BRIAN STOUTEN flicked the lighter and shielded the resulting flame, drawing it closer as he puffed to get the cigarette started. The familiar burn and taste filled his mouth, and he drew it in, letting the heat settle in his lungs before slowly exhaling in a long continuous plume.
“Started smoking again?”
Brian didn’t turn to look. The deep voice betrayed the speaker’s identity—his younger brother. Like so many things, Brian couldn’t remember it. He just knew it. The difference was a constant source of frustration. “Brandon,” Brian said quietly. He sucked deeply on the cigarette again, then let loose a second stream of smoke.
“It’s good,” Brandon said. How a voice like that could turn quiet, Brian wasn’t sure, but it had. “Makes this feel at least a little like you.”
Brian grunted. “That’s supposed to mean something?”
“Bri, come on. You know me.”
Eyes closed, Brian tapped the ash away and shook his head. “I don’t know anyone here. Least of all you.”
Stillness responded. Silence. Then a soft voice, a fragile one from a giant of a man. “Mom and Dad, they kept it secret. If they’d told us anything, I would have been here.” A hand settled slowly, hesitant, on Brian’s shoulder. “I would have.”
Brian looked up at the stars. It should make him feel something. The hand should make him feel something. But his emotions had been on mute ever since the accident. “I know that,” he said, tapping at his cigarette and then taking another puff. “But I can’t feel it.” He turned and the flash of pain in his brother’s eyes actually made him feel something. Regret, maybe?
Brandon looked away, his gaze fixed on the deck.
“I was a year in recovery,” Brian said. “Where were you?”
“I couldn’t, Bri.” He scratched the back of his neck. “I couldn’t. I had my own secret to protect.”
Had he known that? Brian wasn’t sure. “I’ve spent four years living with strangers, Brandon. Family I’m supposed to know. I don’t remember any of them. But I know they were like strangers. I know that. You weren’t. I know things about you. I don’t feel them. I don’t remember them. But I know them. I know that I trusted you.” Brian wiped away the hint of a tear. Well, I’ll be. There’s something in here after all.
“They didn’t tell me,” Brandon growled, grabbing hold of Brian and turning him so they were looking at each other. “Please, Bri. Talk to me.”
Brian turned away from the intensity of Brandon’s glare. “What for? So you can lie to me?”
“Please! I wasn’t the one lying about everything!”
Brian turned and gripped the rail of the deck, sucking down smoke and then exhaling in a giant cloud. If Brandon would admit they were lying, there was one question Brian really did need the answer to. “Was I that stupid? Did I marry her?”
“If I really trusted you, then you can tell me why.”
“Oh, Bri.” Brandon looked around. “You’re gay, bro.”
A shudder passed through him. Can I really trust him?
“They all know it,” Brandon said, voice hushed but certain. “They’ve known for a long time. We all did.”
“Then why?” His hand trembled. This wasn’t dull. This was anger, not even remotely muted.
Brandon sighed. “They never wanted that for you. They wanted exactly what they gave you. What they tricked you into thinking was your real life. A wife and a home and enough money never to have to worry. It’s not about what you wanted.” Brandon moved next to him and covered his hand, squeezing. “That’s why they didn’t tell me. I would never let them do this to you!”
“But I was married. I know I was!”
Brandon nodded. “You were. To a man.”
An overwhelming sadness rose like bile through Brian’s body, emerging as a strangled sob. Brian felt that. Felt it to his core as tears blossomed in his eyes and streamed down cheeks in stinging rivers. Then he was held. Strong, muscular arms wrapped tightly around him. It should have been comforting. Slowly Brian wriggled away. He gripped the balcony and stared at the stars. The next draw on his cigarette was intense, as though to make his lungs feel the same depth of feeling as his heart was. Then he exhaled it all, slowly in an endless cloud. He crushed the butt of the cigarette into the ashtray.
“Everything was a lie?” It should have been loud. He wanted to scream it. Instead it was quiet, deadly.
Brandon shook his head. “I don’t know everything they told you. But most of it, yeah, probably.”
“I’m not married to her?”
The nod was curt.
Brian looked in the windows. Light and noise, the upper crust socializing. It had felt like a lie, and it was. “I have to get out of here.”
Brandon glanced around and then pulled out his wallet. He slipped a bunch of cards out from the inner pocket and flipped through them, then handed him one. “Elaine,” he said. “She was your therapist.”
Someone inside was laughing, but no one was bothering them, not yet. “She drove… Courtney. She drove,” whispered Brian, his stomach sinking as he remembered the always miserable drive to get here, to his parent’s house.
Brandon pulled out his keys and handed them to Brian, covering Brian’s hand with his own. “It’s a gift. Don’t look back, Bri. You never did before. Don’t you dare. Not now.”
“Big brother,” Brandon said, sadness lacing the words with cracks. “I love you.”
That Brian knew with the same certainty that he knew he didn’t trust his parents, or his other brother, or the woman he’d been told was his wife. He squeezed his hand around the keys and tore down the deck stairs like he was pursued by the hounds of hell. Once away from the deck, it was simple to get to the front unseen. His brother’s truck was easy to spot, towering above the luxury cars. Brian climbed in and started the engine. In the window a sole figure watched, hand palm out against the glass. His mother’s housekeeper would gripe about the marks. Brian nodded to the figure and spurred the truck into motion.
At the end of the long driveway, he dared to take a moment to look at the card. He wasn’t familiar with the town. Then why do you know exactly how to get there?
He pressed hard on the gas pedal. They probably heard the squeal at the house, but he didn’t care. He shifted smoothly—an automatic movement, his foot on the clutch and ready—as the truck accelerated. I drive stick. Who knew? Certainly not me! The woods sped by on either side. He didn’t even notice the tremble until he felt safe enough, far enough away, to adjust the rearview mirror. Brian set his jaw. How could they lie to him about that? How could they not? They lied about everything else.