While millions of people watched her brother die, Lila sat in her quiet office at the university, working on a paper about Herman Melville’s later years. Someone else might have found it ironic that, on that very afternoon, she’d been thinking about Melville’s son, who shot himself. Lila herself didn’t make the connection until much later, and by then, she was so lost she could only see it as an obvious sign that she should have known, that she’d failed Billy when he needed her most.
Though Billy didn’t shoot himself, his death was considered a suicide. Patrick, Lila’s husband, had to explain it to her twice before she realized what he was saying. Her mind was working so slowly, but she finally understood that “suicide by police” happened enough that it had its own label. Billy had holed himself up inside a Center City Philadelphia hotel with a rifle, unloaded but aimed at an elementary school, so a SWAT team would have to do what he couldn’t or wouldn’t do to himself. As far as Lila knew, Billy had never owned a gun, but she hadn’t talked to her twin much in the last two years, since he’d moved with his family to central Pennsylvania. Still, everyone knew Lila was a twin, because she talked about her brother constantly. And many of those people were probably watching as Lila’s brother closed down an entire city block and sent parents and teachers and children into a terrified panic. As one of the fathers told the reporters, after the threat had been “nullified”: “Of course parents are afraid of violence these days. Seems like every week, there’s another nut job with an ax to grind.”
Her beautiful, sensitive brother Billy—the most intelligent person she’d ever known, who taught her to climb trees and read her stories when she couldn’t sleep and told her flowers were the only proof we needed that God loved us—reduced to a nut job. She wanted to scream at this father, this stranger, but the only sound she could make was a muffled cry.
Patrick hadn’t wanted Lila to watch the eleven o’clock news, but she had insisted. They both knew this would still be the top story, though the city undoubtedly had murders and rapes and robberies to report that day. The elementary school was an upscale, private place, where lawyers and executives and professors like Lila dropped their children off on the way to work. Except Lila didn’t have any children because, though she and Patrick were in their mid-thirties now and had been married for more than a decade, she kept begging him to wait just a little longer to start their family. What she was waiting for, Lila could never explain. She honestly didn’t know.
Her brother certainly hadn’t waited. When Billy showed up at her college graduation, Lila hadn’t seen him in almost a year and she was giddy with the thrill of reunion. He said he was there to give her a present and handed her a large, brown box with nothing on it except a cluster of FRAGILE stickers. He told her to open it later, in her room. She thought it might be pot, since Billy always had pot, no matter how poor he was. They were both poor then (because they’d refused to take any of their stepfather’s money), but Lila had gotten a full scholarship to a prestigious school while Billy had embarked on his adventure to see America, funded by a string of jobs he hated.
She took the box to the room that she was being kicked out of the next day. The dorms were already closed—classes had ended weeks ago—but Lila had gotten special permission to remain until her summer camp teaching job began. Every year it was like that: piecing together a place to stay by begging favors from people who liked Lila and sympathized with her circumstances. Her parents were dead (Billy had forged the death certificates way back, when Lila first started applying for college) and her only relative, a brother, was traveling full-time for his company. “That’s true, too,” Billy had said. “I’m going to be traveling for my own company—and to avoid the company of the undead.”
Lila opened the box. On top, she found a baggie with three perfectly rolled joints and a note that said, “Do this in memory of me.” Below that, a copy of Highlights for Children magazine, which Billy had probably ripped off from a doctor’s office. On page twelve, at the top of the cartoon, he’d written “Billy = Gallant, Lila = Goofus.” It was an old joke between them: Lila, the rule follower, had always been Gallant, and Billy, the rebel, Goofus. But in this particular comic strip, Gallant had brought a present to someone and Goofus was empty-handed.
Touché, bro, Lila thought, and smiled.
Finally, underneath an insane number of foam peanuts was a large shoe box, which he’d made into a diorama. It was so intricate, worthy of any grade school prize, except Lila and Billy had never made dioramas in grade school, not that she could remember anyway. Her memories of her childhood were so fragmented that she sometimes felt those years had disappeared from her mind even as she’d lived them. Of course, she could always ask Billy what really happened. He remembered everything.
Inside the shoe box, there were two houses made of broken Popsicle sticks in front of a multicolored landscape, complete with purple clouds and a blue sky and a pink and yellow sun. The houses had tiny toothpick mailboxes to identify them: the one on the left was Lila’s, the one on the right, Billy’s. In Lila’s house, a clay man and woman stood watch over a clay baby inside a lumpy clay crib. In Billy’s house, a clay man and woman were sitting on the floor, smoking an obscenely large joint, but a clay baby was asleep in another room, on a mattress. Billy’s house was dirtier, with straw floors and very little furniture, but it was still a house and, most important, it was still next door to Lila’s. They’d always planned on living next to each other when they were grown. Of course whoever Billy married would love Lila and whoever Lila married would love Billy. How could it be any other way?
Lila knew something was wrong when she saw the note Billy had attached to the bottom of the diorama: “Don’t worry, I haven’t lost the plot. This won’t change anything.” She knew what the first sentence meant since Billy had been saying this for years, but the second one was too cryptic to understand. Stranger still was how short the note was. Billy had been writing long letters from the time he could hold a crayon. He was a born writer. He’d already written dozens of stories when they were kids and he was planning to start his novel on the road trip. Lila liked to imagine him writing in seedy hotels while she learned how to interpret novels in her English courses.
She found out what he was telling her only a few days later, when he called to invite her to his wedding. He’d gotten a woman pregnant. Her name was Ashley and she was twenty-nine—eight years older than Lila and Billy. She was a waitress in a bar in Los Lunas, New Mexico. She didn’t write novels or read them, but she claimed to think it was “cool” that Billy did. “He’s got himself a real imagination, that boy,” Ashley said, and laughed. She and Lila were sitting on barstools, waiting to drive to the justice of the peace with Billy and one of Ashley’s friends. Lila tried not to hate her for that laugh, but from that point on, she couldn’t help thinking of her as Trashley, though she never shared that fact with anyone, not even Patrick.
Fifteen years later, she’d forgotten about the diorama—until that night, watching Billy die on television. Then it came back to her, and she felt tears spring to her eyes because she didn’t even know where it was. She told Patrick that she was going to the storage space in the basement of their building to find Billy’s diorama first thing tomorrow. He gripped her hand more tightly. No doubt he thought she was in shock. Maybe she was.
The news reporter had started by announcing that the gunman, William “Billy” Cole, was in the middle of being divorced by his wife, Ashley. Patrick hadn’t shared this fact with her, maybe because he didn’t know it, as he’d only heard about Billy’s death on the radio driving home, or maybe because he’d intuited it would upset her more. It stunned Lila, but it was the end of the broadcast that made her feel like her throat was closing up and it was becoming difficult to breathe. “Cole was thought to be depressed from the divorce and from his recent loss of visitation with his children after his wife’s allegation that he’d abused their middle child, an eight-year-old boy whose name is being withheld. Earlier in the week, the district attorney had decided to bring charges against Cole for several counts of child endangerment. A warrant for his arrest had been expected today.”
While Lila watched, Patrick held her tight, trying to quiet her shaking, but when she shouted an obscenity at a close-up of Trashley, he looked very surprised, and Lila heard herself barking out a hysterical laugh. It was true she never cursed and certainly never shouted. The walls of their apartment were so thin they could hear the old lady next door coughing. Normally Lila worried about this, but now she longed to hear screaming or sirens or even the room exploding: something, anything, to match the turmoil inside her mind. She repeated the obscenity she’d used, louder than before, adding, “And I don’t care who hears me!”
She stormed into their bedroom, slammed the door, and collapsed to her knees. The sound that came from her was less a cry than a wail, too airless for anyone to recognize the sentences she kept moaning over and over. “It isn’t real, Lila. It can’t be real unless you decide that it is.”
How many times had Billy said this to her? Fifty? A hundred? How could she have forgotten?
She desperately wanted to believe this, but she couldn’t remember ever making any decisions about what was real and what wasn’t. Billy was the one who’d told her the nightmares weren’t real, the one who knew what had really happened in their past. It was Billy, too, who’d convinced her that their future would be beautiful with second chances, and then described that future so vividly it became more real to Lila than her sorrow and lost innocence. All she’d ever had to do was trust her brother, but that was the easiest thing in the world. It didn’t require imagination. It didn’t even require faith. Love was the only necessity. Her love for Billy, which had always been the truest thing in her life.
She used to think that without her brother she would simply cease to exist. But now, as she heard her lungs gasping for air and felt the ache of her knees against the hardwood floor, she knew her body was stubborn; it would insist on remaining alive, even if her life no longer made sense to her. Even if she couldn’t comprehend the world in which she’d found herself. It was frankly impossible, and yet this was her reality now: a world without Billy.
© 2009 Lisa Tucker