Half an hour later, Michael and Emily sat, their feet touching, at the small dining room table with Mr. Budd. In front of each of them was an untouched glass of lukewarm tap water. In front of Mr. Budd, though, was an empty cereal bowl surrounded by polka dots of chicken broth.
The two had watched as Mr. Budd took a pot out of a pile of dirty dishes and filled it with water. After he put this on the stovetop, he rooted around in a cabinet and found two packages of ramen noodles. He put one packet on the kitchen counter and pounded it with his fist, then opened it up and poured the broken noodles into the pot.
The other package he opened tenderly, sprinkling the square of dry noodles with the powdered broth, then ate raw like a large hors d’oeuvre.
By the time he was done eating, the pot on the stove was boiling. He poured it all into a cereal bowl and ‘ow! ow! ow!’ed over to the breakfast nook, where he messily devoured the second half of his meal.
Now he was done, absent-mindedly reaching under his shirt to rub his round belly. Though it looked like Mr. Budd had lost a lot of weight in the weeks since the scandal broke, his belly was bigger and almost swollen.
“Sorry if I freaked y’all out back there. I get loopy when I don’t eat for a while. What do you call it? Hypoglycemic? I don’t know.”
“How long had it been since you ate?”
“Well, my so-called lawyer drops off food for me once a week, and that’s on Tuesday, and today is...huh.”
There was a bar directly behind his chair with a few bottles on it. As Mr. Budd talked, he reached back behind him and felt around with his twisted hand. He finally found a Southern Comfort bottle and gingerly lifted it over to the table.
“Your parents wouldn’t mind if I had a drink in front of you, would they?”
Emily laughed a bit louder than she meant to. “If our parents knew we were here, I don’t think you drinking in front of us would be their biggest concern.”
Mr. Budd winked over at Michael. “You got a live one here, big guy. You better watch out.”
“Us? We’re just friends.”
“Yeah, I know. Who said anything different?” He gulped down the rest of his water and refilled half the glass with whiskey. “But you’d be blind not to see what my son sees in her. Smart, quick, as pretty as her mama...she’d eat a boy like you alive and you’d love every second of it.”
Emily sat up straighter in her chair. “Okay, Mr. Budd—and don’t take this the wrong way—but you’re getting kinda weird again.”
Mr. Budd stroked the hair on his chin, which was no longer stubble, not yet a beard. “Indeed I have. Luckily for us, I’ve got just the remedy for that.”
He leaned forward in his chair and very slowly extended his hand across the table towards Emily. She leaned back and towards Michael at exactly the same rate. Gently grabbing her glass, Mr. Budd straightened up and splashed some of the water into his whiskey.
He reached back over and put her glass down, then began to take a sip of his drink. But just as he brought the whiskey up to his mouth, he seemed to notice something and set the glass back on the table. He grabbed Michael’s glass and topped off Emily’s water, so that the two water levels were equal again.
He took a deep drink, actually smacking his lips afterwards, then leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. “Well, the kids took most of the board games with them, but Alexander left Sorry! and The Game Of Life up in his room. Knowing my son, that was probably some sort of cruel joke at my expense. We also have Yahtzee and a deck of cards in the living room and probably Candy Land packed away somewhere.”
Michael cleared his throat. “Yeah…the thing is, I don’t think we really came over to play board games with you.”
Mr. Budd sighed. “Michael, I know that. I’m not crazy, all appearances contrary-wise. And I do have something to say to both of you. But I’ve been stuck in this house, alone, for three weeks. Everyone I know has abandoned me. The only people I get to talk to are my lawyers and, occasionally, one of those goons who allegedly are out there to protect me from people getting in. But considering what a great job they’re doing-” he extended his palms towards both of them “-then you might surmise that they are, in fact, here to keep me in.”
“I just meant...”
“Shh-shh-shh. Now...I miss my wife. I miss my friends, even the ones who are responsible for this mess. But most of all, I miss my kids, who just happen to be a boy and a girl almost exactly your ages. I understand that I’m asking you to make a great personal sacrifice, but could you possibly see it in your heart to play a few board games with a lonely old man?”
Michael glanced nervously over at Emily, then back at Mr. Budd, who had never stopped staring at him. “I...I’ll go upstairs and get them.”
“I’ll come with you,” Emily offered, standing up quickly.
“Why don’t you stay down here with me? We’ll catch up on old times.”
Emily looked over at Michael, who said, “I think that, sir, maybe she should...”
“Don’t the two of you read the paper? Or watch the news? I supposedly...I allegedly...only like young boys, remember? Now, run upstairs and I’ll sit right here with my hands on my knees. The games are in the top of Alexander’s closet. When you come back downstairs, I’ll still be here and my hands will still be on my knees. Scout’s honor.”
“Okay, um...” Michael stared at Emily, who shrugged at him. “I’ll be back...thirty seconds, I promise,” he said.
He left the kitchen and they heard him going up the staircase at the front of the house, two at a time. Emily brought her eyes from the ceiling down to her boyfriend’s dad.
He smiled at her, then rolled his eyes. Emily, for her part, did her best impression of her father when he was talking to a business associate: with no emotion on her face, she turned her head to the side, blinking occasionally like an curious alien.
“You know, Emily, when I heard that door open downstairs I wasn’t sure if it would be you or your parents coming in.”
“They’re waiting in the car.”
Mr. Budd laughed out loud and made a show of placing his hands squarely on his knees. “Emily, I need—eyeball, knee…get it?—I need your help. But look, it wasn’t my intention to scare you last night, I swear.”
“Well...I’ll just have to take your word on that.”
“Now, don’t be like that.”
Emily didn’t respond. In addition to her father’s stubbornness, she also had a little experience dealing with a Budd...if you don’t give them anything to work with, eventually they’ll settle down. “We’ll talk when Michael comes back. He and I are in this together.”
Mr. Budd shrugged extravagantly. “Hey, whaddya say we relax the two-hands-two-knees policy long enough for me to take a drink?”
Emily slid down in her chair a little and sighed. “You did promise on your Scout’s honor, Mr. Budd.”
“Point taken. You can call me Lucas.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
Mr. Budd was staring sadly at his glass of whiskey. “Hmm, I should have gotten a straw before Michael left. Hey, you wanna hear a funny story? Completely true, I swear to God…”
Alexander’s room was mostly unchanged. The bed wasn’t made, and his desk was missing its laptop, but it mostly seemed like Alexander had just stepped out a few minutes ago, instead of it being almost four weeks. However (and Michael was prepared to admit that he was perhaps imagining this) there seemed to be an essential something missing from the room, even though at a glance there wasn’t much gone. He was reminded of a doctor, one of his father’s customers, who had told Michael during a fitting that you can always tell the difference between a person who was sleeping and a person who was dead, no matter how peaceful they looked. Something inside of them had gone away.
One of the heavy red curtains was twisted and pulled back on itself. Michael tugged it free and straightened it up, then turned towards the closet. There was a small brass plate over the door knob with a simple inscription: The best is good enough. Michael had had that made for him at Christmas.
At school there were always jokes about the size of Alexander’s closet, how it must be the size of a department store, a warehouse, a hangar. In reality, though, it was just a normal-sized closet, maybe four feet long. There was a large dresser in the room, and a few occasional items were kept in a flat Rubbermaid container under the bed, but the fact was that Alexander didn’t have the hundreds or thousands of garments that the rest of Beaumonde imagined he must have.
He was ruthless about thinning out his wardrobe. His sister had devised a clever way of dating the last time he wore any item of clothing, and if he had gone more than three months without wearing it, he got rid of it. Another reason his closet wasn’t stuffed and overflowing was that he never bought flashy items that would go out of style: his wardrobe consisted mostly of timeless clothes, impeccably made and perfectly fitted, that he could combine endlessly depending on his mood.
About half the closet was missing. Alexander had taken all of his lightweight suits and most of his cotton dress shirts. The tie rack mounted to the inside of the door was all but empty. The heavier wool suits had been left behind, as well as the thicker shirts. On the floor of the closet were most of his shoes, though Michael saw a few gaps where four or five pairs had been.
Laying among the shoes was a blue and white repp tie that had apparently been dropped during packing. Michael picked it up, intending to hang it up on the tie rack, but instead he folded it loosely and pushed it in his back pocket.
He grabbed Sorry! and Life, then shut the closet door with his foot. He looked around the room one more time and walked out into the hallway. Pausing at the top of the staircase, he glanced over at Lillian’s dark bedroom, then back down the stairs. He could hear Mr. Budd telling a story, though he couldn’t quite make out the words. Eventually, Emily chuckled, and it sounded authentic, and Mr. Budd laughed as well. “I swear to God,” could be heard.
Michael, with one last look back at the stairs, pushed the door to Lillian’s bedroom open and looked around the dark room. He knocked softly on the door-frame. “May I come in?” he whispered.
The light from the hallway was enough to see that, if Alexander’s room was mostly unchanged, Lillian’s room was literally unchanged. He expected her to walk in behind him, ask him why he was standing there in the dark. There was always a line of perfume bottles on her mirrored vanity; now the line was gap-toothed and missing three scents. Other than that he couldn’t see a change to her room.
Her laptop, too, was gone, but Lillian almost never had her laptop out in the first place. She preferred to keep it in her bag, only using it in bed and propped on a lap desk. Like Edith Wharton, she had told him once, who would write her books in bed, flinging the pages to the floor to be collected by the maid.
By the window was an antique sewing machine in walnut, the kind that folded down, out of sight, into a flat-topped cabinet. The twins had discovered it at a shop on Magazine street, and convinced Litta'Bit to haul it over to their house in Snoopy’s Head. The machine itself had broken half a century ago, and Michael spent a Saturday afternoon taking it out of the cabinet for her. (Lillian handed him tools like a surgeon’s assistance an instant before he realized he needed them; Alexander watched him in uncharacteristic silence, mystified by the process.) Left behind was a small writing desk, with four very small drawers perfect for pens and pencils, to which Lillian added a small brass library lamp from the 20s and an Art Deco desk pen that had been her great-uncle’s.
Lillian always kept a small stack of her delicately monogrammed stationery on the desk, weighed down with a small glass jar of ink for the desk pen. However, both the ink and the pen were mostly decoration…the pen worked, but it didn’t have the fine line that Lillian preferred. Instead, she used a slim fountain pen, completely chromed and streamlined, that Michael had given her for her seventeenth birthday. A single sheet of paper had been removed from the stack, as though Lillian were about to compose a letter, and Michael was surprised to see the silver pen, uncapped, laying diagonal across the page
He set the games down on the wooden chair by the desk and turned on the desk lamp. There was writing across the top of the page, in Lillian’s thin flowing script:
it read, and then nothing more. Michael brushed the pen to the side and took up the paper, looking at the otherwise blank page as though the words she meant to write would appear. He even looked on the back of the page, but it too was blank.
He stared at the words in the yellow light of the lamp for a long time, until a new round of Mr. Budd’s muted laughter shook him from the spell. He touched the top of the page to the bottom, about to crease it through the middle, when he reconsidered and set it back on the desk where he’d found it. Michael capped the silver pen and placed it, not on top of the page as before, but to the side, parallel with the paper’s edge.
He went turned off the lamp and went back down the stairs, without looking back.