By Karen Brode
“Karen,” said the strained voice on the other end of the line. “I need to see you.”
I knew the voice well. It was my brother, John, but the urgency and fear in his voice made me shudder. Before I said anything, my thoughts immediately jumped to the worst conclusions—cancer, accident, death.
“What is it?” I asked. “Are you okay? How’s Jan? Is she hurt?”
“It’s nothing like that,” he said, resuming his usual gruff tone. “It’s…it’s something I can’t talk about on the phone.”
I could almost feel him looking around to see if someone was watching. Now I wondered if he had committed some horrid crime. My hands broke out into a sweat and the earpiece of the phone receiver stuck to my ear from perspiration.
“What did you do, John?” I asked. My voice trembled imagining what he had done.
“Nothing!” he said. “I just…it’s just…I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
I paced a hole in the floor in the time it took my brother to get to my house. When he banged on the door, I jumped. By then, I was a complete wreck. I had told myself that I would demand him to tell me what had happened before letting him in my house. If he had committed a crime, he could be endangering me or my husband by making us accessories. And I didn’t want to go to jail.
But when I opened the door, the shell of my brother stood before me. His face was pale and clammy. I couldn’t utter a single word looking at him.
He didn’t wait for an invitation, either. He pushed past me into the living room and sat down in the green chair he always favored when he visited. He leaned his head back and let out a long sigh.
“They were all in that wind,” he said.
“What wind?” I asked. “Who?” I was at a complete loss where he was going with this.
“Look outside!” he said.
I pulled the curtain from the picture window that looked out onto the street.
“I don’t see any wind,” I said. I was beginning to think maybe John had lost it. Or maybe he was on something?
“Exactly,” he said. “And what month is it?”
“John, this is ridiculous. Just tell me what’s going on.”
He bolted up in his chair and said, “It’s August!”
I just stared at him. I didn’t know where this was going and why he was so upset.
“August in North Texas isn’t exactly known for its cold wind, is it?” He leaned back in the chair as if he had just clarified everything.
“I don’t know where you’re going with this,” I said.
He nodded and closed his eyes.
“You know that property I bought from you?” he asked.
I nodded, but didn’t say anything.
How could I forget? It was my share of the old homestead our grandparents had left us in their wills. And John had essentially badgered me out of my share for a price I would never have taken from anyone else. He knew no one wanted to fight with him. He was so blustery and his threats seemed real when he made them. So, everyone in the family just gave in before things got ugly, even if it meant giving up a piece of good land at a bad price.
My silence made him open his eyes and he glared at me, thinking I hadn’t answered his question.
“Yes, John, I know the property you bought.”
“Our grandparents’ homestead,” he said, as if I needed reminding.
“Well, did you know that the old home place burned last night?”
“I heard something about it, yes,” I said. I had also heard that John had arranged for the house to be burned down. It was just too coincidental that the house burned almost immediately after he assumed ownership. It seemed clear to me that he didn’t want the house. He wanted the proceeds from the insurance company.
John leaned forward in his chair. “The whole place is gone,” he said. “All those family times we had…now all that’s left is a pile of smoldering ashes and the old chimney.”
His voice shook a little when he talked.
“I thought I was going to cry when I saw it,” he continued. I noticed his hands were shaking when he lowered his head and covered his eyes with them.
I pictured it as he described, a chimney just standing there like a sentinel in the remains of the house. I remembered when they had built a sidewalk from the front porch steps to the road, and I thought of what the sidewalk must look like now, a sidewalk to nowhere. I supposed the storm cellar was still there, also. I could picture in my mind how desolate it must look.
John had raised his head and shook out a cigarette from his pack. He looked around for an ashtray.
“I don’t have one.” I reminded him.
He sat with the cigarette between his fingers and his eyes seemed to lose focus, like they were looking at something distant, some memory.
“When I drove up in front of what was left of the house,” he said, “I couldn’t believe it! This was the house they loved.”
I nodded. “They had loved that home,” I said.
“I cried, Karen!” He seemed almost in tears now, which was enough of a shock by itself. “I don’t think I can go back down there ever again!”
“I might go down there later,” I told him, just trying to calm him down. I had no desire to see the way it looked now, but I didn’t want him to know that, so I added, “I don’t want to see it right now, though.”
John fell back against the back of the chair and looked up at the ceiling.
“I got out of the car,” he went on. His voice sounded dry. “I stood there at the edge of the road, but I couldn’t make myself go any closer.”
“I understand all this, John, but you seemed urgent on the phone. Was it about the fire?”
He turned his head and looked at me. “Then the wind came.”
“What wind?” I was starting to get impatient.
He turned his face away from me. He was crying. He was never one to show emotion, at least nothing like fear or sadness. I thought about how our mother used to fret over the fact that he wasn’t like other kids. His emotions were so buried inside him—all except anger. He didn’t want the kind of hugs and cuddles I adored from our mother. And he definitely didn’t care if anyone approved of him—not like me. It upset me terribly if our mother was mad at me. John, though, he would do the most horrible things and never apologize for them. So, to see him crying now worried me.
I waited for him to answer, but he didn’t right away. He wouldn’t look at me. He stood up, walked to the window, and looked outside. He seemed to be checking if someone was coming for him.
Finally, he dropped the curtain and looked over at me. The tears had all but dried from his eyes.
“That wind came out of nowhere,” he said. “It was cold and it completely surrounded me.” He lifted his arms out and made a motion to demonstrate how the wind circled around him.
“It enveloped me and then,” he snapped his fingers. “As fast as it had come, it was gone.”
He leaned in closer and said in a low voice, “Karen I think they were all in that wind.”
I blinked back at him and tried not to smile. What he said sounded crazy.
“You think Granddaddy and Grandmother were in the wind?” I managed to keep the giggles from bubbling to my mouth.
The look John gave me made me hiccup. He was completely serious, almost terrified.
“All of them, Karen. Every last one of them who had lived and loved in that house. They were all in that wind.”
I took a deep breath. It was only wind, I thought. As nervous as John was making me, I reminded myself that at least he hadn’t robbed a bank or killed somebody. It was just the wind.
But John wasn’t finished.
“I’m telling you, it wasn’t just a normal wind,” he said. “There were presences in that wind. And…and they are all mad at me!” He looked away from me, back outside, and whispered, “They think I am a fool.”