Short fiction by Missy Marston / Illustration by Peter Shmelzer
Let’s go backwards. One week ago I was afraid, alone, desperate. Today I am filled with joy, surrounded by friends. Your joy. Your friends. So there. You thought you were so clever. Everything all figured out. Well who’s laughing now?
You called me a monster once. But you thought it wasn’t true. That I was just a regular human. Not true. Wrong again. Our mother used to say I had the devil in me. She thought it was an expression, a joke. But it was real. He was in there. Sometimes at night I could feel the horns trying to push through the bone of my forehead. It burned. But that was before. Not now. Now I am sweet and fresh and clean, clean, clean. Now I am filled with power and glory. And now the devil can have you instead.
I told you to stop. I told you to stop and listen. Not to jump to conclusions. You laughed at me. Again, who’s laughing now? Me, that’s who. So take a minute. Relax. Listen. And let’s go backwards.
On Monday when I tried to stop you outside your building you pushed past me. You STEPPED ON MY FOOT as you pushed past me and swept through the door like you owned the world. I was just trying to prepare you. You act like you don’t recognize me but I have known you for a long time. I can hear you thinking. I can hear you think what you don’t want to say out loud. That you are my brother. My brother and my keeper. You have shirked your responsibilities. Again, that is over. I am taken care of now.
On Tuesday I waited inside the lobby for you to come down. I combed the knots out of my hair, tried to make it look like your hair: piled on top, combed back, no part. Just a smooth curve of hair like a hat. I did my best. I put on my good clothes, explained to the doorman who I was, that you were not expecting me. It would be a surprise! The doorman liked me. I could tell. He kept looking at me. I thought he winked at me but I wasn’t sure, didn’t want to respond. Didn’t want to upset the delicate balance we had established there in the lobby.
Quiet, quiet. Biding my time.
When you stepped out of the elevator I tried to be calm, to hold back, but the spirit overtook me and I threw myself into your arms. So sweet! The feel of you against me. The smell of you. My kin. Like finally coming home. Again you pushed me away. “Jesus!” you said. “Get off me!” you said. Brushing off your lapels as if I had sullied you, as if I had fleas. I turned to the doorman for support. He looked at his shoes. He had made a mistake. I had burned a bridge here, I could see.
I followed you out the door, onto the street. I told the back of your head to wait up! My sore foot was slowing me down. When I had taken my sock off the night before my big toe was swollen and red, the cuticle torn, deep plum blood already blackening the nail. I limped along behind you telling you not to be afraid, that I loved you, that I needed help. That you had obligations. You just kept walking, pretending there was not a person behind you.
That I was just air. Just nothing at all. Another mistake.
Wednesday I went to the library. I set up my profile. You are John Morton. I am Jeffrey Morton. You can see we are the same if you look at our pictures: the blue eyes, the cleft in the chin, the sandy-brown hair. But the world has aged me, changed me. Rearranged my face. But it is under there. The Morton good looks. I sat in the library and “friended” your friends, sent a message to Angela. Your angel. Told her how happy I was that we had finally found each other. How lucky you had been to be adopted, to be released from the conditions that made me what I am. How sad I was that you had rejected me. How sad for you, John. That you might be missing the chance to finally know your own blood. Your own true relation.
(Part of me had an inkling that maybe I had all of this wrong. That maybe it wasn’t real. But it was just an inkling, a flicker. It was not strong enough to put a stop to what had been put in motion. It never is.)
Thursday, I came to your office. Again I scrubbed and scrubbed. I combed my hair, arranged my face to look like yours. I introduced myself to your assistant, your colleagues, told stories about what you were like when you were little. How you always took things so seriously, how you never shared your toys. What a little monster you were! Even though we were apart then, I knew you. Could feel you taking on power somewhere out of my reach.
How they laughed! How they could picture you! Just the same but miniature. Hoarding your toys, furrowing your little brow. Possibly dressed in a tiny business suit. What a treat to have John Morton’s brother in the office to shed some light on his character. So reserved! So buttoned up tight! Who knew he had a brother, so much looser, so much more fun! And then you came storming out of your office, so like the serious little character I had described, shoving me toward the door.
They were shocked, John.
They never imagined you could behave that way.
You lost some points there.
We rode down in the elevator together. Me, smiling. You, fuming. Out on the street you spoke into my face. So close your saliva was spraying onto my skin. Monster, you said. Intruder. Lunatic. Etcetera. With every insult, you were diminishing. You became a little less like yourself and a little more like me. I couldn’t stop smiling. I would have so much to tell Angela at lunch on Friday!
Angela. You have neglected her badly, John, it is clear. You have taken a beautiful, vibrant woman and worn her down. Her mouth is set so straight she has to smile against it. Her smile turns down instead of up. And her eyes are always brimming with tears. She is overflowing, leaking frustrated love. Love that has turned bitter. She is always sighing, massaging her temples. Overload. Despair. Loneliness. What have you done, John? She deserves better than that.
She looked at me with such kindness. Shocked that a brother of yours should live in conditions so rough, should not even have enough money to pay for his sandwich at the coffee shop. Though maybe not really shocked. She knows how cold you can be. Still she finds it hard to believe that you could shut out your own brother who loves you. Your brother who has had none of the advantages that you have had. She looked at me with love, John. The love that a woman denied a child is filled right up with. That spills all over everything. Even me.
She wanted to take me home.
I objected! No! I couldn’t possibly impose. And how angry I knew you would be. But she insisted. She said you would come around. She drove me in her shiny, shiny car to the shelter so I could pick up my few rank possessions. My stinking backpack containing my single change of clothes, my hairbrush, my notebook, my ancient toothbrush. Politely, she turned her head. She coughed and opened the trunk. I threw my bag in there wishing I could just throw it in the garbage along with everything inside my head, all the bad memories, the bad ideas. Out with the old! But in it went, stinking up the clean trunk of her clean car. I walked around to the passenger side and got in, laid my head against the headrest and closed my eyes. I closed my eyes and let her take me home. To your home. My home now.
Oh, you didn’t like it when you came home. You didn’t like it one bit! After a long day, a long week at work, to come home to see me sitting there on your couch, in your robe. I soaked so long in that bath, letting the air jets massage my sore back, sending steam into the air. Angela said I should soak my toe so it wouldn’t get infected. I soaked a good long time. I even soaked my head. I washed my hair three times with your shampoo that smells like pine needles and spice. The water was grey-brown with dirt. I let it drain away while I sat there and then filled it right up again. You didn’t like that I was wearing your robe, but guess what you didn’t know? I am pretty sure I used your toothbrush. You would like that even less.
At dinner time I could hear your voices inside the bedroom. You, chastising. Angela, pleading. I wasn’t worried. I ate my pork chop and mashed potatoes, staring at my plate. I took a long drink of cold beer. Your plate sat untouched. Angela’s too. Twin plates, twin servings cooling in the tense air of the apartment. I finished my meal, finished my drink. I scraped my plate into the garbage and rinsed it in the sink. Angela appeared in the hallway. Red-faced, but smiling. She had a stack of clothes for me: your pyjamas, your jeans, your T-shirt. Your socks and underwear. A pair of your running shoes and a pair of your slippers. She placed them on the foot of the bed in the guest room. My room.
Five, four, three, two, one. Blast-off! You came out of the bedroom like you had been shot from a gun. Glaring. Storming. Oh my! You fumbled with your shoes, your rage making you clumsy. Half-tied, laces flapping comically around your feet, you grabbed your coat and headed for the door. Slam! Good riddance, I thought. Get out and stay out, I thought. I could hear Angela crying quietly in the bathroom. I would make her some cocoa to calm her nerves. Maybe tomorrow I would get up before her and make breakfast. She deserved some attention. I could see she would appreciate it.
Where did you go, John? Why? You should have stayed. You must know that. You must know that every minute you are gone and I am here the transfer of power accelerates. Your surroundings fortify me. The love of your woman fortifies me. Your absence makes me stronger, gives me room to expand.
Yesterday I told Angela that it was my birthday on Sunday. The same day as yours. How odd, she said. Brothers born on the same day, five years apart. What were the chances? I had seen the cake in the fridge, John. I had seen the guest list written in her careful hand, a tiny checkmark beside each one. The trays of sandwiches delivered this morning, her trip to the hairdresser. And still you haven’t called. Last night she brought a bottle of wine to the table, two glasses. We drank quickly. We were laughing, shaking our heads. Why not have the party anyway?
So here I am, John. Here I am in your suit – fresh from the dry cleaner – and your crisp white shirt. Your cologne on my throat, in the tangle of hair on my chest. Your beautiful woman beside me, looking sideways at me, smiling as she tells her bitter story to her friend. There is champagne. There are tiny sandwiches and plump, cold shrimp. There are raw vegetables and creamy dip. Soon there will be cake! Soon there will be a cake with forty candles blazing, lighting up my face.
My happy, happy face.
Missy Marston’s first novel, The Love Monster, was awarded the Ottawa Book Award for English Fiction, 2013.