The ride to Philadelphia would take approximately three and a half hours. Nina rented the car for two weeks, to be on the safe side. Her mother had a way of dragging these things out; the funeral wouldn’t last only a few days. “Seeing as you’re here,” her mother would say. “You might as well drop in to see Nicky.” But it wouldn’t just be Nicky. She’d be passed around the extended family like a bag of Cheetos, until only the dust was left in the bottom.
“She’s a real smooth drive,” the guy in the rental shop had said as he’d handed her the keys. “Great for kids.” Sure enough, Billy fit snugly in the back, his blanket draped over him.
“See if you can get some sleep,” she said, tucking Tony the Elephant under his chin as she strapped him in. “We’ll be driving for a while.”
“And we’ll be going past the monkey?” Billy asked. There was a billboard on the highway advertising toothpaste for kids. In the picture, a huge cartoon monkey squeezed the tube and grinned with white, gleaming teeth.
“Yes,” Nina said. “But first we need to pick up your uncle.”
When Nina pulled up, he was already sitting with his bags on the steps out front. Her elation waned, however, when she took in how many bags were piled up around him. He was wearing headphones and sitting with his head bent over, staring at his shoes. He didn’t look up.
Nina rolled the window down. “They finally threw you out?”
Milo didn’t get up or register her presence in any way except to hold an index finger in the air. This was a sign to wait – a sign Nina ignored.
“Stay in the car, Billy,” she muttered as she got out and slammed the door. “We need to go,” she said, arms folded. “And why have you got so much stuff?”
The finger reappeared. Milo nodded along to whatever he was listening to on his phone before theatrically hitting the pause button.
“I have an audition,” he said. “I need to be able to do an Irish accent.”
“But we’re going to-“
“It’s on Monday,” he said, pulling himself upright and tucking his phone into his jacket’s breast pocket. “So I’ll get the train back, or fly or whatever. Of course Rudy had to die right now, you know, when things are actually taking off for me.” He scooped a bag onto his shoulder and left the others at Nina’s feet.
“What’s in the bags?”
“The Irish guy is in a band. I need to learn how to play the bongos.” Milo had made it to the car and was about to pull up the hatchback. Nina reached it before he could and held it shut with both hands.
“You’re not taking bongos,” she said. Her hands were on her hips.
“It’s for my career.”
“When the hell are you going to have time to play the bongos?”
“The funeral’s, what, like three hours?” Milo shrugged. “I’ll get up early in the mornings, go through the lines, practise the bongos. No one will even know I’m doing it.”
“I think they might if they hear bongos at six in the morning.” Nina’s hands were crossed over her chest now.
“I’ll be quiet. You know, they can really be a very peaceful instrument.”
“There’s no way they’ll fit in the car.”
“They’ll go in the boot.”
“Billy’s stuff is in the boot.”
“How much stuff does Billy need? He’s tiny.”
“He needs a lot of stuff. He’s a child.”
“We can put them on the back seat.” Milo moved around the side of the car and opened the rear door. Billy was sitting on the other side, wide-eyed. “Billy can play them. You’d like that, right?”
“Billy is not playing the bongos. One bag. You have to choose which one.”
“But I need both! Bongos and audition outfits.”
“You’re such a fascist.”
“Billy, your mom is a real fascist, you know that?”
Forty minutes into the journey, Milo decided he needed to go to the bathroom. This was because he’d been guzzling coffee from a thermos the moment they set off. “I can’t afford to lose any time by sleeping,” he said. He was listening to interviews with Colin Farrell on his phone. Occasionally, he muttered the odd phrase, turned it over in his mouth like a boiled sweet.
“He’s done well for himself, so he has,” he murmured against the window. Nina dragged her eyes away from the highway for a second to stare at him. His eyes were closed; he was concentrating fiercely. He’d folded himself into the passenger seat, hunched up like a piece of origami. The bag containing the bongo drums was in the foot well; his legs were bent at such an angle that his knees were only just below his chin.
“Comfortable?” Nina asked.
Milo opened a single eye. “Comfortable in the knowledge I’m doing everything I can
to smash this audition,” he said.
“Are you going to talk in an Irish accent the whole way?”
“Just until you pull over so I can go.”
Around ten minutes later, a small diner crept onto the horizon next to the highway. Milo ran in and out.
“Drive, drive, drive!” he shouted as he pulled himself back into the passenger seat. “Go! I didn’t buy anything and they were eyeballing me.”
“Put your belt on.”
“They’re going to come and-“
“Put your belt on.”
Milo pulled his belt on, shaking his head. “You would be the world’s worst getaway driver.”
“Also the safest.”
They passed the monkey an hour later. Billy was asleep on the backseat, his mouth open. The monkey whizzed by the windows. Nina watched the billboard disappear in the rear-view mirror.
“I feel bad,” she said.
Milo pulled his headphones down. “What?”
“I feel bad,” Nina said again. “Billy wanted to see the monkey. The one on the billboard. I should have woken him up.”
“Life is full of disappointments.”
“What’s the audition for?” Nina asked. Milo had been about to pull his headphones back on and she was sick of listening to the distant, tinny sound of Colin Farrell’s voice vibrating through the headphones.
Milo sighed. “It’s a TV series,” he said. “Sort of Ocean’s Eleven meets Twin Peaks.” Nina hadn’t seen either, but she nodded anyway.
“And you’ve got the audition on Monday?”
“You don’t seem that happy about it.”
“I’m not really that happy about anything at the moment.” He was staring out of the front window. Nina wasn’t going to say it. She was not going to ask him why. Seven years ago, before Billy, before the stuff with Billy’s dad, she might have done. But Milo’s world was a destructive place once it sucked you in. If Milo wanted to be miserable, fine. He wore misery well; the same way Uncle Rudy had worn his racoon fur coat. Unapologetically. Defiantly. Until it peeled away from his back and demanded a wash.
“I wonder who’ll get that disgusting old racoon coat,” Nina said.
“It needs burning,” said Milo.
Their father always talked about how much better Elsinore Street would look if it was lined with trees. “Like West Avenue,” he said, every single time. Dad’s golfing buddy, Hunter Bogan, lived on West Avenue and cut his huge lawn with a ride-on mower.
Elsinore Street did look particularly bald when Nina parked up on the cramped driveway, behind her mother’s old Ford Fiesta. The white and grey houses looked small and pathetic against the expanse of grey, brooding sky. A single plastic chair was left abandoned on the lawn, positioned so it was facing the street. There were a few attempts at Spring – a couple of daisies were struggling through the gaps in the paving slabs leading to the front door – but, for the most part, the house didn’t look very different to how it had a few months earlier, when Nina and Billy had come for Christmas.
“Ready?” Nina asked Milo, who was winding the lead of his headphones tightly around his phone and then unwinding it again.
“No,” Milo said, unplugging his seatbelt. “But let’s just rip it off. Like a band-aid.”
They had to ring the doorbell twice before the familiar shape of their mother’s spherical figure appeared behind the frosted glass. She struggled with the key for a second before the door snapped open.
“Have you eaten?” their mother asked, as soon as her head fit through the gap.
“No,” Nina said, hoisting Billy further up on her hip. “Why?”
“I’ve made too many sandwiches.” Their mother turned back into the hallway and began to walk towards the kitchen, the open front door the only invitation for Nina and Milo to follow her. They exchanged a glance and stepped inside, Milo inhaling deeply before he crossed the threshold.
In the days before Nina had left for college and Milo had moved to New York to be a Broadway actor, the hall was clogged with pictures of them as children. Now, these pictures were interspersed with paintings of Jesus Christ, the replacement child. Instead of getting a puppy, like many mother mothers did when they found their nest bereft of chicks, their mother had developed an intense fascination with the Messiah. Looking at him smiling benignly out from the walls, nestled between pictures of Nina and Milo in bathing suits on the beach when they were small, he could have been an absent older brother: the favourite, judging from the way his pictures seemed particularly carefully dusted.
“I made some with tuna fish and some with cheese,” their mother said, over her shoulder. “Because I wasn’t sure if you were still doing that vegetarian thing.”
“It’s not a thing,” said Milo. “It’s a lifestyle choice.”
“Well there are a few cheese ones,” their mom said. “On the blue plate.”
They reached the kitchen and their mom threw herself down at the table, behind a mountain of sandwiches. Nina set Billy down on the floor and watched as he took in the pile of food at the table, warily sucking his thumb.
“That’s a lot of food, mom,” Nina said.
“Yes, well…” her mother dragged herself up from the table again with an effort and moved over to the countertop where a fat kettle was sitting, covered in lime-scale. “Do you want tea, coffee?”
“Coffee would be great, thanks.”
“Yeah, mom, coffee.” Milo was still standing in the door way. In his leather jacket, with his coiffed hair, headphones slung around his neck, Milo’s attention to aesthetics seemed to scream out into the cramped kitchen. Half the room was painted clover green and the other half cream, simply because their dad had put his back out while decorating.
“Where’s dad?” Nina asked.
“He bought a sweater the other day and it’s too small,” Mom replied, as she noisily filled the kettle. “So he’s gone to return it while he remembers. He shouldn’t be long. The store’s only around the corner.”
In fact, their father got back an hour later, his paunch appearing in the doorway before the rest of him. “Hey there, kids!” he said, cheerily, kissing Nina on the cheek and patting Billy’s head. “How’s it hanging?” The pile of sandwiches in front of them hadn’t much depleted. Billy tried his best but he was only a very small person and Milo picked at the edges of the bread without ever seeming to transfer a morsel to his mouth. The responsibility, therefore, lay upon Nina and her mother. Though her mother plunged in, taking bites between monologues, Nina was beaten. She pushed her plate away and smiled at her father. “Good,” she said. “How are things with you?”
Her father was in the process of enveloping Milo in a hug, much to her brother’s dismay. “Fine,” he said, as he rocked Milo from side to side. Over his father’s shoulder, Milo glared at a picture on the counter, of Jesus riding a donkey. “Well,” her father went on, releasing Milo and straightening, “Apart from Rudy dying. That’s not so great.”
Her mother talked so fast that half of what she said always wafted into thin air without reaching Nina’s ears, so Nina didn’t know if this subject had already been broached. From the stiffening of her mother’s spine, it seemed not.
“Yes,” Nina said. “How’s it been? It must have been tough.” Her mother’s brother Rudy had always cast a shadow over her parents’ already shadowy house on Elsinore Street. Nina remembered Christmases from her childhood, when Uncle Rudy singing loudly at the dinner table and waking up on Boxing Day, naked, in the neighbour’s back garden, all seemed like funny quirks, not symptoms of his alcoholism. But Milo had always hated him. Even as a kid, he watched with dark eyes from the other end of the table as Rudy spat, swore and sang his way through the leftover turkey. While Nina – older, wiser, top grades in school – had laughed along, Milo had known better. She watched him now, taking a swig of coffee from a mug with ‘To My Gorgeous Wife’ written on it. He was doing a good job of looking sympathetic, but then, he was an actor.
“Rudy was always troubled,” her mother said, as if Milo and Nina hadn’t spent their childhoods listening to her running commentary on Rudy’s lunacy. “Not matter what we did, it was always going to be this way.” The phone call came three nights ago. Rudy found dead in a hotel. Booze and drugs; too many for a man over sixty, particularly a man over sixty that’s been using them as a lifeline since early adolescence.
“You did everything you could, hun,” their father said, settling into a chair and reaching for a sandwich.
“Those ones are cheese,” their mother said, abruptly. “They’re for Milo because he’s vegetarian.”
“You still doing that?” Dad asked, hand frozen in mid-air, halfway to the plate.
“It’s not something you do, Dad. It’s who you are. But have one anyway.”
“You haven’t eaten that much, honey,” their mother said. “Stan, have a tuna one.” She passed him the plate and Stan stuffed a sandwich into his mouth. “It sure is a shame,” Nina’s mother went on, putting the plate back on the table and it took Nina a second to realise she was talking about Rudy again, not Milo’s vegetarianism. “He was so smart. He could have done so much and it just kills me…” she trailed off, her eyes filling with tears. This was unchartered territory. Rudy had never, to Nina’s knowledge, been good at anything except sponging off other people, but her mother had created a fantasy to protect herself and it seemed harsh to shatter it so soon.
Nina reached across the table and took her mother’s hand in her own. “I know, mom,” she lied. “I know.”
Later, when they’d been transferred from the kitchen to the living room, they perched on the edge of the sofa they’d sprawled across as teenagers. Their parents were moving about in the kitchen. Seeing as they’d just had lunch, it was probably time for them to start preparing dinner. Billy was on the rug, colouring in a book Nina’s mother had bought him. Milo had his headphones back on, his lips moving soundlessly along with Colin Farrell. Nina wouldn’t allow him to abandon her like this. She launched a cushion at his head, which struck its target with a satisfying slap.
“What the hell?” Milo cried, launching it back at her, but Nina was ready. It fell to the floor and she wiggled her eyebrows.
“Talk to me,” she said.
“Literally anything,” she said.
“I need to rehearse.”
Reluctantly, Milo slid his earphones down. “So Rudy’s suddenly a saint,” he said. “Who could have done anything he put his mind to.”
“I know,” Nina said. “But I think it’s her way of dealing with it.”
“It’s a lie.” Milo folded his arms over his chest.
“I know; I was there too. But for now, just let it be. At least until after the funeral.”
Milo stared at her for a couple of seconds, eyes narrowed, before sighing and leaning his head against the back of the sofa. “So how’s work?” he asked.
“God, you sound so interested and caring.”
“I asked, didn’t I? So how is it?”
“Fine,” she said. This was true. Despite the fact that sitting behind her desk all day made her want to staple-gun her own face, there wasn’t anything specifically wrong with it. “I type stuff, I file stuff, I get lunch.”
“Sounds like you’re living the dream,” Milo said, staring at the ceiling.
“Yes, well, some things are more important.” She looked down at Billy, who was inching the felt-tip pens worryingly close to the edge of the paper and her mother’s cream carpet. “Be careful with those pens, honey,” she said.
“I am,” Billy said, without looking up.
It was then that the sounds from the kitchen became loud enough to hear. Their mother’s voice had taken on that high-pitched, bleating tone it always did whenever she was anxious. “It’s not just a hat, Stan,” she was saying as she moved into the living room, carrying a tray of mugs. “It’s what he wanted.”
Their father followed her into the room. “I just don’t want you to stress yourself out looking for it,” he said. “You did a lot for Rudy over the years and it’s not like he’d know anyway.” Their mother’s back stiffened again, jolting the mugs on the tray and Nina moved quickly to take it from her, guessing that a set of third-degree burns would do little to defuse the argument.
“It’s my duty as a Christian, Stan,” she said, appropriately flanked by the statuettes of Jesus on the mantelpiece. “Just because someone’s dead, it doesn’t mean they stop seeing.” Their father frowned, obviously stuck determining the biological truth of this claim. He didn’t have time to come to a conclusion however, as their mother went on: ‘I wouldn’t be able to rest easy. I just wouldn’t.”
“But we’ve looked everywhere,” Stan said, as he sunk into an armchair. “And Rudy never exactly put down roots. It could be anywhere.”
“What’s this?” Nina asked. Her parents looked at each other.
“Our lawyer showed us Rudy’s will the other day,” her mother began, after a moment. “He said he wanted to be buried with your grandfather’s red baseball cap.”
“Why?” asked Milo.
“It doesn’t matter why!” their mother snapped. “It’s what he wanted.”
“But we’ve no idea where it is,” their father said. “And we’d have to search every cheap, run-down motel between here and Chicago if we wanted to find the – oh no, Cathy, I didn’t mean…” Their mother got up and walked out, slamming the living room door behind her with such force that the Messiahs on the mantelpiece trembled slightly. Their father looked sheepishly at them. “It’s been a tough couple of days,” he said. “I never liked the guy, but he meant a lot to your mother.”
Nina smiled at him in what she hoped was an understanding fashion. Next to her, Milo frowned. “A red cap?” he asked. “With an eagle or something on it?”
“Yeah,” their father said, now frowning too. “You seen it?”
“I might have.” Milo turned to Nina. “Did you ever go to the river with Rudy? To the boating shack?”
“No,” Nina said, stunned. She could not imagine a less nautical person than her brother. “Did you?”
“Once or twice,” he shrugged. ‘In high school. I know he was pretty attached to the place. It might be there.”
Their father stared at him. “Well…uh… yeah I guess. Your mom never mentioned it. I guess it’s worth a look.”
They walked down to the park later that afternoon, just as twilight stretched over the sky, turning the grey sky greyer. Nina pulled her jacket tighter around her as Milo strode beside her, clicking his tongue. Tacony Creek Park stretched out at the end of the street, consuming a large strip down the centre of the city. It was the setting of many of their hijinks as kids and, apparently, more of Milo’s as a teenager. Nina glanced at him sideways. The streetlights had just snapped on and, outlined in the yellow, electric light, he looked like he did whenever she saw him on stage: alive, fierce. Capable of anything.
“So, boating?” she asked “With Rudy?”
Milo snorted. “Obviously not,” he said.
“So?” She stopped walking and waited. She could wait all night. Milo, still smiling, also stopped and twisted towards her.
“I can’t believe I’m going through this with my big sister, now.” He smirked. Nina didn’t say anything, just inched her eyebrows a little further up her forehead.
“So in high school I did a bit of pot,” Milo said, without a hint of shame. “And occasionally Milo would hook me up. It’s no big deal.”
Nina stared at him. “No big deal?” she breathed.
Milo rolled his eyes. “This happened, like, forever ago and-”
“Why the hell didn’t I know about this?”
“Because you weren’t around!” Milo was smiling, but his voice was loud and accusatory. “You’d skipped off to NYU. We weren’t exactly besties at that time.”
“But why?” asked Nina, walking back towards him. “Why do that?”
“Why does anyone?” Milo said, taking off again towards the park. “Because I was sixteen, miserable and it was what everyone else was doing. Anyway, all of this is irrelevant. We’re looking for that hat.”
Nina had a thousand responses to this: all emotional, all antagonistic. He was right, unfortunately. Right now, they had to find that hat. This conversation could wait. But that didn’t stop her staring at him as they made their way up the quiet street. She watched the slope of his shoulders as he walked; the same swagger he’d always had. But now she imagined him with a roll-up in his hand, hanging out at some shack in the park, with the kind of kids her mother always said were ‘going nowhere’. She’d known Milo went through periods of darkness, but she thought they were a product of growing up: being rudderless in a gaping, colossal city. But maybe they started earlier than that. Even though she’d had her own life to deal with – her own drama, her own mistakes – she couldn’t help feeling as though this was her fault.
The park stretched ahead of them: a dark mass of rustling trees encased within a high wire fence and metal railings. There was an entrance a way up the fence to the left, but Milo didn’t seem to be heading in that direction. He crossed the road and walked straight up to the railings.
“What are you doing?” Nina hissed, hurrying up to him. “The entrance is that way.” She jerked her head to the left but Milo just shook his head, slowly.
“You’re green, sister,” he said. “Green as grass.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Green,” he repeated, moving up and down the fence now, searching for something. “Naïve. Inexperienced. Aha!” He’d found whatever he was looking for and beckoned her over. A hole in the fence, big enough for a sixteen-year-old to crawl through.
“No way,” Nina said.
“The park entrance will be closed by now,” Milo said.
“We can come back tomorrow.”
“Chicken.” Before Nina could say anything, Milo was already down on the ground, halfway through the hole. He was on the other side before she could cry out, the noise trapped in her throat. On the other side, Milo stood up and grinned, dusting down his jeans. Before, they had been purposely dyed so that they looked dirty and had rips in the knees. Now, genuine flecks of dirt clung to the denim.
“Are you going to stay there all night?”
Nina didn’t see that she had a choice. Swallowing her pride, she got down on her hands and knees and, much less gracefully, pulled herself through the hole after him. A faint screech escaped her as she slid through and Milo stifled a smirk. He didn’t stifle it very well and ended up coughing as he choked on his own tongue.
“Shut up,” Nina said, as he wiped the tears from his eyes. She dusted down her own trousers. “So where is this place?”
The boat house crouched near the edge of the river. The streaks of sunlight still lingered in the sky and the water here moved swiftly, but calmly downriver.
“Is it locked?” Nina asked. Her voice was too loud, too brash, next to the sound of the water. The boathouse was long and thin, one storey, with long, shallow windows near the roof, like a public bathroom.
“Yeah,” Milo said. “But Rudy always left a key near the door. I wonder if it’s still here.” He shuffled around for a few seconds, turning over rocks with the toe of his boot. Nina pulled her jacket tight around her. It was still chilly for Spring and it would soon be dark.
“Can you see it?” she asked.
“They really need to tighten up security around here.” Milo bent down towards the ground. When he straightened again, he was holding a small silver key, glistening in the dregs of the sunlight and he held it up to show her. A few moments later, he’d unlocked the door and they were both inside the boathouse, blinking into the darkness.
It was obvious the boathouse hadn’t been used to store boats for some years. There was some fishing tackle leaning against the wall in the corner and a set of lockers opposite them but, apart from that, only a few beer bottles lay on the floor. Milo booted them away and moved to the lockers. Warily, he eased one open, third row, second from the left. Nina stayed in the doorway, trembling slightly. It was cold, but she was also beginning to feel anxious – the darker it became, the more she realised they were somewhere they shouldn’t be. “Can you see it?’ she asked.
Milo grinned over his shoulder. He turned and, dangling from his fingers, as if he wanted to have as little physical contact with it as possible, was the red cap. It was dirty; she reached out to take it from him and had to bat away a cobweb.
“This is it?” she asked.
“Yup.” They retreated out of the boathouse, Nina turning the hat over in her hands. Milo locked up behind them and hid the key back where he’d found it.
“Why the hell would you want to be buried with something like this?” Nina asked. “Grandpa didn’t even like him.”
“I know,” Milo took the hat from her and stared at the eagle on the front. “Although maybe that’s the point.”
Nina frowned at him. “What do you mean?”
Milo’s jaw was tense now. “He spent his whole life messing mom around. He probably wrote the will when he was drunk – didn’t even know what he wanted. It’s probably meaningless and Mom has spent the last few days freaking out about it.”
Nina stared out at the river. It was almost completely dark now and the water looked black. Before she could say, or do anything, Milo had taken a step forward and, with his right hand, had pitched the hat into the river, like he was bowling a softball. The dark shape sailed through the air and slapped into the water, carried away instantly by the current. They watched it disappear into the distance, like a crumpled, dead leaf.
“But he wanted – ” Nina began, stopping when she turned to her brother and saw his profile, backlit by the moonlight. He took a step back, away from the water, his hands in his pockets.
“Life is full of disappointments,” he said.
About the author
Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.