It happens in November. You are walking down Beacon Street when you feel a chill settle deep within you. It’s the kind of feeling you know won’t let go till the warmest spring day arrives with plans to linger. Or perhaps you are being followed. You tell yourself, “No, don’t be paranoid.” Still you look left, then right, scanning streets and scrutinizing intersections. Tentatively you relax, because sidewalks are dotted with the usual Brahmins and their designer dogs and BU students taking the shortcut to the Charles River Esplanade. All harmless, these people. You recognize the look on the faces of women just like you, eager to head home and fill a wineglass to thebrim, the night’s companion.
Despite your uneasiness, you tell yourself he is not lurking behind a column, a lamppost, an elegant tree. He is not inside a neighbor’s vestibule or hiding on the far side of that unfamiliar van with no identifying logo. You haven’t seen him in one hundred and eighty-two days. Let go. Move on.
You open and close the door to the brownstone. Quickly. When all three locks are firmly set in place, you lean against dark oak, taking in the rambling place left over from your marriage. It always felt too big for two, and now, six months into living alone, its echoes and shadows make being there harder than you thought it would be. It should be a relief, shouldn’t it? This place planted in the Back Bay nearly two hundred years ago, with its Italian influence, should suit you. It is stable, solid; it has stood the test of time. Unlike anything else you have known.
With your husband gone, you should finally be able to draw a deep breath. Yet your lungs won’t fill, and you wonder if perhaps your body senses traces of him clinging to the drapes, worked into the fabric of the sofa. His scent still hangs on the air. Sometimes, like now, you think you can smell him as if he were standing right there.
Flick, walk, flick, walk. You turn on lights as you go room to room; your high heels sound out a path to the only other entrance. The back door is locked. Double-bolted. See? Nothing but fatigue playing tricks with your mind. It’s the cold gothic spaces that have you down, that’s all. Or something to do with changing seasons. Oriel windows that like to hug the outside, beckoning in Boston’s humidity during summer, and today, as the leaves finish their fall, allowing winter wind to take its place right on schedule.
Within seconds of turning up the heat, the pipes whine and moan, as if they’re annoyed to be roused from their slumber. You can almost hear your lover, Nic, whisper softly, “Relax, cara mia—a hot bath is all you need. Everything is fine.”
Moving on to someone new was never what you had in mind. It isn’t your style to rebound. You wanted your marriage to work, to be wonderful like that of your dearest friend, who is married to your husband’s brother. Was it so foolish to expect that things would turn out the same for you? No one can say you didn’t try to make it work. When it didn’t, you swore off men—all of them suspect to you after Davis. None to be trusted. Until you met Niccolò Conti.
With the faucet all the way up, you watch the steam climb its way out of the clawfoot tub. As much as you care for Nic— and you truly do—sometimes you wish you could vanish as easily as the vapor does. It is all too complicated, your story, your life. As you trade your sweater dress for a plush robe, you think, Yes, the wine will help. It often does. Why not light the sweet honeysuckle candle? Erase the smell memory of one man while luxuriating in the recollections of being with another. Make the best of this night to yourself, for as hard as it is to be here, it is increasingly difficult to stay at Nic’s. As much as you take pleasure in his touch, he longs for things you are not yet able to give. May never again be able to give.
Hurry to pour the wine. Check the tub. With the glass down on the vanity, beside the candle casting a delicate glow on the noble floor and ceramic tile, you drop your robe and ease your weary body into the bath; your arms and legs create known rivers as you sink into calm.
You should not have closed your eyes.
You should have come home earlier, later, not at all. If only you had invited Marli to dinner, he would not be slamming your head against the porcelain tub. Promising to hurt you like you have hurt him. Why didn’t you stop at the Lenox for a drink? Go shopping for things you do not need. You could’ve stayed at Nic’s, and accepted his generous offer to move in. But you—you weren’t ready. You were trying to make things work on your own.
You think you will fight. Claw, bite, scratch, beat your way out of the inevitable. But he has always been strong in body. And the mere presence of you has been known to push him over the edge. He is frightening enough on the brink, the permanent place where he lives now. It doesn’t help to remember he wasn’t always this way.
You think you will feel something. Fury. Hatred. Fear. At the very least, the pain of it, your body splitting in two from the force of him. Instead, you watch a lonely maple leaf attach itself to the transom. At first it grips the glass, trying to hold on against nature. And then the wind and rain come. The sky is shedding tears for you. Still you feel absolutely nothing. The leaf lets go; it slides down the glass, urging you to do the same. Surrender, it says as it falls. You think, Yes, letting go is an option, a good idea. It’s the right thing to do. You slip under the water, slowly, an inch at a time. Staying quiet so he won’t notice what you are plotting. You needn’t worry. He has become preoccupied, intimate with his own cruelty.
You think you will struggle. That the lack of air is as much your enemy as he is. But you don’t need to breathe. Even that is unimportant now.
The last thing you remember before losing consciousness is being thankful you never had children with him.
crosscurrent—noun. A stretch of turbulent water in a river or the sea caused by one current flowing into or across another current; see riptide.
“Not every person who’s adopted wants to know where he came from,” Luke said, turning his backon his brother. Bending down, he took hold of the gunwale of an Old Town canoe, pulled it from the river’s edge, and in one swift motion hoisted it onto his thighs and up over his head.
“Listen, you don’t have to look for your birth parents if you don’t want to,” Jonah said. With a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, he heaved another canoe from the water, then followed Luke up the incline toward the rows of bunk storage racks they kept wedged into the pine grove.
When the last of the boats were pulled from the river and stowed, Jonah squeezed Luke’s shoulder and pointed to his hangout, telling him to take a seat, like he had countless times before. The salt-and-pepper rock he called “the office” jutted over their corner of the Penobscot. It was the place Jonah dragged his brother whenever he needed to tell him something out of their mother’s earshot. His brother’s next move was predictable. He reached behind the weathered stone, his hand disappearing into an underwater net he’d jerry-rigged to the rock three years ago when Luke was still in high school and Jonah was about to leave for college. From his secret cooler, he pulled a beer. He held the dripping can out to Luke and with his eyes asked if he wanted to join him for a cold one.
Luke shook his head. “We came from the same foster home. If you learn stuff, I’ll have to know it too. And what about Mom? Do you even care how she’ll feel when she finds out you’re doing this?”Luke knew she’d be hurt Jonah wanted to find his first mother. For years, she’d been evasive about the details of his adoption, every time he asked.
Behind them came the delicate snap snap of twigs, then silence. Like a reflex, Luke turned to be sure it wasn’t their mother checking up on them. It would be like her to catch them in the act of doing nothing. When she didn’t materialize, Luke tried to guess which little creature would emerge skirting the mudflats—short-tailed weasel or fisher cat? He waited. Nothing there.
The leftover light on the late August horizon, a mix of blue-gray and orange bands, told him it was after seven. In less than an hour, shadows would come from a half moon surrounded by bullets of stars. Nights like this Luke couldn’t understand why Jonah wasn’t happy living and working at their family inn. If only he could see Church’s Overlook—and all there was to lose—through his eyes, he’d be content. He’d know, no questions asked, that they belonged right there, sheltered by acres of pine forest that stretched along their waterfront. There was nowhere else Luke cared to be.
“Why can’t you make your documentary for school about something else? Like the history of Katahdin,” Luke said.
What he really wanted to know was why Jonah couldn’t leave this alone. It wasn’t fair for him to do this, to risk hurting their mother. And he had no right to push Luke into thinking about the past if he didn’t want to.
“There’s plenty to know about the mountain, its Indigenous people, and legends,” Luke said. “And you wouldn’t be causing anybody any pain in the process.”
“This isn’t about my senior project, and I’m not doing this to hurt Mom,” Jonah said. “I’m not really doing this to find them. I’m doing it to find me.” He held a fist to his mouth, but Luke heard him loud and clear. “In filmmaking, you have to care about your subject,” he said.
Jonah’s head snapped to the left at the same time Luke’s did, both of them sensing the danger before actually seeing it. A peregrine swooped out of a cluster of red spruce, down toward a loon riding the current, a chick on her back. As quickly as the falcon took the nose-dive toward its prey, mother and baby vanished under the sur- face. Forty-seven seconds went by—the hunting thwarted and the bird long gone—and fifty feet from where the pair went under, two heads popped up.
“How can you not think things like that are amazing?” Luke asked.
“She protected her kid—so what? That’s what she’s supposed to do. That’s what our real parents should’ve done.”
“Maybe they did.”
“How can you stand living with the idea that you have a family out there someplace?” Jonah asked. “You may not need to know, but I do. That’ll be enough for me.”
Squatting down, Luke cut the smooth glass surface with his hand, obliterating their reflections, the reminder that he and Jonah were brothers of circumstance, not blood.
Inside and out, they were nothing alike. At six one, Jonah had three inches and thirty pounds on him. By the time Luke got to high school, he knew size-wise he’d never catch up. So he decided at least he could be the stronger of the Blackwell boys. Luke volunteered to take tourists on nature hikes over rocky footpaths, adding in hilly terrain that would strengthen his legs and reward guests of the inn with picturesque views from the mountain in his backyard. Without being asked by their mother or their groundskeeper Coop, Luke spent Saturday mornings loading bulging suitcases into mini-vans and SUVs, hitching kayaks, bikes, and fishing gear to roof racks and truck beds.Then Jonah took the whitewater job. In a matter of weeks, guiding rafts through Rip Gorge, down the Exterminator and Staircase rapids, he was bragging to his friends, showing off how easily he could throw Luke over one shoulder.
What bothered Luke more than them laughing at his expense was that Jonah didn’t have to know much about the river to lead people down it. True, Luke envied his way of tapping into people’s adventurous spirits, putting them at ease in the water—and he did have a solid record of keeping everyone in the raft, which had to come from some natural instinct. But for as many times as his brother had traveled the West Branch, no matter how often he’d rested in an eddy or paddled flatwater, Jonah couldn’t name a single plant or bird.
Streaky blond hair and light eyes, Jonah was the fair-haired one, but only in the looks department. Even he’d have said he was the black sheep. At two years older than Luke, and a senior in college, Jonah had worried their mother in every way a kid can, and still he griped that Luke was her favorite. To him, their mother was like the hiker who chooses the easiest trail around a hill; the lion’s share of her affection naturally made its way toward Luke because he was her path of least resistance.
Or maybe because Jonah barely made an effort to stay out of trouble’s way, Luke worked extra hard to please her. “Christ, how long are you gonna think about it?” Jonah leaned over to nudge Luke’s arm. “I’m not asking you to kill someone. I just need you to get some information out of her for me. If I ask, she’ll know I’m up to something. She’ll never suspect you.”
Jonah took another swig of his beer. Even above the water slapping stone, Luke could hear the liquid travel down his throat in a series of anxious gulps. The wind picked up, rustling the brush behind him, and the loss of light was changing the temperature of the air.
So Jonah planned to do this without telling her? And Luke was just supposed to agree to help him? The idea of coaxing details out of their mother about the time before they came to Church’s Overlook didn’t sit right with him. Until his brother told him he was going to search for his birth parents, Luke had always liked the idea that Jonah’s adoption was tangled up in his. They called the story “The Adventures of the Blackwell Boys.” It all started with Lena Blackwell—a woman with no living family, no brothers or sisters, her parents and grandparents long passed—going to a foster home to meet the two-year-old child she’d chosen from a series of photographs offered to her in advance by the state of Maine, and there Jonah was, holding tight to Luke’s little baby hand. Two boys, not related yet inseparable.
Luke owed Jonah. If it weren’t for him all those years ago, insisting in his little kid way that they were a package deal, he might never have come to be part of this river in Maine.
“You gonna help me or not?” Jonah asked.
“Depends on what I’m supposed to do.”
“Find a way to get her out of the inn tomorrow so I can look for my adoption papers, health records, things like that. Most of the guests will be out on hikes. I’ll have plenty of time to scope out the office. Once I know what I’ve got, I’ll let you know what questions to ask her over dinner.”
“I hate when you do this. You had all summer to get what you needed. Why are you roping me into this right before you leave for school?”
“I tried. It’s like she has some kind of radar rigged to the office. Every time I try to get near it, she appears out of nowhere to ask me why I’m not doing some stupid chore. Look, I need you, Old Man Freshman,” he said, throwing an arm around Luke’s shoulders.
Jonah had been calling him Old Man Freshman since the day he’d first revisited the idea of applying to college. Three years after graduating high school, Luke was no more eager now than he’d been back then to trade in his naturalist routines for school ones. Lately, with Jonah about to graduate, he’d felt increasing pressure to get on with it. He applied to Bowdoin, never expecting to get in. With tuition for the first semester paid and housing chosen, everyone assumed Luke would follow Jonah there in two days. How could he tell everyone now that he wasn’t ready to do it?
“Tomorrow night she’ll be so bummed that you’re about to leave home, even Lena Blackwell will be nostalgic. We’ll pluck the heartstrings. I figure a couple glasses into the bottle of wine I’ve got chilling, she’ll answer at least some of the questions I have about my adoption. Even if I do the asking. By dessert, I should have enough to get started.”
“When was the last time you saw her have even one glass? Plus I don’t know how much there is to celebrate.” Luke muttered under his breath, “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going.”
Jonah slapped a palm to his forehead.
“I’ve thought it through. I’ll have plenty of time to do what needs to be done around here if I get up extra early and take afternoon classes at U Maine.”
“Are you kidding me? You would pass up a chance to go to one of the best schools in the country because of this place?” Jonah was on his feet now, beer in one hand, waving his cigarette in the direction of the main inn. Standing on the ledge, towering above Luke, he gestured wildly. “I don’t get you. This is when I know we’re not—”
Jonah didn’t have to finish. Luke knew what he was about to say. But he was wrong. They were brothers.
“She made you feel guilty for leaving, didn’t she?” he asked. “Coop’s here to help her. You don’t have to do this.”
“Mom had nothing to do with it. It’s what I want.”
Shaking his head, Jonah was about to throw what was left of the cigarette in the river when he caught his broth- er’s glare. Sighing, he dropped the butt into the beer can. It sizzled in backwash.
“Have you told her?” Jonah slid a fresh one from his pack of Kents and slipped it between his lips. The sharp angle of his jaw lit up on the second flick of his Bic.
Brittle branches snapped within a few feet from where they stood. This time there was no mistaking the sound for anything but a person. Their mother appeared from in between white pines, pulling her fleece jacket tight around her body.
* * *
She didn’t ask her boys to elaborate on what they’d been talking about. Lena had heard enough. For over twenty years, she had cultivated this life to keep them safe. Now her boys were about to unwind it. Oscillating between being afraid and feeling betrayed, she did what she did best. She kept the focus on the inn.
“There’s work to do. Scribner needs firewood. And there’s a squirrel trapped in the living room at Thoreau. Put those away,” she said, her eyes fixed on Jonah’s beer and lit cigarette.
“Relax,” Jonah said. “There aren’t any guests left on the property. Coop must’ve told you. He ran everybody down to River Drivers for dinner.”
When Jonah blew smoke in her direction, he was far enough away that it didn’t come off as completely disrespectful. But his message to his mother was clear. Don’t tell me what to do.
“I don’t care,” she said. “You know there’s no drinking or smoking by staff on the grounds. Period. You two will have plenty of time together when you’re at school.”
“I’m not staff,” Jonah said as he crushed the beer can with one hand.
Lena waited for him to add, “I’m your kid,” when what he wanted to say was, I’m not your kid. But he didn’t make either declaration. He never did—at least not out loud to her.
“Come on. Let’s do what Mom wants,” Luke said. “I’ll take Thoreau. Then I’ll come help you finish stacking wood at Scribner.”
Of course Luke would choose to deal with what was holed up in the cabin named for the area’s famous visitor, to coax the wildlife back outside where it would be out of harm’s way.
Moving away from Jonah, Luke looked overeager to climb the river bank to get back to work, and away from her. But the closer he got, the more he stared directly at her face, trying to gauge how much she had overheard.
Jonah came toward Lena too, adjusting his pace to keep up with his brother, their identical work boots alternating right, left, right. In the late afternoon light, all she could think about was that her lies were finally piling up in the present, setting the past to vibrate.
Lena fell in line with her boys, walking the forest floor among the ferns. Several yards from the main inn where divergent paths would lead Luke and Jonah to different cabins, different chores, Lena came to an abrupt standstill, using her hand on Luke’s arm to stop him mid-stride on the trail.
“Jonah, go on ahead. I need to talk to your brother.” He sighed and took off toward Scribner.Shielded by a giant maple, Luke didn’t move. As Lena waited until Jonah went out of sight, she ran through her options.
If she encouraged Luke to stay at Church’s Overlook, there’d be no telling what Jonah would do on his own back at college. If both boys went to Bowdoin as planned, she’d have more control over them, even from a distance. Except to get Luke to agree to thwart Jonah from unraveling their larger histories, she’d need to give him an inkling of the dangerousness of what his brother was about to do.
“I heard you two talking,” she said finally. “You know it’s a very bad idea.”
“What?” Luke asked, playing dumb.
A quiet, skillful worrier, Lena knew how to bend words to conform to the shape of the trouble. To fit her concern to the moment, tapping into a person’s anxieties or diffusing them, depending on her objective. For now she would let Luke think she hadn’t heard that he wanted to abandon going to Bowdoin in favor of staying at Church’s. She needed time to think.
“You can’t let Jonah do it,” she said. “The adoption is closed. Biological parents make that decision for complicated reasons. Trust me, what little I do know isn’t good.”
“You don’t have to tell me my story,” Luke said. “I don’t need to know it. But give Jonah something. Anything, so he’ll be satisfied.”
For years Lena had represented to the world and her sons that her primary job was to do whatever it took to run a successful river lodge, when what she’d really been doing was keeping Luke and Jonah from the pain of their past lives. Her deception always backlit by love.
“I know it might not feel like it, but he isn’t trying to upset you,” Luke said.
“Whether he intends to or not, people are going to get hurt,” she said. “I’m counting on you, Luke. We’re a family. He trusts you, and I know you can keep him from doing this. It’s reckless.”
A few feet ahead of them on the trail, something disturbed the brush. Lena glimpsed the furry back of the dark presence, a shadow moving among other woodland shadows. Neither she nor her son reacted to it. Unlike Jonah, they were comfortable here. In this way they were alike; they were home.
Copyright © 2022 by Lynne Reeves. All rights reserved.