Brother

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In a small, quaint town not far from the ocean, Truth Robbins wipes sweat from her brow and sighs. Although the sun set hours ago, it's still sauna hot, and there's no breeze to push the air around. Normally she doesn't miss the conditioner, or her old house back in Florida, but on nights like these, she feels as though the heat might suffocate her. It's the only time she looks upon her old life with envy.

Her mom, though, doesn't seem to notice the scalding, relentless weather. She hums some melody to herself as she watches over the stovetop, now home to six sizzling strips of bacon and a mouthwatering smell that wafts through the tiny kitchen and the accompanying space.

"How many then?" her mom asks.

She wears a yellow apron atop a flowery dress that she bought for a few dollars at the thrift store, which remains a regular haunt of theirs. Her mom is skinny, angular, with curly red hair drawn into a tight pony. Most of the time she looks tired, which is no facade; she works two jobs and singlehandedly raises a boisterous eleven year-old girl; there just aren't many hours left over for sleep. But even on her darkest days, when her hair is frazzled and the circles underneath her eyes border black, Truth thinks she looks beautiful.

"Two," she says, and then reconsiders. "No, three."

"Take four," her mom replies, and before Truth can respond, she transports as many strips to a paper plate even as they continue to spit and pop.

"Mom."

"Oh, hush. I'm not very hungry, anyway," her mom says and sits at the small, round table across from her.

"I'm not, either," Truth protests.

"Darling, please. I can hear your stomach growling from here. Stop fussing with me and eat."

She hesitates and finally concedes. Of course, the bacon tastes wonderful, every bit as succulent as she imagined. It overwhelms her as she devours it, and she doesn't hear the words until they're repeated.

"... favorite and least favorite part of your day."

Her mom stares at her, her own bacon still untouched, and waits for Truth to stop chewing. And she does look beautiful. Even drained and even downcast — and yes, there is some unwelcome medley of grief and despair lurking behind eyes a little too puffy and a little too red to be exhaustion alone.

"Favorite was when Mrs. Murdoch said my report on the Saint Martin Mission was one of the best she's ever seen in all of her years teaching," Truth says in a practiced lackadaisical tone.

"No she didn't!" her mom gasps.

The little girl's lips curl into a smile. "Yep."

"Truth Abbot Robbins! I'm so proud of you! I told you it was good, didn't I?"

"Uh-huh."

"Slap me some hand right this instant."

The two of them high-five right across their rickety old table and bacon dinners.

"I told you," her mom reiterates. "Didn't I?"

"Yes, mother!"

"Okay. And least favorite — come on, out with it," her mom says.

This, like so many other times, is where Truth has only lies at her disposal, and the irony is pungent. For nine months the worst parts of her days are when she thinks about her younger brother. His buzzed head, his round, red goggle glasses, the way he refuses to wear anything but tank tops and shorts, and his obsession with skateboarding. Their nightly arguments about so many stupid, trivial things, like whose turn it is on the computer, or who earned the bigger dessert after dinner.

Underneath the fights, though, her brother is a sweet, restless boy — a boy who once gave her his allowance because he accidentally broke her favorite necklace. A boy who, despite being three years her junior, learned to ride a bike first and then taught her. Like any siblings, he could test her patience, but more often he makes her laugh.

Or, made her laugh. Four months ago, Davis didn't come home from school.

Truth doesn't like to think about this time because it sends her stomach aflutter and sometimes the tears come, but she can't stop the memories now. She remembers those first frantic hours stretching into exhaustive days, all of the confusion transformed to panic. Nightly visits from police officers, neighbors dropping off homemade meals, her mother shutting doors and crying, and her father shutting down. But night after night, no Davis, and not a single clue to his whereabouts.

So she lies. The worst part, she says, was when she had to go to the bathroom in math class and she held it because Mrs. Fogerty wouldn't stop lecturing.

Her mom nods and bites into her own bacon. If she perceives the lie, she doesn't let on.

"That doesn't sound so bad," she says at last.

"Could've been worse," Truth agrees.

She is supposed to be eyeing teenage rebellion from a distance, but girls whose little brothers go missing can't act out. Not when their dads leave, too. Not when, despite what their moms might do or say, they seem to be sleepwalking through reality. Truth is the happiest, most agreeable eleven year-old girl on the block, or likely the city, because she has to be.


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