The Stronger Half, Chapters 2 and 3

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2.

April, 2017

George dreamed that night.

He wandered through an empty suburban neighborhood, trying to find his way home. But every time he turned a corner, he found himself faced with more rows of empty houses and more street corners. Like a hall of mirrors, the identical buildings seemed to go on forever as near perfect reflections. Every time he turned, he would look up to read a street sign, and every time, as soon as he continued walking, he would forget what the sign had said. He would try to look again, would be sure it said something different, and would already have forgotten again by the time he turned away once more.

The streets curved and stretched at odd angles, as if the world, left too long in the sun, had started to melt. The strange geometry was disorienting.

He’d grown up in this neighborhood, had spent his childhood and adolescent years here with Mom, Dad and Bill, so why couldn’t he find his way now?

As he wended through one barren street after another, he became more and more certain he was being followed. The entity who sought George couldn’t see him, he was sure of that, but it could sense his proximity, and it was homing in on him.

A darkness had begun to descend over the world, not an absence of light but of substance, a hollowing in the fabric of reality. The sun lost its warmth. Colors lost their vibrancy. Reality was wearing down to a thin membrane, and George was scared he’d puncture it if he wasn’t careful, that the whole thing would come apart like a poorly constructed stage prop to reveal the true darkness beyond.

The being who dwelled in that darkness was some sort of avatar, a composition of many, a chorus of silent screams that had been ravaging, plundering and consuming before time and space. It was bleeding through now, and the closer it got to George’s world, the more aware of each other they became.

While George moved through the warren of deserted streets, another part of himself moved in parallel through the darkness on the outside, so that he was two beings at the same time. He was George, who was running now, scrambling to get away, though he was quickly learning that there was nowhere left that was safe. And he was the entity pursuing him, bubbling up through the layers of the cosmos, drawn to George like a magnet to a bar of iron.

Away. George had to get away. And outside, in the darkness, the part of himself that was this other entity caught his scent and grinned. The universe had grown ripe since it was last locked away, and it was eager to feed once more.

George turned a corner and spotted Bill, leaning against a car parked in front of one of the houses. He knew it was Bill, even though it was like looking in a mirror, even though in real life Bill’s features had long since wilted in the furnace of his disability. George’s eyes fixed on him, so bright and full of life that he was nearly blinded.

“Bill, can you show me the way home?”

His brother opened his mouth to speak, but George couldn’t hear what he was saying.

“What?”

Bill opened his mouth again, but there was only silence.

Meanwhile, that entity in the dark was closing.

“Bill, I don’t understand. What are you trying to say?”

His brother’s features grew more frustrated. His mouth opened wider, until it seemed that he was almost shouting. Now George could pick out some sound, though his brother’s voice was hardly more than a whisper.

“George…have to…danger…”

And then the world around him dissolved.

*              *              *

George’s eyes popped open. Terrified, he lunged for the black swivel lamp that stood on the nightstand between their two beds and flipped the switch. The room exploded in harsh white light, dispelling the last vestiges of an already fading dream.

He glanced at his twin, still fast asleep, and sighed. He was tired of having nightmares. He’d been plagued by them since childhood, ever since Bill’s accident. Were the two related? George often woke in the middle of the night, feeling as if he’d been pursued and had only narrowly escaped a monstrous evil.

His arms and legs were coated in a slick film of sweat, and he peeled back the covers to air himself out. After a while, he turned out the light and closed his eyes. But the anxiety lingered, and he lay awake in bed until his alarm blared at 4:30 a.m.

3.

A crumpled ball of paper rolled across the blacktop, bouncing in the wind like an urban tumbleweed. George reached for it with a mechanical trash picker and dropped it into a large plastic bag. It was almost lunch time, and he steeled himself for the battlefield the school would become when the bell rang.

He’d been the janitor of Walker Jr. High for almost ten years. It wasn’t a great living, but it almost paid the bills, and George would take any stable work he could get.

Junior high today was very different from when he’d been in school. In those days, cell phones had been rare, and teachers would confiscate them if they saw them. Now, having them was the universally accepted norm and you were a weirdo if you didn’t carry one. George could never be certain if things had changed for the better.

He rounded a corner, spotted more trash beside a concrete flower bed and reached out to snatch it up. As he leaned in, he glanced through one of the classroom windows. Inside, a boy with large, afro-like hair turned from his lesson to glare at another boy in back of him. He’d just thrown a pencil at the kid’s head. George saw the anger and frustration welling in his eyes and seethed.

The kids at school used to make fun of Bill all the time, and George had fought to the last with bullies twice his size in a furious attempt to defend his brother’s honor. George hoped the kid in the classroom would one day find the courage to stand up for himself, something Bill had never been able to do.

George was reaching for a dented Styrofoam cup when the Gary Jules version of Mad World started playing in his right overalls pocket. He set the trash picker against a brick wall and pulled out his phone.

“Hi, Rosa. Is everything okay?”

She was Bill’s caretaker. George would have preferred to stay home and care for Bill himself, but at the roughly ten dollars per hour IHSS would have paid him to do so, he would have made less than he did as a janitor. As it was, George already pictured little US dollar butterflies bursting free of his bank account every time he had to pay a bill.

“Yes, I’m aware. No, I haven’t forgotten.”

A few weeks ago, George had come down with a terrible fever. He hadn’t wanted to get Bill sick, so he’d booked a cheap room at a Motel 6 and asked Rosa to stay overnight. IHSS wouldn’t pay her enough overtime to cover round-the-clock care, and George didn’t have time to find someone else to work the hours he would have been home. Instead, he promised to pay Rosa for the additional time under the table, a bill that after two days had totaled 480 dollars. He was still accumulating the meager leftovers of his paychecks after rent and utilities and hadn’t yet collected the full amount.

“Rosa, I’m doing my best.” A pause. “Rosa, please, calm down. You’ll get your money.”

George rubbed his forehead with the palm of his free hand.

Though the government otherwise took care of Bill’s financial burden, there was nothing they could do for the burden of time and stress in managing Bill’s care. George had to fill out paperwork. He had to coordinate with a social worker. He had to keep an eye on Bill’s caretaker to make sure she was doing her job—at ten dollars per hour, the ones he’d worked with over the years hadn’t always been a paragon of their profession. He’d gotten lucky with Rosa, who seemed to require little management and was good with Bill, but at some point she too would move on, especially if he couldn’t cobble together the extra money soon.

“Rosa, I’ll take care of it. I just need more time. Yes, I understand. Okay, bye.”

George ended the call and dropped the phone into his pocket.

A moment later, a burst of radio static exploded from his other overalls pocket, followed by a female voice he didn’t expect.

“George, we’ve got overturned trash cans in the cafeteria. Can you take care of it?”

Already? Yet George was smiling when he reached for his thin black walkie-talkie.

“Got it, Susie. On my way.”

He turned around and headed for the cafeteria.

Susie wasn’t a custodian, someone he would’ve expected to make the call, but an administrator in the office, a pretty black-haired woman in her mid-thirties who George had been surprised to discover had a crush on him. Sometimes, she would pass by where he was working, watch him lift heavy trash cans, scrub the carpet in the cafeteria or bend down to pick up wandering pieces of trash, and flash him a brief but mischievous smile. He’d thought about asking her out, but between work and Bill, his hands were always full.

He entered the building and spotted two dark gray trash cans, each stamped AUHSD against one of the walls. They were turned over on their sides with milky fluids and food dribbling onto the carpet. He raided a nearby cabinet for supplies, squatted beside the mess and began to clean.

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