The Stronger Half, Chapters 19–20

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19.

July, 1997

George dreamed. It was the same dream he’d had last night, and the night before, only right now that wasn’t something he could remember.

“Where are you?” The voice that called to him was distant, hardly more than a whisper.

George wandered down an empty hospital corridor in search of it, the only source of light coming from the flickering LEDs of various medical devices left behind in empty hospital rooms.

“George, where are you?” Still distant, but closer. Bill. He recognized the voice now. He began to walk faster.

“Bill? Are you okay?”

He turned a corner, only to find himself faced with another dark corridor.

“George, where are you? I’m scared.”

“Here,” he said, becoming desperate and afraid himself. “Bill, I’m right here.”

Movement, a flicker on the periphery of vision, there and gone.

“Bill, is that you?”

“I’m lost,” he said, closer now. “Help me.”

“I don’t know where you are,” George answered, running after him now, only dimly aware that he’d already traversed a nearly infinite array of other corridors, all arranged in impossible directions.

“Keep talking,” said Bill, and George thought he saw more movement, again just on the edge of his vision. “I’ll follow your voice.”

So George kept talking.

“Bill, I think I saw you. Come back.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

No reply.

“Why, Bill?” George rounded another corner.

Then, in a whisper that somehow carried all the way to George’s ears: “He’s coming.”

“What?” And now George was afraid. He whirled, looked behind him, turned forward again just to find that the hospital’s configuration had changed once again.

“Who’s coming, Bill? Who?”

No reply.

George called out over and over again, until his throat was sore and his voice was hoarse. But Bill was gone. The world tilted and spun, and George began to trip over his feet like a drunkard.

Terror. The emotion uprooted him, rearranged the structure and purpose of the dream. George was no longer running to find his brother. He was running to survive.

Another corner. Another corridor.

A darkness, creeping up from behind.

Another corner. Another corridor.

It was almost on top of him.

Another corner. Another corridor.

It brushed against his ear. George thought he could hear it speak.

Another corner. Another corridor.

It reached out.

Another corner. Another corridor.

Touched his shoulder.

Another corner. Another corridor.

George screamed.

His eyes popped open, and he recoiled from the hand on his shoulder.

“Relax, Kiddo.”

Dad? Where had he come from?

And then the dream dissolved. Bill was right there in his bed, just where he’d been when George had fallen asleep—of course he was, why wouldn’t he be?—and Mom and Dad were here too, because he’d come with them to visit Bill in the hospital. Yes, he remembered now.
George sank to his knees, curled into himself like a roly-poly and began to cry once more.

20.

April, 2017

Now, in the present, George dreamed again.

He was wandering down a long, dark tunnel alone. On one end, a bright white light shone, its distance impossible to judge. For a fleeting instant, he was reminded of documentaries and movies he’d seen as a kid, where people who’d been clinically dead claimed they could see a light at the end of a long tunnel.

George was afraid, but he walked anyway because he had nowhere else to go. As he walked, the tunnel grew longer, almost like it was alive. The walls were smooth stone, dark ebony bricks illuminated by a dim but evenly spaced illumination that seemed to manifest from the air itself.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been walking—it could have been a couple minutes or a couple hours—but he stopped when he spotted a break in the wall, the only aberration he’d seen in an otherwise uniform structure. Having somewhere other than the light to follow brought him immeasurable relief. He turned toward it and continued walking.

The walls here were different, concrete instead of stone and covered from floor to ceiling in unintelligible graffiti. It was a back alley of some sort, a dark, neglected place. At one point, it got into his head that he was searching for someone, and just as the thought occurred to him he heard a sound, distant but clear.

Crying.

It grew louder, until he was standing in front of his apartment door, only a much darker, ramshackle version of it. It didn’t occur to him that he hadn’t needed to climb the stairs.

George opened the door and walked inside.

The interior of his apartment was in shambles. The windows were broken—some had even been boarded up—and the furniture had been tossed around as if someone had ransacked the place. Broken glass was strewn about the floor.

Sitting in the dark in the middle of the living room was Bill, huddled in his wheelchair, gaunt and pale.

“Bill?”

His brother looked up, startled.

“George?”

Bill stopped crying. Suddenly there was color in his cheeks and he put on weight. George couldn’t have said how or when the transformation occurred. Bill looked so much like George now that for an instant, he thought he was gazing in a mirror. It was Bill, but here, just now, he was not disabled in any way.

“George,” asked Bill again, “Is that you? How did you get here?”

“Yes,” he said, walking slowly toward the wheelchair. “I don’t know, I heard you crying, and then I found you here.”

“I never thought—” Bill stopped to wipe his nose. “I mean, I never thought you’d actually— I’m so embarrassed.”

He stood, and just like that the wheelchair disappeared.

“You can walk,” said George. He wasn’t shocked, wasn’t the least bit surprised. Right here, in this moment, it felt right, as natural as breathing.

“Yes,” said Bill. “I can do all kinds of things here,” and for a second, despite the red puffy eyes that sparkled with newly shed tears, Bill smiled, a radiant model of emotional perfection as blinding as the sun.

Then the smile disappeared.

“George, we have to talk. Now, before it’s too late.”

But before he could say more, the room exploded with a voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“We’re coming,” said the voice, tinny like a radio. “We’re coming for you both.”

The room started to fade, and beyond, George was once more able to sense the darkness on the outside, bleeding through.

“Oh, we’re going to enjoy this so much.”

Bill grabbed George by the collar.

“George, don’t listen. You have to—”

The voice spoke again, louder, fuller, drowning out his brother’s words.

“That crippled piece of shit knows nothing. We’re coming for you. We’re going to kill you, do you understand? We’re going to take a knife and we’re going to slit—”

George stared into Bill’s eyes. For a moment, he could see entire worlds spinning just beyond their watery exteriors. Then Bill threw him down, hard, in a direction perpendicular to space and time. There was a lurch, a heave and then—

*              *              *

George bolted from the mattress, clutching his chest as if he’d just had a massive heart attack. This time, he managed to seize the tail end of the dream before it vanished.

He glanced around the room, filled with sinister shapes and shadows. He didn’t know what time it was or how long he’d been asleep, only that it was the middle of the night.

A dream, that was all. He was worried about the man, worried about his brother, and his brain had cobbled together the rest, a highly abstract horror film custom made for him.

George rolled over and closed his eyes, tried to steady his breathing and tamp down the dark foreboding that was causing his skin to prickle with goosebumps. He took a deep breath. Relaxed. Teetered on the precipice of sleep.

A hand grabbed his shoulder.

George recoiled, nearly rolling over the guardrail. He turned around, and there was Bill with his eyes wide open.

“Jesus, Bill,” said George, “You scared the shit out of me.”

His brother moaned, soft and plaintive. His desperation was plain.

“I’m scared too,” said George. “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this.”

Bill flailed his arms, frustrated, grabbed hold of George’s shoulder once more.

“What’s wrong?” He looked around, almost expecting to see the man standing in the bedroom beside them. “Is it him? Is he here?”

Bill’s head bobbed in the affirmative, and George thought he could hear a screaming voice inside his head, trying to warn him of imminent danger. A rush of liquid ice displaced the blood in his arms and legs.

“I’ll look.”

“Aaaarrrrggghh!” Bill’s face had scrunched tight, eyes wet.

George pried himself from his surprisingly strong grip, climbed over the guardrail and walked across the room. When he was sure no one was there, he headed for the door. He peeked over the edge of the threshold, hiding behind the wall, and took in the couch and the TV, bathed in the sinister light of nearby street lamps. He lingered, waited until he was sure the living room was also empty, then walked toward the bathroom.

All the while his heart hammered in his chest. George wondered if Bill had also had a bad dream. Perhaps that was why he was so antsy. He wanted desperately to believe that.

He took hold of the bathroom doorknob. Paused. Threw the door open with a crash. His finger groped the light switch. He instinctively flicked it on.

The room flooded with sharp light. George squinted. Finally, the scene before him resolved, and he noted with relief that the room was empty. George let loose a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, filled his bathroom cup with water and drank.

He stared at himself in the mirror. His hair was ragged and his eyes were red. When had life gotten so hard, so unbearable? He wanted to believe that this too would pass, that he would find his way through to the other side along with Bill, wherever and whatever that fabled other side happened to be. He wondered if there would be any relief this side of death.

He sighed, set the cup down by the sink and turned out the light.

Exhaustion followed in the shadow of George’s terror. He would sleep now. He would sink into his own pillow this time, close his eyes, and he wouldn’t open them again for a long time.

He’d almost made it to the bedroom when another hand fell on his shoulder.

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