On Thursday morning, Alex packed up, got three days' refund from the Park office, and went home. The campsite had been expensive, and he wasn't about to sit around and take a chance that his brother would show up.
With half of his vacation time still ahead of him, he tried to keep himself occupied. He did some yard work, organized everything in the garage, and filled in several potholes in his half-mile-long driveway. Every now and then he tried to get hold of Michael, but there was still no answer. Eventually he stopped his busywork and stretched out on the couch to think. His mind wandered back through the years, as he searched for the source of the ever-widening rift between himself and his brother.
They had been inseparable as children. They read the same books, watched the same TV shows, and shared the same hobbies. Alex got the hand-me-downs that his brother kept outgrowing. Their favorite place to play was Hanson Field, and they had built a tree house at the edge of it. As they got older, their interests inevitably began to diverge, but there was still an easy friendship between them. Until . . . when?
He remembered a vacation that his family had taken, when Alex was twelve years old and Michael was fourteen. Their parents had thought it would be a good idea for the boys to see a little bit of the world, and so they had gone to Europe for a couple of weeks.
One of the places they had visited was called the Empire of the Dead, an enormous network of catacombs beneath the city of Paris. An old limestone quarry the size of seven city blocks, it had been converted into an ossuary that held the remains of six million people.
The boys had been eager to explore the huge underground complex, and they were frustrated to find themselves at the end of a long line of tourists. It took almost an hour for them to get in. Above the lintel was an inscription: Halt! Here is the Empire of the Dead. They paid five dollars each and descended a spiral stairway to the floor of the cavern, where a tour guide waited for them.
Gravel crunched under their feet; a layer of it had been spread over the floor to absorb the moisture that seeped from the limestone. The walls were so damp that mold had almost covered some of the bones. The dank air made Alex sneeze, and he started to wish that he was outside again.
Their guide led them along one of the corridors while giving them a brief outline of the burial ground's history. The boys hardly heard a word of it, because they were too busy looking around. On each side of them, and stretching away as far as they could see, were walls made entirely out of bones. It was the most awesome thing they had ever seen. Skulls and leg bones had been stacked like firewood, about six feet high. The guide said that all the other bones were piled behind the walls, where they couldn't see them.
Alex had reached out to touch one of the skulls. As he ran his fingers over the cold, hard bone, it seemed impossible to him that such a thing had once been part of a living person, with a name, and a face, and a family. Now, all that was left of that warm and conscious being was a skull, just one in an endless row of skulls, dead and forever anonymous. Each section had a stone tablet, on which had been recorded the date that a particular batch of bones had arrived and where it had come from. So many sets of remains had been brought in all at once that there hadn't been time to keep track of individual names.
On one of the stone tablets was a quotation from Horace, and Michael read it out loud in an ominous, monster-movie voice that made the other children in their group giggle: Believe that every day is your last.
In retrospect, Alex could see that both he and his brother had taken that phrase seriously, but in completely different ways. Alex had begun a spiritual journey, while his brother had shifted into worldly, materialistic overdrive.
At the end of the tour, which had led them through a mile-long section of the underground maze, they were searched by a security guard who was there to prevent people from walking away with "souvenirs". The guard was remarkably good-humored for a man in such a macabre line of work. He laughed and said, "What's this, then?" as he extracted a bone, as if by magic, from its hiding place in Michael's trouser leg and sock. When he had made certain that there was no more concealed booty, the guard let them go with a wink.
Once they were back on the surface, Michael received a severe scolding from Dad. Alex remembered the look in his brother's eyes after the lecture was over; the first spark of rebellion had been ignited in them, and it had raged ever since.
One of the decorations in Michael's apartment was a skull that had come, so he said, from those very same catacombs. How it had traveled from Paris to Pittsburgh was a mystery, but Alex knew his brother well enough to be fairly certain of its origin.
After all the photos from the trip had been developed, Michael appropriated every single one that had been taken in the catacombs. He became preoccupied with the pictures, and then he began to develop an interest in occult subjects. As he and his friends continued to dabble in them, his personality began to change; not in the dramatic way of someone who had suddenly become "possessed", but in a more gradual and insidious fashion. The morbid hobbies that he was indulging in started to bring out some of the uglier facets of his personality. He became increasingly self-centered, and cruel to the point of sadism. It was fortunate that he preferred mind games to outright physical abuse, because Alex was his primary target.
In the midst of his brother's relentless persecution, Alex began his own esoteric investigation. He delved into Buddhism, Taoism, Christian and Islamic mysticism, and Native American teachings, all of which Michael dismissed as "that fruity-ass bullshit". Fruity or not, it provided Alex with a place to hang his own existential hat, and he clung to it as if it were a lifeline.
Brought back into the present by his growling stomach, Alex glanced at the clock. It was time for some earthly nourishment. A stir-fry sounded good, so he threw together some rice, veggies, chicken, and soy sauce. Just as he sat down to eat, the phone rang. It was Michael.
"Hey, little bro," his brother said in a world-weary voice. "Sorry I missed our B-day, but some stuff happened."
From experience, Alex knew that the phrase "stuff happened" could refer to any of a whole range of events, from "my car was making a funny noise" to "someone tried to kill me yesterday". He figured that it was best to keep out of it. "That's okay, the weather was nice and I got a lot of bike riding in. But Tyler showed up and we drank all the beer."
"Damn the luck!" Michael exclaimed, and he sounded almost cheerful now. "I'll just have to bring a case with me. When should I show up?"
"I took the whole week off, and I'm free until Monday morning." That wasn't exactly true; Alex had a date with a young lady on Saturday evening, and now it looked as if it were going to be a foursome. He knew that it would take his brother five minutes to rustle up some feminine company of his own. And another five minutes to walk off with mine, he thought sourly. It would be just like old times.
After a few moments of silence, Michael said, "I'll come in Friday, I'm not sure when. Leave the key somewhere if you go out, since you won't give me one, you little bastard."
"Would you give you a key?" Alex countered, remembering an incident that had happened several years ago. He had come home from work to find a dozen vehicles in his driveway and a bunch of people milling around in his yard. They had a big bonfire going with some of the wood he had put away for winter. His brother had wanted to commandeer the place for a party, and he had brought the party with him as a point of argument. It hadn't worked; Alex had sent the whole lot of them packing after putting the fire out with a garden hose and then turning the hose on a few of the more bellicose revelers.
"I gave you my key," Michael said indignantly. "Is that fair?"
Alex rolled his eyes; the dagger match was starting already. "I don't come over to your place with fifty people and start a fire."
"I wouldn't care if you did."
"You wouldn't notice if I did," Alex pointed out. "Just . . . don't bring any pals, okay? And I'll leave the key on the back porch, under the candle."
"Okay, little bro, I promise I'll see you tomorrow."
Alex finished his meal and cleaned the place up a bit, and then he got the tiny spare room ready for his brother.
The next day, Alex did a quick survey of his kitchen cupboards and then made a trip to the store. When he got back, his brother's Mustang was in the driveway. He tried to avert his eyes as he walked past the car; as far as he knew, the only place Mother Nature used that shade of green was on frogs.
The front door opened, and Michael strode out onto the porch. He was several inches taller than Alex and broader in the shoulders, and his straight blond hair hung almost to his waist. The two brothers had looked remarkably alike until Michael's bad habits had started to catch up with him; now he had a hard, almost brutal look and he appeared to have lost some weight. As usual, he was dressed entirely in black, and his expensive silk shirt and gabardine pants looked out-of-place on a porch in the middle of the woods. He came down the stairs to help with the groceries.
"You'd better be alone!" Alex warned him.
Michael held his hands in front of him as if fending off an attack. "Don't hurt me! I learned my lesson!" He took both bags and brought them inside while Alex went back to the truck for more.
When everything was put away, Michael took two cans of beer out of the case he had brought and headed for the living room, where he parked himself on the couch.
Armed with two beers of his own, Alex sat in his comfortable old recliner and put his feet up. "So, how have you been?" he asked, in a casual tone of voice. It was best to start these conversations in neutral.
"Oh, not too bad," Michael said nonchalantly. He brushed some imaginary lint off his trouser leg.
Alex was instantly on the alert. He had learned that the degree of "badness" was usually in direct proportion to how mellow his brother appeared to be. When Michael was quiet, and actually sitting still, it was time to start worrying.
"Just . . . not too bad?" Alex asked as he watched his brother's face intently.
Michael switched on the hundred-watt grin that usually opened doors for him, including bedroom doors. "Okay, I need help," he admitted, with a shrug.
Alex raised his eyebrows. "And just how much help would that be?" When he heard the figure, his eyebrows stayed right where they were. "You haven't paid me back for the last time, you know."
"This will very much more than pay you back!" Michael insisted. "You'll be right in the contract this time, and you can officially sue my ass if you want to. My car is worth that much, for chrissake. I'll even put it in your name." His air of indifference was gone, and he skewered Alex with a gaze like a hawk spotting a careless rabbit.
The very idea of owning the motorized visual felony, even if only in name, made Alex shudder. Then he realized that his brother had to be desperate if he was offering his beloved car as collateral. "This is for a new album?"
Michael's band, Poison My Control, had released two albums so far. Alex had gritted his teeth and listened to both, and he had also suffered through one of their live shows. At this point, he agreed with most of the critics: the band sounded much better on the stage than it did in the studio.
"Yes, and we're almost ready to record it," Michael said. "I need a couple of riffs and a few more lyrics and it's good to go. My new manager just happens to be in town, and he has the contract all written up."
With a wolfish grin of his own, Alex said, "He's right there in town, huh?" They had played this kind of game many times before.
Michael leaned back and relaxed. "This guy really knows what he's doing, and I told him to get all the paperwork ready and bring it along."
"So this is my birthday present," Alex said sarcastically. "Hello, how are you, I need a loan?"
"I got you a present!" Michael informed him. He went out to his car, and returned with a box covered in wrapping paper and festooned with ribbons.
When Alex opened the package, he saw that it contained a brand new crossbow. A decent one would cost five or six hundred dollars, and this was better than decent. He wondered how his brother had been able to afford it.
Michael gave him a triumphant look. "You mentioned it on the phone the other day, remember?"
Alex was amazed that his brother had remembered, considering the state he was usually in. "I've been wanting one of these for a long time. Thank you. I guess you do pay attention once in a while."
"I pay attention all the time," Michael said, looking amused. "Now guess what present I want?"
There's no graceful way to wriggle out of this one, Alex thought, but I'm going to make him jump through a few hoops. He gestured at the driveway. "I get the title first."
"Done," Michael said, and he held out his hand. Alex shook it, and they traded a glance that meant the fencing match was over for now.
They spent the rest of the evening in small talk. Michael had brought an expensive bottle of wine for the occasion; he drank most of it himself and finally passed out on the couch. Alex tucked him in as if he were a child, and then he picked up the empties and the dirty plates and carried them into the kitchen.
As Alex got ready for bed, he suddenly remembered something he'd read about in the paper: a string of break-ins at several stores that sold sporting goods. The burglars had been caught, but most of the merchandise they'd stolen hadn't been recovered. The missing items included bows, crossbows, knives, and GPS units.
His last thought, before he fell asleep, was that his brother had given him a hot crossbow for his birthday.
In the morning, Alex dragged Michael off the couch and shoved him toward the bathroom. Then he made breakfast for three, because his brother usually ate twice as much as he did. Michael had two heaping platefuls of food and went outside to smoke a cigarette, and then he drove them to the hotel where he had booked a room. As usual, Alex had insisted that they go in the car; he preferred to be a passenger in the Mustang rather than have his brother, who always smelled like smoke, ride in the truck.
When they arrived at the hotel, the band's new manager, Donny, was waiting for them. Donny was fashionably thin and he had a fondness for gaudy jewelry. With a flourish, he took the paperwork out of a folder and handed it to Alex one page at a time as he explained all the details.
Resuming the game that his brother had begun, Alex scrutinized every page, line by line, while Donny and Michael fidgeted. Their opinion of him was plain to see; they thought he was an ignorant hick who was making a pretense of studying the contract just to hold things up. Alex took his time and let them think whatever they wanted; after all, he wasn't the one who needed the money.
Slowly losing patience, Donny got up and started to pace around the room. At strategic points he would sigh theatrically and glance at his expensive watch with an exaggerated motion.
Michael managed to rein in his temper for a little while. It wouldn't do to scare away the mouse that was sniffing at the cheese. He even sent Donny out of the room on some errand, so he wouldn't be a distraction. Alex continued to drag his feet, and Michael finally decided that he had waited long enough. In a calculated act of malice, he lit a cigarette.
Alex couldn't bear to be in a cloud of tobacco smoke, and he knew that his brother was trying to expedite his decision. His eyes started to water, but he fought through it. "The car, bro."
"Oh, I almost forgot." Michael slid the vehicle's paperwork across the table to his brother.
"Don't we need a notary for this?" Alex said doubtfully. He suspected that the situation had just gone a bit shady.
Michael gave him a cryptic smile. "That part's already done. All you need to do is sign it."
The smoke was making it difficult for Alex to think straight, but at this point he just wanted the encounter to be over. He dutifully applied his signature, certain that somehow he had just set himself up to be screwed. Then he had an idea that rivaled anything his scheming brother had ever thought up. "Give me the keys, 'cause I'm taking the car home with me."
The unexpected statement caught Michael off-guard. "What do you mean, you're taking it?"
Alex held up the title. "I own it, don't I? And I'm going to keep it until I get my money back."
For a moment, Michael just sat there with his mouth open. "And just what the hell am I supposed to drive?"
"I'm sure you'll find something," Alex said as his eyes began to water from the smoke.
Michael was about to continue his protest, but he held his peace. His mind had already made the next move in his private game of chess. "Okay," he said, in apparent resignation. He took two keys off a ring and handed them over. "I'll mail the other set to you. And you'd better take damn good care of that thing."
"I'll park it and leave it parked," Alex promised. He intended to hide the car under a tarp in his garage, and he fervently wished that he could drive it home in the dark. But it was now or never. "And besides," he continued, getting one more swing in, "you're the one who knows all the ins and outs of traffic court."
"Hey, don't knock it," Michael said. "That's where I found my drummer, you know." He leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. "The checks will start rolling in pretty soon. But we sort of need yours first." He gave Alex a meaningful look.
"I almost forgot!" Alex said, echoing his brother's earlier words. He took out his checkbook and signed away a significant percentage of his savings.
Michael put the check and the signed papers into Donny's folder, and then he stood up and headed for the door. "Let me get my shit out of the trunk."
Alex got in the car with great reluctance. As he was adjusting the mirrors, it suddenly crossed his mind that the vehicle might not even be street legal. He figured that it was best not to know, so he rolled up the window and made his way out of the crowded parking lot. Michael lit another cigarette and watched him drive away.
The loud, neon-green Mustang was a cop magnet, and it kept Alex on edge the whole way home. The car accelerated like a jackrabbit and stopped on a dime, and the steering was so touchy that it caused him to weave all over the road. It felt as if he were in some sort of carnival ride. He kept glancing in the mirrors to see if he was being followed by blue and red lights.
Once the Mustang was safely stored in his garage, Alex desperately needed to soothe his frazzled nerves with a glass of wine and some music. Ozric Tentacles seemed to fit the surreal tone his life had acquired lately, so he put their latest album on, poured himself a drink, and sat in his recliner to read some poetry. When he reached for his notebook, it was gone. He was certain that he had left it on the bottom shelf of the stand next to the chair, away from his brother's prying eyes and snotty comments. After a thorough search of the house, Alex concluded that Michael had taken the notebook. There hadn't been anyone else around.
It certainly wouldn't be the first time that his brother had walked off with some of Alex's belongings. Every time he came for a visit, something turned up missing. The stolen items were usually small, easily replaceable, and not worth raising a fuss over, but what on earth would Michael want with a bunch of Sufi poems? He avoided poetry as much as he avoided monogamy.
Alex refilled his glass and returned to the living room. The house seemed empty without his brother's overwhelming presence. He briefly regretted appropriating the Mustang, but then he decided that it was a good lesson for his wayward sibling.
Maybe those poems will do him some good, Alex thought, and he plucked another notebook from his shelf. He settled into his chair and promptly fell asleep.
When he woke up, he remembered that he had a date planned for that evening. He'd met a girl named Cindy over at the Park one day. He counted himself lucky, because it had been difficult to find someone who liked to pound the trails on a mountain bike. He called Cindy to find out what time she wanted to meet him. Then he tried his brother's number again, mainly to see if he was still interested in the double date they had planned, but also to ask him about the missing notebook.
There was no answer.
Continued next week ...