Swept Away - Part Two
Ten years ago, almost to the day, Alex stood at the foot of the staircase and talked for what would be the last time with his brother. The conversation held little meaning in his memory. Everything else about that brief moment in time would never fade, though, never diminish no matter how hard he wished it. No matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, Alex knew, just knew, it would be the last time he saw his brother. Here and now, all these years later, he still tried to figure how it could be so. How could he have known, yet not known, all at the same time?
In the weeks before, Alex saw the troubled look that became commonplace in Daniel's eyes. Everything about his brother went askew as if he suddenly decided it was time to experience drugs. The disheveled look that seized Daniel was unexplained. He stopped bothering to change his clothes, he didn't shave, his hair shifted from neatly combed to ragged and unkempt. Dark circles crept under his eyes from sleepless nights of working around the clock without so much as a single break.
Then there was the smell.
A terrible, reeking smell moved into the basement and it took more than three years to get rid of it. Still today, Alex smells it lingering like death in the corners of his brother's former workplace. A hideous reminder of the way Daniel's life unraveled before the end. It had been him, Alex realized. His brother simply surrendered to the project. He worked endlessly, allowing nothing to stop him--not food, not showering, nothing.
On the few occasions Alex tried to talk to his brother about his change, Daniel merely ignored him or made some flippant remark before continuing with his work.
It didn't take long for Alex to see his brother had become obsessed.
Obsession sucked the life out of Daniel like a black hole eating up everything it could get its greedy mouth around. The phone stopped ringing, Daniel didn't notice. The friends stopped dropping by; the job was gone; his own father was in the hospital; Daniel didn't notice. His breakthrough would be had, life be damned.
Once the breakthrough happened, Daniel's wildly spiraling life took a nosedive that ended with his death.
Alex had been sleeping when Daniel's haggard new look stumbled into his room. Rough, bleeding hands seized Alex's shoulders and dragged him to the floor, shaking him with an urgency that seeped through to his dreams. Frightened, startled awake by the manhandling that left a sharp pain in his hip, Alex shoved his attacker back. Then he discovered it was his brother.
In the dark of the room, the smeared blood on Daniel's face took on a sinister--if yet unknown--play of shadows. His voice struggled to find words as if he had forgotten how to speak in his deep isolation. "I did," he whispered harshly. "Alex! I did it. But... but...they saw me. Dude, they saw me. I'm in trouble."
None of it made sense. Why was his brother telling him this? Daniel rarely spoke to anyone in the family. He decided to suddenly tell Alex everything? Maybe it was the sleep still holding Alex's mind, but he didn't like this one bit.
"Do you realize what... this means? Can you... no, you can't. Can you? Goddamn, it's amazing... you have to see."
"You have... to... see." Daniel grabbed Alex's arm, bolted for the door.
He kept talking all the way to the stairs. His voice continued to pause awkwardly at random intervals like he was trying to listen to something at the same time. The words passed over Alex unheard. In his half-asleep state, part of him rebelled against the idea that this was really happening. He was still dreaming, he told himself. He had to tell himself that because the moonlight from the kitchen window illuminated the hall as they passed through, highlighting the blood on his brother's face. The previous smears of shadows were now exposed, naked under a silvery blanket of light and it wasn't just a few smears; Daniel's entire face had been painted with the stuff.
Alex cringed. He tried to get free of the death-grip on his arm but failed. "What?" he said. "What... blood?"
"Blood is more powerful than anyone knows, little brother." Daniel stopped at the top of the stairs, yanking on Alex's arm. His entire demeanor turned to stone as he stared into Alex's eyes. "Blood is life. Blood controls the power of the universe. I found the missing link, Alex. I found it and now there's nothing I can do to forget it."
Horrified, Alex felt his brother's bloody hand swipe over his face. He could feel the trail of blood left behind. Heavy. Dripping. He wanted to reach up and wipe away the disgusting fluid that tainted his face.
Daniel's voice faltered at the sight of Alex's revulsion. "You're not ready yet," he whispered. A frown formed between Daniel's dark eyes. He shoved Alex down the hall toward his bedroom. "Go back to bed."
Two days later, Daniel Sterling killed himself.
Despite Daniel's withdraw from most social interactions--even at home with the family--Alex made it a point to look in on him at least once a day. It was around six in the evening when Alex wandered down to the basement with a turkey sandwich for his brother. But when he got there, the place was empty.
Alex scanned over the chaos of the basement in wonder. How had his brother been able to work in the seemingly haphazard mess that made up his work environment? As his eyes passed over the large freezer his father had installed, he paused. Frozen foods ranging from a ham to packs of hamburger and some TV dinners were scattered about all around the freezer.
Swallowing, Alex stepped over the foods and reached for the lever of the freezer. A strange smell like pineapples and peppers lingered in the air. When he popped the lid, a thick greenish cloud lazily rolled over the edge of the freezer and cascaded down to the floor like a waterfall. He barely had time to see his brother inside as the nausea struck him without remorse, nearly knocking him to his ass. He staggered away, his head light and faint. The green fumes from within the freezer unit flowed against the floor, devouring a stack of frozen potpies and looked for an insane moment like long fingers reaching toward Alex. He ran for the stairs, escaping into the clean air above.
Several hours later, having made a dozen or so trips into the basement to open windows and setup fans--he could barely stand to be in the basement for more than a minute at a time, the fumes were that strong-- Alex once more ventured down the stairs.
Still that unusual odor of pineapples and peppers permeated the basement, much stronger now that it had been released. Inside the freezer, Alex found the body of his brother; what was once his brother, at least. The once pale white skin of his brother's had turned into a sickly greenish-black. Daniel's dead, vacant eyes stared at the inner wall of the freezer where an envelope had been taped, a final message or an apocalyptic warning?
The police had ruled it a suicide. It was a bizarre suicide that bordered on excessive, but a suicide nonetheless. There had been no evidence of any foul play, and the note had been written in Daniel's hand... with his own blood. The message, simple and to the point, read: Blood is the key.
On the official report, Daniel's cause of death was listed as suicide by chlorine gas. Inside the freezer the police also found two canisters, one of pool chlorine and another of muriatic acid. He'd apparently written the note (bloody handprints were found on the freezer's latch), waited for the small wound in his palm to coagulate, climbed in, knocked the lid closed, and then mixed his deadly ingredients and waited for death to seize him.
Somewhere in the surreal events following the discovery of his brother's body, Alex heard just how terrible a death this had been. He didn't remember who exactly informed him, but the information was so horrifying, he almost didn't want to know it at all. Almost. He'd been told that chlorine gas, even the homegrown variety his brother had used, affected the body in stages. First came the splitting headache, followed by a sharp stabbing sensation in his lungs. A greenish liquid that came from Daniel's lungs and stomach had dried against the suicide note. And then the end finally came, with zero comprehension, the insanity at the end of the road, Daniel's mind lost to the gas before the painful, horror-filled death could seize him. Perhaps in those final moments, Alex hoped, his brother no longer realized just what he felt.
Almost a year to the date of Daniel's suicide, Alex made a decision that marked his path in life. Nobody had bothered to go into the basement since that day, so all of Daniel's equipment, his research, remained. Alex stood at the foot of the stairs, eyes locked on the door that separated him from the beast that had consumed his brother until his brother could be consumed no longer.
He had to know.
It was as simple as that.
That night when Daniel woke him up, his face and hands decorated with, hopefully, his own blood, he had almost shown Alex the mystery that burned the fire of his soul alive. Then at the last moment, recoiling from his decision, Daniel pulled away because of the disgust he saw on his little brother's face at the sight of all that blood.
You're not ready yet.
The words echoed in Alex's mind. What if he had been in better control of his emotions? What if he had seen Daniel's ultimate discovery? Would he have killed himself along with Daniel? There were too many questions for Alex to turn away. But none of those mattered as much to him as the one, giant question that had fused against Alex's mind and refused to ever let go. Why did Daniel kill himself? The answer to that question could be found before the door.
So, Alex ventured through the oak doorway that hid the details of his brother's final months on this planet. It took a lot of dedicated time and energy, but Alex was consumed as his brother had once been. He discovered right away that nearly all his brother's notes were gone and some of the machines had been dismantled. Briefly, he wondered if this was his brother's doing, or had someone else been involved? He knew nothing of the science Daniel had been implementing, but his computer skills were above average, something of a fun hobby for him. He educated himself as best he could with the books his brother had left lying around. There were no notes, but the books were there and they led him in a direction he figured was the best.
For eight years, he attacked the problems, tried to repair the damage, tried to find out what had driven his brother to end his life. Several times Alex had gone down a path that seemed promising, only to discover half-way there that it was not, in fact, what his brother had been working on.
But then, two years ago, he made the leap he'd been hoping for. Inside one of the mechanical engineering books he had been leafing through, Alex found a handwritten note from his brother. It was addressed to Alex, written the same night the ghastly discovery occurred.
The note left nothing to the imagination.To be continued...