Every time they got together, it was like this. The sister would go and visit the brother in their hometown, or the brother would come and see the sister in her college town. Almost always, it was the sister driving to meet the brother, because the former had more money and freedom than the latter, who was still in high school, still in community college, still in this dead-end central Kansas town instead of the sister’s less-of-a-dead-end eastern Kansas town. The sister would buy lunch or dinner or take the brother to a movie, and they would avoid talk of their mother, who could be very cruel, or their father, who was a few years dead, or their grandparents, who they had taken too much from already and could take no more, for one or the other was sure to pass in the coming years. The sister wouldn’t tell the brother about her latest depressive episode, nor would the brother share his. The sister avoided talk of work, because her jobs were always revolving, always unsatisfying and underpaid. The brother would pretend, for those short days, that he and the sister occupied the same world.
When the sister knew the brother was nearly out of community college, that the fetters grounding him in their hometown were weakening, she invited him to her apartment for a weekend. She lived alone, and since her only cat had recently passed away, she didn’t mind the company of another beating heart. The brother hesitated, as he did toward any invitation from anyone to go anywhere, but he felt he had little choice but to accept. He had never learned how easy it could be to say no.
The brother recognized his mistake when he sat on the sister’s beige litter-buried futon and noticed a lack of pillows and blankets set out. He spotted two rolls of sleeping bags, a collapsed tent, and cooking items barricading him from the door and knew the sister had misled him.
“Not again,” he said, as if the sister would know what he meant. She did.
“Clinton Lake is much nicer than the mud heaps around Salina,” she said, pulling a two-pound bag of beef jerky out of the cabinet. She stuffed it into an overfilled grocery bag.
The sister knew her previous praises of the college town had done little to move the brother. Still, she suspected that his allegiances might change, that he might be willing to move out of their hometown, away from their cruel mother and aging grandparents, from the legacy of death they had inherited from their father’s fall, if she showed him the lake. If he dipped his toes into the water and felt the sun against his cheeks.
But the brother knew that the sister’s sun was not his sun. Its rays didn’t penetrate him as they did her, his skin so much darker than hers, scarred, thickened, and harder than hers. And because it never absorbed into him like it did her, he was unmoved by the sun and its unbroken sky.
“Just for one night,” she said, strapping on a backpack.
The brother knew that the sister wanted him to move there, to Lawrence, and still he came. He knew that among the supposed benefits—better jobs, more liberal politics—was another unspoken assumption on the sister’s part. That the brother wouldn’t be called anti-Asian slurs or asked to wear Chinaman hats at parties or harassed by women with fetishes or called anti-Mexican slurs, because people often mistook him for being Mexican. In reality, the brother and sister were only a quarter-Korean, and while the sister inherited little from her mother’s side of the family, the brother had black-brown hair and eyes and skin like the raw earth. He was first called a slur at age ten, when he and his two actually-Mexican friends were playing hide-and-seek in a Walmart. The brother was reluctant to believe that this would change if he were to move from central Kansas to eastern Kansas.
The sister didn’t make too many promises. This was a town of radicals, but also of hardline professionals ready to unhinge their jaws and swallow him whole. The brother would find more freelance work here, that was for sure, but he might also end up doomed to a call center, like she was.
“Are there ticks?” he asked as they set up the tent.
“Of course,” the sister said.
“Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, spray ourselves?”
The sister said it was only for one night, and she had tweezers that could pry them out, easy. And didn’t he remember burning ticks off their cats when they lived on the farm? That was another option.
“Lyme disease isn’t something you mess with,” the brother said.
“Lyme disease couldn’t harm us if it tried. We are children of the soil, bred for bigger foes.”
The brother never understood the sister’s fixation on the country, which they had lived in as kids. Perhaps it was because he had spent three less years on the farm, being younger than the sister. Perhaps he didn’t feel the way she did because the land he remembered was sickly, terminal. Perhaps it was the land that didn’t care for him as she claimed it did her. He was the one getting hurt all the time, accidents of parental negligence or pure bad luck. And if that were the case, screw the land. He had survived just fine in his middling Kansas town.
The brother choked down two cigarettes as the sister hammered down the stakes for the tent. It was May or June, one of the more mild summer months. On the drive to a more secluded camping area, they had passed a few vans packed with children or college kids headed the same way. The lot itself had ten camping sites with built-in firepits, water taps, and bathrooms, but the sister was too anti-social for those spots. So the sister parked in the lot and they carried their supplies through the webbed trails and rocky creek beds until they found a twenty-acre spread of prairie grass looking down on the lake.
“Best to take the higher ground,” the sister said, “to spy our enemies before they can approach.”
“The only thing we need to worry about are ticks and snakes.”
“And spiders,” the sister said, as she noticed a palm-sized garden spider, all black and yellow and hovering a foot above their heads.
“Maybe we should move,” the brother said.
“They’re harmless,” the sister said. “There was one on the side of the farm house, don’t you remember?” The sister extended her finger toward the spider’s abdomen. “It stayed there for hours and when Mom came up with a broom, it skirted down the wall and into the yard.”
“Stop,” the brother said, because the sister was halfway to touching the demonic thing. Of living on the farm, he remembered waking up to brown recluses and woodlouse spiders in his bed, on his chest. His sister had told him at a young age that everyone eats eight spiders a year while sleeping, but he knew the truth. They were collecting inside him, his insides all web and dead flies.
Hollowed. That was how he felt most of the time.
“Did you bring swimming trunks?” the sister asked, and the brother nodded, though he couldn’t understand his sister’s desire to visit the shore, given that she didn’t swim anymore.
“Then let’s go down to the water.”
“We don’t have to.”
“The water is clean and there are some nice spots to sit down.”
“If you want to,” he said, and she said she did.
A year before, the lake and surrounding counties had flooded. As they descended the hill, the trees blanched from the midriff down. The flood had washed away most of the beaches. All that remained were shelves of shriveled dirt, old channels where water had burrowed through. From there, the brother jumped in.
He felt his body expand, his limbs, feet, gut dissolve into the waters and become one of its many moving parts. It was cooling, but warm currents swept over him now and then and reminded him of summers, years ago, when he and the sister would run ice cubes over each other’s arms. In the lake, he went under and kept his eyes open and found nothing, a void looking back.
Later, as the brother and sister wound through the trails surrounding the lake, they passed by a number of other campers. A mother and father carrying a young son, a girlfriend towing a boyfriend toward the water. The brother and sister came to the foot of two hills, one short and right up against the shore, the other tall and gradual, sloping toward the town, which was half a mile off from this side of the lake. They could hear the whirring engines of cars on the nearby highway.
The brother suggested the taller hill, given that he could see there were volleyball nets and playground equipment at the top. The sister suggested the shorter hill, because it gave a perfect view of the water and was just far enough from the marina that human contact was close to nil.
They made their way up the taller hill, and found the park teeming with sweaty, shirtless boys and nymph-like girls in bikinis, pulled straight from a movie. The sister begged the brother to turn back, but the brother insisted, until they were both swinging on a set meant for children, and some of the sweaty, shirtless boys were circling around them, asking if they wanted to play volleyball.
The brother told them that the sister had been on the A-team in middle school volleyball. She was sure to kick their asses.
“You don’t look like brother and sister,” one of the boys said, making a point of looking them over.
“Well we are,” the sister said, and the brother knew what she was thinking. That this was the most unoriginal observation that could be made about them.
The brother and sister followed the glistening boys toward the dump of sand, and the sister had first serve. They played boys vs. girls and in the first ten minutes the girls smoked the boys until their faces’ shook red from embarrassment, from exertion. Even the brother, whose strength was exclusively in his upper body, couldn’t serve up anything decent, and so the girls were victorious, and high fived each other and shot up a middle finger at the boys.
At the end of the game, the brother walked back to the sister, and when the brother’s back was turned from his teammates, one of the red-faced boys joked to the others, “Guess we should’ve played ping pong. Then maybe we’d of had a chance.”
“What did you say?” the sister asked, because she wasn’t what you’d call sheepish. She wasn’t what you’d call a peacemaker. She was an instigator, the brother knew, in moments like this, and so the brother tried to pull the sister’s attention away, but the brother was too late.
The sister had never learned that some burns were better left untouched.
“Hey, Cherry Cheeks, what was that?”
The boys were all goofy grins and shrugged shoulders now.
“Nothing, it was nothing,” the guilty boy said, but the sister wasn’t stupid.
“You really see no other room for improvements? My little brother isn’t your scapegoat.”
One of the boys tried to tell the sister to ease up, and the sister hunched forward, ready to pounce.
“Ping pong. Why suggest ping pong? Not tennis? Not soccer? Not cricket or badminton or underwater basket-weaving?”
The unspoken answer was that Chinese people were all good at ping pong, or so white people liked to think. But the brother and sister were not Chinese.
And though the brother desired to stop her, he didn’t, because he knew she would stew about it all night unless she got the fire out now. She had a tendency to emit smoke when she was angry.
“If I have to explain it to you, you’ve got something missing up there,” the boy said, pointing at the sister’s head.
The brother started walking off, because he knew it’d draw the sister away, and it did. The sister trailed behind him, still smoking, until she stopped. Curls of black left in her wake, she jogged back to the dump of sand where the boys remained dripping with sweat.
“We’re Korean you dumb fuck,” she said, before kicking up a storm of sand and throwing armfuls at the all-red boy. It got in his eyes and his mouth and stuck to his sopping skin so that he became little more than a child’s half-assed sand sculpture.
Then the sister ran off toward the lake and the brother followed and when they had put a safe distance between themselves and the boys, the brother hollered and the sister yipped like a coyote and it was the happiest they had felt together in years.
As they returned to their campsite, the trees’ chalky trunks reminded them that they were walking on claimed land. If the waters claimed it once, it would claim it again. That is why the sister had suggested coming there. Who knew how long before the floods made the lake less and less accommodating.
Last fall, after the flood waters had receded, a dead body had turned up inside a burning car in the very remote lot the sister had parked her car in. It was deemed a homicide and three men from Topeka had been arrested in connection to it, but the sister believed otherwise.
The earth was not a forgiving mother, but a slow-burning, vindictive one. The kind of mother who one minute suffocated her kids in adoration and beauty and slapped their wrists the next. And how had they, all their lot, treated their mother? Poorly. So poorly that whatever punishment she laid, the sister could only accept the pain and apologize. Floods, caused by their squelching mechanisms and frivolous expenditures, would continue, and the blood, too, would spill.
The brother often wondered if the sister had properly graduated from Christian to atheist. Her delusions were never helpful ones.
And still, he preferred the water.
At their campsite, the brother and sister gathered sticks and lit a fire and shared ghost stories, but ones each had heard before, so that the danger and midnight anxiety were removed. They slept soundly inside their nylon house, and the brother ignored the spiders latching on to the outside of the tent, their bodies still, waiting.
“One more night. Why not?”
It was the brother’s suggestion, and the sister agreed. No one would miss her, and their mother, who even when she wasn’t over-prescribed, was glued to her television screen, was unlikely to miss the brother, too.
The brother dipped into the lake again, swam as deep as he could go. The sister hadn’t told him about the burning body, or the young boy who had passed away in the waters less than a month ago. The sister didn’t want the brother to think the lake was dangerous, given how much he had taken to it, and so she said nothing as he dove and resurfaced and swam farther and farther out.
The land had always protected her, and so it would protect him.
They passed few people that day. The winds had brought an unexpected chill, and for much of the morning and early afternoon, the clouds shut out the sun. The brother and sister walked miles and miles of trail leading low into valleys smothered with poison ivy, over rocky shores housing copperhead snakes that, miraculously, didn’t bite them, and far across uncut prairie grass where a tractor and rusted-out combine header sat, just waiting to give some untethered child tetanus.
The brother and sister ate a lunch of hashbrowns and eggs, cooked in their father’s old cast-iron skillet, which the sister had taken from their mother’s apartment when she moved to this college town. Given the way things were going, the sister decided on bringing up the topic of moving again.
“This town is more artists and musicians than anything else. We take care of our creatives here.”
“Shouldn’t I go somewhere with a scarcity of designers? You know, less competition?”
“You don’t have to worry about competition. There are grants, fellowships, a full-fledged art museum.” The closest art museum to their hometown was Wichita, over an hour away. “The art center is brilliant, and downtown Kansas City has a hundred galleries filled with middle-school level art. You’d outshine them.”
The brother didn’t like when the sister complimented him, because she always bent the truth. She overestimated him.
“The rent is almost double what it is in Salina,” the brother said.
“And a third as much as any big city. Come on, you would love it here.”
The brother decided to climb a nearby oak tree in order to end the conversation. He was fifteen feet up, swinging from a thick branch, when the sister begged him to come down.
“Stop,” the sister said.
“Why?” the brother asked.
“Because it’s dangerous.”
The brother wanted to ask, was it dangerous because he might fall, or because the earth might retaliate for him being so callous, the tree’s branch creaking from his weight. He didn’t say anything. Instead, he pulled himself closer to the trunk and sat on a low-lying branch.
“What if I told you I didn’t want to live anywhere?”
“What do you mean?”
The brother didn’t answer at first, but he noticed the sister’s face go hard. A curl of smoke wafted up to him, but it was lighter than shale. She wasn’t angry. Just concerned.
“If you want to stay in Salina, I guess it isn’t the end of the world.”
“No, I mean, what if there’s no place in the world for me?”
“Why would you say that? You could make it anywhere. You haven’t lived anywhere but Saline County.”
“Okay,” the brother said, but it wasn’t the end of the issue for the sister. It flared up in her an alarm she hadn’t felt in years. That the brother was in fact like her, like their mother, like their father. Prone to depressive states and, occasionally, contemplative of ending things sooner rather than later. The sister had had her own rough phase of this in college, and still it lingered in the very back of her skull, waiting for the most stunning days or promising relationships to wrap itself around her.
The sister didn’t bring it up again. She didn’t know how to help him, and she didn’t know how to keep him safe from it. She hadn’t kept him safe as a child; he was always getting hurt by their careless parents, racist or some other kind of ignorant bullies at school. No matter whose eyes she kicked sand in, she couldn’t stop him from being hurt.
But she didn’t give up easily.
That night, they stirred up another campfire. The woods nearest them shattered the air with their multifarious voices: crickets, locusts, owls, coyotes, deer. The sister relished these noises, had once downloaded an app to her phone that would play a similar polyphony as she begged for sleep, but it hadn’t been the same. The sister cooked up hamburgers and broke out a bag of Lays wavy chips, because the brother and sister were Kansans, and this was the most Kansas dinner of all, and they ate quickly, scalding the roofs of their mouths.
They were quiet. The sister watched with faithful attention as the light dashed from the lake, the trees, the grass. The brother kept his eyes on the campfire, its cinders full of breath, living as much as he was.
When the time for sleep neared, the sister decided to make one last push, one bid to win his heart.
“If you were to move here, we could come down here as often as you want. From the north, it’s just one turn out of town. It could be like when we were kids, kicking up dirt and swallowing muddy water.”
The brother slipped a cigarette out and lit it. He took a few good puffs and blew the smoke toward the fire, so that its poison intermixed with the wood smoke.
“Is that what you remember?”
Their young lives had been one long, dramatic descent from life on the farm, from the peace that existed, or seemed to exist, in their youngest years. Before their father drank himself horizontal every day and their mother snapped and relied on a prescriptive fog to calm her. Before they learned how life lived on a farm was different from life lived in towns and cities. Flattened kittens and disappeared dogs, mange-ridden coyotes and the occasional mountain lion ready to push a reset button on everything around you. Blades of all kinds cutting, culling, whistling past you, and you, just a bag waiting to be pricked.
“This would be different. I could help you with whatever you need. A place to stay, finding work. I want you to know that things don’t have to be how they’ve always been.” Her life had changed, yes, when she had moved to this town, but was it better? Trading constant disorder for silence only shocked the system.
The sister kicked dirt onto the dying fire.
In the tent, they lay on their backs and opened up the screen looking up to the night sky. The town’s glow blotted out most of the stars, but they took their time counting the ones pushing past the pollution.
For the first time in an hour, the sister spoke up.
“It doesn’t matter. Live where you want to live. Just please, don’t stop.”
The brother listened. Thought of cinders, where their heart must be. He had the desire to dig his hands in, crumble the ash until he found its bold, beating center. Instead, he watched a meteorite dissolve into the atmosphere.
The sister lurched awake before the sun could arc above the trees. The smell of smoke stuck in her nostrils, and at first she wondered if the cloud had come from her, from some bad dream dropped from memory. Outside the tent, she watched a tower of tar-black clouds billow skyward. Their shape emanated from the direction of the lot she had parked in, half a mile off. Without seeing its source, the sister knew what burned there. Who had burned who.
She knew she should wake the brother, call the authorities, try to save whoever might be smoldering inside their soon-to-explode vehicle. Instead, she zipped shut the screens, shut them out from the outside world. She lay down beside the brother and pictured the earth’s beating heart. Its breath her breath. She wanted to stir the brother, share with him this communion, but she knew this would only bring pain. That he would run for the car and, like her, witness the ineffable. That he would come back changed. And so she let the brother sleep and saved him this misery, if only for a few hours.