Sam’s arm was blown off by an IED last month so he uses his teeth to open our beers. It’s my second, his fourth. He doesn’t ask if I want another, just reaches into his case and passes one over. He lines up the bottle caps in front of the log we’re leaning against, pushes them down until they’re flush with the sand. “Lisa hasn’t called me yet,” he says. “You were going to talk to her.”
Sam and my sister met in their late-teens. I was a gangly bookworm, uncomfortable with my life, my body, my brain. They were a pair of passionate idealists, squishing time in between school and work to volunteer with wounded veterans. Then Sam decided to enlist and Lisa began the long road to leave him.
I dig my heel into the sand, make a hole and watch the grains fall in on themselves. I want to ask Sam how long he lay in the desert before his squad found him. If the sand was scorching hot or cool like it is here, now that it’s winter. What it feels like when you think you’re going to die.
“She’s not around much,” I say. It sounds better than, She’s been fucking Jim since you went on tour. Better than, she’s been fucking Jim and Pete and sometimes Ed since you went on tour.
Sam’s still staying downstairs in my parents’ place, in the room he and Lisa shared before he went overseas. Sometimes, on nights when I have nowhere else to go, nobody else to be with, I crash on my parents’ couch and listen to Sam through the vent. He screams in his sleep about someone named Brandon. I know from conversations around the supper table that Brandon was his best friend. That Brandon came home in a box. I stand outside his door, my hand raised to knock, but he’s not mine to console. He’s hers.
“Where’s she been?” he asks.
“Not at home,” I say, knowing this isn’t new information.
Her clothes are still in their closet, her books on their shelf, her rings in the silver box on their dresser. I drift around their room when he’s out at physical therapy. Sometimes, I pull on a t-shirt of hers, sometimes a flannel of his. I miss Lisa as much as I missed Sam.
“You have to come home,” I said when I called her yesterday. “Sam needs you.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “It’s complicated.”
But I do understand. She doesn’t want him anymore, now that he’s busted and broken. She only likes shiny, new things.
A flock of gulls glide over the rocks nearby, their wings inches apart. One of them drops a shell and it splits open with a crack. The bird swoops down and pulls out the food with its beak, its friends circling above.
Sam waited with Brandon, I know that. He pulled him behind a burned-out bus with his good arm. Waited through the night and halfway into the next day, even though he was already dead.
I grab another beer, hand it to Sam to remove the cap. His hand skims my fingers when he passes it back. His skin is rough and his eyes are dark and angry. There are nine caps lined up in the sand now, three of which are mine.
“What aren’t you telling me?” he asks.
I shrug and stare out at the ocean. The wind squalls across the surface, sending whitecaps into shore. The gulls caw and ride the currents around the point.
Sam stands up and walks toward the water’s edge. He’s wearing black boots, and I wonder if they’re the same ones he wore overseas. I wonder what sort of shit he had to walk through, how many miles he had to march. He jams his bottle into the sand, picks up a rock and tosses it hard. It hits with a splash thirty feet out.
He doesn’t look at me when I walk up beside him. Just says, “I can’t leave her.”
“But she’s already left you,” I say.
His lips are salty against mine, his tongue tastes like beer.
“Lisa,” he says, and I let him.