33-year-old Facebook employee reported missing
“Dave’s gone missing, I thought you should know.” That’s what my mother tells me over the phone, but she’s not bent out of shape. Her straw apparently has reached the bottom of a daiquiri because a slurp crackles through the line. I imagine she’s sitting by her pool in drugstore sunglasses, accumulating lumps of basal skin cancer under the Florida sun. Which is basically what I’m doing, only my lawn chair sits by a kiddie pool of hose-water in an Ann Arbor suburb, and it’s a can of IPA in my hand. Because I buy these beers at Trader Joe’s, this is still middle-class behavior.
I press the frosty aluminum can against my temple. “How do you know he’s missing?” I say.
“Don’t argue with me.”
I close my eyes. “Okay then, if he’s missing, what do you want me to do about it?” Dave might be my brother, but he’s nobody’s favorite.
There are two types of families in this world. Families who love each other, who get along at holiday meals, and families like ours. We who shake babies, who never call on birthdays, who would poison our siblings if only we could reverse-engineer Russia’s best toxins.
“Do what you want,” my mother says.
“What do you want?”
“I’m just telling you because I thought you should know.”
“Okay then.” I take the phone from my ear. It’s carcinogenic to soft tissue, but also my mental health. “Are we done?”
“Pretty much.” And she hangs up.
On paper, Dave looks like a top-shelf son. A Kettering-educated engineer. An employee of her favorite company, Facebook. The maker of a quarter-million a year, with a home in Silicon Valley and a wife that comes from money. But he’s also a 33-year-old douche with a blue streak in his hair, who drives a Tesla and thinks computer algorithms will solve the world’s problems. My mom only calls him for Facebook gossip and the occasional handout. If he’s missing, he’s probably “missing” at Burning Man, asleep on the playa, wearing only ski goggles and a fur vest while 40-year-old Burners poke his genitalia with glow sticks.
My wife, Sandy, steps through the slider, walks over to me in the lawn chair, and points at the beer can. “It’s 10:30 in the morning. We talked about this.” But she feels bad since the paper laid me off. I was a copy editor, writing headlines and fixing grammar for the Ann Arbor News, until society turned to Twitter for info and began communicating in emojis. Subliteracy, tiny attention spans, force newspapers to lay off staff. Sheeeeeeeeeeesh. Sandy also knows I’ve sent out exactly two hundred and eight resumes and the only work the universe has returned is a gig copyediting Japanese advertisements— packaging for Daiso involving an egg yolk with a face and buns. What I miss is the smell of the newsroom, the stale coffee, the blinding frenetic scramble to make deadline, then the post-coitus bliss where your chest untightens and your gray matter uncoils.
Sandy presses her hip into my shoulder and puts her hand in my hair. She sighs. “You’re the only adult man I know who still has blond hair.”
Still, she’s got an eye on my IPA.
“It’s fine,” I say. “It’s gluten-free.” Aside from blond hair, I have eyes the color of seawater. Dimples, too. Many times these things get me what I need.
Sandy allows a smile. “What was that all about?” She juts her chin at my iPhone. “Why were you yelling?”
“I wasn’t yelling.”
“Mikey, come on, what’s up?”
Her straightforwardness arrests me, always. “Dave’s missing.”
She takes her hand from my hair. “What do you mean, missing?”
I tell her what I know.
The careful architecture of her face crumbles. “Jesus, Mikey, what’s wrong with you?”
“He’s probably at Burning Man.”
“Dave doesn’t touch drugs.”
“Whatever.” My brother, my mother—I want no part of them, in their opulent coastal cities, mistaking self-gratification for happiness. I tip my chin back, gazing at the Michigan summer sky and its virtuous blue. It’s here that my wife and I are building our family, quarantined, free of contaminants. The click-click-click of a distant sprinkler reminds me that neighbors here take care of what they have. My kid waves from the fence line, and I wave back. At dusk we’ll go to the lakeshore and chase fireflies. But for Sandy, this isn’t a nice moment. We know each other’s thought patterns from our micro-expressions, and her glance skips from my face to my beer to our son. The corner of her mouth is twisted with worry and I know she’s wondering what it is that keeps me from making the obvious choice. She’s a doctor, meaning I don’t need to work, meaning there’s no reason I shouldn’t be stoked to be a stay-at-home dad. Sandy’s also doing long division in her head and getting this quotient: my reluctance isn’t typical male disconnectedness or chauvinism, but something ancient and fundamental in my emotional wiring. It’s a problem of not feeling, of not being able to feel. For a while I thought it was a byproduct of aging, maybe even maturation. Whatever the cause, I don’t know how to get back to Middle C. And this isn’t like anxiety—you can’t solve it with meditation.
“When was the last time you were close to your brother?” Sandy says.
Do I lie? “Nine years old,” I say.
“So what happened?”
It’s a fair question, but there are certain things you hide from your spouse. “Hey,” I say, “are you glowing?” She genuinely is glowing. It’s more than the summer tan. There’s a rosy undertone, and her lips are fuller.
“No, mister. Nuh-uh.” She wants to know what goes on inside my head, and foremost why I couldn’t care less about Dave’s whereabouts. Whereas I see a break between the present and the past, Sandy sees a bridge. It’s also in her nature to fix things. She’s an oncologist at the university hospital, where she saves children’s lives. NPR stories bring her to tears, but she runs toward danger.
“You’re figuring this out,” Sandy says. She looks at the two empty cans I’ve toed under the kiddie pool. “You’re going to find him, got it, buster? This shit stops now.”
“This has nothing to do with us,” I say. “My brother isn’t part of our family.” I watch our three-year-old son play with a caterpillar in the yard, bewildered by it. And yet with that utterance, I feel the universe distancing us.
Sandy is thumbing through her phone. “His Facebook page is deactivated,” she says.
It’s not lost on her—or me—that Facebook employees almost certainly can’t do this. She swipes through a few more websites.
“Let me tell you what you’re going to do,” she says. “You’re going to call him. If he doesn’t answer, you’re going to call his wife. If she doesn’t answer, you’re going to hop on a plane to California. You, friend, are your brother’s keeper.” Sandy is a Jew and gets real Old Testament about these things.
“I thought people only said that sarcastically?”
She pinches the bridge of her nose. “Everything,” she says, “is just a joke for you lately, isn’t it? Just one quip after the other. Show me, please, you’re better than headlines.”
That was mean—not Twitter-presidential-mean, but that’s not the point. More worrisome is that it wasn’t Sandy—not her voice. It was her sister’s.
Since my lay-off, Sandy’s little sister has been texting her that I’m not a worthy match and, because there’s a Möbius strip of connections between our iPhones and other Apple devices, these messages sometimes cross the family desktop. He’s got the looks of a catalog model, little sister writes, but also the brains. Take away the clever remarks, and you’ve got nothing substantive. #TrophyHusband #EggBuns
Except for the egg buns, it wasn’t all that creative. There are plenty of homely people whose inner soundtrack consists of cartoon music. But what I can’t laugh off is that Sandy knows that I know something is terribly wrong with this situation, and that the fault is mine. Her micro-expressions say “contempt,” and, news flash, contempt is the leading cause of divorce in America.
“I’ll check on my brother,” I say, and I will, though I’m not excited about this.
I’m less excited two weeks later when neither Dave nor his wife has answered my phone calls. Compounding the problem is that Facebook’s human resources department concedes that Dave hasn’t been to work in weeks (dislike), while Palo Alto police are either incapable or unwilling to conduct a welfare check. This means I have to visit.
If Dave truly is in trouble, it surely has something to do with his wife. While my brother might be a douche, his wife is downright evil.
Missing man reported dead; wife is person of interest
Dave’s house in Palo Alto could fit inside a Michigan garage. But it basks in the disorientation of California sunshine, and Zillow tells me it’s worth the same as all the homes on my cul-de-sac.
I ring the doorbell and blue LEDs cycle around the button. A voice made of tin blares from a speaker. It’s my sister-in-law, she who shall not be named, and she says, “We already donated to the midgets association. Go away.” This is in reference to me being five foot seven.
I look around for a camera. “Show yourself, coward. What, did you get fat?”
The door opens, so quickly I flinch. And yessir, a new layer of cellulite has softened her angles, but I quit with the comments. First, I feel bad. Second, she’s holding a ball-peen hammer in one hand, the head dangling at her kneecap. The white space in her eyes is ample, one of her pupils just a hair off-center. Crazy eyes.
Her glare stays fixed, her mind working on a lie.
“Where’s my brother?”
“My brother.” When I say it again, it’s a mumble, and I’ve got a hand over my mouth.
“Yeah, exactly,” she says. “Now beat it, munchkin.”
Brother-in-law wonders: can he be the better person? I remind myself to try.
“Where’s Dave?” I say. “Be an adult. Tell me.”
She watches me, eager for a question, her lips poised for response.
For a second I think about apologizing. It’s hard for me to do this, even when I’m wrong. But it might be my only move, because going home empty-handed isn’t an option. Breaking news: Sandy might leave me. The other night, while she slept, her phone came alive with a text bubble. Mikey leaving tomorrow? Bad timing, her sister wrote. New strategy? Importantly, Sandy’s sister is a corporate spokeswoman. Importantly, this feels like one of those sinister, internal correspondences about Flint River tap water and misinformation campaigns. So I dig deep now on Dave’s doorstep.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
His wife closes her mouth. She blinks.
“I’ll start from the beginning,” I say. “I’m sorry about my speech at your wedding.” My groom’s speech began with a middle-school story that had Dave taking an emergency shit in a wheelbarrow behind a warehouse in Detroit. Man, you should’ve seen her then. Flaring nostrils, fingers strangling the nearest utensil.
I look up at her now and brace myself for further apology. “You and Dave deserved better—”
“Stop there, Mikey, that’s ten years too late. And you know what? You just embarrassed yourself. Think about that. You’ve always been a parasite on your brother, taking, taking. What, really, have you accomplished? You’re a Ken doll, Mikey, and it’s time your wife put you back in the box.” Her lips press into a tiny smile.
I gather myself. “I’m sorry too,” I say, “that you’ve got zero sense of humor. A hundred dollars you’ve got my brother duct-taped to a bed with broken feet.”
I keep an eye on the hammer in her twitching hand.
“Oh, fuck you, you superficial, tiny little headline scribbler,” she says. She wrinkles her puggy nose.
“That’s redundant,” I say.
“Tiny and little. They mean the same thing.”
“Your poor fucking wife,” she says, and slams the door. My middle finger pops up in reflex.
At the curb, I check the garbage can. Just under the lid there’s a Glad bag, with stained clothing pressing against its translucent skin. I uncinch the bag and look inside.
It’s all men’s shirts. Mostly those fifty-dollar Nike running tops. But each has a hole in the front, about an inch in diameter, with discolored edges. Ruddy browns, wan yellows, and I think, this isn’t over.
Amateur stakeout ends badly
I think about calling the police, but what would I say? Cataloging what I actually know, there’s not much, and my working theory—that she’s beating Dave, keeping him as a pet—sounds crazy when tested aloud. So I decide on a stakeout, because I can’t let her win.
This strategy, however, is not without its problems.
First, there’s the rental car. It’s bright blue, the color of a party balloon, whereas the Palo Alto streets are lined with grim, adult-colored vehicles. White, charcoal, black. Luxury sedans. At the same time, not one of the neighbors notices. We’re talking moms in yoga pants, power-walking with kale smoothies, absorbed in podcasts. Here and there, a nerdy dad zips by on an electric scooter, glued to his iPhone screen. I could be idling in a white van, wearing plaid and offering lollipops to kids, and nobody would say boo.
Nothing moves at my brother’s house. I imagine he’s shivering on the other side of the stucco, his feet bound, etching dashes into the drywall to keep time. Because as successful as Dave is, he’s also helpless. He played with Legos until age eighteen and, only five years ago, was eating Costco pizzas and adamant he’d drive his 1997, first-generation Prius until 2030. Say what you will, his wife took a man-child with a knack for coding and molded him into a Silicon Valley millionaire. Her secret weapon? Menace.
After the wedding speech, she found me leaving the restroom and pointed a finger into the hollow of my neck. “Next time,” she said, “I’ll perforate your windpipe.”
I mean, who says that?
I lost him for good after the wedding. During the few times we spoke by phone, his wife monitored our calls. I’d hear her in the background, clanking pots in the kitchen (she doesn’t cook) or flipping pages in books (she doesn’t read). The very last time Dave and I spoke, I’d asked how he could stay married to Hitler’s granddaughter. He got as far as a chuckle when his wife grabbed the phone.
“That’s it, Mikey,” she said. “You’ve lost your phone privileges.”
I called Dave’s mobile twice more; both times she answered.
The pathological variety.
Which is how I start Googling psychological derangements on my phone, and how I come across Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Medicinenet.com tells me it’s a “parenting disorder in which the parent either fabricates an illness or induces an illness in their child,” and something about this fits. She’s been giving Dave capfuls of antifreeze, and somebody just needs to prove it.
Four hours later, I realize something. Stakeouts are boring. And the garbage bin sits there, never having been fully explored. My hand flits to the door handle and I step onto the street.
What I find deeper in the trash bin sends me in all different directions. A collapsed Nerf box, giving me hope Dave is breathing. Bottles for prescription meds with peeled labels but, among the gauzy, leftover remnants, there’s mention of oxycontin, 80-milligram tablets. From a can of beans at the bottom of the bin, I fish out a wet, sour-smelling prescription label for a fentanyl patch. I don’t know what this means, but I know this: this is a motherload of opiates, and Dave doesn’t touch drugs.
But there’s no time for a Google search.
“Sir, put your hands where I can see them.” It’s a woman’s voice, behind me.
I make the mistake of turning around and one of the two police officers, a woman with body armor and a radio pinned to her clavicle, lifts something from her holster. The other officer, an older Asian man, barks at me to raise my motherfucking hands.
“Look,” I say, and hold out the fentanyl sticker. “I’m just—just take a look in here.” In my mind, the cops have turned up at just the right moment. I turn back toward the recycling bin and reach inside for more evidence.
“Sir!” It’s not quite a scream but pretty close, and I can’t remember ever being yelled at as an adult. That’s what sobers me. There are other sounds too. Straps are unsnapped, small devices unclicked. The safeties on pepper spray, tasers. A chance of handguns.
I decide it’s a good idea to raise my hands.
Brother of missing man confesses
The interrogation room looks pretty much like what’s on television. Cinder blocks, a table bolted to the floor, two chairs similarly moored. In my head, two thoughts vie for attention, both unwelcome. First, that a police record will be disfiguring. Future employers won’t have it, nor will Sandy. Second, that Dave’s wife watched through the blinds, waited, and entrapped me. Tables turned on former headline writer; stupidity leads to ruin.
Detective Carrigan, an older woman, sits across from me. Her skin is worn from a lifetime of sunshine, but her structured cheekbones and the clear whites of her eyes make her appear younger. I decide she’s attractive, and maybe the two of us, both being attractive people, will move this conversation in the right direction. There is a bit of a club, with perks. I see the same thing when Sandy meets another Jew.
Carrigan checks her phone. She looks up. “So your story is what, that your brother’s gone missing?”
“But this happened before, didn’t it.”
She’s referring to something from our childhood. Teenage boy flees after suspicious accident; little brother denies wrongdoing.
“That was sealed,” I say. “How do you even know about that?”
She shrugs. “Did you have something to do with this one, too?” In the corner, the light on a camera blinks.
This isn’t going anywhere good. “Slow day?” I say.
“Whyever do you ask?”
I motion at the camera, the cinder blocks. “Is all this necessary?”
Detective Carrigan pouts. “We give you the Cadillac treatment, and that’s all you can say? You see, bud, we’ve got repeated calls for the past two days. Eight, to be exact. We’ve got a man who flew halfway across the country, unannounced. We’ve got loitering in a car for almost five hours, caught on a neighbor’s camera, and of course the big finish—misdemeanor trespass. Now,” she says, “what do y’all call such behavior in Michigan? You’re a word man, ain’t you?”
She breaks into an easy smile, as if we’re old pals. “Where are you from?” I ask. “Louisiana, right?”
“Texas,” she says. She’s wearing a lean-fit sports jacket and picking a strand of auburn hair from her lapel. Her fingers graze by a set of burnt-orange UT Austin horns, a gesture that maybe isn’t accidental. “But enough about me, handsome. Let’s hear about you.”
The red light on the camera continues to blink.
“I get a phone call, no?”
“Bud, they read you your rights. But there are a thousand, easier ways out of this room. Ways where we shake hands and agree this wasn’t any big deal.”
I have the right to remain silent, and I’m trying hard to exercise it. Dave’s wife is the villain here.
Carrigan says, “You’re a reporter, right?”
“Oh right,” she says, “a copy editor.” She taps her jaw. “That’s like a beautician, right?”
I’ve heard that one before. I sit up. “If you could do your damn job, I wouldn’t have to do it for you.”
“Oh?” I mimic.
I realize something. What Dave’s wife has given me is an audience. A captive, police audience, here to consider every last one of her despicable acts. “My brother is missing,” I say, “and his wife’s involved. She’s stuffing him with opioids, the evidence is all over the garbage can.” I go on from there. Carrigan hears me out some, but eventually holds up a hand, like she’s stopping traffic.
“Let’s focus on you,” she says.
“Don’t you see the bigger crime here?”
“So you’re admitting to a crime?”
Her voice ghosts off the cinder-block walls. I imagine Carrigan thirty years earlier. A beauty queen in Waco or Dallas, suckering boys into alleys where her older brothers beat them up. Her dad a hardened county sheriff, giving master classes to his only daughter on deconstructing the world’s fabrications.
“Come on,” she says. “Let’s get you out of here. Did you have permission to be on the property?”
My mouth opens and the word “lawyer” is about to drop when Carrigan holds up a finger. She gets up, walks to the camera, and snaps its cord from the wall. “Let’s start over.”
While I’m dissecting her strategy, she comes back and takes my hand, turns it over, and puts two fingers over the blue veins that travel the center of my wrist. I’m aware of my heartbeat, and that it’ll quicken at a lie.
“Tell me the truth this time,” she says, “and I’ll let you go.”
My forearm stiffens.
“This isn’t the first time Dave has gone missing,” she says, “is it?”
I look up. “How did you—”
“No, cowboy, I ask the questions.”
I nod. Statutes of limitation have passed. What happened so long ago isn’t even relevant, though I find myself thinking of Sandy and our son and the strands between our hearts that have cooled and frayed. How long before Sandy and I sit alone each night, each of us absorbed in our own devices? When does this devolve into divorce and clipped phone calls, not far off from the Novocained conversations I have with my mother?
“We were kids,” I say. “My mom was away—she’d disappear now and then, for a few weeks at a time. My dad was at work, so Dave was taking care of me.” I was only nine, but the memory is strong. Dave combing my wet hair, making order of alfalfas and cowlicks. The smell of Johnson’s baby shampoo. We were wearing white dress shirts from Kmart, with clip-on bowties fixed under our collars.
“Dave tested into a special school, with an engineering curriculum. It was the real deal, and he wanted to celebrate at McDonald’s,” I say. “My mom had left us her car, and Dave was only twelve but knew how to drive. He was good at it too, and when it’d get dark, he’d take me down backcountry roads.” I sit for a moment, remembering those rides. The windows open, the scent of honeysuckle and rose washing into the car, the song of cicadas, my hand extended into the rush of summer dusk air.
“My dad came home early that day. He came through the front door, emptied his pockets of loose change and Busch light tabs, and looked at us. He thought Dave was an insufferable nerd, and just shook his head when he saw the bowtie.”
What I don’t tell Carrigan is how I quietly unclipped my own bowtie and let it fall by the baseboard. “But,” I say, “Dad was hungry and said to get in the car.”
It was one of those broiling August evenings, as hot as the day. Under nightfall we piled into the car and he backed up quickly, spinning gravel off the driveway. We made it about three blocks before he hit the man on the bicycle.
It’s not something I remember well. The headlights on the car were off, so my memory replays only a jumbled shape that emerges from the darkness. It’s the sounds that’ve stayed with me. The clatter of aluminum on asphalt, the knock underfoot. Then a clack, like the fracture of a ceramic bowl.
In the rearview mirror, when passage under streetlights allowed it, I studied my father’s face. His skin was shiny, his eyes two black spinning dimes. We parked a mile away behind a gas station, next to a picnic table. Moths fluttered in orbit around a security light and we stumbled to the table. The car’s engine died and ticked as it cooled, the headlight hanging from its socket.
While Dave and I settled at the picnic table, Dad went into the gas station. He came back with a tallboy PBR and a bag of chips under his arm. “I got barbecue flavor, little man,” he said.
I gave him a weak smile. I was his favorite, his handsome little devil. He winked. “Buddy, we’re gonna be all right,” he said, and set the beer on the picnic table. “Life throws things your way, and you adjust. Nothing stops a man with a plan.” He took the bag of chips from his armpit and squeezed. The edge blew open, the pop almost celebratory.
Dave kept his eyes trained on a crack in the pavement, looking down like kids do when they don’t want teachers to call on them.
Neither he nor Dad could ever figure out a use for one another. Dave was the kind of kid that our father and his factory buddies made fun of their entire lives. To Dave, our dad was a brutish idiot who couldn’t find North America on a globe.
“The thing is,” Dad said, “juveniles get a free pass, especially with a first offense— ”
“No,” my brother said. While I was mesmerized with talk about man-plans, Dave had puzzled out how this would end. He adjusted his bowtie and met my father’s gaze. “I’m calling the cops,” he said.
It’s shitty, but I wasn’t on Dave’s side. At that age a boy can’t divorce his ambitions from those of his father, so little Mikey was angry. Dave wasn’t being a team player.
Dad caught my eye, then said to Dave, “But you did do it, didn’t you? Mr. I-take-my-mom’s-car-out-for-underaged-drives.”
My brother just stared at him.
“You’ve gotta learn your place, boy. We all have roles, and sometimes we’ve gotta sacrifice for the good of the family. Like guys in the army take one for the platoon.”
My father had never been in the army.
“Family comes first,” he said, “right, Mikey?”
Twenty years later, I feel the same sickness. Carrigan resets her fingers on my wrist. “What happened next?” she says.
“Dave says ‘screw your roles,’ and dad grabs him by the hair. With his other hand, he smashes chips on the table and starts rubbing crumbs in Dave’s eyes.”
What I don’t tell the detective is this:
That Dave went spastic, pushing off the picnic bench with his feet.
That my dad held him down and beckoned me with his chin.
That I pressed a thumb into the scattered crumbs on the table and pressed those to where Dave’s eyelids met, the seam caked with a mash of chips, soggy with tears, coarse lashes poking through.
In the interrogation room, I close my eyes. My body shakes, tremors born of those ugly, terrible things. I’d been too scared to do anything else. I’d been relieved, too, it wasn’t me.
“It lasts maybe five seconds, ten tops,” I say, “and Dad lets him go. Dave falls on the ground and stumbles over to a spigot off the back of the gas station and starts washing his eyes out.”
Carrigan leans in. “And then he ran.”
I nod. “Behind the gas station and through someone’s yard. I started after him, but Dad caught my arm. The next morning, he made me Eggos and told me that, whatever happened, Dave wouldn’t get in trouble—they don’t put kids in jail. Then we sat down and went over things, and it was convenient my brother went missing, and that’s how his name ended up on the confession letter.”
“Your dad wrote the letter?”
“On his own?” Carrigan says.
I find a place in my lap and stare at it. “He dictated, I wrote out a draft. Then I copied it over in Dave’s handwriting.”
What I don’t admit is how oddly soothing that was for me. Dad stood at my shoulder and watched the confession letter take shape, his breath settling, his grip on the chair slackening. For me, there was an easy power in it, recreating Dave’s scribbles, polishing up Dad’s lies— it felt cleaner, less abject and nauseating. This was something I could do.
“And the victim?”
“He lived. We ran over his leg. He hit his head, but nothing permanent.”
“He went missing a month maybe, but he wasn’t really missing. He circled back and lived in our cellar. I left the bulkhead doors to the basement unlocked, and brought him food.”
Carrigan scratches her neck. “What happened with the police?”
“They found him, because when summer ended a week later, Dave showed up at the engineering school, and they had to turn him in. He was arrested for the hit-and-run, and the school, you know, rescinded his admission.”
We sit there for a while. I barely feel the detective’s fingers. Really, I don’t feel much of anything. After Dave came back from juvenile hall, he lay in bed for three days straight. He said nothing, would answer none of my questions, and what followed was a cold, bloodless formality. At our best, many years later, we traded mildly funny jokes over long-distance calls, tethered to one another out of loneliness, bonded through our visit to those dark corners of the universe that only we knew. “I ruined it,” I say, blinking away tears. “I just need to know that he’s okay.”
The detective removes her hand from my wrist. She sets her elbows on the table and studies me. “What,” she says, “are we going to do about you?”
I shrug. I feel like I’m nine again, but also that I can set things right. “I went through his garbage because something bad has happened. I don’t know what, but he needs me, I can feel it. I need to find him— and save him, I owe him that.”
“How do you know?” she says.
“That Dave is in trouble.”
“I can feel it.”
“This suspicion comes from somewhere. Where?”
I think back to “where.” My mother. Dave’s mentally ill wife. The shirts, their strange holes. All this seems like enough but, in a world of sober judgment, stripped of my presumptions and interpolations, none of it really hangs together. I riffle off the facts I know. The unreturned calls, the bag of shirts, Dave’s prescription labels in the garbage, his wife’s ball-peen hammer.
Carrigan doesn’t look impressed. Just tired.
“Can you do a welfare check?” I say.
“For the same reason you had no business being on your brother’s property. There’s no evidence he’s in trouble.”
“What more evidence do you need?”
She closes her eyes. “Here’s how this is going to work. You’re getting back on a flight to Michigan. I’ll watch you make the reservation, and then you’ll leave town.” Beneath her lids her eyes are moving, as though in REM sleep. “I’m not going to arrest you,” she says. “I’ll write it up that you were in the City’s right-of-way. No, you’ll write it up that way in a statement—you’ve got experience fabricating those. You won’t be in our system, if you follow my rules.”
“Why can’t you do a welfare check?”
She opens her eyes. “Enough,” she says. “Don’t look this gift horse in the mouth.”
Welfare check leads to gruesome discovery
In the braiding of roadway that strangles SFO, I hunt in the dark for the rental car return, wondering what cops need to perform a welfare check. Probable cause? Proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Thinking back on things, it’s surprising to me the shirts, with their ugly little holes, weren’t enough. Thinking back on things, I’m angry with the detective, with her lack of curiosity. This is the epitome of bad policing, I think, an epidemic in the country, and outside the suffocating walls of the interrogation room, my suspicions re-emerge.
Traffic is stop-and-go on these airport feeder roads, a hundred red brake lights amid the fog of exhaust. Patrolmen in reflective vests wave flashlights, urging everyone to keep a healthy pace. But I’m staying put. I pull over and call my mom. Dave needs me, and all I need to save him is enough evidence.
It’s after midnight in Florida, but my mom answers on the second ring.
“What made you say Dave was missing?” I say.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ma, it was two weeks ago.”
“I didn’t say that.” The dings of an electronic game populate her background, a slot machine or Candy Crush.
I face-plant into my hands. “You can’t be serious. You really can’t.”
“Who said anything about him missing? He hasn’t called in a while, so I figured his bitch wife wouldn’t let him. Why, what do you know?”
I hang up. I get it now. My mother lives only in the “now,” each second disconnected from past seconds, every moment a fresh start. It’s something I’d been aspiring to, and now I understand where that dark alley ends.
The universe demands that I find Dave, I know that now, and a thumb-driven search informs me that, for a welfare check, there must be “reasonable grounds” a person is in danger. That sounds doable.
A parking cop raps on the window, barking something, but there’s no need. Little brother off to the rescue, cannot be stopped.
Twenty minutes later my little blue car is easing back through Dave’s neighborhood in Palo Alto. Twenty-five minutes later, I’m hoisting myself over the sawtooth precipice of Dave’s backyard fence. It’s nighttime, and the neighbors are binge-watching Netflix in the glow of their 60-inch televisions. They see nothing.
I land in a crouch between ferns, their leaves feathering my arm. But it’s like someone else’s skin. I feel outside myself, in third person, running towards danger.
Dave’s curtains are open, the kitchen awash in amber light. I need “reasonable grounds,” that’s all. My hand drifts to my pocket, my phone is palmed. I don’t know what I’m looking for exactly, so I ready the iPhone’s camera and move closer.
The kitchen is a mess. It’s July, but Christmas cards line the windowsill. Dishes crowd the sink, reaching the spout of the faucet. The floor is beset with Amazon boxes, disemboweled of bubble wrap, and the counters host uneven lines of Costco-sized bottles and jugs, maybe protein powders and vitamin supplements. Pill bottles with Rx stickers. On the kitchen island is the ball-peen hammer, with starbursts of white dust splayed across the butcher block. I photograph everything.
Behind the imitation click of my phone’s camera and the din of far-off traffic, my eardrums pick up something faint, coming from the house. It’s a soft whoosh-whoosh, continuous, and I can’t see into the room beyond the kitchen but in the reflection of a dark television I see the flash of vigorous movement.
Something scrapes across the concrete of the patio behind me. The sole of a shoe, maybe. “That’s far enough,” I hear. It’s a low-octave voice, and a raspy cross between a croak and a bark.
I raise my hands and turn.
An alien creature is sitting in a chair, in the darkness under an umbrella. A leg sticks into the moonlight, skinny, wraithlike. My eyes can’t adjust—a crackle of white static overlays the shadows, and I know only it’s something in a hoodie. This thing raises a gun from its lap and shoots.
Three pops, softer than I expect. Something stings my cheek.
My hands skip to my face. At the margin of sight, a Nerf dart skitters across the concrete slab.
“What the fuck?” I rub my cheek, confirming there’s no blood. My heart chitters at a rodent’s pace, but my brain has determined what’s happened: my brother just pegged me in the face with a toy dart. The feeling returns to my body, but I’m woozy, and reach for the patio table.
Dave is cackling, a hoarse, crumbling cackle. He stands up, into the lunar glow. His sleeves are pushed to the elbows, his wrists no thicker than dowels. One half of his jaw is skeletal, the other is dented, missing, and what I can see of his neck is a giant scab that disappears under the gather of fabric at his collar. He’s maybe 110 pounds.
“Shocker,” he says. “I figured you’d be halfway to Michigan. My wife won the bet,” or that’s more or less what I understand. His voice is garbled, like you hear underwater.
My cheek still stings. “You shot me?”
“Check it out, asshole,” he says, and tosses me a plastic gun and keeps talking, telling me what he’s modified. Stronger springs, internal aluminum something-or-other.
I keep looking at his eyes. They’re buggy, large compared to his skull. His lips stretch tight against his teeth. “Like my gun?”
“What the fuck has she done to you?”
“Really? You, of all people, can’t figure this out?”
My eyes travel his deformities. I’ve seen enough pictures of Sandy with her patients to know what’s what, but my mouth heads off in another direction. “This is torture,” I say. “She’s torturing you.”
He shakes his head. “I have cancer, you idiot. Mouth, tongue, and throat.”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to acknowledge it, to know what it feels like. To whatever extent my heart has softened, it’s condensing back into lead.
“What about the gun?” he says. “What do you think?”
My chest loosens. I turn the Nerf gun over in my hand. It’s your standard plastic toy, but supercharged with modifications. Metal parts, ghost-ring sites, gel pistol grips. This is Dave, at his best. I aim the weapon over the fence and pull the trigger. A dart whistles from the barrel and disappears into the night sky. “Holy Jesus.”
He gives a double thumbs up, then nods to the other side of the yard where he’s arranged a row of cans on a bench. I chamber a dart and take aim and knock over a can. Then again. The aluminum cans jump and pinwheel, end-over-end, blown back to the fence at the yard’s perimeter. Dave grins, beckons for the gun back, and takes care of the others. His smile is disfigured, but I can see that he’s happy. There’s a childish joy to it, like my son with the caterpillar, and for a moment we slip through a tear in the space-time continuum and I remember the fun we had when we were little, building potato guns, engineering souped-up RC cars. Dave had one going sixty miles per hour.
“I love you,” I tell him.
I’m too embarrassed to say it again.
“You love me,” he says. Then he chuckles. “Okay, that’s nice.”
“That’s nice?” I say. It’s a hit to the chest. I sit in the nearest chair.
“No one said you can sit down,” he says, moving closer, standing over me. “Nobody says you’re welcome here.”
“The first thing you’ll do is apologize to my wife.”
I’m not sure I’ve heard right, because his consonants are sandpapered and his vowels all sound the same. He repeats it.
I shake my head. “No,” I say. “There’s nothing to apologize for. Your wife’s a controlling bitch—she isolates you.”
“She protects me.”
“You fucking ruined my life.”
Boom, there it is.
But that gutshot is chased by relief. Things are out in the open now.
“I did,” I say.
My brother doesn’t speak.
“And Dave, I need to make that up to you. That was so fucked up because Dad needed to go down for that. He hit that guy, and you stood up—”
Dave is waving his hands in that shut-the-fuck-up way. “That,” he croaks, “was forgivable. You were just a kid.”
“It’s everything that came after.”
He does an eye-roll, which looks almost cartoonish under his skeletal brow. “Oh my god,” he says. “Really?” He splays his hand, rubs his temples with his fingers. “I took the fall and you ridiculed me for it. You guys were merciless. Dave the Dupe, remember that one?”
“What are you talking about?”
“It was in your fucking wedding speech.”
I think back. I can’t remember, and that’s probably even worse.
“You embarrassed me in front of my new family. They didn’t know any of that and, what’s worse, I had to fight—fight—to get you invited.”
“You loved that Cleveland wheelbarrow story. We laughed about it a thousand times.”
“You laughed.” I look into Dave’s eyes, burning in that eaten body of his, and understand now. Our memories are different, and his isn’t wrong. It’s just more complete—a better imprint, because Dave is more sensitive or maybe simply because he was the victim, always the victim, and just like Sandy’s sister tries to wrap me in the “goodlooking-but-dumb” narrative, he’s been downright trapped in amber with a thousand hurtful moments. We’d pigeon-holed him in a role. He was one thing to us, could only be one thing, and we’ve all kept it up for decades. The snide comments my mom and I trade about Dave and his blue hair, the caricature in which we’ve dressed his wife. The people who are supposed to love him most.
Brother has epiphany. Dave and his wife have been doing the same thing as Sandy and me, building a wall to keep out the madness.
“Let me explain,” I say.
He waves me off. “I’m dying,” he says. “I’ve got stage IV metastatic squamous cell carcinoma.”
The words bleed into one another, this doesn’t mean anything to me. “Terminal cancer, idiot. Now apologize to my wife. Open the door, she’s on the elliptical machine. Say you’re sorry.”
I can still hear that whoosh-whoosh from inside the house. “I had no idea,” I say.
“How could I?”
“Well, you were pouring through my garbage, looking through my meds. Until I called the cops,” he said, with one of those grainy chuckles. “I mean, it only takes a Google search to know those are palliative medicines.”
“God you really are stupid.”
“I know what it means.”
“Fifty-fifty chance you’re lying.” Dave’s never talked like this, but he’s enjoying himself, that I can see.
“You’re no better than me,” I say. “We’re the same blood.”
“You just can’t do it, can you?”
“Roll over for once,” he says, “and admit you’re awful.” He shakes his head. “You need to think how you’re going to treat me in the time I have left.” Then he sits down and lifts his sweatshirt. There’s a running shirt underneath, with a hole near the abdomen where a tube stretches out. On the table near his elbow there’s a cylinder of dark liquid, a big plastic syringe. He connects the syringe to the tube and injects himself with the liquid. I know, then, that he’s feeding himself. That he can’t swallow anything, can’t eat, can’t drink. That all the powders and pills in his kitchen are for nutrient slurries that keep him from starving.
He takes his time. He looks up. “Why are you still here?”
He shakes his head. “You’ve always had it easy, living in your handsome little bubble. Well, I told the cops your secrets. Which reminds me.” He places his feeding apparatus in his lap, takes a phone from a fold in his sweatshirt, and presses a button. The time is illuminated. 10:14 pm.
I’m able to see, too, when he dials 9-1-1.
While it rings, he tells me, “You being here is taxing my vitals. You’re putting me in a dangerous position. I could choke to death.”
I get up from the chair. “You’ve lost it,” I say. He wants me to grovel, to beg.
From the phone’s speaker, the operator asks about Dave’s emergency. He says something about an intruder.
“Why are you doing this?” I say.
Dave puts his hand over the bottom half of his phone. “There are seven billion hearts beating on this earth,” he says. “How many do you hear right now?”
All I hear is my own.
Little brother awaits the world to come
The first thing I do when I get home is take a shower, to wash away the jail smell. Once toweled dry, it’s into bed, which is impossibly soft. I understand then how it’s possible to lie in one place for three days straight.
Sandy comes in with our son in her arms.
“You didn’t even say hello,” she says. She places our boy on the floor and rubs her belly, assuring it. The rosy complexion, the full lips—I understand now. She’s pregnant with our second.
I don’t know where to begin. Maybe with my arrest, and that we’ll have to hire a lawyer. Maybe with the last text from my brother: LMAO on the arrest. You asked why? Revenge, asshole.
My wife and son stand in the doorframe and seem befuddled by me. I’m becoming a stranger, and the only way I can figure to prevent this is to tell her everything, though I’m uncertain that baring my soul will resurrect any intimacies. Because my son is present, I say what happened in the soft tones of a lullaby. Sandy is listening, cogitating, but there’s no reassuring caress, no whispered platitudes. For the first time, I understand her patience is finite, and that cutting diseased limbs from our shared family tree might involve more than initially diagnosed. The sickness has metastasized.
“What do I do?” I say. “I’ll do anything.”
“You have to ask?”
But truly, I don’t know the right answer.
Sandy inhales, her nostrils flattening. She’s about to say something, then decides against it. Instead she lifts my son and takes him away, and I’m puzzling over what this means when she returns. In her hand, a notepad and a pen. She tosses these things, and they land on my chest.
“Figure. It. Out.”
I lie there, and the longer I do, the worse I feel. I can’t lose Sandy, can’t live in a world of separate homes. A divorced-dad apartment with blank walls and bad acoustics, every other holiday spent in solitude. And yet it would be so easy for me to disconnect and withdraw, and I wonder maybe we all feel this way. Maybe Sandy feels this way a dozen times a day, toward me, toward her patients, and the struggle isn’t in dulling the pain but in embracing all the ugliness, until we find what’s on the far side of heartbreak. There was a whole life between Dave and me that never happened, and all those things, those beautiful things, we never let him be.
Ultimately, all I can think to do is write him a letter. I think about the wedding speech, and what was absent, and decide to start there. But it’s hard, I’m not good at this stuff. All I’ve done my whole career is fix up the sentences of others. So I just start writing. Dear Dave, I write. Mom called. She told me you’d gone missing, and that she thought I should know.
I tap my pen against the page.
Esem Junior has lived at both the Canadian and Mexican borders where he survived extreme cold and heat, Tim Hortons, and immersion in the Rio Grande. He is a former journalist, and his fiction has appeared or will appear in the Mystery Tribune, Metaphorosis Magazine, and elsewhere.