A thunderous applause could be heard coming from the Grand Ball Room as a twenty-something Evelyn walked to a podium in the front of the room. She pushed a few wisps of auburn hair off her eyes and lowered the microphone. She had an even stronger resemblance to me now, especially the family’s high cheek bones, strong jaw line and pale skin.
She stared out into the audience, all of which were her closest friends and family. She had on a knee length black silk skirt and an empire cut blouse with blue, purple and grey tones. She looked very happy, almost too happy, as if she were about to burst.
The applause slowly calmed down, and Evelyn spoke to everyone in the room. “This is just so overwhelming. First, I have to thank each and every one of you for coming. In this family, we never celebrate our successes as we should. That’s what tonight is going to be about. I didn’t write this book alone. I needed all of your support and love to persevere through some of the hard times. And I needed some of you to provide sustenance to me when I couldn’t find enough change to stir up a meal of my own to eat.
A few people laughed. A middle-aged woman with short blonde hair yelled, “And you always knew to come to me, right, sweetie?” That was my mother, and her aunt Penelope. My mom had become the mother-figure of the family when her parents passed away leaving behind 5 daughters and a son. Although they were all grown and had their own families by now, someone needed to sit at the head of the table. Penelope seemed to fit the role perfectly.
Evelyn continued, “Yes, Aunt Penelope… you were one of my closest supporters. When I started my novel almost six years ago, I never expected to take so long to write it. But the again, I also never expected to publish it. And now I have. And you’re all here supporting me. I feel that I owe you something in return.”
I stood waiting behind the curtain, listening to my younger cousin talk to our family. As I saw her for the first time, I realized how much she had grown up since I left town. She was no longer a college student struggling to find her place in the world. She was a young woman in her late twenties trying to break out on her own.
Evelyn glanced to her side, and saw me standing there. I could see a drop of sweat forming on her right brow. She grinned as it was the first time she had seen me since I’d left. Soon, everyone would see me.
“And I have two things for you tonight,” she continued. “One is a story about how I came to be a writer. Probably about twenty years ago, my parents moved back to Brandywine. I wanted no part of it, being the temperamental child I could be. But when I arrived, things weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be. I soon realized that one’s family doesn’t have to be one’s enemy. Sometimes they could be your friend.”
I started remembering the story that Evelyn was beginning to tell. As an only child, I spent a lot of time on my own. I only had a few close friends, and then I had my family, especially my cousin Evelyn. She and I became inseparable at some point.
Evelyn looked out at everyone, “But this particular family member didn’t start out as my friend. He started out as the one who constantly teased me. Every time he’d come over to visit or baby-sit, he’d torture me by leaving notes from the so-called ‘Bunny Knapper.’ I’d find carrot shavings in my bed and a note saying that if I ever wanted to see my stuffed animals again, I should leave a tray of lettuce out every night before I went to sleep. Can you imagine what that did to a frightened eight year old?”
She continued, “Well, for starters, it activated my imagination. And my imagination activated my creativity. My creativity activated my desire to tell stories. And so, the reason I was able to write this book is because of family, because of one specific member of my family who I miss more than anything I can even begin to put into words. And I’m sure we all miss him. Brody was a wonderful nephew, son and cousin to each of us. When he left five years ago, I’m sure we all lost a small part of ourselves. Brody is the one who encouraged me to write. Brody is the one who read everything I ever put to words. Brody is the one who taught me to write what I know and to write what I had passion for.”
My guilt started growing again. I knew I had been wrong when I left, but I had to do it to save myself at the time.
“I promised you two things when I first started talking. That was my story about how I became a writer. And now you deserve the second promise. Sometimes although you think you’ve lost something, it’s actually not gone forever. Sometimes when someone leaves, they find their way back. You’ve all been there to support me through the last few years, and now it’s my turn to give something back to you.”
Evelyn motioned to me to step forward. And although I was nervous, scared and unsure, I also knew this was what needed to happen. I walked a few steps towards Evelyn, paused to collect myself, and then made the final steps out from behind the curtain until I was in plain sight for all the family to see.
There were a few gasps. There were a few shouts. And there was a lot of love.
My mother came running forward towards me. Evelyn did, too. And I stood there waiting for my past to catch up to my present. And when it did, there was no controlling anyone’s reactions.
For just a few moments, the family Hillcrest was all together, feeling the comfort of being around one another and the love of the support. Evelyn was publishing her first novel, and I was finally home after over five years of unknown time. I spent a few minutes with my parents, then I turned to Evelyn to tell her how proud I was to be her cousin.
“Evelyn, I’m so excited that you’ve completed your first novel and found a publisher. I think it’s absolutely phenomenal,” I began.
“I’m just glad it brought you home to us. You’re the missing piece to the puzzle for this family. And now we’re complete once again. Tell us, what have you been doing with yourself?”
I allowed myself a few seconds just to take in the entire situation. Less than 12 hours ago, I was back in Italy away from everyone, doing my own thing without a real care in the world about doing things simply because someone else needed me to do them. I had complete freedom, and now I had to be careful not to upset anyone.
“I’ve been traveling around Europe mostly. I just needed some time on my own. I should have written or called. I know how much you all worried. I’m really sorry,” I began.
As I finished talking, my cousin Jeremiah wandered over and gave me a big hug.
“Man, I missed you. This place hasn’t been the same without you around. There’s no one to go to the Met’s games with me. Your mom’s been lost since you left. And Evelyn decided it was my job to go with her to the crazy psychic on Bleeker Street ever since you left. Do you know how many times I’ve had to listen that woman tell me that I’ll only get hurt if I fall in love.”
Evelyn smacked Jeremiah in his stomach just enough for him to wince. “You’re hilarious. Everything she’s ever told me is true.”
Jeremiah responded, “Well she also told me death was in my near future when you took me there last month. And that never happened.”
I laughed. “Well, she was right on a few things for me back in the day. It’s great to see you both. So tell me Jeremiah, what’s going on with you?”
His expression lit up as he began, “Lots of things. I decided to go the same route as Geoffrey and become a doctor. I’m interning now at NYU. I just rented a new place in Queens. And I’m seeing this fantastic girl named Gwen. Speaking of Gwen, I haven’t seen her in a little while. I wonder where she’s gone.”
As Jeremiah finished, his older brother Geoffrey came up from behind and started talking. “Evelyn, when’s the speech begin? I’m hungry for dinner!”
The group looked confused. Evelyn started replying when Geoffrey suddenly caught sight of me standing next to him.
He opened, “Brody? Oh my god, what the hell are you doing here, Brody? It’s awesome to see you. When did you get here?”
“Just off the plane a few hours ago. It’s a long story.”
Jeremiah interrupted, “Geoffrey, where were you just now?
“Over at the bar,” Geoffrey replied. He seemed a little shaky.
“Oh, ok. Any chance you saw Gwen while you were there?
“No, I didn’t. I didn’t see her, sorry.”
I looked to Geoffrey and realized how good it was to see him. “What have you been doing with your life since I left?” I asked.
“Living life. I don’t remember what was going on when you were here last. Julie and I got married. Things are great there. But honestly, I’m more interested in hearing about you, Brody.”
I knew had to answer these kinds of questions, but no matter how much I prepared, I still felt uncomfortable. I responded, “Five years have gone by, I know. There are a lot of explanations I need to give, huh?” I could see that I had a captive audience. This wasn’t something I could easily glaze over.
“I left NY because I couldn’t deal with Victoria’s death. When she died in that car accident, I lost more than a fiancée. I lost love. I lost my future. I lost hope. I thought maybe some time away would help the situation improve. So I took off for London. I stayed there for a few weeks. I wanted to call or write. But I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone. After a while, the days just ran into one another. I spent some time in Paris and Barcelona.”
Jeremiah smiled. “You always loved Barcelona. I remember you saying you wanted to move there some day.”
“Yeah, I know. I guess I did. But I was actually in Tuscany when Evelyn found me. You know, you never did explain how you found me.”
Evelyn smirked, “Ah, yes. I never did explain, did I? Well, it was a coincidence actually. I tried to find you the first few months after you left. At some point, I realized that you were determined to be on your own. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find you if you didn’t want to be found. And part of me thought that you might just come home sooner or later.”
Geoffrey spoke, “Apparently not without someone asking him to.” I sensed a bit of anger in Geoffrey.
Evelyn continued, “No, apparently not. As for how I found you, it was through a co-worker. She had recently been in Italy and ran into you, Brody.”
I couldn’t recall running into anyone specific. I tried remembering whom I had been out to eat with recently.
Evelyn could see I was confused. “Faith Wilson. She was on vacation with her family when she ran into you at a restaurant. She accidentally spilled her wine on your white linen pants. She felt bad and tried to pay for the dry cleaning. You introduced yourself and she recognized the name Hillcrest but didn’t know why. Anyway, she remembered who you were. When she came back to work, she mentioned this guy that she ran into and told me that he had the same last name as my mother’s maiden name. My curiosity was immediately piqued. It took a little while, but once I knew what city you were in, I called a few friends who could check into it and they found the hotel you were staying at.”
I chimed in, “And that’s when you called and the desk clerk handed me the phone.”
“Exactly” Evelyn replied. “But listen, although I’d love to talk more about it right now, it’s actually time to move the party to the patio to start dinner.”
She then led the way. Jeremiah remarked that he still couldn’t find Gwen. Geoffrey suggested maybe she was already out on the patio.
Two men in white tuxedos opened the French doors that led onto the patio and we all wandered out towards the fountain. As I stepped out onto the patio, the cool night air felt good on my skin. Evelyn grabbed my arm and we followed Geoffrey and Jeremiah out.
Although I had been on the patio just a short while before, it seemed much different this time. The lights were much lower and the music seemed louder. We moved towards the far side of the patio, edging closer to the marble fountain sitting against the back drop of a gorgeous landscape.
Evelyn let go of my arm and stepped a few feet away, telling everyone to pile in and find a seat. As she crossed to the table she planned to sit at, she let out a piercing scream that we all heard even over the jazz musicians introduction of <<insert musical melody here>>.
“Oh, no. Someone’s fallen into the fountain and she looks bloody,” Evelyn yelled.
The music stopped once they heard Evelyn’s screaming. My cousin Geoffrey was closest to her at this point and ran over to see who was in the fountain. I walked closer to Evelyn to grab her hand, and I too saw the floating body. It was the body of the woman in the blue dress I had seen not more than 30 minutes ago.
Geoffrey shouted, “Someone call 911.” He turned the body over, pulled her to the ground and immediately checked to see if she was breathing.
As he hovered over her, I could see he was sliding the top of her dress down to get a better look at the wound. He continued, “She’s been shot. And it looks like she’s hit her head, too.”
Jeremiah also walked closer and kneeled down. His face was scrunched up and he looked like he was about to explode. “Gwen, Gwen. Are you OK? Can you hear me?”
Geoffrey pushed him away. “Let me look at her, Jeremiah.”
Evelyn had calmed down enough to tell me that Gwen was Jeremiah’s missing date. They had just started dating, and he brought her here with him to meet the family.
I asked, “Who would want to shoot her? What is going on here?” I could feel my skin starting to crawl, my veins constricting and the tightness in my throat forming.
Jeremiah began freaking out over his victimized girlfriend, while Geoffrey administered CPR. He kept checking her hand and her neck for a pulse.
But I already knew CPR wouldn’t bring her back. I had seen what a body looks like when all life has been sucked out of it. The shock of seeing the entire family and then a floating dead body was really starting to impact me. I felt a little unbalanced. Death has a nasty way of lingering in your mind, something you can never forget once you see it.
Geoffrey confirmed what I had been thinking, “Jeremiah, I’m so sorry. She’s already dead. It looks like she’s been shot right in her neck and chest. With all this blood, the bullet probably ruptured her carotid artery. There was no chance to save her. She must have died instantly.”
Died instantly, I thought to myself. I could feel the emotion start to rise up from within. This was not the homecoming I expected. This was not the memory I wanted to remember.
Evelyn grabbed hold of me tighter. “Brody, this is so sad. Why did this happen? Who would do something like this so out in the open?”
“I don’t know, Evelyn. But I’m willing to bet we’ll soon find out.”