Most people thought my brother Jack drank too damn much and that the bottle was his undoing, but the truth was he could be a bastard before a drop of alcohol ever crossed his lips. Growing up, Jack hadn’t been a nice brother, though it was years since I’d been afraid of him. He’d looked like our mother with his blue-black Irish hair and big blue eyes. But he’d inherited his temper from our pa. All that anger and sadness trapped in the body of a little boy. Our father worked the railroad lines for nearly twenty-eight years, and he tried to hone his sons with the same attention to hammer and steel. Our mother had us christened Wellington and Calvin, but we lived under the names our father used. He’d always meant to have sons named Jack and Dick, so that’s what we were.
When Jack was grown, he finally had the muscle to match his temper, and he was a nasty job when he was drunk. But most of the time, he just smiled and smiled until the world forgot what he was and started to trust him again. Just happy-go-lucky Jack, perpetually on his way up. He mostly kept his problems locked up in that house above the tannery. But that place, like everything Jack touched, was never quite free from the heavy, sweet stench of rot, and they both crumbled under the acid of his nature.
When I was eight, the barn cat had a litter of kittens, one of which was born with too many legs and an open side. I watched Jack from my bedroom window go into the barn and come out with his pocket weighed down, before disappearing into the woods. When I’d asked him about it later, he’d taken me into the forest and laughingly lifted the rock to show me the flattened mass of fur and bones, with his shoe lace still around its neck. I was old enough to know not to run away in tears, letting Jack know your weaknesses was never safe.
There wasn’t much about Jack that I respected, and even less that I liked, but I still spent a lot of time over the years cleaning up my big brother’s messes. His impromptu marriages and drunken visits disheartened my mother so much that I couldn’t face doing the same. How could I tell her I’d given up on him?
I’d gotten the call so late last night, I just knew it was another mess. In the half-light of the bedroom, I’d lain there, considering letting Jack listen to the operator tell him there was no answer. Only Jack wasn’t likely on the phone, usually whoever he hurt waited on the other end. Still, I let the phone ring. But the way the bed sheet crumpled in my sweaty hand reminded me of the wave of my mother’s hair just over her left temple. I answered the phone, my balls drawn up against my thigh. I had no idea what this call would cost me.
Dale Davis leaned across the rickety kitchen table and tapped the surface, bringing me out of my daydream.
“Dick, did you hear what I said?”
Dale, no Sheriff Davis, had only been in office for a few months, and he was barely out of school. His badge projected an unseemly brassiness into the shitty, little room.
“You see, the coroner told me that from the traja…the trejack…the angle of the shot, it was almost impossible for the victim, your brother, to have killed himself.”
The silence between us buzzed with the sound of Dale’s fingernail worrying over the crease in his trousers.
Oh Jack, what did you do?
Mattea has a Master’s in English Literature from SUNY Binghamton and lives in upstate New York with her husband and three children. They’re all wonderful, nothing said subsequently implies otherwise. If she doesn’t write–she dreams. A lot. Usually about ninjas with sharp knives. To cut down on the blood and the body count, she writes–a lot.