You didn’t say anything as you gripped the bird in your fist. My parakeet, bright yellow like a small lemon, hung there very still, its head just above the knuckle of your thumb. The look on your face spoke your evil. You were nine years old, holding my bird, tasting the power in your mouth from watching me squirm, tears in my eyes, pleading with you not to hurt the life in your hand. Your fingers tensed around the bird, squeezing it a little just to watch me cry harder. My hands flailed outward, not daring to touch you for fear you’d tighten your grip and kill it just the way you kept threatening to do. I promised everything, but you wanted nothing. Your cruelty wasn’t leverage to make me do anything. It was nothing more than finding a new way to torture me, and the death of a yellow parakeet the size of my heart was just an afterthought. Your lack of anger was the most chilling part of all. There was nothing to be gained except to witness my fear. You, my older brother, were just bored, and when you finally released the bird onto its unsteady feet on the floor and watched it stagger forward, I wanted you dead.
This was the moment I thought of when you were twelve and you won an award for baseball. Best All-Around, County League. Dad held up the wooden plaque with the words etched on a fake silver plate and a tiny plastic baseball player mounted at the bottom. He was anxious to show everyone, to let everyone know it was his son who was so talented. Best All-Around. The torture of the bird hadn’t been the last or worst thing you’d ever done to me. There was the time you doused the neighbor’s kitten with a bucket of water and then threw it at me. Later that night, I heard that it died. There’d been punches in the stomach so that no one would see them, the smashed Donny Osmond record, my lunchbox thrown out the window of the school bus, my head shoved into a rotted tree trunk in the back yard and held there while you whispered that worms would crawl inside my ears and eat my brain. Telling on you got me one of two responses: my father telling me “he’s a boy, he’s just funnin’ with you” or “you’d better learn not to be a tattle tale.” Mother’s response was no better. “You’re just too sensitive.”
You were always good at sports, anything with a ball. Idly throwing a basketball at the hoop in the driveway, I should have put the ball away when I saw you coming. I’ll show you how, you said. Not listening to my instincts, I passed it to you, and for a few tosses it was okay. For a minute, even fun. You ringed the hoop four times in a row, but then you missed, so I picked it up and tossed it upward. I missed too, but that didn’t help your mood. I don’t know why I looked away, but something pulled my attention to the bright orange sun going down behind the barn in the pasture behind our garage. The way the light looked as it was swallowed up behind the tin roof burned in my head at the instant of the basketball’s impact to my right cheek knocking me to the concrete. You burst out laughing. The hit was hard and direct, not the accidental brushing past of the ball aimed at the hoop but missing its target. Yours was a deliberate firing right at my face from only yards away. You told our parents we were just playing, an accident. I screamed that you hit me on purpose, clutching at the swelling bruise that was the right side of my face. Someone told me not to be such a baby, but I can’t remember whose voice it was. Mother gave me ice wrapped in a wash rag and told me to stay in my room and leave the basketball playing to the boys. I lay on my bed, imagining myself smashing your head.
You almost died on your seventeenth birthday. I was elated and frightened when the sheriff showed up at our door at 11:20 PM to tell Mom and Dad that you’d been taken to the hospital by ambulance. Your truck was demolished when the front end wrapped around the concrete pylon underneath the bridge. Yes, he’d been drinking, the sheriff said, just a little. He looked off the porch’s edge into the darkness and waved a hand at his words. The boy’s suffered enough, so we’ll let that slide. Boys can do stupid things, you know?
The girl in the other car lost her right leg. You’d been driving close behind her, they said, flashing your lights. You’d gone out with her twice and then referred to her as a prick tease and a whore. I was just old enough to know that a girl could hardly be both of those things at once. One of my friends said she heard from an older girl that she’d called you an asshole in the hallway at school. I remember laughing. The girl’s name was Leslie, and after she lost her leg you and your friends called her Legless behind her back. No charges were ever filed. Just kids driving too fast and playing games when they ought to be paying attention to the road. They learned a terrible lesson, my father said.
Twenty years later Leslie was still living in a housing project on disability with her three daughters, and you said over Sunday lunch at Mama’s that you were sick and tired of having to pay taxes so that people like Legless could sit on her ass and collect checks. Two wives had left you by then. The second one had not been afraid to show the bruises. She even took pictures. I was sure Mom and Dad would have to agree this time. Surely they’d admit what an asshole you are, but all they talked about was what she must have done to make you so mad that you’d hit her. Sometimes a woman pushes too hard, my father said. A man can’t help himself.
The alimony cost you a truck and a house, or so you claimed. You were back in the bedroom you’d grown up in, sleeping in the same twin bed. The baseball posters and sports equipment were long gone. Mama had gone to Walmart and bought you a new set of bedding and curtains, blue stripes. She took me to your bedroom and showed it off. The room smelled of fresh packaging and cheap textile dye. Mom rubbed her hand over the smoothly made bed, proud of her generosity and her housekeeping. We’re going to put new carpet in this room next, she said. He’ll be happier with a nice bright color instead of this old brown. I tried to imagine you even noticing the color of the floor beneath your feet.
The floor of the hospital room they put you in last month was dingy green vinyl, clean but ugly. Sometimes I stare down at it beneath my feet as I sit next to your bed. I’d rather focus on the floor than on your colorless face as you wheeze at the oxygen mask. Sometimes a bug crawls by my feet, or a wisp of dust rolls out from under the bed, and it holds my attention until it disappears. I never knew I could focus so well and for so long on anything until Mom and Dad badgered me into taking a shift with your dying. It won’t be long, they said. We can’t leave him alone.
Some days I don’t know if you even knew I am here. We don’t talk except for when you ask for something. I bring you water or ice. I change the channel. I open or close the curtains depending on the time of day. I want you to apologize, but more than that, I don’t want you to apologize because then I would have to forgive you. I want you to die with my anger intact. I want it to dive straight down your throat and choke you before the cancer takes you first. Our parents moan about how unfair it is. Their son, such a young man, they say, only fifty-four years old. Everyone who comes in talks about what a good son you are, what a hard-working man, a really nice guy. Except for the present tense verbs, it is like listening to words at a funeral.
Three of your friends from high school who never left our hometown come to see you. They stand at your bedside, hands jiggling change in pockets, trying to think of something to say. Their awkward smiles and words of encouragement and sympathy make me cringe. Soon, their bodies are backing away, so anxious to bolt, to exit the realm of your death, their exhales are audible.
Come to the funeral, I call out to them at the door and they all freeze before shuffling away down the hall, probably horrified. I don’t know why I said it, and for an instant I consider apologizing. But then I look down at you, your head sunken in your pillow like a damp stone. You are waiting. I want so badly to want to forgive you. Your face, like a frightened bird with a fist around your neck.
Cathy Adams’ first novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. Her short stories have been published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tincture, A River and Sound Review, Upstreet, and Portland Review, among others. She now lives and writes in Shenyang, China, with her husband, photographer JJ Jackson.
Disarmingly honest and powerful.