The Stronger Half, Chapters 4–7

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

4.

October, 1997

George, now twelve, sat on the porch of his childhood home with Bill, who basked in the late afternoon sun. He’d just gotten home from Buena Park Junior High, an environment he would unwittingly reenter at Walker only a decade later. It had been George’s first day back after a temporary home study. He’d been doing poorly in school since the accident, obsessed with Bill and his condition and consumed by guilt, and his parents had decided to pull him out for a while to give him time to adjust.

The other kids had already been talking by the time he got back, calling Bill names like Cripple, Fuckwit and Retard. One of Bill’s friends had visited a week ago, left fifteen minutes later and hadn’t been back since. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the gossip had started. There was a time, he reflected with only the vague sense of shame that childhood allowed, when he too would have used such words. Since the accident, however, he’d learned a kinder vocabulary.

George glanced over at Bill, and for a moment he was certain he could feel the sharp, bitter sting of betrayal. But that was impossible. He hadn’t told Bill about it yet, so how could he already know?
“Let’s play race car,” said George, and suddenly he could feel the cloud of gloom above his brother’s head evaporate.

It was a game George had invented a couple weeks ago. He would take Bill’s wheelchair and zoom up and down the sidewalk. He was careful not to do it within earshot of Mom or Dad. They were still reeling from the accident and would have dragged him inside, never letting him play with Bill alone again. But he knew it was something his brother enjoyed, and since the accident he’d made it his mission to make Bill happy.

“Here we go,” said George, wheeling him onto the sidewalk. “Ready?”

His twin emitted a guttural cry. A wound spring inside George uncoiled and he dashed across the hot cement.

“Vuvvv!” sputtered George, his mouth vibrating like a motor. He reached the neighbor’s house, turned, then made off in the other direction. “Vuvvv!”

“Hey, look! It’s Retard and his brother.”

A stone fell inside George’s stomach before he turned. Across the street stood a fat tub of lard named Scott Dunbar. He used to come over to their house on weekends to show off with his skateboard (though he’d never even landed an ollie.) He’d turned out to be one of Bill’s most vehement detractors.
Now, Tub of Lard flashed a predatory grin, making him look like an overly plump jack-o-lantern. Beside him were two hollow-eyed posers, Greg and Ryan. They too had once feigned allegiance to Bill, then like Judas Iscariot had betrayed him when the political winds of the school changed direction.

The worst was that Bill had been fairly well liked before the accident. Now that he was different, however, everyone had turned on him, most of all his best friends.

“Hey,” called Tub of Lard again, “We have a question.”

George closed his eyes. Clenched his fists. Opened them.

He inhaled. Exhaled.

In. Out.

He’d already gotten two detentions and a Saturday standing up for his brother, and it had only been his first day back. He didn’t need more trouble.

“Hey, I’m talking to you,” said Tub of Lard. “Or are you retarded like your brother?”

A roiling sea of anger and revulsion churned inside of him, and it was all he could do just to keep from pouncing on the little fat-fuck and giving him something to cry about. He gave Tub of Lard his most menacing “don’t fuck with me” glare. The two lackeys beside him shrank back a little, but that fat Cro-Magnon Scott was too stupid to pick up the message.

“See,” continued Tub of Lard, “Me, Ryan and Greg were just wondering, how does Retard jack off when he can’t use his arms?” Tub of Lard began to make small thrusting motions with his hips. Greg and Ryan both gave sickly chuckles in an effort to appease their current master without triggering George.
“Do you do it for him, George? I bet you do. I bet you—”

A jump shot in time, and then George was on top of him.

“Ow! Get off, you retard. I’ll kill you, you piece of shit, I’ll—”

George drew back his fist and fired.

Tub of Lard started to cry. “Stop,” he whined through a bloody nose, “Stop! Owww!”

“His name is Bill. Not Fuckwit. Not Retard. Say it.”

“Say what?”

George hit him again.

“His name. Say it!”

“Owww! Bill. Billll!”

Sensing that the political winds had shifted once more, Greg and Ryan bolted.

George was about to whale on him again when he looked up and spotted the man.

He was standing in the middle of the road, frozen like a marble statue as he stared at the houses on their street.

Thousands of invisible mites erupted from George’s skin. He stilled, mesmerized, eyes caught in a trap

that refused to let him look elsewhere.

The man.

George had been seeing him for a few months now, ever since the accident, and only when Bill was around. He was just beginning to figure out that nobody else could. Not Mom, not Dad, not his classmates. With a great many TV shows and movies under his belt about spies and law enforcement, he’d at first wondered if the man were a secret agent following him around. Or perhaps a predator (that possibility had kept him up at night.) Now, he wondered if the man were a ghost. Did ghosts even exist? He was old enough to doubt, yet young enough to still believe. Questioning the man’s existence wouldn’t occur to him until he was much older.

Then he felt Tub of Lard wriggle out from under him, just as he heard the cry of “George!” from the front door of his house.

The spell was broken.

He blinked, the moment of paralysis was gone, and when he looked back at the street the man had disappeared, replaced by Mom, already barreling toward him.

George tumbled onto his side as Tub of Lard staggered to his feet.

“What’s going on?” she demanded.

“He hit me!” wailed Tub of Lard, pointing at George with trembling lips.

“Get inside.”

“But Mom, he was making fun of Bill. He—”

“Inside!”

He had just enough time to stare daggers at Tub of Lard before Mom smacked him across the head and sent him racing toward the house. At least, he reflected later, he’d managed to draw blood. Tub of Lard might not be very bright, but he would remember that bloody nose for a while, and if he knew what was good for him he’d stay away from Bill.

5.

April, 2017

George got off at three and arrived home a little before three thirty. He lived on the top floor of a three story apartment complex in Anaheim in one of the cheapest units available (though at twelve hundred dollars a month, he would hardly have called it affordable.) He parked in the tiny concrete garage beneath the building and climbed the stairs. There was a ramshackle elevator he took whenever he was with Bill, but ordinarily he preferred to walk.

He opened the front door and found Rosa sitting on the couch beside his brother. They were watching a rerun of Jeopardy.

“In 1671,” said the timeless Alex Trebec, “John Milton revised this epic poem into twelve books featuring God and Satan.”

There was a pregnant pause, a buzzer signaling that time had run out, and then Alex offered helpfully, “That famous book was Paradise Lost.”

Rosa, a tiny woman in her fifties, was not paying attention to the screen, but was instead focused on her latest crochet project. Bill, however, scrutinized the display as if it contained the secrets of the universe.

“Home,” said George.

Rosa turned to acknowledge him before going back to the needles in her hands and the ball of yarn in her lap.

“Hello,” said Rosa, her face scrunched in concentration.

“How’s Bill?”

“Good,” and she looked up again and smiled. “Bill was very good today. No trouble, right Bill?”

He bobbed his head in George’s direction, offering him a lopsided grin.

“Well,” said Rosa after a few moments, packing her things into a brown leather handbag, “I should be going. See you tomorrow, Bill.”

George’s brother issued a rasping wordless reply.

“See you tomorrow, George.”

“Bye, Rosa.” He locked the door behind her.

George sat down beside Bill’s wheelchair. There was a depth in his brother’s eyes, a kind of longing that George would have given anything to fulfill. There was so much going on in that head of his, if only he could tap into it somehow. He talked to his brother often, sometimes into the small hours of the night, and Bill’s face would always twist and convulse with frustrated understanding. Sometimes, he imagined he could hear Bill inside his head, replying to his questions as well as offering insights of his own.
George watched TV with his brother in silence, through all the questions and commercials, until finally the legendary Jeopardy theme song brought the show to a close.

George glanced at his brother. “Ready for your walk?”

He could feel Bill’s burst of excitement as if it were his own, and he didn’t need the widening eyes to know he was eager.

6.

October, 1997

George sat beside his brother’s bed, a single mattress that had once been adorned with cowboy-themed bed sheets, but which now looked more like it belonged in a hospital. He was very quiet. Meanwhile, Bill lay with his eyes open, his head propped against the cushion, staring at George oddly through one side of his face.

“Scott’s such a fat fuck,” mumbled George.

Mom had made him go to Tub of Lard’s house to apologize. The smirk on Scott’s face as she stood there by his side, waiting for him to say the magic words, had ruined the rest of his day.

He’d explained to her what happened, but with a heavy sigh, she’d sat him down and told him he couldn’t beat up every kid who said bad things about Bill, that he was going to get that a lot and that he had to be strong. She said kids like Scott were insecure, that they needed to make others feel bad in order to feel good about themselves. But George wasn’t buying it. Sometimes, kids were just cruel, a fact many adults seemed to forget as they got older.

“I’m sorry, Bill,” said George, and he didn’t just mean for Scott and his lackeys. He was sorry for everything, for the car accident that had given Bill his traumatic brain injury and put him in a coma for almost three weeks, for the fact that Bill could no longer talk or move without the aid of a wheelchair, for the fact that for the rest of his life, Bill would have to be spoon fed like a baby.

“Remember when he came over in February with his skateboard, tried to grind on the porch and busted his lip? He cried for almost an hour. What a baby.” The memory summoned the ghost of a smile.

“Anyway, who cares what he thinks, right?”

And as he began to talk more, George felt a shift in the emotional current of the room, a gradual lessening of darker feelings that began to yield to an oncoming wave of amusement and fraternal love. George could feel a momentum building between them, and he continued to talk about anything he could think of, about school and what it was like to be back, about all the things that annoyed him about Mom and Dad, about the injustices of twelve year old life and the unrealistic burdens placed on his shoulders by parents and homework.

The irony was that he and Bill hadn’t talked this much before the accident. They’d been close, of course. There was an almost mystical connection that identical twins shared, a consequence of having been forged in the same spark of life, a near telepathy that allows two people to complete each other’s sentences or to know without speaking what the other is feeling. But there was another level of closeness, the kind born of shared frustration, despair and extreme loss. With the wisdom of someone much older, George knew that if necessary, he would offer his life in exchange for Bill’s.

“You won’t believe what Steve said at lunch today.” Bill gazed at him expectantly, and George continued. “He said they caught a guy following his little sister home from school. They arrested him, I think. Creepy.”

And then George thought of the man, and again the darker emotions surged.

“Bill, I saw him again today when we were outside. I’m scared.”

Unease settled into his stomach like a worm, crawling through his midsection until he was certain the man was waiting there in the dark behind him. If Bill hadn’t there, he would have launched from his bed like a rocket to turn on the light.

“Mom can’t see him, but I know he’s real. Can you see him, Bill?”

Frustration built up around the room like pent up thunder clouds. George wasn’t sure if it was Bill’s or his own. For a moment, the fact that Bill couldn’t answer his questions really hit home, and an almost suffocating despair threatened to crush him from the inside out. The talk he and Bill were having suddenly took on a hollow, plastic cast, as if their closeness were only a sham, a construct of George’s mind to protect him from losing it completely.

“I don’t know what to do,” said George.

Bill began to squirm like a snake, and George felt even more helpless.

“What’s wrong, Bill? Are you okay?”

Bill’s gyrations transformed into convulsions.

George began to cry.

“Mom,” he yelled, “Mom, something’s wrong with Bill!”

It took her almost an hour to calm him down, and when George finally went down for the night in the bed beside Bill’s, he couldn’t fall sleep. A few times, he skittered across the boundary of unconsciousness, but whenever he came close to crossing it he would feel Bill beside him, terrified and alone. George was certain he was ruminating on the man.

When he finally got up for school the next day, his eyes were dark and bloodshot.

7.

April, 2017

George pressed into the late afternoon with Bill at the forefront, a crippled knight mounted on his stainless steel steed. Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm sounded futilely. His neighborhood in Anaheim was not particularly nice, nor was it all that safe, but he hadn’t had any problems in the six or seven years since they’d been living there. Before, they’d stayed with Mom, but once she’d passed away it was time to move on.

A low bass groan emanated from Bill’s throat, quiet and plaintive.

“I’m fine,” said George. “Just thinking.”

He wondered sometimes how he would continue to take care of his brother on a janitor’s salary. Their inheritance had eased the burden some, but that source of income had almost run dry, and when it was gone George didn’t know what he’d do. His apartment was about the cheapest he could find in California, and still he could barely maintain it on his paycheck alone. Maybe he and Bill could move to Arizona or Texas. Why did California have to be so goddamn expensive?

He could have finished school, could have become an accountant like his father and made much more than he was making now. But he’d dropped out to help Mom take care of Bill instead. Sometimes, he thought that if he’d only let her handle him a few more years, he could have taken much better care of him now. But no, Mom had already grown frail by then, had never completely recovered from Dad’s death of a heart attack two years prior. As much as the loss of his degree had wounded him, as much as it had made the remainder of his life almost impossible to bear, it had still been the right thing to do.

They rounded a corner, and standing by an abandoned bus stop was the man. He was smoking like a chimney, peering up and down the sidewalk as if he’d lost something. George watched him, fascinated. The man often did that, seemed to search for something just out of reach. It used to creep him out when he was a kid.

Now, he just worried he was going crazy. He’d had a schizophrenic aunt who used to see things no one else could see. Before she was put away, she’d tried to stab his grandmother with a kitchen knife. What if a similar transformation was about to take place inside of him?

Bill groaned again.

“Are you okay? Want me to take you home?”

More groaning, an ululating plea.

Then the man gazed in their direction and froze.

George’s veins turned to ice. His eyes were locked on the man’s face, an indeterminate form hidden in harsh shadow in spite of the remaining light outside, and he couldn’t look away. The man had acknowledged him, something that had never happened before. And with the acknowledgment, the world around him seemed to lose definition, making the man stand out in stark relief to his surroundings.

George closed his eyes.

“You’re not real,” he whispered under his breath. “Go away, you’re not real.”

When he opened his eyes the man was gone.

The encounter had unnerved him, brought to the fore a rapid-fire succession of memories from troubled late-night dreams. George glanced around, feeling for the first time in his adult life unsafe in his own neighborhood. He glanced back at his brother.

“Come on, Bill. Let’s go home.”

The first 20 chapters of this novel are available online for free.

To continue reading chapters 8–13 for free, click here.