The Stronger Half, Chapters 14–16

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14.

April, 2017

“George, are you all right?” Rosa.

He didn’t acknowledge her. The colors and textures of the apartment had dazzled his senses, reducing him to silence. After a dazed moment on the floor, he scrambled to his feet and placed an eye over the peephole, waiting for the man to show up outside.

Behind him, Bill moaned.

“George?”

A hand on his shoulder. He recoiled from the touch, turned and found Rosa staring at him, her hand partially extended.

“What Rosa, what?”

“Is everything okay?”

He didn’t answer. He waited for the adrenaline to subside, for it to give way to weary caution. Eventually, he could feel that the man had left, but he still opened the door a crack and peeked outside to make sure.

When he confirmed they were safe, he closed it.

“George?”

“Sorry, Rosa,” he said, letting out a shaky breath. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Something spooked me, that’s all.”

A wordless plea from Bill. George got up and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“It’s okay, Bill,” he said. “I’m fine. Just got startled, that’s all.”

But Bill didn’t seem placated.

Rosa had been harried, but after some time she collected herself and changed the subject.

“The money?” she asked.

“I have it.” George reached for his wallet. “Here,” he said, handing her forty dollars, thirty for the extra hours and the rest as a tip. “Thank you very much.”

She stuffed the money in her pocket, then looked up and asked, “What about the rest?”

George’s forehead crinkled and he closed his eyes. “Rosa, I told you. I’m saving up for that.”

“George, I need the money.”

“I know,” he said, starting to get angry, and he had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from saying something he’d regret later. “You’ll get it soon, Rosa.”

She sighed and went to the couch to collect her things.

“Are you okay, Bill?” she asked, smoothing his hair.

He was rocking his head from side to side, keening softly.

“George, is he okay?”

“He’s probably just tired,” he said, though he could feel Bill’s anxiety radiating off him like a fever. “I’ll take care of him. Thanks.”

“See you guys tomorrow,” she said, and she left them alone in their apartment.

“What’s wrong?” asked George, sitting down beside him.

Bill turned to face him, an awkward gesture that seemed to require a lot of effort. His mouth twisted and contorted as he tried unsuccessfully to form words.

Bill was worried about him, George realized.

“Hey, Bill, don’t worry. I’m fine. Just a little shaken up.”

He thought about mentioning the man and what had happened outside, then decided against it. Bill didn’t need more reason to be scared.

He was hoping for things to return to normal, that he could sleep soon, but Bill was still anxious, and in the end George had stayed up late to console him. He couldn’t say when he’d fallen asleep on the couch, only that the last time he glanced at the clock by the TV the display had read 2:16 a.m.

15.

George stood in an open field, the grass a deep cartoony green. He wasn’t sure what he was doing there or where he was going, only that he had somewhere to be, somewhere important. His heart seized in a star burst of panic. What if he was late? What if he wandered the world forever trying to figure it out?

There was a woman sunning herself on a bench, and beside her a small plastic radio. The device tugged at his senses so that he had trouble focusing on anything else.

The radio was tuned to some far away station with a lot of static, a dull flat Shh. Yet every now and then, a string of words broke through.

Shh…for the low price of…shh…call your Uncle Ben…shh…”

George finally managed to pull himself away and continued his journey. All the while, the sound of the radio lingered, as if the world itself were a radio.

The commercials ended and Nirvana’s Come As You Are began to play.

Bill. He was somewhere nearby. George could feel him, just beyond the range of his vision. He stopped to look around.

He was on a highway now, an empty stretch of road that extended beyond the horizon in both directions, surrounded by flat, rocky desert. Beside him in an abandoned car was the same dark gray radio, sitting in the passenger seat with the driver’s side window rolled down.

The music continued playing.

“Bill, is that you? Where are you?”

That’s why he was here, he realized, to find his brother.

“Bill?”

George strained his ears and began to pick out hidden sounds buried beneath the static. Nirvana was now interleaved with something else, a dark malevolent voice.

“Use them…kill them…”

By now, George’s heart was banging out Morse code and he was having trouble breathing. He swiveled, began to turn in little half circles as he walked up and down the road in the dry convection oven heat, searching for the source of the voice, something ancient and transcendent.

“Kill both of them…”

“Bill?” cried George.

The world had turned gray and thin, and George became aware of a looming darkness beyond.

“When we’re released…Destroy…Kill…”

“Bill, where are you? Help me!”

“Coming for you…”

The owner of that voice was close, and when it got there it would close its hands around his throat. The world began to spin. George felt like throwing up. Meanwhile, his surroundings had dimmed to the point of near translucency, with the darkness on the outside leaching through the weakened barrier.

“Coming…Kill…”

George turned.

“Bill!”

His brother appeared before him transfigured. He was not the broken man George had known for most of their lives, but an undistorted mirror image of himself.

“Coming for you,” the voice continued, “Coming to kill…”

“Bill,” said George, “We have to get out of here. He’s coming.”

Bill didn’t speak, only stood there on the scorching asphalt, staring at him like Jesus of Nazareth. He grabbed George’s shoulder, and for a moment he lost himself in Bill’s eyes, wide, pleading and wet. In that instant, the whole of Bill’s mind had opened to him, so full of desperation, frustration and fear that he was nearly blinded. Then Bill pushed him down hard into the road.

Shocked, George thought he’d crack his skull. But instead he penetrated the surface, and as he fell through endless black, the sound of the radio faded, until—

16.

George woke with a start and realized he’d dozed on the couch. The clock by the TV read 4:23 a.m.
He tried to remember what had scared him and why he’d woken in a cold sweat, but like many of his nightmares, it had already slipped from his mind’s grasp. All he could remember was a radio, mounding fear and an endless expanse of black, sun-baked road.

He glanced at Bill, slumped in his wheelchair, and worried he would wake up sore if he wasn’t moved soon.

He checked Bill’s diaper to confirm it was still clean, then wheeled him into their shared bedroom. He unfastened his straps and hefted him onto the mattress, carefully so as not to wake him. He positioned Bill’s arms and legs, tucked him into his blanket, tilted his head comfortably against the pillow, checked the guard rails to make sure they were secure and finally lay down on his own mattress.

George couldn’t shake the emotional aftershock of the dream. He closed his eyes and tried to catch some last minute sleep, but it was no use, and though it was Saturday and he didn’t have to go to work, after thirty minutes of laying in bed he gave up and went to the kitchen to prepare a pot of coffee.

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