Before Lily had time to scream, she tumbled- head first -into the massive hole. Barely dodging it, Drew delivered a shower of rocks and dirt onto his sister as the weight of his foot released its edge. With arms flailing, he recovered his balance.
The night was dark. The dense, musty brush was made passable thanks to the pale light of the full moon. The eerie song of wildlife lurking in the shadows traveled on a sinister breeze. Lily and Drew were lost. Spotting a break in the thickness up ahead, they broke into a sprint toward being found again. Focused on the horizon, they were caught off guard by the den of snakes concealed by the murky night.
Drew knelt to peer into the opening. Lily was at the bottom, surrounded by a cluster of hissing reptiles. His body tensed with panic and his eyes filled with tears. He leaned over and shouted, “Lily it’s too deep! I can’t reach you. I have to go find help!”
With that mission, Drew’s face was absorbed by the night and Lily was left behind to face her serpent laden prison alone. She could feel their scutes dragging against her bare arms. Their soft whispers had elevated to a roar. One snake coiled around her midsection. She squirmed against its power. Another slithering being wrapped itself around her neck. As the duet gripped and squeezed, Lily felt life leaving her body. She envisioned herself as a bright orb mirroring the moon, which was rapidly fading.
Just as death was about to carry her away, seven-year-old Lily shot upright. Blinking in the darkness, sweating and sucking in air, she wiped the perspiration from her face. Familiar surroundings became clear. Her dresser, topped with a white and pink ballerina jewelry box, was illuminated by an adjacent nightlight. Barbie’s Dream House, with its occupants tucked in for the night, also helped to reassure Lily… she was indeed in her own room and in her own bed.
With her heart still racing, she gathered her pillow and tip-toed across the hall. Drew’s door was closed. As quiet as a moment of silence, she slowly turned the handle and nearly floated across the threshold. She crept past the cedar toy box filled with GI Joe’s, Tonka trucks and Matchbox cars and approached the edge of his bed. Drew was asleep on his side with his sheets tucked under his nose. All that was visible was a mop of auburn hair. She clutched her dusty rose pillow to her chest with one hand and reached to tap her nine-year-old brother’s turned up shoulder with the other. Nothing.
Persistent, Lily grasped his shoulder and shook him.
A drowsy Drew tried to focus. His little sister stood before him, her brown eyes wide with fear. Damp cascades of curls were matted to her forehead.
“What’s the matter, Lil?”
She was still trembling. “I had a bad dream.”
Drew rolled onto his back, lifted his behind to scoot over to the far edge of the bed and raised a corner of his comforter up in the air. “The witch’s flying monkeys again?”
“No. You and me were lost in a forest. I fell in a pit of snakes. You left me there alone… to die. Then, I woke up.”
Lily accepted the raised blanket as an invitation to climb under the covers. “Don’t tell Mom and Dad I slept in here again, okay, Drew?”
Drew scooted back a little further. “It’s our secret, Lily.”
She settled in and slid close to Drew. He’d already resumed his side-up position, facing her. In the safety of his presence, she felt her heart rate returning to normal. After a few minutes, when silence had fallen over them, Drew’s voice sliced the stillness. “Hey, Lil?”
She squinted to find Drew’s jade eyes staring intently at her. “Yeah?”
“I promise I’ll never leave you alone in a forest and I promise I’ll never let you die.”
Satisfied, Lily allowed sleep to carry her away.
In the precious innocence of that moment, neither child could possibly have realized… sometimes there are promises you just can’t keep.
Reality: In The Early Hours
You know, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. She wasn’t supposed to be here all hooked up to machines like this. I’m telling you, just like I told the doctors this morning. She has a Living Will. I know this because she made me fill the damn thing out for her. Her answers were no. No tubes, no machines, no feedings. No. No. No. Then, she signed it. They brought her here in the back of an ambulance, unconscious. The doctors didn’t have a clue what the hell her wishes were. So, they implemented all emergency life saving measures. That means they hooked her up to life support. Now, it’s someone else’s problem. And that someone is me.
Dammit. She promised me… you’ll know- that’s why I’m picking you. I don’t know anything.
Maybe it’s easier to tell you what I do know. I know that this disease is a vile beast. I wish I knew a grimier, more repulsive word than vile. Because if I did… then this disease would be that word. I hate cancer.
Something grumbles in my stomach. I can’t tell you if its hunger or grief. They both feel the same. Empty.
I‘ve been sitting on this sparsely padded side chair for hours now. I find myself leaning forward because this is killing my back. I have my arms draped over the raised side rail on her hospital bed and I’m nearly in a trance from the a cappella solo performed by the ventilator. Whoosh-bump-shoo. Whoosh-bump-shoo. Whoosh-bump-shoo.
Lily always believed I could fix anything in her life… as though I possessed some sort of superpower- like a hero. I’m so pissed off that the doctors screwed this up. I mean really, don’t heroes save lives? Some superman I’ll have turned out to be.
They’re gathering outside of her door and the sound of their hushed cries makes the hair on my neck stand up. I feel like I’ve swallowed a hippopotamus.
Evening is rushing through the window and I know our time is short. I’ve been praying for her to wake up and give me some sort of a sign. I tried to send a message from my mind to hers. It didn’t work when we were kids. It didn’t work now… but, damn, I wanted it to.
Years ago, she started calling me Asshole. She swears like a sailor anyway, but I can be sarcastic, which probably earned me the nickname. Right now I can almost hear her voice teasing me… Hey, Asshole. Inside, it makes me feel warm, and sweet, and satisfied… like I just ate the best piece of chocolate I’ve ever tasted.
The wet salt sliding down my cheeks erases the memory’s sweetness.
When I can’t look at her in this bed anymore, I project pictures of her on the insides of my eyelids and she still looks the way I need her to look. She’s a small child, running across a field of wildflowers in the blazing July sunshine. I see her ponytail rocking from side- to- side as she’s skipping along the trails we explored when we were kids. I see her coming down the stairs all dressed up for the prom and looking just like a princess. I can see her glowing with brand new life in her belly. I see her smile. Her eyes shine when she smiles. I watch as she jerks her head to the side and tosses her long, chestnut curls back over her shoulder. I’ll tell you, in every image she’s beautiful, she’s vibrant, and, well… she’s alive.
The nurse just came in to check on her. Just like the others she nods at me, but doesn’t speak. None of them have to, their expressions tell me everything.
I’m sick with loss.
I search my brain for the good it will relinquish. I focus so much on the tragic that I fear the joy will become buried in a place where I can’t find it.
I’d like to tell you I’ve learned something bold or brilliant from enduring this journey with her. I haven’t. I’d like to tell you that walking this road with her exposed a greater purpose for me. It didn’t.
What happened when this monster barged in? What did it leave me with? Well, I’ll tell you. Our past. Nothing can take that from me. There are colors, and smells, and places and songs that will always be part of me and her. They are mine. Lily may have been robbed of her future but, I still own every memory we’ve ever made and every secret we’ve ever shared. Secrets I’ve never told to anyone.
Well… never told… until now.
Her Secrets …
As she tried to move away, Drew grabbed hold of Lily’s arm and spun her to face him, “Oh, come on Lily, please can’t you just take a quick look?”
“Drew, let me go! Knock it off, I mean it! Go see your family doctor! I’m not looking at your junk, for Christ’s sake! I’m your sister! Lesions on your penis? Jesus! What have you been screwing anyway?”
Flabbergasted, she pushed him away and turned back to face the black granite countertop, which was full of dirty dishes. She argued in her head. This isn’t helping him change a grade on a report card or letting him in the house after Mom locked him out for being late. Absolutely not. Brothers don’t ask sisters to do this!
As though he’d heard her thoughts, Drew fired back, “Maybe a brother can ask his sister for this favor… when she happens to be a NURSE! Shit, Lily. You don’t have to make it sound so damned incestuous! I’m just too embarrassed to go to my doctor, okay?”
He watched her for a minute. She rinsed the dishes and aligned them, precisely according to their size, in the rack situated in the open mouth of the dishwasher.
Earlier that afternoon, Drew phoned Lily to ask if he could come by after work. Her husband, Peter, was out of town. Happy for the company, she’d offered to cook dinner for him. Lily’s meatloaf tasted as good as their Mom’s once had. Tonight, it melted in his mouth and he’d devoured it like a hungry twelve-year-old boy. It warmed his heart to remember their Mom. He would have embraced an opportunity to reminisce about her, but it was one of the few things he couldn’t share with his sister. It frustrated him. Mom’s death was an accident. If only Lily could forgive herself.
First to break the silence, Drew confessed, “Okay. I may have suffered a lapse in judgment and spent the night with a woman who was far more attractive under the camouflage of bar light, than she was the next morning!” He paused smiling sheepishly, waiting to be scolded.
Lily’s sarcastic laughter filled the kitchen. She put her hands on her hips. “How about that good ole’ standard safe-sex trick… maybe you remember it… a condom!? It might be a necessary garnish if you’re ordering up dirty girls to go with your dirty martinis!” Turning her back to him, she smirked at her own stupid joke. She picked up the ranch dressing and put it in the refrigerator. Scolding rendered.
“You’re a real comedian, Lil! Actually, after four martinis there wasn’t a single thought about a condom…pro or con. Not one thought.”
It was true. Several weeks back, he’d attended happy hour with coworkers. He was finishing up his second martini when a blonde sat down next to him. She’d introduced herself as Ariel and engaged him in small talk. He was lonely and embraced the attention, ordering drinks for both of them. After several, Ariel invited him to her place. One thing led to another and a few weeks later Drew discovered the open sores. Mortified, he’d tried every over-the-counter remedy he could find before calling Lily. The thought of having to explain his need for a doctor visit to a fresh-faced twenty-year-old receptionist was more than he could bear. Drew didn’t see how this was much different from the time Lily had scored him a prescription for his bronchitis… she’s a NURSE for God’s sake!
Lily closed the fridge and crossed back to the sink. She picked up the yellow dish gloves, dangling them in her hand. Residual water dripped from the finger tips as she sighed and crossed the room to stand in front of him. Using the gloves she motioned toward the floor, “Drop your pants.”
Drew’s voice cracked and his eyes widened. “What… what are you gonna do with those?”
Lily slipped a glove onto each hand. “Look, Drew, it’s bad enough that I have to look at you, I’m definitely not going to touch you!”
Drew went crimson. He nervously dragged his fingers through his dark hair, rendering it a tousled mess. “You know, this isn’t a walk in the park for me either, Lil. It’s not like I want to do this!”
As Drew struggled with his buckle, button and zipper, he babbled, “Lily-thanks so much for checking this out. This isn’t nearly as bad as having a strange nurse judging me and all. I don’t think I could take that. I really hate to make you uncomfortable, but man, am I glad you’re doing this for me.” By the time Drew finished rattling, he had managed to scoop his slacks and boxers down to his ankles. He stood before her half naked. He couldn’t begin to understand how ridiculous he looked. It reminded Lily of her geriatric patients- known for shuffling down the hallway bare-assed, having walked clean out of their hospital-issued pajama pants.
Lily bent to look at the red, weeping lesions that covered him. She went right into professional nurse-mode. She furrowed her brow and sympathized, “Oh Drew, this looks so painful! You shouldn’t have waited so long to address it.”
Perhaps to lighten the mood, perhaps because he knew how awkward this was for Lily, he couldn’t help himself, he grinned as he joked, “You know, Lily… if we lived in West Virginia, this would be just an ordinary Friday night!” Drew burst into laughter as he watched her shock.
She straightened to face him. “Drew Wallace, you are a complete asshole!”
“Oh, come on Lily, I was just trying to lighten it up a bit. By the look on your face, you might have thought I was a leper!” He scooped up his boxers and slacks, buttoning them.
Lily barked, “No, Drew, I was looking at carelessness and you’ll be lucky if your whole penis doesn’t fall off!” She snapped off the gloves with the skill of a surgeon.
Drew’s laughter halted. He paused from buckling his belt. The humor on his face was replaced with skepticism mixed with fear. “It can’t fall off… right, Lil? You’re just bullshitting me. Right?”
Lily was standing only inches from her brother. She stared him down, allowing him to suffer for his tasteless joke. Finally, she answered. “No, Asshole, it can’t fall off. I’ll get one of the doctors at the hospital to prescribe something for you tomorrow. I’ll have to lie and say it’s for me.” She crossed the room, dropping the gloves into the trashcan as she passed.
The next day when Drew picked up the phone, he was relieved to hear Lily’s voice on the other end. She whispered, “I spoke to Doctor Robinson and he agreed to call in a prescription. You can pick it up this afternoon at the pharmacy. It’s under my name. You owe me big time! I had to listen to a twenty minute lecture on safe sex and how to spot a sexually transmitted disease.” Her voice elevated several octaves. “I wanted to die!” Then in a hushed tone, she cautioned, “And whatever you do… not a word about this! I could lose my license!”
He was lucky she couldn’t see him. Drew was sitting at his desk with his arms folded, grinning ear-to-ear at the visuals of responsible, loyal, safe-sex Lily taking the fall for him. She must have been horrified. He tried to hide the sound of his smile. He bit down on his back teeth and spoke. “Lily, it’s our secret and this won’t ever happen again. I promise!”
“If it does, you’re on your own. I’m not helping you. If you sleep with trash, expect to wakeup smelling like a dumpster.”
Drew couldn’t help himself any longer. He and Lily were longtime John Denver fans… he started singing, “Almost heaven… West Virginia…”
Lily gasped and hung up, but not before a bellow of Drew’s laughter rang through the phone.
Drew nearly pulled his black, king cab pickup truck into the parking lot on two wheels. He noticed Lily’s brilliant yellow Mustang convertible already parked in the lot. He knew she’d already be waiting for him inside. She was never late.
Yanking the keys from the ignition, he pulled the door handle and jumped down from the seat. He barreled forward, slowing to a walk as he passed through the double glass doors. He surveyed the room for Lily. He spotted her seated in a dark, heavily varnished booth to the left. She was shaking her head when he approached. “Well hello, Mr. Minute Man!”
Drew leaned in and kissed her on the cheek before sliding onto the bench across from her. He was late more than he was on time, so he owned it. “Alright, alright… but I have a good excuse.” He glanced around and spotted Seth, a waiter they’d known for a while now and motioned for him to come over. He mouthed be right there and Drew nodded. Seth was a little surer of himself these days, which reminded Drew of how imaginative Lily had been on the day they’d first met him.
Drew quickly realized that he only had half of Lily’s attention. He turned his head to see what captured her gaze. Just across the restaurant, Drew saw a young man with shoulder length blonde hair. He guessed he couldn't have been more than seventeen. The apron wrapped around his waist indicated he was a server. Although Drew and Lily came here often, he didn't recall having seen him before.
"I don’t think he’s on the menu, Lil." Drew quipped.
"Don't be ridiculous, Drew! I was watching that group of young waitresses ignoring the poor boy. Girls always have to be so mean!"
Drew turned back, noticing a small circle of girls wearing matching aprons, clearly excluding the kid across the room. He wasn’t overly tall, maybe five-nine. He was handsome, a surfer type with a deep tan and eyes that sparkled aqua. He shuffled across the room, keeping track of his shoes.
He placed two menus on the table. "Hi, I’m Seth. Can I get you something to drink?"
"Raspberry iced tea, please." Lily answered and reached for the menus, sliding one across the table.
Drew picked it up. “I’ll have whatever dark beer you have on tap."
"Okay. I'll bring those right out for you!” He left them with a rehearsed smile.
He quickly returned, awkwardly balancing a small brown tray. After putting their drinks down, Seth glanced from Lily to Drew. “Ready to order?”
"I think I’m ready. How about you, Lil?”
Lily slid her menu to the end of the table. "I'll take the chicken Caesar salad. I don't think we’ve met before. Are you new?"
“ I started a week ago.”
Drew stacked his menu on top of Lily’s. "I'll have a burger, medium-well and fries. Don’t worry about us…we’re pretty low maintenance."
Seth collected the menus and tucked their order ticket into his binder. "Your food will be up soon."
As Seth started to walk away, Lily grabbed his wrist. "Don't let those girls over there intimidate you. Girls are so petty. You’ll do fine here!"
Confused and casually trying to reclaim his arm, he mumbled, "Umm…thanks, ma'am."
Drew looked amused as Seth scooted away from their table. “Counseling our waiter?"
Lily half-heartedly laughed. “I have daughters. Some girls made their lives miserable. It still makes me mad.” Lily witnessed the group of waitresses deliberately ignore Seth when he passed them to enter the kitchen. “I’ll be back.”
Lily headed toward the restrooms. Drew watched as she stopped and spoke to the girls. When Seth returned, their expressions completely changed as they directed looks of delight in his direction.
After dinner they walked toward the exit, passing the group of waitresses, gathered around Seth. A few of the girls glanced at Lily as they passed. They smiled as though they were having their picture taken. In return, Lily winked.
Drew raised an eyebrow. "What did you say to those gals?"
Lily shrugged her shoulders and smirked. "Nothing much, I told them that Seth wasn't allowed to disclose his cousin is Zac Efron because the owners were afraid it would cause a commotion.”
As always, amused by her antics, Drew draped his arm around her shoulder. “Lillian Finnegan… always the philanthropist you are.”
Drew clapped his hands together. "So! I’m really sorry that I made you wait. I'm stuck on this ridiculous project at work, trying to design a home for a woman who doesn't know what she wants. There really is no pleasing her. She reminds me of Alisha!"
Drew was referring to his ex-wife, whom he had divorced years earlier. She ultimately couldn't make up her mind as to who she loved more, her husband or her boyfriend. She and Drew had two daughters. Sophia was the oldest and the youngest was Sora. Drew ultimately caught Alisha with the guy and when all was said and done, she got the boyfriend, the house, his daughters, his dog and half his income.
Lily casually waved her hand in the air. "Really, it’s fine Drew, I didn't wait that long.” She was fidgeting, rearranging silverware, and twisting her napkin between her forefinger and thumb.
He raised his brow. "Wait a second… what's going on, Lil?"
She took a deep breath and sighed. It was then Drew noticed the manila envelope sitting on the table. Lily reached for the envelope, retracted and reached again as though she couldn't bear to touch it. "Remember, I told you that I thought Peter was up to no good, so I was hiring a private investigator?" Lily paused. Drew nodded and his heart sunk. "Well… I did. Turns out, he’s a pretty good photographer, too. He trailed Peter for about ten days. That was all he needed and he gave me these.”
Her hands trembled as she pushed the envelope across the table to Drew. He didn’t usually notice her hands, but as she eased it over he noticed how much they’d aged. They told a truth that her face didn’t. "And to think I thought he was gambling." Lily shook her head as Drew tried to guess at what was masked inside the envelope.
As he withdrew the contents- about ten black and white photos- tears carved tracks in Lily’s pink blush. She watched Drew's expression transition from curiosity to utter disbelief. Drew’s eyes widened as he realized the pictures were of Peter involved in various sexual acts with several different women- most of them Asian- and all of them young. He methodically stacked the pictures on the table as he looked through them. Holding the last two pictures, one in each hand, Drew raised his eyes to meet Lily’s. He finally managed to speak. "What. The. Hell?”
“Prostitutes, Drew. Can you believe it?” She defended, “I mean…shit… Peter didn’t need to pay for sex. Hell… I love sex. And, to tell you the truth, I'm damn good in bed! And I don’t do any of that courtesy fake stuff!” Her voice had risen.
Drew glanced around the somewhat empty establishment. He shifted in his seat and blinked to try to erase the overload of unwanted details about his sister’s sexual prowess.
Normally, she’d joke about such things. However, right now she was uncomfortably serious. Under different circumstances, Lily could be pretty quick with sexually loaded innuendos. On such occasions, Drew would teasingly bug his eyes out, hold a finger up in the air and say, “Check Please!?!” But there was no room for laughter right now. Prostitutes… damn.
Lily turned her face toward the window as Seth approached their table. “The usual’s, folks?” Drew nodded for both of them as he scrambled to tuck the X-rated pictures back into the privacy of the envelope and slid it back over to Lily. Seemingly unaware that anything was amiss, Seth turned and announced, “Coming right up!”
Drew desperately tried to wrap his brain around the unimaginable. Peter Finnegan was stereotypical- tall, dark and handsome… and he’s actually paying for sex? Why on earth would he risk losing his family that he seemed to genuinely love!?! In reality, Lily was right… he WAS gambling. Surely, he understood the stakes?
There was sympathy in Drew’s voice. "Have you had a chance to think about what you’re going to do, Lil?"
Lily took a deep breath. "I'm leaving him, Drew. There is no way that I’ll ever trust him again. Ten minutes late and where is he? Ten dollars missing and what's he doing? Some strange smell on him when he walks through the door and I have to wonder if it’s the Chinese food that he had for lunch or the Asian whorehouse he went to for dessert. I won't live like that.” She slammed her fist on the table. “I won't. God dammit, I'm worth more than this. More than twenty years of my life dedicated to that man! How could I not have known? When did I get so stupid?” She was exasperated. “Why are they all so… young?”
When Seth reappeared, he was carrying their drinks. Lily rose from the table. "I’m going to splash some water on my face." She looked so damned broken. Drew couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed it the minute he sat down. He would never have gone on and on about work.
Lily returned looking refreshed.
Drew was worried. "What will you tell your girls?"
She swallowed hard. "A lie… of course! You know I think it’s the grossest thing in the world that Chelsea Clinton has to live with the disgusting image of her Dad with…” She hesitated, waving her hand dismissively, “…Monica what’s-her-face. I’m sparing my girls that visual. I’ll find some good divorce term like irreconcilable differences.”
The girls were Lily's daughters. Amanda, at twenty, was a blue eyed version of Lily. She had Lily's confidence, poise and spunk. She was beginning her junior year at Virginia Tech. Eighteen-year-old Rebecca had beautiful red hair and blue eyes. She was the bashful one and would be entering her freshman year at Albright next week.
Drew tried to wrap his brain around how this would all unfold. "When are you telling Peter that you’re on to him?"
Lily twirled a napkin in her hands as she spoke. "Actually, my plan is to get the girls off to school next Saturday. I will confront him once they’re safely out of Dodge. I can’t fathom dumping this on them right now. Also, I've decided I’ll tell him he and I are going to be playing along as though everything is normal for this semester. This is Bec's first time away from home. She will probably be a little homesick and I’m not having her deal with this mess, too. We can tell them when they come home for winter break.”
Lily smacked her fist on the table again, this time hard enough to make the silverware jump. “God dammit, Drew. This just isn't fair. We’re all stuck with Peter’s choices. How could he be so selfish? What was he thinking?"
Drew wanted to offer that there were no shots of Peter’s brain in those pictures so it was unlikely there was any thinking going on. Instead, he reached across the table and grasped her hand. He felt helpless. He'd always been a firm believer that most problems could be solved by throwing money, time, or love at them. He knew that wasn't the case now.
Drew thought they should get out of there so he signaled for Seth to bring their check.
Seth dropped it on the table. I'll take that whenever you're ready."
"Let me take care of this now." Drew slid his Visa card across the table. Seth scooped up the check and the card.
Lily's phone rang. She picked it up and glanced at the screen, puzzled. "I don't recognize this number." She paused and answered. "This is Lillian Finnegan." She listened before beginning again. "Yes, that is correct. Oh. I see. When? Tomorrow? Well, let's see. Noon? Okay, I can do that. Thank you for calling. Bye.”
Lily looked annoyed. Answering Drew’s unasked question, she explained, “I had my mammo today and they didn’t get enough images. Who has the time to do this? It’s bad enough that I have to get my boobs crushed in a vice annually, never mind an encore a day later!”
"Are you sure it's not more than that?" Worry about Lily quickly replaced Drew’s anger at Peter.
"Oh Drew, honestly, I have so many friends who get called back for additional views after mammograms. It’s never cancer. If an image is remotely questionable they bring you back, even if they believe it’s nothing. They cover their asses. It’s medicine dictated by lawyers."
Relieved, Drew picked up his card and signed the receipt that Seth had dropped.
Lily slid the envelope back to Drew. “Please take these and keep them in your safe until I’m ready to confront Peter.”
He picked it up. "I'm always here for you to talk to… whatever you need. That is, except for killing him. Don’t ask me to kill him. I wouldn’t do well in jail. I’m too pretty.” Attempting a smile, he slid out of the booth. He wished this had been one of their light-hearted dinner dates. Drew reached a hand out to Lily and she grasped it. He helped her to slide to the edge of the booth and stand.
She looked into the eyes of her brother and knew what he’d said was true. He’d always been there for her. Her face was sober. "I know Drew… I know."
Drew stepped aside, swinging his arm across in front of him, motioning for Lily to go ahead of him. Instead, she locked her arm into Drew’s, leaned her head onto his shoulder and squeezed his arm. He started toward the exit. With Lily on one arm, he was all too aware that he had the destruction of her marriage tucked under the other.