In light of his injuries, my brother packed his things into a van, signed a note to his wife with “In another life,” and dissolved into a cloud of dust off route 15 before returning three months later, healed and out of breath. He was younger than before and more handsome, and a part of us doubted it was him until he told us how he’d lost his leg and two fingers, a story only his wife and I knew. When he walked on both legs to the edge of their pond and emerged on the other side as a fish, we put him in a tank and called him by his name and Emma said, “Isn’t this silly?” but we fed him anyway, and in the mornings he swam to the surface, his fins still perfectly intact and shining in the light blue glow of the aquarium.
When we showed him to my mother, she said, “It is only a fish,” and we told her yes, but he was also once her son, who she raised and clothed and fed, and wasn’t that enough to love him still, in this form or any other?
That night, when she chose to feed him, we thought at least there’s this. At least, at least, at least; and now, when the nurses call me, explaining she is gone, I want to know where she went, but our call is short and they ask me to come collect her things, and I wonder why when she’s no longer here to use them. But I go, and they hand me her clothes and necklaces and some lipstick she never wore, and in the lobby is the tank with my brother still inside. The man who hands him to me laughs when he says, “Take good care of Carl,” and I’m reminded of that beautiful afternoon, those handful of hours, when he came home to us, happy and healed and walking on two legs, and I leave my mother’s clothes and jewelry and the lipstick she never wore with a woman named Bernice who I imagine will give the nurses a scare when for a moment they see my mother walking these halls again.
Later, my brother’s wife confesses, or maybe she just explains, her life has been a lie. When I ask her why, she says, “My name is really Isabelle,” and tells me about her sister, Emma, who died as an infant from a misplaced heart. Who misplaced it, she doesn’t know, but “The fool who chose to build her,” and we sit around the fish tank drinking, not saying a word until I call her Emma by mistake and even then, she answers, “Yes?”
Later, later, much, much later, when I get in my car and drive the same route my brother took, I find him as a young man sitting beside my mother, who’s just as young as him. They’re out west, digging for gold in a cold Idaho stream, and when the sun catches the water right, it glitters like the gold they’re trying to find. I take my time inspecting them, from the caverns of their noses to the glow inside their eyes, and I want to ask, Is this where you two went? but the shimmering surface distracts me. A part of me wants to cry at the beauty of it all, how their skin shines in the sun and the air kind of smells like lilac, and I think to myself, I’m alive.As alive as anything that’s ever been, and I know we’re all just borrowing star dust—I’ve read it so many times—but maybe that makes us even more alive, how these pieces of us are useful beyond when we can use them. The day my brother left, I dreamt the stars decided to take him back, first his leg, then his fingers, then all of him, and I wonder if that’s why we lose the things we love sometimes, the stars keep pulling us back until all we’re missing is in one place. And if any of this is true, I tell them, one day when those stars explode, you’d better believe our dust will scatter, and what do you think will glimmer in that cold, dark sky but us, reminding each other we’re here, we’re here, we’re here.
Matt Barrett holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and his stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Sun, Best Microfiction 2022, SmokeLong Quarterly, River Teeth, The Minnesota Review, The Forge, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, X-R-A-Y, trampset, Contrary, and Wigleaf, among others. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two sons and teaches creative writing at his undergraduate alma mater, Gettysburg College.
“Still Here” was a finalist in our 2022 Blurred Genre Flash Contest, judged by Lynn Steger Strong.