The day my brother died, I broke into my best friend’s house. I skipped school that day, feigning a stomach ache. I had taken several stool softeners the day before. My mother, a light sleeper, plagued by anxiety that hovered over her only at night like a muslin sheet, assumed that the constant flushing toilet coming from my bathroom was evidence of my flu-like symptoms. This ruse wasn’t my favorite way to fake sickness, but it was effective, and the symptoms usually wore off by noon. I’d then have the house to myself for four uninterrupted hours.
I must have heard the sirens, the entire town erupting in wailing chaos, but we never assume the emergency has anything to do with us. Our minds quickly account for the whereabouts of our family members, ticking off their usual placements stuck in their settings like characters in a book. My mother was sitting behind her desk, typing in numbers, balancing accounts, my father was at the elementary school teaching science, and my brother was at the high school, tipped back in his chair, math quiz finished quickly, telling jokes, that even his teachers laughed at despite their warnings of detention if he didn’t shut up.
I didn’t exactly break into Ryan’s house. I knew about the hide-a-key, how obviously fake the rock looked, a specked mica among dull gray stones delivered one spring break when we were eight and were still excited by the loud rush of falling rocks from the bed of a dump truck. Turning the key, I wasn’t afraid. There wasn’t an alarm or even a dog, but just the thrumming silence of appliances. There was mystery among the familiar. I’d been in the house countless times, but never alone.
A week later the police told us, while we sat on the couch, a May sun streaming in through the window behind us, that witness accounts placed my brother on county road 350 East, driving at reckless speeds. “What’s a reckless speed to a couple of grannies and an old farmer?” I ask the middle-aged cop, whose gray chest hair I could see through the bulge between the buttons of his uniform shirt. Officer Fugit shook his head, while my dad escorted me to my room. He settled me on my bed, the comforter cold, his hand on my shoulder sweltering. “We’re all in pain, Dylan. Your mother, she can’t handle these kind of questions.”
“You,” I started, but the haunting was already behind his eyes. “Then we shouldn’t expect any answers.”
Most kids would brag about looking at their best friend’s sister’s underwear, or drinking the father’s liquor, or unearthing the unlocked, but holstered handgun in the mother’s nightstand. But you know where they found me? In Ryan’s old playroom, the vintage toys scattered around me–Transformers, Ninja Turtles, He-Man, and G.I. Joe–arranged in an epic battle, a storyline I didn’t want to give up, as my mother stood over me, breath ragged as a balloon that’s come untied. Her wrists, draped across my shoulders, twitching from mechanical motion of typing, I held up a Ninja turtle, the red-masked one, and asked, “Do you remember this?”
We only made it three more months in that town, the rumors of there being another car, the image of black paint streaked across the bumper of my brother’s car, after the town sent it off to the county dump, and it had been recycled and turned into sheet metal riveted to someone’s roof were a constant source of embarrassment for my father. Hypotheses he couldn’t track down, no experiment he could conduct in his lab. My mother lost her nerve for numbers. The steady, plodding pace of a woodpecker at her computer fell silent, as she fell into the sentimentality of watching Jimmy Stewart movies over and over, the disability for carpal tunnel an obvious excuse.
And then there was me, suddenly an only child, my brother’s voice fading to a single word, “Dude,” repeating throughout our new house, his only goddamn words of advice echoing hollowly in the white noise of our sudden, but lasting grief.
A year later, I got a package in the mail, no sender identified, but the address familiar. I opened it cautiously in my room, this new house only having two bedrooms to keep the ghosts out, to find a set of Transformers, carefully packed in bubble wrap, the plasticized colors vibrant and unmarked. I placed them on my desk, mechanical arms outstretched, frozen in battle, waiting for someone to notice.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, New World Writing, Split Lip Magazine, Hawaii Pacific Review, and Spartan. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.