The Stronger Half, Chapters 8–13

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8.

April, 2017

George had had to work late the following day. Some kid had trashed two of the bathrooms, and lucky him, George got to stay behind to clean up the mess. When he set aside the yellow caution tape blocking off the entrance to one of the restrooms after school, when he got a good look at the wads of toilet paper that clung like wasps nests to the walls and the ceiling, when he took in the clogged up toilets filled nearly to the brim with brown murky water, he closed his eyes and silently prayed for eternal damnation to befall the responsible party.

He was supposed to have gone home at three. Instead, it was almost five and he was still scrubbing. Kids never thought about the guy who had to clean up after them. They were too absorbed in their shallow little worlds to give a shit.

He’d called Rosa to let her know she needed to stay longer, and once more he’d offered to pay her under the table. She balked at that, but after assuring her it would only be for two or three hours, and after doubly assuring her that he already had the money for it in his checking account and that he would stop by the ATM before he got off work, she’d reluctantly agreed.

George reached into the second to the last toilet with his bare hands. He felt around the smooth porcelain bottom, searching for the pulpy mass he’d found in the other units. When his fingers brushed against it he took hold, pulled and watched as the water spiraled down, through the drain and out of sight.

He sighed, rose to his feet and rinsed his hands. There was no soap in any of the dispensers, so he made a mental note to grab some from a supply closet before going home.

George couldn’t stop thinking about the man. Yesterday’s encounter had stuck with him all morning and all through lunch, lending to his day a surreal and ominous quality. He was terrified of losing his grip on reality. If that happened, who would take care of Bill? And if the man were real, what did he want? These were questions he’d managed to put off answering, questions he’d always felt more comfortable burying beneath the tedium of his daily routine where they could do little to threaten what was otherwise, aside from Bill, an ordinary life.

Bill. What did he think about all this? George had been open with him since they were kids, had included the subject in many of their late night talks. But did Bill believe him? Deep down, George thought he might. This would have sounded crazy to anyone else, and perhaps it was just the pleading frustrated look he could see every night in his brother’s eyes, but George was sure that Bill had been trying to warn him of something. He wished desperately that they could communicate, that their late night talks could be more than just a monologue.

George sighed and gazed back at the empty stalls. Just one more toilet to go, a final mopping of the floor and he could finally go home.

9.

George left campus a little before five thirty. The sun had just begun to set, razing the sky in copper-colored fire. It was Friday, one of Bill’s gym days, but George was too tired to go. He felt bad. Bill looked forward to swimming; it was one of his favorite things to do. But George didn’t have the strength. He would relieve Rosa of her duty, spend some time with his brother in front of the TV and go to bed.

The street lights had flicked on, revealing a mostly empty parking lot with his own vehicle off to the side in one of the staff spaces. He stopped beneath a lamp and gazed up at the glowing orb of light. Then he turned his head toward his piece of shit Chevy Malibu, which he’d bought used a few years ago.

What a mistake.

It had turned out to require a ton of maintenance, nearly sending his checking account into cardiac arrest, and after a while George began to think that perhaps he should have just bit the bullet and bought a new car. It probably would have been cheaper in the long run. There were so many financial G-forces pulling him down, slumping his shoulders, making him feel half as tall and twice as old.
When he got tired of feeling sorry for himself, he opened and started the car. He had to turn the key three times before the engine sputtered to life.

He lost himself in the steady thump of the wheels against the asphalt, in the colors and shapes that streaked by through the windows beside him. Only the dimmest and most mechanical part of himself paid any attention to where he was going. The rest was somewhere far away, with Bill, with Mom before she’d died. Each recollection pointed to another more painful memory, the one he didn’t want to think about. It was the day everything had changed, the day Bill’s and George’s lives had derailed.
Every time George steered his mind in a different direction, he found it staring him in the face through the windshield once again. Every road in the landscape of his mind lead to the same place. A place of frustration. A place of pain. A place of guilt.

George had never been able to shake that. It had only sharpened over the years. He didn’t think he would ever come to terms with it, didn’t think he’d ever accept what had happened. Because he knew the truth.

The accident had been his fault.

10.

July, 1997

“Bill?”

George stood in the doorway of his brother’s hospital room, bathed in a sterile white light. His brother lay in bed, badly bruised and unconscious. Tubes, sensors and breathing apparatuses connected to his arms, nose and chest so that he looked like he was half machine.

George’s parents were behind him. Dad laid a hand on his shoulder, communicating so many of the things he rarely expressed with words.

“Bill,” whispered George, his voice hoarse and husky. “Bill, I’m so sorry. It’s my fault, it’s all my—” And then some mischievous creature inside George’s head flipped an emotional switch, and against his will he began to sob. He coughed and choked, gasped and sputtered as one emotional current after another swelled, roared through him, ravaging his body, making his face hot and flushed, his eyes painful and swollen. His cheeks were baptized in the dual rivers of guilt and despair.

“George,” said Mom, clutching him tight against her, beginning to cry herself. “George, it’s okay, you didn’t mean it. Nobody meant it. It was a horrible accident, a God awful, horrible accident. Don’t feel guilty, sweetie, please don’t feel guilty.”

But he did. He felt the gravity of it as it slowly crushed him alive.

They sat in a row of chairs that had been placed against the wall, and George continued to cry, pressed firmly against Mom’s chest, until the weight of his guilt had slowed his breathing and finally dragged him to sleep.

11.

In the dream that followed, George was sitting in the same chair, only now his parents were gone and there was only Bill, laying in bed, the same tubes and sensors connected to his face and arms. He couldn’t remember what had put Bill in the hospital, only that there’d been some kind of accident and that it had been his fault.

I did this to him.

The thought burst inside him like a grenade. The world was now a writhing sea of soul crushing guilt. George had never before known such exquisite pain. He felt certain the percussive force of it would kill him.

I’m so sorry, Bill. I’m so sorry.

He thought he could hear his brother, screaming from somewhere far away.

“Bill? Can you hear me?”

But his body only continued to lay flat with nary a sign of life.

Yet there was some part of him that was with George nonetheless, and with that realization he became aware of something else. It was there in the room with them, connecting them somehow like one of the many cords attached to Bill’s body. Only this cord wasn’t something he could see but rather feel, some sort of emotional umbilicus through which George sensed his brother’s presence in a far off way.

That’s how I can hear him. Those are his thoughts, his dreams.

George was certain it was so, though he couldn’t have said how he knew. He was also sure that connection had always been there, only he’d never noticed it before today. But now it was getting stronger, and George could feel tremendous power flowing from Bill into himself.

“Bill, wake up! Bill!”

From that far off place, he seemed to reply. But George couldn’t understand what he was saying. He ran to him then, began to shake him back and forth. He could hear some of the monitors connected to him begin to beep, could feel Bill trying to reach him. But his body remained still as a corpse, and George flew into a rage.

“Wake up, Bill!”

He was shoving him against the mattress now with such force that the bed began to shudder and rattle. Still no response aside from that remote presence, trying to find its way back to Bill’s unconscious body. And that was when George realized with the kind of strange logic only available to the subconscious that he had to look for him, that it was the only way to bring him back.

So he can wake up.

George fled.

He was now running through a dark deserted corridor.

“Bill?” he called out. But there was no reply. “Bill, where are you?”
The corridor ended. George turned left and was faced with another long hall, this one stretching toward a dark horizon.

“Bill!”

George was aware of a mounting energy flowing through their invisible bond. He could feel it working inside of him, elevating his senses. Now, it seemed as if his gaze alone held power over the world. The distant wall he’d been looking at began to heat, then burn, then crumble to ash, revealing a deeper darkness from a place far beyond. And in that darkness was another presence, not his brother but something ancient, something evil. It had become aware of him for the first time, and George could feel its mad, delirious joy as it locked eyes with him from the other side of a cosmic divide.

It was beginning to bleed through now. Terrified, George tried to look away. But wherever he turned his gaze, the world once more burned to ash and fell away, exposing the same darkness, the same sinister evil, grinning, focusing on him, trying to escape.

“Bill! Where are you? Help me! Please—”

12.

George woke with a scream.

“Sweetie, are you okay?”

Mom. The room was dark, and her face was a pale, ghostly shadow. For a second, George almost screamed again, remembering the dark presence from his dream. Then as she held him, the dream began to evaporate.

George cried.

“I want Bill,” he said through hitching sobs.

“I do too, sweetie.”

And as she held him there in the dark, as the instruments carried on with their measurements and their IV drips, Bill slumbered on, seemingly unaware.

13.

April, 2017

George pulled into the parking structure beneath his apartment. He locked and shut the door, turned and walked outside beneath an array of bright gold street lamps. He felt small compared to the world around him. It pressed in on him from all sides, thick and suffocating.

He was struck by a sudden anxious feeling, and he was sure he could feel Bill upstairs, desperate for his arrival.

George, hurry.

The thought smacked him hard and he began to stride more briskly.

When he rounded a corner he nearly jumped. The man was back, leaning against a car parked along the street. He was staring straight at George. Once more, the world took on a hollow cast.

Didn’t George only see him when Bill was around? Was upstairs in the apartment close enough? Stop being crazy, he thought. The man’s not real.

George stopped and swallowed.

The man had been smoking a cigarette. Now, he was tamping it out on the sidewalk underneath one shoe. The whole time the man’s eyes never left him. George closed his own.

“You’re not real,” he whispered. “Go away, you’re not real.” He waited a few seconds, took a deep breath and opened his eyes.

The man was still there.

George backed away then, slowly moving toward the stairs. When the man began to creep forward, George bolted.

He took the stairs two at a time, all the while feeling the man’s sinister presence behind him. And sure enough, whenever George peered over his shoulder, there he was, first inching toward the stairs, then slowly making his way up the steps. Each time George looked over his shoulder, the man’s surroundings dimmed further, until they were dusky and faded, worn like a centuries-old photograph.

George’s side was aching when he finally stopped outside his unit. Panting, he dug through his overalls for his keys, grasping helplessly for the one that would fit the lock. When he found it, he jammed it through the door, looking over his shoulder over and over again to see if the man had caught up. As soon as it opened, he threw himself over the threshold and slammed it shut behind him.

When he slid down against the back of the door, caught his breath and opened his eyes, there was Bill, thrashing his head from side to side, and Rosa, staring at him as if he were raving mad.

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