— Nicholas Russell

The week I find out he exists, my brother texts me.

“Left the front door unlocked on my way out. Didn’t want to forget something and get stuck outside.” He peppers my phone with these unanswerable statements as if to continue maintaining a space he feels must never be closed.

I’ve had many good years in my time before him, alongside the bad. Put together, they do not make an unpleasant life. Thus I cannot say it is worse for my brother’s arrival. It is far stranger than any judgment value could describe it.

When I return home from work that first week, the front door is indeed unlocked, afternoon interior darkness brightening from the slightest sliver of open hinge. Dad is asleep on the couch, tea green, the dome of his frayed, whorling black hair peeking above the backboard. There is one fewer water bottle in the fridge, a banana off the hook. The only marker for my brother’s presence, I am finding, is evidence of consumption.

I set my bag down on the glass table near the kitchen and make my way upstairs. There is a guest room I know will be emptied and cleaned as if no one had ever stayed there. And a master bedroom raided for seldom-used shirts and socks. And my room, where the same set of foot-shaped depressions in the browning carpet will point, toes splayed, toward my bookcase like someone invisible standing frozen in place.

With each ascending step, I wonder if there will be a note left somewhere, preferably handwritten, perhaps on my pillow or on the banister at the top of the stairs. Such misguided hope for a stranger; I don’t know this person at all.

When my brother’s arrival first approached, my body unconsciously despaired. A creeping sense of inferiority pushed its way through my fingertips. That whole week, it felt as if I was walking forward along a narrow path and that, if I stepped backward for just one second, I would find myself at the top of a large mountain falling into darkness forever. It was the stomach that sensed this first, as has always been the case. The stomach was bracing itself. Meanwhile, I regressed. I bit the skin around my cuticles the same jittery way I used to as a kid, as if I had just wet the bed. So much so that I let my nails grow out, the better to tap them with, until a few splintered at the tip and broke off like chipped teeth, then I bit the remnants too. I didn’t know he was coming, of course. People rarely know when someone so disturbing is approaching, and I mean disturbing in the most physical way, as a force that deliberately moves that which is placed deliberately.

Then my father told me about him, told me he was real and that it could be any day that he would come, and my behavior made all the more sense. I couldn’t tell you why it made sense, only that I was no longer walking backwards from my humanity like an animal, pacing, unwittingly marking out my territory. There was, in this case at least, a discernible purpose for my body’s rebellion. For once, my body wasn’t against me.

My brother and I have lived without each other for most of our lives, and our communication feels no different. My messages to him go unanswered for days, while his responses exist on a plane of acknowledgement that collides with whatever else is on his mind that he’d rather be talking about. When I ask him about his daily life—the books he reads or doesn’t, the people he likes or avoids—he tells me what funny questions those are. In the rare instance that he asks me a question, it is one of location. “Do you know where dad keeps his spare keys?” “Is there any cheese left in the fridge?”

I was working a night shift the day he arrived, would miss his arrival, but resolved to peer into the guest room when I returned. Funny. The bed was empty by that time, even at dawn the following morning. I slept in and awoke to an empty house. Passing the guest room, I saw ruffled bed sheets and a duffel bag filled with underwear, no clothes. The bathroom sink was ringed with battered travel-sized toiletries, dried toothpaste smeared like caulk, everything on the surface rubbed with black grime as if forever being lost, then found behind an old couch. I have never seen my brother in person. Dad told me his name at one point, but I didn’t care to remember it. It’s no good, I think, to remember the names of people you can’t bring yourself to care about.

Even so. Sometimes I picture him, this brother, sipping something tropical, something extremely caffeinated, while he texts me with his other hand. I picture him looking at his phone without seeing it, his thumb snapping back and forth across the screen with efficiency, no importance attached, but no hesitation either. Then again, I tend to picture nothing really. Dad presented me with a photo of him the same day he told me that someone special was coming to visit. Dad’s arm was outstretched in washed-out light, the photo in his palm small enough to fit in a leather wallet. The excitement radiating from him was like standing near someone in line for the bathroom. Who was it? I had to pry with dad, as has always been true, in order to spoil the last-minute decisions he fashions as surprises. Ask the question again. Who is that? I never looked at the portrait he held in his hand, never stopped looking at dad’s face. So the brother I picture is faceless, spectral, devoid of the disappointing ordinariness that settles after meeting someone who is important at first, natural the next.

“It’s your brother,” he sighed, a glimmer of hope trapped in his eyes. “You have a brother.”

I may have told him to take it back. I may have said nothing to dad. It is hard to remember what I eventually said later when recounting the whole thing to my brother over further, unsolicited texts, and what actually happened. They weren’t the same thing.

It is funny, excruciatingly so, to think that we are terrified of letting the wrong people into our homes, but only because we imagine that we will be there when it happens. I think it is less scary, certainly relieving to think that you dodged something you didn’t know was coming. Even if they steal from you. Even if they intend to come back. As long as I am gone when they do. In his absence, I find myself incessantly checking my phone. It would be more satisfying holding conversation with a voicemail recording.

The second time he visits, he texts me saying: “There’s a lot you don’t know about dad.”

I nod my head as I look down at my phone. What he says has always been true. I wonder at the threshold within me that separates my desire from my disinterest in knowing what he means. I had resolved a long time ago that if my father, our father, was capable of committing terrible acts, it was foolish to think he had never done some of them. I think I would accept most things of dad. He demands so little of me, and if it is true that we are all human, where human is a symbol in an equation that results in the excusing of bad things, why should dad be any different? Why you? So the odds are stacked against my brother—the interloper—if his intention is to turn me against our father.

“Where are you?” I ask.

“It didn’t bother you that he didn’t tell you about me sooner?”

“Did it bother you that he told me at all?”

I don’t hear from him for a few hours, a small triumph. I feel elated. I have never before asked my brother such a biting question. Deference came so easily at first, as simple as the fact of him. Alone one day, tethered by biology and secrets the next. And that remains a curious feeling. There is a lack people say they feel when someone new, someone they find irrevocable, comes into their lives. It’s the same way dad talked about the woman he had been with before he met our mother. But nothing was missing before my brother came. I miss the time before him. I miss the space everything had before he pressed his shadow onto my own. It is not worse, for him being here, I believe that. It is a deep, lasting inconvenience.

I come home late because of the rain. Water makes for frightened drivers, and I spend the duration of the bus ride thinking about him behind the wheel. The carriage lurches and jerks because he is texting me, texting someone, dodging pedestrians, running over rodents. There is no one else on the bus but me and my brother. I sit directly behind the driver’s cabin and watch the large black wheel turn without hands to guide it. I think about us following each other with burning faces, with agony, with the ghosts of tears that leave behind only arid salt in our eyes. I wonder why, in this fantasy, I am not the bus driver. I wonder why everything feels so empty now that there has been this addition.

In the early hours, when my window is backlit by an approaching sun, I have taken to standing in front of my bookcase, matching the footprints that appear whenever he is around. I stand here so often that there is always a depression now, always a spot to be filled, even if it is just my own. Our feet are nearly the same size, mine slightly larger. I take up more space than him, and somehow this comforts me.

One morning, I wake up my dad in the room next to mine. Again, his whorling head, a mass of tangles in a room much brighter and more spacious than mine. I wake him up and pull him by the hand through the carpeted hall near the stairs, and stop in front of my shelf. He teeters with sleep, but he doesn’t resist. With a hand on each shoulder, I peer over him, pushing and adjusting, moving his feet apart with my feet, until they are positioned right where my brother, then I, have stood. My father and I are aligned, dwarfing any impression left of this stranger. Somehow, this comforts me more.

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