Noah came back on a Sunday. The town called it a sign of God’s goodness, but Mama didn’t see it like that. She could never agree with others that easily.
I didn’t remember much of Noah. I was four when he disappeared. Mama refused to talk about him, and Papa shook his head whenever his eldest was mentioned, so I stopped asking. I couldn’t put them through any more pain.
My last memory of Noah was sitting on the back porch swing with him. The hinges were rusty, and they squeaked as we moved. He’d brought me home a tube of bubbles from his job at the general store. After watching me blow them for a while, he stood and kissed me on the head.
Mama had asked where he was going. He said the library to study. He said he’d be back before supper.
Then he was gone for nineteen years.
I was raised without my brother. A year passed, then two, and suddenly Mama was pregnant.
A boy! she’d proclaimed. I sullied her joy and asked about Noah. Papa scolded me for making her cry.
Two more babies came after Thomas – another boy and finally a sister for me. As our once tragic family grew, I found myself the oldest of the Zin children. It was a title I never wanted and never expected to get, thrust upon me without inquiry.
Mama would introduce me to folks as she’d grovel and say, This is Caroline, my eldest, and I’d frown and ask, Mama, what about Noah?
Her smile would falter.
Our family had revised itself, pushing through the pain until it was almost unrecognizable. Mama helped redefine the name, as talk surrounding the Zins shifted from their missing boy to their quarterback son. Or perhaps their pageant-girl daughter or class president son.
To Mama, everything was right.
And then a gaunt, haggard man stumbled out of the woods, much to the horror of the eleven-o’clock service attendees.
He didn’t want to talk about his time away. He didn’t want people to linger on his scars and bruises. At thirty-three, he was less of a man than the day he was taken.
They said that he would be fine. They said he needed to adapt. In no time at all, he would be a spirited fourteen-year-old boy again. They mentioned nothing about how a boy needed parents who welcomed him back and siblings who recognized him. When Noah sat at the table for supper, the children swarmed around him, unfamiliarity glinting in their keen eyes.
It took two days for Mama’s joy to fade. Her son had returned from the dead, a miracle according to the town, but a burden to her. In his nineteen-year disappearance, the Zins had adapted.
The world continued to grow around Noah and the piece he brought back no longer fit into its former place.
More nights than not, Noah slept beneath the stars. I tried to join him whenever I could, but Mama always shooed me in. She didn’t like the fact that Noah was at the house. She thought a grown man should live on his own.
But Mama, I said, Noah’s lived on his own for 19 years.
Then he should be used to it, she dismissed.
He never talked much after the return. I only have a vague memory of who he was before, but I recall him being more vibrant.
“I don’t think I can do this, Caroline,” Noah confessed to me one night. We sat shoulder to shoulder on the same back porch swing as nineteen years ago. “I’m not meant for this.”
“You’ll learn to adapt,” I promised him.
And when he asked, “What if I don’t?” I didn’t say anything else. We both knew the answer.
Things moved too fast for Noah to keep up, I could see it in his eyes.
People didn’t slow down for him; they didn’t give him pity. He was expected to pick up where he was dropped off, and when he couldn’t keep up, he was left behind.
I saw Noah in town one Sunday. He stood before the steeple, gazing toward the sky. His attention remained unperturbed as I came to a stop next to him.
“Why would God do this to me?” He murmured; eyes still pointed up.
“I don’t think it was God,” I said. “God is what got you out.”
Noah was unconvinced – the doubt ran colors of consternation through his scars. “If that’s what you want to believe, Caroline, then sure. But not me.”
I brought my eyes to the heavens as well. “What do you want to believe?” I asked.
In the thirty-three days since Noah’s return, I’d never heard him laugh. Not before the afternoon at the steeple.
When I entered the house that night, the lights were dim. I took no mind as Mama loved to complain about her weak eyes and killer migraines.
As I crept through the dark house, my foot caught on a slick patch. I came to a stop by the wall and fumbled for the switch. Lights flooded the room; my heart plummeted.
The bodies of my family were strewn around the kitchen, bloody handprints covering their skin. It was in front of me in a rush: Mama in her nightdress, Pa with his cigar still in hand, the children clutching their bedtime snacks.
I tried to scream but no sound emerged from my lips.
With shaky hands, I picked up the phone and plugged three digits in. My finger hesitated, hovering over the ‘Call’ button before I put the phone back down.
Because, standing there in the red veneer of familial torment, I had a perfect view out of the kitchen window. My feet squeaked against the tile as I walked to the back door.
Noah lay in the grass, staring up at the inky sky. I crossed the yard and lay down next to him.
I didn’t ask him what happened because I didn’t want the details. I understood enough.
Noah had adapted as well.