When the first deer appeared, Peter was distracted—thinking about Brennan, who was seven years old and developmentally on track, according to his profile on the CHS website. A sweet, friendly boy, he loves Legos and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was a single accompanying photo of a shyly smiling boy with a blond buzz cut, one front tooth missing.
Though he was thinking about Brennan and driving too fast, Peter saw the deer in time. It stood on the shoulder, body facing the trees and head turned toward them, its eyes two coins of light in the high beams. Deer were a common presence here in northern Michigan—a nuisance, really—but it had been years since Peter had seen one, and he was impressed by the sheer size of the thing. It seemed strange to him, that such a creature could wander this long-settled terrain, answering to no man. He steered into the oncoming lane to give it a wide berth; only later would he remember that his father had once specifically instructed him not to do this. Instead, he was supposed to hold the course and drive straight into the deer, if necessary. Better that than a potentially more disastrous collision with an oncoming car—or so the old man had claimed.
Only when he’d safely passed the first deer did the second appear, mid-leap, in the center of the windshield. Before he could react it had thumped hard against the hood and tumbled off the opposite side. By the time he pulled over, both creatures had vanished into the darkness beyond the taillights.
After an instant of shocked silence, when it became apparent that they were both unharmed, Tony insisted on getting out. They stood beside each other now, in the red glow of the taillights, their shoulders hunched against the chill—it was twenty degrees colder here than it had been in D.C., and the sweaters they’d brought were still packed in the trunk.
“We should look for it,” Tony said. “Shouldn’t we?” Tony was an animal nut. He volunteered weekly to clean cages and walk dogs at the Mount Pleasant Animal Shelter, and had already wheedled Peter into “rescuing” two of them —a husky mix that required more exercise than any city-dwelling dog should, and a greasy-haired, yappy shih Tzu that wedged itself between them on the bed most nights.
“We won’t find it,” Peter said. When Tony began to protest, he added, “What would we do if we did? Help it into the backseat and drive it to the hospital? The deer will die, or it will heal and live. That’s the law of the wild.”
Tony turned now to squint at him. “What are you?” he said. “Possessed by the ghost of Hemingway all of a sudden?”
He’d been making jokes about Hemingway in the weeks leading up to their departure, ever since Peter had told him this part of Michigan was where the writer had summered as a young man. On his own childhood summers here, Peter confessed, he had developed something of a Hemingway fixation, convincing his parents to take him on a pilgrimage to the places the man was known to have frequented: the Horton Bay General Store, a refurbished bar-restaurant in Petoskey, even the shores of Walloon Lake, along which the writer’s family still owned private property.
“I can’t believe you had a crush on Hemingway,” Tony teased. “He’s like, the beary-est of bears. Not exactly your type.”
“It wasn’t a crush,” Peter said. “I liked his writing. I liked the outdoors.” There was more to it, of course. The summer he was twelve, his father had given him a book of the Nick Adams stories, and though he was more into science fiction in those days, he’d read it cover to cover, twice. It would occur to him only later that he had been scouring those stories for clues. If his father enjoyed the book, if his father admired the man who wrote it, it stood to reason that somewhere within the text might be a set of instructions on how to become the man his father wanted him to be.
Peter spent more time with his father on those summers at the lake than at any other time of year—or at any other time of his life, as things would turn out. The old man taught him how to cast a fly rod on the Au Sable, and they shot cans together in the side yard with the .22. Peter wasn’t wild about either activity, but he didn’t hate them, either. He had good aim—something that surprised and pleased both his father and himself, a rare occurrence. As for fly fishing, it seemed understood that a person wasn’t likely to catch anything upon first learning how to do it, which made Peter less afraid of failure, or the prospect of what he would be expected to do if he did catch something. He liked the slow, steady rhythm of casting, the necessity of quiet and concentration and awareness of the cycles of insect life.
Those were some of the happiest memories he would have with his father—standing in borrowed waders twenty feet downstream in the orange light of evening, a silent blizzard of hatching hex flies overhead. He had sensed his father’s general satisfaction in those moments, and enjoyed the gruff attention he bestowed, showing him how to tie a caddis fly or explaining in the Petoskey Historical Society’s museum, before an enlarged photo of Hemingway and his first wife arriving in Charlevoix, about the writer’s future adventures in Paris, Cuba and beyond. Peter had thrilled at the prospect of a life so varied, so exciting, so far removed from the one he knew.
After bickering about the deer for a few minutes more, Tony relented—as exhausted as Peter was, and apparently coming to see the ridiculousness of his position. Soon they were driving on in silence. Though still tired, Peter was jittery now, half-expecting some new creature to come flinging itself out of the woods around every turn. In spite of this alertness, he nearly missed the turnoff for Stony Point, spotting the bullet-ridden sign reading Seasonal Road—No Snowplowingat the last moment. He turned onto an even darker and narrower unpaved road, and they tunneled under overhanging trees, passing driveways marked with signs—Hamilton’s Haven, est. 1985; Lake Livin’; The Marchettis. At the second-to-last was the marker he recognized from childhood: a piece of wood nailed to a birch tree, Larsen spelled out in simple reflective letters. He turned, and then the trees opened and the house rose into view—imposing, unadorned, a boxy two-story covered in white shingles. As he rolled to a stop, the headlights revealed a possum that scurried the length of the foundation, then disappeared under the porch.
“Jesus,” Tony said. “Welcome to Wild Kingdom.”
“Dorothy, we’re not in DuPont anymore.” Peter shut the car off and they sat a moment listening to the engine tick, looking up at the dark house. “This is the back side,” he said, as if to excuse its forbidding appearance—though he had no reason to make excuses. He had no responsibility at all for the place anymore, and hadn’t been here in fifteen years. “The front side faces the lake,” he said.
The key was where Margot said it would be—where it had always been, hung on a nail under the deck railing. Peter had to feel around for it while Tony stood, shivering, skinny arms crossed over his chest. He retrieved it along with a trail of spider webs, and they entered through the laundry room, crossed the small, carpeted kitchen in the dark, and entered the living room. When he switched on the light, Peter’s breath caught in his throat: everything was exactly as he remembered, in the place it had always been. The stuffed mallard mounted over the picture window, its wings spread in takeoff or landing (he had never been able to decide which), the faded map of Grand Traverse Bay over the dining room table. Walls of the same blonde wood paneling, the same sliding doors leading to the same porch that stretched the length of the house on the lake-facing side. Even the stack of magazines beside the fireplace appeared to be unaltered. Along the opposite wall was a stone fireplace and the entrance to the den, where the built-in bookshelves were surely lined with the same volumes he had spent hours perusing on rainy afternoons: a 1965 encyclopedia, Reader’s Digest condensed books, Agatha Christie paperbacks. Beside the fireplace was a rocking chair that had been his grandmother’s. He had hardly known her, but held a single memory of her sitting there with a cigarette, gazing at the water. The room was a motley assortment of plaid couches and crocheted Afghans, Persian rugs overlapping across the slate floor. End tables and sideboards were littered with ashtrays and vases, and on the étagère an array of pewter platters and glass nick knacks were gathering dust.
Fifteen years. Peter hadn’t expected major changes— Margot hadn’t the time or the finances for that, yet—but he hadn’t anticipated this, either; the sense that he had traveled through time to arrive at the very cottage of his youth. He had imagined seeing everything from a new, adult perspective—mildly nostalgic, mostly detached. Perhaps disdainful. Not this welling of emotion, the result of what could only be sensory overload. The room even smelled the same—faintly mildewed, tinged with smoke from past fires. At any moment, it seemed, his father might come clumping down the stairs at the far end of the room.
“Look,” Tony said, lifting a National Geographic from the magazine rack. “August, 1985.” He picked up a flyswatter and waved it at a row of porcelain skunks arranged on a windowsill. “It’s like the set of a Wes Anderson film.”
Upstairs, they chose his old favorite room—the one he had taken every summer, the far corner on the lake-facing side. He would let Margot have the master when she arrived with the kids tomorrow. Not that he would “let” Margot do anything—the house was hers now, to do with what she would.
The heat was still shut off for summer, and the house was freezing. After switching on the thermostat, they layered sweatshirts over pajamas and burrowed under the electric blanket—Peter’s concerns about fire safety overruled by the welcome sensation of instant warmth. He was deliriously tired, but whenever he began to drift off, saw the deer again—the sudden flash in the windshield, that slam of impact. He kept jolting awake.
“What?” Tony murmured, his voice already thick with sleep. “What’s wrong?” He rolled over, laid his arm lightly across Peter’s chest.
“Nothing,” Peter sighed. “Just jumpy. I keep seeing that deer.”
“We’re okay,” Tony sighed. “These things happen.”
But Peter had the sense—it was silly; he couldn’t explain it. That first deer, stoic in the headlights. As if it had been waiting for him, an admonition of some kind. If his father’s spirit were to be found anywhere, it would be here—the place he had seemed happiest, or as happy as he was capable of seeming. Peter lay awake in the darkness for a long time, listening to the cowbell wind chime in the drive outside—the same sad, two-note melody from his boyhood, a tune in a minor key.
The next morning they made coffee in the Kuerig—a nice addition to the kitchen, surely Margot’s doing. Here, again, almost every object provoked a memory—the cast iron skillets Mom had made pancakes in, the yellow plastic glasses from which he used to sip lemonade. The pinewood cabinets and orange Formica counters were a far cry from the kitchen he had now, all white and modern and immaculately clean, of late. He and Tony had only recently passed their final inspection, after months of paperwork and bureaucratic red tape. Now fire extinguishers were installed on all three floors of their row house, and the kitchen cabinets fitted with keyed locks, per the agency’s instructions. Upstairs, in what had until recently been Tony’s home office, were now bunk beds, a child-sized table and chair (for homework, or art projects), and a baby’s crib. Beds and a crib, both, as Peter and Tony had marked that they were open to children of all ages, having been told they stood more of a chance this way.
Since their approval, searching the kids’ profiles on the Home Society’s website had taken on a new urgency. Jamal is twelve years old, quiet and easy-going. Shaylee is a fun-loving and creative child. Now certified, he and Tony could access full case files, which inevitably painted a bleaker picture: instances of extreme aggression. Suspected sexual abuse. They had been told to expect these sad stories, had told themselves they were ready for whatever challenges lay ahead. The whole thing had been Tony’s idea, to begin with—Peter had gone along, energized by how happy the prospect made Tony, encouraged by Tony’s repeated insistence that they were two honest, loving people who had a beautiful life together, and more money than they needed (Peter could argue with this point—but then, he was the lawyer, the practical one, whom Tony liked to call “unreasonably reasonable.”) They could give a child a good life. At that time, the prospect of fostering or adopting had been an abstract possibility—as easy to imagine as their occasional talk of buying investment properties, or taking a cruise through Norwegian fjords.
They went now to drink their coffee on the deck, where another new addition, several bright-colored plastic Adirondack chairs, were arranged facing the water. A wheelchair ramp had been added, as well—built for his father’s last days, no doubt. Margot had come to the cottage a couple of months after the funeral to scatter his ashes in the lake, but Peter had declined to participate.
This will be cleansing, she had written in her email of a few months ago, inviting him back to the lake for the big purge. Like a smoke smudge. Later she had admitted, I just really need your help.Her husband Calvin was traveling so much, and anyway she couldn’t start going through the stuff without Peter, it wasn’t right. Together, she’d said, we shall exorcise the demons. He hadn’t been able to tell if she was joking or not.
The sky was a brilliant blue, the water glassy as it typically was on clear mornings. No motorboats or wave runners yet, not even a standup paddleboard to be seen gliding across the silvery expanse. The only sounds were the lapping of water against the dock, the occasional sigh of wind through the highest pines. No bird calls, just the rap-rap of a woodpecker somewhere deep in the woods. It was late in the season now—past Labor Day, the kids back in school—which accounted in part for the quiet. Most of the surrounding houses were unoccupied. Peter and Tony walked across the mossy lawn, past stumps of felled birch trees, along the stand of cedar and hemlock that bordered the Fletchers’ land. The neighbors’ house was only glimpse-able through gaps in the trees, but Margot said it was more ostentatious than ever, with a new two-story addition. Two jet skis and a mahogany Chris Craft powerboat were moored out front.
Peter and Tony arrived at the dock, which he was surprised to find intact, if rotted. The boards were slick and bowed beneath their weight. Here, he said to Tony, is where we kept the pontoon boat—it must be sold, or in storage now. There—he pointed to an indentation in the shoreline, walled off by a submerged pile of stones—is the clay pool, where we played when we were small. There was the tree stump, hewn by a beaver—the same tooth marks he’d studied as a childhood naturalist. Somewhere, perhaps in one of the closets or drawers they had come to excavate, might be a spiral-bound notebook containing his early observations of the natural world.
Tony found a crayfish claw on the dock railing, left by some nocturnal predator—a mink, probably. They used to see mink sometimes, Peter said, hunting along the waterline in the evenings. He recalled his father trying and failing, every year, to nab one with the .22.
“It’s nice here, Pete,” Tony said. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “Peaceful.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” Peter replied. “Once those kids are here, it’s all over.”
Tony glanced up sharply, then seemed to realize Peter was referring to Margot’s children, Sadie and Bob. Sadie was two and easy-going; Bob, aged four, was what his mother called spirited. Spirited, Tony had quipped after a recent visit: I think she means ‘possessed.’ He was only joking; Tony loved children, and had a natural way with them that Peter did not. Within minutes of meeting him, they were giggling at the silly questions he asked or the funny faces he made, soon tugging at his sleeves to show him something they’d found, hurling themselves at him for piggyback rides. As had been the case most of his life, Peter usually found himself stiff and awkward on the sidelines.
He assumed this was how it would be when they had children of their own: Tony would be the nurturer, the one they would run to with skinned knees or hurt feelings. Peter was more the stoic provider type. Tony had grown up in a large Portuguese family in Massachusetts, and still spoke to his parents almost every day. When he’d come out to them at age twenty—finally summoning the courage to call, late one night, from his dorm room in Connecticut—they told him that they knew already, that they had known for a long time, and that they loved him, of course, no matter what; now could they all go back to bed, and talk about it in the morning?
Peter had never come out to his own parents. He had never had the chance. By the time he dug up the confidence to do so, Mom was already collapsing in on herself as her MS progressed, and his father had made his suspicions and disapproval clear enough, long before any discussion was needed.
Walking back to the house, Peter again noticed the wheelchair ramp—the unpainted planks stood out against the peeling white shingles—and thought of the hospital room, the blips and beeps of those electronic monitors, the rhythmic mechanical sucking of the respirator. His father’s eyes had been closed, little more than slits in his face, which was so bloated and slack by then as to be nearly unrecognizable, his usual stiff-jawed, scowling expression wiped away. Perhaps for this reason Peter had been compelled to speak, though he’d told himself he wouldn’t, as the old man was already mostly gone. There were so many things to say—Look what I’ve become, I’m a good man, you were wrong about me, do you realize you were wrong about me?—that he didn’t know where to begin, so he sat a while first, listening to the machines, feeling acutely aware of people passing in the hall outside—their muffled voices and squeaking shoes—and at the same time embarrassed of this awareness. These final moments should have felt different, he thought, but he felt the same fumbling inadequacy as always—even there, even at the end, in that chair beside the hospital bed, speaking to his father’s impassive face and after a while falling silent. The man died later that night without ever regaining consciousness.
Peter was staring at the lake when Tony called from the kitchen. “Hon, I know you said wait for Margot but I can’t help it, I’m throwing this out, it’s two years expired.” Peter turned to see him holding up a jar of mayonnaise and an empty garbage bag.
“Fine,” Peter said. “Just stick to the kitchen. I’m sure she won’t mind.” He had grown accustomed to Tony’s cleaning binges over the last few months, and was fine with whatever it took to calm his nerves these days. Their approval notice had come so abruptly, and after so much waiting—after how many forms and interviews and mandatory workshops. They understood the need for such precautions, of course, but the process was still exhausting.
While Tony cleaned, Peter wandered inside and upstairs again. The second floor consisted of a long carpeted hallway with bedrooms on either side. On the left were the darker rooms that faced the shady rear of the house, to the right the front-facing rooms with eastern exposure, which looked out to the lawn and the lake. The first on the right was the smallest and darkest—two twin beds, his grandmother’s quilts folded at the foot of each, on the small end table between them a ceramic lamp in the shape of a frog. The second room contained a double bed covered in dusty ruffled pillows, and framed Norman Rockwell prints on the walls. A needlepoint on one wall depicted a bride and groom, with his grandparents’ names and the date of their wedding: April 21, 1929. Along the hallway walls were paintings his grandfather had done, which Peter had loved as a child—a horse in a green meadow, three ducks taking wing. When he was thirteen and commented on his already-long-deceased grandfather’s talent, his father had laughed, said with a snort, “Those were done with a paint-by-numbers kit, buddy. Your Grandpa couldn’t draw to save his life.”
Margot arrived in late afternoon, after a four-hour drive with the kids from Ann Arbor. As soon as Bob and Sadie were released from the car, they were barreling toward the water.
“How are you?” Margot squealed, stopping to catch Peter and Tony in a simultaneous embrace before hurrying after the children. “You both look great. Bobby, wait for Mama!” Sweeping Sadie onto her hip, she called over her shoulder to Peter, “Sorry about your flight. Bob, come say hi to Uncle Pete and Uncle Tony! Keep your shoes on, please! Shoes on in the yard!”
Though he had arrived only moments before, Bob was somehow already occupied with throwing twigs into the clay pool. At her command, he turned to grin at them. He seemed always to be in motion, this boy, always into some mischief, giggling as if someone were whispering jokes into his ear—except for when he wasn’t, and then he was usually crying. Sensitive didn’t begin to describe Bob’s temperament, which to Peter seemed disturbingly volatile, though he would never say so to Margot. He watched the child zooming across the lawn now, arms stretched wide like an airplane, and was relieved that he and Tony had agreed a school-aged child, rather than a baby or toddler, would make the most sense for them right now.
The rest of the afternoon was occupied with entertaining the kids—filling the baby pool Margot brought, helping them launch lawn rockets, eventually herding them inside for dinner, which was a process in itself. The sky was pale with evening when Margot finally came out to the deck after putting them to bed.
“So,” she said, sinking onto a chair. She took a long slug from her wine glass. “If you’re having second thoughts about this whole parenthood thing, I don’t blame you.”
Tony smiled. “Cheers.” Their glasses clinked.
“Man, I’d love a cigarette,” Margot said. “You’re not smoking anymore, are you?”
“Nope. I’m afraid we’re squeaky clean these days,” Tony replied. In a fit of anxiety before the last home inspection he had also disposed of half the liquor in the cabinet, worried it might give the social worker the wrong impression.
“Are you smoking again, Margot?” Peter asked, hearing the disapproval in his voice.
“Oh, not really,” she said. “Just in the mood to unwind. A guilty pleasure once in a while. You know?” Her hair was as long as Peter had ever seen it—limp brown tendrils reaching halfway down her back. Along with her tight-fitting skinny jeans, the long hair struck him as an unsuccessful attempt to appear younger and more stylish than she was—an effort undermined by the dark bags under her eyes, the chunky, knee-length wool sweater she wore, tied at the waist. The overall impression she gave was more bedraggled than Bohemian.
“I might as well tell you now,” she said, looking into her glass. “I think Cal is having an affair with one of his grad students.”
“What!” Tony cried, at the same time Peter said, “Jesus.”
“Are you serious, Margie?” he asked. Cal was a Professor in Linguistics at the University of Michigan, affable and handsome in a rugged, outdoorsy way. He wore scuffed leather boots, and kept his sandy-gray hair shaggy and long. Seemingly without effort, he was more successful than Margie at appearing younger than he was. Peter could easily see why students might fall for him, but couldn’t imagine Calvin following through. He seemed too gentle, too scatter-brained, to pull off such an act of betrayal.
“I don’t know.” She sighed. “I might be delirious. It might be the exhaustion talking. I’m not feeling my best or my most attractive these days.” Peter felt a pang of remorse, as if she’d read his thoughts. “I’m snappy all the time,” she went on, “and I hear myself sounding like the nagging, shrewish wife, and it’s the last thing I want to be, but I can’t help it. I’m just so freaking tired.”
Tony leaned forward, put a hand on her knee. “I’m sorry, Margot. You’ve got a lot of stress right now. You need a vacation.”
“I need a valium.”
They sat looking out at the water as a lone pontoon boat, overloaded with revelers, churned past blasting “Sweet Caroline” from its deck speakers.
“Wow,” Tony said when the music faded. “They’re really blazing up out there, I can smell it from here.”
Margot replied, “No, that’s Greg Fletcher. He’s a huge pothead. I can smell it most nights, wafting through the trees.” She chuckled. “Maybe I should go ask him to hook us up.”
“Greg Fletcher’s here?” Peter said.
“Mm-hm. Lives here full time now. He has a landscaping thing, mostly mooches off his family. He’s, like, thrice divorced. He comes over to cut the lawn.” She craned in her chair as if looking for Greg, though only the Fletchers’ porch lights were visible winking through the trees.
“What, did you know each other as kids?” Tony asked.
“Yeah,” Margot said, at the same time Peter said, “He was an asshole,” the vehemence of his reaction startling both Margot and himself.
“He’s harmless,” Margot said. “Kind of a broken person, I think.”
Broken, maybe, Peter thought. Harmless: like hell he is. But to change the subject he said, “Margie, I don’t think Cal would cheat. He loves you, he loves the kids. He’s a decent man.” He stopped abruptly at the word decent—a word his father might have used.
“I know he is,” Margot said. “You’re right. It’s just—it’s such a goddamn cliché, you know? That’s the worst thing. We swore we wouldn’t be people who rearranged their lives around their children, and then complained about doing so. Yet here I am driving a minivan, buying bulk at Costco, organizing play dates. Christ.” She drained her glass, then turned to face them. “Sorry. Let’s talk about you guys. What’s the latest?”
“Well,” Tony said after a pause, glancing at Peter. “We’ve been approved.”
Margot let out a whoop. “That’s fantastic! What’s next?”
Peter was surprised at the composure with which Tony explained the situation to Margot. He hadn’t displayed the same calm in private, but instead had wept: first with joy, when he received notice of their certification, and later in sorrow, thinking of the suffering some of these children had experienced, the impossibility of helping them all.
“Thanks for having us, Margot,” Tony was saying now. “You’ve got a great spot.”
“We,” she corrected. “We have a great spot. This is our house.”
Peter balked at this. “It’s not, though, Margot.”
“Did you read the will?”
“I don’t give a fuck about some fucking will. You know it’s ours, Pete. You and your family—as it grows! Anyway, I put your name on the deed, so there’s no debating it.”
“You didn’t need to do that,” Peter said. It had taken him an embarrassingly long time to get over being left out of the inheritance—not that he wanted or needed money, and he wasn’t particularly attached to any heirlooms. He hadn’t even expected his father to include him—by the end, they hadn’t spoken in ten years. Still, he’d been hurt by the omission, which felt like one last rebuke, the old man reinforcing his rejection from beyond the grave. He had also been angry, unfairly, at Margot for her position of favor. With time and therapy he’d gotten over it, but the prospect of being tied to the house now in any way felt almost dangerous.
“It’s not like we’re going to get up here often,” he said.
Tony glanced at him. He had talked recently, in a dreamy way, about bringing future children to Michigan in the summer to escape the swelter of the city. He envisioned campfires, canoe trips. All your Hemingway crap.
“Well,” Margot said. “I hope you’ll come whenever you like.”
Before Peter could reply, Tony pointed at the woods. “Something’s there,” he whispered. “Do you hear that?” And a man emerged from the trees, wearing a baseball cap, white tee shirt and jeans.
“Hey Greg,” Margot called cheerfully. “You startled us.”
“Howdy, neighbor.” Greg ambled towards them across the lawn. Christ, he had aged badly; “broken person” was a more apt description than Peter had realized.
“Look who’s here,” Margot said. When Greg saw Peter he stopped and put a hand to his chest in a pantomime of shock, staggering forward a few steps with wide eyes. “Pete!” he cried, breaking into a grin. “How’s it going, man?” When he stepped into the light Peter saw how bloodshot Greg’s eyes were, his pudgy face unshaven, the stubble creeping down his neck. He looked like the sort of sad sack that they both would have made fun of as teenagers.
“Long time,” Peter said, shaking Greg’s hand.
“This is Tony,” Margot said. Peter wondered briefly if her neglecting to clarify their relationship was intentional.
“How long’s it been, man?” Greg asked after shaking Tony’s hand. “Margie tells me you’re a big-time lawyer now.”
Peter shrugged. “Margot tells me you’re up here full time?”
“Yup,” Greg said. “About nine years now? My Mom retired up here, and I came to help care for her as she was getting on, then just stayed after she passed. This place gets a weird hold on you, don’t it?” He turned and glanced at the lake, as if the answer to his question could be found there.
When Peter didn’t reply, Margot said, “Yes, it really does.”
“Sorry to hear about your Dad’s passing.”
Peter gave another shrug, which might have meant these things happen, or perhaps I don’t care if you’re sorry. After another pause, during which Peter could sense Tony holding back—it took great effort for him to keep from attempting to ease awkward situations—Greg cleared his throat and said, “Well, Margie, I was just coming to see if you’re up, let you know I can cut the grass this weekend if that works.”
“Sounds great,” Margot said. Peter wondered for a moment if he should interrupt, say that he would mow the lawn himself. It had been one of his chores, in another life. But he didn’t feel like it, for one thing—and he certainly didn’t want to raise the memory of those summers he and Greg had worked together for Bowman’s Lawn Care Co. Let Greg do it—the same job he’d had when they were both eighteen and starting out in the world. Peter would sit on the porch with a cocktail, watch him ride the mower around the lawn.
Greg ambled off toward the woods again, saying over his shoulder, “Welcome back, man.”
Margot waited until he was out of earshot. “Jeez, Pete, don’t act too happy to see him.”
“I’m not happy to see him,” Peter said.
“He seems nice enough,” Tony said—his way of gently prodding for more information.
“He is,” Margot said. “I think he’s been through a lot. He’s a sweet guy. You used to be friendly with him, Pete, weren’t you? I remember going out in the Sunfish together, covering ourselves with clay, jumping off the dock.”
“That was a hundred years ago,” Pete said, trying to sound bored, hoping Margot would drop it.
The following afternoon, while both kids napped upstairs, they began the process of “going through the remains,” as Margot called it. Peter started in the den, and soon found himself cross-legged on the floor absorbed in photo albums, peeling stuck-together pages open one after another. So many black and white snapshots of people he didn’t know—second cousins, perhaps, or friends of his grandparents, smiling at barbeques and cocktail parties in their horn-rimmed glasses. After that, he pored through the loose papers in a rust-flecked file cabinet—old home repair receipts, unused notebooks—and hoisted dust-cloaked golf bags and glassless picture frames from piles in the closet.
Aside from a few bright spots—a picture of his grandmother from the 30’s, glamorous in a strapless gown with a fur stole and cigarette holder, and a hand-drawn birthday card From: Margot To: Daddy, dated 1983—after a couple of hours, rather than any sense of accomplishment or release, he felt only increasing frustration. There was no hidden treasure to be found here, of either the monetary or sentimental kind. It was all mostly mundane shit—the detritus of a lifetime. Stuff someone should have chucked into a dumpster long ago, rather than leave it behind for them to deal with.
He and Margot and Tony were in the kitchen together later, sorting mismatched Tupperware and tarnished serving trays and pots and pans into piles, when Bobby came shuffling in. “What are you doing?”
“Hey there, kiddo.” Tony waved Bob over to his spot on the floor.
The boy stood rubbing his eye with a fist. “What is this stuff?”
“You see this?” Tony said, extending an arm toward the debris around him in a grand, sweeping gesture, like a model on a game show presenting the grand prize. “All this? Listen up, buddy—you play your cards right, and someday all this could be yours.”
Later, when Tony and Margot took the kids into town for ice cream, Peter stayed behind, seizing the opportunity for a brief bit of solitude. He walked to the dock and stood a while with his hands on the railing, looking down at the water. It was clear to the bottom, so still he could follow a lone leech undulating through it like a black ribbon. Surprisingly nice to swim in, Tony had noted that morning—so different from the other lakes he’d known, all murk-brown and slimy-bottomed, full of invisible lurking creatures. Tony was partial to the ocean, of course; he had grown up on the Atlantic, and was descended from a long line of Portuguese fisherman—but Torch Lake was something altogether different than what he’d expected, cold and clear and pure. Named for the Native Americans who’d fished these waters at night by torchlight, Peter told him. So deep—350 feet, formed by a glacier—and with a clay bottom, it sustained little life.
He looked up to see Greg Fletcher—of course—out on his own dock, fifty yards down the lake, smoking a cigarette. Before he could look away Greg raised a hand in greeting, and Peter reluctantly reciprocated. Margot was right—he and Greg had been childhood friends, if only due to the proximity of their family’s homes. All the way through high school they spent summers together, the five of them—Greg and Peter and Margot, and Greg’s two younger sisters, Hannah and Stephanie. Swimming out to the raft, boating to town for ice cream. Building forts in the woods. For a long time he had considered Greg a somewhat dim but kind-hearted companion, an affable-enough guy with whom he might argue about the scoring of rainy day scrabble, or who got to captain the pontoon boat, but who, as Margot had said, was basically harmless.
That night, Bobby fought sleep, whining and shrieking, until at last Margot got it out of him: he was afraid of the skunk Tony had spotted in the yard the night before. He had mistaken their joke-panic at sight of the creature for genuine fear; he didn’t understand that such animals were relatively harmless. She tried to explain to him, but even after she’d called Peter and Tony upstairs to confirm her claim that Skunks Are Nothing to Be Scared Of, the boy continued to wail, clinging to her, refusing to let her turn off the light.
Shh, she said, rocking Bob in her arms, shh, trying to calm him, but it seemed the harder she worked, the more agitated he became, screaming and writhing like an animal in her arms. Down the hall, Sadie woke at the sound of the commotion and began to cry, too. When Tony went to console her Peter was left standing there, unsure how to help. He was stricken at one point to see Margot’s eyes brim with tears, and felt a surge of anger at his brother-in-law, who was off who-knew-where, leaving Margot to grapple with all this on her own: the kids, the house, her loneliness. She blinked the tears away, whispering You’re okay, you’re okay. Bob’s face was purple with anguish—such violent emotion from such an innocent. Peter thought of Brennan again, all those smiling kids on the CHS website who had experienced sorrow so young, and felt a wave of helplessness. It’s okay, Margot repeated to Bob, to Peter, to herself. It’s okay. How fierce was her love, so desperate it was almost heartbreaking.
At last Bob was appeased somewhat. When Tony returned he made up a story about a skunk named Skippy whom everybody teased because he smelled bad, but then one day he saved the town from a flood and they all cried, “Hooray.” This seemed to placate the child a little. Eventually he passed out, cheeks still streaked with tears and snot.
“He’s in an anxious phase,” Margot said when she collapsed on the couch beside Peter a short while later. The sun had gone down and he had turned on the TV. Tony was out on the porch checking emails.
“The world must be scary for a kid his age,” Peter said, flipping through the channels.
“Yeah,” Margot said. “He’s becoming more aware of things, you know? And with that comes this awareness of all that he doesn’t understand. It’s pretty intense, when you think about it. He’s afraid of all sorts of stuff he wasn’t afraid of before—big dogs, the dark…Even me leaving him alone.”
“The world is a scary place,” Peter corrected himself. He wasn’t really listening to her. He thought, but didn’t say, The world breaks everyone. You had to give it to Hemingway: he told it like it was.
On TV, as if to illustrate his point the news anchor was reporting on the latest school shooting—one dead and several injured at a New Mexico junior high. If you looked at it a certain way, Peter thought—albeit a horribly bleak way—childhood was the experience of having a string of precious things destroyed: your innocence, your illusions. Of course, all children deserved to be protected for as long as possible—but in the end, you wouldn’t be able to shield them from pain or suffering, no matter how hard you tried. This idea struck him as profound, but he figured it wouldn’t be a comfort to Margot, so he kept it to himself.
She had lapsed into silence, watching one of the students on TV tearfully recount how the teacher had ordered her into a closet when the first gunshots were heard. “Jesus,” she said after a minute. “Can we turn this off?”
“Hey folks.” Greg Fletcher stood in the doorway, pulling the slider open, coming in like he owned the place. Like the goofy neighbor on a sitcom.
Even in her exhaustion Margot mustered a smile. “Greg! What’s up?”
“Just coming to ask if tomorrow’s okay for the lawn? Don’t want to interrupt you guys on your vacation.”
“This is a working vacation,” Margot said, glancing at Peter. “Any time is fine.”
“You watching this?” Greg said, gesturing at the TV which they had quite obviously been watching when he entered. He clucked his tongue against his teeth. “Terrible, just terrible.”
“You think?” Peter said, and Margot shot him a look. To Greg, she said, “I don’t know what’s happening in the world.”
“Things are crazy, for sure,” Greg said. Peter’s loathing for him was increasing by the moment.
Tony came in from the deck then, holding his iPhone out like something he’d found. “Pete, I need to talk to you.”
“Is everything okay?” Margot asked.
Tony glanced at her, then Greg. “Can I talk to you outside a moment?” Peter followed him out to the deck. As he did, he noticed Greg take his spot beside Margot on the couch.
“We’ve got a message from the agency,” Tony said as soon as the door slid shut. “They have an emergency placement, they want to know if we can accept. He’s three years old. His name is Marcus.”
It was as if, in uttering the name aloud, Tony had conjured the child to appear beside them. Peter’s stomach dropped. “What’s the timeframe?”
“As soon as possible,” Tony said. “They have him in custody somewhere, but they’re hoping to get him settled within forty-eight hours.”
“Forty eight hours.” Peter had to be smart, to choose his words carefully. “You realize,” he began, “we’re not even flying home until Sunday.”
“Yes,” Tony had the clipped voice he assumed sometimes before an emotional outburst. “I realize that.”
There was a silence. Peter sighed. “Well, what’s the situation? What are the details?”
They were peering at Tony’s laptop, scrolling through the information they’d been given, when Margot and Greg came out on the deck. Peter’s reaction was to close the computer, wait until they could be alone again to continue the discussion, but when Margot asked “Everything okay?” Tony spilled the whole thing, seeming unconcerned by the presence of the neighbor, or the intensely personal nature of what he was revealing. Soon Margot was crowded around the laptop with him, Greg standing not far off. There wasn’t much to go on in the file—no photo of the child—but it included a hospital report, some notes about bruising and evidence of cigarette burns. Cigarette burns. Margot sniffled and wiped her eyes. The urgency of the request made it clear enough that something drastic had happened, that the situation was serious enough for his immediate removal from whatever home he knew.
“What does it all mean?” Margot asked.
“It’s a lot to weigh,” Tony began. Peter was relieved at how he sounded: rational, almost skeptical. “There’s a good chance the boy will go back to his biological parents at some point—which is the goal, of course… Since we are ultimately hoping for permanent adoption, it’s hard to rearrange our lives to accommodate what will likely be a temporary situation…”
“That’s the thing,” Peter jumped in. “It’s terrible—but are we really the best ones to step in, in this instance—”
“—then again, how can we not?” Tony went on. “Think of this baby in a hospital somewhere, all alone. And here we are, waiting to be able to help, waiting so long…”
“It’s a goddamn travesty,” Greg ventured into the ensuing silence. “A two year old? Pssh. I’d like to give whoever hurt him like that a piece of my mind.”
“I’d bet you would, Greg,” Peter snapped. Greg was the last person he would look to for guidance. For all they knew, Greg had beaten his own children, the ones from his various failed marriages, and that was why he was living alone now, here in the Land that Time Forgot. “But do you mind?” he went on. “This is a really personal discussion.”
“Sorry.” Greg seemed chastened. “Of course.”
“Greg,” Margot said, watching him retreat across the dark lawn, but she let him go.
“What are you—in love with him, Margot?” Peter asked. He saw at once that this remark cut her. Before she could reply, he turned to Tony and began in what he hoped was a more measured voice, to express his concerns. It was his duty to express them, he said. They both knew Tony was not always clearheaded about things like this, matters of the heart. They had to be cautious, to think logically. As he spoke, he saw indignation already flaring in Tony’s eyes. He went on: Think about the strain it could put on us. Think how devastating it could be—it would be—when the boy went back to the situation he’d come from.
“We know this, we know this, we knew all of this going in,” Tony said, talking over him. “We said we were ready. Are you chickening out?”
Margot turned toward the house. “I’ll leave you,” she said.
“No, Margot,” Tony said. “Stay. I think Peter is having second thoughts and he might as well admit it in front of you if that’s the case.”
“I’m not having second thoughts,” Peter said. “I’m trying to be thorough. I’m trying to weigh the risks.”
“So there are risks!” Tony cried. Peter and Margot shushed him simultaneously, gesturing toward where the children were sleeping upstairs with the windows open. “There are always risks,” he said in a quieter voice. “Look, I’m not going to be the one to force us to do this. But I’m frustrated, Peter, because it seems like you’re going back on everything we’ve discussed. Face it: we are as prepared as we can be. We can only do the best we can.”
Peter stood looking at him. After a moment, Margot said, “This is none of my business, obviously. All I can say is, you’re right, Tony. You’re not going to be prepared for every difficulty with a child, no matter how badly you try to be. No matter how prepared you think you are, a situation is gong to come up that will throw you for a loop. Parenthood is a constant exercise in accepting that there are things in life you can’t control.”
“I know,” Peter said—of course he did. Still, the idea chilled him. He liked being in control, liked that the decisions he’d made as an independent adult had brought him to this place of success and relative stability. They could give a home to a child who needed one, Tony had urged—how could anyone argue with that? But here at the lake Peter had been reminded, in a shockingly short span of time, of all that could be so painful about family life.
“These children—all children—can be difficult,” he stammered now. “They won’t behave in ways you can understand, or even tolerate, sometimes.”
“Yeah, and you know what?” Tony interrupted. “You love them anyway. That’s what families do.”
“It’s not that simple,” Peter said. The fact was, all fathers fell short; he didn’t see the good in attempting something he knew he couldn’t succeed at. But there was no way, it seemed, to explain this without sounding like a jerk.
He slept late the following morning, and when he woke he was alone in bed. Tony’s voice and the children’s laughter drifted up from downstairs, where it sounded like they were eating breakfast. It took a moment for Peter to remember that nothing had been resolved, and when he did the weight of their decision seemed to physically press down on him, making it hard to breathe. He rose and put on his bathing suit and went down to the living room. “Going for a swim,” he said, with determined cheerfulness. “Care to join?”
Tony looked up from the table where he was wiping Sadie’s face with a washcloth, and shook his head. Peter went out into the morning. The sun was bright and strong. The lake was quiet, with hardly a ripple marring its surface. He crossed the yard to the dock barefoot and draped his towel over the railing. Then he climbed down the ladder and dropped quickly beneath the surface—the sudden shock better than the prolonged agony of easing in. He kicked onto his back and looked up at the sky. Underwater, the buzz of a outboard motor somewhere far off on the lake hummed in his ears, more palpable than audible. Then he flipped onto his stomach and crawl-stroked toward the Fletchers’ dock, his usual route. He still did laps, two mornings at week at the YMCA, but it was a different thing to swim in this lake—the first water he had ever known—free of the crowded lanes and the chlorine stench. He could go to a place of deeper focus, concentrate on his breath. At the dock he turned and swam back, then stopped at a distance out in the water to look back at the house.
Finding his footing, he stepped onto a submerged boulder and was surprised at a sharp pain on the bottom of his foot. He remembered then Margot’s warning about zebra mussels, which were invading the Great Lakes after arriving on foreign ships, and now had a foothold in Torch’s waters as well. There was more algae now, too, she’d told him, thanks to fertilizer runoff. All those fancy new summer homes with their unnecessarily elaborate landscaping.
He steadied himself as best he could on a smooth patch and gazed back at the house. His father hadn’t cared much for landscaping—gardening was a woman’s pursuit—but had approved of Peter’s job with Bowman’s Lawn Care Co those summers, mowing and mulching with a team of other high school and college boys home for summer break. His father had seemed relieved, even; the job was clearly a masculine one, at least in the sense that it required physical strength, and all the employees were men (Peter had been secretly hopeful about this, too, if for different reasons). Unremarkable as it was, Peter had been proud of that job, which Greg Fletcher had helped him to obtain. It seemed to prove he had passed some test. He enjoyed the work, too, toiling outside all day in the blue Michigan summer.
A seaplane churned now in the clouds overhead, above some other, nearby lake. Bob came out of the house wearing swim shorts and carrying a plastic pail. Margot and Tony followed, dragging lawn chairs toward the clay pool. Margot called Bob away from the water’s edge, and then began slathering him with sunblock. Then a truck pulled into the driveway, and then—wonderful—Greg Fletcher hopped out and began to unload his riding mower.
Why are you a faggot, Larsen? The voice came back then—not Greg Fletcher’s but Ted Harrison’s, as vicious in Peter’s memory as it had been in his ear all those years ago, while Ted kicked him in the stomach, the groin, the head. Why you gotta be that way? Those relentless questions, almost worse than blows—as if Harrison had been somehow able to read his mind, had glimpsed his own tortured search for answers.
He waited until Greg was busy mowing before he climbed out of the water. Tony and Margot reclined on the lawn chairs by the clay pool, the audio monitor from Sadie’s upstairs bedroom hissing beside them in the grass. Peter sat down beside them. For a while no one said anything; they sat watching Bob splash and shriek, as the drone of the mower grew louder and then softer again as Greg approached and rode off in ever-shrinking loops. The water only reached Bob’s waist, but the boy leaned down repeatedly to touch his chest to the water and then popped up again, giddy, demanding they watch his trick over and over. Orange inflatable rings encircled his upper arms, which seemed awkward and cumbersome, but the boy didn’t seem to mind. He was gleeful, carefree, the Scary Skunk of the night before a distant memory.
Peter waited for Tony or Margot to say something to him. When no one did, he grew annoyed and stood again. “Hey Bobby,” he called. “Check it out!” And ran down the dock, crying, “Cannon Ball!” before leaping off and hitting the water, hard.
As soon as he touched down beneath the surface, he felt something gouge his foot. The pain was so sharp he shouted. When he climbed out, a trail of bright blood dribbled after him.
“Jesus!” Tony said. “What happened?”
Margot brought a towel and they wrapped it around his foot. Peter hobbled to a chair. Greg stopped the mower and came toward them across the cut grass. Christ, Peter thought, cursing his own clumsiness. Wonderful.
“Oh God,” Tony said when they peeled the towel back, seeing the cloth was already soaked with blood. On the sole of Peter’s foot was a thick white gash. With the towel gone, more blood seeped out at once, startlingly red against his pale skin.
“You need stitches,” Greg said.
“I’m fine,” Peter said. “Just give it a minute.”
“What did you step on?” Margot asked.
“You need to go to the hospital,” Greg said.
“Don’t tell me what the fuck I need, Greg, all right?”
“Peter!” Margot nodded toward Bob, who was watching with mouth agape. When he saw their attention had shifted to him, the boy let loose a shriek and started bawling.
“Christ,” Peter said again. Margot glared at him and went to comfort Bobby. It was still strange, sometimes, to see her in the Mama role—this girl who had once so annoyed him, galloping her toy horses over the clay sculptures he’d left to dry in the sun, and who had later nearly lost a college softball scholarship due to excessive partying.
“Peter, calm down,” Tony said, and Peter was struck by the coldness in his voice. Tony looked exhausted. He’s finished with me, Peter thought with a weird thrill of panic; I’ve finally done it.
While Margot soothed Bob, Tony went to get gauze and bandage tape from a vintage first-aid kit in the bathroom cabinet—probably the same one Peter’s mom had used to dress his wounds after Harrison’s attack. “I’m fine,” Peter kept saying, though no one seemed to hear him.
Bob wasn’t bawling now, but whimpering in Margot’s arms. Peter watched as Tony knelt to wrap his foot—intent on his task, his hands winding the gauze around, and in that moment wanted to kiss him, to catch his gaze, say thank you—then Greg cut in to help, citing his expertise as a volunteer EMT. When Peter protested, Margot and Tony told him simultaneously to shut up.
“That should hold till we get to the hospital,” Greg said when he was done.
The nearest was in Traverse City, forty-five minutes away. “I can’t drive,” Peter said, wincing as he tried to stand. He looked at Tony, realized what Tony was about to propose, and said, “Not a chance.”
Tony boasted sometimes that he hadn’t needed a driver’s license in any of the cities he’d lived in, called himself a “proud pedestrian.” Peter had tried to give him driving lessons, once, on a Sunday afternoon; they’d bickered and snapped and finally, after a close call with a lamppost in which Peter had shouted and Tony started to cry, returned home in mutual foul moods.
“I’ll take you,” Margot said.
“No!” Bob started to wail again. “No hospital!”
“We need to help Uncle Petey,” Margot said.
“You stay,” Tony said. “I can do it.”
“You don’t have a license,” Peter said.
“It’s an emergency, Peter. Take off your lawyer hat for a minute. I can handle it.”
“No, really,” Margot said. “I’ll do it.”
Bob shrieked. “No! I want Mama to stay!”
“I’m telling you, Pete,” Tony said. “I can do this.”
“Not happening.” Peter shook his head. It was entirely possible Tony might confuse the brake pedal with the gas, or vice versa.
Tony reared back to squint at him for a long moment. “Have you no faith in me at all?”
“I’ll do it,” Greg said then. “Come on, we’ll take the truck.”
They spoke little on the drive, Tony in what at one time they’d called the “bitch seat,” sitting between Greg and Peter in the cab of the Bronco. Occasionally Peter would moan and Tony would pat his leg, but he sensed no conviction in the gesture, and took no solace in it.
“Traffic isn’t bad,” Greg said at one point. “We should make good time.” Later, when they rode past a general store, he tried again to spark conversation. “Remember when we used to buy beer there, underage?”
“You’re thinking of someone else,” Peter said.
“I wish I knew what I did to piss you off, man,” Greg muttered. “Whatever it was, it sure as hell happened a long time ago. We’re both different people now.”
“It wasn’t that long ago,” Peter said. “And I’m pretty much the same person I’ve always been. Speak for yourself.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Tony said. “What did Greg do to you, Peter? What are you so angry about?”
“Yeah, man,” Greg said, bolstered by Tony’s show of emotion. “I’d like to know. I mean, I thought we were friends.”
“Really? Where was my friend when Ted Harrison was kicking me in the balls while his friends were holding my arms? Were you the friend who was standing there laughing, too chicken shit to help me?”
Greg stared out the windshield. “I have no memory of that,” he said. “Were we drinking?”
“Probably. Doesn’t matter.” Peter scowled, turning to the window again. “I still hate the Fourth of July.”
“It was Fourth of July?”
“Yeah. Groetzinger had a bonfire.”
“And Ted Harrison kicked your ass?”
“Ted and several people. I don’t really feel like reliving it again, Greg—you were there. Maybe you don’t remember, but I’ll never forget. My father had to come get me at the hospital. One of the worst nights of my life.”
“You never told me about this,” Tony said, sounding less saddened by the story than miffed at having never heard it before.
At the ER, Peter’s father’s face had revealed such a pained mixture of disgust and embarrassment that Peter told him only that he’d been in a fight—no more details, no matter how the old man pressed. And when Peter showed up at Bowman’s the following week, still with black eye and a split lip, he could tell at once that things had changed, that he was now adrift in a sea of sharks. When Bowman called him into his trailer that afternoon, he quit before the man could fire him. He stayed close to the cottage the rest of the summer, even after his wounds healed—terrified of running into Ted or the others, terrified of his secret being revealed. Until the night his father came in from the Yacht Club’s Summer Barbeque, face sunburned and eyes red-rimmed from a day spent drinking on the water, threw his keys onto the coffee table and growled, I talked to Bill Bowman this evening. It was almost a relief, then—the strain of all those years spent pretending, falling away in an instant.
It was almost a relief.
After a long pause, Greg spoke in a low, even voice. “I wasn’t there.” When Peter didn’t respond, he repeated, “I wasn’t there, man. I was dating Sarah Wannemacher then, she invited me up to her parents’ place in Harbor Springs every Fourth.” After another pause, he said, “I would have helped you if I’d—“
“Oh, come on.”
“I mean it! I don’t know how the whole thing started, but of course I would have tried to stop him from kicking your ass.”
“The whole thing started because I’m gay, Greg! That’s why. Though I wasn’t out then, Harrison for some reason had strong suspicions I was homosexual, and that was enough for him to ambush me. Don’t try to tell me you would have defended me, because you sure as hell didn’t in the aftermath.” Peter thought a moment. “You’re lying. You were there. I remember you laughing.”
“Wasn’t me, man.”
They drove on in silence, past the Chippewa casino, past a highway fruit stand that was closed for the season. Soon they were headed into the city along the road that hugged Grand Traverse Bay. A few sailboats were scattered across the water, the surface ruffled with wind.
At the hospital, Greg pulled up at the ER’s entrance. “I will admit,” he said, “Now that I think about it, I heard Harrison saying how he thought you were…how you liked men, and I didn’t defend you. I probably laughed along, tell the truth. I’ll own up to that—that’s on me. But I wasn’t at that party.”
Greg got out of the truck. Ahead of him the hospital’s automatic doors whooshed open to reveal an atrium with a glass skylight. Beyond it the waiting room full of the ER’s usual pathetic assortment—a woman in handcuffs, clearly intoxicated, seated beside a cop in uniform; an elderly man holding a piece of bloody gauze to his forehead. A large screen plasma TV was blaring CNN.
After checking in, he and Tony sat and watched the TV correspondent standing with her practiced look of concern before an empty playground—more on the school shooting. Though he didn’t want to, Peter thought of the child Marcus, and wondered if Tony was thinking of him, as well, their discussion about him temporarily postponed. Had the child been taken to an emergency room? If so, was he still there? Did he have anyone there to comfort him? Was he capable of being comforted, at this point?
A few minutes later, Greg came in and sat a few seats away from them. When Peter’s name was called, he was ushered into a wheelchair at the nurse’s insistence and together they passed through glaring white halls, coming eventually to a sterile, metallic exam room. The lights above were white and cold, and Peter thought again of his father’s last bed, the sunlight winking through those blinds, the machines beeping and sighing in that odd, unnatural rhythm. Margot had cared for the old man in his last days; he had left that work to her. She was struggling these days; this was obvious. It seemed to be taking everything out of her, this stifling of her feelings to maintain a tranquil façade for the sake of her children. How much of parenthood must consist of such things, Peter wondered—of the need to be stoic, when in fact you were bereft, hysterical, scared out of your mind?
He thought of his own poor, long-suffering mother, and the bag of frozen peas she’d given him for his black eye, the morning after the bonfire—saying nothing, expressing no disappointment but offering no comfort, either. Margot had been there, too—slipping up to his room to deliver ice cream and magazines, navigating the minefield of the house as best she could.
He thought again of Marcus and the cigarette burns. Who was he, Peter, to think he could care for a child who had been so wounded? Who was he not to try? If there was one thing he was good at, it was pretending to be stoic; after so many years of practice, he was sometimes able to fool himself.
He glanced at Tony, who was leaning against the counter, watching as the doctor sewed Peter’s wound with an expression of disgusted awe. “Tony,” Peter said, and told him then to email the social worker, to see if it wasn’t too late for them to take the child.
“Those painkillers must be kicking in,” Tony said. Then he leaned in and kissed Peter’s cheek.
A short while later, Peter sat in the wheelchair at the curb while Tony tapped furiously at his cell phone. Greg had gone to get the truck. A couple of people were outside smoking, and a woman on a bench cradled an infant in her arms. The afternoon was golden but crisp, the first taste of autumn in the air.
Peter took out his own phone and saw a text from Margot. Everything ok?
Fine, he replied. 5 stitches. How are the kids?
Then he waited, watching the doors whoosh open and closed as people entered and left. A sparrow had become trapped inside the atrium, and was battering itself against the glass ceiling in an effort to escape. When things quieted down—did they ever quiet down in an emergency room? Some days were surely busier than others—a custodian would set the bird free. Perhaps they would try to trap it, catch and release. In the meantime, people were occupied with more urgent affairs, and the bird went unnoticed.
His phone vibrated with Margot’s response. All quiet on the western front.
He put the phone back in his pocket. Behind him the doors continued to open for each new arrival, and above the patients’ heads the bird rose and fluttered, descended and rose. Its efforts seemed both brave and futile—seeing the sky and wanting to reach it, so close but yet so far.
Tony let out a disappointed cry.
“What is it?” Peter said, though he already knew–other arrangements had been made for Marcus. The child didn’t need them anymore.
“He will get the care he needs,” Peter said. “We should be glad for that. Something else will work out.”
Tony nodded. “I just hope he’s all right,” he said, and Peter took his hand. “He will be.” He had no idea. He knew as much about Marcus and his future as Tony did: nothing. “Kids are resilient,” he said, hoping to make Tony smile—it was a comic line from a movie that they used sometimes to reassure each other about all manner of horrifying imaginary scenarios: Kids are resilient, they liked to joke. Look how well we turned out.
But Tony was engrossed in his phone again, typing a response, and then Greg pulled up at the curb. “Stitches?” he called out the truck’s open window. When Peter nodded, he grimaced. “No more swimming.” He shook his head sadly, then held up a rectangular box wrapped in gold foil. Peter saw it was from the hospital gift shop. A small card on top commanded: Get Well!
“Chocolate-covered cherries,” Greg said, before he could open it. “They were always around your place—your Mom or somebody must’ve loved them.” Greg was right; Peter’s mother had loved them. His father, too. The whole family.
He stood waiting beside the open truck door for Tony to finish. “Look,” Greg said. “I’m sorry, anyway. You’re not the first guy to call me a bad friend.” Peter saw then how pink Greg’s eyes were, how high he was. The prospect of him chauffeuring them home was mildly unsettling, but this seemed how Greg was able to function these days. Tony was still tapping away, seeming unaware that they were waiting for him, or perhaps secure in the knowledge that they would wait a little longer. Behind him, the hospital doors continued to open and close. Though Peter couldn’t see it anymore, he figured the bird was still there, beating its wings against the windows. Perhaps in its exhaustion it would eventually descend, settle on the ground, and someone would simply shoo it out the door and into the open. That’s all it would take: just a moment to succumb, abandon this frantic struggle, set off in a new direction.