When I would go over to my friends’ houses, I thought it was weird that their parents didn’t scream or hit them. I thought that maybe these parents behaved when company was over but that, surely, they had the same home life I did after I left, that my friends were tormented by their parents just as much as I was. I thought my life was the norm, I didn’t classify what my brother lived through was abuse or cause to “seek an adult” for help.
When I was in grade school and my brother had just started high school, the Fiery version of my brother started to take over. That was also when my father decided we needed to move. Our new house was in the middle of a city that was even bigger than the last. The front door was black and there was no yard. It had three floors but never enough room to escape the smell of my father’s bitter cigars and whiskey. With my father’s new job came the bruises on my brother’s arms and the cuts on his lips.
My mother and father both had light blond hair, as did I, but my brother’s hair was a deep black and stood out against the rest of us. His dark lashes made his bright blue eyes pop and my father never looked directly at them.
In the middle of the night, I could hear the thuds coming from my brother’s room, directly above my ceiling. I would lay in bed, staring up at the light fixture, wanting to get up and go to my brother’s room, but never being able to work up the courage. It was a paralyzing fear that gripped my whole body in a painful vice. A pounding in my throat and a tightness in my chest. All I could do was lay there, my eyes watered from not blinking.
The next morning my brother would be wearing long-sleeved shirts and his shoulders would be hunched up to his ears. I only ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast. My brother liked to eat oatmeal, but sometimes when he went to reach for the tin on the top shelf, he would wince and end up pulling a box of cereal from the counter top instead.
“What were those noises last night?” I asked him the first night.
His head jerked up to look at me from across the table. His mouth was full but he had stopped chewing.
“The noises from last night?” he repeated.
I nodded and he watched me carefully for a moment.
Right there he could have told me the truth. He could have removed any doubt or suspicions I had. If he told me, the veil would be gone and I would be forced to face the truth.
“It was only thunder,” he told me. He looked back down at his bowl and resumed eating.
Maybe he did it to protect me. Maybe he was giving me an out. Or maybe he just couldn’t face talking to me about it. Either way, I took the excuse he gave me and I could never bring myself to ask him about it again.
It was easy enough to fool myself into believing it, at first. We had plenty of thunder storms in the city that boomed and shook the walls at night. When I was younger, my mother had told me that you could tell when a thunder storm was moving away by counting the seconds between the booms. The longer the pauses, the further away it was going.
But it didn’t work with that thunder.
Maybe it was those nights that rattled something loose. Whatever was holding the rest of him together slipped out of place and he couldn’t keep the barricades up anymore.
My Fiery Brother first broke through one morning he was walking me to school. Two boys had been walking down the opposite side of the street but I hadn’t noticed until one of them cut between me and my brother, ramming us both with his shoulders.
I tripped and caught myself with my hands. My brother came over and pulled me up by my arms.
“Are you okay?” my brother asked, his voice was gruff, a mixture of being annoyed and concerned. He took my wrists gently in his hands, examining the tiny beads of blood that were beginning to form.
I nodded and made a strangled, hiccupping noise.
That’s when the two boys started to laugh.
My brother’s grip on my wrists tightened and I watched as his face turned into an exploding back draft.
He got suspended from school for a week for getting into a fight. My father yelled at him for two hours in the living room. All I could do was sit on the couch with bandages wrapped around my hands, stare at the drops of blood on my brother’s shirt and notice how they looked black on the blue material. My mother had sat in the armchair next to my father, her arms hugged around her body and her delicate eyebrows slightly turned up in the middle of her forehead.
My father could yell so loud that every word he spoke would reverberate through my whole body. His face would contort and his lips would peel back over his nicotine stained teeth.
That night when I tried to count the seconds between the thunder, I couldn’t even whisper a full one-one hundred, two-one hundred before there was another boom. They didn’t get fewer or further apart. They shook the ceiling, one after another, and then abruptly cut off. After that, all I heard was the running of the upstairs faucet for exactly thirteen seconds before the house went silent.
For the first time since we had moved, I crept up the cold marble stairway and to my brother’s room.
I pushed the door open and saw that his desk lamp was still on. I thought he was asleep, but he was lying on his back, hands clasped over his chest and staring at the door expectantly.
He scooted over in his bed and held up the cover. I hadn’t slept in his bed since I was at least six. I settled into the pillows and pulled the blanket up over my nose.
He turned off the desk lamp and rolled onto his side, away from me. His shirt was off and I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen this much of his skin.
His back was riddled with bruised constellations and black holes that started dark in the middle and seeped out into shades of red and yellow. I hesitantly leaned my forehead against the hard place where the base of his neck met his shoulders. He didn’t move or say a word. Eventually sometime between counting the array of cosmos on his back, I fell asleep.
After that day, my brother’s temper would spark and go from being calm to enraged in a matter of seconds. There was no build up or warning; one moment he was fine and the next my Fiery Brother would break through and engulf everything around him.
He had also started to antagonize my father. The thing that drove my father the most insane was when my brother would laugh at him. It was a demeaning and belittling laugh that he accompanied with a slight shake of his head. A cruel smirk would cut across his lips. He openly accepted my father’s challenge and would stare him down. That laugh would send him into a frenzy and while my father would never hit him in front of us, but he would always pay for it later.
My brother wasn’t always like that. Sometimes he was the brother I had when I was still little. He was one of the best track runners on the high school team. He loved running and, while he still got into trouble, he kept it to a minimum so he could remain on the team.
I liked being at the track because it always smelled like fresh cut grass, the older boys on my brother’s team were really cute, and that was the only time I got to see my brother smile so openly. I may be biased because he was my brother, but he was really amazing. His long legs always managed to stretch out just a little bit further than the rest of the runners and cross the chalky white line first, arms spread out like wings at his sides.
After a race, his face would be gleaming with sweat and the edges of his dark hair would be wet and stuck to his skin. There was always a proud smile curling the edges of his lips. He’d walk up to me, fuss my hair with his hand and say, “Let’s go, Squirt.”
Those days after practice, he always smelled like a mix of his cologne, sweat, and grass. I liked him on those days. I always dragged my feet to make the walk back home slower because the closer we got, the more my Gleaming Brother would sink away to be replaced with the hard shell of my Fiery one.
I didn’t even want my mother to be there. I just wanted it to be me and him saying our goodbyes to each other.
He was finally able to escape when he got accepted to a big university a six hour plane ride away. The day he left, he stood at the front porch, the taxi behind him filled with his things and his backpack slung over one shoulder. He gave my mother a one-armed hug while she shook with sobs. My father hadn’t bothered to show up to say goodbye, but we all preferred it that way. I didn’t even want my mother to be there. I just wanted it to be me and him saying our goodbyes to each other.
When he turned to me, he was my brother from those hot afternoons after practice. My Gleaming Brother. I knew he was excited to leave, even if he didn’t say it to spare my feelings. He smiled at me but the skin between his eyebrows puckered.
“Why are you crying?” he asked, a low chuckle reverberating in his chest as he fussed with my hair. “Hang in there, Squirt,” he said quietly before he stood up. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
I didn’t want to wait. I didn’t want to walk myself to school now and I didn’t want to be left alone with my mother and father.
For two months all I could think about was how I wanted him to come home, but, when he actually did, it wasn’t the relief I had been waiting for.
My mother was killed in a car accident the last week of November. She was leaving the grocery store in the middle of the night. I had gotten a temperature and she had gone out to get some of that canned chicken noodle soup. It was the middle of a huge thunderstorm that shook the windows in their frames.
My brother came back from school three days before the semester ended. I stayed in my room until he got home. My father didn’t bother to try to talk to me. I locked my door and made a bed of pillows on the floor in the corner of space between my bed and the far wall of my room.
I was counting the small, cold pearls of one of my mother’s bracelets over and over again when I heard the light rapping of knuckles against my door. I could tell it wasn’t my father because he never bothered to knock; he just tried to come in or yelled through the door if he couldn’t.
I slipped the bracelet around my wrist and opened the door.
An uncontrollable sigh shook my entire body.
He was standing in the doorframe, his hands tucked into his pockets, simply looking down at me. He was wearing a black suit for the funeral and I could tell by the wrinkles that he had worn it on the plane. He had that same concerned smile but his eyes were tired and his face looked thinner.
“Why are you crying?” he asked so suddenly and in such a soft tone it made me jump. I hadn’t noticed until then that there were already tears spilling down my cheeks. He pulled his hands from his pockets and held them out to his sides and I fell right into them.
The funeral passed as a blur of white and black. Family and friends said their apologies, asked if there was any way they could help, and there were white roses everywhere. The smell of them was still stuck in my nose, in my hair, for days afterwards. What I remember the most, however, was the weight of my brother’s hand on my shoulder and that, the entire time, he never left my side or broke contact. He stood by me like a silent guard, standing over and holding out his free hand when people acknowledged him.
After that night, I didn’t see much of my Fiery Brother anymore. Instead, my new Watery Brother took his place. He became a diluted version of who he used to be. He was washed out and blurry around the edges, like I was looking at him through a window as rain poured down the pane. His skin got pale and his eyes seemed to dull.
While my Fiery Brother sparked with anger, my Watery Brother was entirely void of emotion. Both of them were unsettling, but the absence of himself in his Watery state was far worse than any damage my Fiery Brother could cause.
Two nights after the funeral, I was in bed reading a book when I heard a loud slam ring through the building. It wasn’t the dull thud I had grown accustom to hearing above my head at night. It was sharp and so abrupt that the shock that ran through my body actually hurt.
It took me a moment of sitting there, knuckles white as I gripped onto my bed sheets, to realize that it was the sound of the front door being thrown shut. I scrambled to the edge of my bed.
I could just make out the shape of my brother sprinting down the road through the water drops scattered across the windowpane. The streetlamps reflected off the back of his white shirt as he sped past them. I ran downstairs and into the street. I craned my neck around to try to see where he had gone. I had no idea where he was going, but the worst part was that I didn’t know if he was going to come back.
My first thought was that maybe my father had done something, but his car wasn’t parked out front.
It had been raining earlier so the air was still cold and damp. I was only in my pajamas and the concrete beneath my feet was slick. My heart was pounding in my throat and my body shook. I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or the inexplicable fear that was closing around my neck.
I started walking down the street, trying to find him. I had gone three blocks when I heard rustling in a bush up ahead followed by loud retching. I froze for a moment before deciding to follow the noise around the corner. I slowed my pace and wrapped my arms tightly around myself. There was a line of tall white rose bushes along a wrought-iron fence and halfway down it was my brother, doubled over and grasping the posts to keep himself up.
It was then that I was able to exhale the breath I didn’t know I was holding in.
I don’t know if he could hear my teeth chattering or could sense me walking towards him, but he jumped and jerked his head up to look at me. He coughed and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.
My Watery Brother.
His eyes were puffy and swollen again, framing his startled blue eyes. His white shirt was wet and clinging to his frame. Steam was billowing off his shoulders in the cold air in small wisps. His black hair was matted and wet and his skin had a pale green sheen to it.
He sniffed through his nose and pushed himself away from the wall. “The roses…” was all he mumbled as he rubbed his fists against his eyes. He took a deep breath, the kind you do in an attempt to keep yourself from crying.
I was silent for a moment as I watched him. I wanted to reach out and try to grab him but I was afraid he would just trickle through my fingers. I spoke quietly, my voice barely above a whisper.
“Why are you crying?”
My arms slipped out from holding myself around my middle and I held them out at my sides. He looked back at me with his piercing blue eyes, rimmed with red for a silent moment before his face crumpled.
He was in front of me in barely two strides and collapsed to his knees. He wrapped his arms tightly around me and I could hear as he sobbed into my neck. His hot tears scalded my cheek. The heat of his body, his breath and the tightness of his arms were almost suffocating, but I held onto him as hard as I could, to keep us both up.
Open Your Eyes
“I don’t remember,” I repeated.
There was a rustling of paper as she looked through the police report again. I was lying on the couch facing the wall of windows that faced all the other gray buildings in the area, the sun hovering above them and beating down on my face. It always made me squint. Doctor Redman started the sessions offering to close the blinds, but I didn’t like staring at those horizontal bars for an hour.
“You were fishing, Alex,” Doctor Redman said. I could just make out the faint reflection of her in the window. She always sat behind me. I couldn’t see her but I knew the way she perched on the edge of her chair with a pen and piece of paper, her glasses precariously balanced on the end of her nose.
I always wondered if she even actually needed glasses since she always observed me over the top of them, a solitary wrinkle between her drawn on eyebrows. Maybe she wore them to reassure her patients that she was, indeed, an intelligent woman here to solve all your problems.
I found it distracting.
“Well I remember that,” I said, adjusting my position a bit. The red leather always stuck to the back of my neck in summer.
More rustling of paper. “In the reservoir, where fishing and boating isn’t allowed.” Her tone was even, but she was good at keeping it steady. I could tell she was getting irritated with me when she dragged her fingernail against the edge of her pad of paper, producing a sharp ziiip noise. “How did you get in?”
“It was really cold, and dark. We jumped the fence,” I answered. Jake’s pants had caught on the four foot tall gate and left a tear on the inner thigh of his jeans. Better your jeans than something else, I remember telling him. Apparently the government wasn’t too worried about people getting to the reservoir if that was all the protection it had, along with some signs that were very easy to walk past.
“‘We’ being?” I saw that one coming. She always said that when I started retelling the story.
“Me and Jake.” I folded my hands over the white cloth of my t-shirt on my stomach.
“And then what happened?”
“And then we got one of the little rowboats they use to go out into the water and test it or whatever,” I said. They were just tied up to a dock, bobbing around and ready for use. Jake had climbed in first and held onto the dock to steady it while I climbed in after him. “We pulled out the oars and went out to the middle.”
“What happened when you fell out of the boat?”
“That,” I paused and took a deep breath, “is what I don’t remember.” I dug the heel of the hand into my eyes. I was so tired. I could actually feel the bags under my eyes, the same color as bruises. Falling asleep wasn’t the hard part; it was the waking up that was insurmountable.
She was getting annoyed.
“Then let’s skip ahead a bit. What do you remember after you got into the boat?” she asked over the sound of her pen running over her paper, making a short note.
“Jake tipped the boat.”
I could remember the lake. I remembered feeling the ground and rocks digging into my back, bruising my skin through the down of my jacket. I could feel the small rhythmic waves breaking against my knees. My body was impossibly heavy. My mouth tasted like lake water and dirt. I coughed, spewing water onto the muddy bank.
Then I saw Jake, also on his side but turned away from me. I said his name and it came out in a gurgled croak.
On shaking limbs, I crawled over to him and tugged the shoulder of his thick jacket. “Jake, c’mon,” I had said. He rolled onto his back. Even in the dark I could see his eyes. They were paler than usual, like the lake had washed them to a paler blue. He looked just about as shocked as I felt, eyes wide, mouth slightly agape.
“I told him not to stand up in the boat,” I told Doctor Redman as I stared out the window.
“Did Jake know how to swim?”
“His leg was bent at a weird angle,” I told her. I had been freezing and Jake was still waist deep in the shallows.
“What did Jake say?”
“I’m not a doctor or anything, but I knew we couldn’t just stay there like that or he was going to get hypothermia or whatever,” I said.
I had staggered to my feet and stooped over him. I couldn’t feel my hands, but I took hold of his arms anyways and looped them around my neck. “His hands kept falling, he couldn’t hold onto me,” I said, as my own hand moved up and rubbed my shoulder, remembering the weight of his arms and how they kept slipping off me like rain. “I tried getting my arms around his waist and dragging him further up the bank, but that broken leg of his just dragged behind him. He was so heavy…”
I had locked my arms around his torso, squeezing my own forearms to hold him up, but I could barely feel my hands and I kept shaking. “Every time I stepped forward, my foot would sink into the mud and start slipping back,” I told her.
He was so heavy. The water soaking his clothes must have been weighing him down. My shoulders ached and my legs strained to keep up both from falling back down, but the mud kept pulling us back. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe.
My head was shaking slightly. “I couldn’t do it.” The sun was hurting my eyes.
“Then what happened, Alex?” Her voice always got softer at this point, quiet. But her pen started moving faster, like the scratching of birds’ feet across the paper.
I gave him one more heave before both my feet slipped out from under me. He landed on his back with a wet thud, I fell onto my side. I should’ve been sweating with how hard I was breathing, but I was too cold to tell the difference between sweat, lake water, and mud. All three clung to my skin and clothes, trickled through my hair and dripped onto my ears.
“Could you see Jake?”
I shook my head.
“What happened next, Alex?”
“I was on my back again, and I closed my eyes,” I told her. “I wanted to sleep, I just wanted to sleep.”
The mud felt like it was enveloping my body and dragging me down to rest in the belly of the earth. The shore was my bed and the water a cold, numb blanket trying to pull me to sleep.
“Then I remember opening my eyes.”
The sky and stars had exploded into view above me. The Milky Way dragged across the black world like a scar, spilling pin pricks of stars and planets from its gape. I had never seen so many before. The only thing to obscure them was the line of the trees, cresting around the very top of my field of vision. Their peaks a wall of impenetrable black, cutting into sky and leaving nothing in their wake.
My shuddering breaths billowed past my cracked lips in clouds. The waves lapped icy cold against my neck and ears. My whole body shook and I pressed my fingertips into the mud to steady myself, but my head swam and the stars gently swayed back and forth.
“I couldn’t see the moon,” I said. “I thought that was weird…” but I’m not sure she could actually hear me.
A violent shudder gripped my spine.
“The police say you were talking about ‘monsters’ when they found you,” Doctor Redman said behind me. Her glasses caught the sunlight and sparked in her reflection in the window as she glanced up at me.
I had no energy left in me to turn my head or to shout, let alone run.
“Yeah—no,” I shook my head quickly, remembering the trouble using that word had gotten me into. No one wanted to believe the guy talking about monsters in woods. “Not monsters, just animals—wolves, maybe. Something. I heard them coming through the woods behind us. I wasn’t sure, at first, but when something that big gets that close, you know it.”
It started with a faint rustling of leaves, and then the heavy tread of footfalls on wet earth. I had no energy left in me to turn my head or to shout, let alone run.
So I closed my eyes.
I lay as still as possible, but my body continued to shake. I could hear them moving on either side of me, the mud squishing under their weight. Something brushed against the top of my head and nudged against my shoe. I curled my fingers into fists, afraid something might happen to my fingers.
“I could feel one leaning over me,” I said. “I could feel it there in the space above me, and I could smell it.”
“What did it smell like?”
“Woods… Something dirty and old. Decaying, maybe,” I tried to explain. “It breathed on me.” I could remember its hot breath washing over my face and neck. I don’t think I could ever forget that. Something wet nudged against my ear. It was warm and coarse against my cold skin, a sharp stab of sensation to my otherwise numb body.
“Then I could hear two of them fighting, growling, over to my side.”
“Yeah—no. He was being quiet, trying to play dead like me.”
“But they were fighting over something?”
“I guess so.” They made horrible, snarling growls. I didn’t want to tell her about that though, I didn’t even want to think about it. Nor about how I could hear the rip of fabric or something, or how the one standing over me wouldn’t leave. It just loomed there, panting in a slow rhythm.
My whole body was starting to shake. My skin was getting goosebumps even though the sun was still washing me with warmth from the window.
“It says that Alan Thicket found you on the eastern bank when he showed up for work around 4:00 A.M. Do you remember that?” she asked.
“Yeah, I remember him finding us.”
I heard a shout in the distance and suddenly me and Jake were alone on the shore again. The sound coming through the woods this time was unmistakably human. A light shone behind my eyelids and I opened them, squinting into the beam of a flashlight. The man in front of me was wearing a heavy jacket with the local water company’s logo stamped on the front.
“He said something to me, but I couldn’t understand him, or maybe I don’t remember what he said,” I tried to explain. “I remember him picking me up and carrying me to his truck.”
My head lolled back, bobbing slightly with each step as the man brought me through the woods. I opened my eyes but there was no sky, just jagged tree tops I couldn’t see past. Someone had blown out the stars.
“What happened then?”
“Then he started up the truck and put on the heater. I was so cold. He needed to go back for Jake. Jake was cold too, and his leg wouldn’t work, he needed more help than I did.”
“Alex,” Doctor Redman said.
I remembered saying Jake’s name, trying to tell the man that he needed to go back to get him. “I guess he didn’t hear me, he just kept talking on his radio—”
“But it wasn’t safe for Jake to be alone out there, by himself, they could go back and get him—”
“Alex, you need to stop now.”
“No.” I squeezed my eyes shut tight.
There was no sound of her pen scratching on paper. The floorboards creaked and the light shining through my eyelids suddenly cut out. The air in front of me buzzed. I could smell mud and moss. A deep rumbling exhale washed hot over my face, filling my ears.
“Open your eyes,” Doctor Redman said. Her voice rang clear from behind me.
But I couldn’t.