There was an incident that morning, at McDonald’s.
“A confrontation,” Dad said, “with the cashier. No big deal, but Zack’s upset still.”
“What did he do?” I’d asked.
“Nothing, Annie. It was a misunderstanding. He’ll be fine.” But it wasn’t fine. It hadn’t been for a while.
We were staying at an EconoLodge in Anchor Point, Alaska, midway through a family vacation. I hadn’t wanted to go this year, had told them so, but Dad thought we all needed some quality time—rest and relaxation.
“It’s over now,” Dad said. “Let’s just move on.” Then he told me to watch my brother, to make sure nothing happened.
Zack and I shared a room on the back side of the motel, facing away from the road and off into a field—nothing picturesque, no glacial vistas or majestic mountains, just grass and rocks. The room was empty when I got there, double beds and a blank television, the art on the wall tacky and predictable. I could hear Zack through the closed bathroom door. At first, I thought he was crying. His thick coughs could have been sobs, but then there was a gagging sound punctuated by dry heaves. It took a second for me to realize that he was throwing up. I pounded the door.
“I’m back,” I said. “Want to watch TV?”
He paused, then coughed again.
He flushed the toilet twice, three times, then ran the water for a good five minutes. I imagined him washing his face and hands, rinsing the taste of vomit from his mouth.
I opened the curtains, but outside it was grey and dull. The sun was out for eighteen hours a day here, but never rose far above the horizon, sweeping its long arc so close to the earth that the sky itself seemed lower.
Zack came out looking exhausted, bloodshot eyes darting, focused on everything, nothing. Last time he’d gone off like this, he’d ended up in the psych ward.
“I heard you went to McDonald’s,” I said.
“The kid spit in my burger,” he said. “I know it.” His breath caught, the very idea making him gag again. He walked towards bathroom, then back, pacing a short circle between the beds.
“I don’t think he could have,” I said. “They make the food ahead of time.”
“I told that dickhead I was onto him. I should have jumped the counter, kicked his ass.” Zack was bigger than me. He could have easily pushed past. Instead, he whipped around and stalked to the bathroom. I sunk into my chair by the door where I sat for the rest of the morning, his de facto jailer, guarding him while my parents called the doctors back home.
I only went out for a minute, to get us sodas from the vending machine. I thought he was asleep, but when I got back he was gone.
I checked the bathroom to be sure, then ran across to my parents’ room. Dad let me in. Mom was wiping her nose. I couldn’t look them in the eyes.
“He got away,” I said. “He’s gone.”
“You were supposed to watch him,” Dad said, grabbing his keys. I followed him to the parking lot.
This wasn’t my fault. After months of medications, therapies and shrinks, it was my dad who still insisted Zack would ‘shake it off’—that this was just a phase, recovery a matter of willpower. It was Dad who’d made us come here.
“Our flight’s in four days,” he’d said. “Zack just needs some rest.” He’d refused to change our tickets home.
We drove slowly, scanning the road. The shoulders were muddy—rich wet dirt that probably thawed for three months a year. On foot, Zack would have to walk in the driving lane, forcing cars to pull around him.
“He could’ve hitched a ride,” I said, hoping that he hadn’t done something stupid like steal a car. “This is the only road into town?” I asked. If he hadn’t gone this way, there was no telling what had happened. He could have taken off in the other direction entirely, or lit out across a field for who knew where. Ahead of us some distance was water, in the other direction mountains. This place, Alaska, was huge and empty, except for some scrabbly little townships along the coast, nearly uninhabited.
We pulled around the last corner, and there he was, jogging up the hill, his long legs in rhythmic stride. He was in sight of the restaurant.
We pulled up beside him.
“Hey kiddo,” Dad said. “Why don’t you get in?” We followed along, Dad urging him to stop and think, Zack jogging steadily on. When we got to the parking lot, Dad drove ahead and parked the car.
“You wait here,” he said, then jumped out. I rolled my window down, ready at any moment to intervene. I didn’t trust my father to handle this.
Dad joked to Zack about the jog over, offered to buy us all steaks somewhere nicer.
“Why don’t I go in for you?” he said. “I’ll yell at that kid, talk to his manager. How about that, buddy? I could grab you a brand new burger while I’m at it.”
Zack seemed to listen.
“Take the front seat,” I said, hopping out to let him in.
He eyed the car, then me, then Dad, and I thought for a minute that everything might turn out alright, that we would drive back to the motel, settle in to the matching beds and wait for his medicine to kick in. Maybe Dad was right. We’d fly out as scheduled, and all of this would be over.
But of course Zack went on, heading for the entrance with the same frantic focus he’d had all day, no fear, just determination to set things right.
I ran up and stood between him and the door.
“Please,” I said, my weight against the glass. “Don’t.”
I don’t think he even saw me. He yanked the door, and I was on the ground. I struggled to get up, to put myself back between him and himself and Dad grabbed Zack’s shoulder. He swiped.
It wasn’t violent, the shove, nothing like what Zack had planned for the kid inside, but it sent my father at an awkward angle, tripping over his left leg before he fell. There was a distinct pop, a hollow sound, deep and internal, and Zack froze like a little boy. He sunk down next to our father, and his chest began to seize, whether with sobs or dry heaves I could not tell.
Zack rolled Dad’s pant leg and removed the shoe. His pace was still urgent, but he moved with delicacy, focused on our father’s pain.
“It’ll be alright,” Zack said, an echo of Dad’s reassuring tones.
My father seemed small and brittle beside him, and I hovered, useless, while my brother tended the ankle, gently fingering the spots that had already begun to swell.
Dad looked up and raised a hand to me. In it were the keys.
“Go back and tell your mother,” he said. “Have her call an ambulance and then the airlines. It’s time to go home.”