Nothing but paint flecks hung on his front door but Neil, Peggy knew, had never been into decorating. The undercoating revealed the original black he’d painted over with apple-red the summer he’d moved in. Distant muscle aches and the echo of a housewarming hangover nibbled at the back of her mind as Peggy stood on his stoop, staring at the cracked tab of the envelope she held.
Dented edges and flimsy paper contrasted with the invitation she’d last slipped through the mail slot. Despite the intervening years, the dates of the one she’d left and the one trembling between her fingers remained close enough to be the same moment in time.
It could have been.
Her conscious poked again, like it had when she’d uncovered the note during a weed through wedding boxes. The smell of dust and potpourri tickled her nose, and Peggy forced the envelope still.
You’re going to be making a big deal about nothing.
Concern left her holding her ground and Peggy turned the envelope over. She ran her fingertips across her name, indented by a long forgotten ballpoint pen. The note’s corner caught on the bands circling her ring finger, making the diamonds and gold twinkle.
Each sparkle sent an urge to retreat into her feet. She sensed her station wagon with its Cheerio debris and sticker-smeared windows parked at the curb, engine not yet cooled. Laundry, garbage, the ticking clock to school pickups, and the grocery shopping for dinner added their own prudent encouragements to depart.
Her name called out to her though, and Peggy clutched the envelope.
I can’t just let this go.
Before her mind or body could send her elsewhere, Peggy seized the knocker and pounded three times. She took a step back from the ominous thuds, their clang suggesting the rooms inside hadn’t changed much from their bachelor-pad starkness either.
Nearing footsteps answered. When an eye peeped through the hole, Peggy flashed a quick grin she hoped looked less nervous than it felt on her lips.
After a jangle of chain and slide of the bolt, the door swung open. A mixed aroma of turpentine and oil paints wafted around Neil’s spindly frame, either from his spattered tee shirt and jeans, or the art work somewhere inside. He wiped a hand on his shirtfront, a half smile bunching the left side of his stubbly face.
“You should have called, Peggy. I wasn’t expecting company.”
“I just wanted to check up on you.”
He leaned onto the door. “Since when?”
“Since I thought about it.” She pressed the envelope into her midriff. “It’s been forever since I’ve come by without Simon and the kids.”
“Are you’re going to keep me on the stoop after that long?”
Neil’s smile faded and he glanced over his shoulder.
“If you have company—”
His snide laugh cut her off. “The place is just a mess.”
“I live with your brother and two elementary school boys. Whatever your mess is, it won’t scare me.”
Neil cocked his head but gazed past her, into the scraggly lawn. “I’m not so sure about that.”
“Let me be the judge.”
His eyes, a lighter blue than Simon’s, flicked to her from their post within paint-dotted features tapered from too much time between meals. The thought of him hungry riled up her nerves and the envelope crinkled against Peggy’s sweater.
“Please, Neil, I need to talk to you about something.”
Concern replaced the skepticism in his face. “You should have started with that.” He backpedaled and motioned her inside.
Tiptoeing across the threshold, Peggy kept clear of the drying pieces of art and half-crafted sculptures underfoot. A path laced the entryway, bringing her between tarps covering the walls of the combination living and dining room as well as the fireplace at the far end. Canvases leaned against the plastic, some painted, some bare. Others perched on easels, unfinished. Pallets lay where they’d been left after one work or another had been completed or left to stew. Squeezed tubes cluttered the windowsill and sprouted in clusters about the space.
“Looks like you’ve been busy.”
“A bit.” Neil closed the door, but didn’t bother with the chain or lock.
It doesn’t matter, Peggy chided, you aren’t running from this.
“Since the gallery show,” said Neil, ”I’ve gotten a few more commissions.”
“Simon mentioned that.” Peggy strode deeper, skimming over landscapes of nearby mountains; animals captured first in Neil’s camera and then by brush; waterfalls; sunsets; skies too pink and orange to be real but breathtaking nonetheless. “No wonder,” pivoting, she managed a more authentic grin, “they’re beautiful.”
He blushed, fled to a stack, and began flipping through blank canvases. “Mother Earth’s a great inspiration.”
“It helps if you’ve got talent.”
“It’s more practice than talent.”
“Tell that to my boys next time you see them.”
Neil looked up from his perusal. “I will,” worry then shadowed his face, “but you came here to tell me something, didn’t you?”
Peggy took her turn wandering to a stack of paintings. She nudged one forward, then another, their colors swirling beneath her fingertips, their subjects a blur. Expectation ratcheted with each second avoiding the inevitable and finally forced words off her tongue.
“I wanted to ask you about something actually.”
The room quieted. Peggy sank into the waters off some pine-ringed coast, the spray white and with enough movement to dampen her face. The cold scene made her shiver when Neil padded to her side.
Inching toward the fireplace, Peggy gained a comfortable distance from whatever snicker, shock, or anger her next statement might bring.
“I found this.” She uncurled her fingers. The envelope lay on her palm, her name in Neil’s handwriting staring up at the ceiling. “Why were so sad about Simon getting married?”
Neil reached for the note, but then paused.
“Go ahead,” said Peggy.
With calloused fingers, Neil plucked the ratty note, lifted the broken tab, and coaxed out the college-rule lined paper. After a deft spin and gentle unhinge, he faced the text. His eyes darted over the writing. He mouthed the last sentence now etched onto Peggy’s heart.
I hope you know how much I loved you and you can forgive me for what I’ve done.
“Oh.” Bowing his head, Neil walked past her, the plastic crinkling under his bare feet.
Peggy hugged herself, her palms iced and empty. “How were you going to do it?”
He laughed, a hollow, guttural sound. “Pills, I think, or maybe I’d settled on turpentine.”
Peggy closed her eyes. The vision of Neil’s corpse and Simon standing by in grief washed through her nonetheless. Her conscious nagged and, with a swallow, she steadied her nerves, seized the reason she’d come, and found her voice.
“Why were you even thinking of it? What had Simon done?”
Neil barked another laugh, the note crinkling in his hands. “You think this is about Simon?”
“It’s dated the day before we got married.”
Neil’s downcast gaze wandered back to the envelope. “So it is.” His tone softened and his shoulders curved.
Peggy crept closer. “If this wasn’t about your big brother, then what was it about?”
He didn’t move until she neared his shoulder and then he simply tipped his head away. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.”
She laid a hand on his arm but Neil shrugged her off and stalked to the curtain-less windows. Planting her feet, Peggy assumed a more maternal tone.
“I don’t want you even thinking about hurting yourself again, Neil.”
“I won’t.” He pitched the note and envelope aside, the pair landing among a bunch of used tubes. “Did you tell Simon?”
“Good.” He nodded and she caught his reflection, the watery gleam in his eye, the stiff line of his jaw. “I don’t want him to know what you found.”
“Technically it’s mine.” She toed the envelope to its right side. “It has my name on it.”
“So it does.” His whisper renewed the tremble in Peggy’s hands.
“Why address it to me? Why not to Simon? Why—”Peggy cupped her gasp. Her fingers quaked as she drew them to her chest where a wobbly question began, one her tongue wanted to ask while her mind, her heart, rebelled. “It was because of me?”
The house creaked. Outside, a pair of birds chirped. A sedan dashed past her station wagon. The world seemed to rush and, at the same time, hold its breath.
Plastic crunched when Neil eventually faced her, pink rimming the softer shade of his eyes. Peggy wrapped her arms around her midriff where a chill had settled and sickness frothed. She shuddered again when he tugged at a strand of loosed hair dangling alongside her face.
“Mother Nature makes a lot of beautiful things.”
Peggy tucked the lock, the mousey brown tinged now with green, behind her ear and resumed her self-embrace. “What stopped you?”
“You can’t see what she’s created if you’re dead.”
“But why the note? Why the thought? You should have just told me.”
Neil pocketed his hands. “What difference would it have made? You and Simon are made for each other. I’m not the kind of guy to get in the way of something like that and I’ve come to terms with that.”
“But—” She laid her hand on his chest, wetting her hand with paint, a hard sternum poking out beneath firm muscle.
He seemed about to step back, and then covered her hand with his splotched fingers. “It’s alright, Peggy.”
“I never wanted to hurt you.”
He pressed against her hand. “You didn’t. I get to see you happy. I get to see my brother happy. Even your children happy when they’re not being little monsters.”
Peggy chuckled and caught the start of tears with the heel of her hand.
“I didn’t because I love you, Peggy.”
She bit her lip as a part of her sought to reciprocate in the way he wanted, to ease the pain nearly driving him to the end, to give where someone had so desperately wanted. A search of her heart, however, found the same unbreakable love of family she’d always felt. She clasped onto it like she clasped his shirtfront and teetered on the edge of shaking sense into him.
“I love you too, Neil.”
Understanding weakened his smile. Peggy drew back when he pocketed his hands. “Are we okay?”
“I’m okay,” said Peggy, paint dots firming on her fingers. “Are you?”
He nodded. “I have been for a while now.”
“Then we’ll see you at the gallery next weekend?”
“I’ll look forward to it.”
Something in his voice ignited a flush and dropped Peggy’s gaze to her sneakers.
“I mean seeing all of you, Peggy.”
She peeked up at him. “All of us?”
“That’s what I stuck around remember?”
She seized him in a quick hug, heedless to the spatters on her apple-red sweater, and settled back on her heels. “Then we won’t be late.”