A Man More Ordinary
By Manfred Gabriel
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
As soon as I saw my brother Phillip at the kitchen door, I went upstairs to get my gun. I crept into the bedroom, finding my way in the dark to my side of the bed. Slipping my hand beneath my pillow, I felt the warm metal of the loaded .38. As I pulled it out, Kelly stirred.
“Can’t sleep again?” she asked, half rising.
“Yeah,” I whispered. “Just need a glass of water. Go back to sleep.” I leaned over to her, placed my hand on her shoulder, settled her back against her pillow. I doubted she could see the gun in the dark, but I kept it behind my back all the same. As I kissed her forehead, it weighed heavily in my hand.
Out in the hall, I peeked into Suzanne’s room. She slept soundly, her breath steady. Gently, I closed the door. Then I headed downstairs to the kitchen, hoping Phillip had changed his mind and gone.
He was still waiting though, his bulk filling the door’s frame, his eyes peering through its laced curtained window. He hadn’t knocked, or rung the bell, he was just standing there, as if sure I would notice him eventually.
Not wanting him to see the gun, I slipped it into the junk drawer where we kept scissors, pens, paperclips and other odds and ends. I had bought it a month before, as soon as I learned of Phillip’s escape. I took a course in how to handle it, fired several rounds. Still, the gun was foreign object to me. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it. I went to the door and opened it halfway, leaving only the flimsy, locked screen door between us. The night air was hot and still. Crickets chirped. Phillip smelled like he hadn’t bathed in days.
“Aren’t you going to let me in?” He asked.
I shouldn’t have, I know. I should have gone to the phone, called the police and kept him locked out until they arrived. But he was still my brother, and I missed him. Besides, I had turned him in once before, and I didn’t want to go through that again.
Hesitantly, I clicked open the door. He entered and followed me into the kitchen. He headed to the fridge, foraged until he found a can of beer, popped it open, guzzled half of it down. I stood near the drawer where I had tucked the gun, watching him. His hair was long, wild, uncombed. He had grown a beard, scraggly and somewhat gray. He wore a pair of dirty pajamas, striped like a concentration camp uniform, and his feet were bare. He looked so much different from the last time I saw him, buttoned down and clean-shaven, wearing his best suit. That was in court, when he was found guilty but insane and sentenced to the institution. I still remembered how he glared at me as they led him away, and how I looked down to avoid his gaze.
“What do you want?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
He sat down at the kitchen table, his back to the window. Fireflies danced beyond his head. “Want? I don’t want anything. I’m just here to say hello, and maybe repay a favor.” The last word dripped off his lips. I stiffened. I calculated how long it would take to pull the gun out of the drawer, if I could do it before he sprang at me. I wondered if he still had the speed and reflexes from his college running-back days.
“You look so nervous,” He said. “Don’t worry. Have a seat.” Phillip patted the chair next to him. I remained standing. “Tell me, how are Kelly and Suzanne?”
“Fine,” I answered. “They’re out of town for the weekend.”
A grin shone from beneath Phillip’s beard. “You never could lie, Little Brother. It was just a polite question. Don’t worry, I’ve always liked Kelly. I remember when I was your best man, standing up there, thinking how pretty she was, how you were lucky to have her.”
The air conditioning clicked on, humming softly. The artificial breeze blew up at me from the vent at my feet. A bead of sweat rolled down my forehead. The gun was just inches away. I wondered, if it came down to it, would I have the guts to pull the trigger.
“And Suzanne, how old is she now, sixteen?”
“Fifteen, “I replied coldly.
“Practically a woman,” he said. He sipped his beer, leaned back, confident, sure of himself as always. I thought of my daughter, so innocent, unaware of any of this. I was sure she had questions about what had happened to her Uncle Phil, but she was too young to understand at the time, and it wasn’t something we talked about anymore, even since his escape. She was still my little girl. I wanted to shield her, at least for a little longer.
“You have the life, you know that?” Phillip continued. “Nice family, nice house, nice neighborhood, good job. Still working at Tellinghouse Labs, I take it?”
I didn’t say anything. He could have had the good life, too. He was smart – valedictorian, summa cum laude. Masters in information systems. He was pulling down six figures just freelancing before he snapped. That sunny spring afternoon when he walked into that back and started shooting, killed a teller, the bank manager and wounded three customers before taking off, coming here, asking me to hide him, just for a few days, until he could figure out what to do next.
When I didn’t reply, Phillip went on. “Good place to work. I turned them down once, you know. Too corporate. Still you can work there until you retire. Live the fat life. Yes, you’ve got it good. Shame if someone, something, took that all away.”
I almost pulled out the .38 then, threatened to make him leave at gunpoint, go and never come back. But he hadn’t done anything yet, and something in the way he was talking made me curious about what he was up to. “They’re look for you,” I said. I thought of the police, who had given up their stakeout only a week before.
“Haven’t found me yet.”
“Still, they will,” I replied.
Phillip leaned forward in his chair. “Only if you turn me in again.”
The words stung me. “I had no choice. You were all over the TV. Cops were everywhere. They were watching my every move. I could have gotten in a lot of trouble if they found you here. You need help.”
Phillip sat back. “I just needed a little time, that’s all. It would have been nice if you understood.”
But I didn’t understand. He had always been so normal. We had good parents. He had plenty of friends, an education, he was intelligent, funny, athletic, lots of women, lots of money. He had everything. I always looked up to him, longed to be like him. It crushed me to see him crash and burn so fast. My fall idol, a wasted life.
“Why did you do it?” I asked. It was the first time I had the opportunity to ask the question since his arrest.
He looked down at his hands, fingers splayed, as if examining a manicure. “I don’t know. No reason, I just couldn’t take it anymore. It could have happened to anyone. We have a lot less control over our lives than we think. It just happened to me, that’s all. Besides, none of that matters now.”
He finished his beer, crinkled the aluminum can in his hand. “You know where I’ve been these past few weeks, you know how I managed to escape?”
I shook my head. I didn’t know, and neither did anyone else. The institution was maximum security, he was strapped down at night. Yet in the morning, his bed was empty, the straps still buckled, his door still locked, the bars on his windows untouched. There had been no sign of him leaving the grounds. Dogs couldn’t pick up a scent. It was as if he had never been.
He closed his eyes and frowned, as if trying to remember. “I lay in bed, immobile, eyes wide. A new drug I had been given made it difficult for me to sleep. The shades were drawn and everything was dark. Then I heard a crackling noise, and in the corner of the room a large hole appeared in the wall, a rift in the fabric of space, darker than even the room, black as death. A tingling sensation swept over my body starting with my toes and working its way up. Then I passed out.”
He didn’t say anything for a time. The air conditioning clicked off. The sudden silence scared me.
“Go on,” I urged. I figured as long as he was talking, I was safe. Kelly and Suzanne were safe. And maybe I was wrong, maybe he came her just to talk after all, no revenge, no hatred, just a conversation. Brothers again.
Then I remembered what he said about repaying a favor. My hand slid over the handle of the drawer that held the fun as he continued his story.
“When I awoke, I was sitting in a cold metal chair in a dimly lit room. My vision was blurred so that I couldn’t make out any details. At first I thought that I was still in the institution, that the blurring was due to the new drug, but then there they were, staring at me. Three of them. They have these eyes, like pinpricks of light, all gold, no pupils. Spooky.” He opened his eyes slightly, squinted, as if to try to imitate what he described.
“In the blurring, all I could see clearly were those eyes. I’ll tell you this, though, these things weren’t at all like people say – too many limbs, too much of what I thought was hair. They were black, except for those eyes, and then they had these voices.”
Phillip cleared his throat. He spoke suddenly in a high-pitched tone. “What doyousee in yoursleep? Whereareyourhands when they arenotin use? Canyour bloodbe reformed?” a shiver ran up my spine.
“They asked all sorts of questions.” His voice was back to normal again. “Nonsensical, confusing questions, like those of small children. They patiently waited for answers, which I tried to give them even though I didn’t understand what was happening. The questions kept coming, and I kept answering, but they never seemed satisfied.”
Phillip looked at me then, seemed to read what was on my mind. “What do you think I’m making this up? This isn’t the X-Files. I’m not Whitley Strieber. These things were real, and they never even heard of Roswell. Otherwise, how do you explain my escape? I’m smart, maybe even as smart as you think, but I’m no Houdini.”
He had a point. Still, he was capable of anything. “But why you?” I asked. I didn’t see why he of all the people would be taken. I wanted him to see it too, and hoped by answering the question he would see his delusion for what it was.
Phillip let out a small laugh. “I asked them that, and you know what they said? Accident. They don’t travel in spaceships. They fold time. Unfortunately, their calculations aren’t perfect. They don’t know exactly where they will come out. That’s how they ended up in my cell. It seems they’ve never been here before. God knows how they learned English.” His voice changed tone again. “Howwouldyou charachterize yourpeople?”
“We are selfish stupid barbarians.”
“What wouldyourpeopledo if we revealedourselves to them?”
“We’d kill you the first chance we got and take you technology for ourselves.”
“They didn’t seemed shocked at that. They didn’t believe me. I don’t think they know what war is, or physical violence for that matter. Funny thing is, being kept by them was worse than anything I suffered at the institution.”
“How do you mean?” I asked. These aliens were an obvious extension of him, and by learning about them, maybe I could learn what had made him this way.
He turned his head, looked out the window. The fireflies were gone. The night was black. He looked back at me. “At least at the institution I got to go outside, got regular meals, was left in peace sometimes. But these things, they kept me in that chair all the time. I wasn’t strapped in, but I couldn’t move. They hardly ever let me sleep. I didn’t get anything to eat or drink for what seemed like days. Even then, I had to beg, screaming at the top of my lungs until they brought me some water and some stuff that tasted like moldy bread. Their questioning gave me splitting headaches which lasted hours. Once, I asked them when they would let me go. They responded with another question.
“Areyousoprimitive you cannotfunctionoutside of When?”
“I couldn’t answer them, because I had no idea what they meant. The headaches became worse. Then I told them what I had done at that bank. They seemed to get sick, and had to leave the room. For a time, the headaches even went away. Like I said, they didn’t seem to understand physical violence.”
Phillip stood up, walked over to me, looked me right in the eye. “That felt good, you know, seeing them retch. It felt as good as what I had done at the bank, letting off steam like that. I wasn’t crazy, you know. I knew exactly what I was doing. Banks. Money. Capitalism. Gets in the way. I was better than all that, all of them. I provide it. I would have gotten away, too, if it wasn’t for you.”
He took as step closer. This was it. The payback. I had no choice. I reached into the drawer, pulled out the gun. I fumbled with it before I got a good grip and had my finger on the trigger. I pointed it at him. My hand trembled.
Phillip slapped down on my wrist and the gun went off as it fell from my hand, the bullet digging into the kitchen table as the .38 clattered to the floor. He shoved me up against the fridge. He leaned on me, his whole weight pinning me, his face inches from mine. I could smell his breath, stale with beer.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. You’re my brother. I would never hurt you.” He eased up on me, walked over to the sink, looked out the window above it. The fireflies were back. Kelly and Suzanne appeared in the hallway. Kelly started to say something, but I held out my hand to silence her.
“You know why they let me go?” he asked.
“N-No,” I said.
“They said they didn’t want me anymore, said they didn’t think I was a typical human being. They wanted someone more normal, a man more ordinary, they called him.”
Phillip turned around, faced me. He didn’t seem to notice Kelly and Suzanne. My back was still up against the fridge. “That’s when I told them about you, Little Brother. You with your nice family, you nice house, your nice life. I said you were exactly what they were looking for. They had me lead them to you. That’s why I’m here. To tell you they’re coming to take you away.”
“This is insane,” I said.
Phillip reached into the breast pocket of his pajama top, pulled out a pipe. He tossed on the counter between us. “Go ahead,” he said. “Pick it up.”
Cautiously, I reached out, picked up the pipe. It was only about two inches long, with a short stem and a large bowl. It was black, like the ebony of piano keys, but it wasn’t ebony. It wasn’t wood, or plastic, or metal. I couldn’t tell what it was made of. I would have to bring it back to the lab and do some tests. All I knew for sure was that it wasn’t made of anything I knew.
“They smoke this blue powder with it,” Phillip explained. “Smells bitter, like roasted almonds. Gets them high as a kite. One of my interrogators couldn’t get enough of the stuff. I lifted that one to show you they weren’t from here. I knew you wouldn’t believe me without proof.”
Phillip nodded towards the door. “Not that it matters anymore. They’re waiting outside. You’ll be gone before the sun’s up. They’ll get quite a bit from you. And maybe, someday, they’ll let you come back. And I’ll have repaid you for what you’ve done to me.”
“And what about you?” I asked.
“Me? They could care less. I’ll disappear. Go to another city, take on a new identity, a new life. Alaska, maybe, or the Caribbean. It won’t be hard.”
“I don’t believe any of this. You’re just trying to scare me.” I was trying to convince myself more than him. I ran my thumb along the pipe.
“Good-bye, Little Brother.” Phillip walked out, letting the door shut behind him. I leaned against the counter, shaking. Kelly told Suzanne to call the police, and went to me, put her arm around me. She was asking me questions, but I didn’t hear them. I was looking out the window. My face reflected in the glass. The fireflies were still there, but I realized suddenly that they weren’t blinking, weren’t moving, weren’t fireflies at all. I stared at them. Eyes, like gold-plated stars, stared back.
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