Sugar, she said to herself as she slid the key into her apartment’s front door. And in her mind took shape the image of the cherry and chocolate chip ice cream—a whole half gallon of it—that she had stocked in her freezer a week before (for when I get the munchies).
But on her way to the kitchen, right after flinging off with relief her working-girl stilettos, it abruptly occurred to her that Jimmy might as well have discovered the ice cream. And Jimmy could never help himself. Her little brother, just about to turn seventeen, was crashing at her New York apartment for a few days and, in the family, he had always had a well-earned reputation for irrepressibly devouring any sugary substance that came across his path.
Yeah, he sure has found it. No ice cream for you today, Megan dear. She was sure now. When she grabbed the fridge handle, she already knew she wouldn’t find her darling extra-large ice cream tub sitting inside the freezing compartment. But, surprisingly, for once, she was wrong about her brother—intact, still sealed, the ice cream tub gleamed back at her from the bottom of the freezer.
Oh, muchas gracias for not finding it, Jimmy, she thanked telepathically, snatching the tub with a hurried hand movement, as if the treat were still at risk. Then she got a spoon from the drawer and, clutching her frozen treasure, headed for the living room, skipping gleefully along with her long and perfectly shaped legs.
Actually, hers were the type of legs that don’t belong to somebody who indulges in half-gallon ice cream sprees. And in fact they didn’t. Their owner’s life was ninety-nine percent of the time as healthy and orderly as these limbs looked athletic and slender. Megan was a highly-disciplined career lawyer. She had completed her law studies five years ago; a brilliant Brown graduate hired straight out of college by one of New York’s “Big Six”—Thompson & Goldstein.
But, disciplined as she was, Megan also knew how to give herself the occasional sugary reward on the extraordinary occasions; and today had been a very important day indeed.
Once snug and lounging on the couch—her face stuffed in cherry and chocolate, a trashy real-housewife show humming on the TV—she lifted her hand to her eyes and extended her fingers to contemplate the diamond ring once more. Again the same sweet ripple of vertigo ran through her. A shiver as intense as every previous one she had had this evening. It was as if her body kept forgetting the incredible news and was retaken by surprise at each new sight of the jewel. He had put the ring on her finger tonight at Delmonico’s, during their customary weekly after-work dinner together. The shiny thing had come out of the round, velvety box that the waitress had laid on the table next to their two pots of crème brulé; and she couldn’t believe it—he had chosen her! He wasn’t just fooling around with her during these two years after all. He really loved her. Matthew Vanderhoven loved her and wanted to marry her.
It’s so beautiful. And so tasteful, she thought, admiring the understated beauty of the nevertheless terribly expensive jewel. This ring was just like Matthew: ridiculously beautiful and rich, but elegantly restrained. “Matthew, Matthew,” she said aloud, for the sake of hearing his name. Why do I, little Megan Parker, deserve such a prince?
Matthew was one of the heirs to a vast family empire. The Vanderhovens were one of those old-moneyed Manhattan dynasties whose fortunate members are the closest thing to aristocracy that America has. So wealthy for so long that they don’t need to prove anything anymore; and who, therefore, prefer to keep to the discreet periphery of the limelight, enjoying the cushioned world of all-out privilege without having to deal with the tyranny of fame and public scrutiny. One of those few golden surnames that today sound only remotely familiar to the average guy in the street, but which elicit the instant welcoming reaction, an acute open-doors reflex, in those who have money and power, or in those who serve those who have it. A race of long-boned, carefree-browed, milky-skinned beings, who migrate with dignified indolence, like large exotic birds traveling with the seasons, from one to the next of their residences across the golden triangle: Upper East Side–Hamptons–Palm Beach.
However, Matthew was an exception within his decadent breed. From a young age he had gotten out of the carpeted path already set before him and, instead of taking a symbolic post in one of the many family businesses, had decided to go to work for others out in the world. Like Megan, he had graduated in law with excellent grades and had also been hired by Thompson & Goldstein due to his outstanding college record, without resorting to any family phone calls to any of the uncountable good friends of ours.
At Thompson, he had made his own way up the competitive ranks of the firm and was now just about to become its youngest-ever partner. He lived entirely off his salary, and it was such good money already that he’d soon be a wealthy man in his own right.
But the thing that Megan admired most about him was how genuinely kind he was to everybody, regardless of their social rank, net worth or external appearance. He was always naturally friendly to folks and had a frank and easy smile (a to-die-for smile, by the way). His behavior lacked the smallest trace of conceit and yet, at the same time, he effortlessly emanated that nonchalant charm so terribly attractive; a special confident aura that can only be cast by those rare creatures so used to having it all in life—looks, brains, money, upbringing—that they aren’t even aware they do.
That was it; the handsomest gentleman of 21st century’s New York was in love with her and was going to marry her. What have I done to deserve him? she kept asking herself, just as she had done for these past two years every time she caught sight of Matthew’s gorgeous brown eyes seeking hers in a room, or whenever his child-perfect smile flashed at her for a second, in that numb-inducing manner it always did an instant before his lips kissed hers—Why me?
But with such constant self-questioning, Megan was being too harsh on herself. Because in reality she made a pretty good match for him. She was not rich by any means, true; however, what Megan didn’t see is that, in all other regards, she was as accomplished and well-rounded a person as Matthew. Like him, she also had a gleaming professional future, as everybody agreed at the firm. And she was also a very beautiful person herself. In fact, she was so pretty that, for many years, her good looks had often felt like a burden; with her previous boyfriends, Megan had always been afraid of not being seen past her looks, not being loved for her true self.
But not with Matthew; with him it was different. She was sure he loved her and not just her physical shell. Being so handsome himself, and such an awesome catch, he could have any minute scores of girls far more beautiful than her; it wouldn’t take the click of a finger. And yet he had chosen her. Her in particular. In fact, he had broken up with his teenage-years sweetheart (an extremely pretty Park Avenue princess) only a few weeks after she and Matthew, both freshly arrived at the firm, had been put in the same litigation team—God bless Peterson against the State of Delaware!
Comforted inside this bubble of true-love thoughts, Megan proceeded to dig again into the ice cream surface and comfort herself even further. But she stopped the spoonful of cherry and chocolate midway to her mouth. Something caught her eye that she hadn’t noticed before: the keys by the TV set—her little brother’s keys to the apartment. So he was home after all?
“You home, Jimmy?” she called, rolling her head and casting her voice toward the door that was behind her. It was a bit strange though; she’d been home a good half hour now—how come she had not noticed him in the tiny apartment? And what was he doing in her room? Her pad was just a modest one-bedroom, and Jimmy was sleeping on the couch during his stay and didn’t usually go into her bedroom.
She didn’t get a response.
“Jimmy? You there?” she repeated, sitting up on the couch and raising her voice.
Still no answer.
At last, she hopped off the couch and headed to her bedroom. Jimmy must probably be relaxing in there with his headphones on and couldn’t hear her from the living room.
“Jiiimmyyy!” she sang, as she neared the bedroom, “Got the craziest news to tell youuuu. You’re not gonna beliiieve iiit,” she went on with an excited voice, caressing with her thumb the jewel on her ring finger. “Your old sister is going t—”
A tightening in her throat choked the end of her sentence when she arrived at the bedroom’s doorway, when she saw what was inside. Her throat, the finger that was caressing her ring, and in fact all the muscles in her body stiffened suddenly—Jimmy was in there yes, only he wasn’t chilling out on her bed as she had expected, but walking about the room in the most bizarre manner.
Megan didn’t move or speak. She just watched how Jimmy advanced through the room in slow, dragging steps; how he did so looking fixedly at the floor, his neck fully flexed downward; and only altering his course when he bumped into a piece of furniture or a wall, as if he didn’t even see they were there.
“Jimmy!” she yelled when at last she managed to unlock her throat. “For God’s sake, what do you have? What’s wrong, Jimmy?”
She’d gotten to free her vocal cords, but her feet were still stuck by the pulse of warning that throbbed in her veins. She didn’t dare to come closer; for a moment she felt as if she was afraid of her own little brother, who was moving like in an odd trance… like… like a zombie.
“Jimmy! Stop! What do you have, tell me—What the fuck is happening, Jimmy?” she yelled again, hoping he would react and look up, but still not daring to approach him, touch him. For some reason. “Look at me, Jimmy! Look up for God’s sake!”
At this last yell, Jimmy seemed to begin to come back; his head had twitched as if recognizing her out of his trance. He stopped his crawling walk and turned toward where her cry had come from. And now he took a step in her direction, and Megan couldn’t help but take one backward repelled by his. And then he raised his head, at last looking up. But the face Megan could finally see was one that stared at her with eyes that weren’t Jimmy’s. They were instead a pair of absurd blank eyes almost deprived of color, bulging out, horrible white poached eggs for eyes in her brother’s face, egg-eyes that seemed not to really see her but to focus on a point somewhere beyond her, on an invisible horizon that seemed very far.
These white eyes… Could this be an epileptic attack? In that case he’d need help soon so as not to choke on his own tongue or something like that. She needed to do something and do it quick. But she couldn’t bring herself to help her own brother. She just couldn’t get close to him for some reason and could only keep asking stupidly, “Jimmy…? What…? For God’s sake, Jimmy, what do you have?” as she stepped back with each approaching step of his.
And then Jimmy stopped for a moment, his chin rose up in the air, and his head cocked in recognition, an ear turned to her, to her voice. But the motion of his head was slow and hesitant, as if he were trying to catch a very distant sound. After this pause, Jimmy resumed his trailing toward her, and his mouth started to open. Slowly. His lips quivered, his jaw muscles contracted, and for a moment it seemed as if he were struggling to say something. But no word was uttered. Instead, out of her brother’s mouth came the furious wail of a marine animal. A stupefying jet of sound that Megan could almost feel physically on her face. And after a few moments of the impossible sound filling the whole air of the apartment, paralyzing her in a strained knot of horror and disbelief, a torrent of brown drool began to pour out of Jimmy’s mouth; the shrill wail not stopping though, but turning gurgly through the liquid that flowed and flowed out of her brother’s mouth, down his chin, cascading to his feet. At last, Megan screamed herself, but, before her feet could obey the order of running away, her brother had collapsed and was flat on the floor. Unconscious or dead.