Fiction, Vol. 8.2, June 2014
When Charlie Gregg opened the door to see his younger brother Sammy on the other side, he knew something was wrong.
Charlie had just sat down on the couch and turned on the TV, finally settling on one of the numerous syndicated sitcoms that played every evening. His body was still wet from the shower he’d taken after work. The day had seemed longer than normal, tougher, laying concrete for the parking lot of the new market over between the two towns, Corvin Valley and Barrett. Charlie closed his eyes briefly and listened to the laugh track playing on the sitcom, wondering if, in some way, the laugh track was meant for him and his own life.
His arms had the heavy, achy feeling he had become used to over the past year of working construction. But today was different—his legs hurt and his head throbbed. There was also a pain in his stomach that he tried to wash away with a couple quick gulps of beer.
So, when he heard the knock on the door and saw Sammy there—the latter’s eyes shifting around him uncomfortably, glancing first to his own feet and then to the left and right, seemingly searching the length of the trailer outside for someone hiding in wait for him or his brother—Charlie could only take a deep breath to quiet the pain in his head before letting Sammy in.
When they were kids, they had found the body of a dead dog. By the time they came across it, the skin had begun to flake off from the bone. Fur, in clumps, had been pulled from the carcass and scattered around where it lay. Charlie reckoned it had been there for quite a while because it had no odor at all, none of the stink of the dead. When they came upon it, carrying the long sticks they had just been using as light sabers, having just seen Star Wars in the theater with their grandfather, Charlie stopped and doubled over heavily, putting his hands on his knees. The thing before him in the dirt road was nothing but a darkened and coarse silhouette of something that had once been; Charlie had never seen anything so grotesque, so indescribably lost.
While Charlie, nine at the time, stood at a distance from the carrion, trying to understand what it was that lay before him, Sammy, two years younger than his brother, walked up to the rotted skeleton of the thing and began to poke at it with his stick. Charlie tried to protest, telling Sammy they needed to leave and go home, that he should stop touching it, but Sammy only shook his head and reached down and picked up what was left of the body. Chunks of dried skin and small pieces of flesh, discolored from heat and time, fell from the lifted body. Sammy brought it up to his face to study it like a scientist would some newly found species. Maggots crawled about it, twisting their way slowly around the dry, brittle, gray bones; tendons were blackened and baked, pulled tight or snapped completely in two, flopping about.
Charlie took several steps forward but then stopped and turned away from Sammy. He bent over again and began to retch, feeling the bile growing in his throat. But the feeling went away quickly when he heard the sound. He turned back to his brother and saw that Sammy had thrown or lain the body, he was not sure which, back on the ground and was taking the stick and slamming it with all his might down on the bones of the dog. Sammy was panting, a curious smile on his face Charlie would never forget. After several seconds of smashing the thing with the stick, Sammy cast the piece of wood aside and began to jump on top of the bones. They snapped below his tennis shoes, making sick crunching sounds. Sammy was sweating at that point, his face red, and Charlie could only look on in confusion and surprise. He wanted to do something, say something, but didn’t know where to start. Sammy began to slam his heel down onto the skull of the dog and did so several times before there was a loud cracking sound and Charlie saw the skull cast into two separate but nearly equal parts.
Charlie often thought back to that morning and wondered if that was when it all started for Sammy, or if it was something that had always been there, that aggression, hiding in the recesses of Sammy’s being, waiting to burst forth. Many nights Charlie fell asleep with the image of Sammy jumping up and down on the animal’s bones, the smile on his brother’s face all the while. On those nights, before he rolled over and drifted off to sleep, Charlie would wonder whether, if he were allowed to go back in time, he would have stopped Sammy. And, if so, would it have been enough? Would it have changed his brother from who he ultimately became and what he eventually would do? Either way, he settled himself with the belief that there was nothing he could have done. Nothing except think about it, and wonder and regret not doing or saying anything then.
Sammy sat on the wooden chair that Charlie had brought over from the kitchen. Charlie sat on the couch, cattycorner to Sammy, and looked inquisitively at his brother. He had offered Sammy a beer but, to his surprise, his brother only shook his head no. He looked Sammy over and noticed he was covered in a sour sweat that stained his shirt dark and made his skin look slick. There was also what looked like dried mud splattered over his pants and shirt, but Charlie paid it no mind after his brother sat down. Instead, he broke the silence that had settled itself between them. “What happened?” Charlie asked quietly.
Behind them, outside through the open window, Charlie could see the sun finishing its fall below the pines. The sky held only the ghost of the sun’s light, showing in streaks of orange and pink against a paling yellow-blue. Soon, those colors would disappear and only the blue-black of night would be left.
Charlie had moved out here several years before, after Maggie left him. He sold the small house the two of them had shared and bought the small trailer home, pushing himself farther and farther away from people and from the towns. He enjoyed the company of the trees and the streams, the birds that called overhead, and the occasional deer that passed by; he sought and embraced the solitude these things allowed.
Sammy shook his head and then, finally, sat upright and looked at Charlie. “I need yer help.”
Charlie nodded. “Okay,” he whispered. He moved his hands together, his rough palms making a scratching, sandpapery sound.
“It’s bad. But I got no one else to ask.”
“What happened?” Charlie asked again, this time more forcefully. He leaned forward on the couch.
“I don’t know.” Sammy took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. The sound echoed between them.
Charlie brought his hand up and rubbed his face. He thought briefly of his head and how it no longer hurt, though the sick pain in his stomach was still there.
Sammy stood quickly and began to walk around the small room. He moved his fingers gently over some of the pictures that lined the walls. All were of his family, his mother and father and Charlie. He sighed. “It’s Mullans. I screwed things up.” His voice raced now, as if it were trying to catch up with the constant stream of thoughts that worked their way through his mind. “I owed him.”
“How much?” Charlie shook his head as he asked.
“Shit, I don’t know. It just piled up ‘til I was that far back. He cut me off after the last job an’ I had to borrow some.”
“And what, you didn’t stop borrowing?”
“It jus happened. An’ then today I went there… Charlie, I— Goddamn. I don’t know what to do. He… Ah, shit. I screwed it all up. I screwed it up. Shit. Shit.” He took another deep breath and shook his head. He looked over at Charlie and smiled, though the smile was full of sadness and pain. It was a smile Charlie had never seen from his brother, a smile that showed that Sammy was in true trouble and, worse yet, that Sammy knew it. Then he said, in a voice so controlled and calm that it scared Charlie, “I messed up, big brother.”
Sammy had met Mullans after he was released the second time. The first time, he had only stayed a couple days in the local jail from a bar fight, though the man he had fought with had lost an eye and a few teeth.
He served sixteen months for the second arrest, this time for the armed robbery of a bank; he had used a neon green squirt gun, saying later that he’d never meant to take the thing out of his pocket. The water pistol was found out only when it fell from his jacket and clanked to the floor after an undercover cop tackled Sammy from behind.
After he was released, the court set Sammy up with a job in the mines. Though he hated the job, he showed up every morning on time and worked hard until the whistle blew his release. He had been working there for five months when one of the other men in the mine, someone he’d not seen before, came up to Sammy and asked to talk with him at Roy’s after work. When Sammy asked what for, the man only smiled and said he knew someone who could help him out.
When he showed up at the bar, Sammy ordered a beer and looked around the dimly lit room for the man from earlier, but saw no sign of him. He finished the beer, waited another ten minutes, then headed out to his car. When he made it to the parking lot, Sammy saw the man from earlier standing under one of the dull lamps that lit the lot. Beside him stood another man.
“I waited for you,” Sammy said. He tried not to sound as frustrated as he felt.
“Seemed a better place out here,” the man from earlier said.
This man introduced himself as Tom then introduced Sammy to the other man, who he said was named Mullans. This man was in his late fifties, tall, a good head above Sammy, and skinny as a rail. Sammy wondered briefly if there was something wrong with the man’s health, but reckoned that maybe he just didn’t like eating much, and Sammy didn’t think anything else of it.
“Let’s take a drive,” Mullans said. His voice was higher than Sammy had imagined it would be. Sammy nodded reluctantly and unlocked the doors of his car, a beat-up orange Ford, twelve years old. The three men got in and Sammy started the engine and then pulled out of the parking lot.
Mullans didn’t say a word the entire drive. Instead, Tom directed Sammy where to go. The entire way, Sammy cursed himself, wishing he was never in this situation, wishing he had just gone home after work. He wondered if they were going to kill him, although he couldn’t imagine why. But he realized he had no other choice and so he kept driving. When he asked where they were going, Tom only answered that they were going somewhere safe and that everything was fine.
They finally came to their destination, a cabin in the woods. Sammy drove slowly over the winding path that led to the place and came to a stop just in front of the small porch. Tom and Mullans got out of the car, and Sammy followed slowly behind. Mullans turned back to Sammy, welcoming his guest to his quiet home. Sammy nodded and followed the other two up the short steps and into the cabin.
The three sat at a table in the kitchen. There, Mullans finally spoke again. He asked Sammy if he liked working in the mine and Sammy replied that he didn’t but that he had to because of the court order. Mullans laughed, saying that he had quite a few connections throughout the area and that if Sammy didn’t want to work in the mines, then he didn’t have to anymore. Sammy sat quietly, thinking of what to say. After some time, he asked why Mullans was helping him. The man responded that he was not helping Sammy as much as he was helping himself. Mullans told Sammy that one of his employees had recently moved away to New York City and that he needed someone else like this previous employee, someone strong, tough, not afraid to test the law or get his hands dirty.
Sammy shook his head and smiled, saying that he didn’t think he was right for the job and thanked the two men. He was about to stand and leave when Mullans told him the pay. And when he heard the figure, Sammy sat down slowly and shook his head. He took a deep breath then let it out slowly. He looked up at Mullans and smiled. “Where do you want me to sign?”
Charlie drove while Sammy sat in the passenger seat, watching the darkening night pass by. Sammy took a long drag off a cigarette, opened the window and flicked the thing out, then rolled the window back up.
Charlie’s heart beat fast. His arms and legs had lost their soreness and his stomach was now free of its previous pain. He shook his head, wondering what strange turn of events, what error in the ways of the universe or what unkind god put him in this place where he now found himself.
Charlie remembered when Sammy first told him about Mullans. It was the night before Maggie left him, though Charlie had known for weeks that she was readying herself to go. Sammy had taken them both out to dinner, something that had never happened before, and told them about the meeting and what was said there. When Charlie asked, Sammy said that it was technically legal, though beyond his own dealings in the job, he wasn’t so sure. Since that night, every time Charlie brought it up, Sammy would always smile and look away, saying that everything was good, he had no complaints.
The road stretched before them, cutting through pockets of trees and forest. Sammy rolled down the window again and this time stuck his hand out, letting the warm night flow around his outstretched fingers. Outside, Charlie could hear the call of dogs or wolves; he could not tell which. These sounds seemed to steady his breath some, and he forced himself to focus only on the drive ahead.
“You walked this whole way earlier?” Charlie looked over at Sammy.
Sammy met Charlie’s glance briefly then nodded. He didn’t say anything. He looked back out the open window and closed his eyes, letting the wind sweep over his face.
After another ten minutes, Charlie turned the car off the main road. Sammy opened his eyes and reached over to turn the knob next to the steering wheel; the headlights went dark, and everything around them was thrown into heavy shadows. Above them, the moon glowed brightly and came down in streaks that were cut through by the branches above them, and Sammy thought quietly of how the shadows formed prison bars that lined the stretch of dirt they now drove. Charlie slowed the car to an almost-standstill, and they made their way along the winding path toward the cabin that they each knew lay silently ahead.
The lights were still off in the cabin, and Sammy was glad for this. He went in first, his hand gripped tightly around the .45 he had taken from the bedside table earlier. Charlie kept close to his brother. Sammy had said that there would be no one coming by until the next morning, but he had told Charlie this only to calm himself and assuage his own doubts. The front room held only a couch and a giant television. Beyond that was a large wooden bar area equipped with barstools and a trophy case of alcohol. They turned up the hallway on the left, just before they reached the bar.
Sammy walked slowly, his feet soundless on the wood floor under him. They passed two bedrooms on the left of the hall and a small bathroom on the right. Sammy held the .45 outstretched in front of him, listening for the sounds of someone else in the cabin. Silence. Nothing.
Charlie felt cold all over; his breath came in short, strained efforts. He thought of all the other things he would rather be doing. He thought of Maggie, remembered the feel of her body next to his. He wondered how she was now. He hadn’t talked to her in months, and the last time they did talk he had hung up the phone angrily. He now cursed himself for doing so and promised that when this was all over he would call her up and say he was sorry for all that he did and all that he didn’t do.
Finally, Sammy came to the last room on the right of the hallway. He stopped before it and eased the door open all the way, then looked around inside. From his pocket, he pulled a small flashlight and shone the beam around the room; he still held the .45 out before him, as if the thing would ward off the demons he expected to find there.
After Sammy made his way completely into the room, Charlie followed. It was the sour, coppery smell that first struck Charlie. The sick feeling in his stomach came back, stronger now, and made him double over and cough. Sammy looked back quickly, trying with his eyes to shut his brother up, but the room was dark and Charlie couldn’t see Sammy at all. Instead, when Charlie stood up, he could only see the mess in front of him, as the beam from the flashlight was directed there. Before him, lying half on and half off of a low wooden bed, was the body of a man. Charlie could not tell what the man looked like, as all that was left were stained rags of clothing, deep pockets of a caved-in skull, and pools of blood that looked black in the dark room. The wood flooring, for several feet surrounding the body, was splattered with blood, and a river of it ran from the crushed head and collected near the door. “My God,” Charlie whispered.
Sammy looked up at him.
“Mullans?” Charlie asked, motioning quietly to the body before him.
Charlie looked back at Mullans, but, try as he might, he couldn’t truly decipher what he was looking at. He couldn’t even begin to comprehend how a person could become this mess of skin and bone and gore, nor could Charlie begin to think how a person was capable of doing such a thing. And, for the first time in his life, he truly looked at Sammy with fear. Sammy didn’t notice any of this, as he had set about undoing the sheets from the bed. Sammy stuck the flashlight in his mouth, which caused the beam of light to jump all about the room in a frantic movement that seemed to only add to the disorder and confusion of the situation. After he had taken the sheets and blankets off the bed, Sammy began wrapping the body up in them. He looked up from what he was doing. The beam from the flashlight fell on Charlie, blinding him and forcing him to turn his head away from the light. Through clenched teeth, Sammy whispered forcefully to his brother: “Grab a towel and hurry. Clean it up. We gotta hurry.”
Charlie nodded and turned quickly, moving fast and loud to the bathroom down the hall, where he grabbed three dark brown towels. He returned to the bedroom and began to mop up the red-black liquid. Sammy finished wrapping the body and moved off to the closet on the other side of the room. Charlie could hear his brother opening and shutting drawers. The light flashed quickly over the room and Sammy returned, carrying in his hands a new set of sheets. He began to make the bed anew with these sheets, tucking the corners under the stained mattress. All done with such care.
The towels had become heavy, and Charlie put the used ones on top of the body, which lay next to where he was crouched. After he’d finished, he stood and helped his brother make the bed. They laid two large blankets over the sheets, covering up what had happened here, the truths and secrets now buried beneath fabric.
Without a word, Sammy and Charlie grabbed the wrapped body and lifted. The bundle was heavier than either had guessed, and they struggled as they moved through and around the door frame and down the hall to the outside. They set the body in the trunk of Charlie’s car and shut the trunk door, then went back inside the cabin. Charlie took another towel from the bathroom and mopped up the remaining blood that had collected under where the wrapped body had been. Sammy looked at the bedside table, over to where a clock flashed the time, and thought about putting the .45 back where he had taken it from, but then thought better of it. He shone the light over the entire room once more, and thought that, from a distance at least, no one would ever know what had happened there.
They walked outside, making sure to shut the door behind them, then got into the car. Charlie drove off under the moon’s light toward the main road.
Charlie stopped the car about halfway back to his trailer home, pulling onto the shoulder of the road and turning off the engine and lights. They made sure no one else was driving by before they opened the trunk and, once again, unsteadily lifted the wrapped body from inside. They walked into the deep thicket of trees that stretched miles beyond where they were and dropped the bulk on the ground heavily. Charlie ran back to the car for the shovels they had taken from his home earlier then returned. He gave a shovel to Sammy, and the two set to digging, turning over the softened dirt. Neither spoke; the only sound was their breathing and the steady hum of the cicadas and other chirping bugs in the trees around them. This sound seemed an ocean that would swell loudly before tapering off and becoming gentle, only to return to its heavy buzzing once again.
As they were nearing the end of their job, the hole now a good four or five feet deep and about the same in length, Sammy spoke. “I went over to talk to him, ask about gettin’ more time, you know? But he didn’t answer when I knocked. It was early still, and, shit, I didn’t even know he was there. And then, next thing I know, I’m inside the house and then there I am, standin’ next to him there, next to the bed where he’s all passed out. An’ then I saw the needles there on the bed, his arm still all wrapped, and knew he was already passed out. And then… Shit. Then, I swear by God, next thing I see is him slumped over on the floor and my hands all covered in blood and my boots covered in blood from where I had stomped down, and I was sweatin’ an pantin’ like I’d jus’ run a mile. And I walked down there to the crick there behind the place and washed my hands and my feet and clothes and shoes, and then I headed for you, ‘cause I couldn’t think of no one else…”
Charlie couldn’t hear Sammy after a while. Instead, all sound seemed to drown out, and he looked up and noticed that here, in this place, the canopy of branches above was too full for any moonlight to escape through. And he thought of the dog from all those years before—the smashed frame that remained after they left. Charlie thought of how he was now only a few hundred yards from where they’d found the dog, and he wished he could go back in time, dig a hole for the dog and cover it with earth, and say a few words over its grave. But he couldn’t; he could only dig this hole now, and hope that it was enough.
When Charlie pulled up to his trailer, it was nearly 3:30 in the morning. He cut the engine of the car and the two sat in silence, neither wanting to be the first to open the door, neither knowing what to say to the other. After several minutes of this, Sammy rubbed his right hand over his left. Charlie wondered if Sammy’s hand hurt from beating Mullans earlier, or if this was just a nervous movement his brother made. And he thought then of how he had never really known his brother, and how he never would.
After sitting in silence for several minutes, Charlie opened the door and let it close behind him. Sammy followed then moved over to where Charlie stood. In the moon’s light, they each saw one another as they truly were in that moment: scared, dirty, alone, confused. Charlie nodded and began to move toward the front of the trailer but stopped when Sammy called his name. He turned and was caught off guard by Sammy’s arms wrapped around him in a true embrace; it was something that Charlie had never experienced from his brother. But Charlie was most surprised at how comforting it felt to be within his brother’s arms; part of him wished he could just disappear into his brother’s haggard shirt, one covered in blood and gore and dirt and time and regret and every other emotion that he could think of.
When Sammy finally let go, Charlie was left standing alone again, his body feeling heavier than before, missing the extra weight of his brother like a phantom limb. Sammy nodded and turned to walk off into the dark of the night but stopped and looked back at his brother, one last time. When he did so, Charlie tossed his keys out into the dark toward Sammy and heard them hit the ground just before his brother’s feet. Though he couldn’t see Sammy’s face, Charlie imagined it held a look of surprise and happiness, and this image made Charlie smile.
“Sam.” Charlie’s voice was steady and quiet. “Go north.” He paused. “Or south. Or anywhere else. Just go and don’t come back, okay? And don’t tell me where you’ve gone or when you get there or how you are.”
Sammy nodded slowly and bent down to pick the keys up off the ground. By the time he stood again Charlie was gone, already inside the trailer.
Charlie heard the car’s engine turn and then the tires as they rolled over the ground, kicking up dirt and rock pebbles and crunching sticks into pieces. He didn’t turn to lock the door, he didn’t look through the window or anything else that might cause him to see his brother driving into the dark world that awaited him.
In the shower, Charlie scrubbed his body with soap. Dark water fell from his skin, and pieces of debris, remnants and reminders of the night, collected in the drain, and he knew he would need to pick these things up later and throw them in the same plastic bag he had shoved his clothing into moments before.
Closing his eyes, he looked up at the shower spout and felt the water hard on his face. He looked down after a few minutes and wiped his face of water. He hadn’t realized it earlier but he was crying, his tears merely blending in with the shower water.
Charlie finished and stood naked in front of the mirror. He looked at his reflection, judging it, weighing its worth, though what he weighed it against, he was unsure. He slowly put on a clean shirt and shorts, smiling from the fresh smell. He made his way back into the front room and sat down heavily on the couch. His arms and legs hurt, and the headache from earlier was back. In the darkness of the room, Charlie looked over to the small table next to the couch, over to where the telephone sat in its cradle, remembering his promise from earlier to call Maggie. In his mind he heard the steady buzzing of the phone’s ring, the click of it being answered, the sleepy “hello” and the awkward seconds where he tried to think of what to say. But then he thought of what he would say when she asked what he had been doing. He couldn’t answer that. He thought he might say, “Helping Sam with something,” though that would not be enough and he knew it.
This battle raged in his mind for several minutes. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, feeling his heartbeat slowing, and he knew what he needed to do. He reached over and picked up the remote control from next to him on the couch and turned on the TV. The room, which had been dark and silent just a moment before, was now changed. It was thrown into a fabricated reality of color, the joyful sounds of the program surrounding him in the small room.
As he sat there in that new reality, Charlie thought of Sammy driving through the night, the windows rolled down and the air whipping his hair about his face. He thought of Sammy’s left hand stretched out into the night, his hand closing into a fist and then opening, as if he were releasing air that he had caught back out into the world. He smiled at this thought, and he found himself forgetting everything else that had happened before. And he let his eyes close to the image of Sammy driving away.