This piece won second place in the 2017 Parsec Ink short story contest. I offer it here for your consideration.
Shades of Home
By Victor T. Cypert
The porch sighs below me as the brass key provided by Mom’s lawyer slides into the lock. It sticks, refuses to turn. A copy of a copy. Doubtless sixth or seventh generation since we moved here back in ’74. Just a sliver of brass, close to being a metal blank, and carrying with it all of the imperfections and flaws of its predecessors.
After a minute’s labor, a click. The tumblers slide into place, and the hinges give. Lemon Pledge and butterscotch, like the inside of a benevolent grandmother’s purse, and cold, dry air against the Alabama sun.
My breath catches in my chest, and I feel trapped. Claustrophobic. My pulse rushes in my ears, my heart pounds high my chest. I fight down the urge to vomit.
I threw her letters out, unopened.
My heart sinks, guilt a cinderblock chained to the foot of my spirit, even as hope returns in this most unlikely of places. I shove regret aside, regain my nerve, and take a deep breath. A step carries me over the threshold to break a promise I made with myself over two-and-a-half decades earlier.
A new sofa, but the coffee table older than my memory remains. Faux-brass halogen lamps in the corners and a flat screen TV. The walls painted sea foam—like always—but no cigarette stains. Mom didn’t mind splurging after Dad died, but his brown Naugahyde recliner still dominates the room, like the grand seat of some reviled medieval tyrant.
Even before the accident, I hated our weekly Family Hour. Sixty minutes of kid-friendly TV Mom insisted we share. My brother and me forced into silence on the floor, Dad’s criticism beaming down from his faux-leather throne. Kermit and Miss Piggy went through their usual hijinks on TV while the bottle of Johnnie Walker rose and fell with the laugh track until the hate bubbled up, tumbled out, forced one, two, or all of us on the defensive. If he stood up, all bets were off. Even Mom could get his belt if he got out of his chair.
“The father is the head of the family, as Christ is the head of the church, Memo.” The last words she said before I walked away for good, before I left her to her superstitions even as she left me for them. When I drove away almost thirty years ago, the fact that her eye was blacker than her Bible didn’t escape me.
“I’m home.” No howl of protest, no cry of utter despair or outrage greets me. I feel lightheaded for a moment, almost giddy.
The recollection of the frown mom’s lawyer wore, the local custom of passing judgment on the prodigal who fails to reconcile with his kin—Who doesn’t even attend his own mother’s funeral!—and my levity evaporates. The shadowy chain around my soul tugs me further into the house.
On the wall, the family portrait: Dad in his gray suit with his salt-and-pepper tonsure. Mom beside him with a hairdo large enough for a town half the size of Elliston. Jeffrey in an Izod and ponytail. Seven-year-old me tucked almost out of the shot. Of everyone in the photo, only Dad looks happy.
Maybe he was happy in the moment, as impossible as it seems.
A distant memory filters up through the pain—Dad smiling and handing me an ice cream cone. We saw Superman that afternoon, just the two of us. For a while AA seemed to help.
But that was before….
After the accident, Dad lost his faith. He drank more. He lashed out more. With fewer targets to choose from, I took the brunt of his rage, right down to the buckle. Even though the lines have faded, I still can’t go without a shirt at the beach. Jack says scars are trendy, that people will just think I’m up on the latest body modifications. Somehow I don’t think I could convince anyone that I wanted a Georgia roadmap for a back piece.
My cellphone rings. Jack’s info pops up on the screen.
“Hey,” he says. “Get there yet?”
“Yeah. Just now.”
Silence, awful and awkward, floods the airwaves, hits towers, gets beamed to satellites that transmit long streams of zeroes across hundreds of miles. A sigh drags out too long, too low before he speaks again.
Oh, Jesus. I hate apologies. “Me, too. I’m sorry.”
“You’ve got every right to see this out. I understand that now.”
“Thanks,” I whisper. “I really just got here. It’s weird that you called when you did. Synchronicity.”
“Oh, God, I love that album.” He laughs, light and frivolous, bathos to counter my morbidity, and I laugh too.
Another pause, but less anxious.
“You going to bring anything home? Memento? Token? I’d say ‘souvenir’ but that sounds more tacky than kitsch.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, it needs to match the décor and the future décor. I’m still thinking bay windows next summer.”
“For the millionth time, we don’t live on the water.”
“And you know that doesn’t matter.”
“What was that about tacky versus kitsch, again?”
The ceiling groans. A pipe rattles in the wall. Outside, someone cranks up a two-stroke engine, the hollow, metal chime of the motor too distinct, too distracting. Christ, not this. I’m over this. “I—I—I think my battery might die soon,” I lie and immediately feel like shit. “Let me call you back tonight.”
“Fine. Do what you need to do—find some closure and come home,” Jack says. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I hang up.
“Hey! Hey, Queermo! Wanna come outside and learn how to milk the mouse?” The voice comes from every direction. From nowhere. Out of the walls. From the rug. Pervasive as the smell of mothballs and ozone creeping up from the basement. It flakes into the air with the ancient paint in the hallway bathroom. But it’s so close and so clear the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. Familiar even after the intervening decades.
“That’s not cool, Jeffrey,” I try to sound cross, parental, but not like Dad—no cruel names, no barbed hatred. Tough love. Discipline. But show restraint. “You know better than that. You’re too smart for that sort of small-minded idiocy.”
No reply but the engine outside continues to sing. The shed. I have to see it, to stop it, find a way to shut it out once and for all. The thought scampers away as I take the stairs two at a time, eager for the breakthrough my therapist insists is due.
A table and sewing machine occupy my former bedroom. The wallpaper boasts bouquets of wildflowers, like awful stills from a movie about the work of Thomas Kinkade. Everything glows warm, pastels and cream, soft accents and gentle light through sea foam sheers. Every trace of me gone, my blood pressure rises. Fingernails dig into my palms, bite down to leave cruel, half-moon tears in the tender flesh.
Mom’s room looks much as it did before I left. Even Dad’s closet still houses his uniforms. On the walls, medals, letters of commendation, the old man’s draft notice, and the letter declaring him medically unfit for service after taking shrapnel in Dak To. Purple Heart. Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze star devices. Bronze Star. Silver Star. On a hook beside the frames hangs his belt.
I grab Mom’s toenail clippers from her nightstand and start in on the leather strap. Outside, the engine revs, impatient and excited. After ten minutes, the largest scrap remaining is only three inches long. I open the window and pitch the buckle into the yard below. “You’ll never hit anyone again, you son-of-a-bitch.” In my mind I imagine my shrink’s voice rise against the motor. He says something about transference and symbolic retaliation.
“I don’t care if it was healthy or not,” I say. “It felt good.”
“Hey! Hey, Queermo! Come out and I’ll show you how a horse eats corn.” The engine sputters, revs, and dings louder than before.
“Zip it, Jeffrey.”
His door is last, end of the hall. Black-light Led Zeppelin poster and a red-lettered sign telling intruders “KEEP OUT!” I steady myself and turn the knob.
Japanese Zeroes and Nazi Messerschmitts wage perpetual warfare on British Spitfires and American Hellcats, suspended by fishing line above my brother’s bed. Black Sabbath, Kiss, Ted Nugent, and Pink Floyd tapestries line the walls while a half-dressed Farrah Fawcett leans out from a poster on the closet door. A Zenith Hi-Fi and my brother’s album collection. A portable eight-track player with a copy of Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll still in it. Part of me wonders how much they’d fetch at a flea market or on eBay.
Guilt drags me down again, and the motor outside roars its mirth at my shame.
“Hey, Queermo! Get out of my room!”
An ancient issue of Green Lantern rests on the nightstand. I snatch it up, flick it open. The ad inside the cover banishes guilt with wry amusement tinged by disappointment. Amazing Live Sea Monkeys! Smart and eager to please, they can even be trained! A Sea Monkey nuclear family beams up at me. Their cheerful, antennae-crowned faces boast wide smiles. Webbed hands extended in invitation. I flip the page.
The story drags out between ads for X-ray glasses, foaming sugar, and a life-sized poster of Frankenstein’s Monster. The promise of being able to perform professional magic tricks, of developing my ESP, of making piles of cash selling GRIT magazine elicit a tired laugh. My eyes grow heavy.
The motor changes pitch, constant and steady. The familiar hum of a lawnmower. That’s all. Just a lawnmower about a half block away. I put the comic book down and turn to leave, but the room is bigger now, the door further away.
Outside Jeff’s window, in the lot beside our house, oak leaves tumble to the ground, red and orange. The kudzu grows thick, drapes over a cluster of dead loblollies. The whole forms my secret refuge beneath the shadowy canopy—the trees that burned in 1986, well after I’d grown too big to hide in the weeds with the grass spiders and millipedes.
My reflection, ghost-like and pale, caught in the dirty pane of glass stuns me, silences the gasp before it can escape my lips. Small, a full head of dark brown hair with Mom’s sad, Honduran eyes, and buckteeth too big for my face. Me, nine-and-a-half going on forty-six.
“No! NO!” Dad’s voice booms from the living room. “Run the ball. Run the ball! RUN THE FUCKING BALL YOU STUPID SACK OF—NO NO NO NO NO!” A clang, hollow metal against hardwood as he throws his beer to the floor. “Well, shit spit, Bear. Give your offense the day off?”
Dread, pure in its certainty, descends on me like the pummeling I’ll receive should Jeff catch me in his room. I bolt for the door, slide in socked feet across waxed hardwood, and dash down the hall.
Surreal the scene as I enter, another me sleeps in my bed, turned toward the wall, with arms wrapped around neck and shoulders, knees tucked tight to chest. Our clothes are the same—jean jacket, Toughskins, and a Tonka Truck T-shirt. On the floor, Legos, a few Micronauts, and some faded Tinkertoys.
“Christ! Christ! CHRIST!” The blasphemy issues from downstairs, a hot, angry wind that blows up from beneath me like the battle cry of an invading army. “NO, YOU STUPID SON OF A BITCH! WHAT THE FUCK? I GOT A HUNDRED ON THIS AND YOU STUPID ASSHOLES ARE OUT THERE SUCKING EACH OTHERS’ COCKS! MOTHER FUCKER!”
From my bed, a murmur, and the other me shifts in his sleep.
I back out of my bedroom, careful not to awaken my doppelganger, and close the door.
In the upstairs hall, I catch a snippet from the game and my heart stops. “The Fighting Irish.” A news announcer proclaims tonight’s top story will focus on the incoming Reagan administration’s plan to curb stagflation.
Another beer can crashes to the floor as Dad’s profanity rises over the commercial. My knees weaken as I reach for the banister. The stairs rush up to greet me, but I don’t feel the pain as I crash to the bottom, don’t care about the cut on my knee, because now I’ve got a chance. The kitchen door bangs behind me as I burst into backyard.
The shed stands mute, windowless, whitewashed cinderblock, capped with green fiberglass that makes me think of waves on the ocean. The small flutes in the roof open to the outside air at an angle. The wasps love that, use the tiny slits to make this a place of utter dread, where old rags drown in chainsaw oil and the painful, pus-filled blisters of summer find remedy in the first hard frost of fall.
As I step into the green-tinged gloom, an old exhilaration seizes me, thrills through my veins to my prepubescent genitals. An emotion rises inside of me, almost sexual but less defined, less self-assured. Simultaneously old and new, exciting yet frightening, the sensation builds as my gaze falls on the blue plastic tarp in the far corner—the only color in a sea of grey canvas and brown burlap. My pulse quickens as my steps propel me toward the object of endless fascination.
Desperate to destroy the thing—sugar the gas tank, rip it apart with a wrench, drive it to the creek in the woods and push it into the part that’s even over Jeff’s head—the craving overwhelms me. I long to marvel at the beauty of the reassembled engine, the mismatched frame and seat my brother somehow managed to make look kick-ass. Half moped, half mini-bike, the gas tank suggests a chopper while the handlebars look more suited to racing, all of it electric blue with chrome accents. Or so memory informs me.
I reach for the tarp, but my hand catches in the air like a fly snared in molasses. Inches from the damnable object of my earliest fantasies something stops me. Panicked, I snatch my hand back just as my brother opens the door.
Fifteen and awkward, Jeff’s black bangs feather over eyes red and wet. He doesn’t see me as he pulls an envelope out of the inner pocket of his leather jacket. He rests the letter on a workbench and rips the tarp from the bike.
My elation crashes, bursts into flame like the Hindenburg on Jeff’s bedroom door. The bike’s glorious finish, mere spray paint, the chrome tarnished, rust-bitten, and burnt. Dented tank, busted handlebars, bent frame, and torn seat come together through the brute force of improvised adapters, braces, tape, and steel wire. Mismatched bolts and bizarre scraps of metal bully the whole together into a dangerous and hideous thing. No chain connects the drive shaft of the engine to the rear wheel.
“It doesn’t even work,” I say, though my brother takes no notice.
After several kicks, he gets the engine to turn over and a blue-grey stream of cloyingly sweet exhaust chugs out, fills the tiny room. He settles to the floor, lies down, folds his hands over his stomach, closes his eyes, and breathes deep, full breaths, unafraid and fully aware.
Jeff doesn’t, can’t, or won’t hear my screams. The door refuses to budge now, my hand catches as it did on the tarp, and I’m trapped inside, too. I lunge at the bike, throw myself at the kill switch, but I’m caught every time, stopped mere inches from the orange button. Yet as my brother gasps and chokes in the increasingly toxic air, my breathing goes unchanged.
Glassy eyes flutter in his cherry-red face, and waxy lips form soundless words as he passes out. About a half hour later, his breath rattles to a stop. Another span of long minutes before the engine runs out of gas. Night falls and the sweet taste in the back of my throat dissolves, replaced by an acrid tang like licking the terminals of a nine-volt battery.
The door bursts open sometime around six and Mom screams. Dad shouts from the living room and ambles out a minute later, belt in hand. The buckle chimes on concrete as he kneels beside Jeff.
Mom stumbles back into the workbench and the letter falls to the floor. She picks it up, afraid to let chaos gain a toehold in any part of the house, even out here.
“What’s that?” Dad gestures to the envelope.
Mom hands it over and the flap snaps open with a flick of Dad’s finger. The letter is addressed to Dad by name, not title.
Dad’s face contorts in rage as he reads it. He spits on Jeff’s body. “Ungrateful little shit,” he says as he fishes his Zippo out of his pocket.
“What are you doing?” Mom gasps as she reaches for the lighter.
A backhand drops her as the letter vanishes in yellow-white flame.
“I’ll tell the police,” she screams. “I’ll tell them there was a letter. They’ll make you tell me what it said!”
Dad raises his hand and Mom flinches, falls silent with a whimper.
“Shut up, stupid. Think about the insurance. If it’s an accident, if he was out here working on that damned contraption and he didn’t notice the door shut, we cash-in. Otherwise, we get nothing. Got that? Nothing.”
A memory returns of nervous evenings, Dad raging at hapless claims adjustors over the phone, his voice alternately calm or exploding in extended, expletive-laden rants. The cost of his efforts ended up more than the policy could cover.
Dad stares at Jeff’s body and puts a wrench and screwdriver next to the bike. “Let’s make the most of it. Where’s Guille?”
Mom slinks back. “He’s asleep. Upstairs. He had a mold allergy attack this afternoon, so I gave him some Benadryl. But what did it say?” Her voice rises, too shrill, a tone that’s sure to be met with force.
Dad’s left disappoints by behaving as predicted, and Mom sprawls to the ground. “None of your damned business. Got it?”
Mom crawls to the corner beside my brother’s bike. She nods, eyes wide, lips trembling.
“Good. Get yourself together and I’ll call the ambulance.”
I don’t wait for her response. The shed’s door open, I run into the cold night air, head for the field of kudzu, dart under the vines and crawl for the sanctuary of the dead pine trees at the center of the creeping mass.
Under the canopy, the stars wink down. Orion streams overhead followed by Sirius. Sometime before morning, I curl up, tuck my knees to my chest, and fall asleep.
I awaken in my brother’s room as dusk settles. He stands at the foot of the bed, lips glossed dull blue from lack of oxygen, eyes vacant and glassy, skin beet red. His mouth opens and closes, soundless words spill from dead lips, echoes of the silent whispers of a dying boy. The vision doesn’t frighten me but leaves me momentarily speechless, like the uncomfortable silence that comes from bumping into a former friend at a party.
He never left this place, never left me. We’ve both been trapped here ever since that day in November thirty-five years ago. The break-through neither startles nor overwhelms, but forces a deep breath as the domains of inevitability and acceptability meet at last.
I sit up. The room feels small again, a child’s room. Once more I find myself in the doldrums of midlife, complete with thinning hair and arthritic back.
The formal name, the surrogacy I created to dominate and control the taunting inner voice, fails me. The reality of who he is—my big brother—can’t be denied. “Hi, Jeff.”
He says nothing but stares back, blank eyes dimly reflecting the twilight.
I pitch the keys into the living room. A soft jingle as they land on Dad’s easy chair and I lock the front door on my way out.
The latch on the white, picket fence clicks behind me. I climb into the rental car, toss the single issue of Green Lantern into the passenger seat, check the rearview mirror, and meet Jeff’s dead, sightless gaze.
I turn the ignition and pull away from the house for the last time in my life. My brother sits behind me, quiet and ready to finally come home.