My heart was still pounding. But at least I had reached our neighborhood now.
I saw no sign of the skeletal figures that I had seen in the bushes, no sign of anyone on horseback.
I permitted myself to wonder if I had imagined it all—what I had seen and heard on the drive home.
Today had been an emotionally charged day, filled with various circumstantial evidence of the weird and supernatural.
I had foolishly allowed Keith and his friends to goad me into taking a hit on the reefer.
I didn’t believe that a single hit of regular marijuana would have altered my senses. But how did I know what was really in that joint? I had heard stories of people lacing ordinary marijuana cigarettes with LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms.
If that had been the case, then there was, indeed, a logical explanation for that most unusual drive home from McDonald’s.
Keith Conway had set me up. Maybe I would deck him the next time I saw him, consequences be damned.
Then our house came into view, and I forgot about Keith Conway and the last five miles I had driven.
Jack’s red Corvair—the one that Leslie and her girlhood friends had been so fond of—was sitting in the driveway.
Or to be more precise, Jack’s red Corvair was parked in the pull-off space, the one that Dad and I had made—for my car.
I was immediately tense. But tense for an entirely new set of reasons.
I parked on the street. Otherwise, I would have to move the Bonneville again in order for Jack to leave. And I didn’t want to delay his departure by even a minute. Hopefully, he would be on his way out already.
But Jack wasn’t on his way out. Jack had just arrived, in fact.
My brother was sitting in the spare recliner in the living room. Dad was sitting in his La-Z-Boy, Mom on the couch.
The television screen was dark. In 1976, there wasn’t much to watch late at night. Most of the networks signed off around midnight.
And anyway, my parents had a visitor—an unwelcome one, I thought.
Jack was wearing blue jeans and a black tee shirt. He wore his hair and his beard long.
Jack had never been much for cracking the books. But as a high school student during the 1960s, he had been a respectable baseball player. Back then he’d been clean-cut. Now he looked like a cast member of the musical Hair.
“Hello, little brother,” Jack said.
Jack smiled at me through his dark, heavy beard. I recall thinking that there was something wild and dangerous in my brother’s eyes; and that was the impression I had had of him since as far back as I could remember.
Jack had never laid a hand on me—with the exception of some harmless roughhousing during our brief time together in our parents’ house. But I was afraid of him, nonetheless.
That might have been the moment I first faced that realization head-on. After a day of so much that was unbelievable, I was facing up to a mundane truth of my childhood, a truth that I had lived with my whole life—and yet—evaded to the best of my ability.
I feared my brother.
And I hated him a little bit, too.
“Hello, Jack,” I said.
Jack appeared to be moderately intoxicated. But Jack always seemed to be intoxicated back in those days.
“A little late for a casual visit,” I said.
“Really?” he asked, an edge in his voice. “Might I remind you, Steve: I was here ten years before you were. If one of us is the interloper here, it’s you.”
I felt a tide of rage welling up inside me. I wanted to tell him off, to tell him to leave.
But my father intervened before I could.
“That’s enough of that kind of talk,” Dad said. “Your brother was out working tonight, Jack, which is more than I can say for you.”
“I have been working,” Jack said. He looked away from me, dismissively, and back at our father. “I’ve been working as an assistant at Hal’s Body Shop, over in Batavia.”
“You’ve been doing that about five hours per week,” Dad scoffed. “You spend the rest of your time screwing around, getting drunk, getting high. Which is why you’re twenty-seven years old, and still unable to support yourself.”
Although Jack thought nothing of using harsh words with me, he knew better than to attempt a frontal assault on our father. His tactic was always to make some allowances for Dad’s criticisms, before attacking stealthily from another angle.
But this time Jack’s modus operandi backfired.
“I know I need to do a better job of getting my act together,” Jack conceded, with what I took to be contrived humility. “I’ve been working on myself. Try to have some sympathy, for me, please, Dad. Some understanding. We’re both veterans, after all.”
I saw the color rise in my Dad’s face. My mother’s eyes went wide with alarm.
Jack shouldn’t have said that.
“Please, Jack,” my father said, with an obvious effort to control his sudden anger. “Don’t say things like that. I served my country in combat, including D-Day. As you well know. Your time in the military wasn’t anything like that.”
“I know,” Jack said, hanging his head dolefully. “I was just saying—”
“Well, don’t say things like that.”
Jack raised his head again. “Everything you’re saying is true, Dad. Every word of it. I really need to work on myself, like I said. But I’m in a jam. I’m behind on my portion of the rent out at the farmhouse.”
This was the living arrangement that Leslie had mentioned, which I had dismissed as a “hippie commune”. Jack shared space—probably not much more than a cot and a corner of a room—at a farmhouse farther out in the country. He lived with a group of six or seven other guys, all of them dropouts in one way or another.
“And so now you’re here for money,” my mother said.
“I’m here with the sincere hope that my parents will be willing to help me out when I’m in need.”
“Jack,” Dad said, “your mother and I have already given you handouts, or ‘tide-me-overs’ as you like to call them, on numerous occasions.”
I had heard versions of this conversation multiple times in the past. Today had been a long day. I was tired and shaken by the events of the day (though partly buoyed, too, by my pleasant interactions with Diane Parker.)
Under ideal circumstances, I would have liked to have talked to my parents about my day, to have made them understand—if it were possible to break through their understandable skepticism—what I had experienced since noon.
I was almost certain that I had seen something in the bushes. Those hoofbeats, moreover, I had heard for at least two miles.
Could all that really have been mere figments of my imagination?
But Jack was here, and so Jack’s needs, Jack’s deficiencies, Jack’s addictions, were going to dominate the conversation.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I’m going to head to bed now, if that’s okay.”
“Of course, Stevie,” Mom said.
My father echoed a similar sentiment.
I headed toward my bedroom.
As I was leaving, Jack gave me a sardonic, “Goodnight, little brother.”
I didn’t answer him.