There is a slash of peachy, baby pink across the lake, speckled with yellow droplets of morning light. Nicole's been sitting here since 4am, and Thomas almost as long - she hauled him out of bed because she needed the company to take her mind off their first day of college.
Now, they sit on the brown grass, still in their pyjamas, feet dipping into the lake water as it sloshes up the bank. Behind them are the trees, wavering in the wind, and the crumbling house a few miles behind the forest. There is moisture in the breeze, carrying the reek of animal hide and fertiliser across the water, but the twins don’t notice it. And compared to the stench of stale whiskey and burnt cigarettes from their own house, this air is fresh.
Thomas hasn’t stopped fidgeting since he sat down.
“I thought you weren’t nervous about college,” Nicole says.
“I’m not. I’m nervous about what dad’s going to say when I tell him I’m not interested in studying accounting.”
“Don’t tell him. Paint a picture.”
He rolls his eyes. Then, shrugs. “I suppose that could also count as breaking the news: I want to study art. Two birds with one stone?”
Nicole nods, eyes on the lake, pale skin flushed with the morning’s glow.
They’re silent for a while.
Then Nicole says, “At least you know what you want to do.”
Guilt spins in Thomas’ gut. He always feels like this when Nicole’s aimlessness is apparent. Then come the avalanche of reminders, of Nicole handing over most of the money she earns working in the corner shop, just so he can buy brushes, canvases…anything to further his dream, just because she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and she wants to give him the best chance she can at achieving the life he’s always known he wants. Their parents were never going to do that - even if they had money, it wouldn’t last longer than it takes for their dad to walk to the liquor store.
Thomas tells himself that when he’s a wealthy artist, he’ll look after Nicole for a change.
“Come on,” he says finally, glancing at her as she gazes wistfully out across the lake. “You must have at least one goal.”
Thomas follows her gaze.
“Oh no.” He laughs.
She blushes. “What? He’s not dating anyone.”
“I’m sure he will when he starts college.”
“Maybe that girl can be me.”
“He lives in the lake house, Nic,” Thomas says, a bit in awe of his sister’s disregard for social status. “His parents -”
“Who cares about his parents,” Nicole says. “He’s not them. Just like we’re not ours.”
Thomas stares at her, but she doesn’t take the bait and acknowledge him. And it’s a crush, anyway, right? Just a crush. He shouldn’t overthink it. Nicole’s allowed to have a crush if he’s allowed to want to be an artist.
Long, tiresome minutes pass.
Then Thomas says, “Wow. Don’t we have high hopes for the future.”
Nicole gets to her feet, smiling weakly as she brushes brambles from her pyjamas. “I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see,” she tells her brother.
* * *
A year into college and everything changes. Like the sunrise - so stunning as it opens the morning, but so quickly spilling into a scorching hot day that has the town’s kids splashing into the polluted lake water.
And in the heat of summer, just as the holidays turn up, Nicole and Thomas become orphans. They tell everyone the romanticised truth: it was an accident, their parents fell. Everyone knows the state of their home, so it isn’t hard to believe. Then, as the pitiful funeral commences in the forest, they guard the truth even closer to their hearts: how their father slashed at their mother’s throat with a broken wine bottle, and how he drank himself to death - alcohol poisoning, Nicole told Thomas, expressionless as she stood in her mother’s blood - that same night.
After the service, Thomas watches as Luke Ellington, the 18 year-old rich boy from the lake house, approaches his sister. Nicole smiles, blushes, too, and they talk out of Thomas’ earshot. He watches them for a while, trying to relish the soft smile on his sister’s face and way she strokes her long black hair behind her ears, her eyes never leaving Ellington’s.
He tries. But it’s Ellington - the boy whose parents own the town and make sure everyone knows it. Ellington, who’s always getting into fights.
But, as Thomas reminds himself, this is Nicole’s moment. And she seems happy.
Thomas strolls away from the crowd, the mumbling neighbours hovering around the scant food table that’s awkwardly positioned over two tree stumps. His chest constricts. He digs his fingers into the frayed grey jacket Nicole found for him to wear. His shirt is wet underneath, and sweat runs down his back. He swallows and wishes he were someplace else. He needs to…paint. Grab a brush and fling colours across a blank canvas, because that’s the only thing that’ll alleviate the tension coursing through his body and sooth the pinpricks of unease in his chest.
“Mr. Muller? Thomas Muller?”
It’s only when the stranger grabs his arm does Thomas jolt out of his daze.
“Yes,” he says awkwardly, quickly scanning the stranger to try and recall his name.
This man is dressed in a suit, and there’s not a tear on it. His greying blonde hair is combed neatly back, too, and he wears a glinting watch.
He isn’t from around here.
And he doesn’t appear to be afflicted by the heat, either.
“We have some things to discuss,” the stranger says, and reaches into his jacket pocket to draw out a beige file.
Thomas stares blankly at it.
“Your father, I understand he worked for Mr. Lessening -”
“Yes,” Thomas says rapidly.
“You should have a look at these.” The stranger hands over the file and Thomas takes it limply.
“Your father owes me money. He owes a lot of people money, including Mr. Lessening. The sooner we get this settled the better it’ll be for you, and your…” He glances around for family members, and Thomas follows his gaze to Nicole and Ellington. Nicole’s leaning against a tree, Ellington standing in front of her, and his hand brushes her cheek just as Thomas glances away.
“My sister,” he says.
The stranger ignores him. “You have any indication of your house’s value?”
“Your house - do you know what it’s valued at. What about the furniture -”
“No, I don’t, I don’t -”
The stranger taps at the file with his finger. “We’ll need you to come into the city as soon as possible, so we can get this sorted. Your father left quite a mess, son - the sooner you can fix it, the better it’ll be for your family. You’d better get a job before if you don’t already have one.”
“I’m in college -”
The stranger glances up. “Like I said. Stop this before it goes too far.” He nods. “I’ll be in touch.”
Then he’s striding away.
Thomas finds himself looking for Nicole, the file still sticking to his hand, his mind numb. Around him, the townspeople are filtering away. All that’s left is the mess Thomas never imagined would be his.
And Nicole, she’s happy right now. Laughing with Ellington.
* * *
Four years later, and Thomas is a working man. He works in the city now. In corporate offices. In a world made of grey and beige and stiff suits and the coarse rustling of papers and files and reeking of poignant deodorant. He’s used to it by now, but he doesn’t feel any less numb.
Thomas hasn’t seen Nicole in four years. That is, until she walks through his door.
Nicole barely recognises her brother without the paint splatters on his shirt or his ruffled blonde hair snaking down his neck and over his forehead. His clothes are clean, too, and without gaping holes. She smiles, just thinking of how attractive and professional and sophisticated they both must look.
Thomas glances up and jumps when he sees her standing in the doorway, dressed in a blue dress and with her hair silky and loose on her shoulders. Her gaze sizes him up - and their situation. He opens his mouth to say something, but then he sees she’s fidgeting. And that her right hand has something on it.
“What’s that?” he says because he doesn’t know how else to put it.
Her smile vanishes. “I’m, my - I’m married.” She lifts her hand tentatively, showcasing the glinting ring on her finger.
His tone is empty. Nicole hates herself for thinking this was a good way to reconnect with her brother after four years. Why couldn’t she have thought of a different conversation starter?
“Just a few months.”
Suddenly she’s defensive, and she hates that she is and that she knows why she is. “Luke.”
“Don’t look at me like that -”
“You look well. Happy.”
“I am happy.”
“You’ve been with him all these years?”
“You know I have. Don’t judge me, Thomas -”
“I’m not judging,” he says wearily. “I’m trying to understand you. And this - all of this.” He throws his hands up, glances briefly around the room, and Nicole follows his gaze. In the background come the static of voices from the offices.
Thomas sits down at his desk.
Nicole says, “You look well, too.”
Thomas doesn’t respond.
“You must be earning well, working here -”
“I’m not.” It comes spilling out of him in frantic whispers: “I took out loans, Nicole. Too many of them. I work all hours - I can barely afford the rubbish apartment I’m stuck in. I shake hands with sleazes who want money, live for money and will do anything for money. I have people watching me - I have father’s -”
“Don’t talk about father -”
“He’s everywhere, Nic,” Thomas says, his voice breaking. “Him and mom, haunting my every move, determining every choice I’m forced to make, just to survive. And you, I’m glad - it’s good you’re living a great life -”
“Don’t I deserve it?” Nicole says, a splash of venom in her otherwise level voice. “I protected you, I sacrificed everything for you -”
“And I’m the one who’s stranded trying to fight our dead father’s battles! Fights he started. While you marry a rich bully and wear pretty dresses -”
He hears the words leaving his mouth and they’re sour on his tongue. He wants to take them back. But the damage is done, and Nicole’s face shows it.
She says, “I thought of studying. I’d like to be a doctor. But I don’t have to - you’re right, I have everything I need and everything I don’t, too. I should go. My husband’s waiting.”
Thomas watches her leave, pinned to his chair, suffocating on the inside and unable to get up to call her back. He doesn’t even know if he wants to.
Nicole leaves, and Thomas sits alone.
* * *
Midnight rolls over the town and drenches the lake house in darkness. Nicole is home alone. It’s been two years since she strolled out of her brother’s office, and now she’s living in a house that reminds her of a vintage mansion.
Luke isn’t home.
It’s better that way, because there’s a loud thudding at the front door.
As Nicole hurries down the steps, she considers that perhaps it’s just thunder and rain. They mentioned in town that a storm was coming. Maybe that’s it.
It’s not. It’s Thomas, soaking wet, rain pouring down beyond the veranda, and he pushes his way inside while Nicole stumbles backwards in shock.
“What on -”
“I’m sorry -”
“What are you -”
He’s dripping water on the wooden floor. Nicole moves hastily into the lounge, which is lit by corner lamps and populated with furniture she never uses. Thomas stumbles after her, breathing heavily.
Nicole turns around when she reaches the fireplace. “What’s going on?”
“They’re looking for me. I didn’t have anywhere else to go - I knew you still lived here, you work at the cafe -”
There are a million different things Nicole could ask him, but instead she says, “I don’t work there anymore.”
“What?” Thomas isn’t listening. He’s pacing.
“Luke doesn’t want me working. I mean, we both decided.” She stops herself. “Who are you running from?”
“The cops,” he says, and then at the look on her face, “it’s a long story. Guys who dad knew, too. I took loans. People wanted their money back. And the company, I could take money from them and they wouldn’t have noticed, but they did -”
“What are you saying?”
He looks up at her, meets her eyes, his own face flushed with panic and tears, or maybe it’s the rain, Nicole can’t tell.
“I’m saying I stole money and the cops want me. And the guys I stole the money for, they want me too. It’s bad, Nic, it’s bad and I don’t know how to stop it.”
They don’t speak for a few minutes. There’s only the rain and thunder retching outside.
The lamplight flickers over the furniture.
“Luke’s not home,” Nicole says. “You should sleep. There’s a spare room on the second landing.”
He nods. Stares at her. She turns and heads up the staircase.
“Goodnight,” she says.
* * *
Thomas sits on the edge of the bed, staring out the window into the sunrise. He could’ve stayed there forever, except something’s happening downstairs and the noise is unnerving.
He comes downstairs and halts on the bottom stair, then twists around to glance into the kitchen. Luke’s home. Nicole’s out of sight, but she’s also in the kitchen. Thomas knows her voice anywhere.
Then Thomas hears a crisp, piercing sound that reminds him of his childhood and makes him flinch. And just like he did back then, he stands still. But he hears Nicole’s cry and suddenly Luke’s striding out of the house and slamming the door behind him.
Thomas is ashamed of every minute that passes before he walks across the wooden floor and into the kitchen.
Eventually, he’s standing there. Staring.
There are bruises on his sister’s face. Bruises that weren’t there the night before. She’s in a flimsy nightgown, red marks on the top of her chest. Her hair’s a mess. She’s been crying.
Nicole sees him and whips around to continue washing dishes.
“What are you doing?” is all Thomas can say.
“Stop judging me -”
“I’m not -”
“You never showed an interest in our marriage.”
“I love him,” she says, turning to look at him. “I love him so much it hurts. Sometimes it does. But I wanted this life, didn’t I? I always did. And I only needed to look at mom and dad to know it was heading my way.”
“Your husband hits you!” Just saying the words aloud spikes a coursing rage through Thomas that has him questioning why he let Luke walk out the door.
“And you’re a thief! You’re involved in fraud and your life’s a mess! You’re dad, you know? You’re a failure.”
Tears burn in Thomas’ eyes, but Nicole ripples with fury.
“Get out,” she says.
“You should walk out with me -”
“And go to prison?”
“I’m going,” he says. “I don’t want to watch you acting like the pathetic twelve year-old who had a crush on the school bully.”
“It is pathetic. You haven’t grown up, Nicole, and you still think you’re better than everyone else.”
After that, Thomas leaves.
* * *
Time passes in painful waves. Thomas passes it in prison. It’s a few months, but it feels like years. When he gets out, he finds a apartment and does work for anyone who’s willing to hire a man who did time for money laundering.
Nicole hears that he’s out. She can’t bring herself to visit him. But Thomas hasn’t thought of his sister for months.
And then, one day, Thomas gets a phonecall at 2:00am. It’s from Nicole.
* * *
When Thomas pulls up to the lake house, it’s past midnight. The lake house looms as a silhouette against the night.
The car creeps froward. He stops. Gets out. He doesn’t know what to expect or if he’s even comfortable being here.
Two steps up the path and he sees Nicole, a slumped figure against the front door. The lights are still on inside.
When Thomas gets closer, he sees her hand resting protectively on her belly. Her eyes flicker up to meet his as realisation sinks in.
They don’t have to say anything. Nicole gestures inside.
“I have bags -”
“I’ll get them.”
Thomas moves past her, almost wanting to touch her, maybe pat her arm, but it doesn’t feel right and he doesn’t know if she wants that right now. Or even if he does.
As he passes her, he notices the marks on her neck and the ragged way she’s breathing. And, that she has a black eye and bloody lip.
He keeps walking until he’s inside, and then glances behind to see Nicole making her way to the car.
Nicole waits in the car with her hands clasped in her lap. Her chest aches, and every breath is frenzied. She knows she wants to say something to her brother when he returns, but she’s not sure what and she still wonders why he bothered to come for her. How he decided she was worth it.
Nicole glances out the car window into the darkness. The moon’s reflection shimmers on the lake. She’s come to hate this place, and she can’t wait to leave it behind. Even if it’s too late for her and Thomas, it’s not too late for her unborn child. That’s what she tells herself. And when she sees Thomas heading back to the car carrying her bags, she starts to believe it.