By Douglas Ford
Chad learned that he had an older brother over Christmas break. That winter, he returned to his parents’ home with his own bad news. Thanks to an indiscretion—all a misunderstanding, really, between himself and a professor—he wouldn’t be returning to the university.
Before he could give his parents the news, they told him about the older brother over a dinner of meat loaf and stewed potatoes.
“We never thought you’d meet him,” his mother said. As she spoke, his father filled his mouth with food and chewed. He seemed to relish his wife’s meals, despite the fact that they contained no flavor. She never, ever cooked with seasoning. They lived, Chad had believed, lives as boring as that food, so news of this previously unknown brother left him momentarily speechless.
As his father chewed and chewed, his mother looked down at her plate and waited for his reaction.
When he approached the door earlier, he felt a sense of foreboding, a premonition that something had come undone. At first, he attributed this feeling to the landscaping, which didn’t look as immaculate as he’d come to expect. His parents took great pride in the yard, always keeping an ordered arrangement of pavers, bird feeders, and exotic plants that normally wouldn’t grow in the warmth of their climate. Yet that winter, the sight of weeds and upturned soil met Chad’s gaze as he walked toward the door. No birds sang. He seldom gave much thought to the age of his parents, and for the first time, it occurred to him that they were aging and could very well die soon. Moreover, as the oldest child, he thought it would fall on him to take care of things. He had enjoyed the benefits of birth, so the responsibility for the home and for his younger sister would fall on his shoulders. He didn’t relish the thought of telling his parents he would probably need to enroll in the local community college. All that money they’d spent on his tuition, flushed down the drain, thanks to his professor’s unwillingness to listen to reason. He would have to move back into his old room.
And now, this news he didn’t expect.
“We were young,” his mother explained. “We barely knew what birth control was. You were planned, you know. Your brother, however…” She waved her hand sipped her wine.
“I don’t get it,” Chad said. “I mean, this is a shock. Where’s he been all this time?”
Still chewing, his father glanced quickly at Chad’s mother, then looked back down at his plate. His mother poured more iced tea. She sat across from him while his father sat at the head of the table. A white table cloth covered the table, but instead of using the good china, as his mother often did when he had been away from so long, she had used paper plates. Chad noticed a grease stain on his, as if it had already seen some use. He dismissed this possibility though. Such unsanitary practices didn’t happen in his parents’ home.
It took them a few seconds to answer his question. Finally, his father finished chewing and spoke. “An asylum,” he said.
“An asylum? Since when?”
“Since he was quite young, in fact,” his mother said. She collected a deep breath and let it go. “Those were different times.”
“How different?” said Chad.
“Just different. Ideas about parenting changed, and to be frank, we may have been prioritizing things we shouldn’t have. Your brother’s madness isn’t his fault. We were doing things we shouldn’t have.”
“Or just doing them wrong,” his father said.
“Like I said, we were young.” She smiled at her husband, and he smiled back while reaching for her hand. Chad watched those hands squeeze each other and tried to comprehend. The food in front of him grew cold.
“It’s not easy to give up a baby,” his father said.
“You sent him to an asylum when he was a baby?”
“Like we said, those were different times,” said his father.
“He was a difficult baby,” his mother said. “And we didn’t know what we were doing. Cats do that, you know. Sometimes they just walk away from their first litter of kittens. They usually do better the second time. That was us.”
“And you just gave him up.” Chad squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples. He didn’t want to look at them anymore.
“As we said, we accept responsibility,” said his mother. His father reached out and took Chad’s hand from his temples, then squeezed Chad’s hand the same way he squeezed his wife’s, but Chad didn’t feel like returning the gesture.
“It was a time of great mystery,” his father said. “Not just for us, but everyone. It was everywhere, in everything. In music especially. You could play a record backwards and hear messages. Instructions.”
“But everything has consequences,” his mother said. “And he paid for our sins. But now he’s here, and we need to make it up to him.”
“In records, you’re saying.” Chad shook his head, disbelieving.
His father nodded. “I played everything backwards. I wanted to hear what they said. And we listened. Bad thing to do while you’re expecting, but no one told us.”
“We don’t have them anymore,” his mother said. “The records. We got rid of them before you came along.”
Nothing they said had meaning. He thought of his sister. She never bothered to say hi to him when he came home, preferring to sulk and keep to herself, so he thought nothing of it when she didn’t join the rest of them at the table. Bored with her anorexia, or whatever new ailment she had, he usually preferred her as far away as possible. He stood up. “Where’s June? I need to see June.”
“In her room,” his mother said. “But you need to leave her alone.”
“She’s not well,” his father said, standing up with him.
“So, what else is new?” He left the table and went down the hall, stopping when he came to her closed door. A Hilary Duff poster hung there, a taped edge hanging down and part of it ripped. He couldn’t imagine her ripping her Hilary Duff poster. He knocked. Not waiting for a reply, he tried the door, but found it locked. He knocked again and called her name.
A weak, croaky voice responded. “That you, Chad?”
“Yeah, it’s me. Open up.”
“Is he out there?”
“Who do you mean?” He looked up and down the hallway. Something smelled rancid, and on the wall behind him, an ominously black liquid dripped. Elsewhere, he saw what looked like scratch marks.
“Him,” she said.
Chad tried the door again, but it wouldn’t budge. “Just open the door,” he said.
“I can’t. Plus, it hurts to move.”
Motion to Chad’s left startled him. Turning, he saw his mother holding a tray.
“Don’t worry about her,” his mother said. “She’ll be fine.” She stepped past him, carrying a tray. On the tray, he noticed a paper plate like the one given to him, only this one held something brown and foul-smelling. His mother stopped in front of the closed door next to June’s—his room. She knelt and placed the tray in front of the door and quickly moved away.
“Is that where he is? In my room?”
“It’s not your room anymore,” she said.
“Don’t go in there, Chad,” said June from behind her closed door.
“He can’t do anything to me. It’s my room.”
“Respect his boundaries,” his mother said from where she stopped at the end of the hallway. “Please. For all of us.”
Chad stared at his younger sister’s closed door and breathed the stench emanating from the hallway. He turned and regarded the door to his room, the place where he’d spent his childhood—where he did homework and read comic books, where he hid under the covers with a flash light after his parents told him to turn out the light, where he learned to jerk off to porno magazines stolen from his dad’s closet. Where he went when he needed to shut the rest of the world out, June sometimes banging on the door, demanding for him to come out and play with her, but he was too old and mature to play with such a little kid. Where he woke up from nightmares screaming and screaming until his mother came in to comfort him.
Behind that door now, was someone else. His older brother.
Later he sat hunched over on the couch while his parents stood nearby, watching. Something had ripped the couch’s leather, and stuffing had tumbled out. Flowers sat on the coffee table in front of him, dead and wilting.
“I can’t go back,” he said. They listened as he told them the story of his expulsion, how he submitted a term paper that he swore consisted of his own thoughts and words but somehow exactly matched a paper turned in the previous semester. Given his less than stellar grades up to that point, his professor declared the infraction so egregious that he would recommend expulsion, and he assured him that the college president always followed such recommendations, no matter how much money the student’s parents had already paid in tuition. When the story failed to elicit the kind of sympathy he expected from his parents, he embellished more details, describing how the college failed to give him proper representation during the appeals process. When he finally ran out of words, they responded with silence.
“I need to move back in,” he finally said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. My old room— “
“—isn’t yours anymore.” The harshness of his mother’s voice surprised him. The living room had grown dark, making it hard to see their faces. Only then did Chad realize that the same, familiar Christmas tree that sat in the same, familiar corner every year didn’t have any lights. With the transition to night underway outside, no one had turned on any lights. “It’s Brosnan’s now.”
“Brosnan,” Chad said. “So that’s his name.”
“Your older brother,” his mother said. “You’re just going to have to find another solution.”
“I’ll talk to him. I’ll explain that this isn’t his home.”
Both of his parents said no at the same time. At that, Chad finally broke down. He wept. He pleaded with them, begged them. They listened in embarrassed silence. On the mantle sat a nativity scene, the one with the pieces he liked to touch, even though they constantly told him not to. The cradle held no baby Jesus because he lost it, and he got so much shit for that. He wanted to laugh at that nativity scene right now, but he could only cry. He wanted them to remember how once he had been their baby, their only baby, not a middle child with nowhere to go.
Finally, someone else spoke. “Look,” his father said. He didn’t continue right away. He seemed to struggle to find the words. “The thing is, we might have a room for you. In fact, I’m pretty sure we might.”
“June,” Chad said quietly. He realized that he stopped thinking about June altogether. She needed help, medical attention. But how could he see to those things if he didn’t even have a place to live? He needed to take care of himself before he could see to her needs.
His mother touched his father’s knee. In the growing darkness, she leaned toward him and whispered something. His father whispered back, and she nodded. Then she spoke.
“It’s possible you could have her room. You see, she’s going away. I don’t know if you could tell, but— “Here she paused to collect herself. His father leaned toward her and rubbed her shoulders. “She’s gone insane.”
“We’re accepting responsibility though,” his father said. “We’ve made all the arrangements, and she’ll leave tomorrow.”
Chad looked down to his feet, so hard to see in the enveloping darkness. Where else could he go? “Ok, I’ll take her room,” he said to no one in particular.
His father said, “Not so fast. We must ask Brosnan. Make sure he’s ok with it.”
“If Brosnan is ok with it,” his mother said, “so are we.”
“Fine,” said Chad quietly, “let’s go ask Brosnan.” He continued to stare at his feet, waiting for them to move so that he could follow them. Yet they remained still.
“He’ll be here in a minute,” his father said. “Just wait.”
“It’s almost completely dark,” said his mother. “That’s when he comes out.”
So, like that, in the stillness, they all waited for the night so that Chad could meet his older brother.
About the Author
Douglas Ford writes short fiction, the weird, dark kind that your mother warned you not to read. His short stories have appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Infernal Ink, DarkFuse Magazine, The Horror Zine, as well as other small press publications. Other work may be found in recent anthologies like Mrs. Rochester’s Attic and Beyond the Nightlight. Upcoming publications include next year’s Best Hardcore Horror, edited by Comet Press. He lives off of an exit made famous by a Jack Ketchum short story with a wife who gives him loving support and four cats who merely tolerate him.