My big brother left and didn't come back the same, came back with a girlfriend. They live in the upstairs back room now. There's a lot that's changed, a lot of ugly new clothes in the laundry, and I can't help but wonder if Mom's keeping track of the girlfriend's shower time. But Mom doesn't seem to mind anything that the girlfriend does, seems to think she's precious cargo.
The four of us are sitting in the kitchen. It's been a bad, wet winter. Me and Mom are on one side of the kitchen table and J. and Miss Girlfriend are on the other. He's saying words and she's saying words and they're shy like little kids are shy. Mom's beside me, about to levitate out of her chair, welling up at The Big News he and Miss Girlfriend are laying out on us. Like they've done something cool, done something special.
Mom's got her old, sad hands over her mouth, going, "Oh my god! Oh! My god!"
Her god she's oh-mying for is the sort you want around, in these sort of situations, I think.
There are chickadees hoping for summer outside in the bush.
It's weird they live in the back room. It doesn't have a door and there's no insulation on that part of the house. The floor is just a bunch of boards you can see between. You can stand in the room we call the office, but is more of a plywood-floor shit-corner we throw the extra junk, and look straight up and see the shape of the twin bed they hauled over from his room.
Used to be it was part of a bunk bed with mine. We cut them apart with Dad's Sawzall around when J. went to high school and I was stuck down in sixth grade. Which was also the year that Dad died. Which was also the year J. started wearing that tacky pleather jacket, when he got a job and the Honda, made friends that played D'n'D at out-of-town shops, like it was serious business. That was the spring when he started talking about his high-interest savings account to Mom like what he was really saying was fuck you, banshee, I'm out of here. So maybe it wasn't true that he left and came back different. Maybe I'd just been changing how I knew him all those years of us going from undercooked little squiggles to full-blown, zit-stricken kids, and it took him going away for me to see it.
I don't like his girlfriend much. She comes down in the mornings yawning like it's her kitchen. But she knows how to talk to Mom. They sit, drink coffee and bitch about things, like stomach fat, and the tampon tax, and taxes in general, which I know a lot about, because we are poor in a rich place. J. has got his arm stuck around her right now. She's got fat shoulders.
One time I skinned my knee, was gone so long on a Monday Mom figured I'd been killed, so she said, "Now you know how I feel." By which she meant, I was worried about you, that knee's nothing, and how could you make me worry like that, why can't you understand you and I are the same blood?
I think she worries about him too, but it's not the same, not like she wanted him to be all the things she couldn't be, even though those two look more mother and child than her and me.
When we were younger, he and I would listen in the morning for her footsteps. See if we couldn't hear how the day was gonna go. Quiet was alright. If they were loud, though, like she was so far keeping the anger out of her hands and mouth and putting it in her feet, we knew to be good as we could. When they were loud it sounded like the devil was up there in her bedroom.
He'd always make the first move those mornings. Let me stay dumb in case Mom was hunting for goof-ups.
Other times, we'd sit on the floor and he'd make up these really complex games. We'd go tunneling into other worlds, become other things. We'd unfold printer-paper wings and fly out to the backwoods where our ankle-deep stream was a big river, crawling with red salamanders and beautiful, broken glass, new worlds we built out of the maples, out of mud, out of nothing. We'd squat for hours playing, forgetting we weren't part of that stream, forgetting a lot of stuff.
We could make-believe anywhere back then.
One winter when the furnace was broken and the wood stove was burning green wood, we were messing around in the office and found a box of old photos and there's a Kodak of J. holding me as an ugly baby with Mom, and Dad holding all of us and even though you could already see the crazy in Mom's mouth if you knew how to look, could see the too-desperate in Dad's that ended up ending him, it was weird because you could also pretend everything was A-okay. J. said, and pointed at me in the photo, "So once upon a time she–"
But I guess he couldn't think of anything to say. So we stuffed the box away and snugged up near the wood stove's iron.
Maybe that's why he and his girlfriend don't live in his old room. Like maybe it's easier to make-believe at normal when everything else is different too.
I missed him a lot when he was gone. I never once thought it was selfish or anything, him leaving right after Dad did. He checked in, too. Made sure I was alright, asked about Mom, sent us money even sometimes, never said anything about himself, except for one day going, "I'm thinking of coming home for a while." And then tacking on he was bringing with him a female who turns out to despise me.
Honest? I think she's jealous.
I think he told her all the good times he and I used to have, and she knows no matter what they get up to, I'll still be his little sister. And you can't really one up that.
But now he's back in this half-empty house. And this is honest too: I still miss him.
Now he's grinning like he's gone shy. He's picking the skin off his thumb even though its already picked enough that the bone might come through, and I know nobody's watching that wound grow but me. Now he's saying, "In April," and I'm sitting here looking at this boy who's starting to look like Dad, how he can't get the worry out of his forehead, even when he's happy. And now Mom's up and running. She's out of her chair, throwing herself on that smug little girlfriend. Mom's crying, "My god! God!" so loud the chickadees get mad and take off.
And he's over there nodding, looking everywhere but back at me. My brother, not God.
If you know how to listen, Mom's voice is weird. Kind of like footsteps that might or might not be loud for no reason, might just be footsteps. Like she's a complicated kind of happy.
So now he's gone and got Miss Girlfriend pregnant. And I'm an uncomplicated kind of scared. Like who's gonna pay the way for that baby when not one of us has figured out how to pay the way for ourselves.