys, one behind the other, walk through the heavy steel door. Once the last one was through and the door shut behind him, the room erupted in shuffling feet and mothers shouting instructions to the brothers and sisters who’d sat patiently while their mothers tried to convince their brothers locked behind brick walls and iron bars that all would be okay.
Dan wandered up and down the beach until the nausea subsided and he was calm. He’d been certain when Abby first called to tell him that she’d seen Kent that he was back to speak at Lyle’s parole hearing. Lyle had been given twenty years, but due to overcrowding and good behavior, he was up for parole after ten.
Dan had convinced himself that Kent was going to try and keep his brother inside by talking to the parole board.
Now he wasn’t sure.
Dan and Lyle had corresponded until he went away to school. Dan was afraid that someone in the dorm would see the return address on the letters. He’d asked Lyle to send his letters to Abby who then sent them on to Dan in a new envelope. Lyle said he understood. His responses became sporadic then stopped altogether. Dan stopped writing and only sent birthday and Christmas cards each year. Pete filled him in on anything he thought he should know.
Dan sat on the sand, every bone in his body missing his mom and brother, and watched the setting sun bounce on the surf.
He slept in his car, waking every couple of hours to the ebb and flow of the water. The last time he woke, the tip of the sun was showing itself and his mouth was gritty with sleep and yesterday’s beers.
He walked to a 7-Eleven for a toothbrush and coffee.
“Donuts are two for a dollar,” the cashier told him at checkout. He was a heavyset guy with a tattoo of a dragon running the length of his right forearm.
Dan left his items at the counter and got two glazed donuts.
When he went to pay, the cashier asked, “Need anything else, Danny?”
Dan stopped and looked him in the face, trying to place him.
“Don’t recognize me?”
He shook his head.
“Ben. Lyle’s friend. I used to come to your house.” He looked out the window as if he was watching the hours at the Myers’ place unfold right outside the glass.
“I remember. How’re you doing?”
“Not bad. Still living at my mom’s. Saving up for a place of my own.”
“Good for you.
“You back?” Ben asked him as he put his things in a bag.
“Just for a couple of days. I have another year of school.”
“You were always smart. Lyle would brag about how many books you read in a week.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“He would go on and on about how you were a genius or something.”
Dan laughed. “Far from it.”
“How is he? You see him much?”
“Going today, actually.”
“Tell him I said hey.”
“I will.” Dan paid and picked up his bag. “Take care, Ben.”
Dan sensed that if he ran into Ben in another ten years, he’d still be living with his mom, saving up for a place of his own.
When he got back to the car, he ate the donuts and drank his coffee. He’d turned his phone off the night before and when he turned it back on, text messages and voice messages flowed in. They were all from Pete and Abby.
The prison was two hours from the city. When he arrived, he drove under a large arched sign that looked like something you would see at an amusement park. He’d always imagined the prison to look like the detention center. It wasn’t even close. It was a massive structure with high fences topped with razor sharp wire. Guards were positioned in guard houses and as he got closer, he could see the guns they held at the ready.
Dan waited almost an hour before they brought Lyle in. They were separated by a thick sheet of plastic. Lyle’s shoulders were broad and he was a head taller than Dan. Where Dan still looked like a larger version of his boy self, Lyle had grown into a man. Dan wondered if he would’ve looked the same if he’d never been sent away.
Lyle sat down and picked up the phone. Dan picked up his.
Lyle didn’t smile, just waited for Dan to speak.
“Thanks for seeing me.”
Lyle nodded. His hair was shaved. Dan could see his scalp. His blue eyes held Dan’s with an intensity Dan knew he would never have. LOVE was tattooed across the fingers of Lyle’s right hand. HATE his left.
“Are Dad and Abby okay?” His voice was deep and he sounded a lot like their dad.
“They’re okay. Sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you.”
Lyle’s shoulders relaxed. He waited.
Dan cleared his throat. “I ran into Kent. He told me to talk to you.”
“I think he meant for you to talk. To tell me something.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Why he’s back.”
“That’s a question for him.”
Dan was confused and frustrated. “What the hell’s going on, Lyle?”
Lyle shook his head. “They never told you, did they?”
“Told me what?”
“About any of it? What happened that night?”
“I know what happened.”
“What do you know?”
Dan hesitated, realizing that all he had was the memory of an eleven year old boy and what he’d read in the newspapers to fill in the gaps.
“I know you hated Kent and you tried to kill him. And Mom got hurt in the process.”
“And you never pieced any of it together? I thought you were supposed to be the smart one.”
“Kiss my ass.”
Lyle smiled for the first time. “Looks like my little bro finally grew some balls.”
“We don’t have time for you to start blowing me shit. Tell me what happened.”
“Don’t get your tighty-whiteys in a twist. To be honest, I didn’t remember everything. Dad and Kent filled in the gaps for me, after the trial.”
Dan watched the pained look on Lyle’s face as he started telling him about the night that changed both of their lives forever.
“I came home that Saturday to go to the fair. I felt like an asshole for having stood you up for our bike ride and then missing out on your cake. I didn’t think anyone was home. All that birthday week bullshit and then no one was even there. Dad told me later that he’d taken you and Abby out for ice cream. Mom and Kent waited at the house, just in case I showed up. Then everyone was going to meet at the fairgrounds.” Lyle hesitated then took a deep breath and kept going. “Do you remember the magazines?”
“I’d told Ben about Kent’s magazines and he dared me to bring some to his place. I’d already looked at most of the ones on top so I dug down and pulled out a few.” He looked away from Dan. “They were different. They were men. The ones on top were women, but underneath, there were men. I heard voices and footsteps upstairs. I heard Kent. I don’t have to tell you how pissed off I was that summer. I was pissed at Mom and Dad for turning us into a joke. I was pissed at Kent for just existing. Anger was just below the surface and I didn’t seem to have any control of when or how it showed itself.”
Lyle marched upstairs with the magazines. Dee and Kent were in the kitchen. They were laughing. They stopped when they saw him at the top of the stairs.
“Lyle, you’re here,” Dee said with a big smile on her face.
“I’m not staying here if you’re going to let him keep living here.” Lyle threw the magazines on the table.
“Are those yours?” Dee asked Kent.
“They belong to a buddy of mine. They’re in a box. I didn’t think he would go through them.”
“You need to get your shit and leave,” Lyle screamed at him.
“Lyle, we discussed this. Kent is part of the family now.”
“He’s not family. Stop saying that. Either he goes or I go.”
Dee laughed. “Don’t be silly. You’re not going anywhere.”
Lyle pushed past her to get to the back door. Kent and Dee followed him out. Trying to get away from them, he went to Pete’s workshop.
“I don’t know why I went in there, why I didn’t just leave,” Lyle told Dan.
They both knew that if he had left, their mom would still be alive and he wouldn’t be locked away in a prison cell.
“I tried to close the side door behind me but Kent pushed his way inside. Mom was right behind him. I remember they were both talking at once. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. My anger was so intense it felt like one of Dad’s saws, you know the one that vibrates all the way to the bone?”
“Kent moved toward me and I picked up one of Dad’s straight blade carving knives. I backed up and he stepped forward. I remember hearing Mom say, Put it down. That only made me angrier. Why are you here? I asked Kent over and over. I heard, Your dad and Love each other. Do you understand, Lyle? Mom asked. Kent said I stopped moving and looked at her. She said, Your dad and I love each other. Kent and your dad love each other. This way we get to keep our family together. Do you understand?
“Kent said that was when I swung at her.” Lyle’s hands started to shake and his voice broke. “I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
Dan knew from the newspaper accounts that Lyle had stabbed their mom in the throat, severing her jugular. She bled out in minutes.
“Kent tried to help her and that’s when I started stabbing him.”
Kent had twelve stab wounds in his chest, back and hands. After Lyle ran, Kent was able to crawl to the door and that’s where Pete found him.
Dan and Abby had watched from the back porch, forgotten, as EMTs loaded up their mom and Kent and drove away.
Dan still woke up from nightmares in the middle of the night, his walls painted in flashing red emergency lights.
Dan studied Lyle as he tried to process what he’d been told. He could see a few gray hairs peppered through his brother’s short dark hair.
“Kent and Dad?” Dan finally asked.
The guard indicated that Lyle’s time was up.
“Come back again, Bro. It was really good seeing you.”
When the door closed behind his brother, Dan started to cry.
The sun had moved behind the clouds while Dan was in the prison.
He drove until he found the cemetery. After his mom died, Pete would take Dan and Abby to her grave when they asked. For Dan, watching the pained look on his dad’s face was too much and he stopped asking to go.
It took a while to find her. Since going away to school, Dan hadn’t been back once. When he found her headstone, he was surprised that there were daisies, her favorite flower, in a little vase and a handful of fresh mint held together with a purple ribbon.
He’d forgotten how much she loved to rub mint leaves between her hands and then place them over her nose and breathe in deep. She would hold her hands out to them and say, “Smell.”
Dan pulled off one of the leaves, rubbed it between his palms and inhaled. He placed his hands on his mom’s headstone and said, “Smell.”
He missed her so much that it made his knees buckle. He sat down and leaned against her headstone.
Dan closed his eyes and let the quiet wrap around him. Lack of sleep from the night before was catching up with him. He was starting to drift when memories surfaced of Kent patting Pete on the back whenever he walked past and how they would sit at the dinner table after everyone was finished and talk late into the night.
Then he remembered how his mom started sleeping with Abby. She would come out of his sister’s room, her hair wild. When questioned why she was in there, she’d insist that Abby had been waking up during the night with bad dreams.
In Dan’s mind, the last few months of his mom’s life had been happy ones, except for the problems with Lyle. His parents and Kent would share a beer on the patio in the evenings, Dee’s feet propped up on Pete’s lap. Their laughter floating through Dan’s open windows while he read.
Now that he knew the truth, he saw how his mom had put her wants away as she tried to save her family. She loved his dad and didn’t want to lose him.
She put her heart in that box she always warned them about.
Dan wanted to be angry with his dad. He couldn’t find it in him. Possibly it was there, buried beneath fatigue and shock, but he couldn’t locate it. Pete had paid for his cowardice, as had the rest of his family. He’d suffered enough. He didn’t need Dan’s indignation piled on top of his guilt.
Dan knew that when he returned to his childhood home, Kent would be there. He’d returned to be with Pete, to the man he loved. Dan also knew that Lyle would be back in the house soon. That Kent would speak on his brother’s behalf, tell the parole board that he forgave him for his bad acts. Abby would finish high school, happier than she’d been in over ten years, for no other reason than her family was no longer stuck in the mire of poor decisions made long before.
He saw it all as his back rested against his mother’s forever marker as she lay in her forever home.
And what about him? What would become of him, the boy witness? Now that all the pieces to the puzzle of his family were in place, Dan knew he would have to take a hard look at himself and what he wanted.
When he first started going to see Lauren, before the focus of their sessions shifted onto his family, they discussed his love life. Or lack thereof.
During his second session, she had asked him if he dated much and Dan responded with, “Define much?”
“You date a lot?”
“Not a lot.” He looked around the room, avoiding eye-contact.
“How many dates have you been on this year?”
Dan didn’t respond.
“Five?” she guessed.
“I’ve been really busy with classes.”
“The classes you haven’t been attending?”
He felt cornered. “I don’t date, okay.”
“What about in high school?”
He shook his head. Even though no one knew that he was still a virgin, he was embarrassed. “I don’t think this is relevant to why I don’t go to classes,” Dan said.
“Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t.”
“How could it be?”
“I don’t know, that’s why we should talk about it. Whenever there’s a strong reaction, I think it’s best to see where it takes us.”
Dan glanced at the clock. “Time’s up.”
The next week Abby saw Kent and they never returned to the topic.
If they had, he would’ve told Lauren that the thought of loving another person made him feel like he was under water. And the thought of letting another person love him was like having someone with a tight grip on his legs, keeping him from reaching the surface.
He realized he could now choose the life he wanted for himself. He was no longer yoked to the past, to the choices his parents made as they tried to hold onto what they wanted life to be.
Dan stood and read the quote engraved on his mom’s headstone: Turn your face towards the sun and the shadows will fall behind you. It was her favorite.
As he turned to leave, the clouds parted. The smell of mint filled the air and followed him to the car. It surrounded him all the way home.