It always seemed to be a fight with him, until it wasn't.
Not even a year separated the two of us … Irish twins , they used to call children like us, when women were told that if they were nursing one baby they wouldn't really have to worry about having another one, until they did have to worry about it. There was always something embarrassing about it: don't you understand how sex works? I suppose calling it that isn't politically correct any more, much like Mexican stand-off, Chinese fire drill, Dutch courage, Indian trader … some alternate United Nations of cruel epithets that came out of our mouths unthought and unchallenged.
But that's what Tom and I were to each other, he the older, newly sixteen to my fifteen and change. And because he was older, he thought that that made him automatically stronger, and smarter, and nicer, and … and … and, so on and so forth. All of which may have been true. Sometimes I felt as if I existed as an afterthought, my parents looking at each other at some point and thinking: we might need a backup.
Anyway, the fighting. It would come and go in waves. We might go weeks being nice - well, civil - to each other, until one thing or other would set him off and we would go at it like tigers, shouting and snarling and clawing our way to a bloody draw, lip busted or eye blackened or arm twisted in its socket. Our mother, cursing, would step in and pull us apart, send us to separate parts of the house until we could cool off and negotiate a truce that would be prove temporary. We seemed to be brothers in name only, not in deed.
I never understood what it was that would send him over the edge, what particular word or deed or facial expression. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the color of my sweater, maybe it was just because it was Tuesday. We were different temperamentally; he more like our mother, mercurial and moody just und er the surface, I more like my father, even-going, placid, content to swim through my life unchallenged and unchallenging.
"What are we going to do with the two of you?" my mother asked, one day, right after a particularly nasty encounter with my brother, one that had resulted in a rapidly-darkening bruise on my left cheek.
I squirmed away from her and her attempt at ministrations. " I didn't start this!"
"Oh, honey, I know," she murmured. "We just want the two of you to get along. We're tired of all the fighting."
"Then tell him to quit!" I was on the verge of tears.
"That's what your father is doing right now, Tim."
I slumped back onto the couch, crossed my arms. "It won't do any good," I muttered.
My mother sighed, looked at me for a long moment. "Tell me again what happened."
"How the hell should I know?" I gave back to her, nearly shouting.
"Don't use that kind of language, Tim. Just … just tell me what happened."
"Why? So you can blame me for it?"
"I'm not going to blame you for it, Tim … unless you …"
"See? There you go, trying to find some excuse for it."
"I just want to understand what happened, baby."
I gestured at myself. "He hit me in the face , is what happened, Mom."
"It was just some stupid book." At her blank look, I went on. "I was reading The Catcher in the Rye because we're reading it in English class this year. He came into my room and said he wanted to read it and wanted me to give it to him."
"So why didn't you just give it to him?"
"Because he's already read it! He read it last year for Mrs. Wittenborn and she always assigns the same books."
"You're sure he read it?"
"Yes! I remember because he had to write some stupid book report on it and got a 'D' and had to have you guys sign it and make him do it over again."
"Yes! Don't you remember? "
"I … guess."
I rolled my eyes, blew out a harsh breath, wondering why she couldn't remember it. It seemed to me that she always had a blind spot when it came to Tom and his behavior. "Why do you always stick up for him?"
"Now, you know that's not true, Tim. I -"
"You do! You always do! Every time he beats the shit out of me, you find some way to blame me for it!"
"You need to stop swearing right now, Tim Keenan. You're too young for that kind of language."
I stood up. "Well, you need to take Tom to see a doctor, Mom. There's something wrong with him. There really is. He won't stop until he kills me."
With that, I left the room, went upstairs to my bedroom, slammed the door behind me.
I didn't come out of my room, not even for supper. I ignored my mother's voice floating up the stairway, telling me to come eat. I ignored my father's voice saying the same thing five minutes later.
I tried to read my book, found that I couldn't, threw it angrily against the wall. I got up, went to the bathroom that Tom and I shared, looked at myself in the mirror, fingered the bruise on my cheek, which still hurt. It would look interesting in the morning. I wondered how I would explain what happened when I went to school tomorrow. I was tempted to tell everyone the truth, but that would only mean more of the same when I got home.
I went back into my room, lay on my bed, arms crossed, staring up at the ceiling, wishing I belonged to any other family except this one.
I probably even cried a little.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I heard was a knock at my door.
"What?" I mumbled.
"It's me." Tom.
"C'mon, Tim. Open the door."
"Why? So you can just beat me up some more?"
"I won't do that. I promise."
"I've heard that before."
I knew he would stand there until I came out of my room, so I got up, went over, opened the door. We looked at each other, then I went back to sit on my bed. Tom came in; he had something in his hand, something wrapped up in a paper napkin. He sat it on my desk, then sat in my chair.
"I brought you something to eat."
"I'm not hungry." Not true; I was, but I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.
"Fine. Suit yourself."
"What do you want, Tom?"
"Only because Dad told you to."
"Well, yeah, but …"
"Consider it done," I muttered.
We looked at each other for a long moment. Then, from Tom, "Lemme see it?"
"See what? "
He pointed vaguely at me. "The … that … the bruise."
"Why? Wanna take a picture of it, show it to all your friends?"
"Tim, c'mon …"
Wordlessly, I got up from the bed, walked over to stand in front of him. He stood up to face me. I hadn't been this close to my brother - non-combatively - for longer than I could remember. Self-preservation, maybe. He reached out, ran his index finger lightly over the surface of my cheekbone. His touch seemed gentle, somehow … delicate.
"Does it hurt?"
"What do you think?" It didn't, really, but I didn't want him to know that.
"If it means anything, I am sorry."
"Then why did you do it?"
He swallowed - nervously? - then sat back down and turned the chair to face away from me. "You wouldn't understand," he muttered.
"Try me. Me, I figure that you just hate me, for whatever reason. I've given up trying to understand it, Tom."
"There are things …" he started.
"That you wouldn't understand. Because I'm not sure I understand them."
"I'm not stupid, Tom. Despite what you may think."
"I don't think you're stupid, Tim. It's just … I don't know. I … I can't talk about them."
"So, you just hit people, instead."
"It's not like that. I just … things just build up inside and … I can't handle them."
"I told Mom you should see a doctor. A shrink."
His surprised hah! of a laugh echoed off the walls. "Maybe. Maybe you're right."
"What things, Tom?" I prompted.
"Feelings, I guess. Feelings that I have, ones that I don't want to have." He swiveled the chair back towards me. "I look at you and I know that you don't have those same feelings, and it drives me crazy."
"It would help a lot if you would just tell me what those feelings are."
He shook his head. "I … I just can't , Tim. I can't talk about them. To anybody ."
I went back to my bed, lay down, crossed my hands in back of my head, stared up at the ceiling. "So, am I just going to have to stay on the lookout, whenever you get these … feelings? "
"No," he answered. "I made you a promise. I won't hit you again."
"That and a quarter will get me a cup of coffee." Something our father always said, when we made him a promise he knew we had no intention of keeping.
"I'm serious, Tim. I won't. "
"Okay." Something occurred to me. "If not a doctor, what about one of the priests?"
"At church? Are you serious? "
"Well, yeah. I mean, why not? What d'you have to lose? You could … I dunno, do it during confession, maybe. They wouldn't have to know who you are."
My brother laughed again. "They always know, you idiot? They know whose voice is whose!"
"But it's still just between you and him …"
"Yeah, but then I'd have to walk around, knowing that they know."
"How bad can it be, Tom? Did you murder somebody?"
"Worse than that."
"What's worse than that, Tom?"
But he wouldn't answer. He stood up, tossed the sandwich to me; it fell onto my belly with a soft rustle of sound. "You should eat," he said. Then he left the room.
This 14 chapter story was created for the Inspired by a Picture: The Only Way is Up! Writing Challenge. The picture that inspired the story is:
Gymnastics at Ila school By Leif Ørnelund / Oslo Museum, License: Attrbution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0
Please read all 14 chapters before answering the survey at the end of the 14th chapter
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