“Ma’am,” the cop said as my mother stepped back, putting a hand to her chest. “Is this your son?”
This was what I would remember later. This one question, the answer a no-brainer, and yet still one my parents, and Mom especially, would grapple with from that point on. Starting that day, when Peyton got caught smoking pot in the Perkins Day parking lot with his friends, my brother began a transformation into someone we didn’t always recognize. There would be other visits from the authorities, trips to the police station, and, eventually, court dates and rehab stays. But it was this first one that stayed in my mind, crisp in detail. The bowl of popcorn, warm in my lap. Rosalie’s sharp voice. And my mom, stepping back to let my brother inside. As the cop led him down the hallway to the kitchen, my brother looked at me. His ears were bright red.
Because he hadn’t had any pot on his person, Perkins Day decided to handle the infraction itself, with a suspension and volunteer hours doing tutoring at the Lower School. The story—especially the part about how Peyton was the only one who ran, forcing the cops to chase him down—made the rounds, with how far he’d gotten (a block, five, a mile) growing with each telling. My mom cried. My dad, furious, grounded him for a full month. Things didn’t go back to the way they had been, though. Peyton came home and went to his room, staying there until dinner. He served his time, swore he’d learned his lesson. Three months later, he got busted for breaking and entering.
There’s a weird thing that happens when something goes from a one-time thing to a habit. Like the problem is no longer just a temporary houseguest but has actually moved in.
After that, we fell into a routine. My brother accepted his punishment and my parents slowly relaxed, accepting as fact their various theories about why this would never happen again. Then Peyton would get busted—for drugs, shoplifting, reckless driving—and we’d all go back down the rabbit hole of charges, lawyers, court, and sentences.
After his first shoplifting arrest, when the cops found pot during his pat-down, Peyton went to rehab. He returned with a thirty-day chip on his key chain and interest in playing guitar thanks to his roommate at Evergreen Care Center. My parents paid for lessons and made plans to outfit part of the basement as a small studio so he could record his original compositions. The work was halfway done when the school found a small amount of pills in his locker.
He got suspended for three weeks, during which time he was supposed to be staying home, getting tutored and preparing for his court date. Two days before he was due to go back to school, I was awakened out of a deep sleep by the rumbling of the garage door opening. I looked out the window to see my dad’s car backing onto our street. My clock said three fifteen a.m.
I got up and went out into the hallway, which was dark and quiet, then padded down the stairs. A light was on in the kitchen. There I found my mother, in her pajamas and a U sweatshirt, making a pot of coffee. When she saw me, she just shook her head.
“Go back to sleep,” she told me. “I’ll fill you in tomorrow.”
By the next morning, my brother had been bailed out, charged yet again with breaking and entering, this time with added counts of trespassing and resisting arrest. The previous evening, after my parents had gone to bed, he’d snuck out of his room, walked up our road, then climbed the fence around the Villa, the biggest house in the Arbors. He found an unlocked window and wriggled through, then poked around for only a few minutes before the cops arrived, alerted by the silent alarm. When they came in, he bolted out the back door. They tackled him on the pool deck, leaving huge, bloody scrapes across his face. Amazingly, my mother seemed more upset about this than anything else.
“It just seems like we might have a case,” she said to my dad later that morning. She was dressed now, all business: they had a meeting with Peyton’s lawyer at nine a.m. sharp. “I mean, did you see those wounds? What about police brutality?”
“Julie, he was running from them,” my dad replied in a tired voice.
“Yes, I understand that. But I also understand that he is still a minor, and force was not necessary. There was a fence. It’s not like he was going anywhere.”
But he was, I thought, although I knew better than to say this aloud. The more Peyton got into trouble, the more my mom seemed desperate to blame anyone and everyone else. The school was out to get him. The cops were too rough. But my brother was no innocent: all you had to do was look at the facts. Although sometimes, I felt like I was the only one who could see them.
By the next day at school, word had spread, and I was getting side-eyed all over the hallways. It was decided that Peyton would withdraw from Perkins Day and finish high school elsewhere, although opinions differed on whether it was the school or my parents who made this choice.
I was lucky to have my friends, who rallied around me, letting people know that I was not my brother, despite our shared looks and last name. Jenn, whom I’d known since our days at Trinity Church Preschool, was especially protective. Her dad had had his own tangles with the law, back in college.
“He was always honest about it, that it was just experimentation,” she told me as we sat in the cafeteria at lunch. “He paid his debt to society, and now look, he’s a CEO, totally successful. Peyton will be, too. This, too, shall pass.”
Jenn always sounded like this, older than she was, mostly because her parents had had her in their forties and treated her like a little adult. She even looked like a grown-up, with her sensible haircut, glasses, and comfortable footwear. At times it was strange, like she’d skipped childhood altogether, even when she was in it. But now, I was reassured. I wanted to believe her. To believe anything.