I was reading Goodnight Moon to my son when my brother called. But it was only after James was asleep—a major tell being his partially open little mouth—that I put the book down and left his room.
My brother, as always, hadn’t left me a message. As far as I knew he never left anyone messages. It was just who he was.
I thought about not calling my brother back, but just as soon as I thought this my mind started to wander: what if he was in trouble again? The thought almost made me want to laugh, then cry. In my mind my brother was always in trouble.
I called him back, staring out the kitchen window at the woods that edged our property line. I could still make out some sky through the trees, but the sun was now down and it was growing darker by the second.
My brother answered on the third ring. “Hey, big bro! How’s it?”
His voice was loud in my ear, a mild affront. “It’s good, Brad,” I said. “How’s everything with you?”
I swept my gaze from the scene outside the window down to the kitchen’s hardwood floor. I heard voices on my brother’s end, then laughter. I figured he was at a party of some sort.
“Things are great!” he said. “I’m at this outdoor party, under some bridge in north Portland. Everyone’s got quilts and blankets spread out on the grass. It’s super chill.”
Hearing this, unsurprised, I started for the living room, the couch. “Sounds fun,” I muttered.
“Yeah, I’m digging it.”
I sat down on the couch, then turned and lay down flat. I rested my head against one of the cushioned armrests, closed my eyes. “So, everything’s good then? You’re doing good?”
“Of course, big bro. Doing just fine. You don’t have to always play the paranoid card, you know.”
I tried to laugh, but what came out was more like a grunt. “Alright,” I said. “Duly noted. It’s just that the last time you called me it was to bail you out of jail.”
The sounds of the partygoers kicked up a notch in my ear. I heard more laughter, someone yell something. I imagined them all stoned out of their heads, utterly disoriented. It made me sad, knowing that my brother was a part of this group, sadder still that there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. Telling him what I thought wouldn’t help. I’d tried that before. In consequence my brother wouldn’t speak to me for nearly a year.
“I know,” he said. “Hey, thanks again. I still owe you for that.”
“Don’t mention it. That’s what big brothers are for.”
“No, really, I do. I’ve changed since then. I don’t deal anything illegal anymore.”
I rolled my eyes. “So, what, you deal aspirin now? Pepto-Bismol?”
My brother laughed but left it there. I figured I didn’t want to know, and so didn’t ask. Even if I did want to know I doubted he’d tell me the whole truth. My brother was a marvelous liar. Everything he said hid something else.
“So, why’d you call then?” I asked, trying to sound polite and strictly curious, not at all unwelcoming.
“Just to say hi. I haven’t talked to you in a while and just wanted to know how you were doing and all.”
I recognized some softness in my brother’s voice, a vulnerability that fed my heart with tender warmth.
“I’m good, Brad. Work’s good. James is good. Clara’s good—she’s visiting her aunt in Seattle right now. Anyways, we’re all good. It’s one big happy family over here.”
“That’s good,” my brother said. “Glad to hear it.”
I swallowed. My throat felt dry, scratchy. “You’re sure you’re good?”
He didn’t answer me. The following second or two stretched out like a tired body. “Well,” he said, “I’m gonna get back to the party now. I kind of strayed away talking to you. Anyways, take care, big bro. Good to hear from you.”
I sort of panicked then; this urge crept up in me to talk to my brother like a real person, a friend, an equal, instead of like his older, sensible, worrywart brother. I wanted us to be on more familiar terms, like we’d been in the past, before our lives had grown complicated and diverged. But I hesitated, didn’t know what to say. We’d been talking like this, just brushing the surface, for so long now that there seemed no other way for us to communicate.
“You too,” I said. “Hey, thanks for calling. You can call me anytime, you know.”
“Okay, thanks. So long, Todd.”
I moved my phone away from my ear. After a minute or two I got up from the couch, walked past the kitchen into the hallway. I entered James’s room again, walked up to his crib and looked down at him. His little mouth was still open, and from the faint light through the window I noticed some drool on the side of his mouth. Reflexively, I reached my hand over his crib and ever so gently transferred the drool onto my finger, then onto the side of my pajama pants.
I left James’s room and started going around the house, turning off all the lights in preparation for bed. In the kitchen I noticed a deer through the window, standing in the grass and staring up at me with its round, black, vulnerable-looking eyes. Staring back at the deer, I tried to appear harmless. I nodded my head, as if trying to tell it I wasn’t a threat, that there was nothing to be afraid of here. But the deer kept staring at me, its body tense, so I turned from the window and left it alone.
This is a reprint of work originally published in SmokeLong Quarterly.
T. E. Cowell lives in Washington State.