by Paul Allison
The hospital doors slid open with a clean, medicinal whir. Jack stepped into the lobby and quickly approached the reception desk, where a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman was just finishing with a phone call.
“I’m looking for a patient—Andrew Lundy,” he said.
She consulted her computer and looked up quickly. “Are you a relative?”
“Room 247—use the elevator there, then to your left.”
He thanked her and walked toward the elevator. He felt strangely empty-handed as the doors sealed him in. But what was the appropriate gift?—certainly not flowers. As he walked down the corridor, Jack passed a man who nodded a greeting to him. As he feared, his grandmother was sitting on a bench outside the room. He had hoped to enter the room without her seeing him. But she saw him, and, predictably, she began to cry as he sat down beside her on the bench.
“What are we going to do Jack?” she managed to say. “I can’t watch him all the time. He locks me out of his room.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. She took a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her nose. She looked up at Jack suddenly, “Did you drive down?”
“Is it still snowing?” He saw that her hair was entirely gray now, nearly white. He had been astounded at how quickly she seemed to age since the accident; every time he came home, it was as if she were shrinking further into herself. Wrinkles that he had never noticed before now crisscrossed her hands and forearms like a dried sugar glaze. Jack patted her shoulder, feeling foolish at this unnatural gesture, but she sighed and leaned back against the wall.
“I’ll be all right,” she said. “You go in now. I’ll be in the chapel.”
Jack cracked open the door. A single reading lamp cast as much shadow as light across the room illuminating Andrew’s face and hands while darkening the form of his body beneath the thin hospital sheet. Jack glanced quickly at the bandages around Andrew’s wrists, then picked up a yellow blanket from a chair next to the bed and spread it over him. He had no idea what to do next, so he stood and watched Andrew sleep for a few minutes.
“Andrew,” he whispered, clumsily smoothing his brother’s hair, then tucking the blanket under his chin. Andrew opened his eyes, drowsy and slitted like a cat’s.
“I was hot,” he said. “Grandma was smothering me.”
“Sorry.” And Jack lowered the blanket to his waist. “Go back to sleep. I just wanted you to know I was here.”
“My hero.” He tried to laugh, but could only grin without a sound.
Jack sat down in the rocking chair.
“In the chapel.”
“Figures.” He tried to adjust the blanket, but his breath hissed with pain at the effort. “She read me a Bible story, you know.” He attempted another laugh. “I pretended I was asleep, but she read it anyway. The parable of the lost sheep—where the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the lost lamb way out on the cliff. Subtle, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Jack.
“I always liked that story,” Andrew said, “but I always wondered how safe those other sheep were without their shepherd around.”
His voice sounded distant and dreamy. Jack rocked his chair, waiting until Andrew’s breath was slow and even before he would leave. He turned out the lamp, then smoothed Andrew’s forehead with his hand—something he hadn’t done for years and years, since Andrew took naps, before he had grown into a person who didn’t need such things.
He waited outside the chapel door for a few minutes before he entered. Several people sat in the dark blue pews of the small chapel. At the front was a simple wooden podium that sat on a slightly raised platform. Behind it, a picture of Christ’s ascension drew his eyes toward the pseudo-stained glass window near the ceiling. His grandmother sat in the second pew with a handkerchief between her clenched hand and her lips. When he sat next to her, she leaned back and dabbed her eyes.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “Are you off for break now?”
“Yes,” said Jack.
“Good.” She patted his hand. “I can’t help him,” she said. She was done crying now. Her voice betrayed hurt, even anger. “Only God can help him now.”
“Has his social worker been here?”
“She wants him to go back to therapy. She’s quick, that one.” She sighed. “I just don’t understand the timing. It’s been almost a year. Why now?”
“I don’t know.” It has been almost a year. A year.
They sat quietly for awhile. Then she turned to him and said, “How are you doing, Jack?”
“Don’t start worrying about me, Grandma,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“That’s what Andy kept saying. That’s what he said this morning at breakfast.”
Jack put his hand on her arm. “I’m not Andy. I’m okay. I’m not great, but I’m all right.”
Outside, he took a deep breath of the frigid air, then blew it out in a large frosty cloud. The cold was like a pain around his back and shoulders that stooped him, shivering, like an old man. He followed his grandmother home in his car. Since it had stopped snowing, she felt easier about driving, but she still drove ten miles per hour under the speed limit and paused over-cautiously at every intersection.
Cheerful snowmen perched on either side of a Merry Christmas banner welcomed them into town. Large, old-fashioned Christmas ornaments decked the telephone poles that lined Main Street, the same ones they’d been hanging for the last twenty years. As he pulled into the driveway behind her, Jack realized that his fingers ached from squeezing the steering wheel so tightly.
Very little had changed since he’d been here last. Except the piano. Her piano had been an old, elaborately carved upright that sat like the Pope’s seat at the center of the living room. Now his piano, a sleek, black baby grand, stood in its place.
“Let me make you some hot chocolate,” his grandmother said, hanging their coats in the front closet. “But first I need to change my clothes. I’ve got to get that hospital reek off of me.”
“When did you bring the piano over from the other house?” he asked.
“A few weeks ago. I couldn’t bear the thought of that beautiful piano sitting abandoned in your empty house any longer.” She smiled suddenly, “It’s all tuned and ready to play.”
Jack laughed and sat down on the bench. “What’d you do with yours?”
“Gave it to the church—they needed one for the children’s choir to practice on. Not that it will help them much.”
He warmed up with some scales. “My fingers are cold,” he said, but she had already gone upstairs. He rubbed his hands against his thighs, suddenly resisting the idea of playing.
“I could use that hot chocolate,” he said to the empty room.
Jack met Madeline at Eastman during the spring semester of his freshman year at the auditions for a musical co-sponsored by the Music and Theater departments. He auditioned for the accompanist spot;, she the female lead. He hadn’t planned on auditioning, but he’d overheard Madeline and another girl talking about the auditions, and he had been smitten. That is the way it worked with him: he would be absolutely bowled over by someone for no obvious reason, dog them like some moonstruck lover in a bad romance movie, hoping for nothing, yet fantasizing in spite of himself, and eventually his torch would dissipate from lack of flammable material. He knew this about himself, so never took his feelings too seriously. But he did get the accompanist position.
He played for Madeline’s audition, tenderly stroking the keys, shaping the music to her voice, willing her to get the spot. Her voice was high without sounding high—a throaty, belting kind of voice that hid the nervousness that her trembling fingers showed. She wore a long, black skirt with dark green suede ankle boots and a thin black choker around her neck. She had a beautiful neck, he thought. She was rather awkward looking, a little too angular for gracefulness, a little too short to be willowy, but these flaws made her more accessible, and when she finished her audition, Jack was sure she got the part. But he was content to watch her from a distance, waiting for his feelings to go away.
One night after a late rehearsal with the orchestra, he was crossing the parking lot when a car came out of nowhere. He felt the side of the car swish across his coat—not enough to injure him, but enough to send him stumbling into a parked car. He banged his knee and sank to the pavement. He heard the sound of shoes clicking, and then felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Are you all right?” It was Madeline. Her voice was angry. “They didn’t even stop. JERKS!” she yelled after them.
“I’m okay,” he said, finally getting his breath. “Just got the wind knocked out of me.” But when he tried to stand up, his knee collapsed under him. She helped him up and told him to lean on her. “My room is right up there. I’ll give you some ice.” Then she got angry again. “What’s wrong with this country?” She was near yelling, as if the driver of the car would hear her. “People don’t even have the courtesy to apologize after running you down in the street!” Her free arm was gesturing wildly, “Going to knock off someone’s grandmother later on for kicks? Maybe run down some orphans—that would be hi-lar-i-ous!”
Jack laughed, but she was still angry. “I’m so mad I could scream.”
“Go ahead,” said Jack.
She did—a blood-curdling, hair-raising, deliciously horrible scream. Her hair shook, her mouth widened, her breath billowed from her throat in the cold air. The night seemed deathly still when she finished.
“It’s a comfort to know that you could be murdering me at this very moment and no one would even bother to open their window to see what’s wrong.”
“It’s too cold,” Jack said. “Maybe if it was summer, and the windows were already open, you’d stand a chance.”
She gave him a smirk. “How’s your knee?”
“It’ll be okay.” But she insisted on taking him to her room. She gave him an ice pack and some chicken soup she heated in a mug with a heating wand. She was the only person Jack had ever told about the accident.
The next morning, Jack told his grandmother his plans to take a semester off from Eastman. “I can work on some electives around here,” he said. She feigned a protest worthy of his mother, but gave up altogether when he told her he wanted to move back into the other house.
The other house—his, Andrew’s, his mother’s, and Brad’s house—was across the street. The settlement for the accident along with the insurance money was substantial, leaving both Jack and Andrew a modest allowance and a significant trust fund. The insurance had been Brad’s gift to them, not his mother’s, who would never think to secure something as obscure and generous as her children’s future. The house was theirs as well. Originally, Jack had wanted to sell, but had opted to hold onto it, at least for a while. “I think Andrew would do better back at our house,” he said.
His grandmother eyed him strangely, “You think things can go back to normal?” she asked.
“Of course not,” he said. “Things were never normal in that house,” he added. “But you know he never liked it here.”
At first he thought she would be hurt by this pronouncement, but she folded her arms and looked dramatically out the window. “I know.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I’m over-protective,” she said.
“He hates that.”
“I know.” She sighed. “He doesn’t believe in God.”
Jack looked up from staring at his hands. His grandmother watched for his reaction. He didn’t remember Andrew ever believing in God. “He’s just questioning things,” he offered. “He’s angry.”
“No, not angry.” She pursed her lips. “If he were angry with God, I’d cheer him on. You have to believe in God to be angry with Him.” She gripped her elbows. “He’s hopeless. What he did was the act of a hopeless person. How can someone so young be so hopeless?”
Jack could think of a million reasons. “He just needs time,” he said. “That’s why I want to stay home. Maybe it will help.”
She was silent for a moment, as if debating the issue. “Yes,” she finally said. “You may be right.” She smoothed his cheek with her hand. “I need to show you something.” She led him into Andrew’s room, his Uncle Barry’s old room. The walls were bare; everything was in perfect order—eerily unlike Andrew.
“I heard a thump,” she said. “I was wrapping his Christmas present in my room—isn’t it funny that it was his present? At first, I didn’t think anything at all, but then it was so quiet.” She stepped to the dresser. Her reflected face looked old and unfamiliar to Jack, so he stared at the dark spot on the floor. “He lay here, and I thought how peaceful he looked. I thought he had fallen asleep on the floor—when he was little he always tuckered out like that right in the middle of something. But then I saw how pale he looked.” She clutched her hands together. “Blood was all over me—my hands, my legs, my shoes—everywhere.” She didn’t cry as Jack expected. “I think I lost my mind for a moment. As I pulled the sheets from the bed to stop the blood, do you know what I was thinking? I was thinking, ‘He’s ruined the carpet.’”
Andrew minced no words with the social worker when she came to see him. Her name was Nancy Millinger, an open-faced, pony-tailed young woman who, unfortunately for her, was genuine, compassionate, and earnest. She had been telling them that she would link with his school counselor to set up something to help him—counseling, group therapy, and/or stress management seminars and other helpful coping strategies—after holiday break. She had a habit of pausing and smiling, a crooked little smirk, as she waited for a response. She did this several times with Andrew before she began to turn to Jack or his grandmother for the needed acquiescence. Andrew grimaced at her. He stared at her relentlessly, never blinking. Jack was a little relieved to see that Andrew at least had the urge to torment—that was not unlike his old self. Ms. Millinger asked Andrew if he had any questions. Jack winced.
“Would you like to go out sometime?” he asked her.
“Andrew Lundy!” cried his grandmother.
Ms. Millinger clutched her purse and laughed a little. “That’s all right,” she said. “I realize this whole ordeal has been very taxing.”
Jack helped her on with her coat. “Sorry,” he said.
“I think an older woman would be good for me,” Andrew yelled after her as she left the room, “a surrogate mother or something, to get me through the ordeal!”
His grandmother gave Jack a helpless look then rushed after Ms. Millinger. Jack sat in the chair and laughed. “You’re bad,” he said.
The wail of a siren comfortably filled the silence between them; they listened until the sound waned into the hum of the heater. Jack asked abruptly before he could stop himself, “Why did you do it, Andy?”
“I don’t know,” said Andrew. Then he started to cry. He tried to say something else, but was overwhelmed by the sobs that quickly overtook him. Jack reached out to him more in astonishment than compassion, but Andrew gripped his hands and arms, then pulled Jack to him in an excruciating embrace. Jack couldn’t get it out of his mind that this might be some terrible joke. But as Andrew clutched at him, heaving and sobbing, Jack stroked his hair and whispered the only comforting words he knew, “Hush now, hush. Everything’s going to be all right.” Everything’s going to be all right now.
Jack spent most of the next week getting the house ready. His grandmother had hired a cleaning service to come once every other month, so the place was not a disaster. In fact, so little had changed since he had last been there that, at first, it frightened him that things could remain so unaltered. But after a while, the feel of the house began to comfort him, and soon he shed any misgivings of memory—and claimed the house as entirely his own.
In this frame of mind he went through his mother’s room. Nothing had really been cleaned out since the accident—they had moved immediately into their grandmother’s house to avoid what they could avoid. Now, though, he was surprised how little it all affected him. Brad’s family—a mother and sister—had already come to claim whatever could be claimed from his four-year alliance with their mother. There were only a few shirts and a pair of running shoes left in the closet beside his mother’s wardrobe. He quickly and methodically put everything into boxes. He would give them to his grandmother to take to church, where the belongings of Susan Lundy would be distributed to the needy in the community. He smiled at that. His mother would appreciate the irony: she had vowed never to set foot in that church again. “What a hoot,” he said softly—a saying of hers.
As he fumbled through the “private” boxes in the top of the closet, he still wrestled with that old hope that he might discover some clue to his paternity lurking among the old letters and jars of dried rose petals his mother kept. But there was nothing. Even the attic released no secrets. So he swept and cleaned and scrubbed and packed and moved furniture until even the most unchangeable rooms held only a slight albeit rumpled familiarity. He wanted this to be a fresh start. He and Andrew had always failed as brothers; maybe they could be roommates.
For the most part, the arrangement worked. Andrew’s wrists healed. He started back to school—met twice a week with his counselor, who told Jack after one of the sessions that Andrew is showing great progress. He didn’t antagonize his social worker, though he still gave her a run for her money. His grandmother was skeptical of these improvements but was relieved that he had agreed to attend church with her. Actually, Jack had convinced Andrew that if he went with her, it would stop her from constantly lecturing him about his spiritual state, so they decided to make Sunday “Grandma’s Day”—church, dinner, the whole shebang. She was the only real family they had, and except for an occasional sermon, they agreed that she was kind of nice to have around.
Jack took a few classes at Lycoming College the following semester. He contemplated finding a job, but decided against it, wishing to devote all his extra time to Andrew. Though Andrew wasn’t exactly receptive to his attentions, he had definitely made moves from sullen to sad, and angry to melancholy—and best of all, they didn’t fight. They hadn’t argued or fought—or passed an intentionally unkind word—since that night in the hospital. Jack recognized the miraculous nature of this development, but refused to draw attention to it lest the miracle fade. Some nights when he and Andrew sat in their living room, munching popcorn and watching a bad horror movie, his heart ached with joy. At these moments, a thought—hot and ember-bright, flickering to the myriad voices in his most secret place—chanted: I’m glad it happened. I’m glad, I’m glad. I’m glad.
Madeline came that summer. To Jack’s astonishment, she had insisted on sustaining a long-distance relationship. She called him once a week at least. She sent him little care packages. A white bear with a red heart in its hand sat like a cupid-shot Buddha on his dresser. He opened her gifts as if they were tricks, waiting for the toy snakes to spring from each quiet box, expecting every letter to disclose that their relationship had been some elaborate prank. But the calls and the letters came faithfully during the next couple of months, until she showed up at the front door with two suitcases and a book bag full of music, announcing that she was over eighteen and she guessed she could spend the summer with her boyfriend if she wanted to.
“You can stay with me, dear,” his grandmother offered Madeline, more an order than a request. “I’ve got plenty of room—and you can see Jack as much as you want.”
“I want to see Jack all the time,” said Madeline, smiling sweetly. And that was that. Jack knew his grandmother assumed they were sleeping together, so it was more than a week before he told her that Madeline was staying in his mother’s old room. Serves her right, he thought.
Andrew liked her. She wasn’t overly careful with him, but turned the tables on him. She flirted unabashedly, and returned with interest every sarcastic remark he could throw at her. In a matter of days, they had developed a surprisingly familial relationship.
One morning, a few weeks after she’d been there, Jack went to her room to wake her for breakfast. As he climbed the stairs he hummed a song his mother used to sing—an obnoxious vocal reveille that used to make him cringe. He approached her room, quietly knocked and opened the door a crack. Madeline stirred, the sheets sliding from her body. He saw one of her bare breasts as she slowly rolled onto her side. Her beautiful back curved an amber V at him. He walked around to the other side of the bed where he knelt down so they were face to face. She moved her shoulder and the sheet slipped further down her arm.
“I know you’re awake,” he said.
She opened her eyes and smiled at him. The sheet slipped even further.
“Mrs. Robinson,” he said dramatically, “I believe you’re trying to seduce me.”
She screamed and threw the sheet over her head. “You make me crazy!” she said. Her head emerged from the sheet. “You’re such a prude for an atheist,” she said.
“Who said I was an atheist?”
“Well you’re just a prude then.” She got out of bed, letting him get a good view from all sides, then put on her robe. “I suppose you’re a teetotaler too?”
“You know I never touch the stuff.”
He hugged her from behind and kissed her neck. “You smell good,” he said.
“I brushed my teeth and everything.”
He kissed her mouth. “Uh huh.”
“Come on,” she said.
“Why won’t you?”
He backed away from her and searched her eyes as if for confirmation of something he had already decided. “Your breakfast is getting cold. Let’s practice those Italian arias this morning,” he said.
He gave her a long hug. “I still can’t believe you’re here.” And then he left. As he ran down the stairs with her fragrance still clinging to his face, the answer to her question whirled in his mind: because you’ll leave.
Andrew was already eating his breakfast. Jack spooned some scrambled eggs onto a plate and turned the bacon. “What time will you be home?” asked Jack.
“About two. I might go to the mall with Lucy after practice,” he said.
“Lucy!” Jack made a face. “What do you see in her?”
“Just about everything,” Andrew grinned.
“Neanderthal. Don’t’ forget your session at four.”
“Mom wouldn’t give a shit if you went,” said Jack. His words had come out of nowhere, petty and mean, and he tried unsuccessfully to laugh it off. He sipped his juice in guilty silence as Andrew’s gaze bore into him. He picked an apple from the fruit bowl. “I guess I never realized how much you hated her,” Andrew said.
“I don’t hate her,” Jack replied. I don’t.
Andrew got up and came back with a paring knife. He slowly and deliberately peeled the skin from the apple in one continuous swirl. “Maybe you should be the one in therapy,” he said. “I know the name of a good counselor.”
Madeline emerged from the other room and sat down between them. “Morning.”
“Are you guys sleeping together yet?” asked Andrew.
“I’m glad to see you haven’t lost any of your charm since yesterday,” said Madeline.
“Just asking,” he said, feigning innocence. “So, are you?”
“Ask your brother,” she said, glancing at Jack.
“Here’s your breakfast, Madeline,” said Jack, “nice and hot.”
Madeline took Jack’s hand. “Dear Jack, always changing the subject.” He smiled, enjoying the innuendo, feeling for once in his life like he was a grown-up, that he had some control over what would happen next.
“What do you think about going to Hershey Park this weekend?” he asked. “We could do Chocolate World, the amusement park, and stay somewhere overnight.”
“Can’t,” said Andrew. “Revival starts on Wednesday. We promised, remember?”
“I forgot,” said Jack. Several weeks ago, his grandmother had persuaded him to play the piano for the revival services at her church. He had agreed at the moment because everything had been going so well, and he didn’t want to spoil it by upsetting his grandmother. “Since when do you keep track of revival dates?”
“Maybe I’m getting into religion.”
Madeline pointed her fork at Andrew. “What’s a revival?”
“You know—a revival,” said Andrew, trying to hold back a laugh. “G-lory!” he shouted, waving his napkin.
Jack said, “They’re not charismatic, but they can get excited.”
“Hallelujah!” cried Andrew.
“Don’t make fun,” said Jack.
“Can’t help it,” said Andrew, “I’m getting blessed just thinking about it.”
“Are you serious?” asked Madeline.
“I promised Grandma,” Andrew said. “Besides, it’s good for a laugh—wait until they play Top that Testimony.”
“That’s when everyone takes turns telling how God helped them through all the misery of their lives.” Then Andrew jumped up on his chair with his spoon in his fist like a microphone. In a high-pitched, whining voice, he cried, “I was a miserable sinner.” He looked at Madeline, “Don’t just stand there, say ‘Amen!’”
“I smoked, I drank, I took the Lord’s name in vain—“
“I engaged in for-ni-ca-tion—yes!”
“I was prideful in my heart.”
“Then God took everything away.”
“We get the picture,” said Jack.
“Everything that was dear to me was taken away in a flash. Yes brothers and sisters, I was in such despair that I even tried to take my own life.”
“Oh, Andy,” said Madeline.
“But wait. Through it all—God was there. He was there when that truck lost control on the ice. He was there when that truck ripped their car in half. He was there when my therapist told me that I was not to blame. Hallelujah, the guilt is gone. Thank God for showing me the light—I’m free! I’m free!” He lifted his hand dramatically into the air in a defiant fist. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said sarcastically.
“Please,” said Jack, tugging at Andrew’s shirt, “sit down.”
Andrew sat down, fighting to smile. “It goes something like that,” he said to Madeline.
“Can’t wait,” she said. She eyed Jack, not knowing what to do. Jack shrugged his shoulders. “Hey—I could sing something,” she announced.
“You’re Catholic,” said Jack.
“You’re an atheist. I’ll convert!”
Andrew laughed. “Grandma would be so pleased.”
“They already have special music planned,” said Jack. “A couple from Flemington.”
“Well, I could offer.”
“All right—but you’d have to sing a hymn.”
“Something with a million verses,” said Andrew.
“We can find something after we practice this morning,” she said.
Andrew stood up. “Though this music talk has got me on the edge of my seat, I’ve got to get to practice.”
“Don’t I get a kiss?” said Madeline.
He actually blushed, but kissed her on the cheek before he left.
“Don’t forget—four o’clock,” called Jack.
“Okay, okay, Mr. Bossy.”
After he had gone, Jack cleared the plates and said to Madeline, “You need to watch what you say.”
“Having him kiss you. He may take you seriously.”
She laughed. “Andy doesn’t take anyone seriously,” she said. “That’s his greatest strength.”
Jack turned on her—“You’ve known him for two weeks. You have no idea what his strengths are.”
“It’s just an observation, Jack,” she said in almost a whisper. “Don’t get so upset.”
“You would never have said that if you had seen him in the hospital six months ago. Or after the accident.”
“Okay, okay—I’m sorry.”
Jack rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Madeline stood up and leaned against his back. “I’m sorry,” she said softly into his neck.
He didn’t know how to react to this version of an argument. With his mother, or Andrew, he had always forced his anger back down his throat through sheer willpower, because the cost of fighting was too great. They could outlast him; inevitably, he would be duped by his own need. He turned around and looked at her. He had a sudden urge to slap her face to see if she would still look at him that way. But he took her hands in his.
“No,” he said, “I’m the one who’s sorry.”
His grandmother was skeptical about Madeline singing at first, but when she saw that Madeline was sincere, she got out the hymnals to find an appropriate number.
“You have such a lovely voice, dear,” she said. “It would really add to the service.”
“You know she’s Catholic,” Jack said.
“So was I once, Jack,” said his grandmother. “She’ll come around.” She patted Madeline’s shoulder like she used to pat Jack’s when he’d threaten to quit playing the piano, as if it were simply a phase. “Those who look for answers will eventually find them,” she said. “Oh, here’s a good one.” She placed the hymnal on the piano, turned to “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.”
“This is a good range for you,” Jack told Madeline.
“Listen to the words,” his grandmother told her.
Madeline followed along as Jack played the piece one time through then sang the first verse. His grandmother sat in the rocker—not rocking, but sitting still—her eyes closed as Madeline’s voice shaped each phrase, each verse, rising slow and pure and lovely, to meet the high intervals of the final lines:
Thou has loved us, love us still.
When she finished, Jack put his hands on his lap. She was very good—anyone listening would believe that she was a born-again Christian to sing with such feeling. He was about to voice his praise, but when he looked at her, she was staring down at the floor, clutching the hymnbook to her chest, so he didn’t say anything.
“That was just beautiful,” his grandmother said, smiling. She gave Madeline a hug. “Just beautiful. Thank you.”
“Are you sure it will be all right?” Madeline said.
“It’s just fine.”
“I mean my being Catholic—a lapsed one, anyway.”
“God will use anyone who’s willing,” she said. Jack rolled his eyes. Then she winked at Madeline, “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
Madeline laughed and looked at Jack. He was already getting out the music they’d planned to practice. He was sure he wasn’t angry, but he couldn’t stop his teeth from clenching. He felt like his mother: spoiled and selfish, and spiteful when she didn’t get what she wanted. But he had no idea what he didn’t get.
“Would you two like a drink?” his grandmother asked.
“Just some water please,” said Madeline.
Jack began to play. He didn’t want anything.
That night, Jack had his first nightmare since the accident. He saw the whole thing again: He and Andrew were following them in the car from the school. Andrew was going on about the race, how he knew he was going to break the record for the butterfly today. Then a truck came out of nowhere, out of control on the ice. It rammed Brad’s car across the shoulder into a tree. Then Jack was standing beside what was left of the car. He watched the truck driver come around from the other side, vomiting when he saw it: Brad’s body slumped through the windshield. Andy stood beside him, his mouth in a perfect O as his screams came wave after wave. Jack looked down and saw, among the broken glass and car fragments, his mother’s pale arm, severed from the shoulder—her hand still gloved and clutching her purse.
He awoke sitting up, his ears ringing. A siren whined in the distance. His heart beat inside his temples as he lay back on his pillow.
The guest speaker for the revival services was Reverend Charles Moore, a tall, lean man with a soft but intense voice, from a Bible college in Allentown. His sermons were emotionally charged yet calmly delivered, a combination that gave his grandmother great satisfaction. “No use letting emotion run away with you,” she said. Andrew sat with his grandmother, while Jack and Madeline sat closer to the piano. After Madeline sang that first night, Reverend Moore asked that she sing the closing number for each service.
Reverend Moore spoke on a different attribute of God for each service during that week: His love, His sacrifice, His grace, His forgiveness, and His will. Jack was relieved that this man did not rant and rave, scaring people to God by threatening them with hellfire, yet there was a misgiving, a subtler kind of threat, in the reverend’s calm, more inviting presentation.
Each night, Jack watched Andrew at various points in the service. Usually he seemed to be daydreaming, or fiddling with something on his shoe, or pulling at his cuticles. But every once in a while, his face would be turned toward the pulpit in rapt attention. At these moments, Jack tried very hard to be affected by the minister’s words, but he could only find flaws in his arguments. Madeline listened too, as if she had never in her life heard anything like this. Jack felt something in the pit of his stomach: a fear-like nausea that made him grip either side of the pew.
During that week, Madeline and Jack practiced their music most mornings while Andrew swam. In the afternoons, they all got together and went somewhere—to the mall or the movies. Once they rented a canoe and paddled all the way to Watertown between the lush banks of Pine Creek. But in the evenings, they went to the revival services. They would meet on their grandmother’s porch, to her great delight, and they would drive together to church like a regular family. Jack felt as if there were something dishonest in this cohort effort, but whether anyone else shared his discomfort, he didn’t venture to guess. All he knew was that he seemed to be the only one who dreaded the services. Any attempt by Jack to belittle the revival received a wide-eyed stare from Madeline and an unwonted silence from Andrew. That scared Jack more than anything.
On Saturday afternoon, Andrew competed in the first swim meet of the summer—the first one he had gone to since the accident. Jack and Madeline sat in the bleachers waiting for Andrew’s event—the butterfly. Jack watched Madeline as she watched Andrew. “Wave to him—he’s looking for us,” she cried, waving frantically and shouting, “Go Andy!” Jack’s eyes eventually moved from her face to his brother, who smiled and waved to her then ascended the small diving platform at the far side of the pool.
It isn’t jealousy, he kept telling himself, but it was close enough to make him feel childish and hurt. When the starting whistle blew, and Madeline cheered, jumping and waving like a lunatic, he actually hoped that Andrew would lose.
There was a swimmer from Lock Haven who stayed close enough to Andrew to cause a threat whom Jack secretly rooted for. As the two swimmers turned for the final lap, Andrew’s opponent poured it on.
“Come on Andy!” cried Madeline. Then she suddenly turned to Jack with panic in her voice. “He’s not going to win,” she said. “He’s not going to win!” She was practically crying as she watched Andrew slip behind the other swimmer. Jack could cheer for Andrew now that he would lose, but his shouts sounded unconvincing, and he stopped before the race was over.
At the finish, Andrew tore off his goggles and looked hard at the water, as if he couldn’t believe what had happened. But after he had pushed himself out of the water onto the concrete, he shook the winner’s hand. Madeline muttered, “There is no justice in this world.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jack.
“Why couldn’t he win this one race?”
“Why should he?”
Madeline looked at him hard.
“He got second place after not competing for almost a year,” Jack finally said. “What’s not fair about that?”
She closed her eyes deliberately then opened them again, angry. “It would have been nice.”
He wasn’t looking at her now, but at the smooth, soft mountains behind her in the distance. Things always looked easy until you got real close to them.
“Nobody gets what they deserve,” he said.
Madeline looked down at the swimmers mingling with the spectators who were descending from the bleachers. “He’s waiting for us,” she said, and they both made their way down to him.
“You were great!” Madeline said.
He had wrapped a towel around his waist. “Thanks,” he said.
“It was really close,” said Jack. “I didn’t think he would catch you.”
“Neither did I,” said Andrew. There was an awkward silence.
“So—I finally get to see you in your cute little Speedos,” said Madeline. “Of course, now when I can get a good view, you suddenly get shy and wear a towel. There is no justice in this world.” She did not look at Jack.
“Come on, let me see,” she coaxed. He played along, shimmying a little as he slowly undid his towel and revealed his blue and white striped swimming suit.
“Very nice,” she said.
“Okay, okay,” said Andrew. He wrapped his towel around his waist again. Jack noticed the scars on Andrew’s wrists, blue and pronounced from the cold water.
“Let’s go home,” Jack said.
When they walked into their grandmother’s house, the smell hit them like happiness. A good old fashioned beef roast with all the fixings. They passed through the dining room set formally, with the china trimmed with bluebells, the good silverware, and candlesticks. Their grandmother was just taking a sheet of rolls out the oven. She looked up, beaming. “I hope you’re hungry!”
“Starving! What’s the occasion, Grandma?” asked Andrew, as he grabbed a roll, then juggled it between his hands.
She laughed and took the roll from him and placed it in a basket lined with a dish towel. “You’ve come back to us,” she said, patting his cheek as if he were a little boy. “A few months ago, I thought I had lost you—but you’ve come back.”
“It was just a swim meet,” Andrew said.
“But it’s something you love,” she said. “I’m so glad.”
“I didn’t even win,” he said.
“You’ll get him next time,” said Jack.
Andrew jerked his head at that. “That’s exactly what Brad used to say.”
They all took something to the table and took their places. Their grandmother gave the blessing, and they all dug in.
“Who’s Brad?” asked Madeline after a few minutes of appreciative sampling. “Your coach?”
“My stepfather,” said Andrew. Everyone tensed for a few seconds. Then Andrew smiled. “He was the only thing Mom touched that didn’t get screwed up.”
“Including us,” said Jack. He hadn’t meant that to come out, but it did; he tried to think of something to do to take it back, but he couldn’t.
“Let’s leave the past in the past, Jack,” said their grandmother.
“I can’t,” said Andrew. “I see him everywhere. I see him at the mall, I see him at the Y—I thought I saw him at the meet today.”
Jack watched Andrew through a fog. His grandmother said something about seeing Susan, too; then she was crying and Andrew gave her a hug. Madeline looked at them with a sickeningly sweet smile on her face, tears glistening in her eyes. Then all three of them looked at him as if beckoning him to join them in their tearful remembrances of Brad, his mother, and the wonderful times that they had—taunting him with visions of joy and contentment and edited memories that swirled like dreams around the hearth of their happy home—at once sweet, desirable, and shamefully false. He stood up, careening his chair backwards to the floor, then ran out of the dining room, out of the house, out into the street. He shut the door behind him in his own house, panting, and knelt down on the floor, waiting for his chest to stop jumping as if his heart were trying to leap free of his body.
His grandmother said nothing to him when they met and drove to church later that night, but he could feel her probing stare sift through his mind as he played the prelude music for the service. Madeline sat with his grandmother and Andrew. He felt betrayed somehow. Tonight’s sermon was on God’s forgiveness; Jack’s blood boiled.
While the Reverend Moore spoke, Jack concentrated on his words. He mouthed them in his mind, over and over until the sense was all but winnowed from them. But the words were hard. The minister walked along the edge of the platform, imploring, persuading the congregation with his words—peace, forgiveness, unconditional love, grace. Jack couldn’t believe them; he couldn’t believe that those words wouldn’t eventually fail him.
Reverend Moore invited Madeline to come and sing the closing hymn. Jack took his place at the piano. Her voice began quietly, reverently, then filled the sanctuary with its resonating depth. The speaker invited those who sought forgiveness to come to the altar. His intercessions were a soft, relentless accompaniment to Madeline’s song:
Hear my humble cry.
While on others Thou art calling
do not pass me by.
Several people moved forward. Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry. Jack glanced at the altar. Andrew knelt at the far right, sobbing; already, the minister was laying hands on his shoulders. While on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by. Madeline’s voice broke a little. Her eyes brimmed with tears; Jack couldn’t even look at her. He didn’t dare look back at his grandmother, either.
Heal my wounded, broken spirit, Save me by Thy grace. As Madeline finished, others from the congregation surrounded those praying at the altar. He watched his grandmother nearly run to Andrew’s side and envelop him in her arms. The sound of her prayer led the myriad voices in a crescendo of chanting. Jack quietly moved from the piano and walked out of the sanctuary. He looked at Madeline before he left—she sat in the front pew, dazed.
He couldn’t be here. He wanted solitude in the silence of the world, where he could not hear the voice of God but could see the hand of God in everything around him, so real and so utterly unattainable to him. The dark sky shielded him from stars except when the moon came out to illuminate his path for a moment. His twilit shadow moved gently before him, elongated and extreme, until the evening clouds slowly covered the light.
When he reached his house, he kept the lights off. He climbed the stairs, carelessly shedding his sport coat and tie. He was overcome with an unimaginable weariness. As he opened the door to his room, his bed seemed miles away, and it took all his will power to keep upright until he fell onto the mattress.
He awoke, sensing someone else in the room. He blinked and looked around in the dark. He felt as if he had been asleep for hours.
“Where is everyone?”
“At your grandmother’s.” Her voice was a whisper that wanted to shout. “So much has happened,” she said.
“I never would have believed it,” she said. “You can actually feel the change in him.”
“Do you?” She moved closer. “Your grandmother is so happy.” She rubbed her hand across his chest. “She’s worried about you.”
“Why?” He tried to keep his voice steady, though it quavered when he raised it above a whisper.
“We’re having a little celebration at the house.” She put her mouth next to his ear. “There’ll be peach cobbler.”
He kissed her. He took her head in his hands and kissed her again—deep and hard. He felt her body tense as he pressed her down onto the bed, but he straddled her and held her arms as he kissed her. She was struggling to get free of him, but he couldn’t let her go. He ached for her, but she shook her head loose of his kiss, and she cried for him to stop. The fear in her voice immobilized him. She wriggled out from beneath him as he loosened his grip on her wrists.
“What is the matter with you?” she said. Her voice shook with emotion. “How could you?”
He didn’t even try to stop her when she left the room. From his window, he watched her cross the street to his grandmother’s house. As she entered the bright house, he saw, as real as any vision: Madeline waving goodbye. Andrew in his old room at his grandmother’s house, his grandmother’s hands on Andrew’s shoulders. A “For Sale” sign poking out of the front lawn.
He turned away from the window and walked slowly through each room of the house, touching a chair, a bed—anything that might conjure up a memory that would keep him. But the house was cruelly silent, and Jack, hugging his arms to his chest, left the house and slowly walked across the darkened street to celebrate.
Paul Allison teaches literature and writing at Indiana Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts university in Marion, Indiana. He has had work accepted in various publications including Animal, Storyacious, and Penwood Review. His time is divided unevenly among his students, his four children, and his Boston terrier. Currently he is working on several writing projects at various stages of completion: a screenplay, a short story cycle, and a novel.