Tobias starts out in life much the same as any of us—not rich, not poor, with imperfect parents and unlimited ambition. When he’s twenty years old, his future is altered in irreparable ways after a tragic car accident pushes him down a new path. The once-promising anthropology major is forced to abandon his dreams in order to care for his orphaned, brain-damaged younger brother.
In his late thirties, Tobias works in a bookstore, trying desperately to make ends meet to support his family. His daily grind only reinforces the sadness that broken dreams and bad luck bring in their wake.
When Tobias finds he has won the Mega Millions lottery, his unimaginable bad luck seems to have changed into unimaginable good luck … or has it?
Over peaks and valleys, this uplifting journey will challenge the limits of luck, life, and what we value most.
Find out more about the complications of Tobias’s friendship and rivalry with his best friend, Martin; the effects of all this bad luck and good luck on his marriage; and the struggles of his brother, Simeon, once a talented cartoonist, in … You Never Know.
Saturday, December 23, 1989, was the kind of tepid winter day that made people ask, “What winter?” Dark by four in the afternoon, but no wind, no bite, a gray curtain over the sky for most of the day, just barely cold enough to freeze the slush into a treacherous skin of black ice that coated the streets like slime in a dirty shower stall. Tobias skidded on it when he stepped off the New Jersey Transit bus from Port Authority.
He was to call home from the bus station as soon as he arrived. He would wait in Amy’s Coffee House and pop out with his luggage when his father double-tapped the horn.
The bus had pulled into Woodrock, New Jersey, at four-thirty PM, half an hour late in Christmas trafﬁc. Tobias slung his overstuffed book bag over his shoulder and dragged his valise into the crowded restaurant. He bought a giant latte and sat on a bar stool at the end of the counter. Other college students were chatting about ski trips and courses and their current romances. Christmas carols played on an endless loop. The place smelled of cinnamon.
The location of home was debatable. The longer he stayed away, the more separate he became from the family still living in Woodrock, to the point where he could almost forget them. Home was where his life was: Abington College in Maryland and the off-campus apartment he shared with Martin, his tennis partner, a math major planning on business school, who called Tobias a “liberal arts lefty.” They got along ﬁne, were evenly matched on the courts, and took turns abandoning their apartment for a few hours when one or the other had a girlfriend over. They were both twenty, going on twenty-one, seesawing between adolescence and adulthood.
Tobias took a gulp of coffee and scalded his tongue. His father would be sitting in front of the TV now, doing nothing, waiting for the phone to ring. His mother would be delaying dinner preparations, sneaking another glass of wine. His brother, Simeon, would be upstairs in his room, sketching or drawing.
He sipped half the coffee and folded his arms over his book bag. Simeon, age ﬁfteen, was a cartoonist. His pictures had appeared in the high school newspaper, the town newspaper, and the state magazine. Their mother was an art teacher, but no one had taught him cartooning; he just drew all day long–in class, where he was warm in art and cold in every other subject; at home, where he holed up in his room, away from the ﬁghting; and anyplace he went where he had to wait in line. He didn’t talk much.
When Tobias was eleven, Simeon was six, and already attracting attention with his cartoons. He entered the school art contest with a drawing of his ﬁrst-grade teacher, emphasizing her long earrings and long face, a caricature that was otherwise ﬂattering. The school principal called and demanded to know who, in fact, had drawn a picture too advanced for a ﬁrst-grader. Their mother huffed off to school, carrying a Grand Union bag crammed with Simeon’s cartoons of the last year or so, mostly of family members, to back him up. Simeon won the prize: a drawing set containing colored pencils, chalk pastels, an eraser, a sharpener, and a blending stump, all in a tin box with compartments like a Swanson frozen dinner.
Watching him sketch at the kitchen table, Tobias told their mother, “He’s talented because he practices so much. He never does anything else.” Simeon went on drawing without seeming to listen.
“No,” their mother said. “He practices so much because he’s talented.”
Tobias ﬁrst saw his baby brother when he was two weeks old. He’d been sent alone at age ﬁve on a plane to his aunt Joyce in Encino, California, hovered over by ﬂight attendants, at the time called stewardesses. Joyce, accustomed to covering for her alcoholic sister, took care of Tobias competently and joylessly for a month. On his return home, his father showed him the baby, asleep in a crib. “Here’s your new brother,” he said. “Just like you, only smaller.”
By the time Tobias was twelve, his mother was drinking in the mornings, her coffee mug ﬁlled with wine, and couldn’t get Simeon off to elementary school. Tobias packed his brother’s lunch every day before he left for middle school, taught him to tell time, and made sure he got out the door on time, while their mother went back to bed.
Tobias ﬁnished his coffee and asked the girl next to him to watch his stuff while he went to the men’s room. Someone was on the pay phone at the back of the restaurant. He ordered another coffee the same size. He wouldn’t be able to sleep. But rather than making him jittery, the caffeine was calming him, and he cast around for something to look forward to after this visit. He was always thinking, When this or that happens, then I’ll be happy. It was never now; it was always later. Maybe happiness is forever anticipating being happy, he thought. Getting what you want doesn’t equal happiness. His was a life always heading somewhere but never arriving.
At the moment, he was looking forward to three things: One, seeing his brother, his only family member who was not stuck in time or moving backward. Two, perversely, for this visit to be over. And three, his undergraduate anthropology fellowship in the rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon and the Yanomami territories of Brazil and Venezuela.
His father had forbidden Simeon to draw or paint until he raised his grades in school, where he was making As in art and Cs and Ds in all his other tenth-grade subjects. Twice, Tobias had mediated on the phone long-distance, to no avail. Simeon could draw with a ﬁngernail in the dirt, but missed his art supplies, which their father had conﬁscated for the semester.
The phone at the back was free. Tobias felt in the front zippered ﬂap of his suitcase for his family’s presents, all bought at the last minute from the campus store: an Abington College scarf for his mother, an Abington coffee mug for his father, and the book Best Cartoonists of the 20th Century for his brother. He lugged everything to the phone corner and started ﬁshing for coins in his coat pocket, slowly. At the center table, students he had known in high school were staring at him. He turned his back and plunked a quarter into the phone.
“Toby!” a voice boomed from the open door. A man stepped into the coffee shop. “Tobias Hillyer.” The thirty or so customers all stopped talking at once. “Holly Jolly Christmas” warbled on the soundtrack.
Tobias grabbed his backpack and valise, scattering the coins from the phone shelf onto the ﬂoor. “Dad, I just got here. I was just calling you.”
“An hour late,” his father said, grinning under his winter hat, the kind with ear ﬂaps. He cuffed Tobias on the head– only playfully. It hurt anyway.
“Thanks for coming, Dad. Come on; let’s go.” Murmurs of conversation sprang up as they shufﬂed to the door.
“Your mother wants us to stop and get Chinese food. No time to cook.” He put Tobias’s bags in the trunk. “So she said.”
“Dad, please don’t put anything on top of the suitcase.”
“Good, ﬁne, Dad. I got a work-study job tutoring. Doing all right. So I’d like to invite you all out to dinner.” Getting the family out in public would at least mitigate their initial meeting.
They got in the car. “You still going down there with those pygmies?”
“Dad, they’re Yanomami. Brazilian Indians, some in Venezuela. It’ll be all right.”
“Yo Mama, that what you call them?” He laughed.
Tobias ignored him the rest of the way to the house. He started to unlock the front door, which gave way before he turned the key. Still broken.
“Hi, sweetie!” His mother embraced him. She reeked of wine, and her enthusiasm alarmed him. There would be a confrontation; he could sense it.
“Good to see you, Mom.” He stepped into the kitchen, ostensibly to get a glass of water, but only to check the barrel of corks behind the kitchen door. The top of the barrel reached his waist, and it was full of corks, some still wet from the bottle.
His mother was following him. “Sorry, honey, I didn’t have time to cook.”
His father said, “Tobias has invited us out. He’s into money now.”
“Mom. Dad. Let’s make this a good one, OK? How about in twenty minutes, we all go out and celebrate the Christmas season?” His head was hurting. If it weren’t for Simeon, he would have stayed on campus with the foreign students who lived too far away to go home on a holiday. He went upstairs to the room he had shared with his brother, who still had not emerged to greet him. Their bedroom door was closed. He knocked and walked in without waiting for an answer.
“Toby!” Simeon grabbed him, laughing and jumping like a little kid.
Tobias hugged him hard and thumped him on the back. “What are you doing, kiddo?”
“Just gooﬁng around.” Simeon’s desk was covered with cartoons drawn on notebook paper with pencil, his other materials still under lock and key. There were caricatures of school friends; drawings of girls he favored, endowed with plus-size breasts and deep cleavage; and one picture of their mother, wine glass in hand, and their father, apparently scolding her.
Simeon was tall and thin like Tobias, but nearsighted. His rectangular glasses were always slipping down his narrow nose. “Toby. I got you something special. For your trip.” He opened his desk drawer. “Open it now.”
“Today’s only the twenty-third.”
“No, I have a regular present for you for Christmas. This is extra.”
“Aw, I feel bad, Simmy. All I have is one gift for you.”
“Doesn’t matter. This is for sticking up for me. Open it,”
Simeon said, handing him a wrapped box.
“Hey, you never know.”
The present was heavy and solid, the size of a book, but denser. Tobias undid the wrapping paper. “Oh, man, Simmy, these are expensive.” It was a pair of Swarovski binoculars, 10 x 50 power, good enough for ornithologists in the jungle. “Oh, my God, Simmy, how could you do this?”
Simeon took the box from his brother and spilled the accessories out on the bed. “They’re waterproof and fog-proof.” He took out the lens covers, eyepiece covers, carrying case, and neck strap. “I won some art contests.”
“Simmy. Thank you. Thank you so much. I need these.” Tobias ﬁngered the focusing knob. “These are great. Wow.”
Simeon laughed. Someone was starting to climb the stairs. They packed up the binoculars, hid the box under the pillows, and hurried downstairs.
Their father wanted to go to Vinny’s, their usual family restaurant. Tobias imagined the scene that would ensue. His mother would progress from tipsy to downright drunk. His parents would ﬁght over how much she was drinking. Vinny’s had low ceilings, and you could hear every word from table to table.
“Dad, in honor of this special occasion, I’d like to take you all somewhere fancy.” The town’s other Italian restaurant, the upscale one, had no liquor license and poor acoustics, where you could hardly hear a word across the table. “Come on, everybody. I’ll drive.”
His mother was carrying a bottle of wine in a canvas tote bag.
“No, Toby, you never drive at school. Sit in the back.” She opened the door of their Ford Escort.
“He can drive,” his father barked and handed the keys to Tobias, and then sat in the front seat. Tobias wanted his brother to sit with him but didn’t complain. One hurdle cleared, and ten more days to go. He didn’t know how he was going to make it; his head was already throbbing. Simeon sat in the back behind Tobias and kicked the driver’s seat three times. Tobias grinned at him in the rearview mirror.
All during dinner, Simeon drew. On a typewriter pad from his brother’s book bag, he sketched a detailed cartoon of Tobias. In the drawing, Tobias was wearing a safari hat and hip boots and carrying a butterﬂy net. A pair of binoculars hung from a strap around his neck.
Their father scowled. “Simeon, quit scribbling, and join the family.”
“He’s not scribbling; he’s drawing,” his mother said.
“He’s OK, Dad.”
Simeon was exaggerating his brother’s thick, dark hair in the cartoon, letting it droop over his forehead. In the picture, Tobias’s nose was pointy and slightly bent, but his real-life nose, though aquiline, was ﬁne and straight, its hook scarcely noticeable. His features were so symmetrical that you would have to compare his photo and its mirror image to spot any irregularities. Simeon’s own nose was ineffective in holding up his glasses, which he poked upward every now and then. He printed Toby at the bottom of the picture, signed it SIM, and turned to a new page.
“The food here is great,” Tobias said. He sprinkled some crushed red pepper on his spinach gnocchi in marinara sauce, which was delicious. He was ravenous, having skipped breakfast to catch the Greyhound bus from Baltimore to New York and having had nothing to eat all day but a bag of Fritos at a rest stop.
“Yeah, great,” his father said. “Try this.” He poked a meatball with his fork and dropped it onto Tobias’s plate.
“No thanks, Dad. This is ﬁne.” Tobias returned the meatball and wiped his fork on the side of his plate.
“He’s a vegetarian, remember?” his mother said.
“Oh, sure, I forgot. He’s one of those tree huggers,” his father said. “At least put some cheese on that.”
Tobias was about to explain about being a vegan when he had another idea. He reached out his hands to his father opposite him and his mother on his left. “Mom. Dad. Simmy. I love you all.” His mother clasped his left hand. “It’s Christmastime. We’re together. We’re doing OK.” His father clasped his right hand. “Let’s enjoy this meal and stop bickering.” Simeon stopped drawing and joined the circle of hands. Their mother’s eyes teared.
Tobias paid the bill in cash over the objections of his father, who left a 20 percent tip. Simeon helped his mother with her coat. They got into the car in the same seats as before: Tobias in the driver’s seat, his father next to him, his brother behind him, and their mother next to Simeon.
“Oh, rats! I forgot the sketch pad.” He started to undo his seat belt to run back in for Simeon’s cartoon, dreading the ﬁght that might erupt among the other three at close range.
“I’ll go, Toby. Stay there.” Simeon jumped out and ran into the restaurant before Tobias could open the door.
On the way home, his father asked him about his fellowship and the trip to South America. Tobias, happy to break the tension, explained he’d be living among the Yanomami Indians and sleeping under nets, learning their language, taking notes for his research.
“You’re distracting him,” his mother complained. “It’s icy.”
“Goddamn it, stop interrupting,” his father snarled. “This doesn’t concern you.”
Tobias approached the four-way intersection slowly and put on his left blinker. The light was red.
“Careful,” his father said.
“Let him be,” his mother said.
Tobias checked all the mirrors. The light turned green. In the back seat, his brother was smirking. As he went into the turn, out of nowhere, a larger vehicle ran the light, sped into the intersection, and skidded into the right side and back of the Hillyers’ car. Tobias heard the deafening crack, like a thunderclap in the mountains, before registering the impact.
The Ford spun around 180 degrees on the black ice. There were screams, splintering glass, scraping sounds, the sputtering motor. His hand turned the key and shut off the engine. His neck hurt.
He shouted, “Mom! Dad! Simmy!” No one answered. He jumped out of the car, tried to open the doors on the other side. The entire right side of the car was crushed. His parents weren’t moving. In the street lights, he could see blood oozing out of their mouths. He ran back to the driver’s side, opened the back door. “Simmy. Simeon. No, no!” he screamed.
“Somebody help, please!”
Sirens, police cars, ambulances appeared as if in a nightmare. Paramedics brought something called the jaws of life. By the time his parents had been extricated, they were both dead. They were wheeled to ambulances on covered stretchers.
Simeon was unconscious but alive. No injuries were apparent. They rushed him to the emergency room at Woodrock Hospital. A police ofﬁcer drove Tobias to the hospital with sirens on and lights ﬂashing.
The emergency room doctor came out of a white-curtained cubicle, holding a clipboard. “Mr. Hillyer?” he asked.
Tobias looked around. The doctor meant him. “Yes.”
“Who’s your next of kin?”
“My parents,” Tobias said. “My brother. Where’s my brother?”
“Your brother has a concussion and possibly some other head injuries. He’s unconscious. Any other family members nearby?”
“My aunt in California. Grandparents in Florida. Can I see my brother?” The pad with Simeon’s drawing was under his arm.
“We’re testing him now. Any other relatives? Other grandparents?”
“One in a nursing home. One dead. That’s all. Please take me to where my brother is. What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s in a coma. We suspect a diffuse axonal injury,” the doctor said. “It’s a type of traumatic brain damage.” He looked behind Tobias, but no one was there besides the police ofﬁcer who had brought him in. “How old is your brother? How old are you?” he asked.
“He’s ﬁfteen. I’m twenty. Twenty-one in March.”
The doctor put his arm around Tobias. “I’m sorry, son,” he said.