You wake at 3am to someone looming over your bed. Instantly on guard, you sit up in a panic, groping around in the dark for your sword, before a heavy hand falls on your shoulder and someone says, “It’s jus’ me.”
You let all the air out of your lungs and fall back to your pillow, chest heaving. “Dude, what the fuck are you doing?” you gasp out.
Bro crouches next to your bed, and you can just make out his silhouette in the dark.
“Your mom’s dead.” Those words hang there in the dark for several minutes while your sleep-addled brain tries to make sense of what you’re hearing.
“Wanted to tell y’soon as I found out.” No explanation. No ‘I’m sorry’. Just that. He pushes to his feet and leaves you there alone, closes your door behind him.
You lay there in the dark, turning his words over in your head again and again, trying to make sense of them, work out what the odds are that he’s fucking with you again, just worse this time.
Your mom’s dead.
You suppose you have one somewhere. Had one somewhere. And if your Bro’s giving it to you straight right now, then yeah, she’s most likely dead.
It’s not something you’re capable of feeling anything about, though, when you’ve spent most of your life convinced you’re motherless.
Your mom’s dead.
As a little kid, whenever you’d asked your Bro where your mom was he’d always given you varying stories about how you came into this world, each crazier than the last. And while you're sure he'd thought all that shit was hilarious at the time it had actually messed you up for years.
When you were four he’d told you he’d been out drinking at a bar one night, heard crying and found you in a cardboard box beneath a pool table.
When you were six he’d told you you were a clone; the result of some top secret government program to breed superhuman soldiers. Obviously that experiment had been a gigantic fucking failure if all that’d come out of it was you. You’d spent the next few years feeling like a huge disappointment to anyone who looked at you.
Then when you were nine he’d insisted a meteor had hit Houston exactly nine years prior and he’d found you in the smouldering ruins of his favorite record store. You’d spent the next six months convinced you were an alien until you’d finally pulled your head out of your ass and accepted your Bro was just a liar.
At twelve you’d almost worked up the courage to just come right out and ask if you were his. Months spent staring at yourself in the mirror in festering resentment, obsessing over the physical traits you share with him—your eyes; your pale hair and skin; the natural shape of your nose—had you pretty well convinced he might be more than just your Bro.
Your fear of learning the truth about you, about him, had kept you from ever going through with it and it's never come up since. You don't ask anymore, and if you don't ask, then your Bro's got no reason to lie to you. It suits you fine, not knowing, until he drops this bomb on you and suddenly you've got no choice but to ask, again.
Only you can’t do anything about that now because he's dropped this shit on you at three-thirty in the fucking morning, and if you know him at all then he’s out there sleeping like a baby.
In the end, you do the only thing you can do: roll over and go back to sleep.
You wait until the following evening, aiming for that window between when he comes home to shower and eat before heading back out again for the night, before you corner him. You emerge from your room when he’s finally stopped banging around in the kitchen and find him sitting on the futon in front of the TV, eating a bowl of cereal and cradling the first beer of the night between his knees.
“Hey.” You keep it casual, at least to start, and sit down next to him, just not close enough to crowd him, make him snap at you to fuck off.
You have to catch him in a fair mood because if you don't and your questions make him pissy, not only will he not tell you shit but you'll also be going to bed bruised and sore. It's crucial you tread carefully with him right now, especially if you're looking for any kind of serious answers.
You keep your tone even, not too pushy, when you ask, "What was that last night?"
He offers you no explanation but doesn't tell you to shut the fuck up either, and so you take that as the green light to keep on pushing, just a little.
"You said my mom died."
"Is that true?"
"Did it look like I was fuckin' kiddin’?"
You don't answer that because it's a trap. His ‘I'm fucking with you’ face and his ‘I'm serious as a heart attack, so hide’ face look the same to you.
Instead, you say, "Wow. I didn't even know I had a mom."
He scoffs at this and says through a mouthful of cereal, "What are you, retarded? Everyone's got a mom, dipshit."
You ignore that, since the reason you're such a dipshit about this in the first place is because of him—because he’d told you you were an orphan, or a clone, or a fucking alien, along with every other fucked up thing apart from the truth your entire life—and he won't want to hear that.
"How?" You feel like this is probably the most appropriate follow-up question. Whenever someone dies, people always ask how. At least that's the way it usually goes on TV.
"Liver cancer. Rough as shit, man."
"Was she your mom, too?" you blurt out. You were going to wait a bit, work your way up to this one, but after last night you're at tipping point and your desperation to finally wrench some truth out of your brother pushes you right over the edge.
What you’re really asking is: Was she your mom too, or someone you fucked once? What are you to me?
The two of you sit in unnerving silence for a bit, and you watch Bro's unmoving profile in the cool blue light coming off the flatscreen. He must be feeling generous because eventually he says, "Yeah."
Something unclenches in your chest and you suck in a breath. "So we have the same mom? Had, I mean." You're not sure what you're feeling right now but it's a hell of a lot like relief.
If you have the same mother, that means he's not your dad. And if he's not your dad, he's not responsible for bringing you into this world only to resent the shit out of you for it. That's not on him, and your own resentment might even be easier to mitigate that way.
You didn't ask for him but then maybe he didn't ask for you either.
"Why don't I know her?"
He sets his bowl down on the coffee table, lights a blunt before he answers you. His voice is tight, holding in a lungful of smoke, when he says, "'Cause she been locked up most your damn life."
This is a massive revelation to you but you take it in stride. If you pause to react, express your shock, and he clams up on you there's no telling how long he'll make you wait before he opens up again. Could be another fourteen years.
You keep it rolling, hit him with the questions like a pellet gun before he has time to remember he doesn’t want to talk to you.
"What did she do?"
"Long story, kid." You figure that line of questioning isn't open to you right now and so you immediately pursue another.
"Did you grow up with her? Like, did she raise you?" There’s a nineteen year gap between you and your Bro. You’ve never really given serious consideration to the obvious fact that he had this whole other life before you were even a glint in someone’s eye, and it’s spinning you out a bit.
"Why do you... I mean, why am I with you and not someone else?"
“Tch. Was only s’posed to be five minutes. She left y’here ‘n never came back. I just told ya why."
“How old was I?”
He scratches at his stubble like he has to think. “Six months.”
"Why didn't you give me away?"
As expected, he doesn't answer you. You're not sure you’re ready to hear whatever he has to say on that anyway.
You skate right over that painfully awkward moment and say, "Do you have a picture of her? I wanna know what she looked like."
"Nope," he says, and his tone lets you know in no uncertain terms that he's officially closed for business, that there will be no more questions tonight. He’s done with the interrogation, and although you’re bursting at the seams to ask him a million more things, you’re immensely grateful for what he has shared with you tonight. It’s more than you ever expected from him.
You know without asking now that he expects you to go to your room and leave him alone. Before you do, you linger in the doorway for a few moments. It dawns on you that this is the first time you've ever looked at him and known for sure what he is to you.
He grunts but doesn't look up.
"Should I be sad?" It gnaws at you the way things you don't understand always do.
You don't understand mothers. You've barely even spent any time around one. But maybe you should be sad anyway because for the first time it truly hits you that someone actually gave birth to you, and now she's gone.
Bro just says, "The fuck you'd be sad for? Y’didn't even know her."
A few days later and you’re in the kitchen with him. He's ordered from your favorite takeout place, even though half the time it makes you both sick, and the pair of you lean up against the counter in silence, shovelling greasy Chinese food into your mouths using plastic chopsticks.
You’re not alone for a change, and it’s nice on the occasions he bothers to eat with you like this. It’s a rare enough occurrence, though, that you’re quietly on edge, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
You think it does when he says, "I got somethin' for ya," because you can’t remember the last time he gave you something you actually wanted. The things he gives usually come with a side of pain and humiliation and so you tense up, lower your chopsticks and slowly chew the food in your mouth, although you can’t taste it anymore.
You watch him dig around in the back pocket of his jeans and wince on instinct when he holds something out to you.
It looks like a slip of paper. You put your food down and accept it with caution. When you flip it over it's a photograph, and it takes a few moments for you to process what you’re seeing.
“You wanted a picture, right?” he prods when you don’t talk for several minutes.
You nod, take another minute to pull yourself together before you speak, emotional not just for the photo but who gave it to you. “Yeah.” You keep staring, because there she is, this person you were so sure didn’t even exist, her absence just one of the many things that separated you from other, normal kids. But she was real, and she carried both of you, and you’re looking at her now and the more you look, the more you see bits of yourself, bits of him, in her face.
“Is this the only one you have?” you ask, pausing before you pass it back to him.
“Keep it,” he says, not looking at you. He goes on eating, and you can’t tell what he’s thinking when you can’t even see his eyes behind those stupid fucking shades.
“Thanks,” you tell him, and he shrugs.
You wait until he’s nearly done with his food before you hit him with what’s been on your mind all day.
"So where's our dad?"
He snorts at this. "We ain't got the same daddy, kiddo."
"Oh." It takes the stupid part of your brain a few moments to figure out how that all works. Same mom, different dads.
"So where's your dad?"
"Sorry.” And then: “Where's my dad?"
"The same if he knows what's good for 'im." There’s an unusual level of bitterness in your brother’s tone now, and it takes you by surprise. For once his anger—the one emotion you can sometimes manage to extract from him other than his usual don’t-give-a-fuck impassivity—is apparently not directed at you.
“Did you know him?”
“Could say that. Guy was a huge fuckin’ prick. His fault she got locked up in the first place. ‘Cause’a him you ain’t got no mama.” You study him then, the muscle twitching in his jaw; the way his fingers grip the bottle he’s holding so tight his fingertips turn white.
He’s actually pissed and trying not to show it. You figure there’s a whole bunch of stuff he’s not telling you and you’re so impatient to know it all you could lose your shit, start screaming, but you play it cool while he’s still talking to you, mindful of how quickly his moods can shift.
“Oh,” you say. “Who was your dad, then?”
“Not him.” When he picks his keys up off the bench, puts his cap back on, you know that’s your cue to stop talking because the conversation’s over, he’s leaving again. But before he disappears for the night you can’t resist hitting him with one more question.
“Are you sad? I mean, you knew her, didn’t you? You said she raised you. At least sometimes. Are you sad about it?”
He’s at the door before he answers with a cold, “Nah. That bitch ain’t nothin’ to lose sleep over.”
He doesn’t turn to look at you, but he does hold the door open rather than just slam it shut in your face, so you surmise he’s not directly opposed to you asking one last thing.
“Can I have his name? My dad, I mean.” You figure it’s worth a shot. Your Bro says your real dad is a prick, but then you’re not even sure what that means when it comes from him, whom you are acutely aware is also a prick. You’re not sure you’re comfortable placing all your trust in his judgment when it comes to the characters of others.
Besides, if you ever want to know everything about who you are, there’s probably no better way than just going straight to the source. If you leave it up to Bro, he’ll drag it out for years and probably still not tell you everything.
He doesn’t dignify your request with an answer, though, just lets the door swing shut, turns the key in the lock and is gone.
At 2am you wake, startled by a loud crash in the apartment. You sit up in bed, rubbing sleep out of your eyes, and flinch when you hear another crash, followed by loud groaning. You think it’s coming from the bathroom, and so you figure there’s one of two things going on here—either someone’s broken in through the bathroom window (unlikely, considering how high up you two live) or Bro’s home already and been hit with another bout of food poisoning from Great Wall. Again.
Either way you know he’d expect you to get up and check out what’s going on, not just wimp out hiding in your bedroom, and so you swing your legs over the side of your mattress and leave your room to investigate.
What you find is something you’re wholly unprepared for.
The bathroom door is slightly ajar, spilling yellow light out into the dark hallway. You tentatively push it open and find your Bro hunched over the bathroom sink, his back to you. The cabinet above the sink is flung wide open and he’s rifling through everything in there, making a mess, pill bottles and toothbrushes and razors scattered all over the tiles.
You clear your throat to alert him to your presence, like he doesn’t already know.
“Er... Hey. You alright in here, buddy?”
When he turns to look at you, you actually have to stifle a gasp. The front of his white polo is filthy, smeared with blood and dirt. His left cheek is bruised to shit and there’s smudges of blood all over his face, his neck, his chest. His or someone else’s. But that’s not what gets to you. His eyes are red-rimmed, wet, and he lifts the hem of his shirt up to rub at them. He sways a bit, looking like he’s having trouble focusing on you.
You back up further into the hallway. This is a situation you have never, ever been confronted with and now you’re wishing you’d just stayed in bed, acting like a wimp notwithstanding. You’d rather be a wimp than have to face this—whatever the hell this is—because he’s wrecked and evidently crying and that’s not something you’re capable of coping with right now; this idea that he actually has emotions he’s never showed to you.
You want to leave. Walk away. He deserves to cry alone for all the times he’s made you do it. But it puts you in a panic to find him like this—because it makes you feel more unsafe than any of the shit he’s ever pulled on you. He might not have ever made you feel safe with him, but at least you felt protected from everything else, like he was always strong enough for the two of you, like no one could ever hurt you apart from him.
Now you just feel wide open. Unanchored and helpless and alone, like anything could happen.
He blinks at you a few times then turns around again. “Need the fuckin’ percs,” he mumbles, flinging more crap out into the sink, onto the floor, and oh shit. He doesn’t know you’d flushed them down the toilet after last time, when he’d mixed that shit with booze and been out for the count for two days. You hope he’s too drunk to read the guilt on your face because if he’s not, you’re gonna cop it tonight.
He swears under his breath, sways on his feet, and you act on instinct, rushing to him and grabbing him around the waist. “Steady,” you tell him. You reach past him to shut the cabinet doors and he cusses at you. “We’ll find them,” you lie to him. You catch sight of both your reflections in the bathroom mirror: your face white with shock, his bloody and bruised up, and it hits you that this is definitely the most fucked up situation you have ever been in.
“Just sit down, alright? I’ll look for 'em.” You guide him back towards you, away from the sink, and try to wrangle him over to the toilet. Because if you don’t get him sitting down and he keels over, takes you with him, lands on top of you, he’s going to crush the shit out of you, break your bones.
You flip the toilet lid closed and get him sitting down for now. He hangs his head, still swaying a bit, and you take the opportunity to get a good look at him. It’s not as bad as it seemed to you at first, at least not up close. With the exception of his face, his bloodied-up knuckles, he doesn’t look too injured.
Someone might have managed to land a few hits on him, which could only ever happen when he’s loaded out of his mind, but he’s not so bad off, just drunk. Which means all the blood on him came from somewhere else. Knowing him you think it's more than likely he’s fucked up tonight and done something bad, hurt someone who may not have even deserved it—might have just looked at him wrong.
You crouch down in front of him, not touching him. “You need a shower?” You figure if you can get him in there, turn the water on cold, you might be able to get him to sober up a bit.
He grunts and so you play it safe, take that as a no. “Fine. Um. Don’t move, alright, just...stay where you are,” you instruct him. He doesn’t protest, tell you off for not knowing your place, just says nothing at all which is somehow worse for how uneasy it makes you feel.
You push to your feet and reach for the first aid kit your Bro keeps on top of the cabinet. You have to lean up on your tip-toes just to reach it, yanking it down and crouching in front of him again. He’s still hunched over, hanging his head, like he doesn’t want you to look at him. Or else he’s just that close to passing out. He rubs at his eyes with the heel of his hand and you have to glance away again; it’s too fucking awkward.
“I’ll clean you up, just sit still.” You flip open the lid of the first aid kid and rummage around for the bandages and peroxide, tearing off a strip of gauze with your teeth. You wet it with a few drops of peroxide and haul yourself up on your knees.
“Heads up, it’s gonna fuckin’ sting.” You lean one elbow on his thigh and reach up to dab at his cheek. It must burn something chronic but he doesn’t bitch, doesn’t flinch the way you would. He’s looking at you now, though; watching your face with those bare, unfocused eyes, and you avoid looking back, too weirded out already to make things any weirder with direct eye contact.
You think maybe you’ve hurt him, overstepped your bounds with all your fussing at him, when he catches your wrist in his hand and holds it tight. Your heart hammers but you keep your tone casual when you say, “Sorry. Did that hurt?”
You look right at him and swallow hard. It’s too much, too real, to have to look at him right now, acknowledge whatever the fuck is going on with him.
You blink, caught off guard. “What? I’m not leaving you, man, I’m staying right here. Hold still.” You reach for him again and he shakes your wrist, gripping it so tight your fingers start to numb.
“Don’t go to ‘im,” he says.
“Bro, what are you talking about?”
“Your dad.” Oh. You replay your last conversation with him and wonder if this isn’t just drunken blathering, his grief over losing his mom. You wonder if what you’d asked from him before has anything to do with all...this.
“Don’t go to ‘im,” he says again, and all you can do is stare, open-mouthed. “I shared a roof with that fucker for five fuckin’ years. I know ‘im. I know the shit he’d do to ya if he ever got his hands on ya, Dave. S’why I never gave you back. Never told ‘im where we live. ‘Cause he’d come for ya ‘n take y’away jus’ to prove he could. But he don’t want ya. He hated ya, Dave. He fuckin’ hated ya even more’n he hated me and y’were a baby. Y’were his.” There’s an edge of panic in his slurred voice now and you just want to make it go away, make him stop telling you these things that scare you.
You need everything to go back to how it was before, when he was untouchable, unafraid, strong enough for both of you.
“Okay,” you assure him in a stunned whisper, nodding. “Okay. I won’t go to him. I won’t.”
He lets go of you abruptly, hangs his head again, and you reach for his face with shaking hands.
Once you’ve cleaned up most of the blood, slapped a useless bandaid over the scrape on his cheekbone, you tug at the hem of his shirt. “C'mon, take it off. I’ll get you another one.” He does what you ask, too out of it to protest, and you help him pull it over his head, leave to get him a fresh one.
When you return you help him into the only clean thing you could find on the floor around his futon, a black wifebeater, though it’s with extreme difficulty on your part given how tall he is, the way he can barely stand or help you help him.
Once you’ve got his belt unbuckled and he’s standing there in his boxers, looking more vulnerable than you’ve ever seen him, you get his arm around your shoulders, slip yours around his waist. You carefully lead him back out to the futon, taking it slow, praying he doesn’t stumble and take you both down with him.
You edge up close to the futon, pull his comforter back using your free hand and help lower him into a sit. "Lay down, man," you tell him breathlessly. He does what you ask and you grab his legs, swinging them up onto the cushion, grunting with the effort that takes. When he's laying all the way down you straighten back up and pull his comforter up over his shoulders.
"That's it, dude, sleep it off."
You’re leaving when the sound of his voice drags you back.
“Hold me,” he mumbles into the dark, and at first you’re sure you’ve heard him wrong. Because you’re just a kid and he’s a whole ass thirty-three and, without a doubt, the toughest motherfucker you know. There’s no way he’s asking you to hold him.
But he is, and even if you know you’d be left crying on your own if the shoe were ever on the other foot, and it has been, your guts twist up in sympathy and you can’t leave him alone in the state he’s in. For every time you’ve hated him you’ve loved him twice as hard and he knows it. He knows you wouldn’t leave him and you might hate yourself for that even more.
You hesitate for a few moments but clamber in next to him when he shifts his body up to the edge of the cushion for you. You drag the comforter up over both of you again and settle in behind him, putting your head down on his pillow and winding your arm around his waist.
You haven’t cuddled up to him like this since you five years old and terrified Cal would pop up in your dreams the way he always popped up in your apartment. And half the time your Bro didn’t even know you were there until he woke up and swatted at you, told you to go away. You're already dreading things going the same way in the morning, when he wakes and finds you next to him, doesn't remember a thing.
You try not to think about that when he grabs your hand and holds it too tight, pinning it against his chest like he’s afraid you’re going to leave. The thud of his heart beats strong against your palm. You press your forehead to his shoulder and close your eyes, wait until his breathing evens out before you drift off into sleep.