THE BOAT rocked on the water as if it were made of paper. The wind swirled in a haze and whipped his fair hair across his face. Desperately he tried to see through waves rising and falling around him. Troy? Troy? A mix of anxious anticipation and dread filled his rapidly beating heart as he scanned the water. The boat took on a life of its own and attempted to wrestle him over the side, propelling him into the unknown depths. Come. Come with me, Aaron. A face looked up at him in the swirling water. It was his.
Fourteen months earlier
THE VOICE on the other end of the phone couldn’t have sounded more estranged if it had been a person doing a marketing survey. It took him a few minutes to recognize who it was. And it shouldn’t have. It was light with an underlying lyrical baritone, so like his own voice.
“Aaron? Don’t you know who this is?”
Yes, I know.
“How are you?” He paused. “I was sorry to hear about Mom.”
Aaron perched on the side of the sofa. Make words, fool. “Yeah, well, you know.”
“So I’m thinking maybe we should get together? When was the last time?”
Was there a last time?
He didn’t wait for an answer. “I really did want to make it to the funeral. Dad and I were both in Europe on a buyers’ trip at that time. Wow, the summer of 2010 was really a busy one.”
Mother died in the summer of 2009. “How is Dad?”
“Good. He’s in Spain with his newest wife, number four. A fashion model, legs up to there. You know Dad.”
No, I don’t know Dad.
“So we have a birthday coming up in a week. Twenty-seven, can you believe it? How about you come down here to Bel Air and we go out for the day on Dad’s yacht? I mean, I don’t know if you’re working or what. We can do it when you’re off work. I pretty much make my own hours. It would be good to see each other, right? Aaron?”
“Yeah, I… I guess.”
“Okay, so how about Saturday?”
“Ah, Saturday… I’d have to check and….”
“Aaron, you act like you don’t want to see me.”
“I just wonder why now?” There, it was out. All this time Troy had never even bothered to pick up the phone, ask how he was doing, how Mother was doing. Troy was sitting pretty down there in Bel Air, living the good life, and Aaron had been up here in the shit, struggling to survive. All the lost years trying to scrounge up enough cash to get Mom into yet another rehab clinic.
“Why not now?” Troy came back.
They were twins, identical actually. They’d been separated since the age of two. Their parents were ill suited from the onset. Aaron would never understand what attracted Darren Mayer, who’d come from generations of wealth, to the shy little working-class girl from the Bronx. Sarah Stein was like a fish out of water in high society, and her Jewish heritage didn’t sit well with Darren’s Protestant family.
Talk about a parent trap.
After the twins were born, Sarah fell into a deep depression. Her young husband was given the import business to run. She was displaced from her beloved New York City and her family.
Sarah couldn’t seem to fit in with high society. Darren began to go out a lot, leaving her alone. She started drinking. Darren hired a nanny to look after the boys and disconnected from her. The long business trips and numerous affairs didn’t help, and finally Sarah tried to take her own life. Darren waited until she got out of the hospital, and then he left her.
Darren’s father insisted he take one of the boys when he filed for divorce. Darren was an only child, and his father was concerned about the family line. In exchange for taking one of the boys, Sarah accepted the big house in Beverly Hills and one lump sum of money. Within five years she had squandered the money and was forced to sell the house. Eventually they were destitute, relying on food stamps and the kindness of strangers. Sarah’s family begged her to come back home to New York, but she was too proud, and Aaron believed she couldn’t bear to let her family see what she’d become.
An assembly line of strangers went in and out of their three-room apartment in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Mar Vista. The strangers would bring Sarah booze in exchange for sex. Sometimes they’d give her money, and Aaron would sit out on the fire escape until they left. Then, if he was lucky, he could grab the money before she came to and he’d buy groceries before she could get to the liquor store.
He eventually grew up and left her. He moved as far away as his work as a landscaper would let him. His life in Los Osos, the “valley of the bears,” on California’s central coast hadn’t been bad until Sarah started fleecing him. She forged his signature on loans, secured credit cards she diverted to her flophouse down in East LA. It was still a nightmare untangling himself from the mess.
It didn’t help when he learned that many parents wrecked their kids’ credit through identity theft.
When her liver failed and she was dying, it was almost a relief. Aaron left a message with the secretary of his father’s company, but he never came to visit. Not even Troy showed up for their mother’s funeral.
It still hurt remembering how she’d vanished from yet another expensive, futile trip to a lockdown facility called Promises.
Yeah. Lots of those. Pie-crust promises. Easy to make, so easily broken.
She’d somehow managed to escape over the wall with the help of a ridiculous drug-hungry celebrity. The actor had gone on a cocaine-fuelled binge chronicled by the media whilst Sarah quietly checked herself into a cheap motel on Sunset Boulevard, and drank herself to death.
Aaron found her with the aid of his debit card, which she had stolen. Not her finest moment, to be sure. She lay in the small bed of her motel room, her legs ballooned to three times their usual size, her skin a frightening color. Aaron had paid a doctor who didn’t know her to come to the hotel. He’d hoped the handsome stranger could convince Sarah to allow herself to be hospitalized.
“Her vital organs are shutting down fast,” the doctor said. “Her own body is turning against her. It’s filling with toxins, hence the swelling in her legs.”
It took another twenty-four hours to convince Sarah to get medical help. The handsome doctor came back to help facilitate her journey via an ambulance. Aaron couldn’t fail to notice the relief on the motel staff’s faces. The maid told him half their clients checked in and never checked out again. They’d recently had a former pop star die after a drunken binge. He’d checked in with a friend’s help and, according to the staff, had been quiet and respectful.
He drank until his heart stopped. There was no ID on him except for a piece of paper in his pocket with the shaky words I am Johnny Lee.
To Aaron’s dismay his mother was headed to a hospice, not a hospital. She’d actually lit up at the prospect and happily signed the Do Not Resuscitate form required to admit her to the facility that spelled the end of her road.
Welcome to the Hotel California.
“They’ll keep me sedated and I will pass from this life,” she’d told Aaron. “I can’t wait.”
She was dead in two days, Aaron her only visitor. The hospice staff called to tell him she passed at four o’clock in the morning.
“She didn’t suffer,” they said.
Yeah, but I did.
He’d made all the arrangements for her funeral. She looked grotesque at the end and it still wounded him that he had to handle it all without any help.
“Are you miffed at me for not coming to the funeral, Aaron?”
Aaron was hardly aware he was still holding the phone. “What did you say? Sorry.”
“Did you drop the phone?”
“No. I’m here.”
“I asked if you were miffed at me for not coming to the funeral. You know I never felt very close to her.”
“How could you? You didn’t even know her.”
“Dad told me some stuff about her, though.”
“I’m sure he did.” Aaron closed his eyes.
“So how are things with you?”
Should I tell him? Should I really tell him about the trouble I’m in? The loan sharks? How this time they’ll hurt me good? Maybe he can help me. Troy has money. He could lend me some. Should I ask? “I…. Do you want the truth, or do you want bullshit?”
“Well, ah… I’m in a little bit of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble? Trouble with the police?”
“Loan sharks. I need money.”
“How much money?”
“More than I got. A few grand.”
“Okay. I can help you with that.”
Aaron was skeptical. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“You’re my brother. So you’ll come for sure on Saturday?”
He was stunned. Troy was actually going to help him. “Okay. You know I really appreciate you helping me out. I’ll pay you back, every cent.”
“You don’t have to. I know where you live. There’s a marina in Morro Bay. I’ll have our boat pick you up.”
“Just tell me what pier. I’ll be there.”
“Pier number ten, and, ah… let’s say nine in the morning?”
“I’ll be there.” He hung up and realized he hadn’t even said good-bye.
Troy has a boat and I’m on my last packet of Twinkies….
He walked to the window and pushed aside the moth-eaten curtain. He scanned the street. It was early yet. They’d be coming. He just had to lay low until he could get the cash. The last time he’d asked for more time, they’d broken two of his fingers. He’d been unable to work and the bills kept coming, not to mention the compound interest on the loans he stupidly took out to try to handle his outrageous debt…. He dreaded to think what they’d break this time.
AARON WAS nervous about seeing his twin Saturday morning. He’d spent a scary couple of days avoiding the loan sharks. He’d actually slept in Elfin Forest in his sleeping bag. All the time he’d been in Los Osos and he’d never visited the forest. He would have been charmed by the air parade of monarch butterflies had he not been petrified of homicide.
It had been too dangerous to drive his car to the forest, and he’d told nobody of his plans. Better to leave his car at home. The goon squad would know it if they saw it out and about. He took the tourist van that cost a quarter, then hiked a mile into the woods. For two nights he’d listened for marauding bears… the human kind and the animal kind. He’d spent the days wandering deeper into the forest, thrilled when he found a crumpled five-dollar bill in the campground showers.
Early Saturday he took the bus down to the main road and past his street.
His car sat in his driveway, torched.
He had persuaded Jake, one of his last friends left in the sleepy beach town, to drive him to Morro Bay. His stomach was in such knots he wondered if he’d swallowed some of those forest butterflies.
“Thanks,” he told Jake, who’d lent him a clean shirt and slipped him a few bucks. He tried to decline, but Jake insisted.
“Here, I think you’ll need it.”
Aaron climbed onto the boat that was docked in the pier as his buddy took off.
The boat was called The Promise.
There was no one on deck. “Troy?”
He ducked his head in the door and climbed down the steps to the cabin below. The floor was covered in royal-blue carpeting. There was a large-screen television on one wall, a small galley kitchen to the side. He walked to the stainless steel counter where an ice bucket sat cradling a bottle of expensive champagne. The ice had melted. There was an envelope propped up against the champagne bucket. On the front was written: To Aaron. Welcome to your new life.
Aaron narrowed his eyes and looked around. He walked toward the door that stood open on the other side of the room and peeked in. There was a double bed with a white duvet and a small oak bureau. The bed showed no sign of having been slept in.
Maybe Troy hadn’t arrived yet. Maybe he should wait, but he was still holding the envelope. Perplexed, he opened it and took out the note.
By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. It’s not important where. In fact if I knew that, I’d have to answer to an age-old question. Everything you need to start your new life is in the top drawer of the bureau in the bedroom. Don’t feel guilty. I inherited this life by chance. It was the flip of the coin. It might have been yours. Now it is. I know it will be strange at first, but it will solve all your problems, and it’s your turn. Good luck, brother.
How long did it take to step into the life of someone else? When you looked identical to the other, it was instantaneous, but not as simple as one might imagine.
Aaron didn’t know anything specific about Troy’s life except that he worked with their father in the import business and was filthy rich. How in the hell was he supposed to be him, not to mention… where was Troy? Had he committed suicide? It certainly sounded that way in his letter.
When Aaron opened the top drawer of Troy’s bureau, he found a driver’s license, credit cards, bankbooks, keys, and a recent photo. Aaron stared at it. Yes, they were identical—same sandy-blond hair, same blue eyes, both five eleven, about one seventy. Aaron wore his hair longer, though; he didn’t have the fancy haircut. If this was going to work, he’d have to remedy that.
He also found an agenda that listed what Troy had to do each day. Meetings, medical appointments, picking up laundry, paying the staff, meeting someone called “Matt” for lunch the next day. It seemed Troy was a very organized man, something Aaron wasn’t.
Aaron reread the note. By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. Why would he kill himself? He had it all. Should he call the police?
A sudden realization fell over him. Aaron raced up the steps onto the dock and frantically searched the calm blue waters. He half-feared finding his brother floating, then hoped he would… and do what? Closure. I would have closure. I would know he’s dead. But do I want him to be dead or alive?
I… don’t know.
He roamed the boat, checking the water as far as he could see. He had no idea how to operate a boat. What was he supposed to do now? Troy wouldn’t have thrown himself into the water here while the boat was docked, would he? Was his brother really dead? Why would he choose this time to kill himself?
It was all so… strange. His whole life he’d veered between hating his twin and hoping for a reconciliation that involved the two of them being rich and happy. Instead Aaron had struggled regardless of his efforts to get himself above water.
Don’t feel guilty. I inherited this life by chance. It was the flip of the coin. It might have been yours. Now it is.
It was true. He wasn’t stealing a life. He was stepping into a life he had just as much of a right to have. Perhaps it was this fact alone that allowed him to go ahead with it—that and the loan sharks who waited for him back home.
Aaron returned to Troy’s bedroom. He sat there on the bed most of the day and contemplated what he was about to do. If he did this, Aaron Mayer would disappear, and along with him his troubles, his mistakes, and his past. It was his chance to start over. Troy had handed him a new life, for whatever reason. He had to take it.
Aaron grabbed all the papers he thought he might need. Bank statements, car and yacht insurance forms, and a list of names and phone numbers, though who these people were he had no clue. He saw a snapshot and blinked. Troy. For a moment, Aaron’s emotions sparked in an unpleasant way. All these years they’d been denied each other. Was his twin really dead? He studied the image as he added it to his pile. There seemed to be a cruel twist to Troy’s mouth and a hardness in his eyes. Maybe I’m imagining things. He picked up Troy’s car keys with the car starter attached and left the boat. The sun had gone down and it was cooler than normal. He headed for the parking lot and pointed the car starter in the direction of the parked vehicles. A sparkling blue Corvette roared to life, its headlights gleaming. Unlike his old jalopy with the headlights that worked if and when they felt like it. “Nice.”
Aaron inhaled the smell of new leather as if it were a drug when he slipped behind the wheel. He adjusted the rearview mirror and rolled forward slowly.
He drove down the coast, his hands shaking. He had never driven anything so lovely. Was it a dream? It all felt so… illicit. He was almost in a trance all the way to Santa Barbara. Maybe it was real, that luck could change and good things could sometimes happen after a lifetime of living under a dark cloud.
It was a shock to see the old-fashioned freeway signs announcing that he’d reached Santa Barbara. He glanced at the dashboard clock. He’d made the eighty-nine-mile drive in a little over an hour. The cops hadn’t busted him. Maybe his luck was already changing. He shoved the picture of his twin into his pocket and stopped at the first hair salon he could find on State Street.
Standing at the reception desk, he waited only a moment for a hip-looking stylist to come forward to ask if he had an appointment. Aaron said, “No. I just need a cut.” He took out the picture. “It’s a cut I had before. Can you do that?”
“Of course.” The young man smiled. “Very becoming. Unfortunately I have no place for you now. We are just about to close. If you come back….”
“No,” Aaron said. “I can’t. I have to get it cut now. Ah…,” he added when the stylist gave him a curious look, “it’s driving me nuts and… I have a meeting tonight. Please, look.” He took out his brother’s credit card. “Whatever you charge here for a haircut, I’ll pay double.”
“Seventy is the usual price. So let’s say one forty plus the tip, of course.”
Aaron was aware of the man staring at his bandaged fingers that for some reason had started to throb. He took a seat by the door so the guy couldn’t throw him out, and took a deep breath, cradling the injured hand in the other. Let the fun begin.
“Of course,” Aaron replied. “How about an even two hundred?”
“Let’s get started.”