The Stronger Half, Chapters 17–18

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17.

April, 2017

George squinted up at a cluster of foliage, a jumbled mosaic of greens and browns against a backdrop of sunny blue, and pushed Bill’s wheelchair along a winding concrete path. They were strolling through Peak Park. Ordinarily, it was another of Bill’s favorite destinations, and George often took him there on weekends. But today Bill was brooding, something uncharacteristic of him, and George wasn’t sure what he could do to snap him out of it.

Their parents used to take them to Peak Park when they were kids. Most of the other children would lunge for the playground equipment in a Texas Cage Style free-for-all, but George and Bill had always headed straight for the grass and pretended to chart unexplored worlds.

After the accident and the very long recovery that followed, George had continued to play in the park with his brother, refusing to let the fantasy die. George would take the lead by telling Bill exactly what he should see, and he was certain Bill could visualize it, that somehow his imagination had grown stronger to compensate for the loss of his other faculties.

Now George shivered a little, though the weather was warm. He couldn’t get that dream out of his head. It had glommed to his brain like glue, tainting the rest of the day.

“It’s nice out, isn’t it?” said George, trying to dispel the gray cloud that had settled over their heads.

Bill moaned, a sharp, inarticulate expression of profound annoyance.

“What’s wrong?”

His brother’s face contorted with frustration and anger.

“I wish you could tell me what was bothering you.”

Bill’s face grew more dour in reply.

George sighed, wheeled him to a nearby bench and sat. He wished he could enjoy the weekend. He was usually grateful for those precious two days. It was his time to be with Bill, to unwind, to try and forget the burdens that were always pushing down on him so hard.

“Remember when we used to play hide and seek?” That had been before the accident. George pointed to the grassy field nearby.

“Ahhg,” replied his twin, deep and guttural.

“Bill, I don’t understand why you’re in such a bad mood.”

His brother began to thrash his head from side to side, face scrunched into a ball of red-hot anger.

“Hey, what’s your problem?” And for the first time in a great while, he raised his voice at Bill. “Why are you being so difficult? It’s not like you.”

He stared at his twin, writhing as if he were frying in the electric chair.

He’d been getting progressively more agitated, had been making George’s life increasingly difficult, and there wasn’t any obvious reason for it. Was he sick? In pain? Scared? George realized he wasn’t so much frustrated with his brother’s behavior as he was by his own inability to understand it.

They’d developed a pretty good rapport over the years, and George usually felt he understood his brother well, certainly better than anyone else. But now, he was reminded of how little he truly knew, of all the secret thoughts that orbited around inside Bill’s head, entire constellations of ideas and beliefs that they would never be able to share.

“Bill,” said George, leaning in and putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I really am. I’m trying to understand, but it’s hard.” A tear almost fell from his eye, but he held it back. “I just wish I knew what you wanted.”

Suddenly Bill stopped thrashing. He jerked his broken face toward George’s eyes, and for a moment the two transcended language, understanding each other’s struggles wholly and completely.

Then the world began to darken just as Bill let out a cracked shriek.

George’s head whipped around.

Sitting on the bench next to them was the man, staring at them. George leaped to his feet, tripped over the bench and banged into Bill’s wheelchair with a metallic clank.

The man kept gazing at the spot where George and Bill had been sitting as if they were still there. Meanwhile, the world started to lose definition, until George felt like he was looking at the park through gauze. He imagined he could sense something more, just beyond the range of ordinary human perception, a creeping darkness that radiated from the man in thick, undulating waves. Whatever he appeared to be on the outside, he wasn’t human.

“You can see him, can’t you?” said George, putting two and two together. “That’s what’s been bothering you.”

Bill’s head bobbed up and down. Now George understood. He wasn’t crazy. The man existed. Bill could see him even if no one else could.

A dark fascination took hold of him then, an unhealthy curiosity, and for a moment time seemed to slow. The world had grown thin enough in the man’s presence that if George focused, he thought he could see part of the way through, like gazing through smoked glass. The man was a gateway, he thought, and the darkness was the world beyond. There were voices there, a chorus of silent screams he heard not with his ears but with a sense that transcended the physical, something grotesque, the kind of abject horror that stalked you during the day in every half-glimpsed shadow, that suddenly resolved in terrifying clarity the moment you fell asleep, making you wake in a cold sweat, the kind of fear that would one day drive you into your own padded cell. And in them, through them, another voice composed of their intersection, was the man, a distant, staticky whisper, a sound he was certain he’d heard before in his dreams: “We’re coming for you.”

Finally, the man’s eyes focused on him. Startled, George nearly snapped backward.

The spell was broken.

The man rose to his feet.

“Let’s go!” said George, struggling as he pushed Bill across the grass.

All the while, the man just sat there with those penetrating eyes, as if he hadn’t yet registered they were leaving. It was like being in a movie where the audio had been allowed to play out of sync with the video.

George felt like he was floating, like he was hardly there at all. The sensation of his feet as they pounded against the grass, the cries of shouting children as they jumped, climbed and played, all of these felt hollow, as if they’d been swallowed by the darkness.

He swiveled back and forth while he ran, heart pounding, watching the man’s eyes as they followed his path through the park. At last, the man seemed to process that they’d fled, and a moment later he rose and began to follow briskly in their direction.

“I won’t let him get you,” promised George, whispering fiercely into Bill’s ear. “I’ll protect you.”

He fished through his pockets for his keys, fingers shaking as the man got closer. At last, he managed to fumble the door open. He started fiddling with Bill’s straps, trying to get them undone.

“Almost there,” said George, constantly looking up and noting that the man had nearly closed the gap. “There we go,” he whispered, finally heaving Bill into the front seat. He folded the wheelchair, threw it into the back with a loud thud and swung around to the driver’s side.

“Come on,” he growled when the engine wouldn’t start.

The man was about fifteen feet away.

“Start, you bastard. Fucking thing!”

Ten feet.

“Goddammit!”

The man was almost at the door.

Finally, the engine roared to life. George backed out fast, tires screeching when he had to slam on his brakes to keep from hitting another car. He shifted gears, punched the gas and left the man standing in the parking lot, staring at an empty space.

18.

George sat on the couch in their apartment, staring at a blank TV screen. He’d been there for at least two hours, ever since he’d arrived from the park. Bright early evening light streamed through the windows, and like King Midas, it turned everything it touched to gold.

His right leg pumped up and down like a piston, powering the gears inside his head, each one grinding furiously as his brain tried to derive a solution to an ill-defined problem. George was scared. Really scared. More scared than he’d ever been in his life.

He’d put Bill to bed almost an hour ago, but he was certain his brother was awake, staring at the ceiling with that broken body of his, just as frightened as he was. Perhaps more. How helpless must he feel? George could run if necessary. He had control of his arms and legs. But what about Bill? He was wholly dependent on George. He couldn’t let his brother down.

At least he knew he wasn’t crazy. His mind had oscillated for so long between “the man’s real” and “I’m crazy,” a maddening internal debate that had droned on and on like a presidential election, and it was a relief to finally have that question settled once and for all.

What did the man want? He intended them harm, George was certain of that, even if he’d never managed to speak. But what was his motive? George felt as if he’d stepped into the middle of a horror movie without any advance knowledge of the script.

He wouldn’t let the man get Bill. But what if he got George instead? Bill didn’t have anywhere to go. They had some relatives dispersed throughout various states, some elderly aunts and uncles and a few cousins, but none of them would be able or willing to care for him. He would end up a ward of the state, left to rot in some taxpayer-funded institution that would never understand him or give him the love he needed.

George had to get through this. He had to be strong for Bill.

Terror. Desperation. A dam broke inside George’s head and the two emotions flooded into him, drowning all other thoughts and sensations.

Bill.

He rushed into the room to find his brother staring at the ceiling, eyes wide and bulging.

“I’m here,” said George. “It’s all right.”

His twin had begun to thrash against the mattress, awkwardly clutching the guard rails on both ends.
“Bill,” repeated George, grabbing him by the shoulders. “It’s me. You’re all right. Everything’s going to be all right.”

If only Bill could talk! If there was ever a time where talk was necessary it was now. The bond they shared had never felt more superficial, and George fell onto the mattress beside his brother in despair.

“Bill,” said George, and he couldn’t help himself, not any longer. He cried, real hulking man tears, shaking racking sobs. All the while he clutched Bill, rocked him back and forth, cradled him in his strong muscular arms, desperate and afraid and completely out of his depth.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to protect you.”

It was going to happen all over again, George realized, just like the accident during their summer trip to the Alamo. He’d dared his brother to take off his seat belt so he could stand up against the driver’s side window and make faces at the truck driver beside them. The distraction had caused Dad to miss the other driver swerving toward them. Everyone with a seat belt had been fine. Bill had flown headfirst into the dash.

George grabbed Bill’s hand, and a wave of powerful calming sensations overwhelmed him. Sleep, they seemed to croon, sleep, and George was suddenly drowsy.

No, have to keep my eyes open. Have to protect Bill.

But it was no use. The emotional tide was too strong. It dragged him under. He would protect Bill, he thought just before drug-like sedation drubbed him over the head. Because if he failed, just like when they were kids, it would be his fault.

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