He knew it was wrong from the start.
Arriving at mid-morning at his editor’s place on a wide, empty bay, the sense of being completely and suddenly alone in the glass box of a house hit him hard.
He’d driven up a day after the funeral, passing through village after village with main streets decorated for Halloween. Everyone had said how fortunate it was to be able to throw himself into work, to focus on something besides Jamie’s death.
Marie, his sister-in-law, knew how ridiculous that sentiment was. Saying goodbye, he saw it in her blurry eyes above the black mask, and heard it in her whispered, “Oh, Stephen. What will we do?”
He had an article to finish on the 1918 flu pandemic, comparing it to the current crisis, relating it to a rise in the numbers of people currently seeking spiritualism as a way of coping, employing mediums, to contact the dead. Research showed that after every war, and during every time of social uncertainty, there was a sharp interest in psychics and mediums.
Events that don’t make sense in the public consciousness and exact a huge death toll, had people in mourning seeking things they would not necessarily have considered before. The feeling that the death of a loved one was not completely final, led to reaching for any help available.
He cleaned all his groceries and put his few clothes in the master bedroom on the second floor with views of the piercing October light glittering on the bay, and set up his laptop on a table downstairs with the same view. But he couldn’t face the keyboard, and stared at the water.
The empty bay — not a sail to be seen — was made more so, for some reason, by a straight line of long-necked geese, passing in front of him, motionless, and yet moving.
He had to get out of the painfully bright, white house. Walking the beach didn’t help. There was no comfort in the ceaseless memories of his brother; they were more like an addiction that must be fed, all pleasure now replaced by need.
Picking up a collection of poetry from a table, his eyes fell on a verse on the first page he opened.
He wanted to laugh, if he hadn’t felt something cold flowing around him, sitting in the blinding whiteness of the room: “He’s gone into the world of light/ and I alone sit lingering here.”
Strange, but the night was fine, even if he didn’t sleep. The darkness was another blanket, the stars over the bay vivid, mysterious, like nighttime prayers, fixed, certain, reassuring. During the day in the white glass cube, there had been no hiding, constantly confronted with himself, and what he’d lost.
On the second day he began to see his brother in the house.
Once, a girlfriend, after he had told her about his childhood, had described it as “Dickensian.”
Ever the scholar, he had disagreed, but saw her point.
When he was 8 and Jamie 12, their mother died. His father had been long gone, lost to alcohol, and had no desire to take on two kids he barely knew. The little boys were shifted from one dubious family member to another, and into foster care, and back to relatives incapable of dealing with children.
Jamie was the anchor, the strong one, the one who spoke up, who took charge, and Stephen fell back into the safety and comfort of books. Jamie was his champion, always.
One time when he was a teenager, shivering with fear about his life, Jamie had copied a line on a card, written by a Roman writer 2,000 years ago, and silently handed it to him.
Jamie knew his scholar brother could translate it, and when he did, the shivers turned to smiles. It became their touchstone, their code, and ever since, Stephen had a printed copy of the Latin phrase pinned to any place he worked.
Jamie went to college a 20-minute bus ride away so Stephen could visit, but he practically lived with him in the dorm, the beloved mascot of his buddies. When Jamie graduated, and turned 21, he got a lawyer and became Stephen’s official guardian, moved him out and supported him.
They both made lives for each other, and with Marie and the children, Stephen sensed a real family, and was content to live alone, write, but always bound safely to his brother.
At dawn the second morning in the glass house, he was in front of his computer again, sipping coffee, when he looked up and there, in the stillness and half-light, on the deck, Jamie was standing.
Stephen closed his eyes, calmed himself and looked again.
His brother stood, his face obscured by a shadow. When he went to him, he had vanished. But what brought on the coldness flowing around him again, was not that his brother had vanished, but for some reason he felt he, Stephen, had disappeared, from the house, the view, gone like night melting into day.
Out on the deck now in the vivid sunshine, he looked up to the small balcony off the bedroom, and there was Jamie. Looking down, as if he was going to speak, but couldn’t find the words. His eyes were staring directly into Stephen’s.
Rushing up the stairs and out to the balcony he was alone. Shivering. What was his brother trying to tell him?
Downstairs, he looked out at the driveway, curving up from the road, and a teenage boy on a bike delivering the newspaper. Shattered, Stephen went out, thinking: here is a lifeline, a human being, and not hallucinations.
“Morning,” the kid said, a loose-limbed boy with a subtle smile, handing him the blue plastic bag with the paper inside.
“You have a late start for school,” Stephen said, realizing how inane it sounded as soon as it was spoken.
“Gotta work,” the boy said, still with that charming smile. “Right?”
And he was gone, pedaling away, one-handed, joyously weaving figure 8’s down the road and out of sight.
Standing in the driveway, he took the paper from the bag and something dropped out, what’s known in the trade as “blow-in cards,” unattached advertising inserts.
He picked it up and stuck it in his pocket as a car was pulling in. The driver, a brown-faced man, smiling, wished him good morning through the open window and handed him a blue-bagged newspaper. “You have already?” he asked.
Stephen explained that the boy had just delivered it.
The man was confused. He explained he was the only one who delivered the paper. Could it be a Halloween prank?
Taking both bags inside, Stephen stopped and laid them next to his laptop. He froze, remembering, and then slowly took out the blow-in card from his pocket.
He knew what was written on it before he read it, the words of a Roman writer Jamie had given him once when he was a frightened boy, and which had become their binding document of love and support.
“Fortis fortuna adiuvat.”
Fortune favors the brave.
Tears of relief, of being set free, were washing away all fears.
He opened the laptop. Looking out to the bay, he saw again a straight line of long-necked geese passing in front of him, perfectly still, motionless, yet moving.