Sample Chapter: The Prodigal Brother

Another chapter. Thoughts and comments welcome.

Kevin had disappeared. Again. Infuriating, disappointing, yet not unexpected. He should have been back well by then. Up early, he made everyone smoothies because he was on yet another health kick, and then he took off to the gym. I swear to God, he had to be the most health-conscious drug addict in Arizona. Always working out. And he couldn’t abide chemicals — well, not in his food anyway.

I should have known it was coming. Things had been going too smoothly. Supposedly, he was going to go work out and then come straight home, but that had been hours ago. I seethed because radio silence meant he’d done a runner. At three in the afternoon, I called my mom from a payphone on campus, and he was still missing in action. It didn’t surprise me, but that didn’t stop that feeling of dread growing in the pit of my belly as a pair of invisible hands slowly twisted my insides like a sodden dishrag, ringing concentrated anxiety into my veins so that my heart banged an uncomfortable rhythm in my chest.

Over the phone, I could hear the worry in my mother’s voice. Kev was her beloved youngest with the face of a Renaissance angel and the mercenary heart of an addict. His behavior hit her hard because she didn’t understand how his love for drugs could trump his sense of family fidelity. Relatively new to dealing with a drug addict, with a mother’s naivete, she assumed her maternal love could reach and save him. But I don’t think Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare had prepared her for situations like this. But she wouldn’t — couldn’t — give up on Kevin.

Me? At that moment, I just wanted to kill him. Anger and frustration had a tag-team chokehold on my brotherly love. Why was he doing this now? Kevin had been doing so well for two months, and I had hoped that maybe, finally, he had turned the corner. But today, the ever-present gray smudge of distant dread on the horizon had billowed into a towering thunderhead looming above me.

My mom didn’t deserve it. Dad didn’t either, but during the week, he worked 130 miles away at Davis Monthan, the Air Force’s boneyard in Tucson, so she got the brunt of it.

Who thinks this is going to happen in their family? Shit, not me — I never saw it coming. I grew up with certain expectations knowing that life was going to turn out a certain way, until one day, it didn’t. We’d all go to college, get jobs, have families — it was light on details, but the outline was there. This was not in the plan.

How the fuck did a drug addict masquerading as my brother infiltrate our world? That happened in other families, not ours. When we were growing up, drugs were feared and taboo — and not talked about except for obviously don’t take them. We got our education on drugs through osmosis, picking up horror stories and myths outside the house with some questionable facts mixed in.

In junior high, I used to have self-righteous fantasies about beating up evil drug dealers who were trying to corrupt my little brother and hook him on pot. Now, I wished weed was the problem. I’d have rolled up a fatty and discussed it with him. But somewhere along the road, my brother had drifted off it into meth use and drove us all into a ditch with him.

God knows I wasn’t a saint. Not that my folks knew it, but I’d partied in college. Mostly, I’d drank like a fish, but I’d dabbled in drugs, usually weed and some psychedelics. When offered coke, I’d snorted it a few times and liked it but being poor saved me. I did speed once but lying awake in bed boring holes into the darkness while my heart pounded out an extended drum solo had not been my cup of tea. However, my “usage” paled in comparison to my brother’s full embrace of the party scene.

When I finished up my evening class, I headed back to my parents’ house. I thought about calling my friend Lori to go drinking at Casey Moore’s, but I was in a bad mood and wouldn’t be good company. Plus I needed to go check on my mom, not that I looked forward to sitting around while we waited in vain. So I hopped into the Mobile Oven, which had been roasting all day in the sun, rolled the windows down, and headed off.

On the drive home, I tried to clear my head, but my mind was a whirl. Way behind on a project, I thought that maybe I would do some writing that night. The hot air blasted through the open window like a nuclear-powered blow dryer as I cursed my car’s lack of AC. Sweat rolled down my sides and soaked the back of my shirt, which didn’t help my frame of mind. Being at ground zero for my brother’s bullshit made moving back home for grad school feel like a mistake, but in honesty, I’d had a nagging feeling before I ever did it that moving back would hurt in my evolution as an adult. But it was only temporary I told myself. Only temporary.

The heat and the frustration had me at a low boil.  Always the fucking waiting. God help me, but for a moment, I wished he would just disappear. The upset that he routinely caused and my inability to control him stoked the furnace of my despair with hot-burning anger. But I was more deeply afraid that someday he would, in fact, disappear. The frightening thought made me depress the gas pedal and drive faster.

By the time I got home, the drive had left me a sweaty mess, my long hair damp along my scalp, my saturated shirt clinging to me like a new skin. I expected my mom to be asleep in her chair with the TV on, but she was on the phone — probably talking to Mavis, her friend from Trinidad. They shared a bond of sisterhood and an unruly, disappointing child. Mavis and her husband had adopted a daughter whose wild gene had been too strong to be contained by a good upbringing.

I waved but didn’t disturb mom, grabbed some leftovers, and went back into my room.

Later on, I sat at the computer in my bedroom, trying to collect the trickle of thoughts that had been dribbling into a shallow and murky pool in my brainpan. I was taking another crack at writing the Great American Screenplay as the thesis for my master’s. My cluttered desk wasn’t exactly conducive to writing, but like Prometheus on the mountain, I was chained there; I just couldn’t seem to write longhand in notebooks anymore. The bountiful ideas that were gathering skittishly around the waterhole of my imagination earlier had suddenly scattered with the fleetness of frightened gazelles, leaping for freedom before I could pounce on one of them and feed on its warm inspiration.

A fragment of a sentence came to mind, and I tapped it out on the keyboard; I re-read it on-screen, but it left me uninspired, and I felt my enthusiasm for the project ebbing as I backspaced the sentence into oblivion. Sometimes I wondered if there was a tiny, yet powerful, black hole hidden under my desk inexorably stripping away and consuming my creativity in the same way it would the hot gases of an unfortunate sun that had wandered too close.

So I sat there staring at the screen, trying not to think about my brother. After an hour, I saved the newest fifty-seven words of the Great American Screenplay and closed down the computer in frustration. At the moment, I hated writing. Why wasn’t I blessed with talent and a sharp mind? I had just enough of both to frustrate me. What was I going to do with my life? My hand drummed the desk top rapidly, powered by anxiety.

And I wondered where the hell my brother was.

When she was done on the phone, Mom came into my room, but there was nothing we could do except complain and worry.

Sometime later, the phone on my desk jangled obnoxiously, but when I snatched it up and answered, there was only silence, though I could hear heavy breathing. I was positive it was my brother; even as a seven-year-old kid, he sounded like he was wearing Darth Vader’s respirator on the phone. In fact, he was such a heavy breather the Zeier girls used to joke that they thought they were getting an obscene call when he rang up looking for their brother James.

“Why are you doing this to mom?”

A distinct change signaled my mom had picked up the other phone.

The caller hung up.

“Was that him?” my mom asked.

“I don’t know — probably.”

She hung up and disappointed and pissed off, I banged the receiver into its cradle.

I joined her in the living room. She sighed.

“I wish your father was here…”

So did I, but he wouldn’t be back from Tucson till the weekend.

“…he has no idea what I’m going through.”

Late the next morning the phone rang, waking me up. Groggily I answered it; it was someone from my brother’s workplace looking for him because he was late. I lied and told the girl on the line that I thought he was on his way.

An hour later, I was getting ready to leave for school when she called back. Again, I lied, this time telling her I was surprised he wasn’t there.

“Okay,” she replied. “If you hear from him, tell him this is Charlotte, and to please call me. Immediately.”

I told her I would, knowing that I was probably not going to talk to him that day.

After my classes, I stopped by to hang out at my local game store for a couple of hours bullshitting with my friends. I used the store phone to call my mom and lied about meeting my friends Carlos and James at Casey’s for a beer. Instead, I headed out to the Ak-Chin Casino to play blackjack for a couple of hours. It was way out in the southwest valley in the middle of the desert. I had started going there with a couple of guys from the store, but my main partner in crime had moved to Florida, and the other guys didn’t gamble much, so I started driving out there on my own. It wasn’t Vegas — instead of card tables they had banks of blackjack machines playing against a computer dealer — but it got the job done, and you could win some money; in fact, I had won eighty bucks the previous month. But even with a lowly max of eight dollars a hand, you could still lose your ass if you worked at it, especially if you were an impoverished grad student like me. I had made some improvements after an older player, tired of me fucking up the ‘table’ with misguided plays, took me under his wing to teach me basic strategy.

Anyway, that night I was broke, so I played conservatively and hung in for a while before I was out of money. I quietly let myself into my parents’ house around 1 a.m. My mom was asleep in her chair with the TV on. I woke her up and told her to go to bed.

“You weren’t drinking and driving were you?” she asked, bleary-eyed.

Truthfully, I told her no. I didn’t mention the casino.

“His work called back again this afternoon. He never showed up.”

I let out a heavy sigh.

“Figures. He’s going to lose this job.”

“I don’t know what he’s going to do then.”

She ran her fingers through her graying hair, her eyes were red-rimmed.

“Nanny used to say, ‘None to make you laugh; none to make you cry.’  I just don’t understand…”

By nature, my mom always had a happy smile and a laugh on her lips. But not that night. And to hear her like that unsettled me.

Having a loved one who is an addict feels like struggling in quicksand. Here’s why you need a support group.

“I never thought in a million years that any of my children would behave like this.”

“He’s just not himself right now,” I said. “It’s not your fault.”

I don’t know why I made excuses for him. I suppose I just wanted to make it right for her. To let her know she hadn’t failed.

When I got ready to go to bed around three that night, there was still no sign of Kevin. Mom sat in her chair, staring at the empty fireplace. I told her to go to bed, but she didn’t.

I flopped down onto my sagging twin bed and tossed uneasily. I’d been sleeping on it since I was a kid and lugged it around with me when I had moved out and then back again. I should have replaced it, but money was always an issue.

As I lay there, I fantasized about beating Kevin’s ass until he saw the error of his ways. In reality, that would have involved him being immobilized first since he’d grown stronger than me. Being nearly five years older, I missed the days when I could enforce my rule by thumping him. It hadn’t been like that in a long time. When Kevin was fourteen, our parents had bought us a weight bench. I hadn’t used it much until one day I went onto the back patio and my brother, who was about fourteen, was bench pressing. He finished his set and looked over at me and growled:

“Two years. Two years and I’m kicking your ass.”

And two years later, he had. I’d moved out and come back for a visit and walked uninvited into the room we used to share. He’d ordered me out, and I’d punched him in the shoulder like I always had. He’d pounced on me and thrown me to the ground, fundamentally shifting the balance of power in our tiny universe.

Even if I were stronger than him, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. I was powerless. As my eyes got heavy, I prayed that he was still alive and then I drifted to sleep.


Check out other samples:

Car Swimming

Late Night Offerings to Mammon

The Big Reveal

Photo by Moritz Böing from Pexels

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18 thoughts on “Sample Chapter: The Prodigal Brother

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Thank you, Bojana. Did you mean the line “Anger and frustration had a tag-team chokehold…”? or show it in another manner? And I’ll definitely see about introducing a bit of dialogue earlier.

      1. Yes, that one. I’d use more colloquialisms, sth like- Man was I pissed!
        And monologues too. They are pretty powerful. For example, instead of saying – I thought…, I wondered…say – could he be/ did I…

  1. What a bunch of hell you and your family have gone through. You mentioned “the mercenary heart of an addict.” It ain’t just drugs. In my family it’s been alcohol. They love their booze way more than family, and don’t seem to care about the pain others feel.

    You love them, and hate them, too, all at once. I hope everything eventually worked out, and your brother has found a way to get and stay sober.

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Yeah, it was no fun. But it was no fun for him to — he struggled with addiction for a long time, but finally got clean.

      1. inkbiotic

        I’m very sorry to hear that. I hope writing about it helps you work through it. Good wishes to you, my friend.

  2. Tough read — but really well written. I’ve got no improvements/changes. I’ve never had this experience, but I could “feel” it through yours. I can relate to being in Tucson while family stuff happens — 100-miles away. It’s only 2 hours, but somedays it feels like crossing an ocean.

  3. It was such a gripping read. Couldn’t wait to know what happened next. It’s heartening to know the hardships you and your family have had… Like you said, we always wish for a basic life; we never expect such unexpected turns and trials.
    It was very well written. Sean… Best of all is to know …Kevin is okie! God bless your family 🙏

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Thank you very much, Gunjan. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m actually putting out samples in no particular order, but hopefully, I’ll have a complete book at some point. Thank you again for your kind words and thoughts!

  4. Again, great work! I can’t add to/take away from what you’ve got here. You’ve done a remarkable job. Every so often I forget that I’m an alcoholic. Reading passages like this remind me not only of the demoralization I personally suffered, but of the suffering I inflicted upon others.Thank you for sharing. It’s important for me to remember. All of it.

    1. Sean D. Layton

      I’m glad it spoke to you. It is important to remember because we tend to get complacent. I know I have with my own demons. My brother always felt guilty about what he put others through, particularly our mom.

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