Every year at the end of September, just as we were getting into the groove of a new school year – a new teacher, new classmates, new subjects – my parents would pluck us from our scholarly responsibilities and routines to drive us eleven hours south to the Florida panhandle. The weather in Panama City was best at the end of September, they said. Besides, it's not like you're saving lives. It's the second grade for god's sake.
Our insistence to be in class ended the moment we opened the sliding door to our family’s rusty red minivan and felt the warm ocean air caress our cheeks. This was before the Internet, Netflix, and iPhones, so Alex and I did what kids used to do. We played outside, all day long. When the sun came up, my mother would slather us with cool sunscreen that made us shiver and squirm. Knock it off or next time I’ll put it in the freezer. When the sun went down, we’d collect our buckets full of the day’s spoils (small crabs and shells, usually) and shuffle back up to the condominium to shovel in dinner just before we’d fall asleep with the door open to let in the sound of crashing waves.
Once a trip we’d pile back in the red rusty van and drive to St. Andrew’s State Park to walk winding trails around silent lagoons in search for the alligators who supposedly lived there. The sand trails lead to wooden docks over the water, and Alex would insist we all be as quiet as possible, so as not to scare the elusive beasts. I’ll just sneak over to the edge there and they won’t even know I’m coming. Alex whispers as loud as he talks, which is loud. My father is behind him, making sure he isn’t leaning too far over the rail. Hold your breath, Dad. You’ll scare him away. I have fond memories of our alligator walks, even though we never saw one in our 15 years of trying.
We’re old now, well, older anyway. I am 31. Alex is 29. Another sibling was added to our poorly timed vacations, another set of eyes to help us spot alligators. His name is Andy. He is 22. Our parents divorced almost a decade ago. It was hard on everyone. But Alex was in prison when they did it, so it might have been the hardest on him. He’s been in prison more often than not since he became a legal adult. He’s about to be released after another extended stay. I’m not sure what to feel about that.
Somewhere in our mutual timeline, Alex and I stopped being the kind of siblings who got along, and became the kind who didn’t. He became someone I didn’t know, someone I would have never wanted to know. Though always a liar (What happened to all the Cool Whip? Did you take my Chumbawumba CD? What are all these fireworks for?), his words now reeked with rotten manipulation and stung with venom. Lies became truth in that sometimes he had lied so much he’d actually believe himself, only to lash out yet again when the room grew too small to contain our doubts and accusations and he had to break it down just to breathe. Drug use and theft and more drug use and crimes so plentiful I can't hold them all in my brain at once became the collective ax that that split our relationship. It remains in the pieces we left it in 16 months ago at Mom’s house that Christmas morning. I called him a psychopath and an arrogant, selfish, liar. I can't remember what he called me, and I think I can't remember because I'm too afraid it's true.
He went back to prison a month after that and we haven’t spoken since. For a long time I was able to make myself forget him. I’d do my work and walk my dog and love my husband without caring that he couldn’t have any of those things, and without feeling bad that I could. I stopped worrying about his life, and how he was going to fix it, and if he ever would. I started calling Andy more often. We talk about baseball and girls and our parents and our favorite TV shows. When we visit, we always have a good time. Our relationship is relaxed and easy, which I was actually having a hard time getting used to until I realized that that was how it was supposed to be.
Alex gets out of prison in one month, so I’m thinking about him again. But not so much about the person he is now as the person he once was. Or is there a difference? I don’t know. I’m dying to know. I have this day dream where we are back on that dock over the lagoon where the lily pads are the size of dinner plates and the air is so still. Shh, you’ll scare him away, he says. I tell him that there probably aren’t even any alligators in that stupid lagoon. But I sit still and hold my breath, trying not to make a sound. And we both wait. Wait for him to show himself, finally, after all these years.