My father bought my brother, Darryl, home right before the storm arrived. I waited out on our front porch, the sticky humidity left an uncomfortable sheen of sweat on my body, but it beat the heat inside the house. My mother was cooking my brother’s favorites on our gas stove: roast and collard greens. The overhead fan did nothing by churn the heatwaves like one big, boiling pot. Inside, the heat was oppressively heavy, the kind you feel weighing down on your lungs. Outside, the evening sun was hidden behind dense clouds and the wind blew wildly, scattering trash across the streets and the sidewalks and offering occasional relief. Somewhere in the distance, someone blasted music from a stereo in defiance of the heavy clouds over the horizon. The pounding beats and muffled, angry voices of a rap song sounded into the turbulent air until the skies chimed in with their own threat, a rumble of thunder that silenced most of the life that remained on the streets.
I watched Darryl get out of dad’s truck, holding nothing but the small backpack he’d left with months ago, but he carried it like it had the world inside. He had a beard, or at least the shadow of one and his brown skin was slightly darker than I’d remembered. His pants matched his bag, the oblong shapes of overlapping greens and browns only made him stand out against the blacks, greys, and reds of the city sidewalk. I stood up and ran down our steps smiling at him. His eyes shifted, black orbs floating in a sea of white and studied every house on the block before settling on ours. I froze when he looked straight through me, his gaze unwavering for three seconds before my father shut his car door and he flinched, almost blinking, but not quite.
“Miles.” My father cleared his throat. “Miles, take your brother’s bag and take him inside. Let your mama know he’s here.”
I reached out for the bag, but my brother moved away almost imperceptibly, gripping the camouflage material a little more tightly in his fist. I dropped my hand to my side and Darryl moved past me and up our concrete steps. My father watched the whole ordeal from the curb. When I met his eyes, I could see him visibly clench his jaw.
“Miles, get inside,” he said, but it lacked the usual strength his commands came with.
Still, I took the steps two at a time. My brother stood on the porch, staring at the door. “It’s not locked Darryl.”
He didn’t move so I pulled the screen door open for him. He took a small step, then another and crossed over the threshold. Once inside, he didn’t move. I don’t think he blinked at all even as I stood just a foot away and directly in front of him. His eyes darted madly around the room.
I forced a nervous laugh to somehow dislodge the shadow that settled in the house. “Don’t you recognize your own house, Darryl?”
Dad came inside and shut the door. It was like a switch went off inside my brother’s gaze almost as audible as the soft click of the lock sliding into place. My brother looked at me and a smile crept over his lips before he put a hand on my shoulder. It felt too heavy and hot. Through the fabric of my t-shirt, I could feel the callouses that covered his palms like a stony second skin.
“Of course, I know you, Little Man,” he said. He laughed too, a hollow sound that reverberated in his chest. “You gonna hug your big brother or have you gotten too old for that?”
Darryl spread his arms and I tried to fit myself into them. My shoulder hit his rib cage and I could feel each protruding bone against my shoulder blade. I looked over at my father and saw his shoulders slump, a fraction of tension leaving his body at the sound of his oldest son’s laughter. I started to move out of the hug, but Darryl held on, not tightly, just arms wrapped around me, caging me in. He didn’t let go until I cleared my throat, and he clapped me on the shoulder. I winced.
“You’re taller, I guess I’ll have to stop calling you Little Man soon,” he said finally.
I nodded, unsure of how to respond. My brother hadn’t stopped smiling, but his eyes still darted, a strange pairing of fear and happiness. It was a gaze I’d only seen on alley cats, frightened by the rocks Darryl and I used to throw at them for entertainment. All teeth and wide eyes. I half expected my brother to arch his back and go running out the front door if given even the slightest inclination of a threat.
I kept my tone soft and low, speaking each word with careful precision. “Mom made greens and roast for dinner. Mrs. Carson sent over some potato salad and candied yams, and Mrs. Drew sent a pound cake for dessert.”
I watched his gaze settle on a far wall and his eyebrows drew together. I followed his stare. A framed photo of our family hung there, slightly crooked and covered with a thin film of dust.
“Dessert.” My brother repeated the word like it came from a foreign language. His smile slipped just a little, but then, somehow, it grew even wider than before. “Sounds great. I miss mom’s cooking.”
He drifted past me and toward the kitchen breaking his eye contact with the photo in a single blink. Outside, it started to rain. I hesitated to follow until my father put a gentle hand on my shoulder. When we got into the kitchen, I found my mother trapped in another one of my brother’s embraces. Tears gathered in her eyes which widened when she reached around to pat my brother’s back comfortingly.
“My goodness, Darryl. You’re so thin,” She wedged herself from Darryl’s grip. “Sit down right now. Miles, help me set the food on the table so we can eat.”
“I’m not really that hungry,” Darryl protested.
He ate like a depraved man, finishing one large plate in the time it took my father to eat half of his. He ate his second plate just as voraciously, chewing loudly and refilling his mouth before even swallowing once. He was unbothered when the juices from his greens pooled on his plate and bled into his candied yams. He made a strange mess of his potato salad and roast before shoveling it into his mouth together with smacking slurps. My mother filled the otherwise awkward silence with endless chatter, informing my brother of all the things that had happened while he was “away”. No one listened to her. Every now and then, my father chimed in with an affirmative grunt and a misplaced chuckle.
I watched my brother scrape the very last remnant from his plate with his finger, leaving only smears behind on what mother called her good plates. He caught my startled gaze then looked at each of us. Pausing mid-motion, he grabbed a napkin instead. He seemed to, for the first time in the last half hour, remember that we sat at the table with him.
Darryl laughed and swiped at the mess he made on his face. He didn’t bother with the stains down the front of his shirt. “You barely touched your food, Little Man. Saving room for dessert?”
“What about you? I thought you weren’t hungry. Didn’t they feed you over there?”
I’d meant it to sound teasing, an attempt at the old way we used to bicker back and forth until it drove my mother mad. Darryl didn’t return the sentiment. He shut down, neatly stacking his fork and knife on his plate with a soft clatter. It was the only other sound aside from the constant assault of rain against the windows. He grabbed his overused napkin and balled it tightly in his fist.
“I think I’ll turn in then. Am I still in the old room with Miles?” Darryl asked.
He didn’t wait for a response and didn’t bother excusing himself from the table. The legs of his chair screeched loudly against the floor making the hairs on my arms stand on end. He put his bag on his shoulder again and walked out of the kitchen. I didn’t move until I heard the sound of his footsteps ascend the stairs. No one touched dessert after that; we collectively lost our appetites.
I was afraid to go into my own bedroom later that night, but I could tell my parents were eager for me to go upstairs. They spoke in hushed tones in the kitchen. My mother was doing the fake whisper thing she did whenever she was arguing with my father. My father did his best to be subtle until he suggested that I take a shower before I go to bed.
When I finally decided to go in, I knocked lightly before opening the door. Darryl sat on his bed, his shirt removed and folded neatly beside him. He had his back to me as he looked out the window. There were cops outside and their lights flickered, dying my brother’s silhouette red, then blue. I moved to turn on the light switch.
“Can you leave it off.” He didn’t even turn around.
“Sure, whatever you want.”
I stepped further into the room and saw why. There was a grisly scar on the right side of his back about the length of my index finger. The keloid left a worm-like pattern on his skin as if something had imbedded itself inside my brother. Darryl caught me staring at the scar and the prominence of his bones. In the darkness of the room, his eyes looked black and the whites around his irises took on the color of the cop car lights. Red. Blue. Red.
He reached for his shirt and put it back on and I found the courage to fully enter the room. I sat on my own bed, facing him across the space between us. The cops moved on, taking most of the light with them. Instead, it was just the yellow-orange glow from the streetlamps outside and the occasional flash of brilliant lightning. It had been my brother who taught me to measure the distance of a storm by its thunder— five seconds of silence for every mile. I started to count, making it just past seven before the thunder grumbled in the distance.
“I’m really sorry about downstairs,” I said, unsure whether or not my whisper was audible above the constant battering of rain outside. “Mom says I’m not supposed to talk to you about….”
“About the war?” he finished the statement when I couldn’t. I looked up to see him smile, teeth bright white in the darkness. “It’s okay, Little Man.”
But it wasn’t okay because I didn’t know how to talk about anything else or how to tell my brother that his smile made me shiver. The lightning flashed again.
“I hope this rain lets up. I was thinking of trying to see some of the guys tomorrow,” he said. “How are they? Chris, Ron, and Jamal.”
“They’re fine.” I cleared my throat and fiddled with a hole in my t-shirt. “Jamal though, he’s dead.”
The thunder rumbled closer this time and the windows vibrated with the force of the sound.
“Dead?” Darryl repeated the word, his eyes widening slightly.
I turned away and laid back on my old mattress. “Someone shot him down on the courts. No one knows why, but some say it was, you know, gang-related. His family put up a little memorial at the park where it happened.”
“Shot.” I heard Darryl let out a heavy breath that fluttered into a laugh. The sound was soft at first, a gentle chuckle that turned furious. “That’s funny, isn’t it, Miles? I go out there, dodging bullets, and he’s home, supposed to be safe. Where’d he get shot?”
I flinched at the morbid curiosity in his tone and settled for silence.
Darryl’s voice was calm and when he laughed again, it was humorless and dry as if he’d released all his energy in those few clipped breaths. “You ever see a man get shot? I’ll bet you haven’t. I’ll bet you haven’t even heard a real gun firing off.”
“Yes, I have.” I felt some unwarranted need to defend myself to him.
“Really, then did you know that guns talk? Yeah, they laugh at you while you’re running for your life, hiding like an animal in the underbrush of some god-forsaken jungle.”
I wanted to pull my pillow over my head and cover my ears, but I could feel Darryl watching my reaction in the dark. His almost dead eyes stared at me from across the room until he laid back on his bed.
“Guns laugh,” he repeated. “But I’ll tell you what I learned, Little Man. You always make sure you’ve got the last laugh.”
The rain came to a slow stop.
“Yeah, I think I’ll call up the guys tomorrow. You can come if you want.”
I didn’t respond, instead, I turned my back on him. A sudden bolt of lightning lit the room, casting our shadows on my wall. Immediately after, the thunder sounded. A crack in the night, almost like a gunshot. I sat bolt upright in my bed and across the way, my brother began to laugh.