Paul Carter looked across the driveways separating his - well, his parent's - house from Brooke MacDonald's house. He looked across a gulf as wide as his imagination, a chasm that had divided him from his impossible-to-endure one and only very-first-true-love. He had fallen in love with Brooke MacDonald the very first time he had laid eyes on her; which was, unfortunately, in third grade. Paul Carter could not remember one single day in grade school, junior high, or high school that he hadn't thought of her. Hell, lusted for her. He had tried every trick in the book, too, in order to get Brooke MacDonald to pay even the slightest bit of attention to him. And he had failed. He was sure it had been a conspiracy. Had to be!
He had graduated from high school without ever knowing the pleasure of lying in Brooke MacDonald's arms, of making love to her, of just loving her in the most complete way. The thought of here would always remain within a walled-off fantasy land; not exactly a tortured dreamscape, but a pain in the ass nonetheless.
Paul Carter had gone off to college, all the way across the country to California. It was a million miles away from New England in every way. The way kids did things in the Bay Area was spontaneous, original, and often outrageous. His Yankee world view had collided with new-age-hippidom, and the results had been predictable. He had shed his alter-identity in a heartbeat - well, more like a semester - and had met the first of many California Girls. Somewhere along the way, all thought of Brooke MacDonald had simply - vanished.
Paul had remained in California for medical school, and he quickly lost his attachment to undergraduate forays into the search for the ultimate sexual experience, or the ultimate drunkathon, or the ultimate weekend at Mammoth on the slopes (or the hot tub). Medical school had - so far - been the toughest experience of his life, until one afternoon in the closing days of his forth year when the telephone rang. His kid sister Melody was on the phone in hysterics. Between sobs and gulps for air he heard her squeezing out 'plane crash' and 'mom and dad are gone'.
He had - in a state of suspended dysanimation - called the student affairs office and advised them of events, made a reservation to take the red-eye across the country to Boston, and gone to the airport as night fell. He sat in an aisle seat and thought of what life might have in store for his now suddenly diminished family, how his role would change in his sisters' eyes now that their parents were gone. He felt the loss of his father with an acute ache that penetrated his soul, leaving an empty autumn feeling of leaden skies and barren trees in its hollow wake. He sipped a bumpy Coke and thought of his mother wafting around the kitchen in heels and apron, the perfect housewife, brownies in the oven out in time for the little boy and the covey of girls to devour before dinner. From thousands of miles away, he could smell the kitchen in his waking dream, smell his mother walking through the shadow of a heartbeat, hear the oven door open, the click of her heels on the slate floor, the early twilight of New England winters, dinner on the table, help with homework only a whisper away. He cried then for the first time in a long, long time.
As he walked off the plane and up the Jetway his little sister Melody hove into view, her face a wreck of red puffy tear-soaked eyes. He looked around for his other sister, Edith, and he saw her standing next to - ohmygosh - Brooke MacDonald. He made his way through the jumble of passenger greetings and plane changes to his sisters and flew into their open arms. They latched on to Paul Carter with all of the fear and uncertainty the events of yesterday could impart, their tears combined in spontaneous grief more poignant than any eulogy.
Paul looked across to Brooke who nodded her unspoken sympathy, squeezed his arm for a show of support. Her face was somehow the same - but different. Less attractive than he remembered, but the unmistakable pangs of the familiar. Something in the eyes, he thought, troubled, sad, dealing with her own grief in her own way, but still lovely. He felt connected to her in a way he couldn't understand, let alone express, by memory and fantasy. She said she had driven the girls in on the Mass Pike, that she and her mother were going to be helping out at home until Paul could get things settled. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek she offered, and they headed for the parking garage.
Thirty miles westbound out the Pike and they were at the house of a thousand dreams. Winter had held on longer than usual; the maples and oaks were just now filling out in the pale sun-dappled greens of spring. The house looked as it always had; white clapboard siding, black trim on the shutters and gutters, the front door blazing red. Almost an acre of trees, a muddy-rocky creek running across the back of the property. Heather MacDonald, Brooke's mother, stood in front of her house as Brooke pulled the old Mercury Sable up the long gravel drive, and came up quickly to hug Paul as he got out of the car. She held on a long time; he could feel her crying softly, gently on his chest, feel the warmth of her tears as they bled through his shirt.
Heather MacDonald had been her mother's closest friend for as long as Paul could remember; they had gone to the same high school; though they were not in the same graduating class. While Paul's dad had not been that close to Rod MacDonald, from what he knew, the two families had on many occasions spent time together at the Cape, sailed on dad's boat together, even spent Christmas eve's together. And as such, here the dreams of a young man had been born. For Paul Carter, the intertwined images of his mother and Heather MacDonald, of Brooke and his journeyman's eternal love for her smile and her sinfully blue eyes, all emotions seemed to collide in memories of homework and football and cookies and a million sounds and smells that were the echos of growing up in a happy house.
As Paul Carter held Heather MacDonald in his arms he felt buffeted by gales of conflict; he was overwhelmed by the sudden loss of his parents, by the rush of unbroken memories that were flooding in, and by the sudden love he felt for Heather MacDonald, for the un-thanked role she had played in his life as a child. His tears came in sudden release; he held on to Heather just as surely as if he was holding onto the memories of his mother and father.
As Paul's grip on his feelings returned, he held onto Heather for a moment longer, rubbed her shoulders with affection, and pushed himself away to look at her face. She stood perhaps a head shorter than he and looked up at him with concern and a warmth born of holding him in her lap when he had been an very small boy. She cupped her hand on his cheek, made a comment about him being all grown up, and turning, she put her arm around him and walked with him toward his parent's house.
As he walked into the house wave after wave of memories flooded in, persistent echoes of a young boy's footsteps running down the hall and up the stairs crashed into his consciousness, perhaps chased by a sister, a mother's concerned scolding following in close pursuit. He sat in a breakfast room chair, took in his sisters as they busied themselves in the kitchen, there taking comfort in the opium of habit.
Food. All he could remember about funerals and families and friends was food.
Comfort food. Cakes. Roasts. Cookies.
All the better to embalm the living, smother their grief in nice round pie-shaped comfort.
He smiled and walked down to his parent's room. Their smells still hung in the air; his father's Old Spice, his mother's Chanel No 5, all drifted in the parallel dimensions of the living and the dead. He walked to their closet; here the smells were more intense, more personal. They were in the room with him, consoling him. He closed his eyes and could hear their voices, the tinkling of her jewelry as she dressed up for a dinner party. He looked out the window of their bedroom, out onto the view they shared with one another for oh so many years. He wondered what they had thought about as they looked out on the simple pastoral elegance of New England, on their shared hopes and dreams.
He was suddenly consumed with the fear they must have felt in their final moments, as the earth rushed up at them. Were they content with what they had accomplished, whom they had brought into this world. Would their lives have passed before their eyes in grief or terror, or in a loving embrace, with respect for one another and the moment of their passing. Aware he would never know, he let the thought die, afraid of where it might take him.
He was aware of another presence in the room, and turned to see Heather MacDonald. She shut the door to his parent's bedroom and walked over to him, walked into his arms. She looked up at him with open eyes, took his face in her hands and kissed him. Not the kiss of sympathy and condolence he expected; she kissed him with a sudden passion that caught him off guard. She took off his tie, his coat, and laid him down on his parent's bed. She took off his shoes, then her own, and lay next to him, her chest to his back, and she held him, stroked his head gently through her soft fingers.
The connection he felt to his memories and his childhood was instantaneous and direct, and was just as suddenly overwhelming. He felt exhausted and confused. He felt the world spinning out of control. He felt her arms around his body, and he moved to hold her arms in his as he felt the world drop off into sleep.
Paul woke up an hour or so later, alone in his parent's bed, the noonday sun streaming in. He was being assaulted with the smells of honey-baked ham and brownies, with maybe a whiff of mac & cheese thrown in for good measure. He got up and took a leak in the familiar but off-limits bathroom, looked at his parent's toiletries spread out on the counter-top in mild disarray. 'So, this is the way it'll be...everywhere I go, everyone I see...will remind me of them.' He ran his father's old sterling silver brush through his hair, tried to sort through his thoughts as he contemplated whether or not to dare use the Listerene by the sink to kill off the dragon-breath his nap had brought on.
Just as suddenly he thought of Heather MacDonald. Of her kiss. He felt somewhat at odds with himself...what was going on with her? These thoughts walked with him down the stairs, down by the whispering memories on the walls and in the very air of the house. He made his way through the combat zone the kitchen had turned into until he found Brooke, and he motioned her outside.
He told her he was sorry for not asking how she was when he had first arrived at Logan, that he had noticed she seemed sad in a way he had not expected. She seemed nervous and hesitant, unsure of Paul in some unsteady way; presently she seemed to shift gears, and she became talkative. She told Paul that her father had been acting a little middle-aged-crazy for some time, and had suddenly - a few months ago - left his office one afternoon and flown to Cancun, and that his very young and very attractive secretary had gone with him. When he had returned from Mexico, he had announced to one and all that he was going to divorce his wife of 27 years, that he had found love again, connected to his youth again, had felt old and stale and decaying in his life with Heather.
Brooke MacDonald had been crushed; this was very evident to Paul. He knew a little of her recent past. Her life had been, it seemed, like a slow motion train wreck. She had wanted to follow in her parent's footsteps. Desperately so, it turned out, as she had married her first 'real love' right out of college. A more noble man there was, to be sure, for Brooke's husband of two years had walked out on her when he found that she was incapable of having children.
The news about Rod MacDonald was information overload to Paul, who expressed surprise at her father's fall from grace. He did his best to console her, but her response to him was as it always had been - flat, uninterested. Not wanting to be reminded of those feelings for her, and the central dilemma they posed, he walked back into the house with her. He ate some lunch, and talked with his sisters for the rest of the afternoon. They were interrupted frequently by lawyers from the airline calling to see if there was anything they could do; he could hear their entreaties between the lines to settle out of court. Paul said to them he wasn't in the frame of mind necessary to talk to or with them, and they of course understood and offered the most sincere condolences. And would call again in an hour.
There were no bodies to deal with; the impact had been so severe, the fire so devastating, that only DNA testing would be able to determine whose remains were whose. This thought totally disgusted Paul, who, despite his training, could not place his parents death - and the circumstances of the death - into the compartment that allowed the detachment necessary to perform his duties as a physician. One newscaster at the scene of the impact likened the remains he had seen pulled from the impact crater to fried Spam. That had made a quite an impression on Paul. He simply could never understand man's capacity to inflict pain on their fellow man.
Paul and Melody and Edith had talked about what they knew of their parent's wishes for final disposition, about where to find their father's will, about what they might do with the house and all of the million little odds and ends that represented the collected memories of a family.
As this confusing day faded into evening, Paul walked upstairs to his room. He showered, changed clothes. He sat at his childhood table and chair, sat looking across at the MacDonald house. He watched as Heather and Brooke walked over from their house to his parent's, felt a wave of confusion as he thought of Heather's kiss. Was she just expressing her sorrow, had he misjudged her intent? He had never thought of Heather MacDonald as being anyone other than Brooke's mother; but now that he had aged a little himself he looked at her as she walked across the infinite gulf that separated the two houses and he was surprised at what he saw.
Side-by-side in the evening glow, Brooke and Heather MacDonald looked more like sisters. The passage of time had been brutal for Brooke, while fair winds had played at Heather's back. They both had her Scots red hair, pale skin, and the lightly freckled nose that had always captivated him. Heather had longer, more shapely legs, a more ample bosom, a daring cleavage, and dressed with care, preserving her rather elegant form with classic attire. Brook , Paul thought as he looked her, now looked more like a Generican mall rat in her jeans and Reeboks. He could see Brooke's shoulders hunched from the burdens she carried, the sorrow she exuded howled along side her like a warning. Heather too had her concerns, Paul was sure, but she kept them at bey.
They all sat together for dinner amidst the glow of candlelight, talked of ancient memories at the Cape, of growing up with each other. Melody and Edith were fairly subdued, though Brooke tried to lighten the tone of the evening by talking about Christmas memories. Heather MacDonald seemed to hold the daughters in check, kept them from falling into their grief, by getting them to talk about their feelings. She watched her own daughter flail about without grace or compassion, concerned, Heather felt, about her own comfort and sense of propriety by dwelling on so many personal memories.
In the smooth amber glow of the room, Paul looked at Brooke and Heather, at past and future, and tried to judge the propriety of his own thoughts. He'd found it hard to concentrate during dinner, hard to balance the competing interests of the living and the dead.
As the candles burned down, Heather asked the girls to clean off the table. She sat with Paul in the study, the small alcove off of the living room with it's three walls of many-paned windows. She lit a small oil lamp and flipped off the overhead light, and they sat in the warm flickering glow. She sat in quiet composure, asked Paul how he was doing after this very convulsive day.
Paul wasn't sure how to respond. He asked her about this morning, about her kiss, and she replied that it had looked as though he needed to rest, and she had wanted to ease his mind. He told her that it had done anything but put him at ease, that he had thought of little else this afternoon.
Heather MacDonald smiled. "No small feat, then, wouldn't you say?" she said.
Paul nodded at her parry. "Well then, dear lady, I shall defer to your wisdom in all matters," he said to her, with almost a smile on his face.
"That might not be too wise, Paul," she countered, with an equally demur smile. They heard the activity diminish in the kitchen, and the girls came in. Edith and Melody sat on little Shaker stools in the glowing room, looking at Heather MacDonald as if she was a life preserver. Brooke excused herself, saying she wanted to get to bed early; Heather said she was going to sit up with Paul for a bit longer. Edith stayed a while longer, but soon grew tired. Melody, who had always doted on Paul, sat beside him, holding onto his hand for a while, but was soon yawning and looking watery-eyed. She, too, went upstairs and to bed, leaving Paul and Heather in the little glowing cocoon.
She asked Paul about medical school, about his coming internship, what he wanted to specialize in. They made small talk for a while, looking out the window into the gathering darkness. The oil lamp cast faceted reflections from the window panes, light which danced on the walls and the faces in the room. Presently, Heather MacDonald sat up and looked off into the back yard.
"Look! A firefly!" she exclaimed. "It's awfully early in the summer for them to grace us with their light. C'mon! Let's go!" Heather walked to the back door and let herself out; Paul followed a few steps behind.. They walked out into the yard, down the gentle slope toward the creek. She asked him to stop and stand quietly. She walked on a few more yards and stopped.
She began to hum. It was an old Shaker tune from summer days, from harvest nights. She began to sing slowly in a gently melodious tone.
"Firefly, firefly, won't you come see me,
"Share your gentle light with me..."
It was a simple tune ripe with beauty, the words almost an incantation...
"Share your gentle light with me..." A single firefly appeared in the enchanted air, wafting through pregnant flows of expectation. It hovered before Heather MacDonald's face, dancing to the variations in her voice, in the spell she was weaving in the summer evening air. The firefly's light winked on and faded out in chemical lust. Heather MacDonald raised her hands out to her side. Her singing became louder, but only barely so.
Soon another firefly appeared, then another, and another. As Heather MacDonald continued singing, dozens of fireflies appeared, coming out of the woods; falling from the heavens. Within a minute there were perhaps a hundred fireflies drifting on the currents of her voice in hypnotic grace. As Paul stood transfixed on the miracle before him he was amazed to see Heather's face glowing in the light of the drifting cloud that surrounded her. She waved her hands slowly, creating currents in the air around her body, and the glowing mist wavered in the air, shifted in the ebb and flow of her movements. With a hand, she motioned for Paul to join her, and he tip-toed to her side. Her serenade continued in gentle symbiotic rhythm; the cloud shifted again and surrounded Paul.
He took her hand in his, and said as gently as he dared, "This is so lovely. You are so lovely." He felt her hand tighten in his, saw her face as it turned towards his. He gently kissed her forehead. He could sense her face move, her lips seeking his. Their lips met and danced in the rhythm of the night; the fireflies moved closer to the two to share in the moment, or perhaps to guide the flow of time.