“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Reagan found him on the beach, tossing shells into the ocean, which was a clear, dark, brilliant blue. He looked thinner than the last time she’d seen him.
“Aren’t you coming in?”
Her brother turned at the sound of her voice, but he squinted up at the sky, fiddling with the remaining shells in his hands. “Do I have to?”
“If you want anything, then yeah,” she said, already walking back to the house.
She glanced back to see Derrick make a face, then throw the shells into the water before trudging up the sand behind her.
Reagan slid open the set of glass sliding doors and paused, letting the wave of memories crash into her mind as she surveyed the room. Everything was spotless, of course. Not that her parents had been neat freaks — just rich and able to employ a literal scullery of maids and housekeepers to keep the place immaculate.
“Aren’t you going in?” came Derrick’s voice right behind her, low and amused. She rolled her eyes and stepped through the door.
“How come you didn’t go in through the front?” Reagan asked, setting down her purse on the dining table. God, the room still smelled like her mom’s perfume. And Pine-Sol.
Derrick was sullen as he came inside, and looked as if he wasn’t going to answer, but then he ran a hand through his windblown hair. “I don’t know,” he sighed. “I haven’t been here in so long . . . I just wanted to wait for you.”
Reagan felt rather touched but knew better than to say so. She merely nodded and wandered into the kitchen. That was one of the best things about this beach house: most of it was all open-air design, with the TV and dining areas and kitchen all encompassing one huge room, which itself opened out to an expansive stone patio with a built-in fire pit and then dipped right onto a private strip of beach. The rest of the house consisted of bathrooms and bedrooms, just as well designed if not quite as elaborate.
Derrick still hadn’t moved from near the back door. He just stood on the “Welcome to Paradise!” floor mat, staring at it.
“I think the last time I was here was after Bradley died.”
Reagan nearly dropped the vase she had been examining. They never talked about their older brother. The memories here were clearly more overwhelming for Derrick than they were for her. Then again, as the youngest, she hadn’t spent as much time here, because she, too, hadn’t been to the house since that terrible time.
“Derrick . . . ” she began.
He waved off her concern. “They’re dead, it doesn’t matter anymore. Dad doesn’t matter anymore.”
The bitterness was thick in his voice, and he scowled at the floor mat.
“Do you know how hard I had to work just to get him to trust me? With the business? With anything? What hoops he made me go through? How many times I heard, ‘If your brother were here,’ ‘If your brother had tried this’ . . . ”
Derrick shook his head, unable to continue.
Reagan wasn’t sure what to say. She knew very well the shit Dad had inflicted upon Derrick after his precious first born son had tragically died. Bradley had only been twenty-five, cut down in his prime, and their father had seemed determined to wring those wasted years from his remaining children. Reagan had distanced herself as best she could and made her own way in life. But Derrick had been trapped, both by loyalty to Bradley and determination to prove himself to their parents, as emotionally abusive as that relationship had been.
“I’m sorry.” It was the only thing she could think of, and she knew it wasn’t enough. But Derrick glanced at her with the ghost of an appreciative smile on his lips. Then he sighed and rustled his hair again.
“Let’s just get this over with.”
Most of the furniture was already wrapped and shoved off to the side. The kitchen items were packed up, and a look into their parents’ bedroom revealed more taped-up boxes. All that was left, really, were knick-knacks and valuables that the movers clearly hadn’t been sure what to do with, like the vase in the kitchen and . . .
Both siblings paused when they got to Bradley’s room. They exchanged glances. Derrick looked terribly pale, so Reagan reached out and opened the door, letting it swing wide into the room.
It hadn’t been touched, not by the movers and not even by the housekeepers. Dust was thick on the shelves of trophies and coated the dozens of frames of photos all over the walls. In the carpet was a well-worn trail leading from the door to the chest of drawers, the only thing that was clean. On top was an urn.
“Oh lord,” Derrick breathed.
The place was practically a shrine, and Reagan had to suppress the bizarre urge to kneel. Instead, she forced herself to go inside, ignoring the sharp intake of breath from Derrick.
Bradley smiled down at her from his photos. Some were of him as a little boy with their young, bright-eyed parents. Others also had small Derricks and tiny Reagans, both almost always gazing in adoration of their big brother. Most of the pictures, though, were cut out from magazines and newspapers and of internet printouts.
“Bradley Tilghman wins gold again!” proclaimed one headline.
“Olympian Bradley Tilghman sets new world record!” said another.
“Top 5 Track Shoes Chosen by Bradley Tilghman! You Won’t Believe #3!!”
Derrick snorted from beside her. He still looked pale, but there was something else in his face as he gazed at the pictures, and Reagan felt her heart twinge.
Despite being impossible to live up to, Bradley had absolutely been the best brother. He’d been kind and gentle, a friend to many and always smiling. He worked so hard to get those medals, but he never complained and never gave up. He taught Reagan how to ride a bike and Derrick how to play baseball. He let them tag along to his track practices and had laughed and laughed when they had dumped Gatorade on his head after a big meet that his team had lost. He even had a head for numbers, and their father groomed him (and Derrick too, though to a lesser extent) for a life in the family accounting firm once his Olympic career would be finished.
But he had never gotten that far. Like a star, Bradley simply burned too bright. The cancer was sudden and swift, and Reagan’s precious “Braddie” was gone in a matter of months. Derrick had been inconsolable, and their parents somehow even more so. Reagan had left for lonely freedom; Derrick had stayed and suffered the sin of not being Bradley.
And now, their parents were gone too.
Reagan reached out a hand to grasp her brother’s. He flinched slightly, then relaxed and squeezed it. The two siblings stood there in silence, remembering.
“I think the worst thing is that he’s just impossible to be mad at,” said Derrick suddenly. “Practically Perfect Bradley Poppins.”
The giggle burst out of Reagan before she could stop it, and then she was just giggling all over, and even Derrick’s solemn face broke, and he began laughing too.
It dissolved whatever spell had been in the room, and with a final squeeze, Reagan and Derrick released each other’s hands. Reagan went to grab some boxes, as Derrick began to carefully take down the pictures. When she returned, also with some newspaper for padding, she started tightly packing away the trophies. It was slow work, but they kept tedium at bay by retelling their favorite childhood memories and stories of Bradley. Then —
Reagan looked up from taping a box. The walls were now covered in square patches that were darker than their surroundings due to being behind frames all these years. But Derrick was peering at the chest of drawers. The urn had been moved slightly to the side, and he seemed to be looking at the spot where it had sat.
“What is it?” she asked, standing.
“It’s like . . . ” — he squinted — “a button or something. Look.”
Reagan looked, and then frowned. It wasn’t a button in the sense of something big and red with the words, “push me,” on it, but rather an indentation in the wood, like the home button on a iPhone.
“Well, that’s weird,” she said. Then she reached out and pushed it.
Nothing happened for a second or two, then a little drawer popped out from somewhere beneath the lip of dresser’s top. The siblings stared at it.
It was remarkable how invisible it had been — any trace of it was obscured by the first, actual drawer when that was closed, and when open, it made the secret drawer merely look like a piece of connecting wood. Derrick carefully pulled it open all the way. To Reagan’s disappointment, it was full of papers, and very boring-looking ones, at that.
“What an odd thing to hide,” she said, shaking her head. Derrick didn’t say anything; he took the bulk of the papers out and began to look through them.
Reagan left him to it and resumed her packing. She carried out a box to her parents’ bedroom, to be picked up with the others later. She was wondering if there was any water left in the fridge when she heard a thump. She hurried back to Bradley’s room.
Her brother was sitting awkwardly on the carpet, his legs having apparently just gone out from under him. He was shaking so hard, the papers rustled in his hands and a few fell to the floor.
“What happened?!” She rushed over to him, feeling his clammy hands and noticing the sweat on his forehead. “Are you okay?”
“Reagan . . . ” Derrick gasped hoarsely. “The race . . . His last race . . . He lost.”
Reagan felt her world tilt. Her own knees weak, she leaned back against the bed. “What?”
Derrick’s eyes were feverish. “These papers, they’re investigative reports.” He shook them in her face. “Of that day. Of that race. Remember it looked like a tie at first? Then the judges went away and ended up ruling that Bradley had won? And we all celebrated and all that, but look, look, look — ”
He spread the papers across the carpet. It was all tiny black text that swam under Reagan’s eyes.
“Someone didn’t believe it, they contested it, though not till months later. And they were right. It had been a close race, but the other guy had actually won, not Bradley. But . . . ” Derrick trailed off, looking sick.
“Someone covered it up,” Reagan finished, feeling nauseated herself. “Someone stopped the truth from spreading.”
They stared at each other, and she knew Derrick was thinking the same thing.
“But why would he keep these around?” She felt there was a need to whisper. “This is prime blackmail material.”
“Maybe he felt guilty,” Derrick said, also whispering.
“How did it not wind up on the news at all?”
“Bribes. That’s the only explanation.” Derrick gave a dry laugh. “Doing the accounts, I’ve always noticed money being shunted off to various side accounts, but I never said anything. I never thought that it was being used like this . . . ” He dug his palms into his eyes.
Reagan felt rather numb.
“Do . . . do you think . . . Bradley knew?” She could barely hear her own voice.
Derrick looked up sharply. “No.”
“But — ”
He silenced her with a look, then began rifling through the papers on the floor. He picked one up to show her. “Check the date of when the verdict was finalized. He was already in the hospital by then. Already . . . ” He cleared his throat. “Well, unable to receive news like this, anyway.”
Relief flooded Reagan’s body, and she sagged against the bedclothes, realizing how tense she’d been. Knowing her father had been a felon, not to mention a huge hypocrite, wasn’t exactly surprising. But Derrick still looked shaken.
“Well. Don’t you feel better knowing he wasn’t perfect after all? And that Dad was a filthy liar?”
She was only half-serious, but Derrick’s face tightened.
“No. I don’t.”
The little yacht bobbed lightly in the water, the waves softly lapping at its sides. It was very quiet now that the motor was off. The sun was an huge orange ball on a horizon of gold. Reagan squinted at it as Derrick left the helm to join her on the bow.
“Ready?” he asked.
She held up Bradley’s urn. “Ready.”
The two siblings tipped the open urn over the side and watched the gray ashes slowly rain into the ocean.
“You know, I don’t think he was even that big of a water fan, actually,” Derrick said. “He preferred running around on the sand.”
“We’re committing a crime here, don’t ruin the moment,” Reagan chided.
Derrick smiled, the first real one she’d seen from him in a long while.
The last thing they did was burn the investigative reports.
“Also a crime,” Reagan pointed out as they tossed the papers into the fire pit.
“I’m sure there’s copies somewhere,” Derrick said, voice grim. “This probably won’t be the last we’ll hear of this, anyway, now that the money’s stopped.”
Reagan searched her brother’s face. “I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it. “It’s all on you now, isn’t it? The business and everything.”
He shrugged. “I was going to have to rehaul everything anyway. Our father was . . . rather a dictator, both at home and work.”
They stood there in silence for awhile, watching the papers blacken and curl in the fire.
“I’ll help,” Reagan said suddenly. “I’ll come home.”
Derrick’s eyes widened. “Really?”
Her heart was pounding from this momentous decision, but it also felt light, lighter than it had in years. “Yeah,” she said, trying to sound casual. “I was mostly hiding from Mom and Dad, y’know. Not you.”
“It’s gonna be rough,” he said warningly, though his face had lit up with joy.
Reagan grinned. “We’ll get through it. Together.”
She took her brother’s hand. “All three of us.”
They gazed up at the sky to the scattered stars, so far away but bright and twinkling and full of promise for the future.
There are parts of this I’m not 100 percent satisfied with, but I also know it’s no good to keep messing around with it. T’is be what t’is be. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
This prompt was inspired by one found in this book: Write the Story