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Half-Lives

A story written because some stories need to be told

It’s kind of quiet and peaceful, but not a good quiet. Not like a tranquil, Japanese garden kind of quiet. This is the eye of the hurricane, the calm before the storm; like the calm before everything you know disintegrates into ash and vanishes before your eyes.

I enter my house warily, footsteps as quiet as I can make them, my hand inside my jacket clutching my penknife. Just in case. The door bangs shut behind me, and I wince.

“Cory?” yells my mother. I sigh, wishing I’d shut the door quieter, but with my stomach turning slightly, I walk into the kitchen to see my mother at the table, glasses on, examining some sort of file. She looks tired but happy. Like she’s spent her entire life following the rainbow and just found the pot of gold.

“Hi, mom,” I say, dropping my backpack on the table and opening the fridge. It’s stocked full, which is weird because my mom usually doesn’t have the time to go grocery shopping – she’s a big shot at some law firm – and seeing all the snacks inside both unnerves me and overjoys me. “What’s with all the food?”

“I have good news,” she cheers, her face opening up. “The best news!”

“Dad’s coming back from his business trip early?” I ask. Kind of a stupid question, because Dad never comes back early, and I know my mom misses him when he’s away.

She smiles slightly. “Yes – but there’s more.”

What could possibly be better than Dad being home in time for Christmas? Did she get a promotion? No, I’m pretty sure that’s not it. I glance down at the files on the table, and my heart freezes as I catch sight of “Harbor View House.” Suddenly, the unease roars up all around me, and I grasp the edge of the table hard.

“Jake’s coming back?” I whisper, my face white.

She nods, a giant smile on her face, expecting me to mirror her joy, but all I can is to rush over to the kitchen sink in time to throw up whatever lunch I had.

Jake’s coming back.

*

My dad comes home late at night, stubble on his chin and red eyes from lack of sleep. I sit at the kitchen table waiting for him, my dog Sierra by my feet. He grins when he sees me. I guess he remembers when Jake and I would wait for him at the door of our house. The second he entered, Jake would grab his right leg, and I’d grab his left, and he’d pretend to be destroyed by his two little sons. Jake and I would high-five each other over our dad’s body. Then he’d pick us both up and give us whatever trinkets he’d gotten at the airport, usually lollipops or the like.

This time, it’s not quite so innocent. He lets his smile slip like melted butter when he sees my expression.

“So you heard.”

“Damn right I heard,” I assert. “Are you forgetting what happened the last time that freak came back?”

“Don’t call him a freak,” my dad says wearily. That’s a never-ending battle between the three of us. But he is a freak, and he always will be; however offensive it is to Mom and Dad – too bad. I tell it like it is. “And yes, your mother and I talked about this extensively. He’s on new meds, and the doctors say–“

“Fuck the doctors!” I say. “They said a lot of bullshit last time too, and…” my face crumples, “…and you want to see what I got for it?” I yank up my shirt, revealing the pink scar that stretches from my hip bone to my sternum. “That’s what I got. That’s what you and Mom and those bastard doctors gave me. That’s all the freak is good for. Hurting and tearing apart…” I break down into tears, embarrassed, humiliated, and I feel like I’m 12 years old again, hiding out in the bathroom and hoping he doesn’t get to the knives again, praying to Jesus that my mom and dad get home soon.

But he does, and they don’t.

My dad’s face falls and he envelopes me in a hug. We stand there, me crying into his shoulder, him holding onto me tightly as if he’ll never let go, as the moon rises behind us.

The next morning, the doorbell rings at 8:35 AM exactly. Sierra, my husky, goes into a barking fit and I have to lock her in my room.

“Ding dong, the freak is here,” I mutter, earning a nasty glare from my mom and an admonishment from my dad. Two orderlies dressed in white stand outside, big smiles on their faces, but there’s no suspicious white van with “Harbor View House” written on it. Instead, there’s a sweet 1974 Chevy Malibu, which flashes its lights once. In spite of myself, I begin to smile. Then my smile drops as Jake steps out of the car, blinking in the bright light, holding a brown suitcase.

The first thing I notice is that he looks healthier. Jake was always gaunt and wore oversize clothes to hide the scars on his arms and legs, making him look skeletal and almost ethereal. He was pale, too, because he spent most of his time inside, and he was always… messy. Like his hair would be uncombed, he would have food or blood or something on his shirt, and he looked, for lack of a better word, crazy. But now he looks almost normal. He’s in a black shirt and khaki pants, and he has a buzz cut, and he’s bulked out now, so he actually has muscles. And, he’s smiling.

Mom and Dad run down the stairs to embrace him, but I stand at the top, my arms crossed. An orderly glances at me, but I glare at him until he looks away. Jake hugs them back – another change, because he used to hate being touched, and then cautiously looks in my direction.

I don’t react; just fix him with a hard stare until he looks away.

That night, we have a welcome dinner for my attempted murderer, and I’m expected to sit down, shut up, and look pretty. I don’t even get Sierra by my feet. She still barks whenever she sees Jake.

“We’re so glad you could make it back, Jake,” my mom says, sniffling a little. Every time she cries over Jake, it just stings. He’s the fucked-up one, the mental one, the psychopath, and she still loves him more than me. He’s crazy, damn it! He’s mentally off, and he’s still her perfect little angel. He almost killed me… but I’ve learned to accept that my life is worth less than his happiness.

“Glad to be back,” Jake says, shoveling mashed potatoes into his mouth. “I missed you guys.”

“We missed you,” my mom and dad chorus, then turn and smile at each other. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a competition, how messed up one family can be. I didn’t miss Jake. Sure, it was weird without his fits and his blood marking our walls, but in the end, it was so much better.

“So, how’s life, Cory?” Jake asks. He notices, maybe, that I’ve said about four words to him since he’s been back. I wonder if he knows why. I wonder if he remembers that day.

“Mom? Dad?” I call out, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and climbing out of bed. There’s no response, and I assume they’ve gone out and taken Jake to some fair or something. “Sweet,” I think. A couple of hours alone to play video games, just me and my Xbox. Could life be any better?

I hear a noise, and I freeze up. They didn’t take Jake. Which means, that as of now, I am alone in a house with a lot of sharp objects and a mentally deranged freak. ‘Get out of the house, Cory,’ I think. ‘Get out of the house now!’

My heart is pounding, and my vision blurs as I stumble to my door. But before I can touch the handle, it begins to turn. My palms sweat and I turn and run to my bathroom. There’s a lock there. I’ll get in there and just wait until Mom and Dad come home, and then they’ll talk him down and everything will be fine. I slam the bathroom door behind me as Jake steps into my room. I twist the lock and hear a click before Jake’s footsteps stop in front of my door.

“Cory?” he calls. I don’t answer. “Cory, I cut myself. Can you help me wrap it up?”

I peep out the keyhole and see that it is true, his forearm has opened and is gushing blood, but my eyes zero in on the large kitchen knife in his hand. ‘Don’t open the door, Cory. Don’t open the door.’

Suddenly my field of view is replaced by blue, with a black pupil. He’s looking through the keyhole too. I stumble backward and hit my elbow against the sink.

“Hello,” he croons. And then there is silence.

And then my world is splintered wood and the sounds of a door being kicked in, over and over and over and over again. Kicked in until it falls and he stands in front of me, his eyes wild, and his eyes bright with bloodlust. I try to dash by him, but he sticks the knife out, and the next part is blurry, but I’m on the floor, and there’s a pain like I’ve never felt before searing all up and down my torso, and there’s so much blood. I put a hand over the gash in my stomach, and I swear I can feel my insides spilling out of me. I look up at him, a look of pure betrayal and horror on my face, and maybe it registers with him as I scramble backward out of the room, still holding a hand to my stomach until I can get to a phone. The last thing, I remember before I pass out, is the policeman’s face close to mine, and then quietly saying, “It was the mental one who did it, I’ll put money on it.”

“Cory?” Jake repeats.

“It was better before you came,” I snap.

My mom gasps and tears twinkle in the corner of her eyes. “Why do you say these things? He’s your brother!”

“He’s no more my brother than a cactus is,” I snap.

“Family is forever,” she says quietly.

“Almost nothing is forever. Even protons die, Mom. Very little is forever, and nothing is permanent.”

“The half-life of love is forever,” Jake says, looking at me calmly, no emotion in his eyes.

“The half-life of death is forever, too,” I respond, and that gets him to wince.

“It was an accident. I was sick then, and I’m better now. I’m on new meds, and I–” Jake starts, then trails off. He must have seen the look in my eyes.

“If only there were a medicine that could erase the past,” I say, and leave the table.

Later that night, Jake approaches my room, and knocks nervously, even though my door is already open. Sierra whimpers, but I shush her quickly, afraid that if my parents hear they’ll make her go into the garden again.

“Hey,” he says, standing on one leg, and then the other.

“What?” I say abruptly.

“I, uh, I just came by to say good night.”

“Whatever.”

Jake makes a movement as if to come into my room, and I flinch. I can almost hear his heart break a little, but he stays outside the door.

“Cory, look, I–I’m sorry. I know that it doesn’t mean anything to you right now, and you have the right to be angry with me, and I know that you’re probably going to hate me to the day I die and even though you say nothing is forever, maybe your hatred is. But you need to know that I’m sorry.”

I look at him, and I mean really look at him, scrutinizing every fiber of his being to see if he’s sincere. All I can see are open arms that I’m not ready to step into.

“Okay,” I say, because what else is there to say.

*

I’m shopping on Amazon at 10 AM on the morning of December 19 because I suck at planning. I realize I should probably order my parent’s presents before it really gets too late, and I have to run down the hardware store like last year. I’ve just about figured everything out – a new wallet and radio for my father, and a couple of good books and a sweater for my mother – and am ready to order when Mom walks in.

“What are you doing?” she asks, grinning because I wasn’t able to minimize the tab in time and she’s seen Amazon’s distinctive logo emblazoned across my screen.

“Looking for, uh, school supplies,” I say quickly, but break into a smile because that’s the last thing I’d be doing on Christmas break.

My mom chuckles. “Those better be good presents. Oh, and I meant to ask you – what are you getting for Jake? Your father and I wanted to coordinate.”

My face darkens. I wasn’t planning on getting anything for Jake. First of all, I didn’t even know he was coming, and second of all, getting a Christmas present for your attempted murderer is kind of like sending flowers to your rapist. Maybe I’ll get him a consolation card saying “Sorry I didn’t die when you wanted me to” on it.

“I’m not getting anything for Mr. Schizo,” I say.

My mom’s eyes water. She seems to be able to cry on command. Must be a special power moms have. “Your brother’s illness is not something that can be controlled, Cory. It’s not his fault. Schizophrenia is characterized by delusions and hallucinations, and he didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Tell that to the scar that runs from my belly button to my chest, Mom.”

My mom purses her lips and opens her mouth as if to say something, but I cut her off.

“You know what? You’re right. I should get him something,” I say. My mom’s whole demeanor changes and she brightens up, smiling.

“I’ll get him a fucking straitjacket.”

I hear a breath from behind me, and I turn around to see Jake, eyes locked onto mine. He heard it. He heard everything. Well, fuck.

“Make sure you get it in medium,” he says lightly.

“Jake, I didn’t mean,” I start. Eh. Fuck it. It’s not as if I can do anything now, and as horrible as it might have been to say, it’s not like I’m lying. I do think he should be put back in the hospital. He’s just too dangerous.

But, a nagging little feeling in the pit of my stomach is telling me that I was too hard on him and that I should do something to apologize. Sometimes I hate having a conscience.

I’ll get him a Christmas present. That will be the point in which I meet him halfway. A gift doesn’t have to mean anything more than just a gift, does it? Something small and cheap, out of my parent’s money.

Now to find the perfect gift.

A couple of hours later, I call for my mom. She’s in her study downstairs, which usually means “Do Not Disturb Upon Fear of Death,” but I assume she’ll make an exception this one time.

“Mom!” I yell, running down the stairs, panting slightly.

“What?” she yells back as I turn the corner to where she works. I stop short, because Jake is there too, sitting in a chair on the other side of her desk. He looks miserable and cramped, and I realize that he must be hanging out down here so that he doesn’t bother me, and suddenly the guilt hits me like a waterfall. Fine, I think. I’ll get a really, really good gift, and that’ll make up for it.

“Hey,” I say, nodding in his direction. Then I curse myself slightly, wondering if he will take that as evidence of forgiveness because however shitty I feel about being a dick towards him does not override the fact he tried to kill me.

He looks surprised to be acknowledged. “Hey,” he says back. My mom is watching us out of the corner of her eye, but she turns away when I look at her. I clear my throat awkwardly.

“I kinda need to talk to Mom–just for a min.”

“Oh,” he says, slightly crestfallen. “Okay. Yeah. Sure. I’ll just, uh, be in the kitchen I guess.”

As soon as he leaves, my mother fixes me with a measured look. I don’t like the way she’s sizing me up as if she knows me better than I know myself. I mean, maybe she does, but still.

“Anyways,” I say. “I guess I should get something for Jake. What do you think I should get?”

“I knew you’d see sense,” my mom says, smiling as big as the Eiffel Tower. “And get him whatever he wants! You know him better than I do, you boys were always so close.”

“Can you just, like, give me some ideas?”

“Ask him! I know that will take away the element of surprise and all, but I’m sure he’ll understand. Now go forth and bond!” my mom cheers.

“You’re such a creep,” I say, but my mom laughingly pushes me out of her office.

I trudge upstairs to the kitchen, swinging around the banister to see Jake, who sits at the kitchen table, reading some book or the other. He immediately gets up when he sees me, and moves as if to leave.

“No – hey, wait,” I say. “Uh, you can stay. I wanted to talk to you anyways.”

“Okay,” he says slowly and sits down, looking wary. “If you’re just going to ignore me again or call me a schizo, though, I’d kind of rather be in my room.”

“Look, Jake, I’m sorry,” I say honestly. “This is hard for me. I mean, being around you, it’s just–”

“Cut the bullshit,” he snaps. I flinch backward. Ah, here’s the old Jake. The new one could never have lasted. “I know you’re not afraid of me anymore. I know there’s something else, some other reason you won’t be around me, some other reason you tell Mom to let you know when I’m in the house. I did a bad thing, Cory. But I was fifteen years old, and crazy, and stupid. So why don’t you look me in the fucking eyes, like a man, and tell me what it really is that you hate about me?”

“You really want to know?” I question. “Because as soon as I say it, I’m not taking it back!”

“Yes, goddamnit, I want to know,” he hisses.

“Fine! Because of you, I have to be the normal one. I have to be the strong one, the smart one, the good one, the perfect one. I try, and I try and I try and I try but eventually there comes a point where you just can’t try anymore, where however hard you push, the world pushes back a hundred times harder.

It’s the point where everything you do becomes all you can do, but it’s still not enough because I can feel every mistake I’ve ever made like a physical pain, and sometimes when it’s really bad, I think ‘Is this what Jake felt? Is this what he felt when he ran a knife through his twelve year old brother?’ And I wake up every morning and look in the mirror, and I ask myself, ‘am I crazy yet?’

So you’ll forgive me my little moments of anger, Jake because forgiving you for yours nearly cost me my life.”

“You think you can catch the crazy?” Jake asks. “You think that crazy is something you get, like a cold? A sort of infectious disease that’s contagious to everyone it touches?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Because it’s not. You can’t catch crazy. You’re born with it. Like a worm that crawls around your insides until it reaches your brain and you die; crazy becomes you. Some days you forget what normal is – or you wonder if you ever really knew what it was. Sometimes I remember. And sometimes I do not.”

Jake looks at me, blue eyes boring into mine, a level-headed, measured stare. I return it, just as calm and level-headed.

“I didn’t come to start something.”

“I know.”

“I wanted to know what you wanted. For Christmas.”

“Surprise me.” I nod, barely trusting my throat as I climb the stairs to my bedroom.

*

Christmas morning dawns late, snow gleaming and a light fog misting over the sky. It’s perfect Christmas weather; the kind of weather that you only miss once it’s gone; the type of day that inspires you to stay inside and slumber.

My three presents gleam under the tree, hastily wrapped with newspaper and blue masking tape. There’s a hoard of other packages scattered around, but mine are featured prominently, with “Mom,” “Dad,” and “Jake” scrawled across them.

My mom has made pancakes with extra blueberries, my favorite. There’s hot chocolate, extra syrup, and donuts. For the first time in a long while, I feel almost happy.

“Smile!” my mom screeches, blinding me with the flash from her Polaroid. She’s been running around all day, snapping pictures of me, Jake, Dad, Sierra (who’s finally been allowed to come back) – literally anything semi-interesting. I wince and duck away from her clawing talons. Jake chuckles at the expression on my face and I glare at him, but without too much menace.

“Present-time!” my dad announces.

“I go first!” I say, jumping up and running over to my three presents. I toss the package at my dad and gently hand the other two to Jake and my mom. “Let Jake go last.” My mom’s lower lip quivers at my use of his name, and she has to wipe her eyes briefly before tearing off the wrapping paper. Inside, I’ve carefully folded her lavender sweater and selected two of her favorite author’s books, one of which I got signed. Mom leaps up and hugs me, crying softly into my shoulder as I awkwardly pat her on the back. She tugs the sweater on immediately, even though she’s already wearing about four layers and her red pajama pants don’t match at all. Dad, on the other hand, is staring at his new radio with a look of pure confusion on his face, like it’s something from Mars.

“This is a phone?” he asks, totally bemused. Jake and I just lose it, laughing at his squinty-eyed face and the fact he’s searching for his glasses as if that will help him understand the foreign object any better.

“It’s a radio, Dad,” I say, showing him how to turn it on. He flips the switch and grins as his favorite Christmas carols start blasting. My mom quickly puts an end to that by pushing the off button. She hates Christmas music by the time the actual day rolls around.

Jake glances at me before opening his gift. I notice that he does it carefully, using his short nails to pull up the tape and not rip the paper. He folds the paper carefully before lifting the lid off the box.

“A baseball and glove,” he says quietly.

Our baseball and glove,” I correct. He turns it around in his fingers, treasuring it. I wonder if he remembers the day we caught the ball. It's like a snapshot in my mind: both of us at five and nine; our first baseball game. He’s smiling a gap-toothed smile, and I have ketchup on my chin, but when that foul ball fell into his arms, it didn't even take him a second to hand it to me. We were happy then. We were together. Brotherly.

These are the little things that lives are made of. The mundane, the things you can't put into words, so you don't even try. Memories flash quickly, images flipping through the pages of our lives. Baseball was our neutral ground, the place where his crazy rested and my crazy came out, where we could pretend, just for a moment, that we were perfectly normal. This gift - it means something to me, and I hope it means something to him too.

There’s no expression on his face when I look up. I’ve never been good at reading people, but I’m especially bad at reading Jake.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, meeting my eyes. For a moment, it almost seems as if we exist on the same wavelength.

Forgiveness isn’t just an action. I know that I still fear him and a part of me will always hate him. Forgiveness is a state of being, a kind of internal belief, and a section of that is admitting that not everything is forgivable. But I know that hate can be countered with love, and I know that the whole of me is greater than the sum of my parts, and I know that my whole being cares about Jake.

Our eyes meet once again as he slowly rewraps the baseball in its box, and I could swear that he mouths, “The half-life of brotherhood is forever.”

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