37 • Secrets
Will picked up the book and raised himself to his knee. “I should put this away.”
Cameron watched Will walk across the room to the bookcase and went back to polishing her glass when he returned.
He held out a hand. “Let me help you up. I can walk you out.”
Cameron looked up at Will, her eyes set but soft. “Pearl would be disappointed if you saw me out before you finished your wine.”
Will tried to smile. “Wouldn’t be the first time I disappointed Pearl.”
“Hey, come on. We can talk about something else. But I like it in here. And I enjoy your company. Come sit again.”
Cameron patted the floor where Will had been sitting. He rolled his shoulders, which felt as though they were tightening into his skull. “Sit.”
Will sat down, picked up his glass and chugged the rest of his wine in one gulp. He winced as he swallowed it down.
“We won’t have to worry about Pearl now, ” he said, not looking at Cameron. “Emily Post would be proud, so now I can see you out if you like.”
Cameron held her ground. “Damn, Will. You’re like a wounded pup.” She leaned her head against the wall and stared at a section of cracked plaster in the corner of the ceiling. “I’m not leaving while you’re so grumpy. I think I’ll just sit here and see if the ceiling might open to the night sky.”
Will rubbed the back of his neck. “It won’t open. It’s an ordinary ceiling in a turn-of-the-century constructed home. Don’t make fun.”
Cameron stayed silent but held her gaze as though she really were wishing for the ceiling to dissolve into the stars.
“Telling you that was really the most ridiculous thing I’ve said in a long time. It would make me happy if you could just forget I did.”
She didn’t answer. Will grew silent as well, fidgeting with the button on his cuff.
Finally, without looking up, Will spoke again. “In the story, in a part I left out, before Eliza starts making the coats and gets thrown in the dungeon, the brothers take her with them from the peasant house and fly across the sea. It’s very difficult because they are only swans while the sun is up, so they have to fly a certain distance every day to reach dry land before they turn into men again and drop into the sea and drown. The youngest brother takes special care of Eliza during this time, sheltering her with his wing from the harsh sun and wind.”
“He loved her very much, ” Cameron said.
“And his wing, ” she said. “It was very useful.”
Cameron took a deep breath. “I imagine that after they celebrated the breaking of the enchantment, they also mourned some that it was incomplete, at least as far as the youngest brother. That he still had his wing. But maybe they later came to be glad for that, knowing a wing could have some value.”
“I thought you were too practical to appreciate a good fairy tale, ” Will said, his lips forming a thin smile.
“I am. This seems like more than a fairy tale.”
Will pulled his knees up. “When I told Barbara that I had—” He stopped, wiping his hands across his thighs, his palms sticky against the soft fuzz of worn denim.
He saw Barbara puckering her lips and rubbing them together in the mirror.
“If you’re just going to stand there, hand me a tissue.”
Will pulled a tissue from the box and handed it to her, then went back to leaning on the counter. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket.
“No, not here. I thought you were quitting, ” Barbara said. Will put the package back in his pocket.
“I am quitting.”
“Usually when people say quitting what they actually mean is quitting, ” she said, blotting her lips.
“I have my own way of doing things, ” Will said, and pushed his hands into his pockets.
“Truer words have ne’er been spoken.” Barbara leaned to the mirror and put her fingers in her hair. “Damn. Look here. Can you see my roots?”
Will didn’t look. “Not a single one.”
Barbara scowled at herself. “You know, people like you and all those girls who never get a gray hair—doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal to the rest of us.”
Will stood straight and pushed his shoulders back, catching the softness of his profile in the mirror. He instinctively ran a hand over the scruff on his chin and pulled the cigarettes from his pocket again. As he walked away, he pressed a cigarette between his lips and pushed the back door open. He murmured, “Screw you, Barbara.”
Will heard Cameron’s voice. He turned and shook his head lightly. “Oh, sorry. My mind went somewhere else, I guess.”
“You were saying something about Barbara.”
“Oh, yeah, right, ” Will said. He sat up. “The other pretty girl. When I told her—and shit, it’s not like it should have been any surprise to her—when I told Barbara I was a man with a the wing of a swan up my sleeve, she left. Slapped me on my face and walked away.”
Cameron sucked in her breath. “Will—”
“Not everybody likes fairy tales, Cameron.” Will pressed his thumb into his palm. “Not everyone likes them at all.”
“No, I don’t suppose everyone is ready to hear them. Some people even think they are too practical for fairy tales, in fact. Or so I’ve heard.” Cameron smiled. “But people can learn. They can discover.”
“I suppose. But just because they can doesn’t mean they will.” He turned to face Cameron. “I guess what I’m saying is people should be careful who they tell their stories to.”
Cameron pulled her hair back from her eyes. “Do you think it’s possible Barbara wasn’t upset because of your swan wing, but because of her own?”
“Heh.” Will leaned against the wall and saw Barbara taking herself in, facing every direction in the mirror. “I know you’ve never met the woman. But there wasn’t a stray feather on her anywhere.”
“For a guy who speaks in metaphor you are maddeningly literal, ” Cameron said.
“She had a metaphorical wing?”
“Sure she did. Doesn’t everybody?”
Will started to roll his eyes and turned his head away quickly, hoping Cameron hadn’t seen.
“Too late, ” she said. “I saw that.”
“Et tu, Cameron? First Mad Dog, and now you’re going to go all Oprah-psychobabbly on me now, too? I should have said goodnight early and not tried to lure you to the roof. Damn Finn and his leash.”
“Oh, come on. You’re just mad because someone is encroaching on your solitary pain.” She cupped a hand to her mouth. “Come see Will Phillips, bearer of the Swan Wing, the only man who’s ever known the disappointment of an ill-fitting life. The only man who’s ever hidden his secret life. The only man who’s ever—”
Will scooted away from Cameron without speaking.
“Am I right, is that what it is, ” Cameron asked.
“Stop, ” Will said quietly, staring at his hands.
“No, you stop, ” said Cameron, with a sharpness in her voice that was not unkind.
Will looked up.
“You want to think you have some corner on quiet despair. But everyone has a secret, Will.” She looked up at the ceiling. “Everyone.”
“You think so.”
Will thought of his secrets and pulled at his sleeve, wondering how feathers could give birds flight and yet weigh enough to keep a body pinned to the ground. He thought that if only he were winged on both sides, or neither, instead of subject to such imbalance, his life may have taken flight in ways he would find more satisfying. He could have used his wing to shield himself from Barbara’s unrelenting assaults. But for Will it was as though the wing itself, otherwise a source of weightlessness and flight, were an actual albatross hung around his neck that he dragged along, keeping him close to the ground pecking in the dirt until it became his own sense of glory, like Nicholas Cage’s Ronnie Cammareri after he cut off his hand shouting inside his head, “I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride! You want me to take my heartache, put it away and forget?”
Was this what Cameron was suggesting?
“Whatever it is, your secret’s not that special, Will. Not when you consider everybody’s got one. Or two or ten.”
“Yeah?” Will asked, desperate to move the focus off himself. “Do you suppose Pearl has a secret? Or Joe?”
“Oh, I’m quite sure they do. You need to stop covering you eyes with your wing so you can see them.”
He smiled, a slight hint of mischief at the corners of his mouth. “What do you think Pearl is hiding?”
“Gosh. I’d say money. Or maybe a secret lover.”
“Money’s too easy, ” Will said. “Everyone knows she has money tied up.” His eyes brightened. “I think it’s her husband.”
“It’s no secret she was married. You told me about it.”
“No, no.” Will became animated, gesturing with his hands. “I mean, what if he didn’t drive himself off that cliff? What if there was a hit on him? An assassin cut the brake line?”
Cameron’s face paled. “God, Will. You already said she couldn’t have done it.”
Will laughed. “Of course not. Not Pearl. Murder is too unseemly for her.”
“That’s good.” Cameron sighed in relief.
“But local legend has it that after Ed Jenkins died, Pearl started seeing Orwell Hidgens, who owned the hatchery. Folks had suspected maybe there was a little something between them before Mr. Jenkins died and after a proper mourning period he started calling on her in the daytime. Maybe he put out the hit, and Pearl later found out about it and broke it off because she couldn’t bring herself to be with a killer. Maybe that’s her secret.”
“Geez, you have an imagination. And I was just going to say maybe her secret is that she uses a box mix for her famous double fudge cake.”
(to be continued)