Before my precious minutes could disappear, I started down the hallway and up the stairs after them.
My steps were muffled by the immense Oriental runner, and I arrived at Charles’s door unannounced. I expected to find him being prepared for a nap, as the severity of his condition excluded him from many of the activities that the others enjoyed. My monthly visits were intended as a break from what must be a succession of monotonous days. Not to see, not to hear. Not to even think like others. Just following as he was led.
He was not in his bed, however, but next to the window, whose oversized sill was now accented with a row of colorful pots and budding greenery. He was leaning awkwardly on the young man. McCarthy.
He took Charles’s hand and touched it to the soil of each pot, one at a time. A smile appeared on the familiar face, one that, until now, had been reserved for my visits. His fingers caressed the softness of the leaves and traced the lines of the stems. He poked them into the soil again and again with the fascination of a child.
I stood transfixed, enchanted by his reaction to such an elementary thing. Then McCarthy pinched one of the leaves and pulled off what looked like a worm. He laid it on Charles’s arm, and my brother laughed. My hand flew to my heart in response to this delightful sound, which I had never heard from his lips. The worm crawled from his elbow to his wrist and back, finally stopping. McCarthy returned it to the pot and ushered Charles to his chair. He patted a cushion and placed it behind my brother’s back. Then he looked up, suddenly aware of my presence.
He smiled at me, and I was overcome with an unexpected feeling. Like the glow of a fireplace in a chilly space. I tried to convince myself that I was flushed merely by the warmth of the summer day. Certainly not because of those eyes, or the way his hair wasn’t committed to a style. I searched the room for anything that could divert my attention, but the unadorned walls were no help at all, leaving me nothing to do but return his glance.
“Good afternoon,” I managed. “Thank you. I mean, I couldn’t help but see how kind you are with him.”
“With Charles? Oh, he and I are buddies. Aren’t we, now?” He patted him on his shoulder, and I caught my breath in delight at the gesture.
“I’m Julianne Westcott. Charles is my brother.” The words were foreign to my tongue. Lucille was the only friend who knew I had a sibling, a revelation that I had shared through tears after discovering the documents in Mother’s dressing room just two years ago.
“I’m Kyle McCarthy. I’m helping my father with the gardens.” He reached for my hand.
Hoping he wouldn’t notice the quickening of my heartbeat, I took it casually, pulling back as soon as etiquette would allow.
“So you’re not an orderly?”
He laughed. “Oh no. Charles and I met a few weeks ago out on the lawn. He was sitting on the ground, running his fingers through the grass. The orderly was trying everything to get him back on his feet, but Charles was obstinate. I came over with a bucket, scooped some of the grass into it, and placed his hand into it. Then I raised the bucket a little bit, and of course he had to rise with it to keep hold of the grass. Bit by bit he rose to his feet, and then we walked that way all the way back to the dormitory.”
“You did that for him?”
“Well, it was better than the straitjacket. I think that was going to be their next move. He can be rather stubborn sometimes.”
Stubborn. That was what Mother had called me as a child when I refused to stop swinging my legs during tea. And what Father called me when I wouldn’t give up during a futile chess match. It saddened me to think that my brother and I could have had so much more in common if we were not separated by geography and the chasm of his inabilities. Real companions, we could have run through the wings of the manor house on Newsham Park, hiding and seeking until Mother or the newest governess instructed us to sit still and behave.
“In fact, it’s a little game we play now. Isn’t it, Buddy?”
The face of my brother reverted to the same blank expression that it always did, but I had to believe that somehow he was aware of the company of friends.
“Anyway, I brought some pots to his room this week. I thought I’d see if he can tell the difference as they grow.” He shrugged. “At the very least, it gives him something to do when he’s in here.”
“And the worm?”
“It’s a caterpillar. I found it last week and added it to our collection. The little dodger tried to crawl out, but now it seems he’s settled in just fine.”
“Whatever it is, I’ve never heard Charles laugh before.”
“It’s fantastic, isn’t it?”
I only nodded, pursing my lips before a sob could escape. For there were no words in existence that could do justice to the sound that had taken too many years to reveal. We spoke instead with our eyes, limited by the inadequacy of language. Until Charles moved in his chair and shifted our attention.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Kyle said then, “I need to get back outside. It was a pleasure to meet you.” He pulled a cap from his back pocket and tipped it politely after placing it on his head.
I backed up against a wall so that only the clean side of my skirt was visible. As he passed by me, I detected a pleasant, earthy scent, like grass and soil. When he was gone, I crossed the room to the window and watched until he returned to the gardens, side by side with an older man who looked like an older version of him.
Charles and I settled into our own routine, one that usually coaxed a smile to his face. “I. Love. You.” I spoke the words as I squeezed his hands three times in a cadence. He recognized me, if only from the rapport that we had created, and not from the time that we had shared in the womb eighteen years ago. He squeezed mine back in the same manner. I had been told that it was only a reflexive motion, but I chose to believe otherwise.
His almond-shaped eyes and listless features suppressed any resemblance that we might have otherwise had. We did share an identical shade of golden hair, however, and our mutual love of chocolate was evident. I slipped a Cadbury’s out of my handbag. Our favorite. Dark chocolate and walnuts.
I was wiping the corners of his mouth when Miss Ellis peeked in.
“Indulging in contraband, I see?”
“Don’t tell the doctor.”
“You’ll have to bribe me.” I pulled a second bar from my bag, and she grinned. She broke it in two, giving me the other half, and we tapped them together lightly.