Brothers Keeper – Anthony Statham

The shrouded road sat in dismal gloom and a clinging fog. The trees leered over the leaf-strewn passage with a weighty guile, icy, broken dew dripped venomously. Avery pushed in close to the steering wheel so that he had to hold his breath as to avoid steaming the glass. Again he stabbed at the button controlling the automated defroster, a desperate act. Today was worse than yesterday, which in turn had been worse than the day previous. Winter was here in full and would be for the remainder. It was not matter, for duty called and he was the chosen one for this task, beseeched by fate and blood. That word, blood, gave cause for a brief bittersweet grin to pass over his face. With the same hand that had punched the defroster he rubbed at his chin to deform the unwanted facial reaction. He needed to shave and found amusement in how idiotic the notion was, given the circumstances. He pondered on any possible ending to this newest chapter in his life and found it impossible to envision a denouement outside death. In fact, he saw only one way this stage play might end, and with great disdain for self, wondered at the location inside his own being where the strength to face this dark truth lied.

Avery slowed the car at Mile marker 33 and readied for the abrupt turn-off into the riveted and muddy narrow. It was hard for him grasp the six months that had passed since he first drove out here and with a cheap machete and a rusty shovel to make the secretive artery. It had taken a lot of sweat, caused his back to stiffen and spasm at objectionable intervals, and in truth he wasn’t sure if it had been necessary at all. The initial shock to his system when he learned of his brother’s condition had caused a paralysis upon his rational understanding in response to reality. This was his life now, and with that the car lurched and creaked. His fingers tight on the steering wheel, he navigated into the shadowy cover of the forest, hope fleeting that the traps had done their job. Most of the journey from the main road was practiced and studied, now almost muscle memory. He maintained a safe speed of ten miles an hour and counted aloud to seventy-five. When he stopped the car, engaged the emergency brake and killed the ignition he was confident he’d see the bright pink emergency tape double-strapped to the tree at his right. And there it was. With a deep sigh, not only for his rotten lot in life as of now, but for all the lies and secrets and death that spun the web he now inhabited, he imagined his parents and saw them consoling one another in sympathetic embraces, could hear the cliché, true things they whispered into each others ears in the night when sleep eluded them and sorrow held its most fatal grasp – and again he wondered how much longer he could last. He opened the car door and stepped out into the mud. It had been over two months since he had last visited his parents and his mother called regularly and tried dutifully to engage him in conversation, often mentioned his brother, James, and Avery’s armor was chipping and soon would crumble. He could feel it. It was hard to lie to his parents, and harder still to carry the burden of the purpose of the lies. In this case however he knew that the truth could not set them free.

In the trunk were the supplies he needed and always had at the ready: a box of industrial strength nylon trash bags (black), a sharp knife, a rifle, and replacement parts for any broken or destroyed traps. On occasion he couldn’t help but roll his eyes at the absurdity of it all, and this was one such occasion. For the most part his traps had been nothing more than laughable experiments shining a beacon of light on his ineptitude as a man. If it weren’t for the fact that he was a crack shot with the rifle his entire plan would have failed from the beginning and more than likely his parents would be mourning the loss of two sons, one presumed to be dead (body never found), and himself missing, presumption to be determined (body eviscerated by carnal beast of folk legend and Hollywood indoctrination). And so with these fun-loving thoughts reeling through his head he set off to check on his prospects. Since setting the first trap he had snared seven rabbits. Better than nothing, though the rifle which he preferred as a backup on those dire mornings when his brother was on the brink and the traps failed, was the much more efficient means of hunting. He had never seen another living soul out here and hoped to avoid exactly that at any cost. Still, he needed the blood and this was the only thing he could think of he was willing to embark on in despairing belief some semblance of salvation might still intervene on the behalf of his brother’s soul. In other words – for now it was the traps or it was the roaring crack of the rifle. How it would all come to be in the end he couldn’t dare imagine.

Even through the utter loneliness of this enterprise he couldn’t deny the sense of relief that washed over him when he saw the ramshackle traps, clumsy Boy Scout knockoffs – the lack of witness to his bleak misery. It was a wonder they worked at all, the traps, but more than any righteous pride, cast an indignant shadow on his psyche. There were ten traps. The first seven were empty. As well as the ninth and tenth. But under the eighth, clicking its small buckteeth, sat a rabbit. He heard it before he saw it, as he was now accustomed to the sight of a fallen trap being no real basis for excitement. Sometimes the cheap, amateurish devices fell with nothing to show. He hunkered onto his knees so he was face level with the rabbit. He liked to look at them – some meaningless show of assuaging the guilt he felt. He was their judge, jury, and executioner, after all. He gently tickled the cage to get the rabbit’s attention, clicked his tongue.

CRACK!

Avery screamed. Blood smattered his hand, a design created by the symmetrical lines that checkered the walls of the cage. The nose of the rifle smoked ever so gently. He dropped the gun, as if he had no notion of what its purpose is, suddenly deathly afraid of it. Through the ringing in his ears he could hear the violent, naked silence of the forest. His spine seemed to unhinge from his nervous center and a spasm of fear indescribable trembled down his vertebrae causing him to choke back another scream. He knew the rabbit was dead and his brother would be displeased. His brother was invariably displeased. Avery tried to collect himself. The suddenness of lapse into irrational fear made no sense, nevertheless, he was dominated by it and he sprang to his feet, his legs nothing more than heavy icicles threatening to collapse and shatter to pieces under his weight – and he hustled best he could toward the car. After only a few steps he stopped and looked back at the trap. He closed his eyes and returned, kicked the trap over, snatched up the bloody mess of an animal in a trash bag and sprinted for his car. He threw the bag with the dead rabbit inside in the trunk and noticed he’d forgotten the gun. He didn’t care. He slammed the trunk shut and climbed into the car.

It wasn’t until thirty minutes later, with the heater blasting at full power that Avery began to calm down. He was pouring sweat but it was cold as ice on his skin and his hands still shook, knuckles white from holding the steering wheel in a death grip.

It was still before nine in the morning when he pulled in front of the apartment complex and shut off the ignition. Never before did he so desperately hope his brother was deep asleep and wouldn’t notice his arrival. He opened the trunk and saw the rabbit had done a great deal of tumbling that painted the interior in bloody smears. He carelessly shoved the dead thing back in the bag and made for the side entrance. He was thankful he had the key specially made to avoid the main lobby. He took the freight elevator up to 11th floor and tried to control his trembling legs on the way to the apartment he rented under a fake name where his brother stayed. Face to face with the lock mechanism helped him to gather his bearings. From top to bottom there are seven individual locks, each requiring a unique key. The door itself was made of stainless steel and had been purchased through a private seller and installed, no questions asked, for a hefty sum of money. Avery had no choice but to take the hit.  He patiently unlocked each mechanism and silently entered the pitch black apartment. Avery’s brother hates many things since his changes, light utmost among them. On the side table in the entry way was a pair of night-vision goggles. He applied them to his face first thing and then turned them on; inside of the apartment illuminated in a ghastly, penetrating, greenish-yellow glow. The interior was as bleak as ever. The windows had been covered with black paint and then covered with cardboard painted black and then covered with layer after layer of black trash bags and blankets. There wasn’t much trash on the floor or the single dingy coffee table. However, the coffee table was turned over and set at a scant angle, no doubt the result of one of James’s uncontrollable tantrums. There were smears of blood in wild, haphazard designs all over the walls and drudged into the carpet. Avery knew it couldn’t be helped. It was all a result of the bloodlust. But it doesn’t matter how many times he sees it all, the visual is mind-crushingly surreal and never fails to cover him in a layer of cold, fresh sweat. He entered the kitchen, nearly falling on a slick of blood on the linoleum. Adjusting the goggles on his head he noticed fingerprints in the blood and was overtaken by a sense of dread. For a moment he wondered who the fingerprints belonged to, then accepted they were James’s. He placed the rabbit in the kitchen sink, blood still seeping out and onto his hands. Unable to help himself, he placed his palms on the countertop and closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure what had gotten into him to make this morning so much harder than usual. This had become routine, so why today of all days for the sudden turn and unraveling at the seams?

Finally he decided he needed to enter his brother’s room and see if he was awake. He wasn’t sure which was more terrifying, seeing his brother’s open eyes, dead to anything beyond need – or seeing him lying still as death, arms crossed over his chest (just like in all the fucking movies he thought for sure were nothing more than some made up bullshit growing up!), with his eyes closed. He tightened the goggles on his head and took a last deep breath, when suddenly the realization hit him – why he’d been so upset without knowing why. James told him yesterday that he no longer breathed. Avery didn’t know what to make of that, though now it seemed important, as if eating living things and sucking them dry of their blood were normal – but the idea that he no longer took in breath was somehow far more treacherous, so far gone as to deplete any remaining semblance of humanity. Anyone he had ever heard of was considered dead when his or her final breath was drawn. Books and songs had been written about just that.

Avery went into the bathroom and picked up a piece of the shattered mirror from the floor. The mirror was destroyed early on when James was coming to violent terms with his new life and was a long way off in accepting the strange fact he would never be given audience to his own reflection again. Avery took the piece of mirror and studied his reflection, the odd looking mad scientist in big insect-like goggles staring back. He went to his brother’s door and opened it inward as quietly as possible, and entered. The room was blacked out like all the others. Avery swept his vision around the room, at first horrified to think James was gone, and then saw him in the eastern corner lying parallel with the wall, his legs and back in a perfectly straight plank, his arms crossed in the way Avery knew he would never grow accustomed to the sight of. His eyes were closed and he looked docile. Dead. Unliving. Gone. Avery knelt beside him and set the mirror under his nose and closed his eyes and prayed. He couldn’t recall the last time he prayed and thought there was no way it mattered. If God were real he couldn’t postpone his arrival any longer. Certainly not any longer… He finished his beggar prayer and opened his eyes in a deadly hope that he would see a fogged mirror under his brother’s nose.

James stared back at him, his eyes black as the greatest depths of the unexplored abysses of Hell. The mirror sat under his upturned nose, fogless.

“Good Morning, brother,” James said. “What’s to eat? I’m starving.”

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