The security light clicks on as I pull into the drive and boom there he is, my brother: barrel-chested and breathing steam, stoic in the doorway of his ginormous home, a carpeted manse hung high off the valley-side of the mountain. Inside it’s barely warmer, dark but for the track lights he’s got turned on over the table where he sits, and, having only an hour before begged me—begged through blubbering tears, “please, please”—now crosses his arms and looks up at me like he’s the one doing me a favour, my fucking brother.
“You bring it?” is literally the first thing out of his mouth.
I shake the grocery bag with the gun and the leftover cake inside.
My brother has forks and plates all out, two colas sweating from the fridge, no coaster in sight, cans just sweating all over that beautiful table. He peeks inside the bag and a smile breaks across his face. My brother licks his lips as he pulls it out. I leave my coat on.
“This cake …” my brother says, tucking a napkin into his collar, fork trembling in his hand. He tries his best to take it slow, but the fork starts to move faster and his forehead starts to glisten. A moan slips from his already-full mouth, opening to receive more, and then more, and then still more, until breathlessly concluding, finally, with a long, hard pull on his cola. He swallows, slaps the table so the china rattles in the cabinet
“Woo!” he says, and the sound echoes through the empty house. “Would you believe I’ve been sitting, here thinking about this cake all darn day? Haven’t eaten a darn thing since your party yesterday. Not since this cake …”
Rain strikes the dining room window, the first four drops, and we both turn to look. The valley falls away through the window.
“Don’t get me wrong, Vick can cook alright,” he says. “But she sure ain’t baking me any cakes like this, no sir. You are a lucky man, little brother. A lucky, lucky man.”
“Chris can bake a cake,” is all I’ll say. And she can, too. Of course she can. Chris is a fucking genius and she can do anything.
My brother grows quiet with the first piece is gone, stares at the second until I roll my eyes and and say, “No, please, go ahead,” which he does. And I mean he falls on it like a hawk, digs that cake from the tupperware in deep, excoriating strokes, cleans his plate like we were brought up to do, and when it is clean he sighs and collapses flaccid back into his chair. And I swear, just the sight of him. I mean just the sight.
“Bag’s not empty yet,” I say.
He nods, picks crumbs from his shirt. “Which one you bring?” he asks.
I wait until he starts to repeat the question. “The unregistered one,” I say.
Keeps nodding, keeps picking those crumbs.
“But don’t take my word for it,” I say.
Rolling his own eyes now (our mother), he plunges his hands once more inside, finds it how I did it for him, wrapped up in about 30 thank you bags from the shop, because I was nervous. My brother peals the bags like onion-skins until there it is, naked, high and ready in his hand. I watch him watch it a while, eyes soft. He smiles.
“Six-two-six?” he guesses.
“Six-nine-six,” I say. “No dash, no lock.”
Indicating the box of shells, I start up my spiel about how “with the, uh … .44s there, you got a 90 per cent chance of a one-shot-stop. Expansion is a maybe but you should still get a pretty decent cavity and it actually controls real—”
Setting it down, “It’s only got five shots,” he says.
“It’s only got five shots,” I say.
My brother tips his chair back, ponders my age. “Twenty-four,” he says, shakes his big, dumb, smiling head. “Used to be a man’s age,” he says, picking more crumbs. “Used to be.”
I go to the bathroom and somehow don’t notice the punched-out mirror at first, not until I look up from the sink, washing my hands.
Pulling our coats on in the hall, I take a deep breath and ask my brother if he’s ready to go kill his wife.
I’m not finished saying it before there’s the barrel of the six-nine-six, cold and hard against the back of my head, jumping each of the five times my brother pulls the trigger, oiled chambers turning easy, clean, and empty every time.
“Guess it’s not loaded,” he says, hands it grip-first back to me over my shoulder, pockets the shells. “Remember how Dad always used to always have to yell at me about that?”
It’s January, the worst part of winter, in the worst part of The Recession. But I mean just the worst. Maybe you remember. I mean it is just the worst.
Our feet crunch gravel in the drive, hot breath visible. The engine almost doesn’t start when I turn the key and I catch myself hoping, but then it does. Lights of townless homes dot the night as we descend the valley, embers stubborn in the dark, every one an outpost.
By the valley floor, it’s now fully raining—barely-not-snowing raining—and the pavements are all hard and shiny. My brother directs us to the interstate, swirls his cola around, then turns the radio up on the fucking Indian reservation Christian station and gets all interested in something I’ve got in the back.
“Hey, what’s this?” he says, the car seat me and Chris picked up from Mom last week in his hands. “Huh, little brother? What’s this thing for?”
I just look straight ahead, grip the wheel as he turns the car seat over, a gorilla with a kid’s toy.
“Bet it’s made in Korea or something.”
“Actually, how about it’s the car seat you and Vick used when you had Allison,” I say.
He says no more after that, not until we’re 15 minutes up the gorge with an exit I’ve never taken before fast approaching. “That one,” he says. “That one right there, please.”
Besides the food and lodging symbols—a McDonald’s and a Best Western—nothing else is listed on the sign.
“Have to forgive me,” he says, “I must still be hungry.”
The McDonald’s is empty but for the two Sudanese ladies working graveyard behind the counter and a green-tattooed trucker nursing coffee over his sudoku in the corner. Fluorescents plus two TVs argue over our heads. My brother orders two colas and sixteen hamburgers, kicks my chair when I sit down, tells me to switch seats so he can stare out the window while he eats. Not that there’s much to see through the weather, nothing but the parking lot lights and the Best Western, a few lit windows and the blue and gold neon of the sign.
“Ahh, a Best Western …” I say.
My brother begins to unwrap his burgers, does not yet eat, just unwraps. He removes the top bun and, with a plastic McDonald’s knife, begins carefully to scrape the slurry of pickles, onions, ketchup, and mustard from each of the sixteen bun-halves, looks up only to gaze straight-faced past me and out the window. It takes him awhile, until they buns are clean.
“You ever stay at one? They’re pretty nice actually, by our standards I mean, me and Chris.”
More burger scraping.
“Clean rooms …” I say. “Nice beds …”
“So now you’re talking to me, huh?” he says.
“Pff, yeah I bet,” I say. “Isn’t that why you called me up? A friendly face to chat with, keep you company on your way to the bottom? Oh, that and the piece, right? Talking about Dad yelling at you about your guns, yeah I just fucking bet.”
Burgers clean, slurry piled at his side, my brother now primes his ketchup packets, taps each before tearing and squirting first one then a second full packet of ketchup on to each of his burgers. The ketchup stacks in rich, dark spirals upon the patties; it is an insane amount of ketchup, more than any normal person would ever want to put on their burger. But it is the amount of ketchup he has always used, since we were kids, my fucking brother.
When all are dressed at last, he replaces the top bun of the first burger, raises and considers it in his hand, and then takes a bite that is nearly the whole burger. Ketchup squirts from the sides.
Mouth full, “Guess there’s other pawnshops wouldn’t mind the business,” he says.
“Other pawnshops—” I laugh, lean in. “Hey. Do you have a hard-on right now?”
My brother coughs on his precious burger, looks around the room in horror.
“That’s a yes.”
“You—you are a sick man, you know that? You think this is some kind of game?”
“I hope so,” I say, “I sure as shit hope so. I mean, it’s much a prettier picture if this is all a game, don’t you think? You got Vick up there, getting hers up in one these rooms. You’re down here, hard up, eating your burgers …”
He turns away.
“… loading your pistol …”
My brother’s chair clatters to the floor as he stands and pins me to the corner window with the table. The edge digs up under my ribs as he wields it in his grizzly bear hands, eyes wild, burgers and napkins flying.
“Need me to … hold the shells for you, big brother?” even though I can’t quite breathe saying it, a growling sound swells inside him. My ribs begin to flex.
”Need me to—”
“Goddamn it, would you shut up?” he says. “I don’t know if you’re stupid or you just don’t care, but I’m ready to do this, okay? You think I’m not? Don’t think that. I will, you know I will,” he says. “I’ll kill you, too.”
His voice falls away at the end, but I still hear him say it, we both do. And we stand there having heard it then, McDonald’s table between us.
“Please,” he says. “Please don’t act like I won’t when I promise you I will.”
And with that, the table clatters to the floor, my brother into his seat. Ketchup-napkins flutter and stick to the table, the windows and floor, but otherwise the dining room is quiet now. The women once behind the counter are gone and, after a long, solid minute of nothing but the noise of the rain against the window, the rain and the TVs and my brother sucking air through his deviated septum, the trucker across the room stands, folds his puzzle-book, dumps his tray in the trash, and turns his collar up as he heads out into the night.
Table strewn with food, my brother’s eyes are distant, tired. He picks a semi-crushed burger from the table, combines it with a random bun-half, and resumes eating.
“These burgers,” he says, chewing, “they aren’t as good as they used to be.
More chewing. Swallowing. “Nothing is.”
I suck my cola until it makes the almost-gone noise, shuffle through things I could say to him in my head. I look around the room.
“I tell you I get to be on a radio show tomorrow?” I say, then check the time on my phone. “Or today, I guess, technically. For the shop. Lady on the phone calls me up, says they’re looking to talk to some local small-business owners, about the economy and stuff, you know. She said someone suggested me. Don’t know who but it’s got to be good for the shop, right?”
My brother smiles, wipes his chewing face.
“Fuck you. What?”
“Small-business owner,” he says, shakes his head. “It’s one of those radio stations you listen to, you can tell them for me they wouldn’t know a small-business owner if he bit them on the nose.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for the tip. Just thought maybe you’d be happy to hear about the shop getting out there—”
“Hey, here’s a tip,” he says, “how about you and all your little friends cut it out with all the whining and the sob stories, okay? You get off your darn radio show, your blogs or whatever, knock off the pity party, and get back to work. There’s your recession and there’s your economy, sorted out. Times are tough? Mom used to wash us in a bucket in the living room. These people acting like they’re entitled to this or that money, money I earned—that you earned, for your family! You telling me that doesn’t cheese you off?” he says. “These people—” and here he points everywhere, turning, slowly, in every direction, “—you think these people have your best interests at heart? That they aren’t watching you, Chris, all of us, just waiting for their chance? One of us needs to wake up and smell the coffee, little brother, because the writing is off the wall.”
“The writing is—” but I can’t even finish. “Can you even fucking hear yourself right now? The writing is off the wall? Do you get how creepy it is to sit and listen to you break a sweat misremembering some bullshit that didn’t even make sense when the first guy said it? You sound like a goddamn zombie!”
“Call me all the names you want,” he says, “but you ask your customers next time you’re ringing them up—ask them what are they buying all those bullets for. You ask them and you listen to what they say. And you listen well, little brother, before you find yourself all alone out on the end of a very long branch someday soon, with your liberal radio and your small-business owner.”
My brother drags his burger hunk through a streak of ketchup on the wall, takes a bite, wipes his mouth with evident pleasure.
“Yeah, you tell your radio show, they want to talk about the economy—and I mean the real economy—me and Dale Peterson would be glad to come on down there tonight and tell those people about how that man’s government shut down three mills in this town, along with the jobs of the families whose futures he stole—”
Talking over him: “The mills closed because corporate moved production to South A-fucking-merica! You said so yourself—you’re on the fucking board!”
“Spoken,” he says, licking his fingers, “like a man—a young man—who had to borrow money from his bully of big brother just to get that pawnshop he’s about to bankrupt off the ground.”
I slap the six-nine-six down on the table between us. “Here is the unregistered firearm I am selling you. The price is the money you loaned me, as we discussed. The price is inflated because the sale is illegal and so of high risk to us both. For this reason, in fact, I advise you not to go through with the sale. The sale is why I’m here tonight. It is the only reason. I’m not your accomplice. I’m not your fucking therapist. I am licensed firearms dealer in the state of Washington running a legit business and I should know—”
My brother breaks down in tears, shouts horse to me and the empty McDonald’s, “Can’t you just be here for me?”
My brother: his curdled, ugly-cry face, lips trembling, half-chewed food visible between his lips. He sobs over the table, shudders, looks up: “My house is empty.”
My own mouth hangs open watching him, my own eyes sting, like how they do when the person in front of you is crying. My fucking brother.
“Hey,” I say, “let’s leave this place. Come stay with us tonight, with me and Chris. Come on. We’ll make up the couch. Breakfast …”
He turns away, face flush, watches the sign across the parking lot.
“It’s late,” I say, begging, always begging, the only language he understands, “everything looks worse when it’s late. Come on. Let’s wait until tomorrow.”
I reach out, cover his hand with my own.
“I don’t deserve this regard, not tonight,” he says.
“Please. Come on,” I say. “As a favor to me.”
My brother looks at me. He looks and then, slowly, he relents, and begins to gather up his food.
I sit back, sighing, survey the wreckage. My brother wraps hamburgers in napkins, starts to stuff them in his coat pockets until I make him stop, jog to the front for a paper bag.
A minute later, bent over behind the counter searching, I hear the digital chime that means the door just opened. I look up in time to see him: a man, silhouette framed in the glass door, running, sprinting for all he’s worth across the parking lot, beneath the sodium vapor lights and through the cold and the dark and the rain, running for the neon of the blue and gold sign and whichever window above it, still lit, is the reason we even stopped here.
From the McDonald’s to the Best Western, door-to-carport, it’s probably a hundred yards. Plenty of time to catch him, I think. But fuck if he doesn’t make me earn every step and when I close the distance it is on little more than youth and adrenaline.
He’s also clearly doing something as he is runs, hands busy in front of him, hard to see through the rain and snow. But I know what he’s doing.
“Goddamn it, you motherfucking—”
The box of shells falls open from his hands, trails a golden, bouncing tail of copper casings in the night. I see the six-nine-six is open in his hand and watch him get two rounds chambered. He doesn’t turn to look where I am, if I’m close. He raises the gun to his head, looks up toward the Best Western.
“Vicki!” he yells, and pulls the trigger.
The discharge echo’s weird in the weather, almost like a real, live round, not that my brother would know the difference, for all his gun talk. The force of the discharge snaps his head to the side, yanks his body from his feet. He skids prone, clutching his ear. There isn’t much gunpowder in a blank shell, but it’s enough to bust a person’s eardrum. It’s a enough to hurt, too, I tell you what.
“Blanks,” I say, falling to my knees beside him, patting his body, as though he is on fire. I say it, keep saying it, out of breath even, just moving my lips, “Blanks. I swear. I swear they’re all just a bunch of fucking blanks.”
My brother kicks out at my touch, curls away in pain. Blood from his ear oozes between his fingers and his eyes stitch shut. And then there’s this sound he’s making, the same from before, a low and groaning moan through gritted teeth. The side of his face, you can see even by the light of the parking lot, is burned red, black closer in. The moan crests, becomes words.
“What the heck?” he shouts, rolls to his back, eyes furious, terrified, an animal’s eyes. “What—what is this? What the heck? What the heck, what the heck, what the—”
I say it again—and still again, and again—rain and now swirling around us as it freezes in mid-air, snow catching in his hair and blood, between his wet, weepy lashes, the long dark ones our mother loved. I shake my head, regret it all, everything, my whole stupid, fucking plan, what I see now was no plan at all. I want to cry, scream. I hold and turn his face to look at me, squint between those lashes to make sure that my big brother, who just pulled the trigger on the gun I gave him, pulled the trigger without even turning around, is still in there. “Please,” I say. “I promise.”
He looks at me, at the blood on his hand, and then, strangely, at something behind me, a person there, someone he recognizes but is surprised to see. I turn to look.
“You,” my brother says.
Stood casually behind me in the diagonal snow and rain, bored look on his face and what I recognize from my work as a police taser in his rubber-gloved hand, is the trucker from the McDonald’s. The six-nine-six lies well within my brothers reach and, following the trucker’s gaze, we all seem to realize it at the same time. My brother’s eyes go wide and the trucker shakes his head.
“Knew you boys were up to no good the moment you walked in,” he says, and matter-of-factly shoots my brother in the chest with the taser.
The darts hit his chest and the current bends his spine back and I hear my brother scream, but I mean really scream, the way a taser will make you do. The water on his clothes and skin evaporates and a halo of sparks blooms around him and, for a moment, the angle of his back is so severe that it looks almost like he’s levitating. The trucker feeds the current, double-tap. And then it’s over and my brother is still. His eyes are open, blinking even, watching, but he does not move.
The trucker leans down, pinches the six-nine-six up by the barrel, feels for my brother’s pulse, says to me, “I hope I can trust you to please just stay where you are for a minute, til the cops get here?”
The cops, radioed from the trucker’s cab, take 45 minutes to arrive.
It is the worst recession since the Great Depression, like I said. The worst.
The trucker turns out to be a real Samaritan, helps me move my brother under the carport, out of the weather. He even rolls his vest under my brother’s head and we sit chatting over him as we wait, watch my brother breath, wheezing but steady, watching, listening.
“Well, I guess it’s better he kills himself at least, right?” says the trucker, once I’ve told him. “I mean, just speaking abstractedly, right? Better he kills himself than his wife and maybe this other guy, too. Just speaking abstractedly, I mean.”
Little traffic passes on the freeway below us. There are no brake lights.
“Let me ask you this, then,” the trucker says, nods up at the Best Western windows. “How do you know for sure she’s even got a man up there, huh? That she’s got a man at all? For sure, I mean—other than his word?”
The trucker’s vest beneath his head, my brother’s gaze watches only me, unfazed. Unimpressed.
“I mean, I’m just saying, right? Just speaking abstractedly.”
The Best Western staff ignore, speak their native language quietly, consider their options, turn their backs until the cops arrive. Even then the night manager swears: he doesn’t know us. He saw nothing.
Would you believe I still make it to the radio station on time?
They told me to aim for seven but I beat that by a country mile, talk my way out of the police station by six and roll into the radio station parking lot at ten-to, swiggin’ one of those big-ass, take-out coffees, dripping wet, grinning and exhausted. The secretary smiles when I introduce myself and takes me straight back to meet everybody.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I says as soon as I get a look at the place. “Hold the fucking phone here.”
My brother’s assumptions about the kind of radio show it is have turned out to be prophetically ironic. Pictures line the walls in orderly rows, autographed headshots of Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Rush Limbaugh, others. Pinned up over glass case with two tricked-out, modified Desert Eagles in it is A Don’t Tread on Me flag—I’ve never seen one before and don’t even realize what it is yet. And there’s more, other stuff: maps with thumbtacks and string, charts and pictures, blueprints, there’s drafts of plans on white boards, weird glyphs and symbols, horrors clearly in the works but not quite yet to be.
The secretary tries steer me somewhere useful, aims me at the engineer and the show’s two hosts, big friendly men in short sleeves, their smiles identical, heavy hands out for me to shake. But I ignore them, walk the room, examine everything real close, as close as possible. I laugh, my face an inch from some asshole’s picture. Their smiles start to fade.
“Boy are you guys in for a surprise,” I say. “I’m a democrat, didn’t you know that? Oh yeah, huge democrat! Huge liberal,” I say, and I span my arms to show them how huge, splashing some coffee on stuff as I do, faders and maps and whatnot. I brush between the hosts, maybe a little rough.
Three months from now, my brother and his wife Vicki will join Chris and me with our friends and family for our baby shower, he and Vicki bringing as their gift an expensive running stroller along with two Rubbermaid bins of hand-me-downs. At one point, I will happen to catch a glimpse from across the room as Vicki, arranging devilled eggs on a platter with Chris, whispers something in my wife’s ear, something brief but obviously true, causing both of them to laugh in secret agreement. And they will cover their mouths as they do, laughing, because that is how women are brought up where we come from.
Four years after that, my brother, divorced and having discovered alcohol, will explain in earnest to me, through the haze of a late-night drunk-dial, that “the real problem with our father was—some people, if you want them to listen to you, you only have to be as good as them. But other folks, people like Dad, you have to actually be better than them, you know? Because they lie to themselves about how good they are—” With utter disgust: “They lie about how good they are to themselves.”
“Sorry to make it so awkward,” I say, “but where did you guys even hear about me, anyway? I mean, who even told you to call me? Say you’re looking for a small business guy, that’s it? No context, nothing?”
The men remain still, expressions sour, and the secretary’s hand having just barely begun it’s creep towards the phone. Outside, through the ugly radio-station blinds, the sun has at last commenced its ascent through the freezing grey dawn, a disappointment. The light changes nothing.
“I mean, who’s the hustler feeding you these leads, huh? That’s what I’d be asking if I was you. Who’s telling you that someone like me is ever—in a million years—ever going to have anything to say to some guys like you, huh? Who? Because I’d like to meet that man, to shake his hand,” I tell them, pointing slowly around the room, everyone, “I’d like to ask him what colour the sky is where he lives, what’s the weather like there. Because, I don’t know about you folks, but for some of us—and you can trust me on this—for some of us, it has already been a very, very, very long night indeed. Alright? Do you hear what I’m saying? Now are you guys ready to record this thing, or am I gonna have to shoot someone?”
Derrick Martin-Campbell is a writer living in Portland, OR. Claire Vaye Watkins chose his story “Space Heaters” as the winner of the Yemassee Journal’s 2016 Fiction Prize. His work has appeared in PANK, Blunderbuss, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, BOAAT Press Journal, NAILED, and Sundog Lit, among other places.