The Miklers were glad to see the holidays come and go, so they could forget for a time Gunther’s brother, Max, and all he asked of them.
“Good riddance,” Nan said the day after New Year’s, and Gunther couldn’t disagree.
He welcomed the gray days of January and February and the cozy feel of hibernation he always had during that time when, outside of keeping the driveway and sidewalks free of snow, nothing much was expected of him. By that time, Max had gone to his winter home in West Palm Beach, and Gunther and Nan were able to breathe more easily, outside the reach of the demands he made on them when he was nearby.
“Come get me,” he’d say when he’d call, which he did frequently.
“Where are you?” Gunther would ask.
“How the fuck do I know? You figure it out.”
Gunther knew the usual places to check—The Hollywood Casino, The Sirens Gentlemen’s Club on Cleveland Avenue, the downtown Metropolitan Library. More times than not, it was the library. Max would walk from his home in German Village and then forget the way back.
“I can see it in my head, buddy boy,” he’d always say, “but I can’t quite map it out.”
So Gunther would go and find him and take him to the modest brick home where he lived alone, his wife, Grace, having passed on some years before.
“You can’t keep doing this,” Gunther told him one day shortly before Christmas. “One day, you might end up in real trouble.”
“I’ll be out of your hair soon,” Max said. “I’ll be soaking up the sun in Florida.”
“How do you think you can do that?” Gunther said. “You can’t even find your way back here where you’ve lived so long.”
“U.S. 35 to I-95 south. Easy as pie.”
That was Max—bullheaded. Even as a boy he’d been that way. Gunther had never forgotten the day he’d walked all the way from town to their farm—twelve kilometers—instead of getting in the car as their father insisted. Max took off through the sugar beet fields. He was angry because their father had refused to let him buy a shotgun. When their father said it was time to get in the car and go home, Max wouldn’t move. “All right then,” their father said, “you can just walk.” And that’s exactly what Max did.
It was little wonder, then, that he worked his way through the mechanical engineering program at the Technical University of Braunschweig and eventually found his way to America. His focus had always been intense, his thinking clear, and his actions precise. How much harder it was, then, for Gunther and Nan to watch his mind deteriorate. Always a student of history with a long memory of facts, he’d recently embraced conspiracy theories. His latest was QAnon.
“You mean to tell me,” Gunther said to him one day, “you believe the world is run by a powerful cabal of Satan worshipping pedophiles who are working to undermine our president?”
“Barack Obama’s one,” Max said, “and so is Hillary Clinton.”
“That’s nonsense. I’m glad Grace isn’t alive to see you like this.”
“You just wait, buddy boy. The Storm is coming.”
The president, Donald Trump, had been chosen by God, according to those who believed in Q, to arrest thousands of members of the cabal on a day of reckoning known as The Storm.
“I don’t know who you are,” Gunther said.
“I’m your brother,” Max said in an earnest tone. “Where we go one, we go all.”
Gunther slept in those winter mornings, at peace with the fact that Max was in Florida—“I got here okay,” he’d said when he’d called from West Palm Beach. “Nothing to worry about at all.”
All right then, Gunther thought. Nothing to concern him. Put your worries in your pocket. He slept late, and then went for a long walk—seven miles—along the trails of the Scioto Grove Metro Park. He tromped through the forest and along the river bluffs, coming out finally on the native prairie. It was one of those cloudy and still winter days when sounds carried for miles. He listened to crows calling overhead and what sounded like a dead limb crashing to the forest floor. He didn’t mind the cold. In fact, he found it exhilarating. Dressed in layers of thermal and cotton and fleece, his hands in gloves, his head and face warmed by a balaclava, he made long strides, his hiking boots bearing him up nicely as he walked a pace that soon had him sweating.
He’d never minded being alone. The older brother, he’d been an only child for twelve years before Max came along.
“A mistake,” his father always said, his contempt for this late-in-life birth barely hidden. “Verdammt das Glück.”
Damn the luck indeed. Damn the luck that Gunther and Max had a father seemingly incapable of making room in his heart for his own children. More times than he could remember, Gunther had suffered the pain of his drunken blows, and he knew Max had gotten it even worse. That was partly the reason that Gunther had vowed to take care of him, to be the father Max had never had. That’s why on these winter walks, Max was never far from Gunther’s thoughts. He hoped he’d be all right in Florida. He didn’t think he had any business being there, but to stop him from going would take a massive intervention, one that Gunther couldn’t quite muster the courage to attempt. Next time, he kept telling himself, as he walked. Next time, he’d do something to protect his brother.
One afternoon, he came home from his walk, and, as was his habit, he turned on MSNBC to catch the latest news. It was an election year, and Trump was blustering and bumbling and firing up his base for his relection run while at the same time, he was facing a possible impeachment trial. Just after New Year’s, he’d announced the killing of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian military leader. Now, MSNBC was reporting, two Iraqi bases holding United States troops had been targeted by Iranian missiles. The world, Gunther knew, was such a fraught place. These tensions on top of reports of a deadly virus running amok in China.
“Why do you watch this junk?” Nan was watering her houseplants. She paused and pointed the spout of her watering can at him. “It just makes you fret, and who needs that?”
“I can’t not watch.” He slouched in his chair. “I have to know what’s going on in the world. People closed their eyes in Germany in the 1930s and look what happened. Nazis. Hitler.”
“Do you really think this Trump is that kind of man?”
“Don’t you?” Nan had always been a take-it-or-leave-it sort of person, ready to dismiss anything that threatened her instead of considering the potential consequences. Gunther liked to think himself too much a realist to ever turn away from what might be on the horizon. “He’s an autocrat,” he said. “He wants to rule whatever’s within his reach. We can be stupid, or we can be ready.”
“Baloney,” Nan said. “He couldn’t find his ass with both hands and a map.” She lifted her eyebrows and stared at Gunther, waiting for him to respond. “He’s a clown,” she said, and then she went back to watering her plants.
Ever since the Christmas party they threw each year for a group of neighbors that called itself The Patio Club, Gunther had been wanting to talk to Nan about the awkward thing that had happened, but it was as if the two of them had reached a silent agreement not to broach the subject. They’d bid their guests goodbye that night and had cleaned up without a mention of their neighbors, Peter and Honey Vanlandingham, and whatever it was that was going on between them—some sort of spat that ended with Honey shouting, “You cruel bastard.” Her rage had mystified and embarrassed everyone. Gunther hadn’t known what to say when she stormed out of the house, but now he did.
“People are unkind,” he said. “People who should know better. Our neighbors for instance.”
He could see immediately that Nan knew which neighbors he was referring to. “Now you listen,” she said. “What happened with Honey and Peter we won’t talk about. We’ll leave that business to them. Glass houses, Mr. Mikler. Glass houses. How much would you want our neighbors to know about your brother?”
What was he to say to that? He closed his eyes and let the drone of the television nudge him into sleep.
The next thing he knew, Nan was shaking him awake. “Gunther. You’ll never believe what I just saw.”
It was Max, she said. Max on the television.
“Max?” Gunther was groggy from his nap. “Where did you see Max?”
“He was in some sort of crowd,” Nan said. “I don’t know what it was, but I saw him. Just for an instant. Right there on the TV.”
“You must be mistaken. Why would he be on the television?”
“I am not mistaken,” Nan said. “It was Max. He was holding up a sign that said ‘Q.’”
The call came that evening. “You don’t know me,” a man said. “I’m a friend of your brother’s.”
“What is it about Max?” Gunther asked. He’d been trying to call him throughout the day with no luck. Now it was dark, and Nan was preparing a light supper. They’d spent the rest of the afternoon watching MSNBC, hoping to see the report that Nan claimed had shown Max, but nothing showed up to give them a clue. Trump was having one of his Make America Great Again rallies that evening, this one in Toledo, and a good deal of the reporting was about that. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced that she was beginning 2020 cancer-free. U.S. officials were confident that Iran was the one responsible for shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was facing increasing pressure to send articles of impeachment of the president to the Senate. All of this would have at one time mattered to Gunther—he worried more and more that the country was on the verge of something akin to Germany’s embrace of the Nazi party—but now all he could do was worry about his brother. “Tell me what you know about Max,” he said.
“You should come get him,” the man said. He sounded like a young man—clear-voiced and amped up on adrenaline. “You should come before there’s trouble. Real trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Q trouble. You come to the Huntington Center. I’ll keep my eye on him until you get here.”
“The Huntington Center?” Gunther searched his memory for something like that in West Palm Beach but came up empty.
“Trump rally,” the man said. “Toledo.”
Toledo was a two and a half-hour drive from Grove City. By the time Gunther backed out of his garage with Nan aboard, it was dark and snow was falling.
“Be careful, Mr. Mikler,” Nan said. “Be very careful.”
The streets were just starting to glaze over, but Gunther felt confident the interstates would be clear. He had to tell himself that to keep going when really what he wanted was to be in his warm house with Nan and a glass of wine, letting the snow fall all around them. What he really wanted, if he had to admit it, was to put all thought of Max out of his head, an idea he’d floated to Nan after the call from the stranger—an idea, she noted, that was out of the question. “He’s your brother,” she’d said.
Of course, she was right. If Max were in trouble, who else would be there to protect him? He kept reminding himself of that as he felt the rear end of his Mercedes SUV slide a bit before finding traction. Snow slanted down through the headlight beams. The first traffic light, a block away, was a watery green. He accelerated, but just as he did, a woman dressed all in white stepped into the crosswalk.
“Gunther,” Nan said.
He was already slowing, tapping the brakes. The woman was ghostly in the white night, and she froze in the crosswalk, turning toward Gunther’s oncoming headlights, as if she were waiting calmly for whatever might be about to happen. Her coat had a fur-lined hood, but when she lifted her face, Gunther was surprised by what he saw.
“Honey,” Nan said, just as the Mercedes found dry pavement and came to a stop only inches from Honey Vanlandingham. Nan put down her window and leaned out into the snow. “Where are you going?” she asked.
Honey didn’t answer. She merely walked around the front of the Mercedes to the passenger side, opened the back door, and got in behind Nan.
“I was walking,” she said. “I was thinking.”
Gunther’s fingers were trembling on the steering wheel. He moved forward, driving slowly, not knowing what to do now that Honey was in the car.
“We almost hit you,” Nan said.
“Wouldn’t that have been funny?” Honey laughed. “Killed by my neighbors. How would that have been for The Patio Club?”
Gunther didn’t think it was funny at all. The snow was heavier, and he had miles to go, and now he didn’t know what to do with Honey.
“You should take her home,” Nan said to him.
Honey’s quilted jacket swished as she shook her head with vigor. “I don’t want to go home. I can’t bear the thought. You can just let me out.”
Gunther watched her in the rearview mirror as she reached for the door handle. He never once thought she’d try to open that door. She’d always been overly dramatic. He glanced down at the speedometer. He was driving around twenty-five miles per hour now, and he was losing patience with Honey and her theatrics. Then he felt a rush of cold air, and when he looked back in his rearview, he glimpsed a sliver of light and saw Honey just beginning to push herself out of her seat. He didn’t have time to think. He threw his arm back over the seat and caught her by the hood of her jacket and held on as he pulled to the curb.
“Verrückte Frau.” He realized he was shouting, but how could he not? Crazy woman.
The car door was shut now. Cars crept by on Gunther’s left. Honey sat with her head down and her fists clenched in her lap. Nan said, “Darling, tell us what’s wrong.”
But she couldn’t. For a time, in fact, it seemed as if she were incapable of speech of any kind. Gunther felt the minutes ticking away. He looked at Nan, lifted an eyebrow. She gave a slight shrug of her shoulder.
Then Honey spoke. “Wherever you’re going,” she said, “take me with you.”
So, Gunther drove. He followed Hoover Road out of the city and made his way through the sleepy towns of Kenton and Findlay and finally to Interstate 75 which would take him to Toledo.
Honey went to sleep in the back seat. She’d told her story to Gunther and Nan. It involved Peter, of course. “I’m positive he’s seeing someone else,” Honey said. “I found a bottle of perfume in his jacket pocket tonight. He said it was a gift for me.”
“It could be it was,” Nan said.
“No.” Honey looked down at her clasped hands. “He knows I never wear perfume.” All Gunther could think about was getting to Toledo to find out what Max was doing there. “I walked out,” Honey said. “I told Peter there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop me.”
Now she was sleeping. She was unaware that the farther north they went, the harder the snow fell, the lower the temperature dropped, and the slicker the roads became. Even the traffic on I-75 was taking heed. Gunther passed more than one car that had spun off onto the shoulder, or out into the median. He kept his eyes on the barely visible track on the roadway and steadily made his way north.
Nan had told Honey all about Max. “I’m so embarrassed,” Honey had said after finishing her own story, and Nan had said, “We all have stories.” Then she’d started in, telling Honey about Max, his deteriorating mind, the conspiracy theories he believed, the phone call Gunther had received telling him Max was in trouble in Toledo. “A Trump rally,” Nan said with distaste. “Can you imagine?”
“I met him once,” Honey said. “Your brother. We were on your patio watching the fireworks at the high school, and he offered me his jacket when I got cold, and he even held my hand. He was very sweet.”
Yes, all of that was true. Gunther remembered it clearly. The neighbors on the patio. A late-night chill in the air even though it was July. Max on his best behavior. He was still with them, then. He hadn’t begun to crack. He was polite and witty and charming and warm. Honey and all the other women in The Patio Club adored him. Peter Vanlandingham had been out of town at the time, and Max insisted on walking Honey home.
“Such a gentleman,” Honey said, when Nan had finished her story. “It makes me so sad to think of what’s happening to him.”
“Yes, it makes us sad, too,” Nan said, and Gunther was thankful for that, to know that beneath Nan’s grumbling about the inconvenience Max was turning out to be there was a genuine lament for the loss of the man he’d once been.
That man had possessed a beautiful mind. No mathematical equation stumped him. Numbers danced an elegant ballet in his brain as he engineered a system for a line-conducted digital telecommunication between a switching exchange of a telecommunication network and a subscriber connected to that network, or a device for a circuit arrangement to generate a clock frequency for a data transmission system. There were other patents he held that Gunther had a limited capacity to understand. His beautiful brother. The one who’d walked twelve kilometers through the sugar beet fields in protest of what he considered to be an injustice. Gunther gripped the steering wheel and peered through the snow slanting down in front of his headlights.
Honey had started to snore.
“Poor kid,” Nan said.
Gunther was less sympathetic. “Verrückte Frau,” he said again and kept driving.
The Huntington Center was located in downtown Toledo on Jefferson Avenue. A walkway connected it to the Seagate Convention Centre. Gunther had been there once or twice for conferences, and last year, he and Nan had gone to a Reba McEntire concert. It never failed to amuse people when they found out that they were country music fans, but, when they’d first come to the States, what could possibly been more American? They’d voted for Barack Obama in 2008—their first presidential election after becoming citizens—and they’d been Democrats ever since. But this Trump? Mein Gott! A Hitler in the making.
“What a circus,” Nan said, when they turned down Jefferson and approached the Huntington Center.
American flags galore along with blue flags that said “Trump 2020. Keep America Great” in white letters. More than one man had stars and stripes painted on his face. Another had on a white tee-shirt that said, “Donald Trump, Finally Someone with Balls” across its back. Women and men in tee-shirts with giant Q’s on their chests. One group had a sign that said, “The Q Parade.” The merchandise was on sale at various tents with Trump flags flying from them. Men and women in military fatigues and tactical gear stood in small groups with automatic weapons in their hands.
This was the overflow, the people who hadn’t been able to score a ticket but wanted to be nearby. Something was happening in this country, some rage rising, and there were plenty of people who wanted to be a part this cult-like movement.
“They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid,” Gunther said, making reference to Jim Jones’s cult which ended in 1978 with a mass suicide—over 900 dead—from drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.
“Now if they’d just fall down,” Nan said.
They were whispering because Honey was still asleep. Gunther drove as far as he could down Jefferson before realizing he wouldn’t be able to get to the parking garage, and even if he could, what chance would he have finding a place to park? He cut down a quiet side street and pulled to the curb.
“What now?” Nan asked.
Gunther didn’t know. He realized he hadn’t asked the man on the phone how he would find Max. He heard the man say there was going to be trouble at the Huntington Center in Toledo at this Trump rally—trouble, Gunter assumed, that involved Max—and then he hung up the phone. Sitting there now in his warm Mercedes, Gunther wondered if he’d panicked—too eager to be on the road to Toledo rather than listening to all the details—or had he deliberately not wanted to know how to find his brother?
And then there he was. Max. He was sitting on the hood of his car—a black Lincoln—with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his palms. His camel’s hair topcoat, unbuttoned, draped the fender. After all that Gunther had imagined—all the miseries and terrors—now he only had to get out of the Mercedes and take a few steps and say, “Hello, Max.”
How many times had it been like this, Gunther coming to save him?
Snow dusted the shoulders of Max’s topcoat. He lifted his head and studied Gunter for quite some time.
“I’m just sitting here,” he finally said. “I’m waiting for Q.”
Gunther had read enough to understand that no one really knew who Q was, although there were speculations about certain individuals and groups. Someone was responsible for all the whack-job conspiracy theories—all the misinformation and the lies—but it was hard to say who. QAnon, or so it seemed to Gunther, was simply Nazism rebranded, a collective of anti-Semitic and racist right-wingers who feared they were being left behind in favor of the progressive left. Hadn’t such fear and propaganda worked in Hitler’s Germany? Even Gunther’s father had been a member of the Hitler Youth, and before him his grandfather had been a Brownshirt. The Sturmabteilung, for god’s sake. One of Hitler’s Storm Troopers. Years later, when Gunther finally worked up the courage to ask how it was possible that he and Opa had been caught up in such a thing, his father said, “It was a different time. People were afraid. It was easy to get swept along. We weren’t always thinking right.”
No excuse, Gunther remembered thinking. No excuse at all.
Nor was there any excuse for this QAnon nonsense. It was a poison mist seeping into people, leading them to crazy thoughts and deeds. Its believers had harassed a CNN reporter at a Trump rally in Tampa and targeted the attorney representing the stripper who claimed Trump paid her to keep their affair on the down low. That same summer, a member armed with an AR-15 assault rifle drove an armored truck to the Hoover Dam, demanding that Hilary Clinton be arrested and thrown in jail.
Gunther was considering all this while he stood there looking into Max’s eyes. The snow was falling over them, and in the distance Gunther swore he heard gunfire.
“You’re supposed to be in Florida,” he said to Max. “West Palm Beach for the Winter. Remember? U.S. 35 to I-95 south? Easy as pie?”
“I was detained,” Max said in a toneless voice. “Diverted. Now I’m waiting.”
At that moment, a man came out of the shadows. He was eating a hot dog from a paper wrapper. Gunther realized then that he and Nan hadn’t taken time to eat the supper she’d prepared. It was waiting for them in their refrigerator.
The man with the hot dog said, “How about that?”
“Excuse me,” Gunther said. The man with the hot dog was close enough now for Gunther to smell the spicy mustard and the pickle relish.
“This whole deal.” The man swept the hand holding the dog back and forth, indicating everything around them—the snow, the streetlights, the chant rising from outside the Huntington Center where people were listening to Trump’s remarks over a loudspeaker. Lock him up, the crowd was chanting, Lock him up. “What a night. The Storm’s coming, baby. Ain’t that right, brother?” He nodded at Max. “We’ll do more than just lock him up.”
With that, the man stuffed the last bit of the dog and the bun into his mouth and then smiled. Gunther had lost track of who Trump wanted arrested. He always wanted someone locked up.
“High five, bro.” The man tossed the paper wrapper to the ground and held out his palm. “Don’t leave me hanging.”
Max looked at Gunther, and Gunther saw the confusion in his eyes. “How did you find me?” he asked.
“I came where they told me to go,” Gunther said, and then, with absolutely no knowledge of why, he added, “I came looking for Q.”
Maybe he said it to make fun of the whole circus surrounding Trump and QAnon, or maybe he did it to bedevil the man with the hot dog, or maybe—just maybe—he said it because he’d run out of things to say. His brother was slipping away from him, and he didn’t have words that would stop that from happening.
“And now here I am.” Max spread his arms and his topcoat opened like wings. “The great and powerful.” He smacked the man’s palm. “Hell, yes,” Max said. “The Storm’s coming.”
More people were coming down the street, people with their Trump signs and their Q signs and their Keep America Great hats, people who were jazzed up and looking for some way to keep the current flowing. Lock him up, they kept chanting. The rally might be breaking up, but its people weren’t in a hurry for the night to end.
Gunther heard a car door slam shut, and when he turned, he saw Honey Vanlandingham walking toward him. She glided along in her white pants and jacket and hat and her white boots, and something about the sight of her mesmerized him. At the moment, she seemed like the loveliest thing he’d ever seen, and whatever resentment he’d felt for her because of the way she’d behaved at their Christmas party lifted from him, and he felt a lightness in his heart, and he said out loud, “My god, she’s an angel.”
Then she was swallowed up in the crowd that had grown in the time it had taken her to leave the Mercedes.
Nan put down her window and stuck her head out to call to her. “Honey,” she kept saying. “Honey Vanlandingham.”
But Honey was beyond her now, lost somewhere in the crowd that was moving like a swarm.
The man with the hot dog dropped down on his knees in front of the Lincoln. He grabbed onto Max’s pants cuffs and bowed his head. “Are you really him?” he asked.
“That’s right,” said Max. “I’m the genuine article.” He laid his hand on top of the man’s head as if to bless him. “Where we go one, we go all.”
Those were the last words Gunther heard his brother say, for now the crowd was upon him. “Lock him up,” someone shouted, and a sudden rage, beyond Gunther’s understanding rose up, and the man with the hot dog, looked up and said, “Don’t you see? Don’t you see? It’s him. It’s Q.”
“This man?” a red-faced man in camo fatigues said. “This man is nothing but a crazy man.” He grabbed Max off the Lincoln’s hood. Gunther made one move to hold onto him. He touched the hem of his topcoat, then the crowd had him, and he slipped away. The last sight Gunther had of him was his knees hitting the pavement as the men dragged him along.
“Gunther, help him,” Nan said.
It was madness. It was all madness. Something had gone wrong somewhere outside Gunther’s understanding, but he could feel it all around him. The menace. The insanity.
“Max,” he called out, but it was no use. The crowd was now a mob, angry and hate-driven.
Then, somehow, Honey Vanlandingham’s voice rose up above the din, and what she said was, “Nothing can stop what’s coming.” She said it over and over, and the power of her voice was startling. It was a siren screaming, a bell ringing, a band saw cutting through metal. She emerged from the edge of the mob. A streetlamp cast its light upon her, and she was beautiful in the light. For just an instant the mob saw what Gunther saw—the white angel sounding her warning. Something was coming. Something that would send them to their knees. Something no faith in God or man—no not even Donald Trump or this imagined Q—could protect them from. No cult strong enough. “Listen to me,” Honey said, and Gunther wanted to believe in the future, to believe that he could go home and move through whatever days remained to him in peace, without shame or regret.
The night had gotten so still. The snow was still falling, and Gunther looked up into that snow, letting it hit his face, the way he and Max had done when they were boys in Germany. Once upon a time, had there been a chance, a final opportunity where good people could have done the right things and the Nazi Party would have never come to power and the world would have found its proper arc and life for years and years would have been beautiful? Gunther felt that opportunity before him now.
But someone from the mob shouted, “Fuck this!” And then it was moving on, leaving Honey behind, taking Max with them.
A jogger would find him downtown the next morning, wandering along the Maumee Riverfront, frost-bitten and beaten. The jogger would report that Max questioned her in a language she couldn’t understand. He was overwrought, she said, his face wet with tears. He clutched her hands. Gunther imagined it all. He imagined Max saying, “Wo ist er? Wo ist mein Bruder?”
Where is he? Where is my brother?
Lee Martin is the author of two short story collections, four memoirs, a craft book, and seven novels, including The Bright Forever, which was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Ms., The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Best American Essays, Best American Mystery Stories, and other places.