“My Brother’s Brother,” by Austin Adams

Photo by Michael and Christa Richert via freeimages.com

At 4:44 a.m. on Monday, May the 2nd, as many as four or as few as two assailants forcibly entered 1319 Paige Ring Court, smashing a plate-glass door at the back of the house to gain entry. Once inside, they rifled through drawers, dressers, closets, at some point overturning three chairs in the den, elsewhere toppling an armoire and credenza – ‘credenza’ is misspelled on the report – and, on or around the hour, murdered Jim, Marianne, and Arianna Thompson, 58, 56, 14, by strangulation. Established by the driveway motion-sensor lights which activated at 4:43 a.m., the time of entry was never in question. Because the sliding plate-glass door was smashed, not opened, the home alarm, installed the morning before, did not sound. The report goes on to describe the scene in some detail. The report is three pages long.

Relevant information that does not appear on the report includes the fact that Jim and Marianne had, on the Sunday previous, celebrated their twenty-ninth wedding anniversary and that, for the occasion, Jim had gifted Marianne a 2.99-carat diamond ring. No other item was discovered missing after the attack. Nor was it noted that the family had moved into the house just three days earlier. The framed family photos were, along with most of the furniture, the sets of good china, everything valuable in all but a mortal sense, currently sitting in a self-storage unit in Berry Hill, some seven miles away.

Officers discovered the family’s address book. It was then 6:06 a.m. Neighbors were gathering nervously on the cordoned-off lawn. Dawn was uncovering nothing hidden by dark. There were sixteen local numbers inside the address book. Four answered. From these contacts, two family friends and two senior partners at Jim’s firm, police learned that Arianna, the couple’s only daughter, was sister to two boys, Craig and Robert Thompson, 19, 21.

The Davidson County Police reached Craig Thompson at 6:56 a.m. CST. That was 7:56 a.m. for Craig, still in bed in Lexington. He never once, for the rest of his long life, slept past 7:00 a.m.

Robert, day hiking, was without cell service until it grew dark in the Rockies. Around 8 p.m. MST, he started down with a group of friends from a valley of Mount Elbert where they had stopped to watch foraging mule deer.

Following six attempts to speak with Robert by phone, an officer left the following voice message:

Robert Thompson, this is Officer Javier Martinez of the Davidson Country Police in Davidson County, Tennessee. I am calling regarding your family. I am calling regarding your family and your family’s state. Please return my call immediately. My name is Officer Javier Martinez of the Davidson Country Police, and I need to speak with you immediately about – this concerns and gravely concerns your family.

Craig was in Nashville before Robert knew that his mother, father, his little sister had all, each one of them, been strangled to death.

Marianne’s brother, Hunter, Uncle Hunter, arranged the funeral. There are details when it comes to arranging a funeral. Uncle Hunter knew what they were and how to get them done. Jim’s mother, Viviane, Grandma Viv, being wealthy, executed her son’s estate. Jim had done well for himself, venture capital – small ventures but many and profitable. After the sale of the new house, of the few, unsoiled things in it, and of the things in storage, each son received, all told, a sum of two-million dollars. Craig kept his father’s watch, many photos. Robert kept everything he could pry from the walls and the hands of the police.

The house was emptied of everything except the evidence: two mattresses wet with death. Robert asked to burn them. He asked police, and he asked God. The police said no.

After traveling extensively through South America during his early twenties, Craig would go on to open and operate a network of franchise copier and sign-printing businesses in the greater Charlotte area. He married, had daughters and died with more than he had been given. Robert would spend the next fifteen years of his life looking for the two or three or four men or women or wraiths who had strangled to death his only, decent family.

The funeral took place on a Tuesday. Family spoke, aunts and uncles, one work colleague and a family friend. Craig spoke. Robert meant to. He couldn’t think of what to say. Actually, there wasn’t anything to say, and it was magic – it seemed genuinely to him a product of magic – that people were finding words and saying those words. The world really wasn’t the sort of place now where it made sense to speak. Yet he didn’t want to disappoint his parents, who would have expected him to speak, who had always admired a certain bucking up and bearing among the grieving. But what he could think to say only was no, just no, he thought, “Say, ‘No.’” Slumped over his knees in the front row pew, dazed, staring at the pattern in the chapel carpet, he asked himself what is this room, built along a road he had never driven before today. Who built this room that smelled of grocery-store wood polish, moldy hymnals? It was unbearable, the insignificance. It should be a palace, or a home. Robert wasn’t religious. It wasn’t so bad to him, religion, and certainly now he could use a God. But his mother, father, and little sister were dead, their bodies just there where he could point at them, and it was this gouge of horror and then gagging that they, each one, had been murdered and that there they were, in a place. It did not feel like a place of any God. He didn’t think he could stand. But after Craig spoke, Robert found himself pushing himself off his knees, walking up the three stairs to the podium, his gaze, a sort of animal thing, sweeping over the corpses in their boxes, and he turned toward those assembled and made automatically to say, “It’s strange that they’re so dead,” but without collapsing or crying thanked them, everyone, thanked them for coming.

Both Robert and Craig were, in the days after the funeral, encouraged to see a trauma counselor. Robert described how he had felt at the funeral. He said that sadness, less than the half of it, was altogether the wrong word, that words were altogether insensible when describing what it was now, how it was. “Sadness” sat all right with Craig, who said he felt just that. Horrible, it was horrible, Craig said, tragic, but above all sad, he said. What happened was sad, and so he felt sad: his family, they were such kind people, he said, had all been such a happy family. The counselor’s name was Lawny. Both boys saw Lawny for six weeks.

At first, after it happened, Robert called Craig every day. Details were important to Robert at that time. He said they were to him like anchors are to a mountain climber. Robert had climbed a few mountains, and this seemed to him a good metaphor. Often, he would call to discuss the details. Sometimes he would call to ask whether the police had spoken with Craig, had they shared anything with him that Robert himself hadn’t been told, maybe by oversight, maybe because his calls to the sheriff’s office were growing too frequent and irritating. Sometimes he called to speculate on what might have, who might have. Sometimes he cried, forgot why he had called. Craig cried sometimes, too, reassured his brother the police would find them, and when it became clear that the police would not find them, Craig said that the guilty would have to live with their guilt, that they would probably get caught the next time, might be dead already, in a drugland who-knows-what, shake-up or ritual; it happens all the time, he said he had read.

The Thompsons had moved into the house three days before the – Craig took quickly to calling it the incident, Robert never called it anything but murder. They moved to Nashville because business was good in Nashville.

The police looked into the moving company. It was a moving company – reliable, overpriced. The police looked into Jim’s business. It was a business – robust and demanding. Nothing was stolen except the ring. The jeweler was looked into. Pawn shops were monitored.

Previously, the family, the complete family, had lived in Montpelier. They were well-liked there. No one, not one person interviewed, said otherwise. The incident, murders, lasted twenty minutes, there or thereabouts – the original report says sixteen, but that estimate was later revised – minutes, however many, that were spent downstairs, all except the three to five it took to strangle asleep in bed Jim, Marianne, and Arianna. It was not known who first, who last, or whether all at once. No thing was awry upstairs but the bodies, quilts and sheets bunched and thrashed by feet as expected, bowels evacuated, but no drawer open, no closet ripped through. Downstairs, some furniture had been knocked over. It was noted in later reports that the furniture was in all likelihood pushed over deliberately, it having been left by the movers in a distant corner of the den. So why, it was asked, go out of the way to push over a chair, why push over three and an armoire?

Neighbors had heard noises – “…smashing glass. Not screams, no, no screams” – had made the call to police. No one saw a car. No one saw a face, a silhouette or two or four. No one saw them die but those who did the killing. No prints, hair, fibers or confessions were found. They were not raped. Nothing was unusual or suspicious, wrong or remarkable, except that the people were corpses.

That was what they knew. This was all they knew.

The case went cold. Police called the brothers to tell them, one at a time. Afterwards, the brothers spoke.

“This didn’t,” Robert said. “I can’t.”

“No,” Craig said. “No, I know. I know. I know.”

“No,” Robert agreed. And what he said was, “Nothing.” The line went silent with imperfect understanding. “They take our family and nothing,” drawing out the word like a curse. “I understand,” he told his brother, self, “I do understand. The police can’t always – not every. But understand? Because now anything can happen. If this can happen, what can’t happen? You can just get killed. People can just get strangled. You can kill anyone, anytime, and nothing. Nothing happens. It would be– I mean, wouldn’t it be? Crazier? If a tree uprooted and went around the country eating people?” He said, “At least we’d catch and burn the tree.”

“There’s nothing left to do,” Craig said, “but try to live.”

The officers had assured them: everyone and everything within reason had been investigated.

Robert thought, there’s plenty beyond reason.

He started towards that line, intending to cross.

***

Every weekday for fourteen months, Robert bought a thirty-two-ounce cup of coffee and drove the fifteen miles to the sheriff’s office. This was seventeen weeks after the murders, and he had by then dropped out of college to move to Nashville, a foreign town. He, having grown up in Vermont and being here without friends, utterly without family, drove every weekday to the sheriff’s office to drink his coffee and read through cold-case files. Mr. and Mrs. Gary Allen Ginsberg of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, some twenty miles from where he currently sat, had been strangled to death in their homes on the night of November 7th, just eight months before perhaps by the same hands, perhaps his family, and could there be a connection? He knew nothing about police work. He knew nothing about murder investigations. For the last three years, Robert had been working toward a botany degree. Weekends found him at the library, remedying this ignorance. Rarely ever did he venture out into the city. “You don’t find real monsters in the actual world,” he joked, when Craig chastised him to leave the house for once, get a spaghetti or something.

When someone is murdered, the surviving family asks: who did this and why? Anticipating that no explanation could ever satisfy the why of it, that a motive would be no more clarifying than the day’s weather report, each of which says, “These were a few of the things in the air that morning,” Craig was concerned chiefly with the who. They were good people, his family. Who murders good people? Who wants to? Robert lingered over a different question. It was, really, more of a feeling than a question – how strange it is that some things happen while other things don’t. When shuffling the pages of a cold case file under the precinct fluorescents or vacuuming by night his studio apartment, “This is happening,” he might say to himself, feeling the paper in his hands, the fibers on his feet, “This and not anything else.”

But, he knew, anything else could be.

He looked into the moving company himself. Himself, he looked into the jeweler. He looked into his father’s old business partners, new business partners, family friends new and old, friends of sons of family friends and any man who may ever have looked upon his child sister with lust.

Graduating in the top ten percent of his class with a degree in business management, Craig fielded job offers from several prominent Lexington companies. Peter Hodgkin, one of his father’s former business partners, extended a promising paid internship offer. Grandma Viv wanted to introduce Craig to her CPA, who was local and well-connected. Craig thanked everyone, declined everything. To make something of his own, to have a thing and to be able to say, “This thing is mine and of my making,” that’s how he wanted it to be. First, though, Craig would spend three years traveling alone through South America – enjoying the food, the heat, buying a motorcycle, crashing it only once. He spent little money, stayed on through the holidays. His third June on the road, Craig very nearly fell in love with a missionary, but God lived too much with her, and Craig couldn’t stand the company. “Where was He!” Craig screamed in their final argument, purging an anger long repressed.

“I feel no sadness here,” Craig wrote to Robert a month before his return. “In this place they never set foot. On this continent where I feed myself.”

In the fourteen months he spent reviewing case files, Robert managed to interview six relatives and neighbors of murdered Tennesseans – sons and aunts, mothers and friends of the names he came across in the files. Five of the interviews went the same, were the same moment repeated: he drove to a house, sat, accepted coffee, Coke, asked questions, learned nothing, witnessed gasping, crying, masculine shrugging, the chief differences among each interview being the accents and the number of people present – solitary fathers, some, others with gangs of hulking sons or frowning, thin-haired sisters. The last interview, the sixth, was different. Promising. Nothing was so unmerciful as promise.

Mary Josephine Klatt, widow to David Klatt, said, “It was the same man, I know, and I know who he is,” ushering Robert into her large, dusted home. Mary Josephine was an economics professor at Vanderbilt, still grieving, but nobody’s fool. She had reached out to Robert after learning of him from the police with whom she too was in constant communication. “David, he,” she took odd pauses, Robert couldn’t figure what to make of them, “worked in securities, made a lot of money. He had pooled, he had brought together several other investors and pooled a great deal of money, thirty-two [she meant million], and he,” again, a pause, “knew, I believe, I believe he knew your father and that your father,” pause, “he was one of the sixteen [investors].”

Four months later, when recounting the details of this conversation to Craig by phone, Robert said of that moment, “I felt a shameful sort of fear. Because I thought I was going to learn, you know. And when she went to tell me – the name or what happened or whatever it was I thought she was going to tell me in that moment – I wanted to make her stop. I wanted to put my hand over her mouth and just say, ‘Stop.’ I felt like, this is not for us to say. I wanted to know, but I didn’t want anyone to be able to say.” Yet in the moment itself, Robert did not stop Mary Josephine from speaking, instead asking her what she knew, why she thought–

“Well his name, see here,” she produced a document, a list of investors, “His name is here, there,” pointing, “Jim Blair Thompson. Now, now who else could that be?”

Since her husband had been killed at work, inside the first-story office he maintained in Berry Hill, “which is not a great part of town, but it’s not a bad part of town, and he worked there for eleven years, and it had always been fine,” and since nothing was stolen, “not even his Patek,” and, and, she said, since no other office in the complex had been broken into, his death had to be, she insisted, had to be directed, deliberate, “a targeted murder.”

Yet still she hadn’t said how, and so Robert asked, “How, exactly, was he–” hesitating, delicate.

“How was he murdered?” Dr. Klatt interrupted. “Strangled. By hands. Strangled to death by human hands.”

The conversation in Mary Josephine’s home lasted forty minutes. For the rest of his life, Robert would return to odd details from that afternoon, each of which insisted upon his memory with the gravity of a necessary condition, a thing that was and must have been in order for him to have been weighted with the gravity of hope he felt that day: the black and white checkered porcelain balls arrayed in a dish on the living room coffee table, the glass polish sting in the air, the sycamores circling her drive and how it rained that day.

At this point in her investigation, Mary Josephine Klatt had not identified a suspect, only intimated a pattern: two murders, one list, four bodies, strangled. Later she would name, correctly, her husband’s killer. His name was Bill Kevin Richardson. He was the nephew of one of the investors. He would go on to spend sixteen years in prison before dying of bladder cancer, and he had nothing to do with the death of the Thompsons.

It was the best lead Robert ever had in his twenty-five-year investigation.

***

At twenty-six, Craig bought his first twenty-four-hour copy shop. He learned the business, learned how to manage the store himself, how to staff it, manage the supply chain, advertise. Sixteen months later, he bought a second store and hired someone to manage the first. Then ten months later, a third store, a second manager. In years three and four, revenue was unaccountably low in store two, but by carefully reviewing his books, Craig discovered that the second manager he’d hired had been underreporting sales of poster board and pocketing the overage. Poster board was one of their best-sellers. After some debate and two long conversations with a lawyer friend, Craig took his manager to court. He recovered thirty percent of what had been stolen. The manager, Ron Reedson, served four-months’ probation, and Craig hired a new manager, Rochelle, who would later in life, on the odd occasion, babysit his children, who once spent, with her husband and infant son, a lovely Thanksgiving with Craig and his wife after all flights to Cleveland were cancelled in a snowstorm.

Book balancing was a challenge for Craig, but it was a challenge he faced head-on. “If I were a more capable accountant,” he told Justine, his girlfriend at the time, eventual wife, “I would have seen what Ron was doing at the end of his first month. I need to be more diligent.” He read widely in finance and accounting, in general management and well-rounded leadership. Early in his career, he attended several sales and management conferences but found them too flashy, too lacking in substance. After that, he stuck to his books.

Craig and Justine had met at a restaurant three weeks after he’d returned from South America. By chance, they took stools next to one another at the bar. When Craig turned to Justine, intending to make any comment that might win her attention, Justine interrupted him, slipped a hand behind his back, cupped his lower spine and pushed. “Don’t slouch, young man.” They married at twenty-seven.

Robert never married, then married twice. Afraid to have a family, then terrified he may never have one again, he clawed through several. No children.

Friends, family friends, relatives found it at first admirable, later sad, still later frightening – Robert Thompson’s obsession with justice, later closure, they said, later vengeance. None of those concepts meant anything to Robert, each a word in a world increasingly puzzled by words. Vengeance. He and Craig had a laugh at that. “For God’s sake,” Craig protested, “he’s vegetarian!”

“I don’t want to find these people,” Robert tried to explain on more than one occasion before he gradually lost touch with his aunts and uncles, friends and grandparents, “or person or whoever, I don’t want to find them to hurt them.”

“You want justice,” his Grandma Viv brightly insisted, tearing open a frosting-pink birthday gift.

Robert didn’t know, really, what that meant. What justice would mean. These people could be out in the world, eating at restaurants, having children, or they could be in jail. Those didn’t feel like different outcomes to him.

After the case went officially cold, the brothers stopped their nightly speculating on who might have and for what reason. What comfort was it then, this staring into the dark, venturing “perhaps that wolf?” There was no animal. They spoke less.

Four years into the search, feeling he had exhausted his own investigatory skills, Robert hired a private investigator.

The investigator looked a whole lot like nothing in particular. After exchanging emails and speaking several times by phone, she wrote, “Meet me at this address.” She gave an address. “It’s the worst sushi spot.” At the restaurant, she made Robert show her his ID, then show another, then run back through their two phone conversations, looking, Robert thought, to confirm that, yes, this person is in fact Robert Thompson.

He was. That night, he felt powerfully that he was. That this was a way forward. Or up. Away.

“How does this work?” he asked.

“You pay me. I find them.”

“How?”

“I’m sure that’s some kind of professional secret.” She named a price. He didn’t negotiate.

“Should we,” he wasn’t sure how to act in that moment, “celebrate? Eat?”

“Eat here?! Good God, no!”

Six weeks later he would read in the Local Announcements section of the paper that Karen Arms had married and moved to Butte, Montana. A picture accompanied the article. The woman looked like nothing in particular. He never learned whether the person he paid was, had ever been, the private investigator, Margaret Bimm.

The second investigator, hired days after Robert saw the wedding announcement in the paper, came highly rated on a public site. She, Rita, reviewed everything the police reviewed. She reviewed Robert’s review of the police review. She obtained CCTV footage from every business within fifteen miles of the Thompson home. Hardly anyplace had kept video from that day, now four years past, and few of the businesses in that neighborhood used cameras at all, but some did, and some hung onto their old footage, and she reviewed that footage looking for, she said, cars out of the ordinary, cheap cars in that nice neighborhood, or out-of-state license plates cruising suspiciously. Constant calls, hourly updates, she shared with Robert everything she had found, could not find, every passing or lingering thought. Ultimately, though, it had been too long, and there had been no real evidence even when it had happened, and so she tried and did as well as anyone, but a son could have hoped and told Robert after five months of longing and grand activity that probably it was addicts or a serial killer or else maybe routine burglars who were high that night and curious about death. Really she couldn’t know, and no one ever would unless the killer confessed.

“Are you saying there’s only one?”

“One?”

“Killer.”

“No. I don’t know.”

Robert swayed upright, faceless in the overhead light of her midtown office.

“Look, I’m really sorry about your family, and I hope you can, you know. I really do. But I was wondering whether – and I hope it’s ok to ask – but I was wondering whether you’d maybe want to get a drink sometime. It’s been really great, and the circumstances and all, but talking with you these months and getting to know you.”

“So the ring?” he said. “It’s nothing? They may as well have left it?”

“I couldn’t tell you, honestly. I don’t know.”

“And Mary Josephine Klatt? And the investors? I couldn’t make anything of it, but you–”

“Doesn’t have legs. I’m sorry. Whole case, Robert. It’s legless.”

Like all snakes.

Life became reliably strange, monotonous. Whenever he ever did anything, it was the same. Or else he could have done something else, and it would have been the same: either way, unanswered. Either way, something happens or it doesn’t, and anything’s possible but knowledge. People say it feels like the world ending, the death of a loved one. But the world hadn’t ended. The fact of it was, the world hadn’t even changed. Robert was still expected to wear clean shirts outside. It wasn’t like it was blood on them; maybe it was mustard, egg. There was an election that year. Someone won. Once Robert’s car broke down on the way to Rita’s office. He thought, isn’t it farcical that your car can break down when already your family has been murdered? He read that in the constellation Lyra there is a star named Vega. It was twenty-five-million light years from the sun, still. Music had become the most tremendous wound.

“Haven’t crossed far enough,” Robert told Craig by phone. “Bound to be berries in that wilderness.”

“Crossed over what?” Craig asked, waving to Justine that the pasta water was about to boil over and was he meant to turn it down or no. “Are you going camping? You should,” shifting the phone from one ear to the other. “You used to love it. Probably haven’t been in years.”

“Reason. The line. What the officer said.”

“Which officer? I thought the police weren’t talking to you anymore.”

Then Robert remembered that he had said nothing to Craig that night about reason or lines, about the abundance of things to do and men to be in that other, unreasonable country. That had been only a thought.

“Nothing,” Robert said, “never mind,” all the while thinking many thoughts.

Rita’s talk of confession compelled Robert to consult a priest. Hopeless for knowledge and expecting nonsense, he found it was a comfort, finally, to be given exactly what you expect. The prophylactic murmuring he was prescribed – babble nonsense, receive nothing – was satisfying, symmetrical. “Have you ever seen a demon?” Robert asked. “No,” the priest said, “we don’t see them.” As if for the first time, Robert realized that he had money, could do things, incredible things, could fly around the world and so went to Shanghai. He walked west, married briefly in Chengdu.

In the fall, annulled and stateside, Robert went back to the valley where he and his friends – all married now, or else in graduate school, with good jobs, or else stuck with bad cars, shared apartments – had watched the foraging deer, but the deer weren’t there, and it was simply because there is a season for this thing and it was not then the season, but Robert broke his hand trying to tear down a tree, methodically, chopping at the bark, intensely sensitive to the pain.

This is the place where I was, Robert told himself, clutching his hand after this latest failure. Numbering the trees, shrubs, naming each, Pinus contorta latifolia, Geum rosii, Thalictrum fendleri, Spermacoce, unnecessary to differentiate so carefully what was, really, all the same. This mountain with its smell of what was happening. Illusory seasons. Things here or not. What happens or doesn’t happen when you are here or are not. Clutching his hand, looking over the valley, Here is the place where I was all day, he thought, hand horrible with pain, and am again or still.

* * *

Less than half a foot. That’s how much snow Nashville expects each winter. But the city was brisk and wet with it on January 17th. That slowed the ambulance, some. Under the fold of the next morning’s paper, a bystander was quoted as saying at the scene, “It was like a boom, about sounded like, some big boom.” The quote ran in the Metro Crime section, the whole story shorter than a half-page column, “It’s so quiet in there you feel like sleeping almost. Don’t expect a boom like that. Figured maybe somebody had a gun, fired it off.” But no, no one had a gun. All that had happened was that Robert had unfastened from their brackets a row of sixteen metal bookshelves and toppled them over, one into the other into the other and onto the floor. He checked first to ensure no one else was in the study room and then went, methodically, to work. He bought a pulley and cordless drill for the purpose.

A fine was all. And he had to pay to fix a dent in the floor. They hadn’t wanted to call the police on him, Carol and Rodger, who had been such a help in the stacks these past few years, even if it hadn’t meant anything, even if leads did not lead or follow anywhere.

After it happened, at first, Robert wouldn’t answer when Carol and Rodger were shaking his shoulders and saying his name. He looked at them, made sure they saw: that it was him, that he had done it, that it was happening. Carol and Rodger hurried from the room, dialed a dispatcher. Minutes passed, maybe, during which the other patrons gawked at the commotion, at the man who had caused it, or else turned back to their books or else escaped into the snow.

Catching sight of the weather through the high arched windows, Robert lumbered outside, unspeaking and the hall silent but for the click of his footsteps. He pushed open with a shoulder the front door of the building – his hand was still tender from hacking at the tree the week before – and walked out to the parking lot to slump coatless to the freezing concrete. Situated on the ground, leaning his head back against a streetlight, he held his hand without care for how it was held then sank it into a numbing bank of snow.

The article didn’t mention his name. It didn’t mention his murdered family. He sent a copy to Craig along with a note.

“I did it. They caught me.”

A few days later, fine paid, dent repaired and hand set, Robert called his brother, now living in Charlotte. Justine fussed over a down pillow at the other end of the couch. She hated when Craig’s brother called and wanted to stay close to Craig during the call but felt always she needed a pretext for hovering. Craig asked after the dent in the floor, the booking. Without allowing his brother to answer, Craig said, “You’ve tried so hard. You thought you had something.”

“Something,” Robert said.

“With that woman. The list of investors. And then the investigator. That whole, you know.”

“Yes,” Robert said. “Something. I’m,” he continued after a pause, “skeptical of what something means now.”

“The names, the motive,” Craig said. “It. Them. The whole answer.”

“Yes,” his brother said again.

“Why don’t you come here for a week,” Craig broke in with false enthusiasm, “meet Justine. Hiring the investigators was a good idea, even if it didn’t work out. You need to get away, you need to – not, not put this behind you, not forget it, but just stop putting it right in front of yourself.” Robert didn’t respond, was evidently unconvinced. “It’s the worst thing,” Craig said, reaching his free arm to hug Justine, who looked concerned, “it’s the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to us, and you’re staring it in the face every day.”

Robert said that it wasn’t in front: it was all around. That it was in the air. He said it was snowing in Nashville. He told his brother it may as well not be.

“Facts are,” Robert said, trying to share his thoughts, trying to be close to his only brother, “not. Not facts. All the things that are could be otherwise.”

“Right in the face,” Craig insisted. “You’re staring it right in the face.”

“For instance, did anyone do it?” Robert asked, sinking down to the couch where he slept every night. “It was done.” A file cabinet of Xeroxed police reports, handwritten interview notes, a Salvation Army coffee table, a sink, a clean toilet, shirts and a toothbrush – who needs more in a life of passion, Robert had joked to his brother, showing his apartment the one time Craig visited. “It was done. We know that much. We can’t find who did it. Well, have we considered that maybe no one did it? Maybe it just is, just was. That it was done – by no one.”

“You know that isn’t true, and you know that doesn’t make sense. You know someone did it. What you don’t know is that you need a break. You need to get away.” Craig realized how vacuous his words sounded. He kept on. “It’s been too long since you’ve just enjoyed yourself. Come here. Come visit. We’ll have fun.”

“Things happen or they don’t happen,” Robert said, ignoring his brother so he could continue loving him, “in exactly the way that they do or don’t happen no matter how strange the circumstances are. Is a murder without a murderer really stranger than what actually happened? Than what the facts say? Isn’t the world strange enough to allow for that? This is a world where murder, like weather, happens or doesn’t happen. It could just as easily not be snowing. They could just as easily be–” Robert broke off. “Nothing makes sense when you look at it reasonably. Because this is a world where–”

Silence on the line.

“Robert?”

“—where things are illuminated only when they are on fire.”

***

The wedding was tasteful, more expensive than Craig had anticipated but worth, he maintained, every penny. Of course, Craig asked Robert to be his best man. To Craig’s surprise, Robert accepted. Even more surprising, Robert was a model best man, calling caterers and venues, driving up to Charlotte twice just to lend a hand, throwing Craig and his friends a blowout bachelor party. During those months, Craig and Robert never once spoke of their family, only of Craig’s family, the family he was building.

At the rehearsal dinner, Robert gave a speech. He said that family is precious and brothers rare. He said that two men could be born of the same parents yet not truly be brothers. He and Craig were brothers, he said, and not because of anything they had been through but because they simply were. Whether they had been destined to be brothers or whether it was just a lucky accident, they were and would forever be brothers, and there was something wonderful in that, the knowledge that everything is out of your control, including truly good things, which are just given to you, whether by God, or by fate, or by something infinitely stranger and infinitely kinder. Justine thought the speech was perfect and so softened on Robert, who, after all, had been through so much.

After the wedding, Craig didn’t see Robert for nine years.

Buying his marital home was a milestone Craig thought he’d never surpass. Justine’s mother was an interior decorator. Justine consulted her on every furniture purchase. Did these drapes complement this couch? How big a rug is an area rug? Nothing was frivolous, and everything had its place. Everything about the experience, from cosigning the loan papers to regrouting the half-bath, was a kind of deep, hurtful joy. He had wanted to build something of his own so that he could say, “This is mine of my doing,” and he failed to do that: instead, looking down at a dull, grout-covered chisel, he said out loud, “This is ours. We did this.” He thought to himself, waking up to a husband’s list of sanding and varnishing, life cannot get better than this. Then, one rainy Sunday, Justine perked up beside him on the couch and declared, “It’s time to discuss starting a family.”

In April, a child. Craig and Justine named her Adrianna, which they thought close enough to Arianna honor the memory but not so close as to make her father cry on birthdays. Robert was invited to visit in the weeks after the birth. He did not come. He was invited to the christening a year later. His phone was out, or he had in those years a different number.

Later in life, Craig couldn’t remember much about his conversations with Robert during that decade. Robert would call sometimes, always from an unfamiliar number. He would sound tired or alert. He would be living in Nashville or abroad. Sometimes they spoke of their parents and sister and sometimes not. Stray phrases without context, insignificant but enduring, were all that Craig could remember.

“I want to resilver the mirror,” Robert had said on more than one occasion. Craig asked once what that meant, and he vividly remembered his brother saying, “I don’t know. I just want it.”

Robert asked once, “Do you ever think the murders were beside the point?”

Running his fingers through his hair, back of the scalp to the crown, Craig slid his head into Justine’s lap. She lifted her eyebrows at him in commiseration.

“Yeah, no,” Robert had said, evidently not expecting an answer. “I don’t know what the point would be either.”

Craig remembered asking his brother why it didn’t work out with Christine, who was Robert’s other wife, the one Craig knew about but never met.

“I liked her,” Craig said.

“I liked her too,” was all his brother managed to say.

“There isn’t a single other unsolved triple homicide in the county,” Robert had told him once. “Gives me pride, that it was ours. That we alone bear this mystery.”

Misery, surely, is what he meant.

Every night, Craig put his daughters to bed – there were three, eventually. Every night he read to them. The lion befriended the mouse. The wicked witch was burned. Children were captured, and crystal castles floated, but all innocents escaped, kingdoms touched down to earth. The year Robert broke his hand on the tree, Craig made, through hard work and long hours, $1.3 million after taxes.

Though they spoke infrequently, Robert could always be counted on to call around the holidays. He never asked to speak with the children, was polite but brief whenever Justine was put on the line. That Christmas, Robert called around noon, asked after business, the family. “Good, all good,” Craig said. “Going well, everything’s great.”

With something a little like pleasure and a lot like terrible regret at the sound of his brother’s voice, Craig asked how he was, how he was doing.

“I found a man in Lexington,” Robert said.

“What about him? What did he do?”

“Strangled a family.”

“That’s terrible. Has he been–?”

“Caught? He’s in prison. That’s where I met him. It’s important, I think. A sign.”

“A sign? Do you think he could have been the one? The one who–?”

“He was in prison then. But the last ones he killed, this family, they were from Lexington.”

“All right,” Craig questioned.

“You lived there.”

“I did. I did.” Craig waited for clarification. “Can’t believe that was fifteen years ago. But what do you think that has to do with the family? Our family?”

“I said.”

“Right, it’s a sign. But a sign from who?”

“They don’t come from anyone. Do you know how many armoire dealers I’ve spoken to?”

Robert went silent on the line. No one said anything for long enough that Craig made to say, “Anyway,” and excuse himself from the call.

“I’m in town,” Robert suddenly said.

“In town? In Charlotte?”

“Yes.”

“Well, God!” Craig said, not knowing how to feel. “Get over here!”

Despite his apprehension, Craig thrilled at the sight of his brother – nine years it had been since they had last seen, gripped each other. For days and days afterwards, they were a family again. Helpful around the house, surprisingly brilliant with the children, Robert was clean and kind and not too thin, and how happy that made the reunion.

The day before New Year’s Eve, after the children had been put to bed, had been read to for the first time by their uncle, Craig began asking for stories from the investigation. “What’s the craziest thing?” Craig asked. “Just the wildest thing that’s come out of it?” The two of them settled into the den with a bottle of wine and, Craig felt, all the time in the world. In bed upstairs, Justine overheard bits and pieces of their conversation. Wrapped under the comforter, she smiled at the sound of their laughter. She had excused herself early that evening, once the conversation had turned to their family, took care not to intrude on their special night.

“Well, all real information is a mystery,” Robert began to say. “The more you think about any question, the more sense it makes to ask it of someone who would have no business knowing the answer. I mean, if you can’t know the thing itself, at least know what it’s not. So, the craziest thing? I consulted a psychic.”

“You did not! I didn’t know you believed in that stuff.”

“It isn’t about belief,” Robert said. “It’s about results.”

Craig asked whether he had gotten any – results.

“Most definitely not,” he laughed. It was a healthy laugh, Craig thought. Craig himself laughed so hard he spat wine onto the carpet. The stain didn’t look a thing like blood.

Later that evening, Craig told Robert about a good investment opportunity, property being developed at the edge of town.

“Such a beautiful family,” Robert interrupted, indicating the photos on the wall, “and so proud.” He turned to his brother. “I’m so proud for you. I hope you know that.”

Craig believed him, knew that he was, though Craig thought it odd that this sentiment had been provoked by photographs of his family and not by the actual presence of the people themselves. But never mind. His brother was fine. Well, even. He opened another bottle.

Robert left on the first of the year.

No one knew that Robert had gone missing. There was no one to know. And strange as it was, no one said it was strange when Robert was discovered living in Olympic National Park, his palms so raw the Park Service’s report described them as “pulpy, like burst grapes.”

In the weeks after he was found, he was hospitalized for exposure and dehydration. Craig visited.

“Now what’s this?” Craig asked, stepping into his brother’s hospital room.

“Nothing at all,” Robert’s voice was choked and watery but otherwise friendly.

“They’re building a federal case against you,” Craig said, smiling despite the seriousness of what he was saying. “I can’t – I don’t even know what they’re charging you with. Serial lumbering?”

“Logging without a permit.” Robert had been read the charges. His voice was difficult to follow, like listening to someone gasp underwater.

“Justine wanted to be here, you know. But someone has to watch the girls. Besides, I didn’t know – how you’d be.”

“How many?”

“How many what?”

Robert struggled to articulate, “Daughters.”

“Three. Still just the three.”

Robert nodded, coughed.

“Business? How’s–?”

“Great. Great. Twelve locations now. They’re doing great.”

Robert smiled.

“How long were you–? Can I ask, how long you were out doing–?”

Robert flared all ten fingers.

“Ten weeks?”

He closed his fists, flashed his fingers again.

“Twenty weeks?”

Robert shook his head.

“Twenty–twenty months?”

Robert nodded.

“So would it be foolish of me to ask why? Why you did this? Would it be, just, stupid of me to ask what in the hell? A man crisscrosses the country to axe down two-thousand trees by hand? With a hand axe? And only spruce trees! Why’s that? What do you have against the spruce? It’s a–” Craig broke off, looked away. He paced around the room, shook his head. “It’s a fine tree.” When he came back to Robert’s bedside, Robert’s eyes held a strange compassion.

“What was I supposed to be doing?” Robert asked, his voice weak, face full of conviction.

“I don’t know,” Craig conceded. “I just – I absolutely don’t know.”

“You and me neither,” Robert joked. “Anyway,” he managed, choking on his words – words, words – “it isn’t the strangest story I’ve ever heard.”

Soon after, Robert contracted pneumonia. He died of pneumonia-related heart complications before the end of the year. You see, the doctors explained to Craig, your brother hadn’t been well for a long time.

***

At his brother’s funeral, Craig – forty-four-years-old, settled in life, comfortable, genuinely happy – spoke at some length. He said that his brother was more a member of the family than anyone. That his parents had had trouble conceiving and so had adopted his brother, and after Craig came along by chance, they tried again with Arianna and that they were, the messy lot of them, a wonderful, real family for years and years.

For days after the funeral, it was whispered about, what Craig said to close the ceremony. Of course, it had all come from grief. His brother may have been crazy, but he had still been his brother, and really it was a wonder that Craig had weathered the tragedy so well himself.

“It’s easy to believe that what happens is all,” Craig said, gesturing broadly towards the room, “gibberish. That you could do this or do that, and what does it really matter one way or the other? And the thing is, that’s true. It is true. If you look at it how a God must. That everything could be otherwise with the snap of a finger. But I can’t snap. And I can’t sing. And what’s the past? It’s all done. That’s what it is: all the things that can’t happen anymore. And if it can’t happen again, then–then why would I care any more than I have to in order to just, to just be? Why should I? Because it’s normal? Is that what reasonable means? I don’t think so. I’ve lived long enough that I know, no, I know it isn’t. It’s normal to be normal, but there’s no reason to be reasonable. He thought he was being unreasonable, he thought he knew that he was unreasonable, but he was the biggest slave to reason I ever met. Look at us standing here: survivors. Each and every one. Was it easy? Was it easy for any of us? What kind of sense did it ever make but one foot in front of the other?” He smiled to himself. “Very little at best. At the best of times.”

He drew a breath. “My wife, you know, has the most beautiful singing voice I’ve ever heard. Did you know that? No, you didn’t. And I know you didn’t,” he said, sounding all of a sudden faraway and compassionate toward who even knew what, “because she only sings for me.” Hands in pockets, eyes cast down at the pulpit, no notes, he spoke from the heart or some other organ. “Such a young man’s excuse: to fail to do because first you have to know.” He smiled, frowned gravely. “He felt like there were so many things he didn’t understand. Like fate was something you reason out. But really there was just the one. He didn’t understand grief. You know how I know? Because he would have stopped, to grieve, if he had. Fate is what you blame when,” but he didn’t know when, had prepared no notes and so searched the room for the eyes of his chosen wife, and catching them, paused to articulate after all these years the accusation to himself, “When you think things are given, rather than got. Robert,” and, at this moment, those assembled leaned anxiously forward in their pews, expecting explanation, concise conclusion, a eulogy for the dead or, from the living, some reason for all this talk, all this, everything.

“Robert was my brother. I had a brother,” Craig said, his steady, unconsoling eyes panning face to face to regard each friend, colleague, in-law who had come to witness him once again and finally bury the dead.

“We were brothers.”

He thanked them, everyone, for coming.

 


Austin Adams is a writer from Tennessee. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review, The Offing, Prelude, The Millions and more.

Categories: Fiction

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