I’m famished by the time I get home, but the zucchini casserole I pull out of the fridge is clearly too large for me.

“Mom, why’d you make so much?”

“Don’t eat it all, dear. Save some for Tommy!”

For just a moment, I expect my little brother’s regular, sullen, retort: “Don’t call me Tommy!”

“Did he tell you he’d be late?”

“Come to think of it, he didn’t. I figured he was with you.” My mother, seated at the dinner table, doesn’t look up from her work.

Thomas isn’t ever “with me”. In fact, he always goes home straight from school and shuts himself in his room. Mom and I may be guilty of missing dinner all the time, but I can’t remember the last time Thomas did so.

In any case, it’s not my concern. I devour my share of the casserole without really tasting it, pausing to fend off some half-hearted questions from my mom, and escape to my room to begin my homework.

It’s long past dinnertime by the time I finish, but he’s still nowhere to be seen. I catch my mom right as she drives off for her night shift.

“Shouldn’t Thomas be home by now?”

“You’re right… could you call him for me, dear? I’m really sorry, but I can’t be late to today’s audit at the hospital. ”

“You know he never picks up,” I yell, but her reply is lost as the aging sedan rolls out of earshot. I dial his number anyways. Sure enough, a muffled 8-bit melody plays out in the general direction of his room. Once again, Thomas has neglected to bring his phone with him. I briefly recall one of our more recent arguments, where I told him to carry it more often, and he replied that he never wanted to talk to me anyways. What now?

It’s not as if I’m my brother’s keeper. At 15, he ought to be old enough to take care of himself. And I still have a couple chapters to read, a report to write, and club outing I haven’t even begun to plan. Half in protest, I pull a textbook off my shelf and flip to where I left off… only to find myself unable to focus. Each individual word I can parse, but the meaning of even the first paragraph escapes me. After a fruitless fourth try, I give up, get up, and walk into Thomas’s room.

It’s hard to believe that his room and mine are part of the same house. Clothes, dirty and clean, are strewn around the floor. Candy wrappers and soda cans form a heap by the door. I gingerly make my way towards his desk, looking for some hint of what he’s been up to. Before I flip his laptop open, though, I pause and think about how Thomas definitely consider this a breach of his privacy. After all, I sure would.

Well, I’ll just blame him for not picking up.

His screen is as cluttered as his room, but I quickly find a clue: directions and a map, to what looks to be an upscale cafe on the other side of town. What would he be doing there? It’s too far out of the way to go on a lark. It can’t be for a group project -- it's totally outside our school district. He’s not involved in any extracurriculars, either. I put on a light sweatshirt, and set off to wring the truth from him.

Outside, the crickets are chirping softly, and the sun has almost completed its reluctant descent into the western hills. But I barely even register the pleasant autumn evening. Instead, as I march towards the cafe, my head is filled with admonitions, rebukes, scoldings. If this takes much longer, I’m going to have to pull another all-nighter. He owes me at least a week of chores. Every traffic light, every detour only fuels my frustration and impatience.

As I turn the final corner, the first thing I spot is a shade of teal I’m all too familiar with. His favorite jacket, ragged and threadbare, is wrapped around a young boy sitting alone at a table for two. I’m torn between relief and anger; anger wins out.

“TOMMY!” He turns around. “Do you know how much trouble --”

One look at his face, and my indignant words slip away. His eyes are red, puffed, strained. A trickle of snot is making its way downwards. I haven’t seem him like this since our father’s funeral, what feels like years, ages, lifetimes ago.

“Hi, Sara.” In even those two, short words, his voice barely avoids cracking.

I take the empty seat across him. He doesn’t ask why I’m here. In fact, he doesn’t say anything at all, just fixes a blank gaze somewhere off in the distance. I finish and pay for a peach mousse, then order a latte to go with it. I’m halfway done with that, too, before Thomas finally begins, in a low, deliberate voice.

“I met this girl, Renee, in a chat room online. We had so much in common -- we liked the same games, music, books. I could vent to her if I failed a test, or listen to her talk for hours about her family. She told me she’d be in town for a conference, and that we could meet up, here, in this cafe, at 4. I was so pathetic, all excited to finally meet this girl I’d spent so much time with online. I even went and brought flowers.” He holds up a couple of wilting carnations.

“Maybe she’s just running late, “ I offer, knowing that can’t be the case.

“No, I -- she came. A few hours late, but she came. Only, she had made it all up. Her interests, her family, even her name -- made it all up on some stupid bet with her friends. She said that I was an idiot for believing anyone would want to listen to my boring complaints. And then then she left. Why would someone do that? What could be so fun about fooling me like that?” He stops, as abruptly as he started.

We sit in silence again, as I struggle for a response. I want to yell at him for being so irresponsible, for worrying me by not coming home. I want to slap him and tell him to get over himself. I want to hold him tightly and tell him that he’ll be alright. I want to find this “Renee” and pummel her, for daring to hurt my little brother.

In the end, I do none of these things. Instead, I reach out, and take hold of his right hand. I can feel it trembling in mine. But only a little, less than I might have expected.

“Come on, let's go home... Tommy.”

“... don't call me Tommy.”

His voice is still fragile, like thin ice about to break, but on his lips is the slightest trace of a smile.

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