By the Broken Window
by Maurice Roger
I put my book down and lower the passenger side window a tad to take in the dusk air. “If something like that exists, Richard, then, yes. I think Grandma is a good enough person to go to Heaven.”
“What do you mean ‘if’?” Richard turns to me. “Of course, it exists. You should know that. Everyone knows that.”
A few seconds of awkward silence go by before he continues with, “What the hell happened to you in college, Vern? Did they brainwash you or something in Rhode Island? Ever since you came back you’ve been a different person.” He takes the book. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra. More atheist guff of yours, I’m sure. You were reading this darn book the whole time you were in Grandma’s room.”
“Not the whole time.” I take the book back and lower the window more. We pass an old farmhouse and an abandoned-looking gas station. “Richard, I’m not getting into this argument with you again. I know where you stand, and you know where I stand. I’m sorry I even said anything. I don’t need this now. I’m just as hurt as you are over Grandma.”
“What you need, Vern, is a job.”
“If everything goes well tomorrow, I’ll have one.” I turn my back to my brother and look at the sun going down behind the clouds. I would like to think that something grand is waiting for me after death, but I consider Heaven as a supernatural thing. And supernatural things don’t exist.
At one time, though, I was a believer, like Richard. I attended church with Mom and Dad on Sundays. But Richard was always the most religious one out of us both. He was an altar boy for years and even tried singing in the choir a few times.
Richard was the one who prayed at his bedside every night with a rosary, mentioning everyone he knew in his prayers. I was the one who fell asleep during the first Our Father. I swear, Richard and I have nothing in common except our red hair.
The sun sets. Poor Grandma. The tubes: everywhere. The beeping monitor: non-stop. The expression on her face: self-aware and worrisome. I hope she is okay.
“I told you I saw Grandpa that one night last year, right?” Richard says.
“Of course. Like a bunch of times.”
“Well, I mean it, Vern. I saw our dead Grandpa in our bathroom. He was just standing there, looking at himself in the mirror. It was as if he was examining himself. It was weird. Like he couldn’t believe that he was dead. That was where he taught me to shave.”
I sigh and continue the story for him with, “And, when you walked in, he saw you and vanished into thin air. Yeah. You told me several times since it happened. If it happened. We all know about your sleepwalking stories.”
“It did happen, Vern. It’s the truth.”
“The bathroom. How special. Let’s keep the fiction going. If you die first, Richard, meet me in the backyard. That was where you threw the baseball through the window and blamed me, remember? Mom and Dad grounded me for a week and made me buy a new window with my paper route money. Maybe your ghostly reflection will show in the window. I’ll bring Mom so you can finally tell her the truth.”
And before Richard can answer, the car bucks a few times and finally sputters to a halt near the side of the road. Steam rises from the edges of the hood. Richard is silent. His hands rest on the steering wheel, disappointment across his face. Before I can ask what happened, he answers with, “I don’t know, Vern.”
I don’t know anything about cars. I say, “Do we have fuel?”
“Plenty. The hood is steaming. That has nothing to do with the gasoline. Jesus.”
“Well then,” I say, “what the hell is it?”
Richard turns to me. “I just said I don’t know, Vern.” He retrieves a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “Hand me the lighter in the glove box, will you?”
I say, “You need to kick that habit, like yesterday,” and open the glove box. When I flip some papers around looking for the lighter, I instead find a gun. “What the hell is this?”
“Never mind,” Richard says, lighting his cigarette with the lighter he found in his other pocket. “What does it look like, Vern? Is it a hair dryer? Is it a toothbrush? No, it’s Betsy, my sweetheart.”
“Betsy? You named it?”
He exhales a puff of smoke. “Of course. It’s bad luck if you don’t. And Betsy doesn’t like to be held by anyone except me. Understood? Leave her there and act as if you never even saw her. My gun. My permit. Leave her be.”
I’m too awestruck to even speak. I never knew my brother was into firearms. He has never spoken of them in any great detail that would have led me to believe that he might actually own one. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though. He was always the more daring of us both.
Richard steps out of the car and opens the hood and yells, “Darn it.” Steam plumes upward. “This is it, right here.”
I exit the car. I dial AAA on my cell phone and get no connection. The heat from the engine makes the already humid temperature worse. A full moon is riding high in the sky. No streetlights. A dirt road. Cornfields plank us on both sides.
“What is it?”
“Darn radiator hose.” He throws it to the ground and begins pacing the street, mumbling to himself.
This couldn’t have come at a worse time: I have a job interview tomorrow, and I’m stranded in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas. I’ve been looking for employment in my field — physics — for over a year now and finally found a college that might, might, hire me as an Adjunct Professor.
I say, “How come you wanted to take these goddamn side roads anyway, Richard? We should’ve just stayed on the highway.”
My brother’s face contorts with rage. I know he doesn’t like anyone using what he considers blasphemy around him, especially me. That was exactly why I said it.
“Why would you take a two-hour drive to see Grandma and then a four-hour ride back home through these desolate side roads? I haven’t seen another car for over an hour. Just like you, Richard. You have the critical thinking skills of a one-year old.”
Richard stops walking and faces me. “So, you want to criticize me? Let’s talk about you. Why is it you never moved away? You just kept on living with Mom and Dad for all these years. Moved into their basement and stayed there. A thirty-year old professional gamer and weed smoker. Real progress, big bro.”
Richard leaps and pins me against the car, his fist cocked back, a gleam in his eyes I haven’t seen in some years. “You remember when I used to stick up for you in school, Vern? Do you? I can’t even count how many times I fought to protect you because you said something wise to the wrong person.”
I flinch as he punches the roof of the car. “Everyone used to pick on you, and you would curl into a ball and cry until I came along. Don’t forget that, Vern, because I’m done helping you. You’re an ungrateful smartass who thinks he’s better than everyone because you have a college degree.”
I manage to say a few subdued words: “I would do the same for you.”
“What? Stick up for me? You can’t even defend yourself.”
He lets me go. I slide to the ground and rub my neck. I cough a few times. Richard continues fidgeting with the innards under the hood. I can’t believe he almost hit me. I haven’t seen him that mad in quite some time. Not since he punched holes in the kitchen walls when Grandpa died.
As I finally gather the strength to stand, I find myself walking down the road from which we came. Should I even tell Richard where I’m going? Nah. He wouldn’t care now anyway. I know Richard still thinks of me as his little brother he needs to keep in his place and to protect at the same time, but I am a grown man, just as he is.
I am twenty-seven with more college debt than any two people I know. Richard has no idea what it’s like to live independently and try to make something of his life. He tries to tell me how he has always protected me from bullies and anything else, as if he is without any help of his own.
Mom and Dad have coddled him to the point they did him a disservice. He won’t ever leave our parents’ nest. He likes it, obviously. But he doesn’t realize that others are protecting him, just as he thinks he protects me.
The road is pitch black. I can’t see too far in front of me. Hot as hell. It’s as if these cornfields never end. I am looking for that farmhouse and gas station we passed. Somebody has to live there or at least operate it. I didn’t see any lights on when we drove by, but it’s worth a try. I kick a rock to my left and hear it skip away into the cornfields. The moon is full, and every so often a cloud passes in front of it. Beautiful night. Stars are out. The Big Dipper. The North Star.
I turn a corner and see the gas station. There it is. Broken windows and graffiti-laced walls. Great. What am I supposed to do now? We will have to wait for someone to come by, I guess, and help us. I whip out my cell phone and try calling AAA again. Nothing. No bars. Just silence. Damn it.
I walk to the other side of that parking lot and notice a light on in the farmhouse that wasn’t there when we drove by before. Yes. That means someone is there. They can help us. I will make it to my interview tomorrow. I sprint over to it as fast as I can. Out of breath. No more donuts for me.
I leap up the front steps two at a time and ring the doorbell. I wait a few more moments and try again. Nothing. Maybe it’s broken. I knock. Still nothing. I walk around to the other side of the house where the light is on and peek in the window. Someone must be here. I am certain that the light wasn’t on before.
And then that’s when I hear it: a scream. Did it come from inside the house or out here with me? That’s all I need is to be attacked for trespassing. But this wasn’t a scream of anger, more like a yell of pain, of help. I look behind me and see only night looking back.
The wind picks up and fades away as fast as it came. A shadow passes in the house. Should I knock? That would seem odd though: a stranger banging on the living room window wanting to come inside to use the phone. It seems like something I have seen in plenty of scary B-movies Hollywood has pumped out over the years.
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Copyright © 2015 by Maurice Roger