“Watch it, young Mr. Durst. No running in the house!”
Ms. Jonson squeezes my hand so tightly it almost hurts. She may just be my nanny, but lately her duties seem to go way beyond just looking after me when I’m not in school. In fact, now that my mom’s sick, Ms. Jonson has almost become her substitute. Only stricter. And apparently, proper etiquette is crucial, even for a seven-year-old who’s eager to go see his mom.
“Walk with elegance and style,” my father always says. “That’ll get you far.”
Ms. Jonson has just picked me up from school, and I’m trying to walk slowly without rushing, although all I can think about is my mom.
“Please please please, let her still be in her bed, breathing,” I pray without saying a single word out loud.
I don’t care about elegance and style. Right now, all I care about is making it to my mother’s bedroom as quickly as possible.
Ms. Johnson knows what I want but insists that we follow the usual routines. Take my backpack to my room and wash my hands, before she leaves me and I’m free to do what I want. We walk through the huge rooms in our family mansion. Our footsteps echo from the marble floors in the halls.
It feels like forever before she lets me go.
“Go ahead now,” she says in her sharp, British tone. She’s alright, I guess, but I have my doubts she was ever a seven-year-old kid. Before she changes her mind, I spin around and take off.
I walk as fast as I can towards my mother’s bed room. Up the stairs, down the hall and into the second room to my right.
I stop in front of her door to listen before I enter. Not a sound. My heart is pounding, the sound of it echoing in my head. I take a deep breath, turn the door knob and open the door. I feel like I can’t breathe.
“Hi sweetie.” My mom’s voice is weak, but she smiles at me with her big, brown, kind eyes. She’s still here. The pit in my stomach disappears, and I run to hear bed and hug her. She’s lying in a big, white hospital bed by the window.
My arms only reach halfway around her neck, but it’s more than enough for me to hold her tight and feel her heartbeat against mine. She smells like an old person. Maybe it’s the medicine, or maybe that’s just how hopelessness and sadness smell.
But I don’t care. She’s still here.
I use the stool next to her bed to climb up on the bed and sit down next to her.
“What do you need, momma? Do you want me to get you something?”
My hand finds hers and I gently play with her fingers. Although it’s a little big on her finger now, she’s still wearing the pretty diamond ring my dad gave her when they’d been married for ten years.
“I have a surprise for you,” she says and smiles. I already know what it is, because we do this every day.
But I play along like I always do, sit up straight and say: “What is it, momma? What is it?”
My mother tries to sit up and says: “Help me sit up, baby, and then ring the bell on my night stand for me. I’ve asked Ms. Jonson to prepare something for us. I know you’ll like it!”
I jump off the bed and stack a few pillows behind her back. I’ve done this a million times before, so I no longer need to ask her how she likes it. Then I pull the cover up and tuck it around her chest so that her arms are free.
“Is this good, mom?” Gently, I flatten the cover on her tummy.
“It’s great, honey,” she says and continues: “Go on, now, ring the bell!”
I ring the beautiful brass bell next to my mother’s bed. The delicate ring sounds through the halls, and it doesn’t take long before Ms. Jonson comes rushing with a tray with two glasses, a jug of milk and a small plate with two chunky cookies.
She sits the tray on my mother’s bed stand next to the bell, pours milk into the glasses and hands my mother a cookie wrapped in a napkin.
“Thanks, Ms. Jonson,” my mother says and takes the cookie. “I think we can handle it from here.”
Ms. Jonson gives my mother an elegant head bow and leaves. She may be in charge when my mother is not around, but in here – in my mother’s bedroom – she has no jurisdiction.
“Come eat with me and tell me about your day,” she says and pats the bed next to hear to invite me back up.
It’s the same every day. We eat cookies and drink milk, and I tell her about my day in school.
“You’re such a good boy,” she says and plays with my hair a little bit.
I am just seven years old and have still to learn the cruelty of life and death. But for some reason, I sense that this time with my mother is precious and something to hold on to.
We finish our cookies, and I put our things back on the tray. Then I cuddle up with her, my body half under the covers with her. She’s so skinny, almost bony. But she’s nice and warm, and I feel so safe when I’m close to her.
I don’t know how long we stay like this. I must have fallen asleep a little bit. My mother’s uneven, hoarse breathing wakes me up. I sit right up.
“What is it, momma?” I say and turn her head towards mine so that I can look right into her eyes.
She tries to say something but she can’t. She struggles to breathe. Her cheeks are turning blue, and her chest rises and falls frantically.
“Mom!” I scream at the top of my lungs. “Moooooooom! Someone help me! Help me!”
I don’t know what to do, I just know that this is bad.
“Momma! What’s going on?”
The dark pit in my stomach bursts and tears start rolling down my cheeks. I shake my mom’s arms to make her stop whatever she’s doing. She’s still choking, but her body is completely limb now.
“Blake, get out of here!”
Ms. Jonson rips the door open and runs into the room. She pulls me out of the bed, away from my mom. “I said, get out!”
Quickly, she pushes me out of the room and closes the door. Out butler comes running to the room, too, and pushes me to a side as he passes me. A loud, endless scream leaves my mouth as I collapse on the floor and hide my face in my arms, wailing.
They don’t have to tell me. I already know.
A distant voice calls my name. “Mr. Durst! Please wake up! You’re having one of your nightmares.”
Still in a foggy state between sleep and merciless reality, I blink my eyes to wake up. Someone’s screaming, and it takes some time for me to realize that it’s me. “Mr. Durst, it’s me. It’s okay.”
I open my eyes and sit up.
Mr. Gray, our house keeper, is standing right in front of me and politely hands me a glass of water. “For you, sir. I heard you screaming and wanted to wake you.”
I take the glass and drink the water in one take. I hadn’t even heard him come into the room. My heart is pounding. Although it’s been more than 30 years since my mother died, the nightmares I have about her passing always feel disturbingly real. My hair is wet from sweat and clings to my face.
God, I miss her.
“What time is it, Mr. Gray?”
The old man looks at his watch. “It’s 03:30 a.m., sir,” he replies and picks up my glass.
“If there is nothing else, I’ll head back to my room,” he adds and turns around to leave.
I’m still foggy, but I know that at this point, there is only one thing that’ll help me calm down.
“Actually, there is one thing I’d like you to do for me. Could you please deactivate the alarm on the ground floor? I want to go blow off some steam at the gym now that I’m awake anyhow.”
I hate these nightmares. I am not one to let a little emotional distress take over my body. I’m not having it. It’s a sign of weakness. Hitting the gym is the only thing I know can get me back on track.
“Very well, sir,” Mr. Gray says, nods and leaves.
I get out of bed and put on my workout shorts and a pair of Nike’s. It is still pitch dark outside, so I have to turn on the lights in the hallways that lead to the gym. Anxiety rushes through my body, but I try to ignore it.
I shut the door behind me and turn on the music. Metallica. Nothing else matters…
The room is cold and the air crystal clear. I sit down on the rowing machine and bend my knees. I grab the handle and start to pull it towards me. Then I start rowing. It takes me only a few seconds to find just the right flow.
It doesn’t take long before sweat springs from my forehead and immediately, I start to feel calmer. For some reason, the rhythm of the strokes soothes me.
I must look like a lunatic working my ass off at the gym at 4 in the morning. I don’t care. It’s the only way possible for me to shut out the anxiety from the past.
I’m not the worrying type. I don’t let things get to me. But at night, it is impossible for me to control the reminiscences from the past. Then the thoughts creep in on me and force me to relive the real-life nightmare that changed my life in an instant.
I row faster and move into a sprint. Sweat runs down my body and my breathing is strained. Sometimes I’m just so angry at the world.
I was just a kid, and I needed my mom. She was sick, and there was no cure for her. But how could she leave me? How could they let her die from me? I needed her.
I pull harder and slam back into the seat every time I finish a stroke.
My dad lost it when my mom passed, too. My strong, strict, kind father completely pulled away from the world the second she drew her last breath. He disappeared into his business, our family dynasty, and left me with Ms. Jonson. He turned completely numb.
During the funeral, he just sat there with a blank stare. I tried to take his hand to find some comfort. There was none to find. He’d turned into a machine that spent all of his power just to breathe, to exist.
He stayed that way. Ran our business like a machine and left anything related to our family to Ms. Jonson.
When on very rare occasions he spoke to me, it was always to reprimand me or correct me. Grooming me to take over. And the day I turned 25, I was appointed CEO of Durst Inc.
The rowing machine beeps as I hit 45 minutes. I let go of the handles and just sit there for a minute while my pulse slows down. Then I grab my towel and wipe the sweat off my head. Another good workout.
Actually, it is a necessary measure. Physical exhaustion acts as a prism that breaks all of my tangled-up emotions into little pieces which I can handle.
I pick up my phone and start a text: “Meet me at the office at 07:00 a.m. It’s time we get this thing on the road.” I hit Send, knowing that Tony will wake up by the sound of my text and be ready in time. That’s what I pay him for.
Then I send my dad the same text. He’s an old guy by now and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up already anyway.
I don’t mean to create any drama. It’s just that now is the time. I’ve been postponing this for way to long, and last night’s nightmare spoke for itself. I need peace of mind, and there is only one way to do it.
It’s time to undo some old wrongs.
Dean Montgomery’s voice echoes between the loudspeakers. It sounds like my name is called out 4 times even though he only reads it once.
I straighten my back and start to walk. All I can think about is making it across the stage without falling in front of an audience full of students and their family members. Funny how apparently, I can write a 10,000 word dissertation on behavioral ecology and still doubt my own ability to put one foot in front of the other.
“Concentrate, Em,” I think to myself and force myself to smile. Before I know it, I am standing in front of the Dean, shaking his hand and accepting my hard earned diploma.
“Well done, Ms Brown,” the Dean says and holds on to my hand a little longer than I’d expected. “You’ve worked harder than any other student I’ve met. You can change the world if you choose to!”
I don’t know him that well, but he’s a kind man, and an attentive one, too.
Among the students, he’s known as a strict man, but one who has your back when you need him to. To me, he’s been my moral anchor during my four years at Boston University.
The kind of mentor you need when you don’t have a mother or a father who calls you now and then to see if you’re alright, or who’s there to offer you advise when things are tough.
He squeezes my hand and winks. I press the diploma against my chest and a smile spreads across my face. I did it! A Masters in Wildlife Biology.
Born and raised by a single mother of four, it wasn’t written in the stars that I was to pursue a college education. We were always out of money, and growing up in a house full of children means that there was never two minutes of quiet for me to study.
But I wanted it so badly. I wanted so badly to make something of myself. Being the first in the family to graduate college is truly a realization of a dream for me, so I did what I had to do to make it through.
“Go on now!” Dean Montgomery wakes me and nods in the direction of the stairs.
What a fool I am! Lost in my own thoughts, I fail to notice that Denise is right behind me, waiting for me to move on and make room for her to receive her diploma.
Quickly, I wipe away a tear from my eye and start walking. It all must have taken less than a minute, but that minute feels like the biggest milestone in my life.
“I am so proud of you, young lady,” Marc says when I return to my seat and dramatically throws his arms around me.
He holds me like that long enough for it to become just a little bit awkward, but hey, he’s the only one here to support me on my graduation day. So I take whatever he has coming for me.
“Thanks, bestie,” I whisper into his Burberry scarf. I’m so thankful to have him in my life. He literally knows everything about me, and still, he is my biggest supporter.
He brushes my hair, then cups my chin and asks me: “Are you okay?”
I know why he asks. What he’s really saying is: “I know your family isn’t here. I am so sorry for you.”
I’m glad he doesn’t say it. I know that this is how it’s gotta be, but it hurts to be the only one here without a proud mother, father, or sister by my side.
“I’m fine, Marc. I’m good.”
Together, we sit down on the wooden benches and applaud the rest of the graduates who one by one cross the stage to receive the physical evidence of their hard work.
We sit through an immense number of speeches, all of which offer us words of wisdom about living life, staying motivated and following your dreams. By the end of the ceremony, my hands are practically aching from clapping so much.
“And now, dear graduates, please stand.”
I get up and stand in line with the rest of my class. We’re all dressed in white robes and navy caps. We follow the academic procession, exit the ceremony, and it’s over.
“My gosh, Emma, is this for real? We’re freakin’ graduates!”
One of my study mates, Becky, jumps up and down in front of me, waving her diploma in my face. I can’t help but laugh with her, because I know better than anyone how close she was to never graduating.
She’s one of the sweetest girls I know, but she’ll never be a biology wizard, and she knows it. One grade lower in her finals, and she wouldn’t have passed. God bless her, though. I’m glad for her that she made it.
“Come here, I want to take a picture with you and your man,” she says with a twitter, and Marc is immediately offended.
“Honey, I’m not her man. In fact, there is not a single person in this room hot enough to be my sugar,” he says and scans the room for potential partners.
“Well perhaps except from Professor Sexy over there,” he adds and nods in the direction of Dean Montgomery. “A little old for me, but damn he’s hot. And who am I to discriminate against age,” he says and runs his fingers through his hair, grooming himself to meet Mr. Right.
“Hey hey, behave,” I laugh and pull him close to me so that we all fit in the picture. “You’re here to support your best friend on graduation day. Not to meet handsome professors!”
Becky snaps four pictures to make sure that there is at least one good photo of us. As always, she’s styled to the nines and takes awesome photos from every angle.
“See ya, Ems,” she says, gives me a kiss on the cheek and disappears into the crowd of cheering graduates and their families.
It’s an emotional day, and somehow I’ve managed to process the fact that my family isn’t here. Right now, I’m just filled up by a serene feeling of balance and relief.
“Here, honey, have a drink with me.” He hands me a sleek glass of champagne and takes a sip with me.
I don’t know what I would’ve done without him. Since I met him three years ago, he’s been my solid rock. We met when I applied for a job at the Dream Bean Coffee Shop just a few blocks from my dorm. He’s the floor manager, and he hired me on the spot when I applied for a part time job to support my way through college.
At the interview, he asked me if I had any experience in the service industry. I knew the question would come up, still I remember flustering when I tried to answer the question without lying. I did have experience in the service industry, true. But not one I wanted to share with him.
“I do,” I replied, desperately trying to hide my anxiety. “I do. Not from a coffee shop, though.” I wanted to explain, but I couldn’t.
He took a long, hard look at me, then made up his mind. “That’s fine, you don’t have to explain. I’ll teach you what you need to know. You can start on Monday.”
I could’ve kissed him. Although I had immediately spotted that he wouldn’t appreciate any sort of affection from my side.
Marc likes men, and he doesn’t try to hide his preference. He has this funny look with his long, lean body and wavy surfer hairdo. But he is more of a man than anyone else I know, and I would give my life to protect him. It didn’t take us long to go from co-workers to besties.
“So, since it’s just the two of us today, why don’t you concentrate on what’s important and point out some of the men you’ve been messing around with for the past 5 years?”
He’s actually being quite funny, considering the fact that messing around is just about the only thing I haven’t done during college. I’m no perfect student, but I’ve paid my dues to get my degree, so I took every single class and every single day at school seriously. No time for boys.
“Wait wait wait, he’s coming. He’s coming over here!” Marc pulls my arm so drops of champagne spill on my gown.
“What are you talking about?” I ask and look in the same direction as him.
“Professor Sexy. He’s on his way over here. You HAVE to introduce us, Em,” he whispers.
Dean Montgomery walks towards us in a steady pace and with a big smile on his face.
“Is there time for me to congratulate you one last time before you leave, Emma?” Dean Montgomery says and gives me a hug. No need to be so formal now that the ceremony is over.
“Mr. Montgomery, please meet my friend, Marc Arden. He’s my best friend and my helper in need,” I say, and Marc shakes his hand with a foolish expression on his face.
I’m sure the Dean notices, but he doesn’t say anything. With his good looks and successful career, I’m sure he’s used to having women swooning over him. Perhaps not so much men, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Nice to meet you, Marc Arden,” the Dean says and turns towards me. “Emma, I just wanted to follow up on the Excellence Award you won for outstanding efforts. It is really quite an achievement, I have to say.”
Two days ago, he was the one to deliver the news to me that I’d won this year’s Excellence Award, sponsored by the Boston Billionaire Club. The award is presented to a student who shows consistent excellence in all areas of their academic and professional performance.
I was honestly surprised when I learned I was nominated, and blown away when I realized I had won.
“Winning the award is a true honor,” he explains, and continues. “But it also comes with some really nice benefits for you, if you’re looking to expand your professional network and look into new job opportunities now that you’ve graduated. In fact,” he says, “I talked to one of the club members last night when I was at a meeting. He is looking into a business venture which involves building a wildlife preservation park somewhere in Africa. He’s looking for an expert in zoology to take the project lead, and I suggested he meets with you. It’s a huge project and a unique opportunity for a young graduate like yourself. But I don’t doubt for a second that you could do it.”
Dean Montgomery pauses for a minute, probably to try to interpret the expression on my face.
Quite possibly, my heart has stopped beating. Or the other way around: it is pounding so hard it almost hurts. My brain has gone into double speed, trying to process what this could mean to me.
“I can’t…” I start, but the Dean interrupts me. “IF he hires you, you should expect to spend the next six months on the project. The salary you need to discuss with him, but I should warn you that the job comes with a bonus, if you manage to pull it through. A quite generous one, too.”
Marc discretely grabs my hand and squeezes it. He doesn’t say a word.
“Well, I…” I stop, because I have no idea how to continue.
What an odd situation. I’ve spent the past six months worrying what will happen after I graduate. If there is a job out there for me. If I get to stay in Boston. If I get to work with what I love.
And now that a job interview for a perfect job lands right on my lab, I’m afraid to take it.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” the Dean says and smiles. “The man you’re meeting is Mr. Blake Durst, the owner of Durst Inc. You’ve probably heard about the business. If not, I’d advise you to look it up before you meet him.”
He hands me a business card.
“Here’s his contact info. You’ll get a call from his office to let you know when he can see you.”
He turns towards Marc who is still silent as the grave.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Arden,” he says and shakes his hand.
“And Emma?” He turns towards me. “Don’t worry so much. You’re the best damned student I have ever had. You got this!”
Then he turns around and leaves. I hold on to the business card while I watch him disappear into the crowd.
“Holy shit, Em, did this just happen?” Marc pulls my arm as if he’s trying to wake me from my trance. “Durst fucking Inc? THE Durst Inc? Only the third most successful business in Boston!”
Marc starts doing a happy dance, and the ironic thing is that not a single person notices him as being weird. The venue is full of ecstatic people. I must be the only one to just stand there without moving.
“Girl, let’s blow this place and go get a drink. You clearly need something to wash down the awesome news.”
Marc knows me well enough to recognize that I need some time to digest the news. I’m no fool. I know that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And of course I’ll go for it.
But what if I can’t do it? I’ve loved animals and plants since the day I was born. I’ve practically swallowed every book I could find on wildlife preservation and ecologic balance, and I’ve loved every second I got to spend studying animals and their natural habitats.
But that’s not the same as being a professional and getting paid for creating the best environment for a flock of animals. I’ve done hours and hours of studying, but to be fair, I still don’t know if I can turn all the theories into practice.
I look at my watch. A quarter past four.
“Sorry, Marc, no can do. I have a really strict manager, and he’s offered me a night shift which starts at five. I gotta go home and change and then to work,” I say and pretend to be disappointed.
The truth is that Marc offered me to take the night off so that I could celebrate graduation with my friends. I told him no. I don’t need to go to a bunch of graduation parties and get wasted and do stupid things. I prefer to have things nice and quiet and stay in control. And I can think of no place safer than the coffee shop.
“Alrighty, your call,” he says and walks me to my bike.
My stomach turns a bit when we leave the party. I guess a tiny part of me would’ve liked to stay and party with the rest of the class. Just to let go and celebrate. But I can’t. When you’re protecting a secret, you can’t just go get drunk. I have to stay in control.
Besides, something broke inside me all those years ago when I did what I did. Heck, I just really wanted to make some money so that I could go to college. Really, I’m not like that. I don’t do stuff like that.
But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. It’s as simple as that. Those days are over now, and my life is so much different.
I just pray that nobody ever finds out.