The Stolen Brother by Emma Lord
It’s been almost a month since the accident when Paige calls Wyatt. It’s midnight when Wyatt gets the call, but he hasn’t slept very well since it happened, so he’s wide awake and picks up on the first ring.
“I think—” She stops. She’s crying. Mostly all she does is cry now, at least whenever her son Noah can’t see her. “I think I’m going to do it tomorrow.”
Wyatt isn’t sure what to say. He doesn’t have to ask what she’s talking about; his little brother has been on life support since the crash and everyone has been waiting on Paige to make a decision. He wonders why he’s the one she’s calling to say this, but when he thinks about it there’s really nobody else she can call.
“Alright,” he says.
He thinks she might ask if it’s the right thing to do, but she doesn’t. Instead she asks, “Can you please come with us?”
At fourteen years old, Sam is a pest. He never leaves Wyatt alone. He follows Wyatt to baseball practice, to football practice, to midnight games of capture the flag in the park. Sometimes when they’re out in public Sam trails so closely behind Wyatt that Wyatt can practically feel Sam breathing on his neck, and whenever he stops walking abruptly, Sam barrels straight into him.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Wyatt demands after a particularly embarrassing incident, after Sam tails him again and gets the entire baseball team in trouble for drinking by blabbing about it. “Don’t you have any of your own friends?”
Sam’s eyes get really wide. “Yes.”
Wyatt feels a pang of remorse, but it’s too late to back down. All of his friends are watching. “Then leave me alone.”
Shaking Sam off doesn’t work. Even after high school he follows Wyatt to the same college. Wyatt hardly acknowledges Sam’s existence, except to drive him home during school breaks and occasionally have brief meals together in dining halls so that his mom won’t nag him about how they never spend any time together.
In Sam’s sophomore year he brings home a girl named Paige. Paige is short and full-cheeked and freckled and reminds Wyatt of a hobbit. She is sweet to the entire family, a real typical girl-next-door, but it is evident that she doesn’t find Wyatt as charming as the rest of the girls in her year do.
One night Wyatt runs into Sam at a party. His little brother is drunk and Paige-less for the first time in months. Before Wyatt can even dream of corrupting him by introducing him to a woman who actually owns a thong, Sam grabs his sleeve.
“Isn’t Paige the best?” he asks.
Wyatt removes Sam’s hand from his shirt. “Sure.”
Undeterred by Wyatt’s scowl, Sam continues, “I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”
Wyatt nearly chokes on flat beer.
“Not today,” says Sam, “and not tomorrow, not even soon, I just—I’m gonna marry her. I just kind of know it.”
“You’re nineteen,” says Wyatt. He looks at the floor. “Don’t be stupid.”
They make Wyatt the best man at their wedding. Wyatt watches Paige come down that aisle and it occurs to him that she is beautiful; that her chubby cheeks are radiant, that her freckles are sweet, that her smile is genuine and natural. Wyatt watches them kiss, Wyatt makes toasts that night, Wyatt wishes them well, but secretly, horribly, he hates them—no, he hates Sam.
But the two of them are practically children, Wyatt thinks, watching them gleefully mash wedding cake in each other’s faces. They’re practically children and this will never last.
In the meantime Wyatt marries a girl named Deborah. She is thin and tall and glamorous. A year after she leaves him, Wyatt looks through the wedding album she left behind, and in one frame of their reception he sees himself and his ex-wife dancing with militaristic posture and plastered smiles, while in the background Sam is twirling Paige and grinning like the two of them have a secret that nobody in the world will understand.
Within three months of Sam and Paige’s wedding, Paige is pregnant with their first born, Noah. Wyatt really doesn’t care much for the kid until after he learns to talk—besides, he hates visiting their house, all bright and cheery and domestic. He’s almost finished studying to be a defense attorney when he finally gets a call from Noah out of the blue, because Paige is teaching him to use the phone and apparently Wyatt has been deemed an emergency contact.
After that Wyatt makes time for Noah in ways that he never did for Sam. He starts swinging by after work to play with him, to help him with his homework, to fix things around the house. He finds himself coming to their house during lunch breaks when he knows that Sam won’t be home. He finds himself staring at Paige in the kitchen, staring at Paige in the backyard, imagining for a moment that this is his house and his life—doesn’t he deserve this? Isn’t he the older brother, the smarter brother, the more accomplished one?
“You’re so good with Noah,” says Sam over dinner one night, beaming. “You’re going to be a really great dad.”
Wyatt stabs the steak in front of him with the knife so hard that it cuts all the way through and makes a pinging noise on the glass plate. “Thanks.”
There’s a Christmas card in their mother’s drawer. It’s old and the lighting washes out their faces, but the bright smiles are still unmistakable: Wyatt is five and Sam is two, and the pair of them are running up from the water on the beach toward whoever is holding the camera. Wyatt is thirty-five when he finds the picture—Sam has been dead for years—but he suddenly remembers with alarming clarity the day Sam was born. He shouldn’t. He was only three at the time. But he remembers so clearly the way the front door to their old house cracked open, his mother looking exhausted, his father looking quite pleased and holding a car seat with the tiniest human Wyatt had ever seen in it.
“You’re a big brother now,” his dad said, setting the seat down so Wyatt could get a better look. “You gotta keep an eye out for each other. Got it, big guy?”
Maybe it never happened. Maybe Wyatt is remembering words that were never spoken, a moment that never passed, but it doesn’t matter. Either way, he failed.
The day Sam gets into his accident, he’s on his way to the theater. Wyatt has convinced Paige and Noah to see a show with him, because Sam is supposed to be on a business trip. They figure Sam must have arrived home early. They figure he thought it would be a splendid idea to surprise them by joining.
They’re all laughing over some bit of the show when Paige pulls out her phone. Noah is doing a silly imitation of their dancing, jumping up and down excitedly, and Wyatt can still see him out of the corner of his eye as he watches Paige’s features sink into her face. She stops on the sidewalk and looks up at Wyatt, her mouth open in shock, looking at him as if she is drowning.
Wyatt can’t remember much of what happened next because in a way, that moment never stops happening.
The day they unplug Sam, Paige meets Wyatt at the hospital with Noah in tow. The three of them just stand there for a few moments when they find each other in the lobby, looking hesitantly toward the front desk. They’re all absurdly well-dressed for the occasion—Paige in a spring dress, Noah in a khakis and a button down, Wyatt in his suit.
“They know we’re here. If you want to go say good-bye,” says Wyatt.
Paige nods up at him. Her once chubby cheeks are now gaunt, and her skin almost has a grayish tinge too it, like the life has been sucked out of her. “Thanks,” she says. She grabs Noah’s hand. “You’ll come too, right?”
Wyatt can’t say no to her, so he follows them into the elevator and then into a room where Sam is lying, his pale body overwhelmed by tubes and machines. Paige says a lot of things to Sam, but Wyatt doesn’t listen. He’s staring at an old playground scar on Sam’s forearm. He’s remembering train tables and learner’s permits and grass stains, or at least he’s trying to, because all he can think about it how this is his fault.
They turn off the machines when Sam’s heart stops so Noah doesn’t have to hear the noise. Paige hiccups and sobs, but besides that, for a long time nobody moves or speaks. When Wyatt finally tears his eyes off his little brother, he realizes that Paige and Noah are staring at him like he is the lighthouse to their sinking ship.
Wyatt can’t remember the last time he hugged someone, but wordlessly the two of them fall into him. He lets them cry. He stares at Sam’s body as he holds his wife and child and feels like a thief.
There is light in a lined patch slanting over the white tile floor. It is far away – twenty feet or so, but it is what wakes me up. It is what has woken me up every morning for the past week.
My roommate is a girl who smashes her forehead against the wall until it bleeds from the center of a green-and-purple bruise. She has told me her name is Lily, but that is all.
In the room to my right is a boy who is called Charlie. From sunrise until he goes to sleep, he paces and recites Eric Clapton lyrics. This morning, he starts with “Cocaine.” Overnight, a blue card has appeared on Charlie’s door. He moves on to the final chorus as I wander into the hallway, walking toward the water fountain.
He finishes and moves on to “Leila” when a man in a lab coat and jeans opens his door, greets him by name, then pulls a syringe from a small bag, and injects him in the right arm. Charlie falls limp and the man slings him over his shoulder, leaving the door swinging. It creaks. I hear the heavy sound of Lily’s head colliding with the wall.
Everyone else turns and watches as the man disappears with Charlie down the aisle. The silence stays but is heavier. Hardly anyone talks.
Charlie is wheeled back on a gurney with angry stitches coursing across the right side of his abdomen. I stare. Two women in white coats watch over him. When he wakes up, one offers him ginger ale. He sips it through a straw.
Back in our room, I tell Lily. She curls up the edge of her shirt – the pink-white gloss of an older, identical scar.
* * *
In late morning, we have exercise. There is barbed wire threaded through the links, and a roof overhead. I try not to look as Lily pricks her fingertips on the silver barbs, then traces her fingers over her cheeks. War paint.
Last week two of the boys fought during exercise – one ended up slammed against the barbed-wire fence and I remembered how barbed wire couldn’t be used for horses because of how it grabbed flesh and ripped. His back was lined with deep red trails. Everyone was quiet.
When we return, one of the girls has a purple card hung on her door.
Lily smashes her head again. The girl comes back clutching her hip.
I sleep at night and dream of strange, fantastical colors adorning the dark of my door. In one dream, the card is gold. In another, the card changes colors, maintaining a kind of dynamic iridescence. I want to tell Lily. I don’t.
* * *
The weekly doctor’s visits are a break from the monotony. My doctor wears a green set of matching scrubs. He is the only spot of color in the white-washed room.
Good morning, he smiles as he presses a stethoscope to my chest.
I don’t say anything.
Any pain? he asks. Headache? Nausea? Fatigue?
No, I say.
Because we have something for it, he says, as if he hasn’t heard me. There’s something for everything. If you’re sad at all you can have an SSRI. If you can’t sleep, you can have a sedative.
I don’t know what an SSRI is, but I don’t ask.
He shines a light in my eyes. I feel a vague sense of déjà vu.
I haven’t always been here, have I? I ask.
Yes, he smiles through me. You have always been here.
I look past him to the desk, where there are pictures of children. A dog.
Baby pictures, I say out of nowhere.
Yes, he says, the smile still stuck on his face. Those are my children.
I don’t have any, I say.
Children? he says. Of course not.
No, I say. Baby pictures.
His smile is unwavering. Let me test your reflexes, he says, reaching for a rubber hammer.
* * *
The food here is good, I say to Lily as we file into the long, low building that is the mess hall.
Lily says nothing. I hand her an apple.
There is green salad and grilled chicken and wheat rolls. Lily spears a baby carrot with a fork tine and replaces it on the bed of greens.
Lily, I say. Eat. She stares at the table.
* * *
Eventually, a card appears on my door. It is bright yellow. The same doctor who sees me weekly asks me to follow him down the hall. He asks me what I think of the new abstract painting in the hallway.
I change into a hospital gown and lie down on a gurney. An anesthesiologist explains to me how I’ll feel woozy and the world will go black. His surgical hat is too tight on him and makes him look like a fat kid in a beanie. I stare until he covers my mouth with a mask and I breathe in. His dough-white face disintegrates into black.
* * *
I come to on a gurney in a white, fluorescent-lit room. My right thigh throbs. I look and see it wrapped in a white bandage. A nurse is by my side.
Ginger ale? she says. My vision is still fuzzy from the anesthesia. I nod in the general direction of her out-of-focus face.
A few minutes later, a man walks up to the gurney and grasps the side, starts to wheel me back.
Ready to go back? he says.
Hold on, he says, and looks down. There’s a red card on the gurney.
The door opens and another gurney rolls in. It is Lily. The men are speaking in low voices. She’s already anesthetized. I figure they’ll take some skin from her thigh, too. I don’t remember there being a second card on the door. I look away.
A deafening whir jolts me and I turn back around. Lily’s sternum is split, her ribcage sprung open like the hull of a listing ship. One of the men in scrubs lifts something out. There is a bucket of ice.
I want to scream but there is nothing.
Two more men walk out. First day, huh, one of them says to the other. They push my gurney and I try to turn to see Lily as she’s wheeled away.
How are you feeling? One grins at me.
Pretty girl, says the other. Your mama must be so proud. He hands me a glass of water and tells me about his pet Labrador as I drink. He sets the glass on a nearby shelf when I’m finished.
He presses two fingers to my wrist and nods. I look for a needle, a tourniquet. I see neither.
So what are you doing today? I ask. The anesthesia is the only thing keeping my voice from shaking.
The first man smiles down at me. Just a quick procedure, he says. It’ll only hurt a second.
The second man fastens something on my ankle. It is cold, metallic. It tightens.
I look to see my leg lifting up. There is a pulley on the ceiling.
I try to clutch the sides of the gurney, but my fingers won’t move the way I want them to. I squeeze my eyes shut as the gurney leaves me. My stomach pitches as my body swings back and forth against only air. I think, senselessly of the swingsets in kindergarten. My favorite part of recess.
When I open my eyes my vision is still blurred. I am staring into a metal bucket. The men are there. One brushes my hair aside.
Ready? says the man who holds my hair. Pretty girl, he says to me again, and pinches my cheek.
Just take a deep breath, says the other. You’ll barely feel a thing.
Here, I hear him say. A rough finger brushes my neck.
A flash of silver, a blinding bite of metal-cold. The silver bucket. My hair falling. The white room. A peppering of crimson on the men’s jeans. A waterfall of deep red, obliterating silver and blending into black.
Dark clouds and an eery wind made the evening of October 27th the perfect night for 3.7 Magazine’s 3.7 Ways to Die Contest event. A small crowd gathered outside the Pigeonhole on Elliewood Avenue to hear the six finalists share their spooky short prose and poetry. The finalists were:
The cemetery is not what he expects, made of concrete walkways and straight lines. He expected cluttered headstones stained with age, set along twisting paths in no semblance of order. He expected oaks dipping low overhead, expected Spanish moss blocking his view, expected weeds and nettles barely held back by rusting coils of wrought iron circling the plots. He expected a ghost’s graveyard, spirits clouding him even in the daytime, expected to feel the Queen’s raw power just standing before her tomb. He expected to see gnarled branches guarding her, a circle of dead weeds bordering the foot of her grave. From what the sloe-eyed girl told him in the shadow-dark alley far off Bourbon Street proper, he expected something else.
He looks over the St. Louis one, and it is too clean, too ordered for these purposes, running in clear-cut aisles. The exposed bricks do not crumble enough, and the tombstones do not lean enough. The stone angels do not mourn as they should, and though the rows rise and fall with the heights of the vaults, there is no rolling landscape leading to the horizon. There is no horizon at all, only a broken line of skyscrapers, a wall of cold glass.
The air is too open, here, too clean, even with flowers rotting in the afternoon heat. He swears he can still smell mildew and bleach, can still sense the cloying sweetness of waterlogged bodies, two months after Katrina made her way out. In the smooth lines of the cemetery, uninhibited by twists and trees, the smell follows him, will not let him beg in peace.
He finds it: a peaked, white pediment tomb, built to hold at least three, tall and narrow and like a dozen others. A small, dark plaque proclaims this the resting place of Marie Laveau, the greatest of the bayou’s voodoo queens, but the names of the tomb’s others have been worn away with age, smooth bumps of fading letters gentle to the touch. This is unlike the graves he is used to; his wife’s name, his children’s, could cut flesh. Here, the words seem gentle, grief mellowed with age, and new letters dip over the old, curve with the shape of the wall in the marks of felt-tipped pens and broken crayons, in the scratches of keys and bloodied fingers.
Mark an X. You mark a red X, three times. She showed him on the dirty wall of the alleyway. He watched her gold-banded finger draw an invisible X, X, X, coming away smeared with dirt and ash.
On the tomb’s white walls, the marks vary in size. Some small, and he wonders if they are shameful wishes, if their owners whispered when they spoke. He wonders if size means anything to her, if the large, shaky strings belong to the most desperate, if the widest strokes are reserved for the most determined.
Mark a red X, three times.
He bends low to examine the offerings left to her by devotees. He cannot tell where the line is drawn between tribute and trash: the ground is stained with candle wax and littered with the emptied contents of a child’s treasure chest. There are strings of beads, their plastic shine starting to fade. There are glass marbles, sea shells, woven bracelets, and carved figurines. There are flowers, limp roses and a bouquet of sunflowers, which he did not know grew here. Wishing women have left her tubes of lipstick. There are packets of cigarettes, letters weighted down with rocks, small animal bones and tea lights, matchbooks, and an orange Kodak camera. A grieving wife has left a string of dog tags.
He wants to believe that these trinkets can hold her interest, draw out her power. He wants to believe that there something real to reach, that magic can be tapped with a bent playing card or a wax-sealed jar of honey. He picks up a blue string of beads and the links slither up over his arm, snakelike, winding through his fingers and squeezing stiffly until the dull bite of plastic leaves pea-sized marks in his palm, until his fingers are purple and tingling with stoppered blood.
His own pockets are empty, a thin wallet and thirty-seven jingling cents in mixed change. He has nothing to offer, and he knows instinctively that afternoons are not times for these wishes or deals. He shakes the beads back to the ground and gets to his feet too quickly; he sways, vision darkening in the dripping heat. When he comes back to himself, one hand is braced on the old plaster of the tomb, pressed flat to the wall.
He tells himself he feels something from this touch—a dusty surge of energy, a burning spark, a cool, dark weight slipping slickly into the pit of his stomach. For a moment, he stands, waiting to feel it again. Nothing comes. He goes.
The cemetery is closed at night, which should not be a surprise, but he is unprepared. The wall is not impossible, but he skins his palms on the path when he lands, hits the ground with the loud huff of air leaving lungs.
He finds her easily this time, even in the dark. Everything is easier in the dark, or at least, the important things are. A faceless someone has lit the candles, and in their bronze glow and the pressing night, he finds it easier to believe. He steps close, and the warm breeze of Indian summer grows softly dangerous, sneaking under his jacket, peeling his sweaty shirt up from his back. The cold grazes sharp fingernails down his spine.
Somewhere nearby, someone is playing blues guitar, a piece he recognizes from long ago, from his father’s record albums, but missing the crackle of a canned recording. Something without words, something about cold nights and hard ground. His pulse trips over the chords, quickening painfully at his throat. He closes his eyes, takes a breath, and when looks again, everything is different. In the candlelight, the triplets of desperate wishes swim before his eyes.
Mark a red X, three times. Someone has used lipstick, someone marker, someone else a pen. Someone has used red candle wax, perhaps taken from an offering long-since burned away.
He is unsure whether to kneel, and so he does, gravel biting through the tear in his jeans. He bows his head and blinks down at the pocket knife in his hand. The point digs solidly into the tip of one finger, and he bites his tongue when the blood slips free. He raises his shaky hand, his breath coming quickly, and he draws it just under the plaque: X, X, X. Three times.
And then what? he’d asked, feigning disinterest. The girl showed her teeth in a narrow grin, and they were too thin, too sharp, making him recoil though he’d meant to show no unease.
You just want to know, Mister, or you want to know? And he did not bother to lie.
I mark a red X, he’d prompted, and she’d agreed, Three times, and turned back to the wall.
You knock, she said. You knock three times. Her bony fist made a dull, thick noise against the bricks, barely a sound at all. Somewhere nearby, someone had been playing music, and here, too, kneeling in the dark by the mausoleum, the lull of the guitar finds him.
He raises his fist. He shuts his eyes and knocks, three times, and the noise comes back to him dull and thick. The wind whistles, and the guitar fades again. The candles flicker brushstrokes across the field of his vision, painting and repainting the white walls, the strings of Xs marking the whole of the tomb like a poor student’s assignment or a deal with the devil. He wonders who offers this, and he thinks of the portrait-postcard the alley girl showed him, a painting of a strong woman wrapped in shawls of a dozen colors, staring ahead with danger in the solid line of her jaw. He wonders if she is really here, in one of these boxes, skeletal and impossible to recognize but for her soul. He wonders what is asked in return for a wish like this.
You knock, three times.
She’d grinned at him, leering cat-grin full of spindly teeth, too bright in the dark of the alley. Then you ask for what you want. You tell her out loud. He’d thought wishes were meant to be secrets, that is what birthdays have taught him, but the candles are different here. The girl just shook her head. Out loud, so she can hear. Say it out loud because if you don’t, if you can’t, you don’t want it enough.
Gravel digging into his knees, candles blurring his vision, he sets the knife down on the ground, an offering. He shuts his eyes and presses his palm to the wall. The plaster is icy. He says aloud, Please.
The beads snake around his hand again. The discarded coins click together like beetles when he shifts his weight, as though her collection of offerings is scrambling over itself to claim him and his bloodied knife.
You knock three times, and say your wish out loud.
He says, Please. Please, mistress, I want my family back. He sees the ruined house in the candlelight paintings, falling in on itself when the waterlines fell back, sees the spray-painted marks he’d found on the siding when he’d finally been allowed back into the city with his briefcase hanging from one limp arm, the guard’s markings by the front door meaning, four know residents, three bodies found, and his voice rises over the wind. Please, mistress, I want my home.
The beetle coins click. The beads are wrapped around his fingers so he can no longer feel his hand. His voice rises over the wind. Please, mistress, he says, Give my family. Please.
The wind dies, leaves him with only the panting of his breath. Beyond the oven vaults of the cemetery walls, he hears late-night traffic as though he is underwater. The blues guitar is long gone, and the trinkets at his knees are silent.
He sighs, slumps over, his sweaty forehead against the cool plaster of the tomb.
Nothing. For a long moment, there is nothing. Then, all at once, the candles blow out.
3.7 is proud to present “3.7 Ways to Die: The October Writing Contest”! Submit a piece of fiction, poetry, or non-fiction playing upon the theme of “horror” to email@example.com for the chance of winning several prizes: a twenty dollar gift certificate at the Pigeon Hole, publication on 3.7′s new website, and a handcrafted halloween trophy!
And that’s not all! On Thursday, October 27th at 7:00 the Pigeon Hole will be hosting an Open Mic Night where the top four nominees for the prize will be announced, and will have the opportunity to read their work in front of a live audience! What better way to kick off the halloween weekend than with literature so utterly terrifying that it would even make Poe pale in the grave?
The submission deadline is 5:00 pm on Wednesday, October 26th. There are no page limits; the only rule required is bringing terror to life!
Prize-winning candidates will be selected based on the creativity of their work as well as awarded bonus points for agreement to read at the Open Mic Night in a costume that somehow reflects the idea of their story.
The Open Mic Night is open to all, and all are encouraged to come in costume!
For submissions and any questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org