We decided on a Mexican restaurant in the big shopping center on the edge of Liberty Township. It shared a parking lot with a consignment store and an Asian supermarket. I'd never tried it, but Devon went there a lot after work. She'd actually been working that day, and when she picked me up, she was still in her scrubs with her hair tied back and dark lines around her eyes.
At first, we'd refused to even see our brother after everything that happened, but eventually, we caved and agreed to see him in public. We got there first and sat in the car with the windows rolled down. Devon played a podcast about scientists who gave lab rats cocaine to try to prove addiction was a social and not a biological phenomenon. But the heat and the glare from the cloudy sky were too much, so we went inside and got a booth. We ordered two Coke Zeros and queso. It was past two o'clock and we were starving. The lunch rush was over, and now there was just ESPN and country music and an old couple in the booth to our left.
Our dad and our brother, Noah, arrived about five minutes later. Dad greeted each of us with a firm side hug, then took a seat, followed by Noah. When the waitress came, our dad got a Coke Zero for himself. Noah was watching something on his phone, AirPods in, and when it was his turn to order a drink, he spoke so low that our dad had to repeat his order to the waitress.
He looked different since the last time we saw him. He was bulkier, not just from the hoodie and the sweatpants, but his neck thicker, cheeks bloated, and his face rounder. A slight mustache wiggled over his thick upper lip and he had all these scratched-at pimples that made the lower half of his face look like the moon. His blonde hair made me think of overcooked spaghetti. I wanted to look away.
Our dad asked about Devon's son, and then he asked me how classes were going. The waitress returned with the drinks, and our dad ordered a platter of Mexican egg rolls, and then we put in the orders for our entrees as well. When it was Noah's turn, he looked at our dad and said he didn't want anything. Our dad asked if he was sure, and he said it was fine, he'd just have the egg rolls.
I looked at Devon, who was twirling the crushed ice in her drink. Her straw was slightly flat from where she'd been chewing on it. Then she put it back in her mouth but didn't sip.
"Hey sis, look at this," said our brother.
He turned his phone to me, revealing a blurry video of what looked like a guy getting beat up by a group of teenagers. Noah's lip curled over his teeth in a smile, but it looked more like he was in pain.
"Ouch," I said.
"This guy tried to rob this dude, then he called him a pussy, and then that other guy was like what you say you pussy, so they got in a fight and they beat the shit out of the guy who tried to rob him."
The egg rolls arrived and we all took a piece. Our brother took three. He picked one up and shoved the whole thing in his mouth. He chewed the way a goat chews. Corn and ground beef and wonton fell into his lap.
"How's work?" said Devon.
She dipped her egg roll in the southwestern mayo and then put it back on her plate.
"Good," said our dad. "Did I tell you I'm getting a raise next month?"
"Yeah, I'm excited."
Our brother was still chewing. The egg roll barely fit in his mouth. I saw it between his teeth, soft and pale. We all heard him chewing, but he had his AirPods in, so he probably couldn't hear himself.
"Noah?" said Devon. "Noah?"
He removed one AirPod.
"Can you chew with your mouth closed please?"
Noah breathed out through his nose, mouth pressed flat and nostrils flaring. I looked away.
"Why don't you shut your own mouth?" he asked.
Our dad was sitting with his hands on his lap and he was very still. His mouth sat in a thin line and he was watching the reruns of a Cincinnati Bengals game. I looked at Devon, and Devon looked at her drink. The couple to our left paid and wandered out.
The entrees arrived. Devon and I asked for an extra plate, so we could split our fajitas. Our brother finished off the egg rolls. Our dad picked at his huevos rancheros with a fork and frowned.
"What's wrong?" asked our brother.
"I think there's onions in this."
"Are you fucking serious?"
"It's alright. I can just take them off."
Noah exhaled loudly and shook his head. "That bitch." He put the loose AirPod back in.
I took a tortilla from the foil-wrapped stack, and our dad moved the soggy onions to the side of his plate.
"You want me to say something?" said Noah, taking out the AirPod again.
When he spoke, he lowered his voice and dropped the g at the end of "something." Our dad just chewed, wiped his mouth, and continued staring at the game.
Then Devon got up and excused herself to the bathroom. I put some more steak and peppers on my plate, then scooped the leftover queso over it, and wrapped it all up in another tortilla. The queso had thickened and gone cold. I looked over my dad's shoulder and realized my sister had gone outside and not to the bathroom, so I followed her.
She was sitting on the sidewalk and smoking. I didn't understand how she could have a cigarette in this weather. She gave off this hot smell, a mix of dollar-store deodorant and tobacco.
"I don't understand how he puts up with this," she said without looking up.
I wasn't sure what to say. A family in cargo shorts and baseball caps slammed the doors of their Subaru and toddled into the restaurant.
I pressed my lips together.
"What do you want to do?"
"I don't want to be here."
I looked away. One of those inflatable, green tube men danced on the other side of the road, advertising a closing sale at the Edible Arrangements shop.
"Why don't we just go?" said Devon.
I looked back at her.
"We shouldn't have to put up with this," she said.
A minivan sped by, leaving a trail of exhaust. I looked at the tube man again. I thought about what might happen if we left, upsetting our brother.
"What if Noah does something?"
Devon was staring at the tube man as well.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm just saying, what if he does something?" Now I was looking at the tinted windows of the restaurant. "You know... something stupid."
Devon turned her head down. She dropped her cigarette and crushed it beneath her sneakers. "There's only so much we can do."
"We can't do that to Dad," I said.
She looked at me. Her lips were pressed together in a way that almost looked like a smile, but not a happy one. Then she rolled her eyes and shrugged.
"What do you wanna do then?"
Her voice was thick.
"I'm just saying, he's the one who has to deal with him all the time..."
I stopped and thought about what I'd learned to say.
"I understand that it's frustrating, but you know how much Dad likes seeing us," I said. "We should at least be there for him. Especially when he's the one who has to handle this literally every day."
"Yeah and look at what a great job he's doing," said Devon, and even though her voice was hard, it cracked halfway through the sentence.
I dug my nails into my knees and looked at the pavement.
"I'm going inside," I announced, but not really to her.
Devon followed. Our brother wanted dessert, and our dad said it was fine, he was full, but if we wanted to share something he was happy to order. So we got the brownie sundae, with no nuts, because our brother didn't like them but when it arrived, there were clearly nuts. Noah inhaled loudly, shook his head, and clicked his teeth.
"She keeps getting our goddamn orders wrong."
Dad had his hands in his lap once more. I saw the light of the TV reflected in his pupils. The whites of his eyes were pink and the edges looked wet. I grabbed a spoon and dipped it in, letting the melted ice cream pool into it.
"This place is a fucking dump," Noah turned to him. "I told you we never should've come here."
Devon slid out of the booth without a word and went outside. I looked at my dad again, but he was watching Devon, his lips tense and his breath slow, like meditating. I had another bite of the brownie.
I made it halfway through, even though I was already full. Devon did not come back. I said thank you and our dad just smiled. He suddenly excused himself to the bathroom and I was alone with our brother. I knew Devon was not coming back in.
Noah grabbed a spoon, scraped off the nuts, and started in on the brownie. He chewed louder than ever. The waitress returned with a to-go box. I guess Dad had asked for one while we were outside, seeing as his huevos rancheros were unfinished. My phone went off. It was from Devon. She was waiting in the car, but I wouldn't leave yet.
Dad was taking an unusually long time in the bathroom, but I couldn't leave, I didn't want to. Something about this felt permanent. My phone went off again. And again. I looked outside, toward the car. I saw the green tube man again and I swear it was closer than before. I looked back at Noah. He finished the brownie, sighed in satisfaction, and pushed it to the center of the table.