I gasp at the sound of my brother’s voice.
Everything changed after he went missing. Dad died from grief and Mom shriveled into herself. Tommy went to law school and stayed gone, Kate ran wild with men and drugs, and today, after thirty years, Joe came home. He knocked on the door, Mom passed out, and now he sits with her on the couch like nothing happened.
I jab a button on my phone. Dave, my husband answers.
“I’ll be right over.”
Joe doesn’t get up. His green eyes are the same, but his teeth have darkened and a few are missing. Mosquito-bite scars speckle his calves, he’s sun-tan wrinkled, and his once blonde hair has faded.
I cross my arms over my waist, looking at him hard and trying to understand.
“We fucking thought you were dead!”
“It doesn’t matter now,” Mom says.
During the fall of 1987, Joe played our piano for hours at a time to muffle the voices in his head. His music rained from the ceiling and crashed off the walls, indiscriminate and indeterminate medleys of Mozart, Bach, and the Sex Pistols.
“Sloppy Joe’s,” he said to me once, in between sets.
My tee shirt was printed with Hemingway’s face and the name of a Key West bar.
“Sloppy Joe’s,” he repeated dryly, and added, “Dumb Ass.”
I had no idea he would be gone the next day.
“The house looks the same,” he tells us now.
His piano hasn’t moved from its place in the living room, and yellowing tape keeps the posters mostly stuck to the walls in his bedroom. I turn sharply, tempted to run out of the house and never come back. I begin to perspire and my stomach cramps.
“Where were you!” I ask.
Joe’s lips twitch, trying to answer. Mom hugs his bicep and clutches one of his hands. She glares like I’m the bad one. Maybe he’s not really here or maybe he’ll leave us again. I begin notifying people he’s alive, like when somebody dies, except this is the opposite. I call Kate first, somewhere in rural Vermont, and then Tommy, at his office in Celebration. He immediately asks to talk to Joe and I hand him the phone. Two seconds later, my brothers are laughing together.
At the same time, Dave arrives with pizza. He puts the boxes on the dinner table, leaning over the chairs that surround it. There is one for each of us, but two have been empty for a long time. I hang onto Dave, burying my face against his shoulder and breathing it in. He says he called our son with the news, and Seth is driving home from his college in Boca.
Joe finishes his conversation with Tommy and shakes hands with Dave. They clap each other on the back and hug briefly, saying the ordinary things people do when they meet for the first time. Joe helps himself to a couple of slices of pizza and heads to the piano, where he gently plays Amazing Grace, Brahms’ Lullaby, and Ed Sheeran.
I make Mom a plate and bring it to her, pretending I don’t know there’s vodka in her water glass. The doorbell rings and some old friends come in, hugging, crying, and talking about miracles. I tell Dave I’m concerned about leaving her alone tonight.
“What if Joe’s crazy?”
“He’s not gonna hurt anybody, Mo.”
“How do you know?”
A few hours later, we go to bed in my old room. I sleep badly, and my head aches this morning. I throw on shorts, dump coffee into a mug and walk to the beach. It’s just barely day light and much cooler than yesterday. I think about going back for a jacket, but I’m already at the bottom of the street, crossing the little wood ramp, between the sea grasses and palms. My hair blows back and the damp feels good on my face.
It’s high tide and the salt water laps cold on my toes. I keep trying to decide what we need to do next, but my mind goes blank and my knees buckle. I fall into the shallows, hunched chest to knees, squeezing and releasing wet handfuls of sand and coquina. Joe shows up out of nowhere and coaxes me up. I wrench away, stumbling, sobbing and shrieking.
“Mom loves vodka and Xanax. Her blood pressure is scary. The house is too much for her. She can’t handle any more of this shit, Joe… I can’t either.”
“Maybe she’ll be better now.”
“Are you kidding! Do you know what it’s gonna take to bring you back from the dead?”
“She’s okay. You’re the one with the problem.”
“I’m the one who stayed!”
I’m soaking wet and shivering, crying bright red, and pacing. I want to beat him to death, or cut him into little pieces and use him for fish bait. A man passes, swishing a metal detector, glancing at us oddly. He takes a cellphone out of his pocket.
“He’s probably calling the cops right now,” says Joe.
I shrug, beyond caring, and he answers yesterday’s question, quiet and steady.
“I mostly don’t remember, Mo. The Shelter in Ybor City helped me get home.”
A flock of sandpipers lands nearby, squawking. They scuttle, ignoring us, and Joe notices something. I’m wearing my old tee shirt, faded and hole-dotted, but still printed with Hemingway’s face and the name of a Key West bar.
My answer sounds harsh, like an accusation, but the second I say it, I feel a lot lighter. Joe takes off his hoodie and I let him wrap me in it, figuring it’s better than freezing to death.
“I’m sorry, Mo. I really am.”
Suddenly I realize I’m grinning and that makes me laugh.
Kristen Petry lives in Naples, Florida. Her work has appeared in the Naples Herald, Akashic Books Flash Fiction Series, and in Every Day Fiction. She is an avid student of people and believes family gatherings produce the worst kind of drama, especially during the holidays.