“Where have you been?”
“Tell me where you’ve been.”
Three long beats of silence. Count them out.
“You can’t disappear and not expect me to ask questions.”
They stood in the kitchen, leaning against opposite granite countertops that gleamed in the yellow shine of the lamp suspended from the ceiling. They were both young, but one had wisdom that defined the several creases on his otherwise smooth face. This wiser one had dark features, deep-set eyes. He folded his arms slowly across his chest as his lungs ballooned with air and then deflated, a long, slow wind from a slightly opened mouth. The other one was just the opposite of his brother. Light hair and light eyes, and a body that was constantly in motion. He fidgeted, tapping fingers or a foot, bouncing on toes, shaking hair from eyes, playing with sleeves, alternating between each action, or sometimes performing two or three at once. What a skilled multi-tasker.
“Tucker, you need to relax. You need to relax and stop fidgeting and tell me where you’ve been.” Casual and deliberate. Lawrence, the dark, calm one, stared down at the floor as he spoke, waited a moment for a response, and then stared into his brother’s face. Tucker’s eyes were cast down and left, down and right, up to the far corner of the room where shadows gathered for an evening meeting, drawn from the darkness outside, baring black, cold teeth.
The house was empty except for the two of them. A mounting wind blew in off the ocean and screeched its way through the cracks between the windowpanes and windowsills. Tucker pushed off from the edge of the counter and began pacing around the island upon which Lawrence was still leaning. As he walked, he ran jittery hands through his rough mane of hair, long grains, a field of wheat. They had a coarse, stiff look to them, too. Coated in salt. Lawrence could taste it.
Tucker did a few more laps around the island before Lawrence whistled softly and said, “I need a cigarette.”
He detached himself from the counter, grabbed his sweatshirt off of a nearby chair. As he headed for the door to the back porch, he flicked a light switch, plunging the house into thick, impenetrable darkness.
Lawrence opened the door and a blast of cold wind tore through the house. He slipped into the night without speaking.
“Lawrence.” The word hung, unmet, an outstretched hand yearning for contact. Lawrence left the door open and the wind continued to roar into the house. It funneled in like river water between rocks and seemed to accelerate as it passed through the door. It whirred on for a long moment and the hairs on Tucker’s bare arms stood up. A shudder shook him, rocking him on his feet. The wind fell still for a heartbeat and his hair settled across his forehead and along his scalp in disheveled layers. He listened to the door swing gently on its hinges, making tiny metal sounds. He moved his eyes, now able to see the edges of things, illuminated by the feeble light of a crescent moon outside. He waited a moment, and when the wind began to moan again and swing the door harder on its hinges, he moved himself so he stood in the doorway, one hand held against the open door.
Where is Lawrence going? he thought, and his head then filled with other questions, a crowd of softly murmuring people whose voices accumulated to a mute roar, like the leather drumming of a heartbeat. His eyes cast around the empty porch, and then further out onto the beach, but he did not see the tall dark shape anywhere. The wind whipped the sleeves of his t-shirt around his tanned, goose-bumped arms.
“Lawrence!” he yelled as loudly as he could, so loud that his throat ached. “Lawrence!” But the wind ripped the words out of his mouth and swallowed them efficiently.
Lawrence zipped his sweatshirt against the wind, trying to keep out its bitter, greedy fingers. He walked along the silver tide-line as the ocean roiled and churned, its waves crashing in frothy white frills and explosions before smoothening out and reaching gently up onto the sand where Lawrence walked. He had turned to face the side of the house, lit his cigarette behind a cupped hand, and then continued to travel along the stormy beach.
It was the end of the summer and nights like this told him that autumn still existed, as did winter, and that both were most assuredly coming. The crescent moon hung in the sky, like a glowing sideways smirk tacked onto a black, featureless face.
Lawrence took a drag on his cigarette, savoring the feeling of the smoke as he breathed it in. It swirled around in his lungs and caressed his throat again as he breathed it out. The wind stole the smoke right away from him as it left his mouth.
Where the hell has that boy been? The water licked the tips of his shoes.
In the past fourteen hours or so Lawrence had whiled away his time as best he could. First, he drank a cup of black coffee and swallowed aspirin to soothe his pounding headache, a reminder of the night before. Next, he combed the house for a note from Tucker. He found none. Then he watched television with the phone beside him as the temperature began to drop and darkness crept up from the eastern edge of the planet. He took his first cigarette of the night during a commercial break. In smoke and oxygen, out smoke and carbon dioxide. He had been able to hear the ocean not two hundred feet away, sighing right along with him.
Seven hours earlier on the same day, Tucker swam. It was his second time in the water that day, and this time he felt the fear push him forward, as it often did. He heard his feet kicking up and out and back against the cold water. It felt heavy all around him. He felt his heartbeat all over his body–in his knees, his fingertips, his lower lip. His body sang with a single-mindedness, driven by a clearly labeled goal: get out of the water. The warmth of the day had died along with the sun and now the cold grip of the ocean weighed on his wrists and ankles. He had felt the weight and, in turn, a pounding urgency. His arms had felt strong half an hour ago, strong enough to move the weight of the ocean, to keep him afloat on its heaving body. When he had taken his first ocean swim earlier that day, he had gloried in the thousands of tiny mirrors on the water’s surface. The sunlight splashed up, liquid, shining light, as the waves collided with small rocks in the shallows, points of shiny black immersed in the sparkling blue, like seal heads.
He swam out past where the waves showed the whites of their eyes and the frothy foam of their closing jaws to where they rocked a body gently, gently. Resting on the swelling and shrinking waves was like placing a hand on the belly of a sleeping animal, feeling the rhythmic rise and fall of its lungs as it breathed easily. There was no trying and there were no worries. Not with sleeping animals. Not with rolling waves. Not with summer afternoons. Tucker’s mind emptied and he was overruled by the pull and rhythm of the waves as they passed beneath him. Above him the sky stretched from end to end, a dizzyingly big and bright net of pure, pale blue. There were no clouds. There was only the one, ruling sun, beating down on the land and the sea in yellow-white rays of soothing warmth. Tucker closed his eyes and let the soft whoosh of the waves going in and out along the shore match his own breathing, the gentle fill and empty, the rise and decline. He closed his eyes and the sun painted his eyelids a carnal red. He was convinced he could see the patterns of his veins, illuminated against the sky. Dark red maps across the landscape of his lids.
Time rewinds again. The reel rolls backwards, pulling everything into reverse. The waves sway and rock in awkward, unnatural rhythms, rising back as waves do when pulled by massive storm currents. Bodies move in reverse, toes back to heels, words sucked back into mouths contorting around the inverted syllables. The sun rises and falls, west to east, until it is well hidden behind the horizon and the world is plunged into lush, purple darkness. This night is warmer than the one to follow, softer, more tender. Ripeness hangs in the air, dripping from the shrinking moon and swelling stars, sweetly beaming silvery-white light down onto the roof of the beach house.
Fourteen hours before his and Lawrence’s evening standoff in the kitchen, Tucker huddled himself beneath the blanket in the bed where his parents used to sleep. He breathed in the fresh linen scent–void of the smells of Milly and Carter. There was no humanness in these sheets at all. They had not been slept in for two numb, long years. As he hugged himself tighter, he imagined that he was balancing oddly in the center, the bed sloping down to his left and right where his parents had left the imprints of their bodies on the mattress. It was only at night that Tucker missed them. He had grown accustomed to their absence during the day.
The sound of the back porch door slamming and the voices of a girl and a boy roused Tucker’s attention. He sat up in bed and listened to Lawrence as he came in and sat down on the couch in the living room down the hall. The girl had a soft, breathy voice, constantly hushing. He listened to his brother stumble over his words, which mixed and sloshed together sloppily.
“Lawrence, Lawrence where’s the bathroom?” she whispered. Not quietly enough. He heard a slurred and mumbled reply before the girl’s footsteps clacked unevenly down the hall, and the bathroom door swung open and shut.
After waiting a few beats and listening to the dense silence, Tucker slid out of the bed and crept down the hall. He slunk silently to the kitchen, behind his brother’s back. Lawrence sat on the couch, facing away from Tucker, gazing into the fire that Tucker had lit earlier that evening. The fire was subsiding now, burned down to a cluster of embers that glowed steadfastly, trying to avoid their ashy deaths. He crouched behind the island and poked his head out beyond the side when the girl came back. She clacked in her heels to the couch where Lawrence sat. He leaned his head back against the cushions as she sat down roughly beside him. Their bodies were obscured from Tucker’s sight. Only the backs of their heads were visible. She leaned her forehead on his shoulder and mumbled an indecipherable phrase.
There was a long quiet, interrupted every now and then by the cracks of the fighting embers. Lawrence’s head rolled off to one side and then back to the center. He laughed softly, a guttural sound.
“What?” She smiled into his cheek, pushing her nose against the side of his face. He shrugged her off and seemed to go rigid, leaning slightly away from her. He turned his head very slowly towards her.
“I think you should leave now.”
“I really think that you need to leave–now–please.”
Long strokes of heavy silence, passing between them like a pendulum swinging back and forth and back.
She stood, too quickly, and stumbled. She righted herself and then snatched her bag up off the couch on his other side, where she had presumably deposited it before.
“Bye, Estelle,” he called after her. The door slammed in response.
Lawrence groaned on the couch and then pulled himself up, a heavy, sluggish movement. He slouched over to the armchair. It was upholstered with luxurious deep red leather, high backed and worn in. It had been their father’s favorite seat in the house.
Lawrence let himself sink against the sturdy but cushioned back of the chair. He placed his arms on the chair’s arms. He breathed against its stiff, supportive back. Tucker knew that chair. It was very much like their own father. It emanated his essence in the smell of the old leather and the feel of the back and seat.
Tucker watched Lawrence knead the arms of the chair, digging his fingernails into the leather, creasing it with pressure.
Tucker watched Lawrence wilt in the chair. He watched him slump forward, putting his hands over his face.
Tucker listened to the noises Lawrence made. Sad, child noises, going on and on, interrupted only by sharp intakes of breath and gentle whines.
Tucker remained numb, untouched. He watched and listened to Lawrence as he came apart before the fire, disassembling into drunken thoughts and disembodied hands, rosy memories and shadow memories. Every now and then Lawrence would shudder and wrap his long arms around his own chest, fold in on and bury himself, a collapsing building being swallowed by a self-produced cloud of dust and debris.
As Tucker peeked out from behind the kitchen island, he, too, felt himself wilting, withdrawing, shrinking. He found his hands smaller, his clothes too big for his own body. The earth revolved backwards, transporting him back years and years, more than a decade, and still the planet turned the other way, relentlessly reversing. His surroundings changed around him–the dimly lit house and smooth wood floors blurred around him and he found himself in his old room, lit by a white mid-day sky. He looked out the windows of his seven-year-old self’s room. He peered through the white shutters out into the backyard where he saw a small figure walking. The figure was an eleven-year-old Lawrence. He carried a shoebox in his hands. From within the walls and windows of his room Tucker could not see Lawrence’s hands gripping the box, just as they had gripped the armchair. Tucker watched his brother move to the edge of the backyard where the trimmed Connecticut grass gave way to dense Connecticut forest. He listened to his parents speaking quietly in the other room, their voices solid. Real. There.
“I have never seen Lawrence so distraught over anything in my life.” Milly’s voice was a cup of chamomile tea, a spoon clinking gently against the sides as it stirred the sugar in.
“I know. Poor kid.” Carter’s voice was all fire smoke and tires on gravel.
“He loved that turtle like no other.”
“More than he loves me.” Tucker listened to his father walk across creaking floorboards, probably to the window to watch his oldest son become enveloped by the forest and other, more devouring things. He heard his mother’s footsteps on the floor, light and dancing. They all watched the boy with dark hair and gangly limbs step between the faint shadows of the trees and disappear into a crowd of oaks and evergreens.
“Oh stop, Carter, you know Lawrence just works in a different way than we do.”
“He’s the quiet one. The observant one.”
“The cold one who won’t speak to me.”
“Hush, Carter. He’s wired differently than we are. That’s all. I do hope he’ll be all right after this. He’s awfully torn up over that turtle.”
They all watched the edge of the forest, waiting for Lawrence to resurface. He stayed in there for a long time and they watched and waited in silence for a long time. Tucker, fidgeting and excited, abandoned his post at the window and ran into the living room, where his parents still stood very close to each other. Their arms touched lightly.
“Mom, where has Lawrence been?” Tucker inquired. He paced tight circles behind his parents while they keenly watched the edge of the forest for movement. Before his mother could gather her thoughts Tucker said, “Dad, what was in the shoebox?” His father set his jaw and breathed deeply through his nose. Again, before he could give his son an answer, Tucker quickly sprang back to his mother.
“Mom, why doesn’t Lawrence have the box anymore?”
“He had to bury the box in the woods.” Milly did not turn when she spoke to Tucker. Her voice was quiet and sad. She stared into the bright, gray afternoon at her Lawrence, who had emerged from the forest and was walking toward the house. The white light of the day reflected back on the smooth planes of her forehead and cheeks.
Lawrence stopped, still many paces from the house, and buried his face in his hands. He shuddered and shuddered, and Milly headed out through the sliding glass door.
“Did the turtle die, Dad?” Tucker asked. He climbed onto the sofa and jumped cautiously on its cushions. When his father didn’t reprimand him for it he began to jump more vigorously.
“Yes. It died.” Carter turned to address his son. He grimaced at the sight of Tucker springing on the couch. “Don’t jump, son.”
Tucker slid down off the couch and stood next to his father. The two of them watched Milly and Lawrence outside, standing and hugging and softly swaying. Tucker grabbed his father’s hand and swung it back and forth.
Lawrence and Milly walked back to the house. Lawrence’s face was wet. Tucker had never seen his brother’s face wet. He had known his own tears. And his friends’ tears. And babies’ tears. But never had he known Lawrence’s tears. It was Tucker’s first memory of death and of Lawrence crying.
And he had never seen Lawrence cry since. Until that night, in the armchair, before the fire.
Lawrence had now smoked the last cigarette in his pack. He saw nothing else to do on the beach, with the moon setting and the waves calming and the wind easing up. He went back to the beach house.
He found Tucker sitting on the kitchen island counter, the lights glaring down harshly on him, tapping his dangling feet to a beat he could hear only in his head.
The two brothers faced each other. Tucker squared his shoulders and jutted out his chin.
“Where have you been?” Tucker said fiercely.
Lawrence gazed at his brother. His eyes were tired and the objects and lights in the room began to fade into one another. It was nearly four in the morning. For a moment, the earth began to spin back around, and memories began to drag him away and down with clutching, hungry hands. There was a tension, a sharp corner of decision to round. Past or present.
Lawrence shrugged his shoulders half-heartedly and looked at the reflected ringing circles of the bright lights on the countertop.
“Around.” He said simply and without emotion. Present.
The characters resumed their natural roles. The world spun on.
–– Jenna Bernstein