SO I LEARN TO WALK LIKE FEAR
When he tilts his head to the side, I forget he’s my brother.
When he stands like that, the light from the hallway filling in behind him but not touching his face, I forget to throw my pillow or turn on a light. I tell him to please stop – I whisper it because whispering makes me seem further away. I can just make out his eyes and the outline of his ears, but his face is too dark. I see an enormous smile or a cut-off nose or a tongue because my mind wants to scare me just as much as he does. His hair is wild and, with the light behind it, looks like it’s glowing. He’s not my older brother. He’s ancient. He’s fear and I can’t make him leave.
When I wake up and see him standing there, I can’t remember he’s just my brother. That he helps me beg mom for Jell-O at the store. Now he’s crooked and long, something that moves without noise and can jump out of any place it wants.
I wait for him to leave but he doesn’t, so I put the covers over my head and listen to him shifting his weight from foot to foot, the moan of the floorboards. I know he is looking at me, watching to see if I’ll peek out.
He does this sometimes – not every night. Some nights I can hear him fall into bed and go silent almost right after mom sends us to sleep and goes to work. He’s thirteen and can stay up later if he wants, but most times he comes to bed when I go. Some nights he taps on my door and sneaks in, bringing a game for us to play with until we fall asleep on my bed. But every night, no matter what, I wake up before the sun and crack open my eyelids just enough to see if he is there, if he is waiting.
In the morning I wake up alone. My brother, sitting at the breakfast table, complains about how much he doesn’t like his new shoes.
"I know it's you.”
“If you know it's me, then why do you hide?”
“It’s you. But you scare me.”
“I scare everyone,” he says.
The night mom brings home her boyfriend, my brother cries at the dinner table. Her boyfriend makes dinner, something called spaghetti pizza, and my brother says it makes him feel sick. I like it, but it feels weird to see a man in the house, so I eat tiny bites and say thank you every time he asks me a question. Her boyfriend smiles at me and his teeth are so bright I think of them biting me, and it becomes hard to look at him in the eyes. My mom’s boyfriend looks like doctors do on TV, but he’s a mechanic and I wonder if mom met him during an oil change or just at the grocery store or what. If my brother wasn’t making such a big deal about feeling sick, I might ask. If my mother's boyfriend didn't have such bright teeth I wouldn't be scared to say something to him other than sir and yes please and thank you.
Instead, my brother huffs like he might to throw up and pushes away the plate. My mom yells at him and he starts crying so much that he runs to his room. The noise of his feet and his crying cuts through the awkward quiet and it sounds so much louder. I can’t tell if he is just frustrated or embarrassed, so I stay still and look at my plate. My mom’s boyfriend says it’s okay if my brother doesn’t want to eat dinner, but my mom says he’s just acting up, and we keep eating while tiny whispers of my brother’s sobs making their way down the stairs.
“He’s been acting like a baby the past few months. I’m sick of it,” mom says.
“That can happen when things change. He’ll work through it,” her boyfriend says.
“He’s going into high school next year. Is he just going to act like this when other kids go after him?”
“He’ll be fine. Everything will be fine,” her boyfriend says, putting his hand on her arm. I don’t stare. I look at the chair my brother was in and wonder who I should be caring more about.
After dinner, mom tells me to go tell him he needs to apologize to all of us, and I notice for the first time that she’s put on lipstick. It makes her mouth seem different, like a stranger’s, so I listen to what she says without complaining. I walk up the stairs and open my brother’s bedroom door to find the room dark.
I stand in the doorway. The light coming in from the hallway falls only on the carpet and part of his dresser. The rest of his room is blue black, though I can tell where everything is. I can see his clothes from yesterday on the ground. I can make out the shape of his laptop on the bed.
In the darkness I see his leg poking out from the closet.
“Tommy, get out of the closet. Mom wants you to say you’re sorry.”
He leans out of the closet and I see his face. It’s a pale blue in the dark. I see the teeth and the wide eyes.
“Tommy, stop. I can see it’s you. You’d better come down stairs or mom is going to be angry.”
“I don’t care about your mother,” he says, drawing out the r like a growl.
“Fine. I’m telling her. She said you’re acting like a baby.”
When I take a step back – a step towards the stairs, he jumps out from the closet and runs at me. I see his hands stiff, his fingers twisted and locked. His mouth is open. He’s groaning.
I grab the door and try shutting it before my brother reaches me, but I only get the door closed enough that he runs into it. I watch his head snap back and his body follow soon after. He falls into the darkness and looks up at me for a moment before the blood spills out of his nose and he shrieks in pain. My mother and her boyfriend are up the stairs and pulling him into the bathroom without even asking me what happened. I stand in the doorway looking at the drops of blood on the carpet – spilled black paint I don’t want to touch.
That night I go to bed before my mom's boyfriend leaves. He smiles at me when I walk up the stairs and my mom doesn't stand up from the couch to tuck me in. I try to stay up listening to my mom's voice dancing around the low strum of her boyfriend's, but the noise is so calming and distant that I can't keep awake.
When I open my eyes, her boyfriend is in the doorway and he's staring at me. He isn't smiling and he takes a step into my room. I think about Frankenstein and bloody doctors and his huge, white smile.
"Listen," he whispers, "I don't know which room is your mom's. I don't want to wake anyone else up by accident."
I point to the middle door. He turns to follow my finger.
"Sorry about waking you up.”
“Your brother doesn’t like me very much, does he?”
I don’t know how to answer him, so I don’t say anything. He nods and turns away.
When he walks out of my room he stumbles, and I know he's drunk. It makes me flinch. He opens my mom's bedroom door and I hear her voice before he closes the door. I try to go to bed but I keep thinking I'll wake up to find him standing in my doorway, a grown-up version of my brother creeping closer to my bed.
“It’s a game,” my brother says. “When it happens, I’m not scared because I’m part of it.”
His eyes don’t match, now. One is red with blood and the other is surrounded by green skin, but my brother smiles. He looks scarier now than he did before, but his voice is sweet and calm. He doesn’t blame me, it wasn’t my fault. He told my mom and her boyfriend that he did it himself by accident. He told them because he knew I was protecting myself against the monster.
“It scares me,” I say.
“I don’t like the game.”
“I’m not playing it with you. I’m playing it with the monster. You’re just around to scare.”
“Why can’t I play?”
“Because then there wouldn’t be anyone to scare. There’d only be us. We need someone to scare. Mom goes to work and you’re the only one in the house. You’re not old enough to play,” my brother says.
“I’m only two years younger than you.”
My brother shrugs.
“I wish you wouldn’t do it at all.”
“It’s just a game,” he says.
“What were you going to do?”
“What were you going to do if you got me last night?”
My brother looks at me and I’m scared, but not the same way I am at night.
After dinner we go bowling with my mom and her boyfriend, and his son Alex. He looks older, like he might be starting high school next year. My brother acts like the black eyes are from a fight, but at thirteen-years-old, only the parents stare. My mom explains in passing, loudly, to the lady who gets our shoes what happened. My mom’s boyfriend says something about being careful with the bowling balls to my brother, and my brother smiles but it comes out looking horrible, like everything hurts in his face.
My mom’s boyfriend introduces his son. He spreads out his hands around Alex like he won him at some impossible-to-beat carnival game. I smile and my brother shakes his hand, which makes my mom and his dad laugh. He says his name and I hear something in his voice close to panic. He’s scared to meet us, to see my brother with his patchwork face. It makes me feel stronger, like I can’t be shy to meet him because he is already shy to meet us. I look at my brother when everyone turns to walk to our lane and he makes his eyes huge, just for a second, like the monster might do. I do the same thing back to him.
I’m not good at bowling and the night feels weird with my mom’s boyfriend trying to get Alex to talk. He doesn’t want to talk, even after his father asks him to tell my brother and me about what his Boy Scout troop did over the summer. He mumbles every answer and has a hard time looking at either of us for more than a few seconds. I feel bad for him. My brother smiles and tries to make him laugh by pushing the ball down the lane between his own legs, but Alex only smiles and complains about how loud the music is.
After bowling, we get ice cream. Our parents decide it’d be fun to watch a movie at our house. My brother asks if we’re having a sleep over, and as soon as my mom says maybe, Alex turns away and complains to his father. My mom’s boyfriend lowers his voice to talk to Alex. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but he doesn’t look angry.
“We can build a fort to watch the movie,” I tell Alex after his dad stands upright again.
“I’m too old for forts,” Alex says.
“Well, I like them,” his dad says, smiling at me and taking my mom by the hand as we leave. I think about what it must be like for Alex to see his father hold my mom’s hand. I look at my brother, who is staring at my mom’s boyfriend. I know how he feels about it.
I wake up when my brother pushes against my shoulder. We’re in the basement and I’m on the floor surrounded by the pillows that were a fort when I fell asleep. The room is dark, and I can see Alex’s back on the couch.
My brother’s eyes are wide, and he motions for me to go with him to the other side of the basement, past the bar nobody used and the pool table my brother and I were finally allowed to. I get up without making noise and walk slowly across the carpet. My muscles are tense, I can hardly stop myself from giggling.
“We fell asleep during the movie. Mom and her boyfriend are upstairs, I guess.”
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” my brother whispers.
I can see that his hands are going rigid, like roots stuck in clenched positions. I see his eyes going wide, the whites of them so bright against the purple skin.
“Are you ready?” my brother says.
I bare my teeth and squint my eyes. I hunch down and breathe out of my mouth.
“I am,” I say.
“He’s over there,” the monster says.
When I walk, I walk like fear. I’m scared of the way my brother walks, how quiet and slow and weird it looks. I’m scared about how I look, too. I’m scared of myself and not scared, because I’m a monster, too. I make a noise out of my throat, something like I’m being choked. My brother stands at where Alex’s head is on the couch, and I stand up on the armrest next to Alex’s feet.
We’re standing there and I’m horrified and smiling and growling all at once. The other monster’s claws reach out for Alex, they’re scratching at his shoulder just enough to wake him. When he does wake up, he turns to look at my brother and breathes in like he’s just jumped into cold water. He starts saying a word, something like stop, but my brother howls and I howl with him.
That’s when Alex looks down at where I am, standing over him on the armrest. He lets out a thin whimper, high and quiet, and I know the thrill that my brother must have felt every night when he did the same to me.
“Please stop. Please,” Alex says.
We howl louder, I grab his feet and my brother tilts his head and brings his face closer to Alex’s crying eyes.
“Please, no. Please.”
My brother raises his hand above his head and brings it down on Alex’s face. It sounds like wet feet on tile – like running too fast next to the town’s pool. He does it again and I keep howling and dig my fingers into Alex’s ankles. I’m squeezing them as hard as I can and howling, smiling at my brother as he brings his fist down on Alex, who is trying to hide himself behind his arms.
We hear a door open upstairs.
I see Alex’s jeans go wet and let go of his feet. I look at the other monster and he grins and runs for the stairs. I run after him. We’re running through the kitchen and through the living room. He opens the front door and we run through that, too.
We’re in the yard and he’s running for the street, howling. We run into the neighbor’s yard. I follow him only by sound because he’s impossible to see in the dark but he’s still howling and cracking sticks under his feet. We get into the woods and we stop.
“Is that what it feels like when you do it?” I ask.
“I don’t know. How did you feel?”
“I was scared of myself, and I was scared of you, but I was more excited than scared.”
“I don’t know,” my brother says.
“I mean – I felt different. I wasn’t worried about being scared. It was fun to be the scary thing.”
“I always feel like this,” my brother says. “I always feel like the monster, all the time.”
I’m not scared. We’re monsters. Because it’s the woods at night and that’s where monsters belong.
We catch our breath. We watch the lights in my mom’s bedroom go on. Then the lights in the living room. I know what’s going to happen when we walk back, but right now we’re monsters.
We’re not scared.