If you pay any attention to missing person’s posters at Walmart and government buildings, you might have seen my older brother’s face more than once. He went missing when I was 14-years-old, in a little farming town called Mohave Valley, Arizona. I was positive he just ran away back then. My mother and him were always at each other’s throats by the time he was old enough to drive. I figured he had had enough and split.
Now I am 26-years-old and I finally got to hear his side of the story. It was weird seeing him like that, wearing rags and a dirty bandana. I got a little teary-eyed to be honest. I always thought that he had moved beyond our little town, somewhere bigger and full of promise. But here he was, two miles away and homeless.
I approached him cautiously at first. He was sitting against the wall of a Home Depot in the shade, with his bundle of gear beside him. I wasn’t sure if it was really him or some emaciated look alike. His cheeks were sunken and I could count the ribs through the tears in his shirt. A part of me was secretly wishing that it was not Brandon. Suddenly I wondered what would this mean if it were him? Of course I would take him in, but where would he start in putting his life back together? Is it even possible at this point? Within the microseconds before I prodded his sleeping frame, these questions bounced around my mind.
“Luke?” it was he who spoke first. His heavy eyelids, seemingly closed, were open the tiniest slit. He was looking at me from beneath them. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was hard, but I was able to sound a little cheerful. A thousand sentences popped into my mind and I obliterated every one instead of saying them aloud. How did this happen? Where have you been? If you’ve been in this same city for over 10 years then why haven’t I seen you until now? Why haven’t you tried contacting any of us?
We just looked at each other in silence. I wondered if maybe he was waiting to hear any one of those different propositions I could not bring myself to make. Traffic hummed easy and light down the only main road in town. It hadn’t yet reached those record highs of blistering heat outside, but I could not even fathom how he had made it through those seasons. Just another question that lay empty and unanswered in the back of my mind.
“I have to tell you something,” he said. “Come closer.”
I looked around and found no one else who would be eavesdropping. Still, I knelt down and craned my neck enough for him to come closer. I could smell stale alcohol and old fish on his breath. He reeked of feces. He reeked of piss and garbage and I shut my eyes to keep them from watering more.
“Something took me back then,” he whispered. “It was in the house that night I went away. It was moving through the halls towards your room, but I stopped it. I couldn’t let anything happen to my little brother.” His voice broke a little. I could not believe what I was hearing, but I believed the feeling in his voice. “I yelled at it and ran and then everything went black.”
He motioned for me to look down at his ankles. There were black stripes above where his ankles should have been, wrapped around the entire width of his calves. Just beneath them, his flesh tapered off into a cone. His feet were gone. I felt nauseous, really sick. My brother was missing both of his feet.
“What the fuck?” I let slip without even thinking. I lost control of the torrent of questions I had dammed up in my mind. “Where have you been, Brandon? How the hell did you wind up like this?”
“This should have been you,” he hissed. “I stopped them from taking you.”
“No,” I said. And the words hammered in my mind with a ruthless defiance. No. He was drunk or disoriented or high. No. Like I would believe something this homeless impersonator of my brother would say. “No. Bullshit, Brandon. What did you do to wind up like this? You must have hit drugs or something and I’m sorry, but you aren’t going to sit there and make me feel bad like this should have been me on the streets. You can’t feed me some alien story like that.”
I pulled away from him, but he pushed his body forward with his hands to get closer. Defiant though I was, I could not just walk away. I could not just look a different direction while my brother sits incapacitated and maybe even dying on the streets.
“Don’t say that,” his voice was menacing. “They let me come back here at this very moment to see you and to ask you to take me back into your care.”
“Done!” I yelled. “Done, fine. But don’t try spewing that bullshit at me and expect me to choke it down like it’s the truth or something.”
“You have to,” his whole body shook as he said this. “You have to believe, that’s part of it. This is a test and only if you pass can I live, Luke. You have to trust me and you have to believe in me.”
No. The words hammered again. This mess he had gotten himself into, and who knows what else that I did not yet know about yet.
“I gave my life for you,” he said. His eyes were watering now. “They were coming for you, and I stopped them. That’s the only reason why I am here. They want to know if you can do the same for me.”
I had had enough. His game was starting to become very clear to me. This was a fucked way of guilt tripping me into giving into his stipulations. I wanted so badly to help him. I needed to get him into my car and take him home and help him, but I could not let him continue to be delusional.
“Look,” I said, with some force now. “I am coming back tomorrow. If they kick you out of here, then meet me at the park. But you need a day to realize that it will be under my terms. I am going to help you, but it will not be through the course of your sick fantasy or your emotional bargaining.”
We looked long and hard at each other. This I believed to be the only course of action, the most logical path. He only slumped back against the wall and stared up into the sky.
“Then this must be good bye,” he said solemnly. “I should never have sacrificed myself for you. You are an ungrateful, wretch of a little brother. I wish I would have let them take you instead.”
I had listened to enough. He continued to fling his words at my back as I walked away towards my car. He was yelling now as I fumbled for my keys. He would see things my way; it would be the better for this, I knew.
But when I came back the next day, he was gone. I went to the park and he was nowhere to be found. I drove around the entire city that day. And then the next day. And the next. It has been two months now and I still look for any signs of him. Whenever I see homeless people I give them a dollar and I ask them about the transient with no feet. They just look at me like I’m stupid and ask, “If he has no feet, then how does he get around?”
Maybe I am stupid. Maybe I am the worst little brother in the world for not believing him. All I can do is drive and look and hope that he is still out there. Or, when my imagination starts running a little wild, maybe they will give me another chance to believe in him.