An alert chimes on my phone. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I react instantly. It takes only a swift click to read the breaking news.
Active shooter. Fifteen to twenty hostages. Eight reported dead.
I feel a barb-sharp sting when I recognize the suburb’s name. The cell slips from my hand and kisses the travertine tile. The shattered screen, still aglow, resembles a spider’s web ensnaring a fly.
My brother lives in Ashland. Or at least he had. Marcus moves so often it’s hard to track him. I get calls from all over. He rings to tell me that the government is controlling the weather and is punishing California with drought. He leaves voice messages warning of chemtrails. Sends texts demanding to know how much water and dried goods I have stockpiled.
I don’t like lying to my brother. He doesn’t like hearing the truth—that I’d rather not survive the impending apocalypse. To pacify him, I bought a hurricane kit and the cheapest water storage tank I could find. One of the few times I initiated a call was to tell him of my doomsday preparations.
Now he says it’s too late. Fukushima is bleeding out nuclear waste. The oceans are dying. The world is toxic.
The research is solid.
I tell him that there’s nothing to do except live life. It’s a lousy platitude, but it’s all I have to offer.
His last call came past midnight two weeks ago. The big one was coming and he wanted to say goodbye.
“Are you taking your meds?”
“Those pills have nanobots in them. They’re trying to control me. You can’t trust the fucking VA.”
“You should take your pills. It’s part of your probation.”
We don’t talk about when he stood in front of his trailer waving his gun. Or the shots he fired into the sky. Or how he refused to put the weapon down when the police surrounded him.
He never aimed for anyone but God.
We don’t talk about how, that day, a cop recognized Marcus. Her brother had served in the same unit in Iraq. The officer’s brother and mine had been the two youngest. Their collective nickname: The Columbine Kids.
There would be no suicide-by-cop that day. Instead, they released a dog on him. Canine teeth sunk deep through Marcus’s calf leaving shiny dime-deep scars.
My brother never talks about it. Except once, when he was drunk after Thanksgiving, and even then he only said, “That dog didn’t want to bite me. He was just following orders.”
The screen crumbles around my fingers as I refresh the news. White male. Late twenties.
I can’t get the cracked phone to dial. “Siri, call Mom.”
Straight to voicemail. My father’s line too.
I turn on the television. There, a S.W.A.T. team crouches, cradling matte black guns. Huddling spectators stand along the peripherals. Tear-stained faces. Newscasters trying to look somber while covering their first national headlines.
“Siri, call Marcus.”
He answers on the third ring. I hear shouting, bullets firing, sounds of chaos.
My words come slow and gritty. “Where are you?”
“Hang on.” There’s a click and then silence. “What’s up?”
Relief releases my welling tears. “I saw Ashland on the news. I saw…I was worried…”
“It wasn’t me.”
“I know! I’d never think—”
“Mom and Dad called too.” Marcus’s voice is monotone, but I can hear the suppressed hurt. “I would never do that.”
“I didn’t think…”
“I’m not a killer. I only followed orders.”
The weighted air goes stale.
I want to tell him that I wish he never joined the army. Never went to Iraq.
He came back different.
I haven’t been the best sister. I didn’t write him much when he was overseas. Now, I often let his calls go to voicemail. It’s hard for me, but I know it’s harder for him. I want to apologize for forgetting who he was—who he still is—deep down, beyond the shrapnel scars, beneath the thick cowl of PTSD.
“I’m sorry,” I say at last. It’s not enough. “You should visit. It’s been a while.”
“Maybe. You can’t make fish, though. The radioactive particles give you cancer.”
I agree. “No fish.”