It was the angry blaring of a car’s horn and the squealing slam of the same car’s brakes as it came sliding to a stop mere inches from me that broke through my fog of confusion, anger, and pain.
My body leapt sideways of its own accord, and I hurried across the intersection, not bothering to avoid the puddles of water. My shoes were already soaked through anyway, as was the rest of me. It had been raining since yesterday afternoon. Torrents, sheets, cats and dogs – whatever moniker people used to describe rainstorms could be used to describe this one. I’d never seen anything like it.
Most people were inside, huddling under blankets with cups of hot chocolate in hand. But I couldn’t make myself return home. I wasn’t ready to see anyone yet, least of all my family.
It’s Joe. He’s in prison.
Those were the words that had ripped my world to shreds only a few weeks before. With everything going on at work and at home – the pressure of keeping my new business afloat, of maintaining peace among my half-dozen employees, of looking after my wife and three children, the youngest of whom dealt with frightening bouts with asthma on a semi-regular basis – Joe and his issues had been on the backburner of my mind.
I hadn’t believed the news at first. My brother wasn’t the prison type. Then again, I remembered thinking, he does have a way of infuriating people.
One moment from our childhood stood out. I had gotten angry with our youngest brother about something and was arguing with him in our front yard. Joe rounded the corner just in time to see me shove Justin to the ground. I’ve never been able to forget the look on his face. I thought he might go tell our mother, but he didn’t. (Justin did that, running into the house crying and blaming me.) Joe just stared at me with an expression I’d never seen on a boy’s face and have never seen since.
I couldn’t have described it to anyone then, and I haven’t made much progress since. Sadness maybe. Heartbreak is closer, but saying a boy of thirteen could feel heartbreak over a conflict between his two brothers sounds so absurd I’ve never wanted to describe it that way.
When he looked at me like that, I felt first dirty and then angry that I felt dirty, so angry I shoved him next – just as my mother came out of the house holding Justin’s hand and looking for me.
It hadn’t always been like that, of course. I was actually a pretty decent kid. I made good grades, had a close group of friends, got along with my siblings – generally at least, went to church, memorized Bible verses…but next to Joe, I didn’t measure up. Couldn’t measure up.
When he was old enough, he took over our father’s antique business, which I suppose is why I moved a little farther away after I graduated. It was easier not to be too close to him. But then he went totally off the rails a couple years ago, abandoning the business and hitchhiking across the country like some hobo. The things he was reported as saying were so radical I could barely believe they came from my generally mild-mannered brother – words of division, revolution, and glory. Words so dangerous they eventually got him arrested.
And then…killed. It had all happened so quickly, I still wondered whether it could possibly have been legal. The things they had accused him of – rebellion, civil unrest, plots against our leaders – surely this wasn’t enough to warrant a conviction? I’d wracked my brain and my social connections, looking for a way out.
But he had been executed. Yesterday. And since then the sky had been crying without pause, while my heart curled so tightly into itself that it couldn’t feel, let alone break.
I scuffed through another puddle as I rounded the corner of an apartment building. I’d never been in this part of town before that I could recall. But it didn’t matter. Eventually, I would find my way home. Maybe.
I couldn’t forget the expression in my mother’s eyes. If someone had taken a knife, stabbed her in the chest, and slit her open, she could hardly have been in more pain. It hurt so much to look at her, I was almost relieved when one of Joe’s friends offered her a place to stay for the night. I felt guilty, knowing she should be with us, but maybe it would be better for her there. Maybe without her around, I wouldn’t suffer the constant reminder of how I had failed my family.
Could I have stopped it? That question sank from my mind to the pit of my stomach, sending ripples of sickening guilt through my body. Had I really tried everything? If I hadn’t been so frustrated, so angry, so jealous, maybe I would have tried harder, found another way.
Am I my brother’s keeper? That question usually applied for the older brother to the younger, but I didn’t see why it shouldn’t work the other way around too. Was I? Should I have been? Could I have changed things?
There were no answers. None that satisfied anyway. So I kept walking.
The sky was lighter now. Dawn was approaching, even though the rain still fell. I paused for a minute under an awning and glanced up at the store’s name. McCutcheon Carpentry and Woodworking. I glanced at the desks and side tables sitting in the store window, and a memory launched me back to my teen years.
Joe had only recently taken over the antiques business, and I had wandered into his workshop one day to find him bent over an old pocket watch.
“Why bother with that old thing?” I’d asked. “It’s completely busted.”
“Everything can be fixed,” he’d said.
Sure enough, a few minutes later the watch was ticking again.
He closed its lid with a smile. “Joe’s Antiques,” he’d joked. “Making things new for the next generation.”
A burst of light caught my attention, and I glanced away from the shop window to see a ray of sunlight break through the early morning clouds. It caught on the water droplets still falling from the sky and formed a dim rainbow against the dark sky.
Making things new.
The weight in my chest still heavy, I clenched my eyes closed. Please. Please. I opened my eyes to find that one rainbow had become two. I watched the brightening sky for a moment or two longer before turning to find my way home.