When I was 15 years old, my brother came home.
It was during the haziest days of summer, when there are no clouds because it's too damn hot for clouds, and when the sun pierces your eye like a sword whenever you go outside. So you don't go outside. You crank up the air conditioning—in a summer where no cold is cold enough—and sit there on the couch inside with the curtains drawn, drowning in your own sweat.
In the midst of all that, there was Connor. He knocked on the door, and I—sitting on the couch, half-dead—looked up slowly. I almost didn't answer it. It was probably somebody selling something, and I had no money to buy anything.
But my better side won out. I went to the door and opened it, and there, standing behind it, was my brother.
He looked way different than the last time I had seen him, which was two years ago. He had grown a pretty long beard. The hair on his head was gold, but his beard hair was darker. I wondered how that was possible. That was the first thought and only thought in my head—how can you have two different colors of hair?
He looked older, too. He would have been only 23, but he looked like an old man, with wrinkles lining his brow and running beside his mouth and snaking along his forehead. He was dressed in a tank top and jeans, and his face and shoulders were covered with sweat.
"Hi there, Jack," he said gently. I didn't remember his voice being so quiet and subdued.
I just stared at him. Then I said, "Dad isn't going to like that beard."
He shrugged. "He can get used to it, then."
Anger surged in me, quick as a blink, overtaking my previous numbness. I said, "Dad can get used to it? No. He's not going to get used to it. Beard or no beard, he's going to kick you out. You can't be here, Connor. Get out and don't come back."
At this point, you'd expect me to slam the door. But I didn't. I kept it open.
Over Connor's shoulders and down the driveway, I saw a very shitty-looking beater of a car parked there. The anger only grew. I spat at my brother, "What the hell is that car?"
He shrugged again, looking uncomfortable. "Want to let me in?"
"No, I want to know what the hell that car is. Where's Dad's car that you stole? Did you get rid of it? Did you sell it?" I shook my head. "You're lucky he didn't call the cops on you."
I was on a roll now, on a tangent, spitting out the words as though they were poison that would kill me if I didn't expel them from my mouth. "You think you can just come back here and everything will be okay? Just knock on the door and say hi, and we'll forgive you? And you didn't even keep his car? You're wrong and you're an idiot, and I want you to go away." Now I was seriously considering slamming the door, for real.
Connor's lips were pressed together, hard, a twisted white line. He said, "No, I'm not pretending everything's okay, Jack. I'm not here for no reason."
"Then what reason?"
"Please let me in. It's smoking hot and I'm boiling."
"No. You can stay outside and rot." I made my decision. The door flew shut.
As I returned to the couch, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My face was bright red, my eyes—shame, shame—welling with frustrated tears.
I heard insistent knocking at the door. I chose to ignore it.
I heard his thin muffled voice calling out, "Please, Jack." I chose to ignore that, too.
The noises stopped. I went to the kitchen and looked out the window to the backyard. There was Connor, pacing around the back of the house slowly. With his beige skin and faded jeans and white shirt, he was all dull colors, and stood out against the bright technicolor green of the lawn. Finally, he stopped and sat down under our apple tree—the one meager bit of shade in the whole place. Connor used to go out every summer and pick apples off that tree. They were his favorite fruit.
He looked so hot. I couldn't imagine being outdoors today. Guilt stabbed me in the heart, overriding my anger. That was my brother out there. Was I condemning him to death, or something worse—being dead to the whole family, even his kid sister who he loved?
I grabbed an icy bottle of water from the fridge, opened the window, and threw it at him as hard as I could. I was a baseball pitcher and I had a strong arm. I was aiming for it to land by his side, but the bottle flew across the backyard and hit Connor square in the head.
Connor cried out and rubbed his head, staring at me with real fury in his eyes now. "What the hell was that for?" he yelled.
He didn't understand that the water was a gift, a lifeline. He thought it was an act of war. Idiot didn't understand anything. I shook my head and closed the window, retreating back into the house, to my sanctuary-slash-refuge on the sweat-soaked couch.
A few minutes later, the guilt returned and I went back to the window. Outside, Connor was pressing the bottle to the back of his neck, cooling himself down. He didn't see me, and I kept staring at him. He was like a weird piece of modern art to me—mysterious, not understandable. There was a beard, his golden towhead, the two hairy slashes of eyebrows, and he was thinner than he'd been when I saw him last: no muscles to speak of, just skinny beanpole arms and legs. Connor with a beard, Connor with no muscles, Connor wearing an outfit that made him look like a trailer park husband instead of a neatly-pressed college student? It was too much to be believed, too much to make any sense of. He'd changed, and I'd stayed the same.
Why was he here? Maybe I should go outside and ask him. It wasn't like he was going anywhere. There he was, stubbornly planted below the apple tree, unmoving, with translucent lines of heat rising off the ground. Even as I watched, an apple fell down from the tree right beside him, narrowly missing his head. My brother, the new Isaac Newton. He was startled by the thump, but then he grabbed the apple and took a big bite. He winced at the taste and threw the apple away. Was it bitter, unripe, rotten? Maybe I should go out and bring him some food.
But no—I was still angry. The fury and confusion of two years had seeped deep within me, infecting my core, and it would take a lot longer to get rid of it. I wouldn't go outside and ask him anything. I went back to my couch.
An hour passed. It was 3:32. I wasted away on the couch, consumed with thoughts of Connor outside. My anger slowly, slowly, slowly transformed into something else, fear. Would Connor die of the heat? Was he hungry, thirsty? I was his sister. I couldn't just leave him outside. It was a betrayal, no matter what he'd done. It was too hot.
I got up. I went to the window, opened it, and shouted at him, "Hey, come inside! It's too hot to sit out there like a chump!"
Connor looked like a deer in the headlights for a few seconds, just staring at me as though he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Then, he quickly got to his feet, leaving the bitten apple and bottle of water behind on the ground.
When he knocked on the front door again, I answered it. "Don't think this means I don't hate you," I warned him as he stepped inside, into the safety of the coolness. But I knew I was telling an untruth. Really, the very moment I let him in the door, the estrangement was over in my heart. He was my brother, and whatever he'd done was between him and our dad. He had done nothing to me. I wasn't going to pick sides.
He held something out in his hand. I stared at it for a few moments, not comprehending.
"It's an apple, idiot," he said. "It's for you."
He had brought an apple for me. "Thanks, Connor," I muttered, taking the apple and biting into it. It was only slightly bitter, but the tang was somehow pleasant. It felt like a peace offering, a white dove, and I'd accepted it.
We sat down on the couch together, on opposite ends, because I wasn't quite ready to lay my head on his lap again and let him play with my hair, as he used to do. I said, "So why are you back? Really?"
He shook his head. "It's something for Dad to hear, not you. You don't need to know about this stuff."
"No, whatever it is, I'm old enough," I protested, leaning towards him; I could sense that something terrible had happened, that something juicy was going on, and I wanted to know. "What would make you come back after all that happened?"
He shook his head back and forth again, and then leaned it back against the wall, letting out a huge sigh. "It's not for you," he said.
"Did you get a girl pregnant and you need money?" I pressed.
He exhaled, approximating a laugh. "No. Not even close."
"Did you kill someone and you're trying to hide from the cops?"
"This would be the last place I'd go if that was the case."
"Then what happened? Just tell me!"
"Oh, Jack. You're such a kid," he said. "I'll tell you this: there's something between Dad and me that doesn't need to stay quiet any longer. I can't let it fester anymore—I have to forgive myself, and forgive him, too."
"So you're here to ask for his forgiveness?" I said incredulously. "He'll never give it to you, you know."
I thought Connor would try to debate my words, but instead he said, "I know."
"If you know, then why even come back? Why even try to make peace?"
"Because I could never forgive myself if I didn't at least try. You know?"
I thought I did know, did understand, if only in a rudimentary way. I said nothing.
We sat in silence. When I pictured Connor and our dad meeting again for the first time in two years, I pictured them going off into some room together to talk, and things would start out quiet, but their voices would slowly escalate louder and louder until they filled up all my senses and I couldn't even concentrate on my own thoughts, and then one of them would storm out, and the other would follow, and my dad would point at the door and say "Leave. Just go. Just get out of here, you worthless piece of garbage, and I hope I never see you again."
So, basically, exactly what happened last time.
I took another bite of my apple.
When my dad came home from work at 4:44, I heard his key in the lock, rattling the door, and my entire body froze in place. I stared at the door like prey whose pelt is about to be sunk into by a predator's teeth. It was only then that I realized I had done something very wrong, letting Connor into the house, and in Dad's eyes, I would be guilty.
My fingers sunk into the apple in my hand; it was softer than skin.
Connor straightened beside me, back rigid as a board, mouth pursed and eyes steely. He was ready and prepared for the firestorm.
When my dad came in, he had his briefcase clutched in one hand, and a brown tote bag of groceries held in the other. He didn't see Connor at first, and kicked his shoes off as usual. Then, he saw. He noticed. He froze in place like time had stopped. For a minute, we were all frozen and silent.
Connor started to speak; he said, "Dad, please just listen: I need to talk to—"
My dad spoke over him. His voice was overpowering. "Jacqueline, how could you let him into the house?"
I knew he'd be mad. And I realized he was especially mad because his voice was just emotionless, flatter than a pancake, devoid of human kindness. I said in a meek little voice, "Sorry."
My dad and my brother had the same eyes: sort of almond-shaped, hooded, half-open, and with dark brown irises. My own eyes flitted back and forth between them, first staring at one, then at the other. They only had eyes for each other. The gaze was electric between them, and I felt that if I walked between their lines of sight, I would get shocked.
Connor tried to continue: "Dad, I—"
My dad dropped his groceries and his briefcase. They fell to the floor with a crash. He said, "You have ten seconds to get out of this house."
I could tell my dad meant business. Connor opened his mouth to speak, but I said in a low voice, "Connor, just leave. He'll kill you."
I was being dramatic. I didn't think my father would actually kill his son. Or did I? I wasn't sure exactly what Dad was capable of. He wasn't very muscular, wasn't very tall—in fact, at this point both Connor and I were taller than him—and he had the grey hair, the stooped back, of a much older man. But he had a certain terrifying way about him that made me think he could probably kill someone if he tried. Especially when he was angry. When you got into my dad's bad books, you'd have to move heaven and earth before he would forgive you.
Connor said evenly, "He won't kill me, Jack. He knows we have things to discuss." But I could hear his voice shake, very slightly, and his steely eyes faltered. His hands, clasped on his lap, held each other tight enough that the knuckles became white.
"I have nothing to discuss with you," said Dad. He stood there for a moment, just staring, and then he said, "Ten seconds are up."
Fear thrilled through my stomach—what would he do? Would he get violent? I pictured my dad, with a surge of strength, literally picking Connor up and throwing him out. But instead, Dad went to the kitchen counter, where the phone rested in its little nook. He picked it up, and he pressed three numbers.
Connor flew to his feet. "Dad—don't do something you'll regret. Please." I realized my brother was pleading and begging, and I felt a sudden surge of embarrassment for him. Dad had sternly raised us to never beg, not for anything.
Dad said, with the phone held tight to his ear, "I did something I regretted two years ago when I didn't report you for stealing my car. Now I'm fixing my mistake. If you don't get out now— Hello? Police, please. Yes, my son is here, and I don't want him on the premises. Please remove him from the premises. Also, I have a crime to report. My car has been stolen, by the same individual. Five minutes? Thank you."
I noticed something. The phone screen wasn't lit up. It always lit up green when we were getting a call or receiving a call. Dad was bluffing, and he was bluffing hard.
I had never known my father to bluff, not ever. Confusion made me dizzy. Was my dad protecting my brother, somehow?
Connor quickly went over to my dad with long strides. He held out his hands, as if to say, I have no weapons. "Please," he said. "I just want to talk for five minutes. I don't even want anything from you. I just want to apologize."
My dad's face was bright red like a tomato or like blood. "I don't want to hear a goddamn thing from you," he said. "I. Want. You. To. Get. Out."
Even though I had taken my dad's side, I had always thought that the fight between my dad and brother was sort of overblown. Two years ago, Connor and my dad had got into a thermonuclear war because Connor wanted to switch majors from engineering to music, and my dad didn't want to waste his money on such a venture. I was the collateral damage: for three days I had listened to the shouting and the screaming and the warring and things being thrown, until finally, when my brother and father fought in the middle of the night and I had a test the next day, I covered my head with a pillow to drown out as much of the noise as I could. After that, because I purposefully didn't listen, I wasn't certain of the progression of the fight: what accusations flew, what ammunition was used, who was throwing the harshest barbs, who was winning. The next morning Connor was gone, and my father said that he'd used Dad's car to make his getaway.
"If you ever see him again, call the police," my dad said to me.
"Why don't you call the police now?" I asked. "He stole your car."
My dad shook his head and scowled. "I don't want the police to waste their time on that piece of crap," was his explanation.
You'd expect someone's hatred to fade after two years. But my dad's hadn't. He turned pictures of Connor flat, so you couldn't see them (though I noticed he didn't get rid of them). If I ever mentioned my brother's name, my dad would flatly ask me to pick another subject to talk about, and so, we never spoke of him. I guess my dad regarded Connor as a traitor. You didn't just run out on family. And if you did, how could you expect to be taken back? That was our father's reasoning, anyhow.
I imagined that if I was a mother who'd fought with her son over a college major, and my son disappeared for two years and then returned, I'd have gained some perspective over that time. I'd have realized that college is such a small thing to fight over.
But not my dad. My dad was even angrier than I imagined. He looked at Connor with eyes full of hatred, and a red face, and repeated his words: "Get out. Why are you still standing there, wasting my air and my time? I don't want to see you."
Connor stood still for a few seconds, and we were all frozen again, waiting to see how this moment would end. Then Connor shook his head, staring at the ground. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. "It's not worth it," he said quietly. "Sorry, Jack." He didn't look at me as he headed out the open door. My dad stared at him as he went, and we continued to stare at the open door, even as we heard my brother's shitty car start up in the driveway. It was only when the motor sounds had faded away down the road that my dad—now with a white face, drained of blood—went to the door and, quietly, shut it.
Instantly, achingly, I missed my brother's presence. I had forgotten how much I loved him, and now that I'd been reminded, it was like knife-pain in my heart. There was a firm sense of missed opportunity in the air. I said quietly to my father as he collected the spilled groceries from the floor: "Do you think you were a little harsh on him, maybe?" I was risking estrangement just by asking the question.
My dad didn't reply to me, or even look at me. He just kept collecting the cans that he'd dropped. I noticed that he'd bought canned apples, and I thought of Connor. I can't tell you why, but it was only at that moment that the tears finally reached my eyes, and I could feel the blood rushing to my face: I was going to cry.
For just a second, I imagined a scenario that I hadn't allowed myself to hope for. My dad would be so angry at me for letting Connor in, he'd kick me out. Then Connor and I—the two disowned kids—would have something in common again, instead of being separated by a rift as wide as the Grand Canyon. We'd drive away together in Connor's crappy little car, and I'd be with my brother again. It would probably be terrible and we'd be broke and miserable, but…well, there was something golden and shiny and enticing about a life outside my father's house, outside my father's rules, and being with a brother who loved me.
I went to my room so my dad wouldn't see me crying. The next day was just as horribly hot as the last, but I went outside while Dad was away and collected every last apple that'd fallen from the tree, and put them into a big blue laundry basket, and brought them inside. In a weird way, it was a tiny, insignificant act of defiance.