This short story is the winner of Round 6 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest.
For Round 6 of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction where one of the characters tells a joke and one of the characters cries.
My father tells a joke about a saint and a criminal who meet at a bar. He forgets the punchline, but I get his meaning. I am supposed to be one, my brother the other. Until yesterday, I might have known which one I am, but now I could be either.
Yesterday, the trick was: Don't tell your brother about his wife, the one he's been married to for less than a year, the one he loves but sometimes hurts. Do not tell your brother that she is pregnant with some other man's child, that you have seen her yourself at the mall and she is already doing the kind of walk that is more like a waddle. My father is certain this information can do no good, not when my brother is finally eating again. Not when he has finally been matriculated back into the general population.
He is right, my father. I know this. But somehow this knowledge, it perches on the edge of my tongue like a tiny bird trying to flap its wings.
I cough; I try to swallow. I vow to stay silent, but I keep thinking about all the times my brother came home late or not at all, my father's brow stitched with worry, my mother crying in the bathroom where she thought I couldn't hear.
I think of that night, the late-ringing phone, the three of us shuffling about in the dark, the coat I put on inside out. All those lights made the unfamiliar street seem almost foreign, the reds and blues casting everyone as garish characters, puppets in a show.
By the time we arrived, the ambulance had already carried the woman away. We surveyed the damage, my father running his hands through his hair, my mother shredding a Kleenex into shaggy bits that rested on the grass at her feet.
Before us, my brother's squatty Chrysler sat in the middle of someone else's living room, the hole in the exterior wall like a mouth full of jagged teeth. The television, upside down in the fireplace, spun gray static from its screen. I wanted to know, did he hear the woman screaming? Or did he find her after, pinned by the bumper, a last spasm of the hand, a final word and then nothing?
I looked for him and finally found him in the back of a cruiser, his head ducked low. I could have called to him, I guess, let him know we were there, but instead I watched him across the crowded driveway, both of us bathed in strange light, while my father talked with the officer in charge and my mother sobbed into the back of her hand.
Yesterday, at visiting hours, my brother looks a little bit more like himself. He is laughing, no longer sullen, no longer afraid to look us in the eye. He seems hopeful, even, his first opportunity for parole in just six months, a new cell assignment. He's even made a friend.
What kind of person wants someone she loves to pay and keep paying? What kind of person tallies in her mind every harm done her? I sit on my hands. I avoid his eyes. But there is no escaping the new quality of his voice. If I didn't know better, I would think he was the same man, the same as before the accident. The same brother I have always known.
The tiny bird on my tongue is raising its wings. The feathers tickle my throat. I cough. I open my mouth.