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  • I remember often hearing the long, mournful, piercing sound of a fire engine through my boyhood bedroom window. Usually I noticed the sound on a bright, clear morning or during a sunny afternoon. Something about hearing that sound was strangely haunting to me, though as a boy I had no reason to believe there was any explanation for my mind and body creating the sensation I was feeling.

    Now I hear the wail of a passing fire engine and I am haunted in another way; a much more visceral, physical reaction overtakes my body as the sonic vibrations from the fire truck pass through my body, up my spine into my brain, where my dead brother lives forever. I don’t need a reminder that my brother died in a fire. I think about it daily. But something about the pure volume of that horn makes me stop and think to myself, “Yes, Seth really is dead, and no, he is never coming back. Ever.”

    It is in those moments that I sometimes catch myself fantasizing that maybe he really will come back. Maybe one day, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be at my quiet home with my wife and family and the doorbell will ring. Maybe, with an odd sense of anticipation, I’ll approach the door and open it, and there will be my brother, skin not burnt to a crisp, wearing a familiar, if much older, smile. He’d explain that he’d been working under deep cover on a matter of national security, and the FBI had to fake his death for the purposes of the mission. For the good of the nation. I’d immediately punch him in the face for all the pain he put me through by dying. How dare he die? How could he do that to me? And then I’d welcome him into the house to present my wife with a familiar stranger.

    Those moments make me realize just how much power my memory and my psyche have over my brain. I’m a reasonably intelligent person. I know that my brother was found burned to death, face down under a pile of rubble on the floor of his apartment. I know that there are reports written by seemingly (modestly) intelligent people who all agree that yes, indeed, Seth Dembowitz was dead. I know that I have a folder full of death certificates with his name on them in cold, soulless black type font. Yet knowing all these true, practical things does not change my brain’s desire to manufacture a reason why Seth “went away” and why he’ll be coming back “soon.”

    He didn’t go away. He’s not coming back. I know this every time I hear the unmistakable cry of a fire engine on its way to someone else’s disaster.
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