Simon watched his girlfriend, Alyson, pack her things. She was going to visit her parents over the weekend. He was already missing her, even though she hadn't even left yet. Before Alyson had entered his life, it seemed to him now that his old life had been empty and dreary.
"I'll only be gone for three days. See you on Monday."
"You're really looking forward to seeing them again, aren't you?"
"Of course. I wish I could live there all the time."
His face fell. She didn't even want to live in the city. He still had a hard time believing in them. Though they'd grown close in the time they'd been together, it was as if Alyson still kept something of herself from him. But right now, she was smiling at him, making him feel as if his doubts were ridiculous.
"You should come and visit some time. I know you'll love it out there. It's the most beautiful place in the world."
Yes, he was sure he'd love it. If she was there with him. He'd lived all his life in the city, or rather in a suburb, but there was nothing to keep him here. Except for Julian. And he hadn't even seen his brother since – he had to think before he calculated that his brother hadn't been in touch for nearly two months.
"Have you seen Julian?"
"Yes. My brother. Isn't he coming to lectures anymore?"
"We don't take the same classes anymore. I think I saw him three weeks ago, but I'm not sure. He was too far away."
"I should think he's too busy with his – social life."
There it was again. On the few occasions Alyson had mentioned his brother, her voice held a note of – coldness. Distancing. Almost contempt. So she knew about Julian being gay. Simon found it hard to believe that the warm, loving, compassionate Alyson would feel that way about gay men. In fact, if anyone had asked him, he would have said that Alyson was the least prejudiced person in the world. She certainly had just as many black and Asian friends as anyone he knew.
"Yes. I'm worried about him."
Simon suspected – no, knew – that Julian was using drugs. Not seriously. At least he didn't think so. Nothing really dangerous. But how could he tell if the use of those supposedly harmless drugs would one day lead to a dependency on something far more serious? And even if Julian wasn't a drug addict, the lifestyle still caused Simon concern. He'd seen Julian coming out of a casino on a few occasions, always in the company of some apparently wealthy, much older man. How could his sweet, innocent little brother have changed into this?
"There. All packed. Can you say bye bye to Simon, sweetie?"
The little girl fixed her intensely blue eyes on him and her face lit up by a very charming dimpled smile. He knew she was fond of him. Seeing her cute, elaborate walk, Simon temporarily forgot about his brother.
"Bye, bye, Megan."
He knew she could say a few words, and in fact, he sometimes heard her say whole sentences, but they didn't actually mean anything. On the other hand, he'd never heard her say his name. For a while, it looked like the little girl was going to say something. Then she looked away, shyly.
Alyson picked her up, and Simon shot forward to help her with the bags. It was amazing how much a child that age required, even for a short trip of an hour or so. But Alyson already had everything and Simon backed off. He didn't want to come across like some old-fashioned geek. If Alyson wanted to carry all that on her own, he wouldn't feel inadequate as a man because of it.
Megan seemed to have forgotten about her shyness and was now waving with her little chubby hand.
Simon was about to unlock the door for them, when the sound of a key turning in the lock startled him. Alyson had a key, but apart from her only Julian did. Was his brother finally paying him a visit?
It was with relief Simon recognized his brother standing in the doorway. But he looked tired and upset, and his clothes looked as if he'd slept in them.
"Hello, Simon. I guess you didn't expect to see me."
That smile was so typical of him. It always seemed to be hinting at some kind of joke. One that Simon had never figured out. But the look in his brother's eyes told him what he already knew. He loved his older brother as much as he loved him.
Simon was about to introduce Alyson when he noticed Julian's reaction. It was almost as if he was changing his mind about coming inside.
"You know Alyson -"
The tone was flat and dull and though Julian seemed to change his mind again, about leaving, now he seemed tense and his guard was up.
Again, her voice was cold and hard and Simon could see that she was dismayed to see Julian. He didn't get it. Why was Alyson reacting that way?
"I'm surprised to see you here. I didn't realize you had time to socialize with non-paying members of the public."
Julian's face betrayed no reaction, but Simon was sure he'd caught a glint of something in his brother's eyes, but whatever it was, it was gone before he had time to analyze it.
"Oh, well – even a guy like me deserves a break once in a while."
"Well, I can't afford you, so I'd better go, Julian. Simon, I'll call you."
"Right. I'll call you too. See you on Monday. Have a nice weekend."
She shot Julian a look so filled with – what? anger? dislike? contempt? – that Simon wanted to ask them what was going on. Except he knew Julian. It was tricky enough to get him to answer questions. After something like this, he'd be sure to retreat into a sulky silence for days.
Julian's reaction was harder to read, but Simon sensed that Julian was hurt, though he tried hard to maintain an indifferent attitude.
There was something about all this that made Simon uneasy. He'd thought he knew all there was to know about Alyson, but he realized that she'd told him next to nothing about her past. In their time together, they'd focused more on the present than the past.
He could still remember the red-eyed, pale girl he'd run into as he was visiting his brother on campus. She'd carried a newborn child in her arms, and had looked exhausted and devastated. Simon had felt impelled to offer her ride, and though she desperately wanted to manage on her own, she'd accepted. Later she'd told him that she had been completely broke. Didn't even have enough for a bus ride.
He'd been touched by her desperate situation and when he'd realized there was no boyfriend, fiance or husband, he'd been even more determined to offer what help she'd accept.
Now that Alyson and Megan were gone, Simon's attention focused on Julian again.
"Are you ok?"
"I'm fine. Can I stay here for a couple of days? Now that the wife is away, maybe you'll have time for me."
His brother dumped the sports bag he'd been carrying, right where he was standing and headed across the room towards the bathroom. But Simon needed some answers and since Alyson wasn't here, he'd get them from Julian.
"I didn't know you two knew each other."
"There's a lot you don't know. Forget it. Can I use your shower?"
"In a minute. What was she hinting at?"
"How should I know? Why don't you ask her?"
"I will. Julian, please. You can't just show up here like this and get into some kind of argument with my girlfriend and then not explain yourself."
Julian shrugged. He wasn't going to reply. And now he was heading for the bathroom.
Simon didn't normally act so rashly, but this time, he felt uneasy enough to grab his brother and hold him back.
"Talk to me."
Julian squirmed to break free, clearly ill at ease at the sudden proximity, but Simon was determined to have an answer, so he held on.
"You don't want to hold me like this. Guess who the last person who did this was?"
It took Simon a few seconds for the meaning of Julian's hint to filter through to him, but when it did, he blushed violently and let go. Julian never referred to any of his lovers. It was only after Simon had seen him with a number of men on different occasions that he'd offered an explanation.
Now Julian's mask of indifference and bravado had dropped and Simon realized that his brother was really shaken., maybe even close to tears. Simon's conscience struck him and felt foolish for his earlier reaction.
Something was wrong and here he was making things worse by acting like the worst kind of bully. No wonder Julian was upset. He'd overreacted.
Even if Alyson and Julian did know each other, so what? Maybe for some reason they'd been arguing. They had been taking the same classes for at least a year. There was no reason to suspect anything odd about that.
He was about to say he was sorry, but Julian interrupted him before he had time.
Seeing Alyson like that had been a bad shock to him. Ever since they'd parted, he'd been wishing for a miracle. Something that might make her forgive him. But the way she had looked as she stared at him, made him realize that she felt only contempt for him. Revulsion.
She'd never forgive him, never talk to him again. On top of everything, Simon, who he trusted implicitly, had turned on him. Julian's hardwon outer calm shattered and he spoke without thinking.
"Would you like to know who held me like that for the first time?"
"What are you talking about?"
"It's someone we both know well. Or at least we used to. Dear Richard."
This time, it took even longer for Simon to see what Julian was getting at, and now, he felt his face drain of all color. No. Julian had to be making this up. Surely that was impossible.
"Are you saying -"
He could see that this was exactly what Julian was hinting at. Impossible. Everything he'd thought he knew about their family was turned upside down.
"Did he force himself on you? Julian. What are you saying?"
"Force? That's going a bit far. I guess you could say we had a relationship."
"But that's – you were just a kid. Seventeen, eighteen. And he was married."
"That's horrible. Disgusting. I can't believe he'd do something like that. He was never -"
"Maybe he didn't fancy you."
The shock was making Simon feel weak. He wanted to sit down. But he couldn't let this go without asking what Alyson had meant. And if he could find a way of asking, he wanted to know why he got the impression that his brother and his girlfriend knew each other far better than he'd expected.
"What was Alyson saying? Julian – were you and Alyson ever -"
Julian shrugged again. This was the last thing he wanted to discuss with his brother. It hurt too badly, for one thing. He also sensed that if Simon knew the truth, he'd be hurt too and despite everything, he didn't want that to happen. Alyson had made her choice and how could be blame her for that?
Struck by a sudden insight, Simon now thought he knew what the connection between them had been. He was devastated.
"You were involved. That's why I met her running out of your corridor that day. She'd been to see you. And I thought – Why didn't you say something? And you're gay."
Julian forced himself to remain outwardly calm.
"Oh, well, you know. Just curious, I guess. Bi-curious."
"But what she was saying -"
"Never mind. She was angry. And if you think we've been seeing each other since you two got together, you're wrong. Since she met you, I haven't heard from her again. Even though -"
"What? Answer me."
Too shaken to think clearly, Simon grabbed his brother and this time, shoved him up against the wall, shaking him violently.
"Take it easy. You don't want to be this close to me. I haven't even showered since my latest -"
Again, Simon felt himself struck by a new, and earth shattering insight.
"You're not gay at all."
"So what if I'm not? What's it to you anyway? Would you prefer it if I was?"
"What about all those men? All those wealthy old men?"
Julian looked away, reluctant to meet his brother's eyes.
"I need the money."
"You can't be serious. These past two or three years have you been – it was all about the money?"
Julian slumped down and Simon realized he was hurting his brother, physically and emotionally. Lamely, he let go. The sad look in Julian's eyes was a searing reproach.
This was the last thing Julian had ever wanted his brother to find out. It had been bad enough inventing the lie about being gay. He'd half expected his uptight brother to turn away from him then. But this – He felt exactly as cheap and worthless as he always did with the clients. Not tricks, heaven forbid. Everything about the agency was so civilized and classy.
"I thought maybe it would be easier for you to accept me if you thought I was gay."
"But you're not? You're a prostitute?"
"Escort. I work for an escort service."
"You're an escort? But that's the same thing, isn't it? You have sex with those men and they pay you for it?"
"That's usually what it means. Of course, there are services for women too. Women who like to be seen with an attractive young 'date'. But I suspect those guys sleep with their clients too, whatever the service calls it. Not that I know. I've never been lucky enough to work for them. They say I look too young – boyish was the word. And anyway, I know the trade. Richard dear was a very good teacher."
"This is – I just can't accept it. So you were involved with Alyson before?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. She caught me with a client and guessed. Of course she figured it out and that was it. I never meant to put her at risk. And I didn't. We're required to use condoms and -"
Realizing that his brother really wouldn't want to know all the details, Julian broke off, feeling worse than ever. This was a nightmare. He'd have given anything for his brother not to have found out about him.
"What about Megan? Is she yours?"
"That's what Aly told me. And I believe her. She's not like me."
For a moment, Julian desperately wished that he'd been like her. Things would have been very different if he'd only been content with the lifestyle of an ordinary student. But his time with Richard had taught him to appreciate the luxuries of life. Expensive cars. Gambling. Speed boats.
And he'd wanted to give Alyson some of that as well. He'd hated to see her wearing old clothes her grandmother had given her in high school. And to see her go hungry some evenings, when she didn't have any money left until the next check. All he'd wanted was to provide for his girlfriend. Not to mention their baby, when it became apparent that little Megan was on her way.
How he'd loved Alyson for never for a second considering an abortion. It was their baby. Even if they were dirt poor, they'd find a way of looking after their child. Back then, their love had been enough for Alyson. Until she'd realized how he made a living.
He'd understood how she felt. It wasn't really until that moment he'd seen just how humiliated and hurt she must have been. His usual way of dealing with things had been denial.
But that hadn't been an option anymore, when Alyson packed her bags, tears streaming down her face. And he could still feel the pain of her refusal to accept his touch. In her eyes, he'd seen his own reflection and the young man there was nothing but a cheap whore. Unclean. Unfit to be near a young mother with a baby.
"I know. You don't want me here anymore. I understand."
"No, you don't. Of course I want you here. Don't you dare walk away. What the hell were you thinking? If you needed money, you should have come to me. Did you think I wouldn't help you?"
"You don't understand. This isn't just for room and board. I've – become used to a different lifestyle."
"Lifestyle? What does that mean? Are you doing drugs?"
"No. Not those kinds of drugs. I smoke a bit and I take some pills but nothing major. Don't worry about it. I mean it. It's just, you know, the gambling. The cars."
"I thought that car was a gift from one of your – Oh."
"No gifts. Nothing that big anyway. I earned every cent."
"But Julian -"
"I know. You can't understand. I'm sorry. I know I'm not the kind of brother you want."
"What are you talking about? Of course you are. You're exactly the brother I want. But I want you to stop doing that. Stay here with me. I'll take care of you. If you can just do without the drugs and the gambling – You know what? Keep the car. I'll try to help you with that. But the rest -"
"It's not that easy."
"Yes. It is. Move in with me."
Julian looked at him, with the same look of infinite trust and love he had during his childhood. Somehow, he just couldn't bear to disappoint his brother. Not now.
"Thanks. I love you, Simon. If it weren't for you, I don't know how I'd -"
"Then it's settled. Give notice at your place and we'll go and move your stuff over here."
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
"Aly. She can't stand to see me."
"I'll talk to Alyson. She'll understand. I knew she wasn't -"
"Yes, tell me."
"Well, you know – I had no idea about what you were doing. I thought she was -"
Julian couldn't help smiling at his older brother. He'd been concerned that his girlfriend didn't like his brother. It was typical of Simon to care so much.
"Oh. No, she isn't. We had a couple of mutual friends at college, who are gay. In fact, they were involved. We used to double date sometimes. It's just that she hated me for what I was doing. And I can't blame her for that. It wasn't until she looked at me with that hatred and contempt in her eyes, that I really saw what I was doing."
"This is all Richard's fault. He's to blame for this. If he hadn't been dead, I'd have -"
"Whatever. You should know he never twisted my arm. I don't want to talk about it anyway. I'm sure you don't either. Let's forget about it. You can't handle it."
"Don't worry about me. I'm more concerned about you. Are you hungry? I'll make you dinner."
Julian didn't blame Simon for wanting to change the subject.
"Thanks. I'll just -"
He indicated the bathroom. Simon nodded, but it was clear that he was feeling embarrassed about the reason he wanted to shower. Good old Simon.
Inside the bathroom, Julian dropped his clothes in the hamper, knowing he should get the rest of his stuff too. None of it had been washed in nearly two weeks. Wearily, he caught a sight of his own reflection in the mirror but looked away hastily.
When he emerged, half an hour later, he felt marginally better. He found that Simon had brought him some of his own clothes. Julian bit his lower lip. Simon was the best. Even after this, he still cared as much as always. Ever since they were children he'd always been able to count on Simon. They'd been inseparable, until the day Richard had – Hastily, he picked up the t-shirt and began to put it on.
"I know they won't fit you, but I thought -"
He worked out, but in the past couple of weeks, he'd noticed that he was beginning to lose weight. Maybe it was time to stop using the drugs he'd told Simon he wasn't using. But he'd been telling the truth. What he was taking wasn't harmful. It couldn't be what was causing his weight loss. And he knew he wasn't infected with anything. The agency insisted on regular testing for both clients and employees. He just hadn't had much appetite lately.
"Oh, good, you're done. Dinner will be ready in a little while. Come on, let's sit down."
Julian looked at Simon, with a strange mixture of shame and relief. In a way, it was good that his brother had finally found out the truth. It would be so easy to do what he'd always done as a child – turn over responsibility to his big brother. But he knew it wasn't that easy anymore and never had been, since Richard had made him that proposition.
When Simon smiled at him, Julian couldn't help smiling back, though he knew he shouldn't allow himself to let down his guard. There were things Simon didn't know. If he knew, he wouldn't be so cheerful. Poor Simon. He must think that now that it was all out in the open, it would be over.
"I didn't know you were such a cook."
"Alyson taught me."
With a stab of pain, Julian recalled a night when Alyson had taught him how to make a delicious pasta dish, which had looked so complicated, but had turned out to be so simple after all. That wasn't the only thing she'd taught him that night. He knew all about sex, but that night, she'd taught him about love, and he'd felt that this was all he needed. To hell with the money, the cars, the casinos. It hadn't turned out that way, but he hadn't stopped loving her. He didn't think he ever would.
"I see. Well, this is quite a vacation for me. For once, I don't have to do anything, except sit back and enjoy myself."
Too late, Julian realized how Simon might interpret that idiotic statement. But Simon didn't even seem to notice.
"It can be like this all the time. You should never have left in the first place."
"I was kind of hoping for a degree. Simon – about that -"
"You've dropped out?"
"How did you guess?"
"Never mind. You can go back next semester."
"We'll see about that later. In the meantime I might be able to get you a job. Though if you don't feel up to it yet, it's ok. We'll manage."
"Don't be so nice to me. I don't deserve it."
"Of course you do. Ok. That will be the pasta."
What an odd twist of fate that it would be the pasta. On the other hand, why was he surprised? If he could manage to cook that dish, of course Simon would too.
It turned out that Simon had not only made that pasta dish, he'd also mixed a delicious salad. For the first time in months, Julian felt some of his appetite returning. Even the mineral water was fine. Mineral water? He really was back home with his brother. None of the people he usually went out with drank anything but wine, champagne or stronger stuff. On the few occasions he could find time to go out on his own, he'd have a beer or two.
"This. You making sure little brother doesn't have any more alcohol."
"I was only -"
"It's ok, but I'm not an alcoholic, you know. Or a drug addict. Relax. I really am fine."
"You don't look fine."
"Thanks a lot."
"You look – tired and -"
"Ok, ok. Maybe we should talk about something else. I'm sure I'll get enough sleep here. Don't worry about it."
"Fine. I won't nag you anymore. It's just that I worry about you."
"Alright, I can understand that, but you don't have to."
They finished dinner chatting about this and that, almost like in the old days. When he'd cleared away the dishes, Simon excused himself and went to make up one of the spare rooms for Julian.
"What's up with the guest room? Why can't I just sleep there?"
"Well, you see – Alyson usually -"
They slept in separate bedrooms already? No. That was Alyson's independence all over again. Besides, she wouldn't spend more than a couple of nights a week here anyway. He'd have smiled in recognition, if it hadn't been too painful.
"I see. Ok. Whatever. I'll help you with that. You're not my servant."
"Alright. You could bring that blanket from the closet. If you think you'll be cold, you could take two."
"No, I'll be fine. Thanks, Simon, you're -"
"I'm really glad to have you back."
Simon noted to his satisfaction, that Julian went to bed almost right away. Good. It was obvious that he needed sleep. Simon sat down at his desk to grade some papers. It was funny how hard work being a teacher was. He'd never have imagined that when he was in school. But as a temporary job, it was ok. Could have paid better, but all in all, he wasn't complaining. He'd finished before midnight and decided to go to bed himself.
What he'd just learned about his brother had turned his world upside down. Now that he had time to think about it, he felt cold all over. His little brother being used like that. First by Richard, the only father poor Julian had ever known, then a succession of tricks, clients, whatever those escort services called it.
He was furious. Though he was normally very peaceable, Simon felt a strong urge to confront someone. To make someone pay for what Julian had been through.
But what was the point? The only thing that mattered was that the boy was safe again. He'd make sure nothing more happened to him. That was all he could do.
A sudden noise coming from Julian's room woke him from his brooding. Was he crying? Simon was out of bed and outside his room before he had time to think.
In a way, this was so familiar. When Julian was little, he'd often cried at night and usually mom would comfort him, but there had been times Simon had taken that duty upon himself. After all, mom worked hard during the days and she needed her sleep.
Only this time, he very much doubted it was monsters under the bed that was causing Julian's distress.
He opened the door without knocking, without even thinking about it, and stood over his brother's bed, anxiously looking him over.
"Hey. What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, Sime. I didn't mean to wake you."
Julian tried ineffectively to wipe away his tears with the back of his hand.
"Uh uh. Right. Want to talk about it?"
Simon sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling another momentary stab of concern when Julian automatically tensed up. But it lasted only a second. The tension was cleverly transformed into a lithe movement in the other direction, as if to give him space.
There's nothing to talk about."
"Well, anything then."
"Oh. Let's see. Do you remember dad at all?"
"Of course. Don't you?"
"No. Nothing. You're a lot like him, aren't you?"
"Yes, I think so."
"And I'm like mom. At least Richard used to say so."
"Well, in this case, he was right. You take after her a lot, but I also see some of dad in you."
"Really? Like what?"
"The eyes. The nose."
"Yes. Absolutely. Haven't you seen the photos?"
"I guess so, but they're just old photos. I don't know anything about him. But mom – I guess I'm just like her."
"Maybe. Do you think you could sleep now?"
"Yes. Sure. Don't worry about me."
But Simon didn't like the look on Julian's face and he decided to stay a while longer. He didn't try to make Julian talk anymore. Just sitting there, watching him, was enough.
Suddenly an unwelcome thought intruded and it wouldn't go away, no matter how hard he tried. Was it like this it had happened? Richard going into Julian's room at night? The thought was intolerable and his face must have given the emotion away.
"What's wrong, Sime?"
"Nothing. I just hate to see you this tense. Is something worrying you?"
He'd spoken too quickly. Simon was bound to suspect something.
"No. Really. I told you, I'm fine. Stop making a fuss."
"I can't help it. If you were in my position, you'd worry too."
"I know. I'm sorry. Some brother you have."
"I told you -"
"I know, Sime. I feel the same way."
To Julian's own alarm, he couldn't stop a sob from breaking free. Knowing that Simon loved him so much he'd even managed to accept what he did, was overwhelming. He didn't deserve that much love. Alyson had been right to turn away from him. And mom –
Forgetting Julian's earlier reaction, Simon now stretched out beside his brother and pulled him into his arms.
Torn between his spontaneous wish to pull away, and a wish to bury his face at his big brother's shoulder, Julian did nothing. It felt comforting to have those strong arms around him. Lying like this, he could almost imagine he was eight again and had had a bad dream. Simon would sometimes let him climb into bed with him and sleep there the rest of the night, usually when Simon was too tired to sit at his bedside until he'd gone back to sleep.
This time, he knew he couldn't wake from the nightmare, but he still wanted to maintain the illusion of safety so he moved closer and let Simon hold him. For the first night in weeks, he dozed off, and slept soundly and dreamlessly until morning.
Simon waited until Julian was asleep, then gently withdrew. For a while, he remained standing over the bed, to make sure he hadn't woken his brother up. But Julian appeared to have been exhausted. He didn't stir.
Leaving the door open, Simon returned to his own bed, feeling wide awake and still haunted by the image of Richard standing over Julian, with an utterly different motivation. How could he? Simon was filled with a hatred so intense, he feared he would have killed his stepfather, if he hadn't already been dead for nearly three years. Who said only good people died of cancer?
In the morning, Julian slept late. Simon approved wholeheartedly. A good night's sleep and a healthy breakfast was exactly what Julian needed. No drugs or alcohol, and no late evenings.
Once he'd finished with breakfast, he thought he could hear Julian coming.
"Simon, it's really nice of you to fix all this stuff, but I really only want a glass of orange juice."
"Ok. Help yourself. Aren't you even a little bit hungry though?"
Julian never felt hungry in the mornings, but faced with Simon's obviously well meaning attempt to feed him, he relented.
"Maybe a little. Thanks, bro."
They had breakfast together, discussing the latest football results and arguing about which team would win this time. It was almost like old times.
"Thanks again. This was really nice."
It was too. He was surprised at himself. If he didn't watch it, he'd be forced to hang out at the gym every night.
Then it struck him that maybe he really would take advantage of this time off. Simon's offer to put him up had solved his immediate problem. Maybe if he sold the car and –
But he'd make plans later. For a few days at least, he'd enjoy Simon's hospitality. Right now, he didn't want to think about anything but the basics. Breakfast, football, tv, talking with his brother.
He went into the bathroom to shower and shave. Good old Simon. He'd known there would be a spare tooth brush. He'd brought his own, but he very much preferred to use Simon's spare.
First he turned on the shower, then began to step out of Simon's clothes. He caught sight of his own face in the mirror and was overcome with memories of the last mirror he'd seen his face in, the last bathroom he'd showered in, before last night.
Who was he kidding? He wasn't the sort of person who should be near a guy like Simon. And what about when Aly and Megan came back? There was no room for him in their lives. He'd been given a chance and he'd blown it. It was better that he just ran back to his old life, and let them get on with theirs. They didn't need someone like him in their lives.
Julian was startled to find his hands shaking with emotion and he wanted to smash his fist into the mirror to get rid of his own reflection staring back at him, reminding him of things he'd done, only the other day. For a second, he felt sick. Bile rose in his throat and he thought he'd have to throw up. But the moment passed. The pain didn't and he looked around for something to make it stop.
With shaking hands, he opened the medicine cabinet and found Simon's razors lying on the top shelf. Yes. He didn't have any drugs with him. It would have been rude as well as pointless to try and sneak them by big brother's watching eyes. This would have to do.
The anticipation made his shivering stop. With hands now steady, he picked up one of the razors. It glinted coolly in the bluish light. Placing the sharp edge against his lower left arm, Julian closed his eyes and made the cut.
This was something he'd had to do without while he was working for the escort agency. No scars or tattoos. No piercing except in the nipples. He'd passed on that one. Bloody stupid idea. There was pain enough without having to adorn himself like a – Bad example.
To stop the thoughts whirling around his mind, he cut the same arm a few more times, then awkwardly switching hands, he placed the razor against the other.
He'd been too intent on his own actions. The door had opened behind him and now Simon grabbed his hand and pulled it away from his arm.
"Let go of that. What are you doing to yourself?"
"Sime – I -"
The razor clattered onto the floor tiles, making a red splash against the cool white. Julian didn't move. He hardly noticed the blood dripping down onto the floor.
Without waiting for a reply, Simon grabbed a towel from the wall and wrapped it around Julian's left arm.
At last, Julian's paralysis gave way to a feverish babbling.
"It's not like you think. Simon, I -"
"And what do I think?"
"I'm not trying to kill myself. It's just -"
"I know what this is. Didn't you know I've been working as a high school teacher all last semester? I know all about this – What I don't get is how you of all people would -"
Wrong tactic. It seemed Julian had more reason than most of his students.
"You're not doing this while you're staying with me. If you're in pain, you talk to me."
"About anything that's bothering you."
Simon found a robe and put it over Julian's shoulders, then dragged him along into the kitchen, where he found a first aid kit in a drawer. He bandaged Julian's arm, then let go of him.
"Please don't do this to yourself. Have you been doing it for a long time?"
"No. Look. You saw my arms. No scars – see?"
"Ok. Then you obviously know some other way of -"
"I've never done it before, because of – the work I do – did. It's against the rules. No scars or tattoos."
Now he'd made Simon embarrassed again. It was the last thing he wanted to discuss with his brother and this time, he sensed that Simon agreed.
"Will you promise not to do it again?"
He had no choice. What an idiot he was. Simon had been nice to him, nicer than anyone, and still he insisted on upsetting him again and again.
"Yes. I'm sorry, Sime. It won't happen again. I was just -"
"Nothing. I guess I'm not having that shower after all. Do you think I could shave though?"
"I'm not going to stand over you and keep watch. You know that would be impossible anyway. If you say you won't do it again, I'll take your word for it."
Exhausted by the emotional strain, Julian was relieved to retreat into the bathroom again. He had his shave, then cleaned up the floor. It was clear that Simon didn't understand. But he'd already stayed for too long. He'd better go and calm his brother down.
Simon was still upset. He couldn't forget the sight that had greeted him in the bathroom. For a horrible second, he'd thought Julian actually was trying to kill himself.
"Can you explain to me why you did what you did? I mean what reason you had for feeling that way?"
"I just remembered how badly I treated Aly. And -"
"That's enough, isn't it?"
"She was upset but -"
"But nothing. I betrayed her. Put her and Megan at risk. I wasn't infected with anything, but if something had gone wrong -"
He didn't elaborate. A faulty condom would be all it took, or a violent trick who didn't want to play by the rules. He'd known that all along but hadn't wanted to deal with the knowledge. If he'd infected Aly and Megan – then even dying on a bathroom floor wouldn't have been punishment enough.
"Julian. It's ok. They're fine. Don't beat yourself up over what you can't do anything about. No one can change the past. All you have control over is the future."
"Fine. I hear you."
It was clear that Julian wanted to change the subject and Simon agreed. They should be doing something to take their minds off this distressing topic.
"Do you think you could stand being seen in my clothes?"
"We could go to the park or something. Or if you prefer, go for a drive. Whatever you like. My treat."
"You're being too nice to me, Sime. But ok. I'd love to go to the park."
They used to love that. Tossing a frisbee between them, or even kicking a ball around. Sometimes, they'd race each other along the winding paths.
Julian did his best not to cause Simon any unnecessary alarm, but he couldn't help anticipating Aly's return with some dread. How would she greet him this time? She might guess that her reaction to his presence would have led to a confrontation with Simon, but how would she feel when she found out he was staying with Simon?
On the other hand, Julian was hoping against hope that he might at last be allowed to beg her forgiveness. More than anything he wished there was something he could do to take back the pain he must have caused her.
Simon called Alyson as he'd promised, but when she learned about Julian's presence in the apartment, she didn't call him back as they'd had agreed. Simon could only imagine how she felt about the situation. She'd said very little and her voice hadn't given much away either. He felt torn in two directions. How could he choose between his brother and his lover? It was impossible. He needed them both.
To his surprise and relief, Alyson returned on Monday as planned and in the evening, she came over. She looked tense and he noted that she hadn't brought Megan.
"Hello, darling. Welcome back. I've missed you."
"Have you? Is he here?"
"Yes, Julian's in the other guest room. He – I think he wants to talk to you."
"Oh, really? Well, maybe I have something to say to him as well."
"She's still with mom and dad. I thought it was best."
"Yes. I'm having a hard time dealing with anything related to Julian."
"I can understand that. Please, could we talk about this?"
She sighed and sat down at the kitchen table. Her hands nervously played with the table cloth and she wouldn't face him.
"Alyson, why didn't you tell me about you and Julian? I wish I'd known."
"Ok. I didn't even plan to get to know you. That day you met me outside his place – all I wanted was to get as far away from him as possible. And that included his brother. I knew who you were. There was a photo of you in his room and he talked about you all the time. But you were so nice to me and we turned out to have so much in common. I couldn't bear not to see you again. By then, I felt I'd waited too long. I'd lost my chance to explain. Besides, I was hurt. Have you any idea what it feels like to catch your boyfriend with another man, while you're carrying his baby? Ok, I'll rephrase -"
"I think I know what you mean."
"I thought – I panicked. I thought I'd been infected with AIDS or whatever. That I was going to die, that the baby was going to die. As soon as we'd finished arguing about it, and Julian was gone, I began to harass my doctor to run all kinds of tests. I wouldn't accept her reply. How could it be negative? I just knew. Don't you see? I knew I'd been infected. By the time I'd finally calmed down and accepted the fact that we were ok, I couldn't bear to see Julian again.
Then after I gave birth, I began to feel I'd been a bit too harsh with him. Even if it was over between us, he still deserved to meet his daughter. So I brought Megan over to his place. I was going to let him hold her. But he'd just come back from seeing another trick. I just knew it and when I confronted him, I knew I was right, judging by his reaction. So I wouldn't let him touch Megan and I stormed out. That's when you saw me."
"Alyson, I'm so sorry. Sorrier than I can say. I guess I can understand why you never told me."
"Yes, I think maybe you do. Well, where is Julian? I suppose I should talk to him too."
"I'll go and tell him you're here."
"As if he doesn't know already."
"I mean -"
"Yes, ok. No, wait. I'll go. We'd better talk this through."
She got up wearily and walked over to the other guest room. Julian opened the door so soon after her first knock, she knew he'd heard her come in and had probably been waiting for her all along. Bracing herself, she looked into the all too familiar face.
"I'm so glad I've got a chance to talk to you."
"Oh. Well, can I come in?"
Eagerly, he stepped aside to let her in. There wasn't much more than a bed in there, so Alyson remained standing. Julian closed the door behind them and turned expectantly to her.
It was so hard to look at him again. To be this close. Alyson was assaulted by the memories. She'd loved him so much and – she knew she still loved him, no matter how much she loved Simon.
If only everything had been a bad dream. She'd wake up in the morning, feeling the thrill of anticipation. Another new day with Julian. Whatever she was going to do, she'd felt that bubbly happiness, because Julian was in her life.
On the day she'd seen him with the man, who had discreetly, but not discreetly enough, handed over a folded up roll of dollar bills, it was as if part of her had died. She'd never be that young, happy girl again.
"Please forgive me, Aly. I know I hurt you. There's no excuse. You have to believe one thing – I would never have put your health at risk."
"How could you guarantee that?"
"We were required to use condoms and -"
"If anything had gone wrong, I'd never have -"
"I see. Well, if that's true -"
She did see that he might not have understood what he was doing to her. He was younger than her, and maybe guys never matured the same way women did.
"Alright, Jule. I believe you. It's ok. It was a long time ago. I've had time to think. That day -"
It seemed too good to be true. She was going to forgive him.
"Aly – Simon's invited me to stay here. He wants me to stop working for the agency. And if I sell the car and -"
She couldn't believe it. He wouldn't stop prostituting himself for her and for Megan's sake. On the other hand, to please his brother, apparently, it was a different matter.
"I see. When Simon asks you, it's ok to stop working for them. Obviously Megan and I don't mean as much to you as he does."
"That's not true, Aly. When we were together, it was the happiest time of my life."
"You have a funny way of showing it."
Without another word, she stormed out of the room and past Simon who was waiting for her in the kitchen.
"Alyson, wait -"
"No, Simon. I have to go. I'll call you."
She blinked furiously to clear her sight. Stupid, pathetic tears. Why was she so weak when it came to Julian? Whatever he'd told her, he couldn't have loved her if he was willing to let other people – men – touch him the way only she was supposed to.
Julian ran after her, and past Simon as well, but it was too late. The door slammed in his face, making him feel as if she'd slapped him. He almost wished she had. The physical pain would have been far preferable than what he was feeling inside right now.
Except now Simon was here, staring at him anxiously and inquringly. He had to say something.
"For a moment, it seemed as if she was going to forgive me, then suddenly, she accused me of not caring about her and Megan."
"What did she say?"
"She said – and she was right – When she confronted me about that client, I tried to explain, I begged her forgiveness, I – but I didn't promise her I'd stop. And the day she brought Megan to me, I still hadn't stopped working for them. Of course she's right. Why didn't I do something about it a long time ago?"
"Julian, calm down. Come here."
Simon pulled him into his arms and held him.
"She'll come around. I'll call her and explain. When she's calmed down, she'll understand."
"What's there to understand? She's right to keep Megan away from me."
Eventually, Simon managed to calm his brother down a little, but even then, he could tell how upset he was. And he couldn't blame him for that.
He too, felt badly shaken by the incident. Alyson was distraught, Julian was shattered. They were all being torn apart by what Richard had started all those years ago. None of them were to blame. It was all down one selfish man.
Once Julian had gone to bed that evening, Simon tried calling Alyson several times, but wasn't successful until so late he was beginning to give up. From what he could tell, Alyson was just as upset as before and talking to her didn't help much.
Simon was at a loss. At the moment he couldn't figure out what to do. But at least Julian was safe.
The following morning, Simon decided it was time to go shopping. Sometimes he and Alyson would shop together, with Megan sitting in the shopping cart, holding out her greedy little hands for all the interesting things on the shelves.
This time, he intended to go on his own. To his surprise, Julian unexpectedly offered to come along. They didn't shop quite as wisely as Alyson usually did, but they had fun and Simon could sense that Julian was beginning to feel a little better.
They were standing in the checkout line when Julian suddenly remembered he wanted to get a couple of video tapes for the games coming up. Leaving Simon to pack the bags and haul them out to the car, he ran to the electronics store only two stores down from the supermarket.
In the meantime, Simon had unlocked the car and was trying to fit the groceries into the back seat, when he heard a voice calling his name.
He turned around to find himself cornered by three men he'd never seen before. Two of them looked like doormen at some club or bar, while the third had on a business suit.
"We have a message for your brother. Julian. Tell him Michael is waiting for that money. He'll know what I'm talking about. By the way, I can see the resemblance. Very nice."
Simon felt himself being looked over rather like he'd looked at roller skating girls in bikini tops and shorts, when he was in high school. Who was this guy? One of Julian's –
He didn't have time to finish the thought. The two big guys grabbed his shopping bags and turned them over. He was about to protest, as he saw cans of peas and tomatoes rolling across the ground, when one of the body guards hit him so hard he lost his wind. Another blow followed the first one, then a third. His legs gave out under him and he tipped over. Retching from the heavy blow to his abdomen, Simon tried to force himself to stand up, to block the blows raining on him.
At least he hadn't taken any hits to the head. His sight blurred and for a moment, he thought he was going to pass out. Then a voice cut through the haze and the blows stopped.
"Hey. Get off him. You -"
By the time the good samaritan was standing over Simon, the three attackers were gone. He thought he heard a car taking off, but he couldn't be sure if it were them or not.
"Mr? Are you ok?"
"Did they want your wallet? Can you stand?"
The guy didn't wait for a reply. He grabbed Simon's arm and helped him to his feet. At least the answer to the last question was yes. He was standing, even if he felt a bit wobbly.
"Are you ok? Should I call an ambulance?"
"No, thanks. I think I'll be fine. They didn't have time to get my wallet or anything."
"Oh. Good. Well, if you're sure you're ok – My wife's waiting over there so -"
"Well, thanks again."
This was beginning to seem like something out of a tv show. First he finds out that his little brother had been sexually assaulted by their stepfather, then he learned about the prostitution. And now – this. He couldn't believe it was happening to him.
"Simon? What's wrong?"
Julian came running across the parking lot, concern written all over his face.
You won't believe this. I was beaten up by two thugs on steroids."
"They had a message for you. Some guy in a suit who seemed to think I was kind of hot, told me that Michael wants his money. You'd know what he was talking about."
Julian's face lost all color. He was already concerned. Now he looked absolutely broken up. What little vivaciousness he'd recovered during the long weekend with his brother, he now looked just as pale, weary and defeated as before.
"Simon, I don't know what to say. I never thought he'd do this. If I'd had any idea he might go after you -"
"He? So you know him."
"Yes. Simon, I'm sorry. It's a gambling debt."
"And that talk about – the way I looked?"
"He's also one of my – clients."
"You don't understand -"
"Close to a hundred thousand."
"We'd go to the casino. He owns it. And he'd let me play for him and sometimes – he'd lend me money to bet some more. To begin with, I won, practically all the time, but I guess that was only his way of setting me up. I'm sorry."
Simon sighed wearily, taking care not to breathe in too deeply. He shook his head sadly.
"Julian. Does this never end? Do you have any more surprises to spring on me?"
"No. I swear."
"At least that's something. I'll try to raise that money somehow. Only you'll have to give up gambling."
"I know. Are you ok? Do you need to see a doctor?"
"No, I'm fine. Let's go."
Julian dropped to his knees to pick up the groceries. Only one glass container had broken. The rest was ok. He filled up the bags again, then packed them into the back of the car.
His eyes kept darting anxiously back to his brother's face, where a large bruise was spreading across the left cheek.
"Simon, I'm really sorry."
"I know. It's not your fault."
"Yes it is."
"Forget it. I'll fix it. Just don't go back to work for those people. Promise me that."
His voice sounded toneless and brittle. Without another word, he got into the front seat, holding his hand out for Simon's keys. After a moment's hesitation, he handed them over.
Once they got back, Simon submitted to Julian's care. The bruises were the extent of the damage, but he still felt some pain when he breathed too deeply. He was wondering if maybe one of his ribs was broken, but he knew from painful experience after a camping accident that there really wasn't anything to do about a broken rib, so he tried to ignore the pain.
He got on the phone to his bank, and Julian vanished into his room. Simon wasn't worried about himself. It was his brother who was on his mind. And what if Alyson and Megan had been there? This had to stop. The money he'd intended to use as a down payment for a house would have to do. A brother was worth more than any house.
He was interrupted while he was waiting in line, listening to some stupid song, by the sound of Julian's door opening. Looking up, he found his brother wearing a jogging suit and sneakers.
"I'm going out for a while."
"Are you sure -"
"I have to do this. Are you sure you shouldn't call your doctor?"
"I'm positive. Ok. I guess you need some air. See you later."
Julian merely nodded and hurried past him towards the door.
Right then, Simon finally heard a human voice at the other end of the line. He vaguely heard the front door slam shut.
By the time it was dark, Julian hadn't returned and Simon was beginning to feel a cold dread creeping up on him. What if Julian had done something foolish? Or if he'd run into those men? He shouldn't have let him go like that.
Not knowing what else to do, Simon picked up the phone and called Alyson's number. She picked up on the first ring, so he knew she'd probably been waiting for his call.
"Alyson? Have you seen Julian?"
"Not since yesterday. Why?"
"He's gone out and he hasn't returned yet. I'm getting worried."
There was a long drawn out, suspicious pause at the other end of the line. Simon was wondering what was going through Alyson's mind right now. Did she still care? Or was she still too upset with both of them?
"I haven't heard from him. Would you like us to go out and look for him?"
This was a surprise. Alyson seemed to have changed again, over night.
"If you're sure -"
"Yes. Of course I want to help. Maybe I was being a little hard on him and anyway, I know how much you care about him."
"Then I'll pick you up in fifteen minutes? I'm leaving now."
They didn't see him anywhere and during the course of the evening, Simon was beginning to realize that he didn't really know the grownup Julian. If he had, wouldn't he have seen something was wrong? Gambling. Drugs. Prostitution. What else? Why hadn't he paid more attention?
"I don't think we'll find him. Do you think I should call the police?"
Alyson didn't reply right away. She appeared to be deep in thought.
"I was going to say yes. But then I thought maybe he'll get into trouble if they find out what he's been doing. So I don't know. What did he say?"
"He said he was going out."
"Is that all?"
"No. He also said 'I have to do this'. I assumed he meant get out for a while. Get some fresh air, some exercise. I wasn't paying attention. I was waiting to talk to my bank about raising money for his debt."
"Did you know he'd been gambling?"
"Yes. At least that's where I saw him with that client. I'd been out with a few of my friends from college. One of the girls recognized Julian and said 'hey, isn't that your boyfriend going into the casino'. So I had to go and find out what he was up to. He didn't see me, but I saw him. The guy was giving him money. I saw it. The whole scene seemed suspicious to me, but I never seriously believed the prostitution idea. It was just something I blurted out because I was angry and I thought he'd be provoked into telling me what he was really doing there. But unfortunately, I could tell right away that I'd guessed correctly."
"Oh. I'm really sorry, Alyson. Anyway, apparently, he also owes money to someone named Michael. A gambling debt."
"I see. If I had any money, I'd give it to you, you know I would. How soon do you need it?"
"I don't know."
"I could ask mom and dad to lend me some money."
"No. It's out of the question."
"Why not? Because I'm only a woman?"
"Because you owe it to Megan to stay out of this. She's just a baby. I'll take care of Julian."
"Fine. Now please drop me off at home. I have to call mom and find out if Megan's sleeping alright without me."
After dropping Alyson off, Simon spent a sleepless night worrying about Julian. In his mind's eye, he could see his brother being beaten by those thugs, or lying in an alley, dead from an overdose. He could also see that man in a suit all over him, touching him, kissing him –
He'd known what he had to do, when he saw Simon, face bruised, doubled up with pain on the parking lot. It had seemed too good to be true, living with Simon again, letting his older brother take care of him. And it had been. He'd known all along it was too easy.
Michael. In all his time working for the agency, Michael had been the trick he least liked, maybe because the guy always came back for more. Persistently chasing him, even when he'd been sent to entertain other clients.
Worst of all, Julian knew he only had himself to blame. If he hadn't accepted the 'loans' to play the roulette tables, he wouldn't be in this situation now. More importantly, Simon wouldn't have been drawn into his trouble. What if Aly and Megan had been there?
He couldn't let the people he loved suffer for his mistakes. If Michael wanted him there, he would go. It wasn't a too high price to pay for keeping Aly and Megan and Simon safe.
Simon hadn't suspected anything. If he had and tried to stop him, this would have been even harder. He got on a bus for the neighborhood where Michael lived in his mansion surrounded by high walls, patrolled by armed guards with doberman pinchers during the nights.
It was a long walk from the bus stop, but Julian was glad to have the time to think. Much as he hated everything about Michael, he knew he could do what it took to keep the older man happy. Maybe the debt would be put on hold if he pleased him enough.
Standing outside the enormous metal gates, Julian wondered if he'd be recognized wearing Simon's jogging suit. If not, he'd have to identify himself. Michael would give orders to let him in, there was no doubt about it. He'd never seen a man more eager.
In any case, whoever was looking at the screens, the gates swung open and Julian was allowed inside. Anxiously watching for the dogs, he walked as fast as he dared up to the front door. He didn't have to ring the doorbell. Someone was there to let him in.
It was unbelievable, but the guy had a butler. A uniformed servant who answered the door for him. Gambling and drugs paid. For all Julian knew, maybe Michael was part owner of the escort agency. That might explain why the guy was able to pull strings and have his favorite boy assigned to him night after night. Or the truth might simply be that no one dared to cross the guy.
He was being taken through to a living room with large french windows opening on the grounds. Unbelievable. He'd been here before of course, but never for more than a couple of hours. Now, he feared he would never leave the place alive.
The butler had vanished, but now the door opened again to reveal Michael. He was alone, and the look on his face was every bit as pleased as Julian had anticipated. All he had to do was play up to it.
"Julian. I knew you'd be back."
"I don't work for the agency anymore. And about the debt -"
"Ah, yes, that little matter. Don't worry about that right now. So you've quit. Well, that should make things easier. I take it you're staying. I shall have George get a room ready for you."
"Thank you, Michael. Now you'll leave my family alone, right?"
The guy had the nerve to fake surprise.
"Oh. You must forgive me, Julian dear. I was a bit upset. The business isn't as profitable as it was last year. But naturally. Anything you say. Now, shall we dine together? I'll have George lay out some more suitable attire for you."
An hour later, Julian was sitting across from Michael, holding on to a wine glass so hard his knuckles turned white. Eating, drinking. How was he supposed to keep anything down, if he didn't have the pills?
It was the pills that kept him sane while he was working. That and the gambling. Now he'd have to stay away from the gambling. Would Michael still be willing to provide him with the pills? There was only one way to find out.
"Those pills you were kind enough to provide – are they still available?"
"Of course. I'll make a call tonight. Will tomorrow do?"
"Thanks. It's fine."
"Now, let me make a toast. To friendship. And to – families."
"To friendships. And – whatever you say."
Julian forced himself to keep smiling. After all, this was nothing. The real difficulty was the night. George might have prepared a room for him upstairs, but he knew he wasn't meant to spend more time there than it took to change clothes, or shower or shave. It was in Michael's room he'd be paying the real price.
Julian poured wine down his throat as if it was water. Later, he gulped down as much brandy as Michael would let him.
After the last one, Michael eyed him uncertainly. At last, he appeared to come to a decision.
"I think we've celebrated enough. Come. I know you're tired."
Tired? Michael had no idea how tired he was, but if he wasn't very much mistaken, it would be a long time before he was allowed to sleep.
In the past, he'd always been on a deadline. After a certain amount of time, the next client would require his presence,. This time, no respite would be given. He'd be on duty round the clock. Whenever Michael wanted his presence, he'd have to be there.
But that was why he was here. To hell with Michael. To hell with everything. He could do this. It was something he'd known how to do since he was 17. Michael wouldn't have anything to complain about.
Forcing himself to smile again, he walked up the stairs ahead of Michael and waited for him there. As he had known, Michael herded him into another room, which had to be his own. Time to earn his keep.
He woke up in the early hours of morning, wondering if it would be ok to retreat into the room Michael referred to as his. Michael's arm was holding him back, but he slid out of his grasp and into the bathroom. There was no complaint. After a moment's breathless waiting, he deemed it safe to return to the other room.
Running the shower until the water was as hot as it would get, he dropped the borrowed clothes to the floor and stepped underneath the steaming water.
He wondered if there would be razors in his medicine cabinet, but was able to repress the thought. Michael would know. He wouldn't approve. There was even a risk Michael might punish him, by sending his people to beat Simon up again.
Tomorrow those pills would be here. All he had to do was hang on until then.
With Julian gone, Simon slept badly. Alyson was talking to him again, but she still hadn't come around. He knew she was still upset, but she wasn't discussing Julian, other than in terms of where he might be, or how they might find him.
Towards the evening of the fourth day after Julian's disappearance, Simon had finally managed to doze off to sleep. He hadn't slept a whole night since he'd first found out the truth about Julian and even less since he'd been gone. When he finally realized the noise he heard was the phone ringing, he wasn't sure how long it had been ringing.
Filled with misgivings, he threw himself at the phone and picked up.
"Where are you? I'll come and pick you up."
"No. Simon, it was my fault."
"What was your fault?"
"Mom. And Alyson – please tell her I'm sorry."
"Yes, I will, but why can't you tell her yourself? Let me come and pick you up. I've got the money, Julian. What's his name? The man you owe money to?"
"And what else?"
"Michael Falsone. Please let me pick you up."
"Simon, please don't tell Megan about me. Let her believe I was – someone else. Or tell her you're her father. Look after her for me. Don't let anyone hurt her."
"Julian, you'll be able to keep an eye on her yourself. And – Alyson has changed. She's not angry with you anymore. Please come home. Talk to her yourself."
"I love you, Simon. Forgive me."
But he'd already heard the click. Julian was no longer on the line. Something was wrong. Badly wrong. He had to find Julian before it was too late. Was he with that man, Michael Falsone? That seemed likely. He had to find out where the man lived and go and pick Julian up.
There was no time to lose. The way Julian had sounded, Simon knew something wasn't right and if he didn't get to him in time – he had a feeling he'd never see his brother again.
But first, he owed it to Alyson to let her know what was going on. It was obvious that Alyson still had feelings for Julian. Why else would she be this upset? But jealousy was the furthest thing from his mind. They both loved him.
"Alyson? I've heard from Julian. I think – I have to find him. Something's wrong."
"I'm coming with you. No, don't argue with me. Megan's with mom and dad. Let me come."
"I'll pick you up on the way. Could you find out where a Michael Falsone lives? A business man, I should think. Though I'm willing to bet it doesn't say what business he's in."
"Ok. I'll have the information when you get here."
She did too, as Simon had known all along. When Alyson put her mind to it, there was nothing she couldn't do.
She gave him directions on the run, and continued guiding him through the streets until they found the house – or mansion.
They parked the car in the street outside, and walked up to the gates. There was a camera aimed straight at them, so someone was bound to take notice of their arrival. Within a minute, two men, wearing dark suits walked up to the gate and stared at them through the bars.
"We've come for Julian. My brother. Is he here?"
One of the men spoke into a phone, then nodded briefly. They backed off and the huge gates began to swing open. There was a dreamlike quality to all this, so Simon wasn't even surprised when the two thugs pulled their guns and aimed straight at them.
"This way. We're taking you to see mr Falsone."
They were neatly herded up to the house and inside, into a study. The man who'd been present during the attack in the parking lot, was sitting behind the desk, looking at him inquiringly.
"I've brought you the money Julian owes you. Here. Now let me have my brother back."
Falsone nodded quickly to one of the guys on steroids, and he snatched the envelope out of Simon's hand. He handed it over to his employer who skillfully counted the money. Finally, he appeared to be satisfied.
"This will do. Tano. Luigi. Take them upstairs to Julian's room. Then escort them off the premises."
They found themselves being led back into the huge hallway outside, then up an enormous flight of stairs. Their destination seemed to be a room three doors down on the left.
Now the bodyguards stepped back and waited. Simon opened the door and looked around. The room was spacious and luxurious but even from the door, he could see that someone was lying on the bed.
Alyson was only two steps behind as he ran up to the head of the bed and reached for his brother's shoulder. Julian wasn't reacting to the sound of his name, or the touch. Terrified by now, and filled with doubts, Simon began to shake Julian gently, but increasingly hard, as panic took hold of him. Was Julian even breathing? That bastard downstairs must have known it was too late. Why else would he let go of his prize possession?
He didn't expect a reply anymore.
Alyson pushed him aside and put her hand on Julian's forehead, then held her hand in front of his lips.
"Do you think you could carry him? Simon. Come on. Let's go. Pick him up."
At last, he regained the use of his limbs and he picked his brother up. Carrying him down the stairs, Simon could hardly keep the tears at bay. Too late. He'd lost his little brother. Alyson hurried him along mercilessly.
At the foot of the stairs, he stopped. Falsone was standing in the doorway of his study, a smirk on his face, or so it seemed to Simon.
"You knew about this."
For a moment, it seemed as if the bastard wasn't even going to reply, then he appeared to change his mind. He shrugged.
"Well, you have to admit he's no use to me now."
Simon wanted to wipe that grin off the guy's face. He wanted to choke him, break his neck – but what good would it do Julian? It was all too late anyway.
"Simon. Come on."
Alyson was right. They didn't belong here. He had to take Julian away from here. Make sure he was safe, even if it was too late.
He wasn't even sure they'd be allowed to leave, but after a while, he found himself standing beside his own car. Alyson was going through his pocket, looking for the key.
"It's there. Can't you find it?"
"Yes. Here it is. Put Julian in the back seat. Go on."
And he found that the easiest thing to do was to obey her. She knew what to do. If anyone could make it alright, she could.
She was driving so fast that under normal circumstances he'd be terrified. Now, he hardly paid attention. He was smoothing back Julian's hair. He was so pale. So cold. Why? Why couldn't he have held on just a little longer?
He was so wrapped up in his grief, he didn't even notice the car had pulled to a stop. Alyson disappeared, only to return scarcely a minute later, with a medical team in tow. She stepped aside and let them get on with their work. Though he wanted to hold on to Julian's body, he could feel his brother being torn out of his arms and laid out on a stretcher, where he became the focus of some intense activity. That was the last he saw of him.
"Why did they take him away?"
"Come on. We'd better go inside. They'll want your insurance info."
She took his hand and didn't let go until he was standing outside the car, staring at the entrance where Julian had disappeared.
This time, she put her arm under his and dragged him along. At the reception desk, she was the one who gave all the necessary information, except for that concerning his insurance. He felt embarrassed to be standing around like an idiot, while she was so efficient, but couldn't seem to snap out of it.
When the nurse behind the counter was done with them, Alyson led him to a bench where she made him sit down. He didn't know what they were waiting for, but he had a vague idea of taking Julian's body to a funeral home. There were arrangements to be made. He had to pull himself together.
After what seemed like an eternity, someone was calling his name.
"Would you like to see your brother now?"
"Yes, he would."
"Just for a few minutes. You'll be able to talk to him again in the morning."
"Is he going to be ok, doctor?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. I assumed – Your brother had taken some barbiturates and was unconscious when you brought him in. We induced vomiting and administered some drugs to make sure the barbiturates left his system. There's no permanent damage done, but he's quite weak right now and he needs rest. This way, please."
Alyson pushed him in the back and he found himself following the doctor to a room across the corridor. Julian was waiting to see him? He still wasn't sure he'd heard the doctor correctly. Was Julian alive after all, despite the way his body had felt while he was carrying him in his arms?
But there was no mistake. Julian was lying in that hospital bed, looking even paler and weaker, but his eyes were open and he seemed to be aware of his surroundings. Simon wanted to take him in his arms and hold him, to make sure he really was alive and well, but he settled for sitting down in the chair that had been provided for him.
"I'm sorry. Please forgive me."
"Of course. Julian, I was so worried about you."
"It was my fault. If she hadn't seen me she wouldn't have -"
"Wait. What are you talking about, Julian? Alyson's fine. She's waiting outside."
"What about mom?
Suddenly, Simon had a chilling thought. Mom had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Sleeping pills, barbiturates. Had Julian gotten the idea from mom's suicide?
"She saw us."
Seeing that his brother didn't understand, Julian went on. It was vital that Simon understood.
"She walked in when Richard was with me. She saw us."
Understanding was slowly dawning on Simon and he had a nightmare vision of his mother walking into her son's room to find her husband on top of him. No. That couldn't be true. It had to be some mistake. But why else would she have suddenly decided to kill herself? There was no other explanation. Why hadn't he seen the connection when Julian had revealed his secret?
"It wasn't your fault."
"I think he felt guilty. After it happened, he stopped. He never came back anymore."
"You see. He was the one responsible. Not you. He killed her. But Julian, I was going to see that Falsone guy. I brought the money. I paid off your debt. He'll leave you alone now. It's over."
"You paid him? With what? Did you sell my car?"
"Of course not. You remember the money I'd saved for the house?"
The door opened behind them and a nurse looked in.
"Your time's up, mr Jamieson. Come back and see your brother tomorrow."
"Oh. Of course. Do you think you could sleep now, Julian?"
"Yes. I'll be fine. But you do forgive me, don't you?"
"There's nothing to forgive. I mean it. You know it too, don't you? It was his fault. All of it. Julian?"
"Yes. Ok. I love you, Simon."
"I love you too."
Outside, Alyson was waiting anxiously for him.
"How was he?"
"He was better."
She sighed with relief.
"I felt so guilty. First I'd refused to let him see his daughter. Then when we finally got a chance to talk, I hurt him all over again. If he'd died – I would never have been able to tell him how sorry I was."
"You can see him tomorrow. They said we can come back tomorrow."
"If only I knew what to say to him. Well, let's go."
They drove back to his place in silence. It was a relief to have Alyson there with him. Simon was plagued by bad dreams, but when he woke up, he felt more hopeful than he had for a long time. Julian was ok. He was going to stay ok. No drugs, no gambling, no prostitution.
At the hospital, Simon didn't even feel impatient to wait his turn to see Julian. He could understand how Alyson felt. She still loved Julian, and that was ok. How could he be jealous of his own brother? Julian had loved her first. It was only natural that there were still feelings. Perhaps he ought to feel threatened, but he didn't. All that mattered was he had Julian back safely.
Alyson dreaded the meeting. She'd practically driven Julian into that creep's arms by treating him so callously. And that had led to his attempted suicide. It was chilling to realize that if they'd been just a little later, she would have had Julian's life on her conscience. She loved him so much and she'd nearly killed him. Would he even want to see her?
She knew she had to try to ask his forgiveness. If she just left things the way they were between them, she'd regret it for the rest of her life.
When she knocked on the door, she could hear Julian's reply clearly. He was awake.
"Aly. Do you think you can forgive me?"
"Forgive you? Oh, Jule there's nothing to forgive. It was my all my fault. I'm the one who should ask your forgiveness. I'm so sorry I reacted the way I did, when you told me you were going to stop working for the agency. I should have been glad you'd be safe. Instead, I was just selfish and mean and -"
"No. You were right. I should have quit before Megan was born. Even when I was talking to you about it, at Simon's place, I knew I couldn't quit until I'd paid back my debt, but I was too happy to see you again and I was hoping you'd let me back into your life."
"Of course I will."
"I'm really sorry about that. You were right to keep Megan away from me. What kind of father would I make?"
"No. I was wrong. You deserved to hold your daughter in your arms. If I'd let you, maybe you would have come to your senses and quit after all."
"Maybe. But I'd just come from a trick. For me to have touched Megan then -"
"I could have come back later. You're her father. Nothing will ever change that. Anyone who sees her will know she's your daughter. She's just as beautiful as you are and -"
"No, as beautiful as you. Let's hope she's a lot smarter than I am. Like you. I've never done anything right in my life. Aly – there's something I need to tell you. I want you to know everything now. No more secrets."
"You're not – infected with anything, are you?"
"No, that's not it. The doctors are running tests now, but I know I'm not. At least I'm not stupid enough to risk that."
"Ok. I couldn't bear to lose you."
For the first time since Alyson had walked into the room, Julian smiled faintly. She did care.
"I'll try not to disappoint you. Just let me tell you about this now. It happened a long time ago."
Alyson listened silently, without interrupting while he finished his story. Her face grew grave as she began to realize what a terrible secret he'd been living with.
"I don't know what to say. What a horrible thing to do to his stepson. He must have been a monster. I'm glad he's dead. If he hadn't been, I wouldn't have been able to keep quiet. I know I would have confronted him."
"He died of cancer. In pain. Maybe that makes it a little easier to bear."
"A little maybe. He certainly deserved it."
"I don't know. Aly, I wasn't a child. I was seventeen. He didn't force me to do anything. I just wanted him to love me. No, wait, there's more."
Alyson couldn't imagine what else there was left to tell. Hadn't Julian been through more than enough already? But she didn't say anything else, just let him finish.
"And the next morning, Richard found her dead in her bedroom."
Her eyes misted over and her throat felt dry. She wanted to reach out and comfort the younger Julian, but it aws too late. Everything was too late. But Julian was still here and it wasn't too late to comfort the Julian she was facing right now. She had to cough to regain control over her voice.
"Julian, surely you don't blame yourself for that? It was that monster's fault, not yours."
"That's what Sime tells me."
"Please. Promise me you won't think about that again. He was responsible. Not you. I won't let you torture yourself any more. This has gone on long enough. Besides, I know one shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but don't you think a mother might have worried more about her child than her own hurt feelings?"
Julian stared at Alyson. That had never even occurred to him. She was his mother. Of course he'd seen her as a victim. But now, when he was a parent himself, he was beginning to see that maybe Aly did have a point.
If anything had happened to Megan, he wouldn't have taken the easy way out. He would have fought for her no matter what it took. Why had his mother chosen to do what she did?
He knew she loved him and Simon so he could only conclude that she'd been more unhappy in her marriage to Richard than he'd been able to guess. Maybe Richard had cheated on her for years.
He nodded thoughtfully, not fully convinced, but shaken out of his morbid thoughts. Aly was right about something. When you were a parent, you had to let your child come first. Would Megan have any use for a dad who wallowed in self pity?
"You might be right. I never thought about it like that. At least you've forgiven me for what I did to you. That's more than I deserve."
"Julian, it's time you stopped thinking about yourself as someone who doesn't deserve anything. That's completely wrong. You deserve so much. Start treating yourself a little nicer for starters. Give me and Simon a break. We'll worry ourselves sick over you if you keep up this self destructive behavior. Like that. What's that all about?"
Julian felt his face grow hot. She was pointing at his arm, which was still attached to the saline drip. The scars he'd made with Simon's razor were clearly visible.
"Don't bother. I know what that's all about."
"Did Sime tell you?"
"No. Simon didn't have to tell me. Don't you know we're working part time at the same school this year? It's hopeless finding a real job, so – Anyway, two of our girls did exactly the same thing a couple of months ago. Fortunately, we were able to catch their behavior in time. Now they're doing much better."
"Oh. I just felt -"
"I know. Just don't ever do it again."
"Ok. I'll try not to. You don't know how wonderful it is to have you here again. I mean, with me."
She smiled again, and the fierce look in her eyes was gone.
"Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea. About as wonderful as it is to have you back. Hurry up and get well again really soon. Simon and I miss you terribly."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Oh. Simon. He must be going crazy out there. And visiting hour will soon be over. I'll have to go. Simon will be in right away."
"Ok. I love you, Aly."
"I love you too, Jule."