I entered this story in a writing contest a few months back — over 6,300 entries, and 11 winners in total (don’t get too excited — I wasn’t one of those lucky 11).
I could have been 12th, or I could have been 6,299th; my submission may have been great, or it may have been unfit to use as toilet paper… I’ll probably never know. But what I do know is that I thought it up, I wrote it, rewrote it some more, and actually summoned up the nerve to submit it. And win or lose, it’s the beginning of something.
I hope you like it… please take a second and drop me a note when you’re done in the comment box at the bottom? I’ve even made it easy for you to maintain that beautiful Faceless mystery of yours, if you wish — and no one gets to see that feedback except for Yours Truly.
And thanks for taking the time to read it at all — it means a lot.
They sat around the dark wood dining room table. It was immaculately set, as was typical with their mother. There’s no point in half-doing anything, she had repeated more than once to them when they were young.
The utensils were buffed to a high shine, the gorgeous porcelain serving trays that resided on the top shelf—the ones she reserved for only the most special occasions—were set out on the table and brimming with meats, vegetables and freshly baked buns. Bottles of wine and water dotted the table.
One would think this was a feast for a dozen people. It was just the four of them, to Adam’s understanding; and she would be the first to admit that she may have gone a touch overboard, even by her own standards. But she had waited for over a year to organize this dinner, almost abandoning hope that it would actually happen. Were it not for Adam’s persistence, it likely wouldn’t have.
They were all finally together and everything needed to be perfect. Nothing less would do. And while perfect may have be a strong term, the evening was closer than she had dreamed it would be.
Or it had been, at least.
Their mother circled the table for the fifth time, refilling the wine and water glasses. Adam placed his hand over his glass as she approached.
“Please, mother. Sit down, you’ve barely touched your own plate.”
She ruffled his hair as if he was still a little boy. “Nonsense. Your glass is empty and I must refill it. There will be no arguing with your mother, Sergeant.” He relented and she began to pour.
Perhaps it was just nervous energy that made her restless. Or maybe she could sense the storm that was quietly blowing in, much like a cat does before the rain. Brian had been unusually quiet for some time; her oldest son was never quiet unless something was brewing.
She made her way around the table to Arthur and did a quick survey of his plate: his glass was empty and he had no buns, which happened to be sitting directly in front of Brian.
She cleared her throat. “Brian, can you please pass the rolls to Arthur?”
Brian sat silently, his fingertip circling the edge of his half-empty wine glass, appearing not to have heard her request.
“Brian, dear? The rolls? Can you please—”
Arthur reached up and rested his hand on her wrist. “It’s alright Mary, let him be. I’ll grab one in a second.” He planted a kiss on her hand. “I’d love a bit more wine, though.”
Brian tipped the contents of the glass at his fingertips down his throat in a single motion. “Yes, mother. His arms work just fine, he can reach them all by himself.”
She stopped mid-pour. “Pardon me?”
Adam shook his head. “Brian, we talked about this.”
Brian stared into his glass as he spoke. “What’s that, Adam? Oh, right. I should just be his good little boy. Just pass him his bread or clear his plate, maybe?”
Adam turned to face him, but Brian wouldn’t return his gaze. “Please don’t.”
Brian would not be deterred. His storm had arrived.
“Oh wait, wait. I’m not his little boy though, am I? Just some artsy faggot his new wife had–not the strapping man’s man that you are, eh Adam? Such a disappointing turn of events.” He finally lifted his head to look at Arthur and shot him a sarcastic wink. “Better luck next time, Art.”
Brian had practiced this scene countless times, waiting for the right opportunity to fire that jagged, hate-filled projectile. His goal was to wipe their smiles away, to obliterate their happiness. He needed to—he felt it was his duty to—remind them of the hurt and sadness that he still felt, to resurrect the pain they had given the slip too soon for his liking. And from the devastation that now ran from his mother’s eyes, streaking her mascara and spilling onto her beautiful new blouse, it was clear his shot had hit its mark.
Adam sat back in his chair and took it all in. His mother stood behind Arthur with her hand on his shoulder, long black tears streaked down her face. He looked at Brian, who shifted awkwardly in his chair and fidgeted with his empty wine glass. Adam was afraid something like this may happen, his brother being—well, his brother. But things had been going so well until then. He thought he was just being paranoid.
It was Brian’s turn to look around the table. He wouldn’t look at Adam, having a good idea of what his little brother was thinking at the moment. He couldn’t bear to look at his mother in tears, so his eyes came to rest on Arthur. Instead of the angry hateful glare he expected to be greeted with, the look of confusion and hurt Arthur returned made his stomach turn.
When he had rehearsed this epic moment in his mind, the scene always ended with Brian smug and victorious, pleased with the fresh hell he had spawned. And it had all gone according to plan: he hit his mark at the perfect moment, he spared no one at the table in his attack. He even managed to hit his brother with some shrapnel, although it had never been his intention. He was shocked to discover how far victory was from his mind after the real life performance, regardless of how perfect it was. At that very moment, all he wanted to do was vomit up his steak and run.
No one spoke. Their mother had taken her seat at the table beside Arthur, her head resting on his shoulder. All eyes were on Brian as they waited to see what the storm would blow in next. It was clear to everyone that he was in a minor panic; his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water as he struggled to say something—to apologize, to say anything that could break the deafening silence he had created—but no words would emerge.
He pushed out his chair and stood suddenly. The room seemed to sway and dance as if it was suspended by strings; he found it hard to take even the smallest breath. He turned abruptly from the table and lost his balance, having to grip the back of his brother’s chair to gather himself. Perhaps that fourth glass of courage he had chugged to prepare himself for his big moment wasn’t the best idea after all. His composure partly regained, he crossed through the kitchen and walked out the patio doors.
It had snowed all afternoon. Fluffy mounds of white clung to the trees and blanketed the cover on the pool. Brian sat on the top step of the deck, taking in the silence of the yard. The annoying yelp of the neighbor’s dog punctuated the stillness, partly muffled by the falling snow.
The patio doors quickly slid open and shut behind him. He listened to the footsteps that gingerly approached, as they slipped around while trying to maintain their footing on the slippery deck. He knew who it was.
Adam slipped a coat over his brother’s shoulders before sitting on the stair beside him. “Jesus, that’s a treacherous walk.”
Brian stared down at the snow. “I fucked up, Adam. I know it, you don’t have to tell me so. I don’t need the lecture.”
“I’m not lecturing. But what could possibly have come from that? I thought we agreed–”
“Yes we did, and yet I still found a way to make a mess of things. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not me that you should be apologizing to.”
“I just can’t get past it sometimes. They were best friends–”
Adam interrupted. “For Christ’s sake, Brian. It’s not like he stole her away from him; the man died. And Arthur was there for her far more than either of us were. You were on stage somewhere and I was in a tank. And this had nothing to do with that.”
They sat in silence for a few moments.
“Did you bring your smokes out with you?”
Adam shook his head. “I quit, remember? So should you.”
Brian waved his hands in the air.” I’m on a steady diet of self-destruction as of late. There will be no quitting for me.”
Adam looked across the yard in the direction of the yapping dog. “Help me, Brian. I’m trying to understand what’s going on in your head. This was a very nice evening before that little tirade.”
Brian let out a weak laugh. “Understand? Don’t waste your time, little brother. I’m a hot fucking mess.” He scooped some of the snow up from the step and held it in his palm until it burned from the cold.
Adam nodded. “I won’t argue with that.”
The brothers had done this before. It was three years ago to the day after the funeral, their father only a few hours in the ground. They sat in that same spot, watching the snow paint the yard in a coat of clumpy white while a mix of their family and friends were in their living room. They nibbled on cheese platters and sipped wine, all while offering their condolences and making awkward small talk.
Brian had left his theater company’s tour to fly home for the funeral; Adam had just returned home from his last tour overseas. The focus on he and his brother was more intense than he had bargained on, but his years of being on stage had made him accustomed to being the center of attention. But walking into the kitchen and seeing his mother in Arthur’s broad arms, sharing a tender embrace proved to be too much to bear.
In what proved to be typical Brian fashion, he downed several glasses of wine before he proceeded to throw the fit of all fits, ranting on about how bogus and insincere the lot of them were, gathering for funerals like a pack of old vultures and dispensing a few other stage-worthy lines. He launched a full veggie platter into the air before making his grand exit through the crowd and out to the snowy deck, nearly flipping ass over head on the icy cedar.
He traversed across the frozen wood and sat on the steps that led down to the snow-covered pool. The door slid open and shut, and Adam followed behind with a coat to throw over his brother’s shoulders and a steady voice to calm him.
Brian had contemplated peeling back the cover and slipping into the semi-frozen water, allowing himself to sink to the bottom like a piece of debris and leaving the world behind. But instead, the brothers talked until their faces were numb from the cold, eventually returning to the warmth of the room they shared as kids and continuing to talk into the night. Brian slipped out the following morning before anyone else was awake. He hadn’t even said goodbye to Adam.
Adam’s voice broke the silence. “A man’s man? What the hell does that even mean?”
Brian shook his head. “I don’t know, I didn’t mean to involve you. It just came out, like I was possessed or something.”
Adam ignored his comment and continued on. “You know fully well that Arthur doesn’t think that way at all. He was incredible when you told him; so warm and accepting. Not at all like Dad. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how badly he would have handled your little revelation? You remember the night Mom floated it out there, just to see what he would think. I’ve never seen someone so, so—”
Brian’s face was emotionless. “Disgusted is the word you’re searching for. And no, I haven’t forgotten.”
Adam nodded. “But not Arthur.”
Brian waved his hands. “Yes, yes. He was disturbingly wonderful, which just makes me an even bigger asshole.”
Adam blew some air into his hands before tucking them under his armpits to stay warm. “You’ve refused to speak to the man in months, you’ve intentionally avoided coming home and you don’t even return Mom’s calls. They’ve found happiness in a miserable situation, Brian; there’s no crime in that. Stop pushing him away.”
“You said you weren’t going to lecture me. And it was the wine talking. You never should have let me open that bottle, you know how I get.”
“Yes, I do. And I also know that it had nothing at all to do with the wine. That was all Dad.”
Brian watched the puffs of vapor his breath made in the crisp winter air. The breath of a dragon, his father called it when he was little, a phrase that seemed particularly apt today. He still held the snow in his palm; he brushed the remnants off and stuffed his hands into the coat.
“I told you his was a horrible idea, Adam. The third anniversary of the worst day of our lives. What a celebration.”
Adam looked out at the frozen yard. “That’s a bit much. This didn’t go exactly as I had planned, but you’re here and that made her so happy. I’m calling it a success.”
“She’s crying, Adam. I made our mother cry.”
“Yes, you did. So for your next act, you’re going to go apologize. To both of them.” He looked down at the pool cover. “Unless you’re going for your swim this time? In which case, I’ll go back inside and let you be. Don’t forget to pinch your nose before you jump.”
Brian shuddered. “You’re a fucker. I should never have told you about that.”
“You tell me everything, whether I want to hear it or not.”
“You’re my brother, you’ll listen. You have to.”
Brian looked over his shoulder at the house. He caught a glimpse of their mother walking away from the patio door and back to the dining room table.
“How do I fix this, Adam? Tell me what to do, I promise I’ll listen.”
Adam rose to his feet and wiped the snow from his pants. “You’ll remember that you’re not on stage here; you’re home with people that actually love you, Brian. Even Arthur. Let’s start with that.”
He brought his hands up to his mouth and blew some warm air into them. “Jesus, it’s cold. Let’s go inside.”
Brian looked up at him, the shame on his face inescapable. “How? How do I go back in there after that? They must hate me. I hate me.”
“Enough. No one hates you.” He waved his outstretched hand at Brian. “Now let’s go, brother; you can’t hide out here forever.”
Brian took his hand and stood up. They could see their mother and Arthur sitting at the dining room table, her head on his shoulder.
“He’s good for her, isn’t he?”
Adam nodded. “I’m not sure she would have made it without him, to be honest. I’ve spent the last few years dodging bullets while you’ve been around the world dodging the paparazzi. We should have been here more. But she has him, and we have each other. Dad would be happy, I think.”
Brian turned to face his brother. “How did you get to be so wise? You always make me feel so childlike.”
Adam smiled. “I’m just here to pick up the pieces, which there is no shortage of with you. You keep me quite busy.” He walked ahead to the patio door and gripped the handle.
Brian closed his eyes and took a long breath, holding it deep in his lungs before opening his eyes and slowly exhaling, watching the vapour slip away into the evening sky. “Ready.”
Adam slid the door open; a wave of warm air welcomed them back to the world they left inside.