Randall took off his tie and slumped into a folding chair in the back of the parlor. The house was filled with people in black, milling about with little paper plates, warmed-over finger foods and expressions of sympathy on their faces. The casket was at the far end of the room, open to the world and surrounded by a magnificent display of flowers. No one was standing there now, paying their respects or remarking on how lifelike Dominic looked. They just chatted and gossiped and every now and then looked his way to see if he had broken down yet.
After this funeral, he thought he might. He didn’t after Wally’s. Or Ari’s. But this one, maybe. Three funerals, three brothers in as many years. This might be the one where he finally got the chance to drop out of grad school, curl up in a ball and go to pieces.
The crowd shifted and he saw Calvin sitting next to the casket, and Randall’s heart broke. Cal was still a teenager. Still skinny and lanky, and he looked utterly fragile and alone over there. Tears welled up in Randall’s eyes. Cal should have brothers. He should have brothers to show him how to grow up, how to become the good man that he should be. He could see it all in his head, the life that should have been. Ari would have been a model husband, a great example of how to find the right woman and make a relationship work. He and Keisha would have been married by now, if it hadn’t been for the car accident. They would have been beautiful together.
Wally was the risk-taker, the one who knew what he wanted and how to get it. So unlike Randall, or their parents. Wally saw opportunities everywhere and was not shy about chasing after them. Before he died, before the heart attack, he was poised to start his own company. A risk management company, of all things. Their father was ready to put his money in, which was proof of just how good Wally was. His parents had plenty of money, but neither of them was very fond of taking chances with it. Golden-tongued Wally convinced him.
Randall shook his head. A heart attack. Who the hell has a heart attack at thirty-five? That still angered him, but his father said there had been an uncle or two, one grandfather, who’d had heart problems young. “He just got unlucky,” he said. No one was sure if it was a blessing or a tragedy that it had hit him at home, after a big Thanksgiving meal. At least he was surrounded by family, instead of lying out in some godforsaken wilderness somewhere.
And now Dominic. Randall’s stomach clenched. Dom was between him and Cal, just starting college last year. He had graduated with honors, got into Aurelius College with ease, and everyone agreed that he would probably be President someday. He was easily the most well-liked person anyone knew. He somehow managed to bring people together who would have just as soon killed each other and lead them to work together before they knew what they were doing. He never told people what to do, never tricked them or lied to them or pitted one against the other. He just talked to them as if they were reasonable people who wanted the best for everyone. Somehow, against all odds, that worked. His service was the best-attended of the three.
He was closest to Cal, of course, so it hit hardest when he was mugged and murdered for his watch. A Rolex that their parents had given him as a graduation present.
Randall wiped his eyes. Three brothers, all of them better than him. He was studying business, learning how to be a middle-manager in some faceless corporation somewhere. He was single, and had been for a long time, and lived a life of remarkable mundanity. All he had going for him was his writing – he’d sold a couple of short stories in the last few years and had a novel he was working on. If anything would get him out of the shadow of his brothers, it would be that. Randall buried his head in his hands and started weeping quietly. Of all of them, why had he lived? The world wouldn’t miss Randall D’Amato very much at all.
“Hey.” Randall looked up through bleary eyes and saw Cal standing in front of him in the same tailored suit he’d worn for the last three funerals. He was starting to grow out of it, too. “You okay?” he asked.
Randall let out a half-laugh and wiped his eyes clear again. “No,” he said. “Not really.” He looked at his brother. “How about you?”
Cal shrugged and sat down on the sofa next to him. The kid was still young, about to enter high school, and didn’t know what he was going to be yet. He played the guitar really well, and was the lead in the drama club’s last production. But he also had a thing for machines – airplanes and cars mostly. He got an old-school chemistry set from their grandparents and went through every experiment in the workbook within a week. He took care of stray animals, drew pictures, and excelled at math. Randall patted Cal’s knee, and the boy looked over at him. “We’ll be okay,” he said.
Cal nodded. “I wish it didn’t have to be like this,” he said. His voice cracked, a hint of who he would be someday.
“Yeah, kid. Me too.”
They sat in silence for a minute or two. “You know who I feel really sorry for?” Cal asked. Randall looked over. “Mom and dad.” He looked around until he spotted them and Randall followed his gaze. His mother was sitting in the antique rocker, the one she’d nursed all five of her boys in, and looked burned out. People kept coming over to say how terrible they felt, what a tragedy it was, and she just nodded like a mechanical doll. She was already gone. Their father was a little better. He stood next to the chair, weakly shaking hands and making sure people didn’t linger too long with his wife.
Randall nodded and felt the shame run down to his toes. He had been feeling sorry for himself, worrying about his own insignificance, when these two people had just done the unthinkable a third time – they had buried a child. When Wally died, they had fallen to pieces, but they vowed to be strong, to carry on in his name. When Ari died, they were confused for a while. Depressed. Their father started to drink. Now Dominic’s death had broken them.
“Jesus,” he said.
Randall shook his head. “I was all wound up in my own problems. I wasn’t thinking of them. God, I’m an ass…”
Cal put his arm around his brother and pulled him close, a gesture of kindness that drove Randall back into wet, quiet sobs. They sat that way for a while, until Randall was able to compose himself. “It’s okay,” Cal whispered. “You don’t have to be the strong one here.”
Randall looked over. “Huh?”
Cal waited until his brother’s eyes focused on him and then leaned in. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe you are too wrapped up in yourself.” He reached up and wiped away tears from Randall’s face. “I can’t blame you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Maybe you should just… go.”
“What?” Randall sat up straight. “Go? Go where?”
Cal looked around and hushed him. “Look, Randy. It’s you and me now, right? Mom and dad, they’re in their own world now, and I understand.” Cal’s face was close to Randall’s now, and his voice was stronger than he’d expected. He kept their gazes locked, and it seemed that Cal blinked a lot less than he should. “You’re off studying to be, what, a cube-dweller?” He shrugged. “If that’s what you want to be, then fine. If that’s what you want to do to honor our brothers…”
The shame that Randall had been holding on to flared into rage. “Now you just wait right there, Cal,” he growled. “I have a plan. I’m doing what I want to do with my life.”
“Are you?” Cal’s voice was flat and even, and Randall knew the answer immediately.
He slumped back in the chair and stared at the far wall, at a point just above where Dom’s casket sat. “No.”
“There you go,” Cal said. He patted Randall on the back. “Mom and Dad are in a bad place right now. I’ve been there this whole time, I know what they’re going through. I can take care of this.” He patted him again. “You’ll probably just be in the way.” He stood up, took Randall’s arm, and lifted him to his feet. “C’mon. Why don’t you go home?”
Randall let himself be led by his brother out to the parking lot. They passed his parents on the way out, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything. He just stopped there and took his mother’s hand. It was cold and still and dry, and she didn’t look up at him. She just glanced over at Cal, took a shallow breath, and went back to staring straight ahead. Cal and Randall went outside, and the brisk November air was a relief after the stuffiness of the funeral parlor.
Randall got into his car, but didn’t start it. Cal stood there, holding the door open and looking remarkably adult for his age. “I’m really sorry, Randy,” he said. “I know it’s hard to hear, but on a day like today we really have to say what’s true. Not just what we think is true.” He leaned in and kissed his brother on the forehead. “We don’t need you,” he whispered. “Go home.”
Cal closed the car door and took a few steps back. He leaned on their parents’ Mercedes and clasped his hands in front of him. He didn’t wave. He just waited.
He was right. Randall twisted the key and the car started. They didn’t need him. And home? A single man’s apartment, no more than a dorm room. No girlfriend. No pets. He blinked a few times. Cal was right. They didn’t need him. Nobody needed him. And nobody would.
Randall swung the car around and lowered his window. Cal stood up straight. “Thanks, Cal,” Randall said. “Take… Take care of mom and dad for me.” Cal smiled, a tight, grim smile, and Randall rolled up the window.
It was a long drive home. He had some important decisions to make.