“Hey, Mart! Something wrong?”
Mart swallowed, still in shock from the envelope he held in his hands. He looked up, a false grin plastered on his face as he made his reply to the young man standing beside him in the dorm’s mail room. “Nah, all is right in the world of Belden!” It was an utter lie, but he saw no reason to tell anyone else that. Putting the letter in his pocket, he said, “So, how about you, Jack? How did you do on Cranmer’s test?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Jack Pender spoke moodily, reaching into his own mail box. “Why on earth did I let Dad talk me into an ag major?”
“Because you love it, that’s why,” Mart answered airily, forcing himself to chuckle as he walked out of the room. “And you know it, too.”
“Correction, Belden, I did love it,” Jack called out towards Mart’s retreating back.
He barely heard his classmate’s words, his own thoughts again on the grimy envelope he had found in his mail box moments earlier. Although there was no return address, he would recognize the penmanship that carelessly formed his own name anywhere. A multitude of mixed feelings clouded his mind, and he debated with himself the entire way to his room about simply throwing it in the trash can without reading whatever his former best friend had to say.
In the end, curiosity and a vague sense of fatalism won out, and he slowly slit the flap with his pocketknife once he was settled at his desk. “Mangan, this had better be good.”
I know that you probably aren’t expecting to hear from me, and probably don’t even want to. When I left, I had no intention of ever talking to or seeing any of you again, but things have happened since I left.
Mart snorted. Dan had absolutely no idea of everything that had happened since his sudden disappearance two months earlier. His mind went back to the day his friend had vanished, the very day he had given him the news that Trixie’s child had been born.
“Hey, Dan!” Mart shouted across the stable on Mr. Maypenny’s property. “Hurry up, I’ve got something for you!”
“What are you doing here?” Dan asked with a puzzled grin, walking up to him only seconds later. “Shouldn’t you still be at school?”
“I came home for a long weekend,” he explained. “With Moms out of town, I thought I should spend some time with Dad and Bobby.”
“Wait, why is your mom out of town? And why didn’t I know that?”
“You didn’t know?” Mart asked in surprise. “She left rather hurriedly last Saturday morning.” He lowered his voice, suddenly wondering how his friend would take the news he had assumed he had already known. “Trixie’s in the hospital, Dan.”
Dan’s face completely changed as a shadow that passed across quickly turned into an emotionless mask. “Is she all right?”
Mart hesitated. “Well, there for a while, the doctors didn’t think so, but Moms said in the letter that came today that she’s going to pull through.”
“Wait a minute, what do you mean ‘pull through’?” Dan was almost yelling. “She was only supposed to be giving birth to my uncle’s child! Women have brats every day without having to ‘pull through’!”
“There were complications, Dan. She went into labor during a blizzard, and she had a hard time of it. She was hemorrhaging when they finally got to the hospital.”
“He almost killed her,” Dan whispered. “He stole her from me and then almost killed her!”
“What in hell are you talking about?” Mart demanded. “When was Trixie ever yours to start with?”
“She was supposed to be mine!” Dan snapped. “Why else do you think everything I could to break up her relationship with Jim?”
“Wait a minute!” He angrily grabbed Dan’s arm. “They didn’t break up until after she was already seeing Regan, and what do you mean you tried to break them up? She LOVED Jim!”
“Apparently not,” Dan grunted, sinking to the dusty wooden floor. He buried his face in his hands. “Mart, just who do you think encouraged Jim to start hanging around Ben’s crowd? Who do you think convinced him that joining their fraternity would be good for his future career then told Trixie stories of how the guys in fraternities are only interested in one thing?”
In spite of himself, Mart snorted. “You can’t take the blame for that, Dan. Yeah, he’s acting more and more like Ben Riker every day, but he was headed that way anyway.”
Dan nodded miserably. “But they still broke up. I was talking to her, doing everything I could to get her to notice me, but still biding my time until she was over Jim. Next thing I know, Regan’s telling me he knocked her up, and now you’re telling me she almost died. She was mine and he almost killed her!”
It wasn’t as though Mart had never suspected his friend’s feelings for his sister. He had seen too many glances, heard too many muttered words to be entirely oblivious, but the news that he had actually sought, no matter how futilely, to come between Trixie and Jim had come as more than a surprise. Despite the way things had turned out, Mart had never once doubted his younger sister’s feelings for her first love, and it angered him that Dan had tried to interfere in her happiness for his own selfish motives. He had only vague memories of shoving a small snapshot of a tiny baby into his friend’s hands before stalking out of the stable that snowy day.
Even though I will never again call Sleepyside home, neither can I count the city as my home. Luke has made certain of that, and yeah, for the first time ever, I’ll admit that I’m afraid for my life.
I don’t expect you to forgive me, Mart, but I know that that old BWG bond goes deep, even if I did forget that for a while.
“Yeah, right,” Mart muttered aloud. “I’ve got news for you, Dan. The BWG’s are no more.” A knock on the door startled him, and with a sudden impulse, he hid Dan’s missive inside one of the textbooks on his desk. “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” Brian’s voice came through the door.
He quickly opened a different book, and grabbed for a pencil and notebook before calling, “It’s open!”
“Do you have a minute?” Brian asked softly.
The irritation Mart had felt with his brother for the past month served him in good stead as he strove to act normally. “What is it, Brian?”
“I just wanted to let you know, before you hear it from Moms and Dad, that I’m not going back to Sleepyside over the break. So if Honey needs a ride, feel free to ask her.”
He shook his head. “She’s riding with Jim and Ben. They’re both coming to help her get moved back.”
A tiny flash of pain crossed Brian’s dark features. “I never meant to hurt her, Mart.”
“Then why did you do it, Brian?” Mart asked before he could stop himself. He shook his head, somewhat apologetic. “No, we’re not going there again. But why aren’t you going home to the Farm?”
Brian seemed to relax a bit, even sitting down on the edge of Mart’s neatly-made bed. “In light of everything that’s happened, I think it’s best that way. Charles is going skiing and wants me to go with him.”
“You’re spending too much time with that roommate of yours.” The words slipped out before he could stop them.
“He’s a good friend, Mart, even if I know you don’t like him.”
He flushed slightly. It was true, in all the years since the ill-fated dig on the Manor House grounds, he had never been able to bring himself to fully like Charles Miller. He couldn’t fully put his finger on a reason, other than the fact that it seemed odd that an assistant professor would choose to share an apartment with a lowly undergrad. “So what does your girlfriend think of this? Or is she going with you?”
Brian hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “It’s going to be just the two of us, I think. It’s supposed to be a resort similar to the one we all went to on Mead’s Mountain that one year.”
After a few more moments of strained conversation, Brian excused himself. Mart leaned back in his deskchair and closed his eyes, left alone to remember the day of what he sarcastically called “Brian’s little indiscretion.”
“Mart! Have you seen Brian?” Diana sounded both furtive and urgent as her voice came over the telephone wire; her usual chatter was conspicuously absent.
“No,” Mart answered slowly. “Baby, what’s wrong?”
“That’s what I want to know!” she replied in a whisper. “Honey came in about an hour ago, crying so hard that I couldn’t understand her. I haven’t seen her this upset since, well, since you know!”
He did know, and he knew that whatever had her that upset couldn’t be good. “Where is she now?”
“She finally cried herself to sleep, but Mart, haven’t we had enough trouble?” Her breath caught in a tiny sob. “What else is going wrong?”
His heart broke as he heard the depth of the anguish and fear she felt, and he longed to take her in his arms and make everything better. Feeling utterly helpless because he couldn’t, he took a deep breath before speaking the words he could not bring himself to believe. “Calm down, baby, everything’s going to be all right.”
“No, it won’t,” she choked, “but you need to find Brian. Except for Jim, he’s the only one that could upset her this much. Make sure he’s okay, Mart. Please make sure he’s okay.”
After making sure that she would indeed be all right, he pressed the plunger on the telephone to get a dial tone. He dialed the number the apartment Brian had shared with Charles since his freshman year. Unconsciously, Mart held his breath as Charles answered on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Uh, Charles? Is Brian around?”
“Sure is, Mart. Hold on.”
While waiting for him to come to the phone, Mart could hear them talking softly, but the fact that he was unable to ascertain the gist of their conversation unnerved him even more. Finally, his brother came on the line. “Hey! What’s up?”
“Brian!” Suddenly, he was at a loss for words, uncertain how to ask what he needed to know, not even certain he wanted to know.
“Mart?” Now, it was Brian’s voice that was concerned at his brother’s uncharacteristic silence. “Is something wrong?”
Relieved at the normalcy in his tone, Mart found his voice. “That’s what I called to ask you! Di seems to think there’s something upsetting Honey, and wanted me to make sure you were all right.”
“Yeah,” he drawled. “As far as I know, anyway. I haven’t even spoken to Honey since this morning, and she was fine then.”
“It’s probably some kind of mix-up, then, unless she heard something from Jim. Di said she came in about, well, I guess it’d be an hour and a half ago now, crying and carrying on. We just wanted to see if you knew what the problem was.”
“An hour and a half ago? Uh, no, unless…,” Brian suddenly trailed off. “Damn!”
Mart certainly didn’t like the sound of his brother’s quiet but emphatic expletive. “What happened an hour and a half ago?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Tell me, Brian. Maybe I can help.”
To his surprise, Brian laughed, although it was a laugh filled with both resignation and fatigue. “No, you can’t. It was bound to happen, anyway, so there’s no use in you worrying over it.”
“You broke up with her, didn’t you? Why?” Mart was stunned, especially since Brian had worked so hard to stay in Honey and Jim’s good graces after Trixie’s behaviour had come to light.
“No, I didn’t break up with her, Mart!” Brian was now on the defensive. “I’ve already told you she was fine when I saw her this morning!”
“Then what happened? If you didn’t break up with her, what? Did she catch you cheating on her or something?”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them. Even though it was meant as a joke, and borne out of his frustration, he expected Brian to make a cutting remark about their sister, which was an argument that Mart did not want to get into yet again. After a half moment of almost palpable silence, he had just opened his mouth to apologize when Brian spoke.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure she did.”
The entire situation still frustrated him, and he snapped in half the pencil he had been holding. As the days had passed, Brian had steadfastly managed to dodge all questions about his new love interest, and Honey had likewise adamantly refused to reveal her identity. Even Diana had only been able to find out from Honey that she had found them in the middle of a rather passionate kiss right outside Brian’s apartment building.
Certainly no one else had ever seen them together, and Brian had actually begun to withdraw from his family and friends, spending his free time either in his apartment or out somewhere in the company of his roommate. If he hadn’t personally heard Brian’s admission that he had indeed been caught with someone, Mart would have remained unconvinced that another woman had actually been involved.
It bothered him, too, that even his Diana was being affected, as her parents tried to convince her to follow Honey to Vassar. He groaned inwardly, knowing full well that had it not been for her desire to be near him, Diana would have happily remained in Sleepyside after her graduation from high school, her school days permanently behind her. Someway, somehow, he had so far been able to help her with her work enough to at least pass her courses, but he knew in his heart that, even she were to somehow be accepted as a transfer student, she would never be able to handle the classes at the prestigious institution.
Reluctantly, he took Dan’s letter from its hiding place and began reading where he left off.
That’s how I know I can depend on you to do me one last favor. You’ll never know how hard it is for me to ask you for anything else, but I’m leaving here for good. You know, all that fresh start stuff you used to preach at me when I first came to Sleepyside. I don’t know where I’ll wind up, but take care of your sister, okay? Don’t let anything else happen to her.
Mart sighed. It wasn’t as if he enjoyed knowing what his almost-twin had endured half-way across the country. It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried to protect her as much as he could during those few days he had known about her pregnancy before her marriage. He often doubted that he would ever forgive himself for allowing Jim to see her that one day; he knew the sheer fright she had tried to hide afterwards would haunt him from then on. “But what can I do?” he asked himself. Between Brian’s situation and Diana’s troubles, he sometimes wondered how he was passing his own classes what with worrying about them.
At least, one burden had been relieved. Dan was alive and sounded as if he was getting away from the gang. That was one less thing Mart had to worry about; Dan was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. “And so is Brian,” he suddenly realized. “He doesn’t need, nor even want, my help.”
That just left Diana and Trixie, and Dan had unwittingly given him an idea. Mart had said all along that running away solved nothing, even as he had seen first his sister and then his best friend attempt to run from their problems by leaving Sleepyside. Running to something, however, was another story. Closing his eyes, instead of the despair and anguish he had been feeling, this time he began to envision something entirely different. A small courthouse somewhere, Diana at his side. A farm of some sort, a home just big enough for the two of them. Trixie nearby, afternoons and evenings getting to know his nephew. Diana and Trixie both happy and taken care of.
Almost before he realized it, he was on the telephone. Several lengthy long distance calls later, he knew exactly what he was going to do. Picking up the phone one more time, he called and asked Diana to dinner, then glanced at his clock. If he hurried, he would have just enough time to stop at the jewelry store before picking her up. He knew he couldn’t afford what she deserved, but he would make sure he could give her something.
He started to lock the door, but with a second thought, turned back. He picked up Dan’s letter and slid it back in its envelope before folding it and putting it into his wallet. In his haste, he didn’t even notice the final lines.
I know I can count on you, Mart.
So long, and thanks.