The Stronger Half, Chapter 1

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George was twelve the first time he saw the man.

It was after his identical twin Bill suffered the traumatic brain injury that would leave him crippled and unable to speak. George would spot the man sitting on a bench at the mall, or at the store standing by the magazines. But he never seemed to notice George, not even when he sat next to him and tried to communicate.

Twenty years later, after dropping out of college to care for Bill, George has become a junior high school janitor. Struggling with debt while working a physically demanding job, coordinating with a caretaker, and helping Bill, life has not been easy.

But George doesn’t know the meaning of difficult until the man finally acknowledges him, setting off a terrifying chain of events that leaves George and Bill running for their lives. And as George struggles to protect his brother from an otherworldly evil, he discovers a startling secret about Bill, leading him to question decades old assumptions and to wonder which of them is truly the stronger half.

1.

April, 2017

Cold water lapped and splashed about George’s waist, making him shiver. He glanced back at his identical twin Bill, whose mouth was contorted into what George had learned with time to recognize as a smile. As if sensing George’s hesitation, Bill let out a guttural plea, a primal sound that signaled he was impatient and wanted to be let in.

“Okay, Bill,” said George, “but it’s cold.”

He reached over the concrete edge of the pool, unstrapped his twin from his wheelchair and lowered him in.

George took him to the gym every Wednesday and Friday. It was expensive—thirty five dollars a month was a lot of money for a junior high school janitor already struggling with debt—but Bill loved to swim and needed the recreation.

Bill’s mouth contorted further, his eyes darting from side to side, and George didn’t need the widening lopsided smile to know he was enjoying the water. He supported his brother beneath the surface, made extra buoyant by the plastic floaties he’d affixed to his arms and legs in the locker room, and slowly carried him around the perimeter like a float in the Macy’s Day parade.

Some quiet snickering made him swivel. By the larger pool, a couple of dopey-faced teenagers were staring in George’s direction. When they met his eyes, their smiles evaporated and they whipped their heads back toward the opposite wall.

George imagined his fist and their faces flying back into the water.

Though Bill’s head hadn’t turned, and though he continued to make satisfied grunts and groans, George knew he’d heard them. The doctors and his mom had explained that his twin brother’s awareness of the world had been impaired along with speech and fine motor control, but George had never believed them. They hadn’t spent most nights with Bill when everyone else was asleep.

From time to time, George would glance down at the surface of the water and watch the distorted shimmering reflection of his brother, a broken version of himself. It wasn’t fair that Bill had been the one injured. It should have been him.

They remained in the water for almost forty minutes, until Bill began to flail his arms and groan impatiently. Then George glanced at the clock and realized it was almost nine, nearly Bill’s bedtime. He pulled him out, dried him off and wheeled him into the changing room, where he dressed him in a new diaper, a dry pair of shorts and a black t-shirt.

They were heading out the door when George spotted a man in a black fedora and suit, leaning up against the wall like a model in a 1950’s cigarette ad.

George had seen him before.

He’d started seeing the man shortly after Bill’s accident. He and his brother would be at the mall and he would catch the man sitting on a bench. Then they would be at the store and he would spot the man standing by the magazines. Sometimes, he’d even spotted the man in their parents’s yard, ambling about the lawn as if he were searching for something he’d misplaced. George had thought it odd, seeing the same man in so many different places. He’d thought it more odd that he only ever seemed to see the man when Bill was around. He’d asked Mom about him once, but when she started eyeing him askance and asking if he was pulling her leg, he decided to keep the matter to himself.

The man had become an inevitability, like death and taxes. Sometimes, George wondered if he was crazy, if he was seeing someone no one else could see because no one was actually there. Once, when he and Bill were at the park, he’d sat on a bench next to the man and tried to start a conversation. But he’d just looked on, as if George and Bill didn’t exist.

Bill’s head began to bob from side to side, and he let out a low moan.

“I know you’re tired,” said George, leaning close to his ear. “We’ll get you home soon.”

When they got to the car, a broken down 2003 Chevy Malibu, George turned back toward the gym.

The man was gone.

He hefted his brother out of the wheelchair, a weight that with time he’d no longer found burdensome. He set him down in the passenger seat and buckled his seat belt. Then he folded the wheelchair and secured it in the back. Finally, he whipped around to the driver’s side, started the car and backed out.

He couldn’t wait to get some sleep.

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