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A single lamp lit the gathering dusk as he stood at the window, again. Mary stirred the spaghetti sauce, almost without thought, and sighed. She saw the discouragement written on James’ slumped shoulders. She didn’t need to move closer to see the desolate eyes; they were as familiar as the sight of her own graying hair in the mirror each morning. She looked well beyond her fifty years.

During the day, her husband seemed to hold it all together. Each morning, he paused by the door, straightened his back and with stoic strength, strode into his world outside this house. The company he founded as a young man now held the futures of hundreds of families in its grasp. To let down in daylight hours would be to put all those people at risk. Many of them seemed like family. Some of them had shared their sorrow.

But increasingly, she could see him wearing down. One after-dinner drink was now three. The stack of books that had fed his fine mind each evening now sat untouched as he watched sports or old movies. The chess board gathered dust, and friends calls went unanswered. He had stopped playing golf on the weekends. The queries of his friends were too hard to deal with, and besides, he had no energy left at the end of the week. He did make an effort to notice the meals she cooked to tempt a desultory appetite, and to engage with some dinner conversation, but as the weeks morphed into months and now two years, the silence grew thicker. The plates returned to the kitchen still half full. The wine bottles, though, were emptied.

In some ways, the silence was a relief. The burden of trying to pretend this half-life was normal was a weight she felt inadequate to carry. The not knowing was the worst. It was bad enough in the years their two sons grew apart and increasingly bitter. It was a mystery to her, how two boys who had spent their childhood as best friends could develop so differently and grow from disdain to hate.

Aaron was serious, and really, had he not begun to take over more and more of the business these last years, it was unlikely the firm would have survived. God knew, James put all he had into keeping things going, but it was not enough. His best efforts were fraught with distraction and a loss of confidence. She knew the core of this. If he could fail so badly as a father, what did his business success mean anyway? If it weren’t for his sense of responsibility for the lives of his employees and the faithful service of their eldest son, who knew what would have happened.

But now Aaron showed the strain as well. His hairline receded as his body thickened and his resentment had become palpable of late. He no longer saw his friends. His engagement had ended disastrously and now his life was tied up in the business. He was rarely home for dinner, but Mary suspected that was more to avoid the uncomfortable silences than anything. His impatience with his father was obvious.

Mary found herself longing for the days when Jack’s buddies filled their house with laughter, and pizza and practical jokes. Where had it all gone wrong? When had this young son decided his charmed life was not enough for him? How had they not noticed before that hideous day when it all blew up?

It began with an argument between the brothers. Truth be told, while the responsible Aaron had always been the dependable one, the one she could count on, it was Jack who delighted her heart with his jokes and compliments and gregarious nature. And both boys knew this. As they became adults, though, the differences in their personalities became more pronounced and the sunshine of Jack’s temperament became shadowed with alcohol, and she suspected, more serious substances. Both sons worked in the business, but Jack simply seemed unable to concentrate on any one task, or to keep regular hours. Aaron, whose days began early and ended late, finally ran out of patience. Coming home after a disastrous day at work, he found Jack sprawled in a lawn chair by the pool, beer in hand and unconcerned that the catastrophe was a direct result of his carelessness. The argument that ensued was violent and cruel. James tried to intervene when the quarrel threatened to become physical and found both sons turning on him.

In the end, the relationships fractured beyond repair. Jack, defensive and fed up with Aaron’s disdain, and his father’s exasperation, demanded that James turn over the trust fund set aside as his inheritance and let him go his own way in the world. James blanched in shock and dropped to a chair, hardly breathing. Then he stood, and silently left the room without looking back. No-one dared speak.

The next morning he was gone to work before anyone else rose, and a cheque for the balance in the trust fund was on the breakfast table at Jack’s place. It was mid-morning when Jack arose and stumbled to the kitchen, searching for coffee and a chance to smooth things over. But Aaron, too, had left for work and Mary, unable to face another confrontation, had retreated to her home office. He poured a stale cup of coffee, picked up the morning paper and wandered to the table, trying to ignore the hung-over pounding in his head. As he dropped into his chair, he saw the cheque. It was a small fortune, enough for him to live on for years. There was no note, no direction, simply the cheque, written in a shaky hand and with a mark that looked suspiciously like a single tear-stain. Jack’s stomach tightened and his fingers grew white as he gripped the coffee cup. The message was clear. Here is your money – leave.

He hurled his coffee cup against the wall and felt a strange satisfaction as he heard it shatter. Ten minutes later, he was backing his car out of the garage. He didn’t take much – he had enough money to buy whatever he needed. A few clothes to tide him over, a favourite book and, at the last minute, a gold ring his mother had given him at graduation. His vision was too blurred by angry tears to see Mary’s stricken face pressed against her office window as the car lurched down the driveway and squealed off down the street.

His first few months away were full of adventure and a haze of bars and women, fights and drugs. Occasionally he called Mary when he knew James and Aaron would be gone for the day, ostensibly to let her know he was safe and very, very well, thank you. In reality, he was finding himself strangely lonely amid the crowd of new friends. Then he began to call because the cash was running low and with its disappearance, the friends vanished as well. And for a while, Mary secretly transferred funds to him. James would not approve, she knew and Aaron – well that didn’t bear thinking about. She would report the phone calls at the beginning, but the news of each call seemed only to depress James more, and there were fewer and fewer good bits of news to report, so eventually, she simply stopped.

The pleas for money increased and became demands and eventually, Mary confessed her subterfuge to James. She was enabling their son’s destruction, he said. It had to stop. She knew he was right. Predictably, when the flow of money ceased, so did the phone calls. Now it had been more than a year since they had heard from him and the uncertainty about his fate weighed on them both.

No efforts to locate him were successful and it was as if he had dropped off the face of the earth. The heaviness of James’ guilt increased in parallel with Aaron’s increasing resentment and Mary’s deepening depression and worry. The silence was a shroud, and James had taken to standing, night after night, his face to the glass of the kitchen window, watching. It was as if there were some chance he could will his beloved son back into their lives. And the truth was that despite the disappointment of Jack’s betrayal of their relationship, despite the awful words spoken on that last night, he was beloved and never more so than now.

This night Mary found herself perversely wishing a police car would drive up and someone would emerge to tell them it was over. Jack was dead. Even that would have been better than this longing and not knowing, but as soon as the thought surfaced, she gasped in horror. What kind of mother longed for that? With her hand trembling, she picked up her spoon and began stirring the sauce again, wondering at the futility of it all. Why cook when no-one, herself included, wanted to eat.

Suddenly, she heard a sharp intake of breath. She looked at James and saw him standing, frozen, then he bolted – out the door and down the driveway. Alarmed, she stood in the doorway, calling his name. Then she saw him. At first, she wasn’t even sure it was her son. He was so thin and bent. The stubble of his beard was raw and uneven, and his hair fell in dirty strands to his shoulders. The eyes were deep and sunken. He approached, his steps uncertain and his head bowed.

But there was no uncertainty in James’ steps. He was barreling down the road, running like a boy. They met halfway down the street, and Jack dropped to his knees, head down, cowering in shame. Mary couldn’t hear the words he was speaking, but no matter. The body language shouted Jack’s shame and James’ joy. The father reached down and virtually lifted his son to his feet and then crushed him in a fierce embrace. They stood, melted together, weeping in the middle of the street.

Neighbours walking in the mild summer evening, stopped and stared, shocked to see their normally elegant neighbour in such a state. He didn’t care. ‘Come on over”, he called to them. “I am throwing a party! I thought Jack was dead, but now he is alive! Pizza and beer on me.” His joy was contagious, and soon all the street were gathering by the pool. Pizzas arrived, and Mary dug hamburgers and steaks from the freezer. The fragrance of a barbecue drifted out into their cul de sac and the sound of laughter filled the air. The word spread, and folks arrived carrying hastily put together salads, goodies dug out of freezers and drinks of all kinds.

In the house, Mary fairly flew about, finding clean clothes, setting out towels for the long hot shower Jack luxuriated in as folks gathered. He emerged, and looking beyond his skeletal appearance, she saw his eyes were clear, his hair neatly tied back and he was clean-shaven. She found herself caught between laughter and tears. Wrapped in his arms, she breathed in the fragrance of soap, and shampoo and love. Her joy was womb deep.

In a few sentences, Jack filled her in – the drugs, the parties, the friends who stole his money, at least what was left after his gambling debts. The shame at calling his Mom for money and finally, hawking his gold ring. Then the hunger and the homelessness, and at last, the day labor on a farm. He had hit the proverbial bottom when he was fired for stealing the fruit he was supposed to be picking. He had hitch hiked and then walked for miles, all the while hoping maybe, just maybe, Dad would let him be a floor labourer in the shop, or perhaps a janitor. Maybe he could even sleep at the shop until he got his life together? At least that would be safe. He had never expected a welcome, a party – a home again. He was stunned with gratitude.

But where was Aaron? Still at work? How would he respond? Mary’s breath caught and she found herself awash in fear. How would Aaron react? She knew his anger was still white hot whenever Jack’s name was spoken.

James wandered into the kitchen to retrieve clean glasses. For the first time in months, his face was alive and his step light. He grabbed her around the waist and swung her around as if they were eighteen again. Then they heard the unmistakable roar of Aaron’s Corvette in the driveway. Suddenly, the air filled with apprehension. “I’ll go,” James said and headed for the door. As he reached the front yard he saw Aaron emerge from the car and call to a neighbour, standing at the gate, beer in hand. They spoke briefly, then Aaron turned and stalked back to the car, clearly intending to take off. James ran forward, heaving the door open even as the motor rumbled to life. Mary stood just behind him. The bitter words hurled at her husband broke her heart. Aaron’s resentment boiled over in a rage. “All these years! All these years! I’ve worked and worked and watched the two of you grieve over that worthless piece of crap you call a son and you never even offered a movie night for MY friends. This son of yours – if you can still call him that- wastes your fortune with drugs and whores and who knows what until there isn’t a penny left to his name. Then he comes crawling back and you throw a party?? Enough is enough. I am done. Let him take over.”

“Aaron, Aaron,” James pleaded. “Everything I have is yours – it has been since the day Jack left. It is all in trust for you. That was the first thing I did that awful day. But this, my son, this, your brother was dead to us – and now he is alive. How could we not celebrate? Come, come inside. Join the party. We have a chance to be a family again. Enough is enough – it is enough that we are together.” But it wasn’t. The car inched backward and James released the door. Aaron reached over and pulled it shut and left his parents, silent, standing bereft as the music and the laughter of the party in the backyard washed over them.