Everyone is leaving now. It’s late. Six of us stand on the back porch under the slatted roof; close enough to touch but not quite touching. Dad shuts the door, and for a few quiet seconds we look at everything except each other—stars, flip-flops, even the door, a normal door in need of new paint. We say the usual things—thanks for the meal, it was fun, we should do this more often—and we mean every word. In the spaces between our words, I can hear night birds and some humming sound. Maybe it’s electricity, the light bulb over our head, or maybe it’s faraway traffic. I don’t know.
It’s time to go. In the morning, my sister’s boyfriend, Casey, is going away to college, in Arizona. Now, he shakes hands with both my parents like a junior congressman. Ella dips her head against his shoulder, and burrows her nose into his neck. He pulls off his baseball cap and rubs his new short haircut. Ella looks up and catches me staring at her, but she’s not annoyed. We regard each other, right there on our father’s porch. This is our family; what’s left of us. My brother, Henry, died last year—car wreck.
Casey didn’t drive tonight because he sold his car for college money, so Ella goes, “C’mon, Cowboy, I’ll walk you home.” They twine their bodies together and walk down our twisty sidewalk and into the night. From the porch, our parents call out: “Good luck, study, floss.”
My mother is the next to leave. She lives in an apartment behind the Mick-or-Mack grocery store. Angie and I walk her to her car. She hugs both of us. She says, “Lewis, be sweet to your sister. She’s hurting right now.”
“I know,” I tell her. My brother died. We’re all hurting around here.
Standing beside Angie, I wave another goodbye. My mother beeps her horn two times and then she’s gone.
I follow Angie inside, back into our living room. She wants to watch the Channel 38 Creature Double Feature—old, terrible horror movies. I pad to the kitchen to gather potato chips, Diet Sprite, Twizzlers.
In the living room, Angie’s sitting on the couch with her long legs crossed at the ankle. She’s wearing one of my father’s fishing caps and pointing at the monster on the TV screen.
“It’s sort of a creature from the Black Lagoon deal,” she says. “This guy doesn’t appear to have a head. That’s why he’s sad.”
I plop down beside her.
“I smell sort of gross,” I admit.
“It’s okay,” says Angie. “I always smell gross after tennis.”
For a few minutes, we watch the movie and eat Twizzlers. The monster leaves the swamp at night, and returns with runaway children that he finds downtown. He doesn’t eat them or anything. He keeps them in a giant cage near a stream, and feeds them raw fish and pineapples. They grow stronger and sadder, in the cage.
I can hear my father in the kitchen, fixing his late night snack of chocolate milk and banana chunks dipped into peanut butter.
Return from the Deep, that’s the name of the movie. It’s pretty lame, and I’m sleepy. For a few odd seconds, the monster on TV turns into a monster in my dream, but in my dream we’re good friends, just moseying all over town, terrifying the locals and eating grape Popsicles.
I’m not really paying attention to the movie. I’m thinking, almost dreaming, about those summer nights—it wasn’t that long ago—when my brother, Henry, would sleep in our backyard. Before I’d go to sleep, I’d always open my window and call out his name. I was eleven; Henry was fifteen.
On certain nights, Ella would be at her window at the same time, and we’d all say goodnight to each other at the same time.
I like to remember us—the smaller versions of Ella and me--our sunburned noses pressed against separate screen windows, and our big, worshiped brother outside in his tent. We couldn’t see each other, but I know our lives were knotted forever on those nights, our voices calling out to each other in the early dark.
Henry’s gone and we’re still here, and tonight I’m watching the late night creature double feature with Angie, my girlfriend. I’ve actually lived long enough to call someone that: Girlfriend.
“Thanks for coming over tonight,” I tell Angie, sleepily. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I’m glad, too,” Angie says.
Angie cradles my head with her hands. She kisses me quickly and firmly on the top of my head, and I can’t explain how perfect that feels. Her fingers shape my hair into place, and I can feel her entire body tense when the monster appears from the fog. I sit up and we loop our arms around each other. We hold on until at last, the monster sinks into a pit of quicksand, and the cage door swings open, and the children run screaming out of the woods and into the arms of the sorrowful people who love them.