Chapter 1 – The Flight Home

I struggled to get comfortable on my last-minute flight back to New York.  Although I hadn’t been there in over five years, it still felt like I’d never left my old stomping grounds.  In just a few short hours, I’d have to confront the memories of my tormented past in person.  Still groggy from the sleeping pill I took before boarding the plane several hours earlier, I thought it best to try to salvage two more hours of rest before the plane arrived, but it didn’t seem likely given the ice cold temperature of the cabin and the extreme turbulence the plane had recently encountered.

The last time I was in New York, I’d been through one of the most difficult periods in my life, losing the woman I had loved for years in a car accident, a car accident I still felt responsible for.

As my eyelids slowly pressed together, they caught sight of the postcard from my cousin that I had earlier stuffed in the pocket of the seat in front.  Pulling it out, I read it to myself:

‘Brody…  so glad you agreed to come back home for my party.  Everyone will be thrilled to see you again.  You’ve been so missed.  I know it’ll be hard for you to jump back into your old life, but I’ll be there with you every step.  The whole family will be surprised to see you again after all these years.  And I am honored to have my inspiration attend a party for the publication of my first book.  Hugs and Kisses…  Evelyn.’

As I went to stuff the postcard back in the pocket, I felt it slit the tip of my index finger slightly.  Pulling my hand back, I watched a few droplets of blood appear where the paper cut left its mark.  I brought my finger up to my lips, sucked the pain away and motioned to the flight attendant walking by.

She responded, “What can I get for you, Brody?”  I had already introduced myself earlier when she moved my seat from coach to first class, one of the many perks I received for flying so frequently.

“I’d love another glass of prosecco.  I thought I’d fall asleep some more, but I can’t seem to keep my mind off the past,” I quipped.

A few moments later, Nadia appeared with a glass full of bubbly.  It was, after all, the last chance to have some authentic Italian prosecco before my yet undetermined amount time back in the States.

“Enjoy.  Let me know if you need anything else,” she replied.  “And if you need to forget the past, you should find someone new to explore the city with while you’re there…  a weekend in New York always helps me forget whatever’s troubling me.  Here’s my cell number.  I’ll be there for a few days until my flight back to Italy.  I’m sure we’d have a great time together.”

She sauntered away, and although I thought she was a fox, I still couldn’t bring myself to think about anyone other than Victoria.  I am quite used to women flirting with me, just not used to reciprocating the last few years.

I sipped from the flute, thinking now about what would happen when I encountered the entire family again.  I hadn’t spoken to or seen a single member of the Hillcrest clan since I left five summers earlier.  They had emailed and called, but I simply couldn’t handle connecting with the past.  When Victoria died, it was as if I collected my entire life, placed it in a locked box and then threw away the key.  I took off on a mini-vacation, telling everyone that I just needed a month abroad.  The month turned into a year, the year into a few years, and it was just over five on recent count.

On occasion, I had picked up a phone or started a letter to my mother, but never made it past pressing a few digits before dropping the phone to its cradle.  My need for independence and solitude somehow surpassed my guilt.

It all changed when Evelyn tracked me down several days earlier.  I had come back to the hotel rather late one evening from a stroll through a local park when the hotel clerk motioned to me that I had a phone call.  I responded with a confused look and brought the phone to my ear.

“Ciao.  This is Brody Hillcrest,” I began.

“Brody.  It’s Evelyn.  Please don’t hang up,” a demanding, yet cautious voice followed.  “I know you don’t want to talk to any of us, but something wonderful has happened and the only person I want to share it with is you.”

Although shocked and surprised, I was in some ways hoping for a call like this one day.  Being unsure how I should reply, I paused hoping it was only a dream.

But she continued, “Please just listen to me.  When you left, I was angry.  I tried to find you for weeks.  I soon realized that when someone was as determined as you to disappear, there was no easy way I could have found you.  I’m not mad anymore.  I just want to see you, Brody.”

My heart softened more than I usually allowed it.  I opened my mouth as if to speak, but no words came out.

Evelyn added, “Please listen to me.  You’ve had such an impact on my life.  When you left NY, I was just finishing school.  And now, I’m just finishing my first book.  Did you hear me, Brody?  I’ve finally finished writing the book we always spoke about.  I’ve found my voice, and someone has listened.  They’re publishing it and the first copy comes out next Friday.  I want you to be here with me to celebrate.  I need you to be here.”

I was inundated with excitement.  Since we were children, we shared more in common than any other members of our family.  We helped each other through the rough times and encouraged one other to follow each and every dream we encountered.  And now one of our dreams was about to come true.

I knew what I had to do.  I found the courage to speak, “Evelyn.  I’m here.  It’s really good to hear from you.  I mean that.”

“Brody, it’s good to hear your voice, too.  Are you okay?”

I wanted to say no, but I replied, “Yes.  I’m doing well.  I’m in Italy.  I’ve been here for about three months now.  It’s such a beautiful country.  You must see it one day.”

Evelyn spoke.  “Brody, I really want to see you.  Please tell me that you will come home this week for my party.  I want you to be there to support me.”

“I’m so proud that you finished your first novel.  I can’t imagine what you’ve been through since I left.  I want to hear everything about it.  I will come home.  I should be there for you and for me, as well.  Things have been so different for me since leaving.  Part of me is curious about what’s happened since I’ve been gone.  How is everyone?”

We spoke for a few more minutes when I realized I was on the phone at the registration counter and didn’t want to continue the conversation out in the open.  I promised Evelyn I would call her back, and I did.  We spoke a few times that following week, and I finally decided to fly back to New York to attend the party that her father was throwing in her honor – and so began my trip back home.

With less than 2 hours to go, I fell back asleep for a bit finally.  When I roused, I heard the pilot stating that we were within minutes of our descent into JFK.  I gathered my personal items and prepared for landing.  It was Friday afternoon, and I had just a few short hours before Evelyn’s party.  Not only would I be seeing her, but the entire family I abandoned years ago.

Both my parents would be there, as well as over twenty aunts, uncles and cousins whom I no longer knew anything about.  Evelyn hadn’t really filled me in on anything I missed, except to tell me that everyone was still alive and kicking.  Some were a little worse than before, and some were doing better.

Stepping off the runway, I had a strange feeling that I wouldn’t be leaving to go back to Europe anytime soon.  Something was going to keep me here in NY for more than just this party.

I found the way to the baggage claim, picked up a few bags and took a taxi out to Long Island.  Although it would cost at least a $100 just for the ride alone, I still felt it was easier than waiting at the train station for the next train to leave for Brandywine.  Money didn’t matter to me, but my time was precious.

I’d chosen a hotel a few towns away from where my family lived so that I’d have some time on my own.  With less than three hours to get ready for the party, the taxi headed off towards Route 495.  Passing by various towns I used to frequent, I felt the connections of the past leaping forward.  I saw one of the bars I used to stop at Friday evenings with my cousin Geoffrey and then the TV station where I had formerly worked.  At the height of my career, which wasn’t all that high, I was a reporter at News12 for several years.

The taxi pulled up to the Hilton and I stepped to the curb handing the driver both the cab fee and a very good tip.  Having been in the service industry before, I was always generous with gratuities.  Looking up on the hillside, I saw what used to be one of my favorite places to be, Larkside Tower.  The tower, erected over a hundred years ago, served as a memorial to the men and women who fought to free the county from a great fire that tore through several cities, destroying most of the communities and homes that had been built only years before.  As a teenager, my friends and I would often head up the hill to go sledding in the snow or drinking late at night.  We never understood what the tower meant to everyone back then.  But now, seeing it years later, I felt its presence looming larger than life.  I knew that the tower stood for the re-birth of Long Island and the re-birth of its people.

I checked in, arrived at my hotel room and started unpacking.  Along with my lack of patience, my other major flaw was OCD.  Everything needed to be put in its place as soon as I arrived wherever I was going.  Within an hour, my phone rang.  I picked up, “Brody speaking.”

“You’re still coming, right?” replied Evelyn.

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything, ‘hon.  I’m just unpacking now, and I’ll be there by 6:30.”

“I’m so excited.  I haven’t told anyone, yet.  They’re going to be so surprised.  I’m more excited about this than about the book.  It’ll be wonderful to see you again.”

I nodded, “I am, too.  It feels like a night that will be full of surprises.”

“Hopefully all good ones.  See you later,” she said while hanging up.

I knew there would be lots of surprises this evening.  But I couldn’t shake the feeling that not all of them would be good ones.

I removed my black polo shirt, sandals and dark wash jeans.  As I walked to the bathroom to turn the shower on, I checked my image in the mirror and nodded in approval.  I still looked good despite the fine lines forming around the corners of my mouth recently.  My short brown hair and hazel eyes, though still my best features, were starting to show signs of maturity, and the baby face I had five years ago was beginning to disappear from my thirty-two year old reflection.

I thought to myself that I should look into sun tanning as my pale skin was nearly translucent in the fluorescent light of the bathroom.  I stepped in the shower, reached for the unopened bar of soap and felt the warm water run through my thick head of hair.  Perhaps the shower would wash away some of my fears over attending the party.

Ten minutes later, I stepped back out of the shower and dried off.  Slipping on a pair of new boxer briefs, I started feeling more relaxed as my confidence was growing stronger each minute that went by.

I’d chosen a dark grey suit for the evening, and a light blue dress shirt that I’d found in a small boutique in Champs d’Elysees while shopping in Paris earlier that year.  The chosen pale pink tie was nothing extraordinary, but it complemented the suit and ensured that I didn’t show off too much.  No one there needed to know I had come into a lot of money recently, and I never was one to appear to flashy.

I arrived at the country club around 6:15.  Everyone else had probably gathered there nearly an hour earlier.  I planned my arrival to skip the cocktail hour, as Evelyn wanted to keep me a secret until her speech.  Since I had at least fifteen minutes before I needed to make my presence known, I decided to walk around to the back gardens near the reflecting pool and fountain.

The last time I’d been at the Woodbury Country Club was probably at my prom.  I had taken my best friend Lydia, and we had one of the best evenings I could remember.  We had both been recently dumped by our respective significant others and had decided not to look for anything special.  We went together and had more fun than anyone else did because we didn’t have to think about whom we were going to nail in bed that night; we had decided from the beginning that sex wasn’t the most important thing about prom night.

I wondered what had become of Lydia.  When I left, she was going through a rough divorce.  Her husband was a great guy, but they just had fallen out of love.  As I steered myself through the pool of guilt that had burdened me for leaving her at that time, I saw a woman a few yards away talking somewhat loudly.  She had on a short blue dress with stiletto heals that looked quite painful even to just stand in.  I couldn’t imagine how someone could walk more than a few feet with them on.  Her cigarette shed ashes all over the white linen tablecloth flawlessly draped over the outside serving table.  She reminded me of the party girls I used to hang out with in college.  I only heard part of the conversation, but from what I could tell, she wasn’t happy about something and was worried about someone who could reveal a secret.

I monitored the noise coming from my steps and decided to skip the tour of the patio and fountains; there was no need to get in the middle of whatever scene had her in knots.  I headed right into the back entrance of the reception hall.

It was just about time for Evelyn to start her speech to get everyone all excited about her book and then move to the patio for dinner.  I stopped at the hall mirror first to check my appearance, then grabbed a mint to freshen my breath.  It’s not every day you will be confronted by your past.  And if you are, you should be sure to look and smell your best.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I mumbled to myself.  “Let the games begin.”  With that, I walked up to the pre-determined location and waited until it was my time to come out.

Meanwhile, out on the patio, the woman in the blue sequined-dress continued her increasingly confrontational conversation…

“Look, Kathryn.  I just talked to him.  He can’t get me the money.  Or he says he won’t get me the money.  I might have to apply some pressure.  I don’t think he wants anyone to know about his role in Hudson Productions.  I might have to use that as leverage.”

“Gwen, I’m worried about you ever since you said someone’s been leaving threatening notes.  I know you don’t want to tell me who it is, but if it’s who I think it is, you need to be more careful.  There’s probably more going on than you think there is.”  And then some static interrupted before Kathryn could finish her words.

Gwen couldn’t tell if Kathryn was still on the phone.  Dropping her cigarette on the ground, she saw a man approaching from a few feet away.  “Kathryn, I’ll call you back.  I’ve got someone to deal with here.”  Gwen lowered the phone not quite hanging it up yet.

She shouted, “Who’s there?  Are you here for the Hillcrest party, too?  There’re so many damn people in that family, you’re probably one of them.”  As the man stepped a few feet closer, Gwen gasped.  “Oh, it’s you.  What the hell are you doing here?”

The person approached Gwen standing just less than two feet away this time and replied, “Unfortunately, Gwen, whether or not I’m here for the party doesn’t matter.  All that matters, at least for you, is that I’m the one who’s about to settle our score.”

She saw the gun being aimed at her.  Before she could scream, her attacker grabbed her flailing arms and covered her mouth.  The phone fell to the ground, but remained online.  Kathryn was still on the other end and could here the voices arguing.  It was too late, though.

Gwen struggled to get free, but the person had now overpowered her.  With the gun pressed directly on her chest, she was helpless.  Suddenly, her frightened body was thrown towards the fountain and she heard the shot blast from the gun.  Gwen felt the bullet enter her chest and she soon stumbled backwards, her head slamming against the statue situated in the middle of the fountain.  Looking up at her killer, she tried to let out a scream, but nothing came out.  As the water covered her dying body, all light soon disappeared from her eyes and she sank into blackness.