Traveling Light is the deeply moving debut novel from Katrina Kittle, the acclaimed author of The Kindness of Strangers—an unforgettable story of love, bonds, and promises that endure longer than life itself.
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I woke and wondered if my brother was dead; gone before I could keep my promise. He'd been fine last night and was probably fine now, but so many mornings began with new crises, trips to the emergency room, frantic calls to doctors' homes and the pharmacy, that my dread wouldn't release its grip until I saw him and knew for sure.
I sat up and shut off my alarm seconds before it whined, careful not to wake Nicholas beside me. As the percussion of my pulse lessened in my ears, I strained to listen for a clue. I heard only silence outside my bedroom; the silence that had become the sound of Todd's slow death. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I tried to slow my breathing. It was coldin that lingering, high-ceilinged way of old houses. All this expensive, antique beauty was at the cost of some comfort, but it was my brother's house, not my own, so I didn't complain.
A tentative knocking began along the floorboards, growing slowly bolder, until the radiator groaned, rising to a mournful wail, like lost souls trapped in the walls and floors. When my breathing matched the slow, slumbering rhythm of my lover's beside me, I pushed back the heavy quilt and slid out of bed. I was prepared for the shock of the cold hardwood floor on my bare feet but surprised yet again by the shock of my stiff, injured ankle bearing weight and grabbed a mahogany bedpost to keep from crumpling. I cursed and held the foot off the floor, feeling the throb of it all the way to my shoulder. Balancing on one leg, I reached for the lamp and examined the old surgical scars, vivid blue in the chilly morning air. I'd lived here only fourmonths, but I'd never woken up and not known where I was. So why was it that I hadn't danced for over three years and still woke up every morning forgetting the reason why?
"You okay, love?" Nicholas asked, sitting. He was used to this morning routine.
I nodded, still frozen, waiting for the throb to subside before trying again. "Is it my imagination, or is it getting worse?"
"It's this bed," I said, "it's too high. I miss our little mattress on the floor."
"You've got to be kidding. I love this bed." He lay back, stretching out spread-eagle. "I look forward to weekends just so I can be in this bed."
"Hmm. I bet you do." I grinned. I looked forward to weekends, too, but especially so I could sleep. The deep, safe sleep that came to me only when he was here. I rotated my ankle.
"Get back in bed and I'll massage it," he offered, propping himself up on one elbow, his thick-lashed eyes, the chambray blue of old denim, playful and teasing.
"That's so sweet," I said, "but I don't trust you to stop there."
"Well, of course not." We both laughed, and he ran a hand through his soft mess of black curls. "Seriously," he said with a yawn. "You need me to massage it?"
"I think I'm okay." I set my foot down. A couple of pliés, a few tendus, a cautious relevé, and I could walk normally. I tested this by going to the closet.
"Don't get dressed," Nicholas said, but I pulled on Todd's old film school sweatshirt that reached my knees and a pair of his black sweats discarded after his latest weight loss. I'd always been the skinny one of the family, even before I danced, but these sweats fit perfectly, except that I had to roll them twice to cuff their length.
Nicholas watched me dress with such disappointment that I lifted my sweatshirt to give him one last look. The cold air helped make the most of my small breasts, goose-pimpling my flesh, drawing it tight in an appearance of fullness. He laughed.
"I'll be right back," I said. "I just need to check on Todd." He nodded. "I love you, Summer."
Something swelled within my rib cage, slow and warm, like bread dough rising. "I love you, too." I went back to the bed and kissed him. I left the room, my face tingling from the cat-tongue rasp of his unshaven chin. In the hall, the winding stairs creaked under my still stiff, uneven gait as I followed the reassuring aroma of hazelnut coffee to the brass-fixtured kitchen. I found Todd working a crossword puzzle at the kitchen table and knew it would be a rare, calm morning. He was wearing jeans and a thick sweater in a shade of gray that made his skin appear transparent. Arnicia, the nursing student who lived with us and took care of Todd in the mornings, sipped coffee beside him, tapping her manicured red nails on the table in a delicate tune.
The door to the master bedroom stood open, and the shower blasted on in the adjoining bathroom. Just above the water rushing came the humming of a familiar movie theme I couldn't quite place.
When Todd looked up from the puzzle, the one eye that could still see sparkled as he flashed me his Auschwitz grin.
"Morning," I said. "Just wanted to see if you were still breathing."
"Sure am, little sister," he said in that voice I hardly recognized since the throat tumor, a deeper, aged distortion of his original voice. I sat down at the table.
"Chemo today?" I asked.
He made a face and nodded. "If I'm allowed. It's up to my white blood cells." Last month, when the oncology staff held his treatment because of low white count, Todd took it as a personal rejection.
"You'll make it," Arnicia assured him, going to the stove to prepare his Cream of Wheat.
I looked at the pale dry skin, the almost bald head, the lifeless eye, and leaned my head on his shoulder, sharp under the camouflaging sweater. "I wish I were seven and you were ten again and we were going to make a blanket tent today."
He laughed, a rattle echoing just beneath it. "Oh, God. Not me. All that teenage angst? I'd have to come out again. No way."
"Maybe this time you could do it a little less dramatically."
Color snuck into his gaunt cheeks, even after all these years. "Thanks, but no thanks. But we can make a blanket tent any time you want, little sister," he said, patting my knee.
"I just meant"
He snatched my hand and squeezed it. There was a hint of fear in the motion, but his voice was calm. "I know." He smiled. "I know."
The shower stopped, but the humming did not. The humming changed to a theme we recognized, and we laughed. Arnicia's laughter was musical and her mouth hypnotizing to watch. I envied her smooth, cocoa skin and impeccable nails. No matter how little sleep she ran on, or what horrors unfolded, she looked glamorous and serene.
I ran a hand through my still sleep-tangled hair and wondered what I looked like.
The phone rang, and Jacob answered it in the master bedroom. He came into the kitchen, an imposing figure even in his bathrobe, toweling his spiky black hair. He held out the cordless phone to Todd. "It's your grandma Anna, babe."
Todd mouthed the words "Did you talk to her?"
"I said hello." Jacob refused to whisper.
"Say something nice to her," Todd pleaded. "I'll be there in a minute." Jacob pressed the phone against his chest, muffling the receiver. "I can't think of anything nice to say to her. And my mother taught me that if you can't say anything nice . . . Here." He held the phone out again.
"I'll take it in the bedroom," Todd said. He refused the cordless with a sulk but still paused to kiss Jacob before making his slow, measured way into the bedroom.
Jacob listened on the cordless until Todd picked up in the other room. I watched him, his sharp, chiseled features, the tan Mediterranean look of his skin, the hint of a tattoo peeking from under one sleeve of his robe. Although he was tall and thin, almost comically so, there was a hard, severe edge to his appearance. He scowled as he hung up.
"What did she want?" I asked him.
"I don't know, but it sure wasn't to talk to me."
"I don't get it," I said. "Why is he so nice to her?"
Jacob shrugged. "That's who he is." He paused a moment. "But it doesn't mean that we have to be."
Arnicia hummed her disapproval, still stirring at the stove. "Mmm. That is some mighty bad karma, you all."
Jacob smiled and gave Arnicia a peck on the cheek and a quick grab of the butt. She smacked him with her wooden spoon. He fled from her, laughing, and kissed me on the cheek as well. He was usually gone by this time, off teaching stage combat to the acting majors at the local university, but on chemo days he left his students watching filmed fights and accompanied Todd to the hospital. "Ready to save the youth of America?" he asked me, pouring himself some coffee.
I groaned. "I don't think I'm cut out to be a teacher."
He sat across from me at the table. "If you don't like it, quit. We've got plenty of money, Summer. You know that. It would be great to have you on call for us all the time."
I didn't answer. It was tempting at times, but I couldn't do it. It was bad enough to be the family member described most frequently by "usedto," as in "Summer used to be a ballerina," "Summer used to get fan mail," "Summer once got reviewed in The New York Times," as though I was already, at twenty-six, a washed-up old eccentric, a novelty to all the young cousins. But to be kept and sheltered seemed even worse. I could just hear Aunt Marnee saying, "Summer used to be a functioning member of society." Besides, I should be able to tackle this. I'd breezed through the teacher certificationmy ballet years giving me an edge over the typically distracted, undisciplined college studentand had landed a job within weeks of applying, teaching English at my own old high school, an easy commute from Dayton, where I'd returned to help care for my brother.
But none of that classwork, including student teaching, prepared me for the grueling reality. I'd been shoved onstage to perform a role I'd never rehearsed full out.
"Summer?" Jacob prodded me.
"No thanks," I said. "I want to work." I flexed my ankle under the table. "But I wish I could do something . . . special again, something people notice, not just behind a closed door where nobody knows or cares because I'm just doing what every adult in the building can do better than I can." Jacob leaned back in his chair, putting his bare feet on the edge of the table. I reached across and squeezed his toes, seeking some playful comfort. Looking only at his toes, I said, "I used to define myself by what I did. I could say, 'I'm a dancer.' But I never say, 'I'm a teacher.' I always say, 'I teach high school right now,' like it's some sort of temporary job."
"Well, it is, isn't it?"
I stared at his toes.
"Look," he said, "you think I defined myself as a bartender all those years in L.A?"
I let go of his feet. "That's not the same. You knew you wanted to act. And you were an actor, even if you paid the rent some other way for a while. I just wish I could get my life together like Todd did, you know?"
Jacob laughed. "That was survival, baby. If he was going to keep you all from getting shipped off to foster homes, he had to get his shit together." I blinked. I didn't know Jacob knew that story. But, of course, Todd would have told him. "We were never really in danger of foster homes," I said. "Not with Grandma Anna there."
"Thanks to Todd," Jacob insisted.
I thought about that. "It shouldn't have been that way. Abby was the oldest." He snorted. "And? What's your point? Oldest or not, your sister didn't get her shit together."
No. She hadn't. When Mom and Dad took off, Abby opted to go on her overnight cheerleading trip as planned, rather than draw attention to trouble at home.
Todd, only in seventh grade at the time, skipped a hockey tournament so I wouldn't be left on the farm alone. Grandma Anna was off feeding the homeless in Cleveland with her church group that weekend. Todd kept me and the horses fed, and the people who boarded horses at our farm from knowing anything was amiss. Our electricity was shut off; money, as usual, being the root of Mom and Dad's argument in the first place. The darkness slapped the two of us like a sodden horse blanket during our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich dinner, and for two nights I followed Todd stall to stall with a flashlight as he double-checked latches and refilled water buckets. We read stories together by candlelight and slept in a blanket tent in the living room to combat the creepiness of the empty farmhouse.
Back then, one of our parents just up and leaving was no big deal. It was usually Mom. Dad was always sort of gone, even when he was home. But they'd never both left us before. We found out later that neither realized the other had left as well. They insisted that they'd never meant to abandon us, only each other. Mom never left again after that, although I sometimes wished she had.
Jacob leaned toward me across the table. "Hello? You in there?"
I shook myself back to the here and now. "Yeah. I just wish I knew what I wanted."
Jacob sipped his coffee and studied me. "What you want," he said, "is to prove something. I just can't figure out what or why."
"I'm not trying to prove anything. It's justI feel like I had this great example, this role model, but I still can't get it myself. I mean, I always thought Todd knew so much and was so strong because he was older, but here I am, way past the age he got his life together, and I don't know shit." Jacob pulled his feet back, stood, and dumped his coffee in the sink. He turned and squinted at me. "I really hate it when you talk about him in the past tense."
Arnicia set Todd's cereal aside and poured herself more coffee, clucking her tongue.
"I'm going outside to smoke," Jacob said, leaving in his bare feet and robe. He let the back door slam. No one smoked in the house anymore. Todd came out of his bedroom, grinning, but it faded as he looked at us. "Whoa. Bad vibes. What's going on?"
Arnicia handed him his bowl and said, "Just Summer and Jake doing that love-hate dance again." Todd rolled his eyes and sat down. Arnicia popped the tab on a can of vanilla Ensure and poured the thick cream in the pattern of a smiling face onto the hot cereal. Todd shook his head, chuckling.
"I can't stand this stuff," he said.
"Really?" Arnicia asked. She took a sip from the can. "Mmm. I like it." She patted her hips. "Not that I need it."
"So, what did Grandma want?" I asked.
Todd smiled and said, "Get this," making sure Arnicia was listening as well. "There's some talk show on this afternoon, where the guest is going to be this woman who's been 'cured' of her homosexuality and she's on a rescue mission to save the rest of us from hell." He cleared his throat and added, "Grandma wanted me to know the time and station."
Arnicia laughed, a lovely melody that I couldn't join. "God, I hate when she does this shit to you," I said.
"Summer," Todd said. "She's old and . . ." He searched for a tactful word. "Evil?" I offered.
He sighed and shook his head.
"So, what'd you say to her?" I asked.
"I thanked her for letting me know but told her that wasn't the cure I was interested in."
"I don't know how you do it," I said. Todd shrugged and began to eat. Arnicia sat back down at the table, looked at her watch, and asked me, "Where's that man of yours?"
"Still in bed."
"Then what are you doing down here? If I had a man like that, I'd never get out of bed."
"Amen," Todd agreed.
"We can't stay in bed all the time," I said, grinning.
"But I noticed," Todd said, "that you did manage to spend most of the weekend there."
"Hey, I only get two days a week until Christmas, so I'm making the most of them." Nicholas was stage-managing a show at the Cincinnati Playhouse-in-the-Park that had turned into a technical nightmare. "Rehearsals are really kicking in, so he can't get away as much." It had been difficult for him to get here at all this week. He'd been paged from the theater twelve times yesterday alone.
I stood and kissed the top of Todd's head. "I've gotta get ready for work. I'll see you later."
He paused and looked over his thin, wasted body, as if taking inventory. "Yes," he said finally, "today, I think you will."
Laughing, I left the kitchen. I climbed the stairs to my room, eager to return to Nicholas. He was up, wearing the dark blue silk robe I'd given him for his birthday, just leaving the bedroom as I was coming in. I was literally swept off my feet as he pulled and I pushed the door, both of us with hands on the doorknob at the same time. I stumbled forward, and he caught me. We kissed.
"How's Todd?" he asked, pressing his forehead to mine. "He's good today."
"And how are you?"
"Wonderful, now," I said, kissing him again. Strands of my long, red blond hair stood out like embroidery on his robe. He picked me up and carried me to the bed. I waited until he was lying across me to say, "I'll be late to school. . . ."
I began, as usual, with too much urgency, desperate in my attempt to store the heat his lips sparked on my skin, the rich, morning musk rising from us both, the safe haven of our familiar rhythm, trying to hoard every detail to get me through the days without him. And, as usual, he was so generous, so delighted and present, that I forgot myself. I forgot everything except our bodies and how deliciously they fit together. I forgot everything but the look in his eyes as he loved me. I held his face in my hands and pulled it down to my own.
It was nearly half an hour later before I hit the shower, reveling in the hot water that finally brought my ankle fully to life. I dressed quickly in clothes that I loathed. I always thought of myself as costumed to teach school; cast in a role for which I was ill suited. In the mirror, my long navy skirt and ivory sweater set reflected dull good taste and a hint of dowdiness. I twisted my hair into a bun and became a caricature of an old maid librarian, but Mr. Vortee, the principal, would be pleased. He'd said my jeans and black cowboy boots were not professional enough attire. Neither, he'd said, were the men's shirts and ties I'd borrowed from the closet here at home. And when I'd bought dresses, they were too short, and he'd pointed out that I must wear hose. I questioned why he was looking at my legs in the first place.
Of course, Nicholas claimed they all did. "All those poor boys in your classes," he said, watching me dress, "looking at your dancer legs."
"Ex-dancer," I said, but the truth was I prided myself on the lean, snatched dancer's body I'd maintained with fierce diligence since the injury.
"Whatever. You know they're all in love with you. But none as much as me." I kissed him good-bye, hating to leave the warm cocoon of the house. Yesterday we had all laughed together with our rented movies and take-out Chinese. The sickness had felt outside the house, looking in. It had held no power over our joy except to make it more precious. Leaving felt wrong; it fractured our strength, left holes in it, room for things to go bad. But I zipped up my parka, scraped the frost off my car windows, and drove to school.
Ohio's brilliant autumn was almost over, many trees stripped bleak and bare. I felt just as naked the farther I got from the house and the closer I got to Old Mill, the rural town I'd grown up in, and to the high school I'd never expected to think of again. I'd left as one of its most promising graduates, on my way to New York City on a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet. I tried to steel myself for the day, tried to prepare for the glances of pity from my former favorite teachers and the pursed lips of smug glee from some others. I tried to release the resentment I felt at the students who looked through me, past me, who saw me as a nobody, a minor obstacle on their own paths to greatness and glory. I had to find the way to be more again; I had to find my calling somewhere. I'd promised Todd he'd see my other gifts, once I found them. Only then, I hadn't known there'd be a deadline.
Todd had. He hadn't told us for two years. For two years he'd swallowed that secret, after his own body had withheld the information for eight. When he'd confessed, he'd admitted to not wanting to worry Mom, already so busy with Grandma's illness. Our grandma Anna had a brain tumor; now she and Todd were locked in a grim competition to collect a host of bodily horrors.
Nicholas was there the night Todd told us, and I credited him with my surviving the news. A week seemed such an impossibly long time to be without him, just as a school day seemed an impossibly long time to be without Todd. I spent half my waking hours these days watching clocks and calendars.
I wasn't late to school, but I was running behind enough that all the parking places were taken in the teachers' lot, and I had to search for a spot way out in the graveled student lot. I parked and picked my way in the rough footing toward the squat, tan brick building.
"Hey, Ms. Zwolenick." A young man materialized at my elbow. "You need a hand?" I wasn't carrying anything but a briefcase. "I'm fine, Zack, but thanks."
Ever since I'd choreographed the fall playan abysmal production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which he'd worked on set crewZackery Hauser had been lingering after my class. Last week I'd received anonymous flowers I suspected were from him. He was nice and attractivein a hungry, gypsy boy sort of wayand his crush amused and even flattered me. I felt sorry for him for having it, but I tried not to be too nice. I'd been through this last spring when I student taught at Cincinnati's High School for the Arts and it had snowballed into an embarrassing ordeal I was determined never to repeat.
He walked by my side in silence, speaking in a sudden rush as we reached the back door. "Um, Ms. Zwolenick, I was wondering, if I could, you know, talk to you about something?"
"Sure," I said as he opened the door for me and the clamor of the pre-homeroom hallways surrounded us. Lockers slammed, the school radio station blared through the intercom, and students called down the crowded hallways to each other. At this time of morning, the halls reminded me of New York. I felt the same agitated claustrophobia that used to accompany my walk from apartment to rehearsal.
Zackery hovered while I signed in, checked my mailbox, and headed upstairs to my room. "So, when do you want to meet?" I asked him. "It's almost time for homeroom. Will it take long? You wanna talk now?"
He blushed and opened his mouth to speak, when a girl with an unnaturally orange, salon tan stepped forward. She'd been waiting outside my classroom. "Ms. Zwolenick," she said, "I want to talk to you about that pop quiz Friday?"
"Hang on, Amber," I said. "Zack wanted to talk to me first."
He smiled graciously, backing away. "No, that's okay. We can set up some other time." Before I could answer, he turned and trotted back down the stairs.
Amber stood in my doorway, blocking my path. "I don't think I should've had to take the quiz, since I'd been on vacation"
"Amber, I told you to have the book read by the time you came back."
"That's not fair," she said, pouting away.
Later, another girl cried at her C+ when I passed back some tests, her tears offending the generosity I'd extended. "It's just not fair," she sobbed in the hallway after the bell rang. I'd been heading for the phone in the lounge to find out if Todd had been permitted to proceed with chemotherapy and found myself confronted by her streaked makeup.
Oh, for the days when a C+ had the power to break me. I wanted to shake her, to warn her, to prepare her for some sorrow that required real tears. She was escorted away by comforting friends.
During lunch, before I could even leave my room for the phone, a cocky sophomore announced, "I need to take the makeup test."
"You only get to make up work if you have an excused absence."
"I was sick." It was hard not to haul off and break his jaw for that one. When I wouldn't budge, he kicked my trash can on his way out the door, muttering, "That's real fair."
I had put up a quote that day that I knew they didn't understand. I always wrote a quote of the day on my chalkboard. The quotes were mostly given to me by my brother, who had collected and written them on the memo board in our parents' kitchen when we were kids. I kept a big notebook in my file cabinet crammed with little pieces of paper, postcards, and letters he'd sent to me from college, his travels, and his former home in Los Angeles. Today I picked a postcard from Grenoble, France, and wrote, "Travel light and you can sing in the robber's face."Juvenal.
Travel light. My father had told us that was the secret to life. I hadn't understood it. At one time I thought he said it to mock me as I piled our horse trailer high with my belongings to move to New York. And I hadn't always realized who the robber was. I did now.
My students didn't, and I despised them for that. That was what wasn't fair, though. How could they know?
I wished there was a way, a shortcut, to teach them. Some way besides the one that drowned a person in grief, bloated with sorrow, because I couldn't bring myself to wish that lesson on anyone else. Where were the Cliff Notes for impending loss?
In the lounge, when I finally dialed the hospitala number I now knew as well as my ownthe receptionist was new and confused and couldn't connect me to the right oncology desk. I gave up and called home. No answer. That was a good sign; at least he hadn't been sent home right away. I called my parents' house.
No answer there, either. My grandmother rarely left the house anymore. Had something happened to her? Or . . . had something gone wrong with Todd? I couldn't find anyone anywhere and left a series of desperate messages on every answering machine.
The bell rang, and I hadn't eaten any of my lunch, much less made it to the bathroom. I headed for my afternoon class, and there stood Zackery Hauser outside my door. When he saw me approaching, red splotches broke out on his neck.
"Ms. Zwolenick, I really have to talk to you."
The tardy bell rang. "Can it wait until after class?"
"Well, it's actually about class. How we're reading the poems today, and, well, I don't want to read mine." Sweat beaded on his upper lip. He cleared his throat. "It's, um, really personal, and I don't . . . want anyone to read it but you."
Oh, brother. I couldn't wait to tell Nicholas that his theories about my boys in class were right. "Sure, no problem," I said.
"And," Zack went on, "I wanted to tell you, you know, before you maybe called on me, and I'd have to say in front of the class, that, you know, I couldn't read it."
"Okay." This sweating, stammering wreck before me was the school's top debater, normally an articulate asset to any class discussion.
"And I want to talk to you . . . about my poem. II'd like to know what you . . . how you . . . you know, feel about it." The splotches deepened to a miserable shade of burgundy.
"Sure, of course. Tomorrow before homeroom?" His brown eyes widened, grateful. "Thanks, Ms. Zwolenick." He handed me the manila envelope, and we both went
in to class. It was difficult to concentrate as a few volunteers read poems with Zackery blushing every time we made eye contact, and Denny Robillard, a kid I swear belonged in the Hitler Youth, snickering in the back of the room. Policing Denny exhausted me. I'd long sensed his antagonism but had never understood it until the day I'd seen the word Faggotspelled F-a-g-i-t; the cretin couldn't even spell the object of his hatred correctlypenned into his desk. Old Mill was a small town after all, and I couldn't expect that no one knew about Todd.
I ran for the phone at the end of the day. The same confused receptionist picked up at the hospital. "Can you at least tell me if he had chemotherapy today?" I asked her.
"Well . . . just a minute . . ." She didn't put me on hold, and I could hear her ask someone. She mispronounced our name.
"Oh!" she said, sounding pleased with herself. "His treatment was delayed."
"Why? What was wrong?"
This time I had to listen to Christmas carols on the line. It wasn't even Thanksgiving yet. After a carol and a half, while the school halls quieted and the parking lot slowly emptied, she said, less brightly this time, "Okay. He had to go to X-ray."
I took a deep breath. "Why? What are they x-raying? Is it his lungs like last time?"
She sighed. The carols started again, then stopped. I'd been cut off. Rather than dial again, I hung up, imagining myself slamming the receiver into the receptionist's head.
I was sick of waiting. Waiting for this conniving virus to marinate itself in Todd's cells, waiting for those first signs, the first infections, waiting for the official day the numbers dropped low enough to call it AIDS, and of course, now, waiting for the inevitable.
I had to wait for a lot of things, but I wasn't about to wait for her.
I ran to my lone car in the parking lot, head bent against the bitter wind.