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Home > Gone for Good(4)

Gone for Good(4)
Author: Harlan Coben

One—the top one—was of my parents on a cruise, looking happy and healthy and relaxed in a way I barely remember them ever being. But it was the second photograph, the hidden one, that caught my eye.

The red-stamped date on the bottom was from less than two years ago. The picture was taken atop a field or hill or something. I saw no houses in the background, just snowcapped mountains like something from the opening scene of The Sound of Music. The man in the picture wore shorts and a backpack and sunglasses and scuffed hiking boots. His smile was familiar. So was his face, though it was more lined now. His hair was longer. His beard had gray in it. But there was no mistake.

The man in the picture was my brother, Ken.

2

My father was alone on the back patio. Night had fallen. He sat very still and stared out at the black. As I came up behind him, a jarring memory rocked me.

About four months after Julie’s murder, I found my father in the basement with his back to me just like this. He thought that the house was empty. Resting in his right palm was his Ruger, a .22 caliber gun. He cradled the weapon tenderly, as though it were a small animal, and I never felt so frightened in my entire life. I stood there, frozen. He kept his eyes on the gun. After a few long minutes, I quickly tiptoed to the top of the stairs and faked like I’d just come in. By the time I trudged down the steps, the weapon was gone.

I didn’t leave his side for a week.

I slipped now through the sliding glass door. “Hey,” I said to him.

He spun around, his face already breaking into a wide smile. He always had one for me. “Hey, Will,” he said, the gravel voice turning tender. Dad was always happy to see his children. Before all this happened, my father was a fairly popular man. People liked him. He was friendly and dependable, if not a little gruff, which just made him seem all the more dependable. But while my father might smile at you, he didn’t care a lick. His world was his family. No one else mattered to him. The suffering of strangers and even friends never really reached him—a sort of family-centeredness.

I sat in the lounge chair next to him, not sure how to raise the subject. I took a few deep breaths and listened to him do the same. I felt wonderfully safe with him. He might be older and more withered, and by now I was the taller, stronger man—but I knew that if trouble surfaced, he’d still step up and take the hit for me.

And that I’d still slip back and let him.

“Have to cut that branch back,” he said, pointing into the dark.

I couldn’t see it. “Yeah,” I said.

The light from the sliding glass doors hit his profile. The anger had dissolved now, and the shattered look had returned. Sometimes I think that he had indeed tried to step up and take the hit when Julie died, but it had knocked him on his ass. His eyes still had that burst-from-within look, that look of someone who had unexpectedly been punched in the gut and didn’t know why.

“You okay?” he asked me. His standard opening refrain.

“I’m fine. I mean, not fine but . . .”

Dad waved his hand. “Yeah, dumb question,” he said.

We fell back into silence. He lit a cigarette. Dad never smoked at home. His children’s health and all that. He took a drag and then, as if suddenly remembering, he looked at me and stamped it out.

“It’s all right,” I said.

“Your mother and I agreed that I would never smoke at home.”

I didn’t argue with him. I folded my hands and put them on my lap. Then I dived in. “Mom told me something before she died.”

His eyes slid toward me.

“She said that Ken was still alive.”

Dad stiffened, but only for a second. A sad smile came to his face. “It was the drugs, Will.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said. “At first.”

“And now?”

I looked at his face, searching for some sign of deception. There had been rumors, of course. Ken wasn’t wealthy. Many wondered how my brother could have afforded to live in hiding for so long. My answer, of course, was that he hadn’t—that he died that night too. Others, maybe most people, believed that my parents somehow sneaked him money.

I shrugged. “I wonder why after all these years she would say that.”

“The drugs,” he repeated. “And she was dying, Will.”

The second part of that answer seemed to encompass so much. I let it hang a moment. Then I asked, “Do you think Ken’s alive?”

“No,” he said. And then he looked away.

“Did Mom say anything to you?”

“About your brother?”

“Yes.”

“Pretty much what she told you,” he said.

“That Ken was alive?”

“Yes.”

“Anything else?”

Dad shrugged. “She said he didn’t kill Julie. She said he’d be back by now except he had to do something first.”

“Do what?”

“She wasn’t making sense, Will.”

“Did you ask her?”

“Of course. But she was just ranting. She couldn’t hear me anymore. I shushed her. I told her it’d be okay.”

He looked away again. I thought about showing him the photograph of Ken but decided against it. I wanted to think it through before I started us down that path.

“I told her it’d be okay,” he repeated.

Through the sliding glass door, I could see one of those photo cubes, the old color images sun-faded into a blur of yellow-green. There were no recent pictures in the room. Our house was trapped in a time warp, frozen solid eleven years ago, like in that old song where the grandfather clock stops when the old man dies.

“I’ll be right back,” Dad said.

I watched him stand and walk until he thought he was out of sight. But I could see his outline in the dark. I saw him lower his head. His shoulders started to shake. I don’t think that I had ever seen my father cry. I didn’t want to start now.

I turned away and remembered the other photograph, the one still upstairs of my parents on the cruise looking tan and happy, and I wondered if maybe he was thinking about that too.

When I woke late that night, Sheila wasn’t in bed.

I sat up and listened. Nothing. At least, not in the apartment. I could hear the normal late-night street hum drifting up from three floors below. I looked over toward the bathroom. The light was out. All lights, in fact, were out.

I thought about calling out to her, but there was something fragile about the quiet, something bubble-like. I slipped out of bed. My feet touched down on the wall-to-wall carpet, the kind apartment buildings make you use so as to stifle noise from below or above.

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