CHESHIRE CAT by Sarah Bradley

CHESHIRE CAT
by Sarah Bradley

The winter when Lucy was nine and her brother Nick was twelve, he taught her to play chess. They bent over the crosshatched board on the living room floor in front of the fireplace, blonde heads nearly touching, all through Christmas break and into the new year. Wool socks and hot cocoa and Bing Crosby late into the night, the Douglas fir in the corner shimmering with tinsel.

They played dozens of games and Lucy never won. Not once. She couldn’t keep track of the rules or remember all the functions the pieces were meant to serve. It was like trying to parse out a confusing ensemble of actors in a stage play.

Bishops move diagonally, rooks horizontally or vertically. Pawns are strongest together. Knights can jump over other pieces. Don’t forget to castle. Promote your pawns. Don’t be careless with your pieces. Keep your queen close to the center of the board. Protect your king.

Lucy always forgot that last part, too distracted with strategizing about bishops and rooks and pawns to guard the stately white piece sitting exposed on her side of the board. Nick would laugh and scold her as he snatched her vulnerable king, calling checkmate again and again.

You gotta protect your king, Luce. That’s the whole game.

Cal gets handsy in the elevator up to Lucy’s seventh floor apartment. He slips his arm in under her open coat, threading it around her waist and grabbing at the curve of her hip. It’s faintly possessive in a way that makes Lucy feel warm and lightheaded.

They have been dating for a month and Cal has never been anything but a devout gentleman. Courteous and deferential. You pick the movie. Whatever restaurant you like. I should get you home, it’s a weeknight.

Most of the men Lucy dates are not like this. They send texts telling her to meet them at overcrowded, standing room-only bars, where they shout questions at her over the din and slosh their drinks around in their glasses. She is hardly ever asked to dinner. When she is, these other men treat the paid tab like an IOU—a promissory note to be cashed in later, when they are drunk and hoping to grope her on the dirty street outside her apartment building.

Lucy has never been to a bar with Cal. They go to tiny restaurants tucked away down side streets, where he rushes to open the door and pull out her chair. He only drinks a little, mostly wine, and never more than her. He puts his napkin on his lap while he eats, drinks an espresso for dessert, and pays the check without a hungry, expectant look in his eyes.

When he walks her back to her apartment at the end of their nights together, he kisses her like he’s going off to war: slowly and carefully, but not without feeling. As if he wants to make it last. He is like an endangered species rarely encountered in the wild, one that should be studied from a safe distance behind a pair of binoculars. His chivalry makes her exhilarated and wary at the same time.

It also makes her ravenous. Lucy leaves all of the other men she dates standing frustrated on the front steps of her building, half-pleading and half-demanding to be brought inside. But not Cal. She has tried for weeks to convince him to cross the threshold of the building’s lobby with her. There are things she wants from him: to touch the flat, brown mole on the right side of his neck above his collarbone, and to kiss him until she can taste the bitterness of that habitual cup of post-dinner coffee on her tongue. She wants her hair mussed in his hands, their dress shoes kicked off at the door, his dark-rimmed glasses on her nightstand. She wants him to stop being such a gentleman.

Tonight, she might get exactly that. The house wine at the Italian restaurant where they had dinner was surprisingly high quality, bright and spicy with licorice. Lucy ordered three of the generous glasses and Cal followed her lead. She didn’t have to talk him into coming into the lobby at all; he trailed close behind her, flushed and laughing, like an overeager schoolboy.

The elevator jostles and lurches from one floor to the next. Cal’s hand travels from her hip to a spot thrillingly low on her back. She smiles.

“You’re coming in?”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’m coming in.”

They step off the elevator and walk a crooked line down the hallway of doors, floating through the blissful state of tipsiness that has left them more than buzzed, not quite drunk. Sober enough to appreciate the high of their mild insobriety. Lucy hangs lightly onto Cal’s arm for balance.

“Did I tell you that I like this dress?” Cal says, and Lucy wonders if the dress has helped embolden him, picking up where the effects of the wine left off. It’s a ripe shade of indigo, with a deep neckline and lace sleeves. She loves this dress; it’s been too long since she’s worn it.

“Not yet,” she says.

“I like this dress.”

He stops walking and holds her firmly in place, kissing her outside apartment 713, where a retired woman with three dachshunds lives. They bark every morning at 6:10, like canine roosters crowing at the dawn. Lucy can hear them now scrabbling on the other side of the door, their toenails scratching at the wood.

She unbuttons Cal’s coat and loosens his tie. He kisses her again, sloppier this time, freed from his self-imposed restraint. One of his hands, still cold from outside, settles gently on the left side of her neck, his fingertips beneath her ear. The dogs whimper woefully; a voice inside the apartment makes a feeble attempt at shushing them. Multiple televisions up and down the hallway are turned up too loudly. The seventh floor smells like a Friday night: Chinese takeout and hairspray and package store beer.

“What number are you?”

“Seven-seventeen,” she says. “To the left.”

Cal takes her by the hand and pulls her away from her neighbor’s door. They round the corner leading to Lucy’s apartment and nearly trip over a man dozing on the balding carpet in front of her door. He wears an oversized tweed coat and mismatched canvas high-tops. His hair, ashy blond and curled around the earlobes, signals familiarity to Lucy. She knows this hair. She knows this man who has propped himself up outside her apartment, awaiting her inevitable return.

The winter when Lucy was fifteen and Nick was eighteen, he came home from his first semester of college and slept for three days straight. From Sunday to Tuesday, he barely ate and didn’t shower. Her parents told her he had the flu, but Lucy heard them arguing in their bedroom on Tuesday night, hissing at each other behind the closed door.

I told you Pennsylvania was too far. We can’t keep an eye on him there.

He’s eighteen, Louise. We shouldn’t have to keep an eye on him.

He almost flunked out. He’s hanging by a thread already.

 It’s his choice. We can’t make him stop.

There has to be something we can do. We’re his parents.

He doesn’t need his parents. He needs to grow up.

The next morning, Lucy snuck into Nick’s bedroom. His suitcases were still unpacked from school, standing upright outside the closet door. She sat down on the bed next to him. Heat radiated from his skin. He opened his eyes.

Are you okay? She asked.

I’m fine, he said. I have the flu.

No, you don’t, she said.

Nick smiled, his dry lips splitting open into miniature cracks. Do me a favor?

What?

Bring me some water.

Lucy filled up a glass in the kitchen and carried it back upstairs. She lay down on the bed next to Nick, on top of the flannel comforter. She wished he had come home for Thanksgiving. She hadn’t seen him in almost four months.

Luce, he said, staring at the ceiling. Did you miss me?

Yes, she said. I missed you.

“Excuse me,” Cal says, stooping down to rouse the man from sleep. Lucy puts her hand on his arm.

“It’s okay, Cal,” she says. “Nick? Nick.”

Nick startles awake at her voice and jumps to his feet. He sways a little, steadies himself on the door.

“Hey, Luce.” His voice is raw but his smile is broad and gleaming: a Cheshire Cat grin of misdirection, deceptive and winsome in equal parts.

“What are you doing here?”

He reeks sourly of cigarettes and stale breath and dried sweat, like the alcove under the subway stairs where homeless men sleep at night. Lucy keeps singles in her purse to hand out to them when she leaves work. She knows most of them by name now. Benny with the long twisted braid, Roger with the prickly red beard, George with the eyeglasses missing one lens. They could all be somebody’s brother.

“I’m back in town. I wanted to see you.”

Nick is filthy, the fine lines of his hands and face etched in grime, his hair oily and flat against his head. Despite his appearance, he manages to make it sound like he’s simply been on vacation, crossing the country on an extended holiday.

“Where have you been?”

Nick shrugs in his usual unaffected way. Around. Who cares? Beside her, Cal clears his throat. Nick shifts his attention away from Lucy, looking at Cal with polite bemusement.

“Hello. Who are you?”

“This is Cal,” Lucy says, before Cal can answer. “Cal, this is my brother, Nick.”

Cal blinks in confusion, then thrusts his hand forward to shake Nick’s. Lucy thinks of the elevator and that same hand on the small of her back, wandering respectfully down toward the top of her right buttock. She swallows the growing lump in her throat.

“I didn’t know Lucy had a brother,” Cal says.

“I didn’t know Lucy had a Cal,” Nick says. He is jovial, wanting to play the part of quick-witted older brother. He is unaware of what he has interrupted, oblivious to the smudged lipstick around Lucy’s mouth or Cal’s disheveled coat and tie.

“Where have you been?” Lucy repeats.

“I got a ride out to Ohio, stayed with some friends. I’ve been making my way back to the city for a few weeks.”

“Ohio? Who do you know in Ohio?”

Nick smiles again, but it’s tightly wound. Strained. She doesn’t normally ask so many questions.

“I’m sober, Luce. If that’s what you’re asking.”

“It’s not.” Lucy lifts her chin and levels her shoulders. “I’m asking who you know in Ohio.”

“Rugby guys,” he says without hesitation, matching her confidence. “From Penn State.”

Lucy stares at him. She knows he is lying—about the rugby guys, about the state of his sobriety—but she can’t determine how far to push him. The wine is still making her brain cloudy and muddled. If she digs down into the wrong hole too quickly or too deeply, Nick will never tell her anything again.

Her doubt gives him time to collect himself. He watches her coolly, waiting for her to decide. But she has lost the upper hand—the element of surprise. Bishops move diagonally, rooks horizontally or vertically. Or is it the other way around? It doesn’t matter: whatever questions she asks now, he will be ready to answer.

“I didn’t know where you were,” she says finally, quietly. “It’s been almost three months.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”

Nick scratches at his neck, tugging the collar of his coat away from his skin. The tweed is faded and thinned down to the lining. It has the dated and ill-fitting look of a shelter donation. There can’t be much padding inside. She wonders if he has been warm enough at night. March in the city is always remarkably cold, obstinately refusing to give way to spring.

“I thought you’d be happy to see me.”

“I am,” Lucy says. “But I’ve been asking around. No one knew where you were. I started checking the shelters, different ones all the time.”

“Is that where you go on your lunch break every day?” Cal asks suddenly, inserting himself into Lucy’s eyeline.

Lucy forgot Cal was standing next to her. It was only moments ago that she could think of literally nothing but him: his mouth moving against hers, his crisp dress shirt wrinkling in her fingers, his combed black hair falling out of place. Now Nick has been at her door for five minutes, and she has already forgotten about Cal.

It isn’t intentional, this slight—it never is. It’s a reflex, an involuntary reaction, like yanking a hand away from a hot stove. Still, her guilt forms a small, fiery coal deep in her belly. She never sees it coming. She never learns.

You gotta protect your king, Luce.

The winter that Lucy was nineteen and Nick was twenty-two, she was supposed to go home for Christmas with her college boyfriend, a political science major from Tampa, Florida. Kevin Thompson. He had a crew cut and played on the lacrosse team and could talk about Marxism in a way that didn’t make her brain sear with boredom. They began dating freshman year. It was the first time Lucy had ever been in love, and it was easy, uncomplicated, satisfying. They had planned to drive down to Disney World after the holiday and ride Space Mountain until they were sick.

The week before the semester ended, her parents called to tell her that Nick had admitted himself to Capstone Rehabilitation Center. There were family therapy sessions scheduled twice a week for the next eight weeks. Nick, they said, had asked if she could be there.

I have to go home, she told Kevin. For my brother.

You don’t have to, he said. We made plans.

Nick needs me.

Nick always needs you. That doesn’t mean you have to go.

Yes it does, she said.

After finals she gave Kevin his Christmas present—a collector’s edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince—and flew home to Albany, New York. She spent her break shuttling back and forth from her parents’ house to the rehab center, sitting in an overly warm room for family therapy, wondering who this man was that claimed to be her brother.

Nick was antagonistic and argumentative. Non-compliant—that was the term the therapist used. He looked fatigued, underfed, damaged: nails chewed down to stubs, scratches up and down his forearms, one foot constantly bouncing on the floor. He claimed the other patients attacked him at night. He missed morning meeting every day, oversleeping through two alarms. His caseworker said he was losing weight, two or three pounds at a time.

Lucy asked Nick, over and over, when no one else was listening: Are you okay? Are you okay? He answered, over and over, so everyone could hear: I’m fine. I’m fine.

After each session, she crawled into bed and sobbed. She always missed Nick when he went away, drifting into binges and benders, fading into oblivion. For days or weeks or months, she would check the street outside, check her phone, check her email. Waiting for him to turn up somewhere, in some form. Wearing strange clothes, needing a shower, unbothered by his own absence. Hey, Luce. I’m back.

But this time was different. Lucy missed Nick in a way that felt long-lasting. Permanent. This time, she missed someone who might not be coming back: a boy hunched over a chess board, his head almost touching hers.

Some time after Christmas, Kevin broke up with her over the phone. He was at Disney World with his parents and sister, calling from the hotel bathroom after they had all gone to sleep. Keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t wake them.

You should be here. I rode Space Mountain without you. Do you even care about us?

In the dim hallway outside her door, Lucy wants to kiss Cal again, but knows the version of her night that ends with him undressed, sleeping soundly in her bed, has slipped away from her. The elevator ride feels like hours ago.

“I don’t check the shelters every day,” she says to him. “But most days, yes.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m sorry.” She means it, but she doesn’t elaborate. He will believe her or he won’t. It doesn’t matter what more she says.

“Lucy’s a good sister,” Nick offers, too loudly, as if this explains everything. “But she worries too much.”

“I think I worry the right amount,” Lucy says. She wants to know where he has been sleeping at night. What he has been doing during the day. What he has been drinking, and how much, and when. But he won’t answer these questions, not in any way that really tells her anything, so she doesn’t ask them. Her head hurts now, and the warmth is beginning to drain from her face.

No one speaks, the three of them forming a silent, irregular triangle in the middle of the hallway. Lucy can hear the dachshunds still whining around the corner in 713, the competing voices of television news broadcasters and home shopping presenters coming from other apartments.

She turns to Cal. “I was going to tell you. That I had a brother.”

“Okay,” he says. He has a strange look on his face, not angry or distant or even disappointed. Wistful, maybe. Wondering.

The hot coal in her stomach swells. She looks away from him, down at the dingy carpet and the well-worn spot outside her door where she has stood locking and unlocking her apartment day after day, juggling mail and shopping bags and umbrellas and disposable coffee cups.

She can’t count the number of times she has come home to find her brother waiting for her in this spot, but it still surprises her every time it happens. He is gifted at going missing and then turning up unannounced, behaving as if no time has passed. Like he was there all along but simply made himself invisible. Disappearing and reappearing. Smiling. Telling lies.

“Luce,” Nick says. “I need a place to stay. Just for a little while.”

“Yeah.” Lucy’s chest aches from holding her breath. She exhales. “Of course.”

Cal touches Lucy’s shoulder delicately. “I should go,” he says. The feeling of his hand—limp and polite, devoid of any desire—makes her queasy.

“No, don’t.”

He smiles kindly. “You need some privacy. I can call you tomorrow.” He bends down to kiss her cheek and Lucy blinks away an unwelcome surge of tears.

“Sure,” she says.

Cal gives Lucy’s elbow a gentle squeeze, angling in close to her body. His tie dangles crookedly around his neck, his opened collar revealing the small, inviting mole that she still has not had the chance to touch.

“I’ll call. Tomorrow.” His mouth hovers around her ear for a moment longer than it should. He holds her elbow purposefully between his fingers. He waits for Lucy to nod in understanding, and then he lets go.

The winter that Lucy was 23 and Nick was 26, she had just moved into her apartment in the city. She was dressing to go out when someone knocked on her door. Nick stood in the hallway, a threadbare beanie on his head, his pants and shoes covered in dirty snow.

Hey, Luce.

It took her some time to accept that it was him. Six months earlier, he slipped away from a family barbecue in Albany without a word. Her parents and aunts and cousins all asking Lucy where Nick went. Why would he leave? Where would he be going? Did he say anything to you? As if Lucy was his keeper. As if she could have made him stay.

What are you doing here? She asked.

I wanted to see you, he said, grinning—yellow teeth emerging from an overgrown beard.

How did you find me? I tried to call you.

I lost my phone. Mom gave me your address. Can I come in?

Six months. No calls or texts or messages. It had been blissful; it had been frightening. Lucy could have tried harder to get him her new address. She still wasn’t sure why she didn’t. Not that it mattered—he found her anyway. He always did.

I was about to go out, she said.

Oh. Nick looked at her blankly, not seeing her heels, her red lipstick, her indigo dress with the lace sleeves. He was shivering, his clothes soaked through to the inner layer of his undershirt. Please, Luce? Just for tonight.

Nick—

I missed you, he said. Didn’t you miss me?

Lucy let him in. She ran some hot water in the bathtub, microwaved a can of soup, took out the extra pair of clothes she kept for him—wherever she was living—in the bottom drawer of her dresser. She texted her date for the night and canceled.

Family emergency. I’m sorry. Maybe another time?

Lucy listens to Cal walk the narrow hallway back to the elevators. Nick is talking to her about being hungry and recovering from bronchitis and losing his wallet on a Greyhound bus, but she doesn’t really hear him. She is letting herself believe—for one long, indulgent moment—that Cal will call tomorrow like he said he would. That he is still a gentleman.

Nick stands anxiously in front of her, pointing to the apartment door. “Are you going to open it up?”

She rifles through her pocketbook for her keys. Nick picks at a dirty fingernail, scraping away something black from the cuticle before biting off a hangnail with his teeth.

“He was nice.”

“What?” Lucy asks.

“That guy. Cal? He was nice.”

Lucy slides her key into the lock. “Yes. He was.”

She pushes open the door to the darkened apartment. Down the hall, the elevator begins its clanging descent to the first floor. Lucy turns to invite Nick inside, half-expecting him to be gone.


Sarah Bradley is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher from Connecticut. Her nonfiction essays on life as a homeschooling mother of three boys have been featured at The Washington Post, Real Simple, The Writer, Romper, Today’s Parent, and Mom.me, among others. Her fiction has appeared in The Lost Country, The Forge Literary Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and Haunted Waters Press. She is currently writing her first novel. You can find Sarah documenting her attempts at finding a mother/writer balance on Instagram.

 

 

Image credit: Shirly Niv Marton on Unsplash

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