Brother in Arms/Read
"Being a soldier isn't all about fighting," Philip said softly. "Being a soldier isn't all about being tough. Soldiers don't fight alone. They fight together." At first, none of that resonates with Blake, whose war games with his brother are all about fighting, and fighting alone. But whenever their alcoholic father comes around, the two are reminded of the real battles they face at home, and their mutual survival dependent on them being together.
Written by Enoch Leung
This story is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Original story is available at Wattpad.com.
Brother in Arms
The evening was cool with a light summer breeze, rustling through the trees like water in a stream. The setting sun stained the horizon with a bright red smudge, a fireball that set the ground ablaze with a dying shade of yellow and orange. From the trees came the chirping of birds, singing their last songs before the arrival of night. The world seemed deserted and empty, the only voice belonging to the wind. Not a soul was in sight. Or at least, that's what it seemed.
From behind the trees emerged a young soldier, his shirt a shade of army green, clutching a rifle in his hands. He advanced cautiously over the grass and onto the sand, a jungle of coloured metal in front of him with many spots to hide in. He aimed his rifle at one spot, then at another, scanning his surroundings carefully for his enemy. When the coast was clear, he rushed over to the base of one of the towers and hid behind one of the support columns, rifle in hand, breathing heavily. He had to tread carefully—his mission was too crucial to be failed, he had gone too far in to retreat, and he was the only surviving operative left to complete the task. It was all on him. He had to be bold. He had to be brave.
Suddenly, a figure popped out from behind a wall in the watchtower in front of him and aimed its gun towards the young soldier. He dove for cover, hitting the ground with a thud just before a BANG!! rang out. Tasting sand in his mouth, he got to his feet and scrambled out of sight just as his enemy dropped down from the platform he was standing on, landing on the ground with a billow of dust.
"Can't hide from me!" his enemy shouted. He was toting an assault rifle, the barrel of the gun glistening even in the dim light. He pointed the gun in front of him, the hairs on his back standing on edge. "Come out wherever you are!"
From behind a flight of stairs with no steps, the young soldier crouched, trying not to be noticed as he peered over the railing. His enemy was within sight, treading carefully as if he were over lava, inspecting closely the shade underneath the watchtower. The sun was setting quickly, the light available diminishing at a rapid pace. Darkness would be his cover. He gripped onto the sides tightly and, with a gulp of air, ran up the steep slope as quickly as he could. His shoes squeaked loudly against the material, and his enemy whirled around.
"Aha! I got you!" The young soldier had gotten up into the tower and was running to get higher into the fortress. His enemy could see the soles of his shoes popping in and out of view through the Swiss Cheese-like holes of the floor above him. He could hear the sounds of feet pounding against the metal deck, and he followed closely behind, keeping him in sight. Then, all of a sudden, the chase stopped. The soles disappeared and the sounds of movement ceased. He pointed the rifle up at the holes above him, his heart thumping, his breathing heavy. He had gotten so close, adrenaline racing through his veins, that for the chase to stop so suddenly was a shock that caught him off guard. Where did he go?
"I'm gonna get you!" he called out. He tried to look through the holes, but in the evening light, everything looked the same up in the tower. He was underneath the highest point, the third level of the fortress, and from there it was a pretty big fall. The only way down was an oddly-shaped ladder that was more for climbing up than climbing down. He walked over to the ladder, pointing his gun up at it, and looked over the ledge. He couldn't see anybody. His target was up there, he knew it. He had nowhere to hide. All he had to do was wait for him to surrender.
A heavy weight suddenly fell on his shoulders as a figure dropped down from the sky onto him, bringing him down onto the sand and knocking the gun out of his hands. "Raaawwwrrr!!!!!" the young soldier shrieked. He locked his arms and legs around his enemy's body as he clambered on top of him for control, rifle in hand. "I got you now!!!"
"Ahhh!!!!" The older boy grabbed the barrel and pushed it away from him, and the two struggled for ownership of the gun.
"BANG!!!" the younger boy shouted.
"You missed!!" the older one said as he pried the gun out of his hands.
"Never!!!" The younger boy made another grab for the gun. The older boy threw it away as hard as he could so he could grab onto him with both hands and keep him from crawling after it. The younger boy squealed as the older boy rolled him over and held him onto the ground. The older boy reached into his pockets and pulled out his backup gun.
"You're not going to take me alive!" the younger boy cried out. He brought his legs and feet up and pushed his brother off him. He scrambled onto all fours, grabbed his rifle back, and ran as fast as his legs could carry him out of the playground and into the trees. The older boy retrieved his own weapon and followed. His younger brother was hiding in a tree, the pine needles pricking roughly against his skin as he crouched. When his brother passed the tree, he leapt out of the shadows and tried to take him down. The older boy was three years older—bigger and taller and stronger and better than he was—so it took him little effort to get the younger boy back on the ground again. He aimed his gun. BANG!! "You're dead!"
"No I'm not!" the younger boy responded. "I'm a zombie now. RAWRRR!!! BRAINS!!!" And he clamped his arms and hands firmly around his brother's head, controlling him. "BRAINS! BRAINS!" The older boy wriggled desperately out of his little brother's monstrous grasp, and the two wrestled on the grass, the setting sun further cloaking their playful tumble with darkness as it became harder and harder to see behind the trees. The two ripped up the cold, damp grass and threw them at each other as they both tried to get their guns back. Finally, the younger boy grabbed his brother's backup handgun and aimed it at his forehead. "You're a zombie," the older boy said. "Zombies can't use guns."
"Oh yes they can!" the younger boy said. "I'm a smart zombie!"
That was as far as they got. The evening came to a shattering end when they heard the rumble of a rickety old car engine approaching, its driver gunning it forward angrily as fast as the speed limit allowed, the tires screeching against asphalt as the vehicle made a sharp turn. The two looked at each other.
"Dad's home!" the older boy cried out panickedly. "Quick! Grab the guns and lets run!"
The two boys grabbed their toy guns and began to run as fast as their legs could carry them back to the footpath, which was now illuminated by the park's scattered lampposts as twilight transitioned into night. They ran past the playground with the towers and the monkey bars and the sandbox that they had played their war game in. They ran down the path towards the street, dashed across an intersection without checking for cars, then pounded along the sidewalk of the street they lived on towards their house. Their neighbourhood consisted of old brick houses built close to the sidewalk, with small lawns, small porches, and no driveways. Thick telephone lines dangled over the street, held up by scattered wooden street lamps that bathed the long row of parked cars along the street with haloes of yellow. In front of one house was an old, beat up Chevy Malibu with its bumper bent around the edges and rust growing above its tires. The house it was parked in front of had its lights on. Dad was home.
"Come on, Blake; we'll hide the guns in the garden," the older boy said. The two boys knelt by their small, miserable garden, home to some bushes and shrubs that had just enough leaves to conceal whatever was inside them. The younger boy stuffed his toy rifle behind the largest bush, then covered it up with as much of the mulch as he could. The older boy slipped his assault rifle behind the foliage in similar fashion, then dug a small hole in the dirt for the pistol to go in. The two covered things up as much as possible so everything looked normal.
"I don't want to go in, Philip," the younger boy said.
"Me neither, but what else can we do? Climb in through the upstairs window?" He dusted off some of the dirt and grass from his brother's shirt. "We'll just go in and make this quick."
The man was on to his third glass when he heard the sound of the keyhole being turned and the front door being swung open. He took a large swig, swishing the liquid between his teeth as he waited for the door to close and the sound of footsteps coming across the wooden floor of the hallway. "You two sure are home late," he said as he set the glass back down onto the countertop, staring straight ahead in front of him at the clock on the stove. His two sons stood by the bottom of the stairs, looking at him nervously. He was usually quick to anger whenever he drank. Tonight, however, he seemed calm. He turned his head to look at the two. "Where have the two of you been?"
Philip jabbed his younger brother in the shoulder as a warning to keep quiet. "We went out for... a walk," he explained.
"Pretty late for a walk, don't you think?" But he didn't press that question any further. He reached for the bottle of whiskey and started filling up the glass again, his hands quivering slightly, spilling liquid over the sides and onto the counter. He picked up the glass and turned it around, watching the whiskey slosh around between his fingers, leaving little bubbles of froth on the sides. He turned his head to look at his sons. "And quite a dirty walk too," he commented, his voice hoarse and rough from the alcohol burning his throat. "Look at the state of you two." He gave them a dismissive wave with his hand. "Go upstairs and get yourselves cleaned up."
The older boy turned around and, without another word, headed up the steps. Blake gave his father one more glance before he turned and followed his brother upstairs.
The man picked up the glass and tilted his head back, pouring the whiskey down his throat. The liquid stung him, and he choked, coughing violently as the tears welled up over his eyes. He hung his head over the glass, smoldering like hot coals as his face turned redder than meat. When he had regained his strength, he grabbed the bottle of whiskey and, without bothering with the glass, pressed the opening against his lips and drank from it thirstily.
The bedroom window was ajar, letting the cool night air trickle in like a stream. From outside came the chirping of crickets, their soothing melodies carrying far into the windless night. Flurries of moths and insects circled the aging street lamps, looking like unlit fireflies waiting to be ignited. All the lights in the bedroom were off, the yellow glow of sodium vapour dimly illuminating the small, sparsely furnished room. On one side of the room came soft, steady breathing; on the other came the click, click, click of a toy's parts being twisted and turned, manipulated and modified.
Blake turned around in his bed and looked at his brother, who was trying to solve a Rubik's cube in the dim light, although he mostly scrambled the colours up absentmindedly, moving the pieces at the speed of his thoughts. Finally, when he had gotten bored of the whole exercise, he placed the cube down on the nightstand and rested his head on his pillow.
Blake waited for a few minutes to pass and his brother's breathing to stabilize. "Philip?" he said.
"Have you ever wanted to be a soldier?"
Silence. Philip didn't respond. His eyes were open, staring at the popcorn ceiling above him, the textures brightly illuminated by the street lamp, but he didn't say anything.
"Well?" Blake asked.
"Come here," Philip said, gesturing for his brother to come over. Blake hesitated. Philip pushed the covers of his bed back a little. "Come." Blake got up, crossed the little gap between the two, crawled into his older brother's bed, and lay down on the pillow next to him. Philip reached out and gently ran his hand through the frizzled, messy hair of his younger brother's head.
"You're too nice to be a soldier, aren't you?" Blake said.
"Being a soldier isn't all about fighting," Philip said softly. He put his hand down, and Blake reached up to straighten his hair back. "Being a soldier isn't all about being tough. Soldiers don't fight alone. They fight together."
Blake was silent.
"You remember when grandpa told us about his dad and how he fought in the Great War?"
Blake nodded his head.
"He told us that he had made a friend in the army, and they trained together and did their exercises together. When they were sent out to the battlefield to fight, the two fought together and looked after each other. They called each other 'brothers'."
"Like you and me?" Blake asked.
Philip paused for a bit. "Not really," he said. "You and I are brothers because we have the same parents. But we belong together, just like the two soldiers belonged together. They did things together and fought together."
Blake turned his head to look at his brother. "Did they kill anybody?"
Philip didn't answer that question. Blake kept looking at him as Philip resumed staring at the ceiling. "Well?"
"You remember what else grandpa said?" Philip asked, changing the subject.
"After a battle, the friend got stuck out onto the battlefield after all the men had returned to the trenches. Great-grandpa wanted to go back to get him, but his commander told him not to. He said that if he went back out there, they would both die. But great-grandpa wouldn't listen. As soon as the commander turned his back, he ran back onto the battlefield and brought his friend back."
"Did he live?" Blake asked.
"No, he didn't. He died before great-grandpa could get him back to the trenches. But before he died, he said to great-grandpa, 'I knew you'd come back for me.'"
Blake swallowed. "But why would he do that?"
"Bring his friend back."
"Because they trained together. They fought together. They did things together, like you and me." Philip turned his head to look at his younger brother. "'Brothers don't leave each other in the battlefield.' That was what grandpa told me."
Blake rested his head on Philip's shoulder. He didn't say anything. Philip ruffled his hair playfully. "Go get some sleep now, okay? It's getting late."
"Okay." Blake crawled out of his brother's bed and back into his own. He threw the covers over his head and snuggled down onto the pillow, squeezing his eyes shut. After a few minutes, he rolled over and looked at his brother. Philip was already asleep, his eyes closed, snoring lightly. He seemed so calm, so unafraid, yet so soft and heartwarming, like a soldier and a brother. Blake hugged his pillow close to his head and squeezed his eyes shut once more.
The curtains felt cool and silky on Blake's face as he stared through the translucent fabric, looking out the living room window facing the street. The window was closed, but he could imagine the crisp morning breeze streaming past his cheeks—or maybe that was the fabric of the curtains, tickling him gently until he had to bite his tongue to keep from giggling too hard. Outside the window he spotted an elderly couple walking their dog down the street—a cute, furry little dog with short ears and a short tail that wagged like a pom-pom left and right. Down the street was a parked van with the post office's logo painted on the side. A mail carrier pulled a parcel out of the trunk, placed it onto the front steps of a nearby house, rang the doorbell, and started making her way back to her vehicle. As she passed the couple, the little dog rushed up and pawed at her legs, looking up at her with the cutest puppy eyes and face that would've melted anybody's heart. With the couple's permission, the mail carrier bent down and ruffled the dog's fur, the little pom-pom tail wagging to and fro at the speed of a woodpecker.
"Come eat your breakfast, Blake," Philip called from the dining room.
Sighing to himself, Blake reluctantly got down from the lounge chair and walked into the dining room, where his brother was eating his breakfast of toast and peanut butter on the kitchen counter. Blake sat down onto the hard, wooden stool that left his feet dangling several inches above the ground whenever he sat in it. The hard seat felt like a rock under him, and he would've liked a cushion to make his seat more comfortable. "Want peanut butter?" his brother asked.
"I can do it myself," Blake responded. He unscrewed the lid of the peanut butter jar, grabbed a butterknife, dug out an uneven chunk of peanut butter from the bottom, and smeared the hunk onto his piece of bread. He reached in for another helping and stacked it on top of his first. When he stuck the knife into the jar a third time, his brother said, "That's enough, Blake. Spread it around your toast."
"Fine," Blake muttered tersely. He didn't like it when big brother kept telling him what to do. He dropped the knife down onto the countertop, picked up his toast, and took a large chunk out of it. The peanut butter got smeared around his mouth, and he stuck his tongue out to lick it off.
"At least close the lid when you're done," Philip said as he screwed the lid of the peanut butter jar back on.
Blake shrugged. He took another large bite out of his toast, trying to fit as much of the unspread peanut butter into his mouth as he could. He ran the crust of the bread around his mouth to wipe off the peanut butter that had escaped his bite so he could have another go at them again. Philip watched as the crumbs fell on his lap and onto the floor, but he didn't say anything. The two sat together, eating their breakfast quietly, listening to the neighbours next door having a muffled verbal argument through the wall.
Upstairs, a bedroom door swung open. Dad's heavy footsteps came down the stairs at slow time, his bare feet thumping against the wood of the steps noisily. He was still in his rugged pajamas—a filthy yellow t-shirt and a rouge-coloured plaid pair of pants. He was sober, if not a bit hungover from yesterday, but he didn't seem to be in the mood for breakfast. He slipped on a pair of slippers, opened the front door, and stepped out onto the small porch, letting the cool morning air and sun spill into the mudroom. Dad staggered down the porch steps, closing the door behind him. The sound of a garden hose being uncoiled, and then the sound of running water.
Blake and Philip ignored him. Philip had finished his slice of toast and was on to his orange juice. When he had had enough, he grabbed a napkin and began to wipe his brother's mouth. "You have peanut butter all over your mouth and bread crumbs on your pants," he said.
Blake shook him off. "Stop being mom!" he protested. "I'll clean it up myself."
Philip sighed, but he didn't press him on. The sounds of running water ceased, followed shortly by the garden hose being curled up again. The shed was unlocked as dad retrieved a pair of pliers and began to weed the garden. Philip was just about to take another sip of his orange juice when he choked and spat it out. "Oh my God! The guns! Dad's going to—"
"What the FUCK?!?!" There was a loud BANG! as dad threw the garden pliers onto the railing of the porch. The neighbours next door stopped arguing, startled by the noise. Three thunderous stomps came up the porch steps. A second bang followed as the front door was flung open, the doorknob punching a hole in the wall behind it. Dad's eyes were murderous as he held up the three toy guns that had been buried the night before. Dirt and mulch dripped down from them onto the living room floor.
Dad threw the guns onto the floor with three thunderous bangs. Philip stared at them. Colour left his face. He was the one who took them out of the stair closet and had told Blake that they were going to go out to play with them. He had told Blake that they wouldn't be caught and that they'd be back long before dad got home. He was wrong. Totally wrong.
Dad angrily pointed an index finger down at the toys. "Well?" he said, his voice soft and dangerous.
Philip and Blake were completely rooted into their seats with terror. Sober dad was worse than drunk dad in every way when he was angry. He strode into the dining room and pointed that index finger at Philip's nose. "I told you that you weren't supposed to be touching stuff that wasn't yours in the closet! You were supposed to ask for permission!"
Philip swallowed. "I-I-I didn't!" he stammered. "I didn't touch it! I swear!"
"Don't even think about lying to me!" dad seethed.
"I'll... I'll go pick it up, then," Philip said as he started to get up out of his stool.
"NO!" dad barked as he slammed his fist onto the countertop. The dishes and the cutlery rattled violently. "You are NOT going to pick those up! You know why? Because they don't belong to you! You are going to have to ask me for permission if you want to go pick them up!"
Philip fell silent. His gaze fell away from his father's eyes.
"Well?" Dad stiffened, his voice getting soft and "normal" again. An uneasy form of normal. "Are you going to ask?"
Philip swallowed, but he did not say anything. His eyes had now shifted towards the refrigerator.
Dad sighed loudly and slapped his hands onto his hips. "Well?"
The plate. His brother's messy plate. Philip's eyes were now staring at Blake's half-eaten piece of toast.
"Blake's going to ask me, then," dad said. He pointed to Blake. "Ask me for permission and then go pick those guns up."
Now it was Blake's turn to be put on the spot. The stool underneath him felt like it was made of iron.
"Are you going to say anything?" When he got no response, his voice began to rise: "Are you two going to say ANYTHING?"
Philip gripped the edge of his stool as he lowered his feet onto the ground. "Where are you going, Philip?!" his father demanded.
"It-It-It's not Blake's fault, I swear!" Philip said defensively.
"Oh, so it was yours then, huh? Then you are going to sit here and ask me for..." Dad hiccuped. He swallowed. "Ask me... for..." His voice grew weak and distorted. He hiccuped again, his eyes bulging, and suddenly convulsed as he clamped his hand over his mouth and darted towards the kitchen sink, vomiting liquid into the basin.
"Come on, let's go!" Philip said as he unrooted himself and ran out of the kitchen. Blake simply stared, a mix of shock and distress, watching his father vomit uncontrollably. His face was chalky white, his posture weak and fragile like a porcelain figure.
"Let's go, Blake!!" Philip roared. He was already at the top of the stairs. Blake turned on his heels, ran towards the stairs, and took another look back. His father was starting to recover, panting heavily, though he still looked sick. When his brother yelled at him for the third time, he ran up the stairs and into their bedroom.
"Come... back... here..." dad gasped, but his voice was so weak that he could barely hear himself above his own wheezing. He slid down from the countertop onto the floor, writhing in misery and in anguish, sobbing to himself as he curled up into a ball. Anguish became frustration, and frustration became anger. He clenched both of his hands into fists and pounded them onto the kitchen floor with rage.
"You do this every time!" Philip accused Blake when the two were in the safety of their bedroom. "Every time we have to run from dad you just stand there, watching him. You can't just stand there and wait for him to come after you, you know!"
"Yeah, but he's our dad! When mom was still around she didn't run from dad like you always did!"
"And that's why she isn't here anymore! Do you want to join her or something?"
"She only left because I listened to you and ran away from her too many times! If I stayed with her, none of that would've happened!"
Philip plopped down onto his bed. "So what?" he demanded. "So what do you want me to do?"
Blake looked down onto the ground. "You can't just keep leaving me there by myself, Philip. You're going to lose me like how we lost mom!"
Philip glared at him. "The easiest way is to run away from him before he can do any damage!"
"You could also just wait for me and we can leave together," Blake said, defending himself. "I tried to help mom help dad out. Sometimes it worked! Mom didn't leave dad like you did."
Philip tried to soften his tone. "Look, Blake, I can't just keep waiting for you whenever we need to run. If we stay in the danger zone too long, we're both going to go with mom."
Blake looked at him. "Well if you're going to say that, then don't go on about how brothers never leave each other in the battlefield!" And with that, Blake sat down cross-legged on his bed and turned around to face the wall. He grabbed his pillow and clutched tightly onto it with his arms for comfort, trying to hold himself together.
Philip sighed. He felt like he had just been slapped in the face with his own words. He planted his head sideways onto his pillow and stared at his brother's back for a while. His brother's breathing seemed fragile, his grip tightening on the pillow, almost squeezing the feathers out of it. His cheeks were glowing red.
Pounding on the floor. What sounded like something being knocked over. The muffled sounds of shrieks and laughter. Metal hitting metal.
Roger looked up from the newspaper he was reading. The house had fallen silent as he busied himself with the obituaries section in the newspaper. In a town of this size, there were always at least five people listed in the section every day, and he enjoyed reading what other people had to say about the recently deceased, all the nice things to make death seem like a good thing.
He picked up his mug of coffee and peered into it. It was four in the afternoon—a bit late for caffeine—but it was surely better than the whiskey. He tipped the remaining brown, murky substance down his throat and got up from the stool. He could hear the sounds coming from the upstairs bedroom, the one his sons slept in. He hesitated for a moment, then quietly ascended the stairs, the ruckus getting louder and louder with each step he took. The sounds of the chaos oozed through the closed bedroom door, which he walked over and stood next to, listening intently. He could hear pillows hitting bodies, blankets being hurled across the room, and rulers clanging against rulers as they were used as swords, all the while being filled with the sounds of onomatopoeic explosions, gunshots, and playful laughter as the two occupants shamelessly tore up their own bedroom.
BOOM! "I'm in your base now!" Philip hollered as he clambered onto Blake's bed.
"I'm in your base now too!" Blake said. "Take this!!" as he picked up the crumpled mass of two blankets tangled together and hurled it at him.
"Ahh!! Artillery!!" Philip cried out as the blankets hit him like a padded cannonball. Blake jumped across the little gap between the two beds and cocooned his brother up with the fabric. With his free hand, Philip pulled out his ruler and fended his opponent off with it. "A soldier's last stand!!"
Blake hit the ruler several times with his own until it went flying out of his hands. "Any last words?" he asked.
"Yeah!" Philip responded. "Take this!" as he grabbed the blankets and hurled it at him.
Ka-chaang! A metal ruler scratched the wall and clattered onto the floor. The sword fight and the artillery shells had been replaced with the boys wrestling on the floor, smothering and tangling each other up with the mess of blankets and pillows. The two were laughing and giggling, having fun with each other and everything they could get their hands on. Their everyday items were their toys, their games the limit of their imaginations. They never asked for the latest gadgets or to go to the burger place every hour of the day; content with what they already had, they didn't need anything else. They were what every parent dreamed of.
Roger smiled to himself. He thought about going in, but decided against it. The two were having so much fun without him; he didn't want to ruin their happy moment together. He headed into his room and sat down on his bed, staring at the empty, unused pillow on the other side. He rested his elbows on his knees and ran his hands through his face, sighing loudly.
He had another moment later that evening at dinner, when they were seated around their kitchen counter. His two sons sat next to each other on the opposite side of him, but they always kept their eyes down on their plates and refused to look up. Roger's heart twisted. He ached for their attention. The meal was silent, no conversations between him and his children, or between brother and brother. He felt like his very presence had shut the table down.
Roger watched as Blake struggled with the spaghetti on his fork, poking and prodding at the pasta and trying to get it to stay on the utensil before it reached his mouth. When he had mustered enough courage to open his mouth to try to say something, Philip reached over. "Here, I'll show you how it's done," he said, taking his brother's fork and showing him how to wrap the spaghetti around it on the plate. He let his brother practice one more time on his own before resuming his own meal. Roger watched as Blake kept eyeing his brother, watching him curl the pasta around his fork and trying to follow along on his own plate. His heart was crumbling now.
His last moment occurred at around nine. He had been standing outside on the small front lawn looking at the street, watching the occasional family and the occasional car pass the house every few minutes, listening to the crickets fill the warm summer air with their familiar chirping, swatting away the few mosquitoes that he heard buzzing around his ears. When he was beginning to feel a bit itchy from the insect bites, he turned around and headed back upstairs to find some lotion to soothe the itching. At the top of the stairs, however, he stopped and turned to look at the boys' bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, a small crack allowing a trickle of hallway light into the dark room behind it. For some reason, the door being open seemed to grant him permission to enter it. He walked quietly over to the door and, very softly, pushed it open. The light fell onto Philip's bed, where he could see Blake and Philip sleeping together, snuggled up cozily under the same blanket. Philip had his right arm around Blake's shoulder, and Blake had his head tucked underneath Philip's nose. It looked so perfect, so wonderful, and Roger again was afraid of disturbing it. He quietly pulled the door closed, tapping the latch gently against the doorjamb, leaving it just the way it was before he entered.
Later, when Roger was in bed, staring upwards at the dark popcorn ceiling, his heart was a whirlwind of different emotions. He was touched at what he saw his sons doing, broken at his exclusion from their lives, and full of sorrow for his behaviour earlier that morning. He rolled and turned and tossed and twisted a couple of times on his pillow restlessly, sleep evading him, until he finally sat up and turned on the lights. His heart was burning with desire. He wanted to do something. He wanted to change.
He got up, hurried down the stairs, and entered the kitchen, turning the lights on as he went. He flung open the cabinets, grabbed whatever bottle of liquor he could get his hands on, and began to empty their contents down the sink two at a time. He thought about smashing the bottles, but decided against it, fearing that the noise would wake his sleeping sons up. He repeated the process, dumping as much of the alcohol down the drain as he could. Finally, when he was done, he gathered all of the empty bottles, stuffed them into a box, and slid the box out onto the curb. He wanted them gone.
Tired, hungry, and thirsty, but feeling good and liberated on the inside, Roger went back to his room and crawled under the covers. "I'll do better," he whispered to himself. "I'll do better next time."
Philip and Blake watched with apparent disinterest from the sofa as dad "unveiled" his newest surprise: an unmarked cardboard box. He set the box down on the floor in front of the sofa and gestured towards it. "Well, what do you know?" he tried to say cheerfully. He paced back and forth and twitched his muscles nervously. "Happy birthday! Merry Christmas! You... You guys got a present!"
Inside, Blake was curious to know what was in the box, but he felt Philip's disapproval over having anything to do with their father. He obediently stayed put on the couch and didn't move. Philip stared blankly at the box, wearing a mask of indifference to hide his emotions. Roger gestured towards the box again. "Well?" he said. "Aren't you guys going to open it?"
Blake looked back at Philip. Philip nodded his approval, and Blake got up and crouched down by the box. He looked up at dad. "Go ahead and open it," Roger said to his son. "I-I mean... it's yours!"
Blake slipped his finger underneath the flaps and pried the box open. Inside were two BB guns, still inside their store packaging, along with two magazines with three balls each as ammunition. The box also contained two protective eye glasses, two blank dog tags on ball chain, two pairs of army camouflage trousers, and two army camouflage t-shirts. Blake looked up at dad, who was fidgeting nervously, watching his sons open the gift.
"Well, you guys are interested in soldiers and all that stuff," he said. "So I thought I'd, uh, go ahead and buy you guys some stuff. I hope you like it! I... I mean... it wasn't cheap."
Philip looked up and stared at his father. Roger caught the glance. "Well?" he inquired. "What do you think? Pretty neat, huh?"
Philip got up from the sofa. "Come, Blake; let's go," he said, and he headed out the front door. Blake looked at dad, then at Philip as he was leaving the house, then back at dad.
"Come on, Blake!"
Blake got up and, without a second glance backwards, bounded out the front door after his brother.
Roger was speechless. Speechlessness turned to shock. Shock turned to anger. Anger turned to rage. He kicked the cardboard box furiously with his foot, sending styrofoam peanuts flying. He muttered obscenities to himself as he practically threw himself onto the couch, the impact shaking the cushions like gelatin. He placed a foot on the box and pushed it hard across the floor with his heel, scraping the cardboard roughly against the wooden floorboards.
"I tried!" he muttered under his breath. "I fucking tried!! And they rejected me!!"
When Philip and Blake returned home, they were surprised to find their dad's car absent and the box of toys still in the living room, foam peanuts strewn everywhere. The two BB guns and their bullets were still inside. Even Philip was beginning to eye the box with curiosity and desire. When dad was around, he wanted to do nothing—see nothing, feel nothing. He became as cold and expressionless as a statue made of stone, giving dad an icy look whenever he was present. Now that he wasn't here, though, the box seemed innocent, almost inviting. It looked just like any other box of army-themed toys and costumes that any kid who liked to play war games would've wanted.
Philip made up his mind. He bent down and picked up the box. "Let's hide this in our room," he said. "Grab a broom and clean up the foam peanuts. I'll make sure dad doesn't know where it went."
Roger returned to the house at around 4. His anger was still with him as he parked his car roughly against the side of the curb, grinding the tires onto the concrete. He got out, slammed the door, and opened the trunk to reveal three new cases of his favourite whiskey. He grabbed one and was beginning to make his way up the steps when he spotted the box of empty liquor bottles. They were still there, sitting quietly on the curb, untouched. The lack of garbage and recycling bins elsewhere on the street indicated that today was not garbage collection day and no one had come around to pick up his bottles. He opened the front door, walked into the house—still in his shoes—and set the case down onto the kitchen counter. He went back out and retrieved the second case, then the third, and just as he was heading back out to close the trunk door, he saw the empty liquor bottles again. They looked back at him almost innocently, reflecting the glare of the sun into his eyes. He slammed the trunk shut, locked the car doors, and—after another furious glance—bent down and picked up the box. The haphazardly-placed bottles rattled noisily as he headed back inside the house, closing the front door with his foot. He dumped the box onto the floor, a violent clattering of glass echoing around the house. Without looking back at the box, Roger tossed his car keys onto the couch, stormed into the kitchen, popped the lid from one of the bottles, and hastily poured himself a glass. He grabbed the glass and carried it upstairs with him into his room, closing the door behind him as he entered. He took a long sip of the brown liquid before he got undressed and entered the bathroom, stepping into the shower, turning the water on, letting the stream pour over his exasperated head and neck.
Philip watched soberly the scene before him: the kitchen countertop strewn with three large cases of liquor, a still-open bottle of whiskey removed from one of the cases. He looked behind him and saw the empty bottles in the box, some cracked but not shattered from being dropped. He could hear his dad taking a shower upstairs, the sound of running water pounding against the floor of the shower-tub above him. He thought about all the times his father had been angry at him, how his anger issues had worsened after he had started drinking years ago, how it affected him even when he was sober. He thought about how the drinking had affected him and his brother and everyone else around them. He thought about mom.
He grabbed the open bottle of whiskey, brought it over to the kitchen sink, and tipped it over, watching the brown liquid bottleneck and bubble as it surged out of the opening. When the bottle was empty, he set it down onto the counter and looked at the remaining cases. They were large, each containing twelve bottles nestled inside thin cardboard cells to keep them from breaking as they were transported. Dad was still in the shower, the water still running. He took a quick sniff of the sink. The scent of the dumped liquor reached his nostrils. Dad would know for sure where all of his whiskey went...
Philip gritted his teeth as he grabbed a second bottle, then a third, then a fourth. He struggled to open the bottle caps, the child safety design thwarting his efforts. He pulled and pulled and pulled, all to no avail. He thought about simply smashing the bottles, but feared it would make too much noise.
The cap... Can't get the cap off...
He headed into the living room, looking for anything he could use to help him open the bottle caps. Dad's car keys were still on the couch, wedged in the gap between two cushions. Philip grabbed the keys and jammed it underneath the bottle cap, giving it a firm push. The cap flew off with such force that it hit the window with a loud BANG! He could hear the water above him being turned off.
Heart in his throat, Philip grabbed the dish rack, placed it over the sink, and planted the open whiskey bottle face down on the rack, letting the liquid slosh out into the drain. He opened the third bottle, then the fourth, and then grabbed a fifth and opened it. By the time he could hear his dad's bedroom door opening, he had twelve bottles on the dish rack, seven of them empty at this point, with the remaining five noisily pouring out their contents into the kitchen sink.
Philip turned and ran from the kitchen, seeking refuge in the stair closet. He could hear his dad coming down the stairs, his footsteps as loud as thunder from below. He peered outside the door and watched as his dad, wearing a filthy grey t-shirt and faded out jeans, walked into the kitchen. "What the fuck??" he shrieked. The roar that came from him after that was barely human: "What the FUCK!!!!"
Philip trembled, squeezing himself inwards so he wouldn't make even the slightest whimper. He ducked back inside the closet as his dad whirled around and began to storm up the stairs at double time, banging his feet furiously on the steps. Pieces of sawdust fell on his head. He heard his father hitting the second floor and flinging open a bedroom door. "Blake!!" he roared. "Get the hell over here this instant!!"
"What? Why? ....OWWWW!!" Philip's heart dropped to his stomach. He didn't mean to get his younger brother into trouble! His eyes darted around as he hastily tried to decide what to do. Should he come out and give himself up or—?
"You come downstairs with me, dammit!!" dad roared as he dragged Blake down the stairs. Blake stumbled and fell down the steps, but his father was not done with him yet. "Stand up and go into the kitchen! Look at what you have done!!"
"I-I-I-I didn't do it dad!" Blake protested. "I-I-I really didn't! I didn't! I don't know who did this!"
Philip flung open the door to the stair closet and ran towards the kitchen. "Stop!! Wait!! He didn't do it, I swear! I did it!!"
Dad whirled around and swung his fist. Philip heard the punch—felt the punch—but saw only a hole in the wall where dad's fist had struck, missing his nose by an inch. "Of course it was you!" he said in a dark, dangerous tone, pointing his finger at the gap between his eyes. "Of all the residents in this house, you're the one who causes all of the trouble!" He grabbed a fistful of Philip's shirt with one hand and lifted him up a foot off the ground. Blake gasped. "You're coming upstairs with me, mister!!"
"Wait... Wait!!!" Blake ran to the bottom of the stairs, but hesitated as he watched dad haul Philip up by the neck, dragging his heels and ankles against the steps. "You're going to so fucking die with your neck tonight you little... fucking...!" The master bedroom door slammed shut, the muffled sound of beating and banging continuing from behind it. "You... damned... fucking... shit... fucking... hell... son... of... A... FUCKING... FUCK!!!"
Blake looked behind him. The kitchen was empty, albeit in a sickening state of disarray. The twelve liquor bottles on the dish rack were now all empty, along with the first one that had been left open. The remaining twenty-three were still in their cases, their contents vibrating slightly from the chaos in the bedroom upstairs. Blake took another look up the stairs. The sounds of his angry father hitting his brother. He was usually the one who was too scared to run away, rooted in place while his brother had to yell at him to move. Now he was too scared to not run away, to just get away from it all. Blake hesitated. His eyes fell upon the front door.
Every time we have to run from dad you just stand there, watching him. You can't just stand there and wait for him to come after you, you know!
You can't just keep leaving me there by myself, Philip. You're going to lose me like how we lost mom!
If we stay in the danger zone too long, we're both going to go with mom.
Well if you're going to say that, then don't go on about how brothers never leave each other in the battlefield!
Blake shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, but that last line kept bouncing around inside his skull. He cupped his hands over his ears, but the sounds were coming from within. He squeezed his eyes shut, but instead of seeing the black behind his eyelids, he saw himself saying those very words. Well if you're going to say that, then don't go on about how brothers never leave each other in the battlefield!
Blake ran up the stairs. He stopped by the master bedroom door, fear and terror again holding him back. He could hear what sounded like dad hitting his brother angrily with a pillow, yelling at the top of his lungs. He could hear Philip pleading desperately with dad, begging him to stop, but his voice simply grew weaker and weaker until it ceased to speak entirely. He could hear dad panting as his rampage tired him out, but again he pushed himself on to keep punishing his eldest son. He heard a choke, then a gasp, then wheezing as Philip struggled to breathe.
Blake ran into their bedroom, slid open the doors to their wall closet, dug through the messy pile of clothes inside, and pulled out the box of BB guns they had stashed in there. They had gone through the box and examined the loot, going through the manual and practicing how to load the guns and firing them empty at the wall, but they had never actually used any of the rounds. Philip warned that it would leave dents in the wall and could bounce around back at them if they weren't careful.
Blake hesitated. But not for long. He heard the sounds of Roger yelling again; more sounds of hitting, this time against hard objects. He grabbed one of the magazines, hastily loaded it with three balls, slid it into the well, and pulled the slide back. His hands shook. It's not a real gun, he kept telling himself. It's not real. But his thoughts offered him no comfort from reality. The gun felt heavier than lead in his hands. It wasn't a toy anymore. It was a weapon.
He grabbed the BB gun and headed back to the master bedroom. He tried to imagine it as a scene where a cop or one of the good guy agents approached a door, pistol in hand, waiting for the moment to kick the door down and shoot anybody behind it. Fearless, unafraid, like a soldier. He did not feel any of that right now. He felt scared and terrified, like any other kid facing an angry adult, gun or no gun. His heart was beating out of his chest, and every muscle in his body was shaking with fear and excitement. Roger was back to hitting Philip again, showing no signs of relenting. The door was closed, but Blake could see that it was unlocked. He gulped, afraid to enter, but his mission was too crucial to be failed. He was the only one who could complete the task. It was all on him. He had to be bold. He had to be brave.
Brothers don't leave each other in the battlefield.
He placed a hand on the doorknob, twisted it, threw the door open, and aimed his weapon in front of him. "DON'T TOUCH HIM!!!" he yelled.
Dad stopped himself mid-strike. He turned his head and looked towards the open doorway. In his hand was the drinking glass he had brought up to his room. On the bed, head sandwiched between two pillows, was Philip.
There was no smoke, no bullet casing. A bit of recoil, but not very strong. Blake's hands were shaking, even though he was the one with the gun. His mouth opened, agape at what his eyes saw. His father looked at him, fear plastered over his face, his beady eyes staring at him in shock. The drinking glass, still half full of whiskey, fell to the ground, the liquid spilling out into a brown stain on the carpet. He could hear his own breathing, his father's breathing. Time seemed to have come to a standstill.
Roger looked down. He reached out with his left hand and gingerly touched his lower chest. There was a hole in his shirt where the BB gun ball had entered, and when his hand ran over the wound, he winced and began to crumple to the ground. Seconds later, Blake could see the fabric of his shirt around the wound beginning to dampen with red blood. Some of the blood seeped through onto his fingers, and when Roger brought it up to his face to look at it, he almost fainted. Colour left his face as it turned white with shock.
Blake was terrified. Dad? he wanted to cry out. Dad! But he was too mortified at what he had done. His father was leaning against the wall, too shocked to feel the pain of his injury, too horrified to feel any agony. His eyes glistened with tears as they began to spill over the edge, two teardrops—one from each eye—slithering down his face.
Then, all of a sudden, Blake stopped. His father was blurred out of focus from his vision, and he dropped the BB gun onto the floor with a clatter. He turned to face his brother, who couldn't see what had happened, his face still smothered underneath the pillows. Blake pulled them away to reveal his brother's face, his eyes red from his tears. He was in shock and in pain, bruised both from the outside and from the inside. Blake extended his hand.
Brothers don't leave each other in the battlefield.
Philip slowly reached out for it. His hands closed gently around his brother's hands as Blake pulled him back up to a sitting position. When Philip couldn't control it any longer, he threw his arms around his brother and squeezed him tightly, the tears streaming down his face. He looked to his left and saw his father, leaning against the wall, clutching the bleeding wound with his hand. He was crying too, his eyes filled with sorrow and of deepful regret as they looked at Philip. He looked down and saw the dropped BB gun.
Slowly, Philip stood up, his legs wobbly and unstable. He leaned onto his younger brother for support, holding his hand tightly with an unspoken promise to never let go. Blake put an arm around his brother's body to steady himself. Roger looked soberly as his two sons began to lead each other out of the bedroom, which only made him want to cry more. Philip didn't look at him as they passed him. Blake took one look back, and Roger mouthed something to him, words that had no voice, no sound. Blake took another step, then he turned his head away and continued to lead his brother down the hallway, his weight on his shoulders, but he felt compelled to keep going. The two turned towards their bedroom, its door still open; the room a mess, but still their refuge. Blake helped his brother in first, guiding his feet in slowly with small steps. Before he entered the room himself, he stopped and hesitated outside the door, wondering if he should look back. Then he stepped inside the bedroom, closing the door softly behind him.