Lovers and Other Strangers
An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
If he had been painting the scene before him he would have used only four colors: Permanent Rose alkyd for the pink streaks in the fading sunset and the reflections in the water; Dioxazine Purple alkyd for the shadows lengthening on the creamy sand, the crevices of the rocks, the glint and gleam of water, the edges of the pier; Cadmium Yellow alkyd to blaze from windows, for the dimples in the sand, to limn the rocks, to gild the tips of scrubby, windblown grass, more reflections in the water; Indigo oil for the tumbling waves, for the indistinct forms of the buildings beyond, for the swift coming night.
For the first time in weeks Finn felt the desire to take a palette knife and mix color, to pick up a brush and try to capture what he saw. For the first time in weeks he felt a flicker of something close to interest, to emotion.
Maybe it was the salt air, maybe it was the cold - the briny wind whipping off the ocean stung his face - maybe it was the smell of woodsmoke with all the warm memories it conjured. Or the cries of the gulls, the slap of the waves, the mingled fragrance of pipe smoke and car exhaust as he waited in the old station wagon for Hiram to carry his bags from the dock. Maybe it was all these things.
But it was the color he felt most intensely. Luminous color seeping into his consciousness, the hues and values, the shadows and lights, the dull tones, the vibrant - he was waking up. It was not a comfortable process, and Finn huddled deeper into his leather jacket.
Hiram strode to the car and threw Finn's bags in the back. Coming around to the front, he climbed in behind the wheel. Starting the engine, he glanced briefly at Finn as he backed the car, narrowly missing a leaning tower of stacked lobster traps.
“Guess it looks pretty different after all this time?”
Seal Island didn't look different at all in the purple dusk, but Finn said, “Three years is a long time.”
“Ay-yup,” Hiram said. “Your Uncle Thomas is going to be happy as a clam at high tide to see you.”
Finn's smile twisted. Everyone was being very kind. Especially considering what a pain in the ass he was to show up with almost no warning.
The station wagon crunched its way slowly over sand and shale, past the shadowy buildings and boats, the faded, peeling signs.
“Course Thomas is in France right now. Some art show or another.”
Finn murmured something. He didn't need to say anything. Hiram was happy to fill in all the blanks. There were a lot of blanks after so long.
“Martha's arthritis is giving her heck. Well, we're all gettin' older. Mr. Peabody's gone now. Pneumonia. Last month. Miz Landy took over the general store.”
The car reached the surfaced road that ran around the island - smoother in some places than others. By now the amethyst dusk was falling back before the onslaught of night. Finn felt tension growing inside, his stomach knotting up with his fists. It was irrational. Irritating. Fear of the dark? At his age? It was cold though - bitingly. After a short battle with himself he reached for the rough plaid car blanket that smelled of a million journeys and spread it over his left leg which had started aching.
“Not used to the cold anymore,” he muttered, but Hiram took no notice, still palavering about people and things Finn had stopped caring about - tried to stop caring about - a long time ago. Ay-yup, what a pleasant surprise - shock, translated Finn - it had been to hear from Finn. Martha had been in a twitter ever since she got his message. And what a surprise Thomas had waiting for him when he got home. What a surprise it was going to be for everyone.
Finn almost asked then. But it was too much effort and he wasn't sure even now he could take the answer, so he smiled politely and stared out the window as though he had newly arrived from another planet, which was pretty much how it felt.
Stands of pine trees stood stark and sharp against the dusk as the car climbed slowly, winding up through the rolling hills. The pines looked black against the lowering sky, but that was an illusion. He'd start with a sketch, using a no. 0 watercolor brush. For the sky and water he'd use a blend of Cadmium Yellow Medium, Cadmium Red Light, and Titanium White. For the upper sky he'd choose French Ultramarine, Dioxazine Purple and more Titanium White…
White. He had a sudden recollection of blazing white walls and the sun bouncing off pale sand - too much light, and a brightness that hurt the eyes. The white beneath a silent gull's wingspan, the white of the craggy clouds, the white of the tiny wildflowers growing beside the white speckled stone walls.
The lighthouse was on the other side of the island. No need to see it at all if he didn't choose to - and why the hell would he ever want to see it again?
Hiram was saying, “Miz Estelle won first prize at Union Fair for her wild blueberry sour cream cake.”
Finn felt an unexpected twinge of hunger. “I still remember those cinnamon-sugar biscuits she used to make.”
The old man nodded heartfelt agreement.
The car turned off the main road and ground its way up the steep last stretch. The house was called The Birches. One of those charming turn-of-the-century ten bedroom “cottages,” it stood in a grove of white birches overlooking Otter Cove. Green lawns swept down to the rocks at the water's edge, ancient, gently tilting pines framed sunsets so beautiful they made the heart ache. In the failing light, the house looked eerily untouched by time.
Hiram pulled up in front of the long front porch. Lights shone welcomingly from several downstairs windows.
“Ain't no place like home,” he said, and Finn made a sound in his throat that was supposed to be humor but wasn't.
Hiram got out of the car. The front door of the house flew open and Martha came bustling down the shell-strewn path as Finn climbed carefully out of the station wagon. Tears glittered on Martha's wrinkled cheeks and she hugged him tight, pulling him to her ample bosom like he was a child again.
“Look at you, you young rascal!”
Finn didn't have to do much more than smile and permit himself to be hugged again; Martha was doing all the talking - although afterward he had no idea of anything she'd said. He was literally overwhelmed with memories and unwelcome emotion.
Hiram went to get the bags and Finn was being urged inside the house to warmth and comfort - the prodigal returned. By then he was exhausted. He should have brought the cane; he was hobbling badly, not used to walking any distance yet, and the plane flight and boat ride not helping any. Maybe he was more crocked up than he wanted to admit - he was certainly in more pain.
The house smelled familiar. It smelled of baking and wood fire - and the invariable ghostly hint of oil paint, although it had been decades since anyone in the house painted with oils. It smelled like his childhood: safe and warm and loved. He stared curiously as he was hustled past a familiar painted chest, wing chairs upholstered in pale gray roses, white bookcases, well-remembered paintings. It felt odd to see these things again - like he was visiting a museum.
Ushered into the kitchen, he was ensconced in the old rocker and ordered to stay put near the enormous gas stove where Martha had cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the Barrets for the past thirty years. That suited him fine. Gave him a chance to catch his breath and get control of himself.
Martha and Hiram conferred outside briefly - he could imagine how that went - and then Martha was inside the kitchen and chattering a mile a minute, banging pots and pans around to relieve her feelings.
Finn eyed her curiously from the perspective of his years away. She was in her late sixties now, a small, very plump woman with silky white hair - it had been white since her early thirties - and soft dark eyes. Something about her had always reminded him of a dove, though doves were fairly stupid birds and Martha was a far from stupid woman.
“Now that you've been living in New York, I suppose you won't be happy with fiddleheads and potatoes anymore? It'll be fancy curries and nouveau cuisine you're used to, I reckon.”
Finn laughed - he lived on peanut butter sandwiches half the time - and said, “I haven't had a decent bowl of chowdah since I left here.”
She stopped chattering then, coming to him, putting her hands on either side of his head. She turned his face to the light, examining him closely. The only damage that showed was the one scar - still healing - on his temple. What didn't show was the horrific long gash from his hip to the middle of his calf. Torn muscles, damaged nerves, but oddly no broken bones. He had been left with one hell of an ugly seam down his leg, but he knew how lucky he had been. And aside from the scars he was going to be as good as new eventually. That was why he had to stop dwelling on the might-have-beens. The close call didn't matter because he was going to be all right - as soon as the headaches stopped.
Martha was staring into his eyes as though trying to read his mind. He blinked up at her, and her eyes filled with tears again. She kissed him - something he couldn't remember her doing since he had been very small. She was clearly horrified at herself. Not as horrified as he was, though - not that she had kissed him, but that he had been so moved his throat closed and he had to look away.
It was only for an instant. Nothing more than the aftermath of the accident - and probably his meds. It did something to you, nearly dying. And dying sometimes felt like the least of it.
“Your Uncle Thomas will be here tonight,” she said.
That snapped him out of his self-consciousness. “Uncle Tom? I thought…”
“Why, I phoned him the minute I heard from you,” Martha said a little defiantly - because Finn had expressly told her not to bother Thomas. “Of course he'd want to know! Of course he's coming home. And, while I'm thinking of it, that friend of yours phoned up. Mr. Ryder. He's coming day after tomorrow.”
The funny thing about the spell the island cast, the silken weave of childhood memories, was that he'd already forgotten he'd asked Paul to come along and lend moral support. Now he wondered why. Paul was going to be a fish out of water here, and Finn was going to have to expend energy he didn't have in trying to keep him amused. Paul took a lot of amusing.
He brooded over this while Martha rattled cheerfully on, finally surfacing to hear her say, “…Barnaby Purdon retired from school teaching.”
“Do he and Uncle Tom still get together to play checkers once a week?”
“Every Wednesday when your uncle is here. What else? Oh, Miss Minton took first place at Union Fair for her wild blueberry sour cream cake.”
“I heard that. Is she still taking painting lessons from Uncle Tom?”
“No. No, she gave up on that idea. Your Uncle Tom doesn't teach anymore, you know. Too busy judging art shows and writing his books.”
She brought him a mug of coffee. Finn took the yellow cup, sipping cautiously. It was boiling hot, but creamy and sweet - the way he had liked it when he was a kid. Creamy and sweet - and spiked with something.
“What's in this?” he asked. “I'm on pain pills, you know.” In fact, he urgently needed medicating. His back was beginning to ache - his leg never quite stopped - and his head was starting up again despite the muted light and warmth.
“A little something to warm your bones,” Martha told him. “It won't do you any harm. Might put a little color in your face.”
Finn raised his brows but kept drinking. It was good. Martha's version of an Irish coffee perhaps. All at once he was so tired he thought he might fall asleep at the fireside wrapped like an ancient granny in these cedar-scented blankets. Martha chattered comfortably on about this and that person, the changes he would soon see in the island - and of course in Martha's view none of the changes were for the better.
He smiled to himself and sipped his coffee.
His smiled faded as she said, “Mr. Carlyle has a new book coming out.”
She was not looking at him, which was just as well since he couldn't think of anything to say.
“He's not here now. He was in England for the six months doing research for the one he's writing now. It's supposed to be a murder mystery about the princes in the Tower. And then he went on a book tour for the last one. It's hard to keep 'em all straight. I don't expect we'll see him back till next month sometime.”
That was a relief. More than he wanted to concede. “I'll be long gone by then.” His voice came out flat.
Martha still didn't look at him. “Well... that's all right so long as you don't take three years to visit again.”
She spoke cheerfully, but he could hear the strain, and knew that he had to make the effort. For his own sake, if nothing else. Had to prove that he could say it and not well, what? That he had moved past it. That it was over and done with, chapter closed. Not forgiven, not forgotten but old history. Con should appreciate that.
So he said, “How's Fitch?”
And after a funny little pause, Martha said as though the name were unfamiliar to her, “Fitch?”
“Is he?” He tried to make his voice light, but he was never good at that kind of thing. Fitch was the old pro at games and deceiving. “Are he and Con did they are they still together?”
“Fitch and Mr. Carlyle?” She said it almost wonderingly.
Finn remembered belatedly that this was a small island, a backwoods sort of place really, and that while a romantic relationship between two men might be silently tolerated and civilly ignored, it was never going to be openly acknowledged and condoned. But his nerves were on edge, he was tired and much more raw than he had realized; he simply blurted out, “Or did he split?”
Martha said, “Didn't Fitch come to you in New York?”
“Come to me?” That made him blink. What a funny idea - but maybe not so funny because Fitch wouldn't see what he had done wrong, would he? He would expect to be forgiven as he always was by - his words - better half.
“Didn't Fitch follow you to New York?” asked Martha again and she was staring at him hard now, as though only realizing that something was very wrong. But Fitch had always been her favorite. Fitch was everyone's favorite for all he shocked and appalled people with his outrageous - but God, yes, funny - antics. The things he did and said. It was impossible not to love Fitch.
Even when you hated him.
Finn said, “He didn't follow me to New York.”
Had that been Fitch's intention? Had better sense prevailed? It must have hurt Fitch too; he must have felt the same persistent ache that was almost physical pain, the pain of being cut off from your other half. A phantom pain, like losing a limb. It had never happened to them before; a break so deep, so wide there was no bridging it. Oh, they had fought, fallen out - what brothers didn't quarrel? Finn had always forgiven Fitch because…he loved him. And he couldn't do without him. Until he could.
Because there was no forgiving that. Con had been different.
Not that Con wasn't every bit as much to blame.
But then Finn hadn't forgiven Con either. Never would.
Anyway, it was a long time ago. He was never going to see Con again. So what did it matter? As for seeing Fitch…he had always accepted that Fitch knew how seriously he had transgressed because he hadn't followed his twin to New York.
And that was just as well because as lonely as he had been, there was no forgiveness in Finn.
Not then. Maybe not ever. Something had died in Finn that summer. That last day of summer.
But now he sat in the kitchen of the house he had grown up in, the home he had shared for twenty-three years with his twin. Slowly, he worked it out, tried to absorb what it meant. He said, “Fitch isn't here?”
And Martha shook her head slowly, her bright, birdlike eyes wide.
Reading her expression, Finn smiled reassurance, because it seemed ridiculous - like they were talking at cross purposes and they would soon realize what the other actually meant. In a moment they would laugh as the misunderstanding was straightened out. “You mean no one's seen him since?”
“No?” He took it in slowly, absorbing it much like the heat soaking into his chilled body or the alcohol wending its way through his bloodstream - a gradual realization that he was warm and tipsy and alone in the world.
He said carefully, “No one has seen or spoken to Fitch in three years?”
“No.” And Martha looked frightened. It was her fear that woke Finn to the belated realization that his twin brother was missing.
“Come here, Huckleberry,” Con murmured. His pale hair was wet and dripping from their swim, his bare brown skin shining in the sun. His dark eyes laughed into Finn's, and his mouth - covering Finn's - was sweet with the taste of the berries. His skin smelled like the sun and clean sweat and deep water.
From overhead came a burst of laughter -
A hand on Finn's shoulder woke him. He jerked, opened his eyes, and his Uncle Thomas was gazing down him. Uncle Tom was smiling, but his eyes were grave.
“Welcome home, Finn.”
“Hi,” Finn said. It was probably a little anticlimactic after three years, but he was fogged from sleep, disoriented to suddenly find himself in the kitchen at The Birches. He straightened, wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand. “I must have fallen asleep.”
Martha chuckled, although her voice had that strained note again. His gaze moved to the clock. After eleven? Could that be right? Could he really have been sleeping for over six hours?
“Sleep is exactly what you need!” Martha said.
“Sounds good to me,” Uncle Thomas said, sounding and looking weary. He was tall and very thin with the bony features and red-brown hair that distinguished the Barrets from the rest of the small population of Seal Island. Now in his sixties, he was going silver at the temples, which perfectly suited his image as an esteemed art critic.
“I didn't intend for you to be dragged home from Paris,” Finn apologized.
His uncle was looking at him as though he were speaking a foreign language. Translation having failed, Uncle Thomas said, “Martha told me about your accident. You're all right?”
“A few bumps and bruises.”
“Well, you're staying here till you're back on your feet.”
Finn chuckled. “I'm on my feet now.” Or he would be if he could unfold from this rocker without landing on his face.
“You know what I mean.” Uncle Thomas said it firmly; that was the polite fiction they had all played. That Uncle Thomas was actually in charge. He had been, at best, an absent-minded guardian, but he was fond of them in his own way, and Finn and Fitch had certainly never lacked for anything growing up. Well, possibly attention. But then they had always had each other, so nothing else really mattered.
“Yes,” Finn said. “Thank you.”
“This is your home,” Martha said sharply. Both men looked at her, having forgotten for a second that she was in the room, and she blushed. But she said stubbornly, “It's not right, you and Fitch gone all these years and never coming back for so much as a visit.”
“Now, Martha,” Uncle Thomas said in his easy way. “He's here now.” To Finn he said, “It's too late for talk tonight. We'll catch up in the morning. Did you need some help getting to bed?”
“I'm okay. Is it really that late?” Finn looked automatically for the old wall clock, shaped like a ship's wheel, but it was gone, replaced by an efficient and modern titanium square.
“Nearly midnight,” Uncle Thomas said. “I meant to be here much earlier, but my flight was delayed.”
“Hell. You really shouldn't have dropped everything to come home for this.” Finn was growing more awkward by the minute. “I didn't mean to disrupt everyone's life. I just...”
Just needed time to rest and recover. Time to come to terms with how close he had been to dying. To losing everything. Time to regain his strength and natural optimism; he was still astonishingly, aggravatingly weak. In fact, as he forced himself up out of the comfortable rocker, he was made painfully aware of how feeble he still was.
“Nonsense,” Uncle Thomas and Martha both said - and then looked at each other.
Martha said, “But you've neither of you had any supper.”
“I ate on the flight,” Uncle Thomas said, which happily distracted her while Finn stood swaying, biting his lip against the myriad aches and pangs and throbs.
Uncle Thomas said with unexpected determination, “I think I'll give you a hand upstairs anyway.”
Finn nodded. No point pretending he didn't need it. Uncle Thomas wrapped a strong arm around his waist, and Finn hung onto him as Martha bade them goodnight.
“I'm stiff from sitting so long.” Finn explained as they passed slowly through the hall with its lilac sprig wallpaper. “I really am fine now.”
“Of course you are. You'll be working again in no time.”
Ah. Of course. In this house, the work was paramount. Well, it was to Finn too.
They crossed the dining room with the long formal table and harp-backed chairs where they had all eaten dinner when his grandfather was alive, across the back hallway, and then up the narrow staircase with the gleaming banisters Finn recalled sliding down as a child. Or was it Fitch who had slid down the banisters and Finn who watched?
Sometimes it was hard to separate Fitch's adventures from his own memories.
Uncle Thomas's voice jarred him out of his preoccupation. “Martha said your friend was killed in the accident.”
Finn nodded tightly.
“Was he was your friend?”
Uncle Thomas floundered awkwardly, and Finn said, “He was a friend, that's all. A good friend. He yanked the wheel at the last minute so that his side of the car took the worst of it.”
The stairs seemed to take forever. Finn could have cried in gratitude by the time they reached the upper landing - then the final leg to his old room, the room that had been his since his teens. Fitch's room was on the other side of the adjoining black and white checked bath.
There was no sign of Finn's bags, but his pajama bottoms and robe were laid across the foot of the dark wood sleigh bed. He bit back a tired smile. Martha would have unpacked while he slept downstairs. There was no privacy in this house. Lucky thing Finn had no secrets. Not anymore.
Uncle Thomas helped him undress. It was embarrassing, but Finn really was exhausted beyond action now. With his uncle's help he pulled on knit sleep pants - and though the older man said nothing, Finn saw his face tighten up at the terrifying scar down the left side of Finn's body. One inch more and Finn would have died with Tristan.
“You won't be warm enough like that,” Uncle Thomas said. “You've forgotten how cold the winters are here. I'll get you one of my pajama tops.”
He was gone down the hallway and Finn sat looking around the room. Once again he had that weird sensation of looking at an exhibit in a museum. Books and model ships…He stared at the framed photographs on the bookshelves: pictures of himself and Fitch sailing and climbing and fishing and swimming. A skinny eleven-year old Fitch's arm looped around his neck in a friendly chokehold, himself giving the eighteen year old Fitch an impromptu piggy back. People said they couldn't be told apart, but Finn never had to wonder who was who in the pictures - not even in the earliest photographs of them.
Uncle Thomas returned with a striped flannel pajama shirt, and Finn shrugged into it, did up the buttons.
“Is it true Fitch left the island when I did?” he asked, eyes on the buttonholes.
“And no one's heard of him since?”
“I don't think that's so surprising,” Uncle Thomas said grimly. Finn wasn't exactly sure what he meant. Surely no one knew the full story of what had happened that day? But he was too tired to question.
He crawled into bed, rediscovering the pleasure of clean flannel sheets that smelled faintly of the crisp ocean breeze. Stretching out gingerly, his spine seemed to unkink like a Slinky. He was astonished when his uncle shook the folds out of the quilt at the foot of the bed and spread it over him.
“Good night,” he said politely, wondering if he was about to be tucked in and kissed.
He was spared that much. The bedside lamp went out and his uncle said quietly, “Good night, Finn. I'm glad you've come home.” He went out. The door closed silently behind him, shutting Finn into the darkness.
His heart began to pound, turning over sickly in his chest. Finn waited, sweat breaking out along his hairline as he listened. Through the dormer windows he could see the mutable darkness that was the sea; stars glittered on the waves, pinpoints of light.
No need for panic. There was plenty of light. Moonlight, starlight, reflected light...
His uncle's footsteps died away down the hallway. Finn sat up and turned on the lamp.
He relaxed, let out a long breath. In the mellow glow, the books and toys of his childhood looked very old, very fragile.
He stared at the photos of his cheekily grinning twin and whispered, “Where are you, Fitch?”
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.