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Ask Him Why
Catherine Ryan Hyde

Part One

Your Brother Knows

Remembering Spring 2003

Chapter One: Ruth

I was fifteen when our brother Joseph was shipped overseas to fight, and I was fifteen when he came home, uninjured, three and a half months later.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. The army doesn’t tend to have deployments that last only three and a half months.

That was the heart of our problem right there.

It was more than ten years ago, this part of things, but I still have a lot of clear mental snapshots. It wasn’t one of those days you’re likely to forget. Although sometimes I think we imprint only certain parts of it, like a series of snapshots, and then the rest falls away.

I wonder sometimes if the parts I kept are really the most important parts.

Anyway, when I got home from school there was a yellow cab parked in front of our house. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was something out of the ordinary, because that cab thing just didn’t happen in my world. That would have been almost like leaving ourselves open to new people or something.

The cab was sitting at the curb in front of our gate, the engine running, and I was walking down the street, getting closer to it in a way that seemed too gradual. Like time was stretching out. The whole thing seemed to be taking forever. It felt like one of those moving walkways at the airport, only in reverse—instead of making me feel like I could walk powerfully fast, this felt like I couldn’t get anywhere, no matter how hard I tried.

Nobody got in or out of the cab, which seemed weird.

When I got up to it, I saw there was nobody inside except the driver. He was about forty and had jet-black hair with a bald spot right in the middle. Right on top, which didn’t seem to be the way most bald spots are destined to behave. He was smoking a cigarette with the windows rolled up, so the smoke was just roiling around in there with no place to go. He wasn’t using his hands, either. His hands were both on the top of the steering wheel, like they hadn’t gotten the message that he wasn’t actively driving. I could see him use his lips and facial muscles to draw in and exhale the smoke.

I walked around to the street side and rapped on his window, and he jumped like I’d taken a shot at him.

He opened the driver’s-side window, and I could see by the motion of his shoulder that he still had those old-fashioned windows with cranks. Smoke rolled out, smelling nasty and stale.

See, this is what I meant about the snapshots. Maybe the cab driver wasn’t the real heart of the thing, but he got imprinted.

“What?” he asked, grumpy and challenging, like I had already put him out quite a bit, and now I’d best make this good.

“How can you do that?”

“Do what?”

“What if the next person in your cab is allergic to smoke? Or is a pregnant woman or something? Or just doesn’t want to breathe all that?”

A silence.

I watched him purse his lips and inhale, then push the smoke out through his nose. A light breeze carried it right into my face and I waved it away violently, and probably more dramatically than necessary.

Hey, I was fifteen. Drama was my contribution to the world.

His eyes narrowed. “Who are you?” he asked around the filter of the cigarette.

“I live here,” I said, thrusting my chin in the direction of my family’s enormous house. “I just wondered why you were sitting out here at our curb.”

“That’s a logical thing to wonder,” he said. “Especially compared to what you’ve been wondering so far, like why I do the things I do, or what my next fare’ll want. I’m waiting to get paid.”

“From . . . somebody . . . in there?” I indicated the house again with my chin.

“No, somebody at the airport. I just thought the view was nicer here. Yes, from somebody in your house. Anything else you’re wondering?”

“I’ll see if I can get something going with that,” I said.

“Fine.”

“I’ll be as fast as I can.”

“Take your time,” he said. Then, when the look on my face seemed to communicate that he was being uncharacteristically kind, he added, “Meter’s running.”

I walked up to my front door carefully, if such a thing were possible.

When I stepped into the living room, Joseph was sitting on the couch. He was in his uniform, and I was struck by how handsome he looked in it, how put-together. And being put-together was never his claim to fame before the army got their hands on him.

Mom was sitting on one side of him, Dad on the other, all of which was even more wrong than a yellow cab at the curb. Because my mom should have had her book group on Friday afternoon, and my dad was at work—pretty much every day—from the first light of morning until he knew the coast must have been cleared by the last of us going to bed. Even my mom was somebody he tried to avoid bumping into any more often than necessary.

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