Come to Touch
by JD Scott
After the funeral my brother came back. The first night I was alone, and I had pushed him to the furthest edges of my mind—or at least told myself I did. I had taken to sleeping in my dead brother’s bed, which is probably not what someone does when they’re okay. I pushed my thoughts somewhere unbrother, buried my face in my nightshirt so I’d stop smelling the grease of his hair in the pillow. I thought about making seagrape jelly, or else driving an hour north to the old theatre, the one where the r came before the e. They made Italian sodas there. There was a silent film they showed with a real, living organ player. It was a nostalgia, but whose?
We had to go inland to bury River, travel to drier land where the coffin wouldn’t be soaked in saltmud, although most of the earth here was wet, no matter how deep you dug. The funeral home was next to an apothecary where he used to take me in his pick-up truck to buy bath bombs. I loved baths, so we went there at least twice a month, but I don’t think I ever noticed the funeral home itself before I had to go inside it.
I thought River must have walked all the way back, that night. I was mostly asleep, but I heard him unbuckle his belt, drop his pants in a clink on the floor. I wanted to look, to see his body, make sure it was his, but the ceremony was closed-coffin for a reason. I was in the corner, facing away, almost trying to lose myself in the space between the bed and the wall because what kind of brother comes back?
We’d spent our entire lives together: sleeping, dressing, undressing, bathing. It was a two-bedroom house on stilts, an enclosed space where claustrophobia and hydrophobia came together into a marriage. People who settle on islands know they may one day be taken away by all that water—but they continue on with their hubris.
I had spent a life sharing a room with my brother—I could feel his absence. Even the floorboards creaked as he shifted his weight in the way only he could. When he slid under the comforter, he wrapped his legs around mine. They were cold and damp. I reached my hand backwards to touch the past: first the shoulder, then the tank top, which had a dewiness like a used washcloth.
“You came back,” I said, staring straight at the wall.
“Did I go somewhere?” he said in that unchanged voice. His hand came forward, touching my stomach with a badgering prod. “Why are you in my bed? Did something happen?”
I remained quiet. There was a wistfulness in his voice—a small delight—as if maybe I had come around to something. He seemed unaware of our situation.
“Was it Dad?” He put his mouth so close to my earlobe that I could feel his lips against the little filaments that grew from my lobe.
“We fought,” I said, “Something about losing…”
I couldn’t. I could feel my brother pulling back, the air-conditioned prickles pushing against my back in the space between our bodies.
“Losing? What does that mean?” he said in an annoyed hush, before easing back towards me. “Forget about Dad. Do you remember when you used to sneak into my bed?”
Of course I did. Our childhood was marked by the secret languages we created for one another. Our night ritual was to steal Mom’s flashlight, the one in the shape of a sea turtle. We used to lie in bed creating shadow puppets, then tapping our child-fingers against the wall in our code. He reached past me, and I could see his skin in whatever light slivered its way into the night room. His flesh looked clammy as his fingers tapped into the wall, light stretching along the surface of his skin.
His fingernail dragged into an arc against the texture of the paint, then back down. He drew what looked like triangle, a lemon, an egg. He drew an invisible heart with his finger, tapping at the center three times. I repeated the gesture, tapping the center five times. River’s wet hand slid over mine.
“I was just thinking: maybe I could get use my phone’s flashlight against the wall, make your favorite animals.”
“No,” I said. “I think I’m done with those memories for tonight.”
“I’m going to go sleep in your bed then,” he whispered.
“No,” I said again, squeezing, feeling that space between our fingers where the temperature differed.
“Moody Gourd,” he said, and rested his chin on the back of my shoulder.
“Water Otter,” I said, holding his hand, afraid of what it could mean to let go.
• • •
Before the funeral, my brother was taking what he called “a gap year,” even though he was twenty and had been done with high school for two years. Isn’t a gap year supposed to be singular, and then you grow up, sign up for college, go on with your life? I had, anyway, taking classes at the local community college at the south tip of the island. Mom and Dad said River was sensitive, which is why they never kicked him out. Or maybe that was just my projection. The truth is, you couldn’t get rid of one of us without getting rid of the other. Like going to the mall on the mainland where the dressing rooms have a mirror on each side—projecting yourself forever—River and I were like this.
I was just weeks from being done with my associate’s, and River had his job as this inventory-auditor person. Combined, we were enough of an adult, a person made whole, although the truth was we’d always both been seen as immature. Even in our somewhat continued adolescence, we tried to become complete. River held his job, going out at dawn to the three grocery stores on the island, and then continue outward—drive his pick-up truck along the bridge to the mainland toward all the other stores. He had this barcode scanner that he’d bring with him to the water aisle. His job was exclusively to audit the water. Wa-ter Au-di-ter. The syllables were liquid too; how clumsy they fell from my mouth.
• • •
“Did I go somewhere?”
When I woke up alone, the sky filtering grey early-morning light through the curtains, I knew there was only one place he could be.
I put on my black-and-white striped leggings, my Mary Janes with a cute cat face on the tip of each shoe. I slid a black velour dress over my body—the one with long, flowy sleeves. It was almost December, and the gulf breeze held a slight bite to it. Now that the tourists were gone there was a coldness that would sink into anything. It was red tide too, that mysterious time when the water turns to blood and all the dead fish spill out on the shore. Combined with the unseasonable early winter winds, the only people left here would be locals and maybe a few tourists who were really, really bad at planning vacations.
In our kitchen, Mom was shoveling some sad eggs on a piece of toast. Dad was a few feet behind her, scrubbing the frying pan.
“Does River work at Paul’s Grocery first on Saturdays?”
They shot each other a look.
“Sorry—didn’t River work Saturdays? At Paul’s Grocery?”
“I don’t understand the tenor of this conversation,” my father said, sharply. Why did his name sound like a swear word when I said it in front of my parents?
“Riley,” my mom said, trying to conceal entire sentences in the five letters of my name.
My father gestured his steel wool hand at me. “It’s been one day since we said goodbye, Riley. We just had a nice breakfast too.” I stared at the bits of yellow caught in the silver in his hand. He looked up and down my outfit. “Can’t you at least act normal?”
“What are you talking about?” I said, indignant.
“She’s mocking us,” he said to my mother. “Look at you. What are you wearing? Maybe you could cut the death cult get-up given our family’s situation.”
“I’m mourning,” I said. “It’s what people do when their loved ones die. They wear black.” I went over and kissed my mom on the cheek. “Sorry,” I whispered to her, my hand squeezing her shoulder.. “I’ll be home for dinner.”
“You’ve been in mourning long before—long before—your mourning clothes are just going to keep upsetting your mother,” my dad said, turning to face the sink again, to put extra elbow grease into the sud-soaked pot he had moved onto. My mother was already cooing to diminish his anger. I wonder if there was a part of me she hated as much as I hated the part of her that continued to stay with him?
The fight from the previous night had been awful. All three of us screamed after everyone had left. It started with Dad though. When he spoke of loss, as if it was his alone, I felt so small, parts of me disappearing into cellophane. It had almost come to blows, but my father had never hit my mother, and I seemed to exist, at least tenuously, in the same world she did. I knew the morning would bring a familial reset button of last-night-never-happened, although now I wanted to run away more than ever. Or was I too old to run away? As a twenty-year-old wouldn’t it, instead, simply be leaving or living? With my forthcoming degree, there were four-year universities, possibilities. I could move away from my father, into a future where I was always this Riley.
I waved my middle fingers at Dad’s back. Whatever wonder had been inside me upon awakening had swirled down into this hot cat piss mood. I stomped back to the bedroom, shoving my daily talismans into my PVC bat-shaped backpack: a half-smoked pack of Parliaments, my lucky lighter with a pin-up model down the side, dark maroon lipstick, orange Tic-Tacs, unruly wads of petty cash, my metal water bottle covered in band stickers. When I passed our mantle next to the stairs, I saw the framed photo I had turned down last night after the fight—pointed up-right again. It’s a photo of two children in matching blue overalls, matching faces. Their bowl-cuts are twinned too. River. I slid open the zipper of the bat bag and threw the gilded frame in, although it was an outsider amongst all my favorite possessions.
“At least my grieving process doesn’t involve making everyone else around me feel like shit,” I said to Dad, passing the kitchen table, firing back my delayed comeback, making sure I was close enough to the kitchen-side door, close enough to the mathematics of escape before I popped my white-hot mouth off.
Dad was already abandoning his station at the sink, beginning to finger wave and shout, but I was already two steps ahead, out the kitchen-side door, onto wooden staircase, trotting down as he screamed for me to come back right this instant.
“RIVER IS DEAD,” I screamed back at the house. “FUCK YOU.” I alternated these phrases as if I were leading a dark cheer, running towards my bike—“RIVER IS DEAD”—hopping onto the seat—“FUCK YOU.” I pedaled fast onto the coquina-lined alley, towards the main avenue painted in tropical pastels, feeling the chubby plastic wings of my backpack bounce as I accelerated away.
• • •
When I was in high school, there was a girl in my grade who wore black fishnet, plaid skirts, pierced her ears with safety pins. I wanted to be her for so long. Back then I was all baggy shirts, unmemorable jeans. River was the bad twin, the one who went through his angst phase unquestioned. I had to be the good one so my dad didn’t hemorrhage. When Mom and Dad tell me to act my age, they don’t realize they’re treating me as a child. They don’t realize the voice they slip into: the one that tells their idealized version of me what I do or do not know about the world. I’ll refuse them. I’ll continue to be my Riley, continue to be how I always wanted to be. Even in the cheesy black garb, I know I’m reclaiming some part of my past, trying to know myself fully. It’s not like I’m unaware how I look, clad in dark velour, peddling on a child’s bike across the width of a tropical island.
Even if I may still act like a brat sometimes, I didn’t start dressing this way until I got to community college. My parents controlled every aspect of my life up until then, down to what I was allowed to eat, read, wear. They managed the where and whens of my schedule immaculately. It was easy to behave, to go along with my life, when it was so small, surrounded by all this water. Perhaps if I ever learned to drive properly, I could have gone to the mainland more often. Maybe I liked the constraint back then, because it meant I didn’t have to change. I could go as far as my bicycle took me, and that was enough.
• • •
"RIVER IS DEAD"
I wasn’t about to go around asking if people had seen my dead brother, although that’s the type of thing that everyone would think I would do. I’m not even that weird. I had a job this past summer. I was a lifeguard on the beach: wore the bright red one-piece, traded in my black-and-white-polka-dot monokini for nine dollars an hour. I took one class in the evenings where most of my classmates ignored me. When you look like Halloween in a beach town, when you look like night, it stands out against everything else that is day, the perpetual Fourth of July that haunts everyone.
River used to dress more like me, before he became obsessed with adulthood. He wore dog collars during high school, like an actual dog collar he got at PetSmart with a custom tag he entered on the machine there that said Fuck the Police. He had liberty spikes—dyed blue—and none of his clothes fit him just right. My parents never cared, really. I was the one who had to be perfect. Though, had he fully changed? Even as an adult he’d wear black polo shirts to his water auditor job, a contrast against all the peaches-and-cream motels, neon palm trees, the soundtrack of steel drums that followed you everywhere. Tourists always want the Bermuda shorts on the island; they want you to perform for their island fantasy.
• • •
I had checked the small parking lot for River’s truck, but it wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. Still, I wanted to go inside the store, walk to that aisle, to check for him. As I passed the bike rack in front of Paul’s, I noticed a dead grouper leaned over the metal. How had it gotten there? Had it died in the red tide? Who had abandoned it on the rack? Its eyeball had fallen out, and I stared at the hole in its head while fidgeting with my bag before remembering I forgot my U-Lock.
I wheeled my bike inside the grocery with me. Although island towns are small towns, they’re unpredictable with the way people come and go. I didn’t think anyone would steal my bike, but it was also all I had left, so I kept it by my side. The employees—most of them went to my high school—looked at me like they wanted to say something, but most just looked away.
I heard that noise first: the familiar beeps. That sound of a red crosshair of light sliding down the jail cell of the barcode. When I turned the corner, there he was: black hair parted to the right, face completely intact. It was like God hit a reset button too. That face pained me beyond anything. River worked the angles so he could scan the cylindrical VOSS bottles without even turning them to get the labels.
“Water Otter,” I said. River looked over at me, did a casual half-wave.
“Life Gourd,” he smirked, pausing to finish the row. “You picking something up for Dad?” he asked.
“Are you kidding me? Dad is being a raging ass again. I’m not doing shit for him.”
“What happened this time?” he said, eyeing the bike by my side, crouching, moving towards the Fiji. River was always focused when he did his job, but there was a confusion on his face then too.
“Nothing! I think he’s just taking his anger out on me—taking it hard that—it’s just that—I—”
I moved my hand, pressed my fingers into his clavicle—it felt like the toughest part of his body, calcium and diamonds, a hardness. How could I tell him our fight was about him? I never thought I’d be in the position to tell the dead they were dead, but River was here, and all I could do was stutter and prod. Even in his wholeness, something about him felt dreamed, as if I had just woken him from a deep sleep. Something was wrong, though, and it was hidden in the body of my twin.
“Don’t you remember last night?” I asked him, slightly pleading.
“You slept in my bed last night,” he said, remembering, now putting his hand against my collarbone. We were reflections operating on a lag. One of the fluorescent overhead lights caught his eye.
“You’ll have your associate degree in a few weeks. Don’t worry. You’ll get a job, I’ll still have a job, then we can move away together, pay for a nice apartment. No more fights with Dad. You don’t have to talk to me about the fight if you don’t want to. Just focus on the future. We’ll leave together.” He smiled that River smile, my smile.
This was our plan, before I was thrust into a reality where I’d have to do it without him. Or was there no thrusting? Hadn’t I always secretly imagined leaving them all, going off alone? I swallowed a lump in me, trying to displace all my feelings about River’s revival. I hated the thought of leaving Mom alone with Dad, but I needed to get away, and the fantasy of doing it with River had made everything feel possible. Possibly possible. At least part of the time. The truth is, perhaps, that River would never understand why the plan was imperfect, what it would mean to continue living with him. This was the fracture in our minds, where River thought everything was simple, obtainable. He made moving through the world sound so easy.
“I saw a job out West, another beach town. A fancy restaurant. They needed a water sommelier,” he said. “You could get a life-gourding job again.”
“When did you see that job listing?” I asked, slightly annoyed. His mouth opened to speak, but then dropped again, his bottom lip curled inside, teeth biting down. His face was alarming to watch. It wouldn’t be the first time I opened my mouth and immediately regretted what I had said.
“Uhh, when are you off for lunch?” I blurted, grabbing his shoulder, trying to change the subject. “We could get Skinnie’s? It’ll be my treat!”
River shook his head. “We had a burger yesterday,” he said matter-of-factly, distracted from the previous job inquiry.
“Yesterday . . .?” I had asked about the job listing to test his memory, his sense of time. We had eaten a burger together, that much was true, but that was already eight days ago. It took a week to recover the body, to prepare it, to bury it. Contents of the gut: cheeseburger with a fried egg on top, ibuprofen, salt water, rum. The funeral was yesterday.
Since he crawled into his bed with me the previous night, I became dazed under the spell of my brother’s mere presence, in the belief that he had returned. I came to his work because I needed to know his body was bound by gravity like mine. Bound by water. Blood. Land. What would the world think of me now that I was untwinned? Growing into being the bad twin was easy, but the bad only child? But I wasn’t alone, was I? He was still here. Existing. Reminding.
“Did you drive here?” I asked, anxious.
“Of course I . . .” but he trailed. There was something childlike to his face, as if I had asked him a riddle. Why did I ask him that? What did I truly want?
“Do you need a ride?” I asked.
“Did you borrow Mom’s car?” he replied, still mulling over something that only he was unsure of.
“I biked,” I said, making an obvious motion towards the bike I held with a hand. “We established this.”
“Right,” he said, mind half-elsewhere.
“You can ride on the pegs,” I said. “It will be like those times.”
“Those times,” he said back, returning to his work, scanning the final Fiji barcode. “Okay. We can do Skinnie’s. I’ll finish my inland work later.”
He slid the barcode scanner back in his holster, like he was from another time, another region where cowboys rode seahorses, patrolled lands that were underwater, forever wet.
Outside, I took my bat bag off, put it over his shoulders. If it stayed on my back, the hard wings might prod him in the chest as we rode. When he put his hands on my shoulder, I got us off to a good start, pedaling hard. The breeze hit softer with the weight of an extra body on the pegs, but I imagined him back there, some type of bat angel sent from Bat Heaven. He was sent to Human Earth as a tourist, that I was showing him around for the first time, and only then did it seem like everything started to move faster.
• • •
The funeral was yesterday.
I always suspected Dad loved River more. Mom, me. At least before I became brattier, more indignant. These things are hard to prove, but you can see it in the micro-moments: the way Dad would pat River’s back as we got ready for school on those mornings, or the way Mom would tenderly clean out my ears with a Q-Tip after some of my baths. The four of us became more distant after high school ended. I try not to think of catalysts. People drift. Can’t time be enough of a thing to blame, or is that too abstract? It was like we lived in this tiny world on four different clocks.
The night River disappeared, the police said it was an accident. But an accident implies something light, something impermanent. I thought about the three of us: Mom, Dad, me—how hard it would be. How fucked a trinity could be. I only prayed during really bad stomach aches, or that exam when I stayed up watching Law & Order instead of studying. When I approached God, I approached him like I do the librarian. This is just a lending, a book I know I will have to give back. I know I don’t own this.
Still, I was incomplete without my twin brother. That night, I stayed up all night in a fever, praying. I asked God to pull him out of the gulf. I asked God to give him back to me.
It was an activist from a sea turtle non-profit who found his body. She said it was a rare sight: baby turtles had hatched near the dunes, and they followed the light of the moon down to the shore. That’s where she saw him, lying
in the sand, as the babies moved around the obstacle of his body into their new, aquatic world. Was it wrong, when she came to our front door with the police, that I only asked her about the turtles, why didn’t she stop them from
going into the harmful waters?
It was red tide, yes, but what could the activist do? The babies would live or they would die.
The night of the burial, before the fight, but after the funeral, after the wake, after everyone had left our house, after I got out of the bath with my skin smelling of coconut and pine, I had wrapped the white towel in that perfect position—where
the cotton bottom ended at the top of my thighs, leaving my legs fully exposed to the cold, air conditioned house. Mom was in the living room, gazing out towards the dark street, towards the sound of the water, although there was no
water in sight. I asked Mom if she could clean out my ears, although I hadn’t made a similar request since I was fifteen or sixteen years old. She turned, looked at me like I was a stranger, and returned quietly to whatever lay
beyond that glass.
• • •
It wasn’t really morning any longer, but neither was it noon. I took the bat bag back from River to get my wallet out, slid the straps so they hung off my arm awkwardly at the elbow. There was only one man, named Carlos, seated at Skinnie’s, seated at a table by himself, sipping a Corona beside fries he wasn’t eating. The screen door of the burger shack was propped open—something freshly dead coming in through the breeze.
“Hey Carlos,” my brother nodded. Carlos did not acknowledge, did not nod back. Carlos was fond of my brother, I knew this. I also knew something else then, the way my brother moved through the restaurant, unseen.
When I pushed in front of River to the counter, reminding my brother that it’s on me. Skinnie, overhearing this at the cash register, said, “Who else would it be on?”
“You think she still has a job? She’s the only twenty-year-old I know with allowance money,” River tsked, swatting my hair, the bun bobbing and the stray strands flying up.
I got it. River, of course, didn’t. Skinnie knew something inside himself that he didn’t quite have words for. The air was different. I could tell he sensed it, but couldn’t sense what, but he kept staring at me, trying to pin-point my face. He looked me over again, and said, “Oh—OH.”
I didn’t come in Skinnie’s often. I usually waited outside with my bike while River ordered. I don’t think Skinnie realized who I was right away, what I was connected to.
“It’s on me,” Skinnie whispered, tobacco and orange juice on his breath. “Tell your folks I’m sorry. You all come back in here soon, entire family meal on me,” he smiled through crooked teeth. It’s that momentary kindness that happens at times like this, some good will that comes from a place of pity. I tried to smile back, but I wonder how awkward and monstrous my face looked to him.
When we were walking out, Skinnie shouted at Carlos to close the front door he had left open. “I hate red tide,” he said. “Hate the air it brings in.'
• • •
Still, I was incomplete without my twin brother.
There was this private resort with its little manmade alcove not too far from the jetty. I had forced River to wear the bag again as we got back on the bike. Maybe I liked the way it grounded him, made him cuter and bound him to this earth. My brother, my bat angel. I wondered if the few people who saw us only saw the dark bag hovering miraculously in the air a foot behind me as I biked. It certainly felt like I was the only person in the world who could see him. When we got close to the beach again, we walked past the manicured sea oats, the sand so white it was blinding. Condos and margaritas, dancing and bleached towels: that kind of place. They would chase us away when it was tourist season. It was down to the sixties now though, and the resort was mostly closed. The two of us had dragged white beach chairs away from luxury properties, took them to our hiding spot out by the water.
We quietly sat with our burgers, watching dead fish float onto the edge of the rocks, or else the shore. I sat in amazement watching him take a bite, watching food enter his mouth, his body.
“Did I do something wrong?” River asked aloud.
“No,” I said, with finality.
“I felt like Skinnie and Carlos were mad at me. They wouldn’t even acknowledge me, man. It was rude.”
“You didn’t do anything,” I said. “It’s red tide, you know? It’s like the full moon. It fucks everything and everyone up.”
Island people were superstitious: the full moon, gravity, what it does to the water, the tides, and yes, red tide, what it does to the fish. What the fish do to humans. A cycle, all of it. Water and waves.
River nodded, and then at least pretended not to be bothered by going unacknowledged by the gruff townies who adored him more than anyone.
We finished our burgers, fiddled with our fries, watched a half-dead pufferfish float up into the cracks of a mini-jetty that lined the nearby shore with rocks. It spikes expanded, compressed.
“Dad used to give me shit too,” River said, “I know you didn’t think he did, but he did. Still does. Yeah, I know he does it to you too. The black clothes. The eyeliner. Don’t worry about it too much. You’ll grow out of it, but you don’t have to change. Even though you get the brunt, I haven’t changed that much. I only started wearing shit like this for the job. I get it, but I’m still like you on the inside. You think we’re different now, that you’re always in the hot seat, but I get it.”
“Right,” I said, somewhat coldly. River was the older twin by only a minute, but the way he talked you’d think he had two, three years on me. “It’s always about the clothes and only the clothes.”
“It’s not about the clothes—but,” he said, tugging at his polo, “I’m just saying this isn’t me. This is for work. I’ll get a better job someday, be able to wear whatever I want. Unless I sell out, of course. What do you think a water sommelier wears? A vest? A bowtie? Do you think I’ll be wearing suits ten years from now?” he chuckled to himself.
Bah was the sound I made, some involuntary gasp. I couldn’t stop myself. It was like my cheeks filled with air, launching an invisible jawbreaker out of my mouth. I bawled. I cried down my velour, into my basket of French fries.
His arms were coming over, scooping me up by the waist. No, I thought, trying to focus on the water, focus out of myself like I do when I get my blood drawn at the doctor’s.
“You’re real,” I said, squeezing him all over. “I hate it.”
“What?” he said.
“I was selfish,” I said, crying harder. I was unruly—I had to tell him. “I asked God to take you away. OK? I’m tired of lying to myself. I did it. I said a prayer. I hated looking at your face.” I struggled to get away from him. “I meant it for one micro-second, but then I didn’t. I tried to take it back, but the prayer was already gone.”
My brother hushed me, holding me tighter.
“You’re allowed to hate me. I know I don’t stick up for you as much as I should.”
I tried to push him back, some inhuman screech exiting my body, as if a ghost had lived in me for years, finally free.
“No! No! No!” I screamed, petulant. “Don’t you get it? I don’t hate you! I’ve never hated you!”
Whatever I hated was just coincidence, just an accident. I just wanted to be untethered by twindom, to get on with my life. It felt like, back then, if he could just painlessly evaporate, even just for a little bit, it would be enough that I could surpass this world without him.
“And we didn’t eat burgers yesterday,” I burst out, crying into his shoulder, harder, as his sturdy hands prevented me from moving away.
“I’m . . . confused,” he said, unsure of what me wishing him dead-ish had to do with week-old burgers or him standing here now. I wrapped my hands around his ribcage, held him tighter, until I could feel the texture of his thin bones pressing into mine. Hardness. Calcium. Diamonds. My identical. My only. I moved one hand to his wrist, the other to the pulse of his neck. I felt and felt and felt, and still, there was nothing. I returned my arms around his neck as his grip on my waist refused to soften.
“Why didn’t you drive to work, River?” I said, exhausted and sad and angry. “Where did you come from when you found me in your bed last night? What is your last memory? Where is your phone? Why don’t you have your phone?” I was mumbling into his polo collar, but I knew he could hear me, could understand what this means. I tried to stifle my tears. “Don’t you remember what happened to your truck? Don’t you remember the bridge?”
We stood in the alcove, listening to the tired waves bring their dead to the earth. It was wrong. The fish had no place on the sand. “Oh,” he said. “Oh,” he said again, his breath pressed into my neck.
• • •
“I begged for you,” I said, the two of us seated again, holding hands. “I asked for God to give you back. I asked for God to take me instead. I asked God to take Dad. I asked God for one week. I asked God for the rest of your life. I even told God to rewind time before any of this. I asked God for the future. I would give back my body for you, River. I thought of everything we could still do, and it worked, you came back. It was so much bigger in my head. You would come back and it would all be different, but I’m still here, and you did come back, and we’re doing the same stupid shit that we always do.” I felt dizzied by the inscrutable logic of the dead.
“It’s not stupid,” he said, trying to make sense of everything I had told him. “I love you. You’re my twin,” he said. “I am incomplete without you.” It sounded flat, so trite, but the hardest part for me was that I knew he meant it. He was sincerer than I could ever be, even in his platitudes.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m incomplete with you,” I said in a hoarse whisper. “I don’t know. I don’t fully understand my feelings,” I said. There was a pause between the two of us. The pufferfish on the edge of the rocks deflated, staying that way.
“Do you think I should come home,” he said. “Should I go see Mom and Dad? Do you think they’ll be able to see me? Do you think only you can see me?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know the rules. Didn’t make them, couldn’t tell you. I was afraid once you found out you came back, that you would go again. I don’t understand how this works. You look exactly like you did before . . . Do you even want to see Mom and Dad?” My eyes were already welling up again.
“No,” he said. “If I came back, I came back for you.” River stood up, stretched, walked over to the water, stuck his hand in. “I guess I just forgot my purpose.” The plastic wings bobbed behind him.
“Don’t do that!” I said, wiping my tears. “Red tide is gross. Bacteria. Virus, something.”
“Something,” he echoed, but then looked down at the pufferfish. “Why do I feel so drawn to the water?” he asked the air.
“You know why,” I said, stiffly, using my hands to hold my own ribcage this time.
“I feel like I need to return to it, to go under it. It’s like there’s this little insect in my head flying around, buzzing in a tiny voice, telling me to go back.”
“Shouldn’t you go back to your coffin then?” I said, not really wanting to negotiate any of this.
“I don’t know where that is,” he said. There was a pained expression on his face, like he remembered something. It hurt to see that face. I made prayers and wishes without comprehending how little I knew about what it meant to ask God for a favor. “I think I’m supposed to go back to the water,” he said.
“When?” I said, moving closer to him. “I want you to stay.”
“Is that true?” he asked, turning around to face me. His face would always be this age, this youthful, this boyish. He would be this forever, and I would become an old woman, still having to look into this young face for
the rest of my life, knowing I had made an evil prayer and had it answered. But didn’t the annulment go through, at least partially? Didn’t I get him back? Is it true, me wanting him back, wanting him to stay?
“No,” I said, “It’s not true,” moving my lips in to kiss him at the corner of the mouth, giving him back to God.
River took my hand, pulled me along all of a sudden, away from the alcove, towards the wet sand where the bodies of dead fish formed shapes, designs, unknown satellites of this peculiar planet. We walked as far as the beach would go, to an unpassable jetty. The rocks were slippery and high and the waves slapped in with such violence. Many people had drowned here, it was just the truth of the islands, all islands. Many people died other ways and fell into the water; it took them in, held them.
In front of us, the red waves slapped on. There were already rows of kelp moving forward, toward us in the foam. When the water pulled back, the long algae moved into their verticals, the black lines of seaweed forming a grid in the gulf. “This is the spot,” he said. He slid his shoulders back, handing my bat bag back to me. “Wait!” I shouted, unzipping, rummaging through it. I handed him the gilded picture frame.
He smiled a sad smile, moving his finger nail along the bevel of the gold-leafed edge. “Why was this in your bag?” he asked.
“Impulse,” I said.
“Little voice?” River said. “Glad you’re listening to it. You know my dresser?”
“In our bedroom?”
“Your bedroom,” he said. “If you take the bottom drawer out there’s a gap. I was hiding cash there. I thought you would have figured it out. I even hid it in front of you.”
I hadn’t noticed. How many days had I refused to see that face?
“It should be enough.”
“Enough?” I said. Could I go away? Could I be all of myself? I looked down at the frame in his fingers.
“I’ll take them with me,” he said, tapping his fingers against the faces of the children trapped in glass. He moved in, to hold me. “Sister,” he said, kissing me in that spot, giving me back to the earth. I felt the echo of our bodies again, moving through a strange mixture of duration, endurance.
When we were done, when our bodies were untouching, he removed his scanner from his cowboy holster beside him, moved his red crosshairs one last time, hovering the uneven light to where it would disappear in the sibling color of its waters. The kelp was still on the salt and blood of the gulf, resembling a barcode with its parallel lines. Beep.
Seaweed stood in its proportional bobs before coming alive, starting to slither beneath the cold, sick water as serpents do. As the greenness moved aside, bubbles rose from the salt water. Someone else was auditing, counting the dead, bringing back the one who got away for an ebb. Perhaps there are none who sneak away—only lent. I looked at my brother’s face again, just once, so I could hold it in me. A flow. Then, I let go. I was whole. The gulf opened, this time, in an embrace, and my brother moved towards it, to feel it, so he, too, could be whole again.
• • •
How many days had I refused to see that face?
At home, it was the evening of kept promises. I was in time for dinner: something citrus was electrifying the air inside the kitchen. Mom was at the counter, removing a pit from an avocado with a large knife. I sidled up beside her.
“Are we having ceviche?” I said, with a childish glee. My mother smiled at me, nodded. Ceviche was one of my favorite foods. The rest of my family had a distaste for it, for the rawness of the fish. It always felt funny, to grow up in a place like this, and be part of a family who hated eating fish. Why now? It seemed especially awful to consider the flesh of fish. But here she was, smoothly cutting the slices out of the avocado, setting them delicately on the dish. I just stood there quietly, standing next to her as she prepared three plates.
She opened one more avocado, took a half, poured ikura from a bowl into the gap that the pit left behind. The salmon roe glistened, the orangeness of each egg catching in the overhead light of the kitchen.
“Eat,” she said, pushing the avocado half towards me. As I munched away at the umami bursts of the eggs against my tongue, she started up, as if delivering a small speech that I suspected she had been practicing all day. “Grief is complicated. I want you to remember we love every part of you, and that we’re proud of your smarts, your degree.”
“I haven’t gotten it yet, Mom. And I still have two more years of college to do.”
“Riley, you need to make space for the little victories. Even if I still feel heavy—heavier today than ever—I want you to know that I’m still here for you. I can still feel pulled down by grief and lifted by my love for my daughter and all the hard work she does.”
I nodded, not knowing what to say.
“It’s going to be hard, just your father and I, but we want you to be happy.”
I nodded. She nodded, her knife hand moving on to cut a new lime.
“Forgive your father, and forgive me, if we act a certain way. No one is prepared to lose one of their children. And I know that no one is prepared to lose their twin.” She still had the knife in her hand when she touched my face, and a small part of the cold metal touched me too.
• • •
During dinner, no one fought. No one protested the raw fish. No one brought up my obscene temper tantrum from the morning. I understood what this gesture meant, what my mother was trying to say to. Dad barely made eye contact, but he didn’t make any disparaging remarks either. No one mentioned River. He wasn’t gone from them, but they were displacing him, if only for the night. I had heard this thing, that sometimes grieving families will continue to set a place for the dead at meals, but I was glad when we only had the trinity of plates between us.
It was so quiet, you could hear the sound of the gulf’s waves rustling, with whatever things still lived and hid beneath their surface. I thought of those baby turtles, then. If this was our moment of silence, so be it.
The money was exactly where River said it was. I slid the drawer out and found his hidden space. With the money removed, I decided to replace it with an offering. I took off my black velour dress, folded it into a tight square, before restoring the drawer over that dark place where I gave my alms.
I sat on my computer for hours, with the lump of cash in my naked lap, making plans, looking at apartments, at colleges, preparing futures where I would go off to places that didn’t touch water. Although, didn’t everywhere touch water?
It was long after everyone went to bed—or I thought they did—that I walked through the house nude, drawing my nightly bath. I tried to be economical with my decadence, but I felt guttered, so I used a bath bomb that River had bought me.
We went to that apothecary the day before he died. He had called in sick to work so we could see a black-and-white film where a hypnotist used people to commit murder. We passed the store on the drive home; I begged him to go inside. I was so sugar-high from an Italian soda, which I’m pretty sure was just seltzer and grenadine. River asked me twice if I was wearing lipstick, but I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I wasn’t, so I didn’t answer. While I browsed, he watched himself in an ornate mirror, juggling three bath bombs, much to the annoyance of the shopkeeper. When I came up behind him, I saw the drink’s red dye on my lips. The two of us in the reflection: we could have been strangers. It was later, in the car, when he handed me the tiny bag, the round, hard surface inside. I hadn’t even seen him purchase it.
Lost, again, in myself, when I unwrapped the chalky orb in the tub. Its surface was Christmas green, but as it dissolved into the water, it turned the tub into a burgundy, resembling wine. Of all the miracles of the world, this one was
minor. Inside the bomb, there were worm-like seaweed strands, and they slithered out. When they touched my skin, I bawled. I had to turn on the bathroom vent fan as the uneven splash of the bath water continued to fall. I had to drown
out the sound of my ugly-cries.
After I put on my lotion, applied a menthol eye cream that soothed the gloom beneath my eyes, slipped back in my white towel, wearing it the way I liked to wear it, I walked into the living room, seeing the back of my mother’s head again. She was looking down from our house that sat high on its stilts, looking through the glass, down at the street. It was too dark to see all the pastels, all the coquina, all the other houses, or the night sky, or the water. I tried to sneak past, but she must have seen me in the reflection.
“Riley,” she said, “Do you need me to clean out your ears“No,” I said, but I stalled, eventually moving forward, dragging a chair over to sit beside her. It was there I leaned my head on her shoulder, looking out the window to see what she had seen.