••• The International Writers Magazine: Life Fiction
Jeffrey sat in the darkened bedroom, at the bedside of his dying younger brother.
— weeks, he might have; but that could drag to months—even—years—
Such had been the words of the Doctor, at the last visit. Jeffrey balanced the green bowl of broth in his lap and spoon by spoon, slowly fed it past his brother’s parched cracked lips. Jacob wanted the room dark, the shades pulled; though unable to speak, he had let Jeffrey know with a gesture; the gloom of the room was matched by the gloom in Jeffrey’s mind, as he slowly spooned out the dark broth. They had called him back from graduate school; they had said someone needs to care for Jacob; they had said stay home, every day, and care for him while we work. There will be time for school later, after.
—after what after weeks months years my life is on hold though I love my brother I love myself too what is wrong with that—
The spoon shook in Jeffrey’s hand. The broth was almost gone. But the lips would demand more; the lips always demanded more. The voiceless lips, and the eyes; the eyes demanded time, time; more and more of Jeffrey’s time. More of his life.
Jeffrey spooned out the last of the broth. He rose with the bowl. The lips moved. The eyes sought to follow him, but they were vacant hollow and nearly unseeing.
Okay Jacob, said Jeffrey — I got to go wash the bowl. I’ll be back. Just relax.
The lips moved.
Jeffrey turned away and left the room in time to see that it was five o’clock. Father would be home. Mother would be home. Mother would make microwave dinners for the three of them. Mother was kind to Jeffrey, but Father was the insistent one, when questioned.
When do you think I can start school again, Jeffrey would ask; and the answer would be the same, said in different words each time maybe, but the same.
We need someone home with Jacob. My insurance won’t cover home care. We can’t afford to pay for home care. It’s you, Jeff.
Jeffrey washed the bowl, and dried it, and put it in the cabinet. The same with the spoon and the saucepan; and just as the saucepan went up, they were home. They were home and the door opened and they came in and swarmed, it seemed, around Jeffrey and plied him with questions, of which none were about him.
How is Jake?
How is Jake feeling today Jeff?
Did he eat today?
Did he get any sleep?
Mother went down to see Jacob. Father hung up his jacket and went to the freezer and took down three frozen pot pies.
Got to help Mother too you know, Jeff. Light the oven, will you? Four hundred degrees.
It struck Jeffrey as he lit the oven that he had not even said hello to these people. These people who were so like strangers to him. They did not know him. They did not know or care what was inside him. After an hour of heating up, the pot pies were ready. They sat down to eat.
When I went and looked in on Jake he was asleep, said Mother.
That’s a good thing, said Father—say, Jeff—does Jake sleep a lot these days?
Did he today?
I guess if that’s what Mom saw—
No before then—did he sleep today?
The dinner was over, the dishes got washed. Jeffrey checked Jacob and he was still asleep. Mother and Father took showers and took their usual places in front of the television for the evening. Time passed and Father dozed off and at nine-thirty Jeffrey rose and spoke.
Mom, I’m going to bed. Jacob will be up early.
All right Jeff. Good night.
Jeffrey nodded and glanced over the sleeping figure of his Father and left the room. And the next day came. There was a breakfast of toast and the two once more left after looking in on Jacob and they didn’t say anything to Jeffrey. He stood in the closed box of a house and once more sat in the darkened bedroom, at the bedside of his dying younger brother. Another day had passed and another had begun. The same. Broth. More and more broth. The days went like this all more or less the same. Until the day finally came that Jeffrey found himself realizing that Jacob had stopped breathing. Jacob had stopped breathing. Jacob was dead. Jeffrey sitting in the dark of the room could not let himself believe that he was actually happy. This is not supposed to make you happy. But it did. Jeffrey sat watching his deathly still brother and thought now I can go back to school; now I can catch up with the other students; now this sitting in this cold dark room with a half-dead person is at last over. But he immediately forgot he had thought these things, because thinking that way was wrong. He went to the phone in the living room and called Mother. Not Father, but Mother. Father could wait until later; Father could wait until Jeffrey could say, Now old man, you must set me free. Now old man—now old man. Now!
Hello? said the phone.
Mom, said Jeffrey. Mom—Jacob’s gone.
Silence in the phone as the silence of a mass of writhing worms looking terrible grotesque and horridly silent, sliding past one another—
I’ll be right home Jeff, she said at last. You stay there. I’ll call your Father.
Jeffrey put the phone down. They came home. There was a funeral. Days passed.
— looking terrible grotesque and horrid but silent—
More days passed. Then all at once after dinner the time came when Jeffrey said, So I guess I’ll be going back to school Dad, right?
Father looked up from the table.
School? Is that all you can think of is school? Your brother has just died, Jeff.
I—I know but I thought I would bring it up.
Well don’t bring it up again for a good long time! You want everything, and don’t care your brother is dead! You are disgusting!
Father rose and the chair slammed back against the refrigerator, and Father left the room, leaving Jeffrey alone. Mother had left the table earlier. Jeffrey sat alone and saw the ceiling tiles were dotted with thousands of tiny holes. Maybe he should count the holes. Maybe that’s what he’s been put on earth for. He looked up and began to count to keep from screaming and he counted to over a hundred before Mother came in; a hundred, and that was barely one corner of dozens and dozens of tiles. There were plenty enough to keep him from screaming.
What’s the matter Jeff? she said.
School, he said, looking down from the tiles. I asked Dad about school and he said I shouldn’t be bringing it up.
What? You want to go back to school?
Jeffrey leaned forward and clasped his hands on the table.
Yes—and he said not to talk about it and that I don’t care that Jacob is dead—that’s a lie Mom—I care about Jacob—I don’t know why—
She raised a hand with her eyes stretched open wide.
Wait, never mind that—didn’t he tell you?
Yes! He told me what I was saying, that I don’t—
She shook her head and waved his words aside.
No, she said. He and I were up for hours the other night after you went to bed figuring our budget and we decided—oh God, Jeffrey—didn’t he tell you there is no money for you to continue on in school? He said he would tell you.
No he didn’t—why is there no money there was money before?
Bills for Jacob are coming in—medical bills, doctors’, hospital, medicine—our insurance is not the best. We got a lot to pay.
He would say it; he would; it came up.
What, because you’ve got lousy insurance, you’re going to ruin my life?
What? Jeffrey—you’ve got a college degree already. You can get—
He fisted the table and leaned back.
Get nothing. I wanted more. You’re ruining my life because I want more. My life is ruined because of God-damned Jacob!
With that, Jeffrey rose and turned from her and slammed the back door open and bolted out into the back yard. She did not follow but he imagined that she must be watching through the window and he didn’t want her to see him — he didn’t want either of them to see him so he ran down the path toward the tree line behind the house and went through it out of sight and stood on a narrow dirt road that ran along the back of the tree line to a farm about a mile away.
A wide plowed field stretched from the other side of the dirt road about a half mile, to a far row of houses on a rise, in the development over there. Each house held a family, he knew. Each family had its own story. The families were probably happy. He remembered as a boy bringing his telescope and tripod out on this dirt road after dark and using it to look in the lit windows of the houses. Sometimes there were people in the houses and they didn’t know they were being looked at from a half mile away in the dark. Sometimes there were one or two people. One time he watched a couple doing the dishes—she was washing, he was drying. He looked at the houses now and thought they probably have young people going to college. They probably have enough money to pay for college and they probably have good insurance and they probably haven’t had any of their children die yet, like Jacob. They probably had none of the problems Jeffrey had; their lives were probably moving along the way Jeffrey’s had been moving along before Jacob got sick and before he was forced to come home and this thought made him raise his arms, look up, close his eyes, and scream into the sky, Would that there might be a miracle! Would that none of this would have happened to me!
The silent sky spread above him.
Well what? What do you have to say? he shouted.
The sky spread still silent.
And he lowered his arms, the tears streaming down his face, and he stood there looking out across the field at the far off houses for a long time, until dusk began to rise from the ground and twilight began to gather in the sky. There was no hope. He would have to get a job in this Godforsaken town—he would never be an economist now. He had dreamed of going on to his PhD — and he dreamed of one day going in the library and seeing tomes on economic theory with his name on them lining the shelves. He dreamed of working in a university as a Doctor of Economics — but this would never happen now — and the plowed field reappeared all dark before him and the lights were on in the windows of the far off houses and night was falling all around and stars were coming out all across above, and he thought he better go home. Better face it. Better face them. Better not stand out here all night — all night; apparently his parents would let him stand out here all night; they didn’t care about him, they didn’t even come after him. Mother knew he was upset. Father must know by now too, but he doesn’t care — he had said rotten things, terrible things.
Jeffrey turned around wiping his brow and went back through the tree line and looked up the slight rise at his own house, with the windows lit and with nothing about it to tell what had happened there. Slowly he walked through the night brush toward the yard and prepared to go back in. He had to prepare himself because he did not know what he would say when he faced them; the people who had robbed away his life. As he stepped into the kitchen, he felt as though he drifted in, a hollow empty silent bubble, drifting and drifting and removed from everything, all false and wrong.
Mother sat at the kitchen table rolling out cookie dough on a large sheet of wax paper. The table was littered with cookie cutters and baking trays.
So where were you, she said.
Out back by the field.
Her hands moved quickly over the cutters dough and trays and she said nothing else. Jeffrey watched her. She did not look up — she did not ask him how he felt or if he was all right after having run from the house so mad. Heat rose in Jeffrey. These people really do not care — luckily, he was in the bubble — luckily none of this was real.
Suddenly, she looked up.
So when are you going to start packing? she asked him.
The bubble all at once burst. Words came.
Packing? he said — where am I going?
Back to school, of course. We talked about it — we talked about it just before you went out back. You looked upset Jeffrey — I didn’t know why but I figured you just needed to get out and get a little air. So I let you be. I know you like your alone time.
Blank. Blank. Jeffrey stood there — back to school? What? His mind was blank so he listened to his mouth say more words he didn’t know what they would be but what is this what is this what is this.
Mom. You told me before I couldn’t go back to school.
She paused in her work.
I did? What do you mean?
Yes — you said there was no money and that the insurance was no good.
I never said that — are you all right Jeffrey? Are you — all right? There — there — sit down and relax. What’s the matter why are you telling me this?
Because you said it. Why are you saying this now? I don’t understand.
She rose and went over and turned on the oven. Her face turned ashen. Jeffrey sat like a stone, drained—what the hell was going on—
She faced him and said, Jeffrey, you better snap out of it, you’re worrying me. You’re worrying me really bad — Dad! she called through the door to the living room. Dad come in here!
Jeffrey stood blank. He felt like a butterfly pinned to a display. Dead, no words. Just something pinned up for Mother to look at. Father came in the room.
What? he said.
Jeffrey doesn’t want to go back to school.
I never said that Mom! You said before there was no money! I don’t understand—I—I’m really confused. I don’t feel right.
Jeffrey buried his face in his hands and closed his eyes. She had stood right there telling him there was no money; that he couldn’t ever go back to school. She had stood right there. As he sat this way, his Father’s words drilled him like they always did.
We saved up for years for you to get that PhD, Jeffrey — isn’t that what you want any more? What are you doing telling your Mother this? Jeffrey — Jeff! Look at me! Answer!
Jeffrey looked up and they stood side by side, eyes drilling into him, waiting for what he would say next.
Dad — Mom. I don’t feel right, I think I am losing my mind.
He rubbed his head.
Wait, she said — you are probably just thinking this because of the strain of having had to look after Jake all these weeks — but you should be happy Jake’s over the hump he’s in the rehab now he’s making a full recovery.
Jeffrey felt his eyes widening — they have to be bleeding they have to be bleeding they’re popped out so bad — his mouth moved the room tilted he felt like puking he puked out words.
No—Jacob died. He died weeks ago. There was a funeral—I—I saw him die!
Mother’s face turned white as a sheet and she looked at Father. Father stepped toward Jeffrey and gazed close in his eye.
Have you been smoking that stuff again Jeffrey? What did you do while you were out back before, Jeffrey — were you smoking that stuff again is that what’s doing all this crazy talk? Do I have to worry about that again like I had to years ago?
No. I don’t do that anymore. I’m a different person now!
Father raised both his hands palm out.
Then snap out of it! You’re worrying your Mother to death—look at her—look at her—
Mother had sunk back into the chair and held her hand to her forehead and her face was white as a ghost and her mouth was turned down at the sides and her lips trembled.
I—I just don’t know what to say, said Jeffrey. I’m sorry. But I swear to God I remember Jacob dying, a funeral, and being told I couldn’t go back to school because there was no money — Mom you told me that damn it you told me that—
Father’s fist went down on the table hard, to shut Jeffrey up.
No! Don’t talk crazy, you’re killing your Mother.
Mother raised her head. Tears streamed down as she spoke.
These cookies were for to celebrate your going back to school and Jake recovering, Jeff. I told you I was making them I told you about the party tomorrow — why are you acting this way — why are you saying these things?
Jeffrey folded his arms before him, set his face hard, narrowed his eyes, and shut down. The bubble came around him again. He heard no more words just glanced up and saw the ceiling tiles were dotted with thousands of tiny holes. Maybe he should go on and count the rest of the holes. Maybe that’s what he’s been put on earth for. He looked up and began to count to keep from screaming and he counted to over a hundred before the ambulance came; a hundred, and that was barely one corner of dozens and dozens of tiles. In the darkened hospital room later that night, after Jeffrey had been given injections to cause him to sleep, sleep would just not come. He stood in that field again; the dusk and twilight roiled about him again; and he raised his arms, looked up, closed his eyes and screamed again; Would that there might be a miracle! Would that none of this would have happened to me! And he lowered his arms with the tears streaming down his face, as the nurses rushed in with another, stronger, injection; one that finally made the bed come up around him and tug him down into the deepest emptiest sleep ever.
© Jim Meirose - September 2016
Moving into the Continental
They may come with sirens blazing and force us out of the house and then where will we live, where will we go?
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