When To Be Afraid

My brother was six years older than me when he stopped getting older. While he was still aging, he learned many things. He knew how to do most of the normal stuff that older brothers do, like how to shoot a slingshot or make a perfect snowball that would run down inside my winter coat. My older brother wasn’t satisfied with these things though. While most of us were learning how to use a warm washcloth on our foreheads to fool our mothers into thinking we had fevers, he was putting rotten apples in a mason jar to catch fruit flies. He didn’t know how to swim but he knew the names of all the stars, even though we never owned a telescope and often went to the public pool.

I didn’t make the basketball team the year my older brother was in a wheelchair. I had practiced very hard all summer but they said I wasn’t tall enough. My father took my brother to the hospital many times that year. The doctors said he would never walk again. Sometimes my father would return alone from the hospital and we would all have to go visit my brother the next day. He would always be lying on his back in a thin bed with his legs tied and elevated. I asked my older brother what the doctors were doing, and he told me they were stretching his legs, making them better, and then he asked me if I could swim yet. My mother spent a lot of time crying then.

My face was covered in acne when my older brother started screaming in his sleep. He would wake us all in the middle of the night, embarrassed and covered in sweat. Our mother took him to the psychiatrist every Monday and me to the dermatologist every Thursday. My brother was given a bottle of tiny pills and I was given a tube of lotion with instructions to rub it gently on my face in circular motions. I never missed a day because I wanted the girls at school to like me, and a month later my face cleared up while my older brother moved his bed to the basement. One day I went down there to show him how smooth my face had become. He didn’t look up from the book he was reading as he explained to me how he would be blind soon, how I should stay away from dark places until this transformation was complete. I asked him if it had anything to do with his night terrors and he tossed me his old slingshot, telling me it was mine now, that it would come in handy if I was ever caught in a sudden passing shadow.

I lost my virginity at a party in college the night before my parents called to tell me about my older brother’s suicide attempt. Her name was Lucy and she was beautiful like fireworks and innocent like me. My parents told me that my older brother had been spending all of his time alone and drunk in the basement back home. I didn’t get to see him until months after that when I was home for Thanksgiving. After dinner he pulled me aside and told me that he would be fully blind soon, that I wouldn’t have to fear the darkness for much longer. He asked if I still had his slingshot and I lied and told him yes, I had it back at school. He slapped my face and screamed at me, afraid again, his face turning red and pale as he told me to always have it nearby. He said he needed me to understand that there is darkness everywhere, even when no one can see it coming.

It was January and it was cold the night my older brother stopped getting older. They found him in the river six miles from our house. For everything he taught himself, I guess he never got around to learning how to swim. My mother was crying too hard when we tried to go down to the basement to pack up his things. My father stayed back to comfort her and I went on alone. I flipped the light switch but there wasn’t even a bulb in the ceiling lamp any more. I put one in and tried again with success. The walls of the basement were now lined with shelves containing books of braille. My mother regained her composure and my parents made it down the stairs. They opened up every single book and kept asking each other why their son had collected these books when he had twenty-twenty vision. My father said he would arrange a meeting with the local Association of the Blind so they could learn what the books said, but I didn’t need to know. I ran up the stairs and out the front door. I broke off a branch from a tree in our front yard and got a rubber band from the kitchen. I didn’t see any signs of darkness but I knew better, because if my older brother ever taught me anything, it was when to be afraid.

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DJ Berndt has a website (deejberndt.com) and a lit journal (pangurbanparty.com) and a twitter (twitter.com/djberndt) and a fountain of love for you and everyone else.