My Brother’s Keeper

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Half the county figured my big brother Samuel had bricks for brains. There was mighty good evidence in favor of that, like the time he decided to walk through downtown naked simply cause it was a hot day and clothes just plain didn’t feel good. But I knew Samuel wasn’t a dummy, just quiet, with his mind in a different place than the rest of us.

So when I heard him with two speakers of dark words, I knew to hunker down and listen. Here by the barn was the most private spot on our property—or would be, if I wasn’t up in the rafters.

I smelled the bad guys before I heard them. Mama didn’t get to teach me much, but she did teach me to heed my nose when it came to good and evil and all the grey in between, and those men stank like the septic tank being sucked out on an August afternoon. I gagged against my wrist to keep quiet, Mama’s old chain bracelet warm at my lips.

“I want to kill Macaulay,” said Samuel.

That name made me inhale with a hiss. Kill Macaulay?

“It’s easy to kill someone you hate that much,” said one of the men. “But if you want to join our circle, you can’t simply kill for vengeance. It’s too easy.”

There was a long pause. “He’s got a wife and kid,” said Samuel. I recognized the scuff of his bell bottom jeans dragging against the dirt.

“Three,” said a deeper voice, “There’s power in that.”

“Yes,” agreed the other man. “You must kill the entire family, on the equinox, with this knife. Then you can join our circle.”

“I want them books of yours.” Samuel’s drawl was slow, every word dragged out like his puffs from a cigarette.

“You’ll have access to our knowledge in stages. It takes time.”

“I can do it,” Samuel said.

When Samuel took that knife blade in his hand, I felt the wrongness of it rattle down my spine. That knife was an ugly, cursed thing. The other men left, heading back down the trail towards the base of the hill. Samuel stood there, holding that thing, assessing it in his quiet way. I barely breathed. I kept a pencil frozen in my hand, same as it was when I first smelled them come my way.

After a while, Samuel thudded back down the hill. The stink of evil faded. Why was Samuel doing such a stupid thing? If Mama knew, she’d whip his hide. She’d been the only one to ever keep him in line, the only one who understood he was so smart underneath all that stupid. But Mama was dead and gone and beneath feet of red iron dirt, and now Samuel was set out to kill the whole Macaulay family tomorrow night, and for magic, too.

Anger got all tight in my chest. At least Samuel had some magic, had some words to go by.

I stared down at my half-done math homework. I hated math. All those numbers danced around in my mind and the answers never came out right, but I’d rather do a full fifty pages of algebra than save those Macaulays.

Old man Macaulay was the one who killed Mama, blowing past the stop sign at Templeton Hill and crunching our car flat as a griddle. They said in town that Macaulay had enough whiskey in him to pickle him like a frog for science class, but he hadn’t been the one who died.

I scampered up and left my math for the mice to nibble on.

Given my druthers, I’d rather help Samuel out than save those Macaulays, but Mama loved everyone. She used to be close to Grandma Macaulay, too.

Mama wouldn’t want Samuel to meddle with darkness, wouldn’t want that blood on his hands. I just had to ignore whose blood it was.

Most all the other men around came back from Vietnam and fell into the bottle, but not my Papa. Nope, he fell straight into Jesus’s arms.

Papa had the table covered with books for his seminary course and was all hunched over, muttering to himself. He didn’t notice me going by, or flinch when I opened up a can of cola. But the second I headed towards my room, his pencil stopped scratching.

“Deborah?”

“Yes, Papa?” I turned around, the cola fizzling on my tongue.

“We’re out of bread.”

“I can go by the Pig later.”

His head bowed over his work, and I moved on. I didn’t have any kid brothers or sisters underfoot. Didn’t need them. I had Papa and Samuel, and the fact that I was twelve didn’t matter a doodle. I cleaned, I cooked. If it wasn’t for the fact that I made Sunday dinner just like Mama, Samuel might have never visited the house at all.

I can’t even say I held any fondness for Papa, not anymore. He was more like an extra piece of furniture around the house, something to take care of because it’d always been there. Just looking at him made that anger rise up again, all because of what he did the day after Mama’s funeral.

He burned her books. The family books.

Mama never said that what she did was magic. It was as natural as breathing. The words were all for focus, she said. So she wrote down what she learned, just as her mama had, and her grandfather, and her great-grandmother. From the way Mama told the tale, her great-grandma was all sneaky about learning to read and write as a slave, and did it all so she could preserve the words and pass them along.

Papa burned every last shred of those books, a full century of songs about growing okra in a day, warding away mosquitoes, making babies form all perfect, and calling on rain. Papa sobbed as he did it, said that it was an awful thing that Mama was burning in hell right now, but he’d save us kids. I woke up because I felt the flames itching along Mama’s old ink; it woke up Samuel, too. Mama had already started teaching Samuel. Me—she said I was too young.

Now I’d never know how to focus or sing the words, not unless Samuel taught me, and he didn’t know much.

But I had been learning from Papa. Not that he knew those kinds of words, of course, but he had been writing down his experiences from Vietnam. Called it his “spiritual cleansing.” Course, those weren’t the kinds of things a girl my age should be reading, but it was an education in the ways a man could die and the way eating half-cooked chicken could make him pray for death as he spewed out his guts for days and days. I had the latest book tucked under my mattress, and just the other day I read something that would come in mighty useful.

Samuel was a big fellow at seventeen. I couldn’t overpower him. I didn’t even know where to find him now, though I guessed he was sleeping somewhere in the woods, somewhere within easy walk of our place.

Keeping Samuel away from the Macaulay’s house would require some military strategy.

It would have been a brilliant plan if it hadn’t involved math.

I spent the rest of that Saturday gathering supplies, so I headed out after dark to set everything up. I figured I had to establish a perimeter around the backside of the Macaulay shack, which would be the most direct way for Samuel to sneak up on them. Any car on the drive would be too loud. So, I snuck a full reel of fishing wire from Darrel Craigshead’s garage, and a pop cap gun from Lewis David’s back shed, and I dragged myself through the woods to make a tripwire.

See, Samuel had this thing about particular loud noises—the pops of guns or firecrackers or car backfires. He’d cover his ears and hunker down and freeze. I figured that I could rig this tripwire and scare him away, and I could do it far enough from the Macaulay house that they might not notice. Turns out that farther away means a bigger perimeter, and big reels of fishing wire aren’t so big as they look.

Also, it’s cussed hard work in the dark, in September. My skin was sticky as a swamp.

I was so busy muttering that I didn’t hear Ralph Macaulay till he was five feet away. He had a shotgun in his hands aimed straight at my head.

“Deborah Kinsey.” His mouth gaped. The porch light from his house gleamed off his glasses. “What are you doing out here?”

Now I’d known Ralph my whole life but barely said more than a grunt. That’s because from the very start of kindergarten, when I could barely count to ten, Ralph Macaulay knew his multiplication tables. Since 3rd grade, each afternoon he’d gone to the high school across the way to sit in on the advanced coursework. I hated him long before I hated the rest of his family.

“Ralph.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

I looked around. The pop cap gun was leaning against a tree way far away. I had no desire to confess to him that I was trying to save his no-good family from some sort of dark sacrifice.

His eyes narrowed behind that thick glass. “Is that an empty wire reel in your hand?” He stepped closer, his gaze on the ground. “You… what is this, some kind of trap?” The barrel raised towards me again.

“Oh, what, you gonna shoot me?” I was hot and sweaty and bone-tired. “I’m not setting a trap for you, stupid.”

“Then who? Looks like you ran out of wire, anyway.”

If I had possessed any understanding of how magic works, I just might have blown him up. “Yes, thank you so much, Mr. Einstein.” How could he even tell that in the dark?

“If the wire’s not for us… is it for Samuel?”

My jaw almost hit the dirt. “What? How?”

“Maybe you should come to the porch where there’s light. We can talk there.”

The thought of going near that house made my stomach clench like a fist. “Nuh-uh, I don’t think so.”

Ralph sighed, all deep and heavy. “Look. We know Samuel’s up to something. I thought you were him, that’s why I came out.” He motioned with the gun barrel. “We know about the magic. Your mom used to come over and chat with Grandma about it all the time, about how it affected my dad, and me.”

“…You?”

“It takes different forms for different folks. For me, it’s numbers.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t help but ask. “Then what about your pa? He doesn’t have any knack for math.”

“No. No, he doesn’t. He sees shades, and since he killed your mom, she’s been clinging to him. She’s the one who warned us about Samuel.”

“Are you trying to tell me my mama’s a ghost?” The thought didn’t disturb me as much as it could have. I mean, better for her to be a ghost than to burn in hell like Papa said. I felt a bit of relief, really.

Ralph led the way through the brambles towards his house. “No. A shade is… a shade.” Upon glancing back and seeing the dumb look on my face, he continued, “Ghosts haunt out of vengeance. Shades are like a shadow of a person, after the soul’s gone on. If someone like my dad is responsible, the shade joins with theirs, like a reminder.”

“So, Mama is clinging to your dad, and she can talk to him?” I could talk to her? My heartbeat roared in my ears like a revved lawnmower.

“It’s not that easy.” Ralph stopped on the porch. “Dad dropped bombs when he was over there. That’s why he drinks, to blur the shades all together. There are… lots of them.”

“I want to talk to him,” I said, and went right up to the door.

“Deborah…!”

I didn’t have Mama’s insight, but soon as I stepped in that house, I felt that clog of spirits. Even with box fans bellowing at full blast, there was an extra stickiness to the air, something beyond humidity. Like cobwebs tearing against my face, prying at my hands. Raw frustration scratched at my throat. I wanted to see more. I wanted to see Mama. Hear her. Not just feel these… vapors.

Maybe if I had our family books, I’d know what to say so I could see, so I could understand, but I didn’t have squat. I hated feeling so stupid and helpless.

But there was something familiar about the cobweb feeling. The air felt that way around Papa, too—not nearly this thick, but that weirdness was there.

“Deborah, listen. Dad says it’s really noisy in his head. It took him weeks to figure out what your mama was saying. All he got out was that Samuel was going to come after us, and that you both needed to forgive and let go.”

“Forgive?” I recoiled from Ralph. “Forgive your papa?” Mama would expect that of me. Mama always had high ideals like that.

“That’s what he said, that’s all I know.”

“Is there a way to get the other voices quiet, so he can just hear Mama?”

“If he forgives himself and lets them slide away,” he said, his voice low. “This point, they cling to him as much as he clings to them.”

Ralph’s papa lay stretched out on a couch. The blanket ended short, covering the nubs of his legs. At least he lost something when he killed Mama. His head didn’t move but his eyes did, widening with something I could only call fear.

“No. Ralph, she can’t be here.” He pushed himself up on a flabby arm.

Good, he hated seeing me much as I hated seeing him. “My brother aims to kill you and Ralph and your wife tomorrow night. I’m aiming to stop him.”

“Go away! You look just like her. God, you look just like her.”

“What else has my mama told you? What can I do to stop Samuel?”

What words should I speak? That’s what I wanted to ask, what I wanted to hear. That maybe she had some legacy to pass along, just for me.

“God, get out of my sight! The shade is bad enough, I don’t need you in color, standing there! Oh Jesus.” He moaned and blubbered and he hid his face beneath a pillow.

I would have spit on the man but I saw the misery on Ralph’s face, and for some reason I didn’t hate him near so much now. Instead, I stalked outside and let the old screen door shriek as it shut behind me.

Ralph and I stood there, staring at the dark outline of the pines. “So,” he said, a quiver in his voice, “How’s he plan on doing it? Samuel, I mean.”

“Some bad fellows gave him a knife. The thing is stinky evil. He’s supposed to kill all you with it, then he’s in their club.”

“Oh.” He took in a long shaky breath. “I can understand revenge against Dad, but… me and Mom, we liked your mom just fine.” He hugged his arms close, like he was cold.

“Even I know there’s power in threes. You’re the math wizard and all.”

Ralph shrugged. “I’ll shoot Samuel if I have to, but I don’t want to. How are you thinking to stop him? What magic can you do?”

I blinked back the tears and frustration, the musk of those burning books flaring in my nose like the fire was fresh-lit.

“You think I’d be laying tripwire at midnight if I could do something special?” My shoulders hunched up like they could hide my face.

“What? But…”

“I can’t do a thing, you hear me? I can sense power, smell it, but I can’t do anything. And Papa, he burned all Mama’s books. I don’t even… I don’t even know how to learn. When you said her shade was in there, I thought…”

To his credit, Ralph didn’t look at me, but at the woods instead. “I’m awful sorry, Deborah.”

“Yeah.” I didn’t say anything for a minute, and just listened as the crickets hollered back and forth. “Why don’t you all just pack up and leave the state for the day? Get away? He can’t kill you if he can’t find you.”

“Dad’s stuck on that couch, and Mom’s working double shifts at the diner. She doesn’t believe in this… stuff. She won’t leave, and I won’t leave either of them behind.” His voice shook again, but he stood straight and tall.

I sighed all heavy. “I can’t talk Samuel out of anything, either. Mama’s the only one who kept him grounded. He only really comes home now to eat my cooking, cause I cook just like Mama. He probably hasn’t said a word to Papa since…” I blinked. The cooking. I looked at Ralph. “Whenever I cook, Samuel always manages to show up, even though he’s not staying at the house anymore.”

“There could be something to that.”

“Maybe.” Mama always had said that recipes were a way of putting words together in that special way. But once I had Samuel there, I had to stop him somehow. Keep him from his awful ritual. Cooking wasn’t the kind of power I wanted, but it was something carried down from Mama.

I thought back on Papa’s diaries again, about his awful experiences with food poisoning, and I grinned.

At one o’clock prompt that Sunday afternoon, I set the last dish on the table. It was all Mama’s best fixings, done in my hand: country-fried steak strips, fried okra, mustard greens, and cornbread. A lemon pie sat chilling in the fridge. Samuel slammed through the door at 1:05 with all the focus of a cat headed to a can of tuna. He grabbed a plate and started shoveling it in.

As for Papa, he was at the church, and would be all day. His books marked his place at the end of the table. Not for the first time, I wondered what he’d think if he came home to find them all burnt, but I knew it wouldn’t mean a thing. He could just buy more.

I worked on dishes and eyed Samuel. He always ate his foods one by one and saved his meats for last. That steak strip coating’s where I whipped in a hefty dose of ipecac. I threw together some barbeque sauce for dipping, with the hopes that’d cover up the super-sweetness of the syrup. I wasn’t big on steak, so I could skip eating it and he wouldn’t think a thing of it. I figured ipecac was made to make people throw up, so it’d do the job better than serving up half-raw meat. Samuel wasn’t that stupid.

“Haven’t seen you for a few days,” I said.

Samuel grunted as he speared okra on his fork. The thick aroma of frying oil lacquered the air, but even so I could smell the stink of that knife. He had it clipped to his waist.

I wanted to watch him without looking like I was watching, so I sat down in an old recliner. Next thing I knew the light in the room looked something funny and Ralph was standing there, kicking at my foot.

“You were sleeping?!” His scowl turned his face red.

“I was up half the night! And what are you doing here, stupid? Do you want to get killed? Where’s Samuel?”

“Out in the woods, sick as my old man after a night of drinking. Come on!”

I knew Samuel was up ahead on the trail, and not just because he was a veritable volcano of sickness. That knife stank like a manure truck.

“Ralph, you gotta stay back,” I said, shoving him behind me. He had his shotgun, but by the quiver in his hands, he wasn’t too steady about using it. Which was good. Samuel was already messing with his soul. If he died now… no, I couldn’t let that happen. Not when Mama’s soul was already in doubt.

Samuel was all hunched over and on his knees, his head in the bushes. The knife was on the ground right by him. I rushed forward, all sneaky-like, but not enough so. Samuel managed to sit up and clutch that evil thing close. He didn’t say a thing, just looked at me, his face a funny shade of pale.

“Samuel, that thing is awful evil. You don’t need that,” I said.

“I do,” he rasped. “If I want to get books that tell us how to bring back Mama.”

Despite the sweet heat of the evening, all my blood went cold. “You… what?”

“I see the Macaulay boy.” Samuel’s thick fingers twitched on the knife’s handle. “Got to do this.”

“Mama… Mama wouldn’t want to come back like that, Samuel, it’s wrong.”

“She’s not going to burn!” Samuel’s shout sent birds flapping from the trees.

Oh, no. That’s what this was about, what Papa said. My own anger stirred up in my chest, fists balling. “Mama’s a sweet and good person. She can’t… she wouldn’t go there.” Would she? I didn’t rightly know.

Samuel didn’t need to say a thing. He worked to stand up, all slow. His pant hems dragged on the gravel of the trail. This was all about Mama, and not even revenge. He didn’t care about his soul, what those dark words would do. He’d do it all to save her.

“Mama’d hate you for doing that,” I said.

“Mama never hated a thing,” said Samuel. He was right.

A rock plunked Samuel straight on the forehead. He blinked, furrowing his brows. Another one whapped him straight between the eyes. He kinda tipped backwards and splatted on the trail. I stared a moment before looking at Ralph about fifteen feet back.

He held a palm-full of gravel, the gun at his feet. “Didn’t want to kill him,” he said. “It’s all geometry and physics.”

“Dang. If you could go all David and Goliath, why’d I bother poisoning him?” I started forward.

Ralph snorted. “You think he’d have stayed still like that if he felt well?”

The sheathed knife slid right out of Samuel’s slack grip. He was breathing, his body still and limp as a sardine. The smell of that knife made me heave.

“What are you going to do with it?” asked Ralph.

I stared at that knife, focusing, trying to find words just like Mama. This was the important moment and all. This is when I needed that insight. Instead, the bugs just buzzed in the trees and my nose got used to the stink of the knife and I was left no wiser than before.

“Guess we’ll throw it in the river,” I finally said, hating how stupid and uninspired it was.

Ralph didn’t say one thing or another. We headed through the trees and to the big river. This was the area where Mama said I could never ever swim because the current was so fast. I handed the knife off to Ralph, as he had math in his favor, and he prettily threw it some twenty feet till it splashed deep. Then he turned around and squeaked like a kitten.

Samuel stood at the edge of the woods. Well, hunkered there, leaning on a tree. His skin had an awful sheen, and a big old bump grew on his forehead.

“I don’t get a second chance with them,” he said, his words slurred.

It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. “You shouldn’t have even had a first chance with those speakers of dark words.” I marched up to him. “Your soul’s still clean. That’s what Mama would want.”

At least he wasn’t doomed like her. I hated that thought, but it was still there, sticky to my brain like sweat on my skin.

“Will they come after you?” I asked.

Samuel jerked his head in a no, then leaned into the bushes. I waited till his guts emptied some more, then I grabbed him by the arm. Even with me half his size, I managed to prop him up and we staggered back towards the house. Ralph hung far behind, and I can’t say I blamed him. The smell of my brother alone was enough to make a person gag, but at least it was the scent of sickness, not evil.

“How long will I be sick?” Samuel whispered.

That was pure Samuel. Didn’t ask or care how I’d done it. “Till tomorrow, most likely.”

We were halfway across the yard when I saw Papa’s car parked there and heard the clink of silverware carry through the screen door.

I hadn’t cleaned up the poisoned dinner. Papa was sitting down to leftovers.

Good, I thought. He deserved to get sick, sicker even than Samuel. This was all his fault, anyway.

Anger festered in my chest, all raw and awful, and that’s when it hit me. Mama’s shade hadn’t been talking about forgiving old man Macaulay, though she’d want that of me, too. No, she was talking about Papa. Letting go of the anger about what he said. Letting go of the books and everything they meant. I blinked back hot tears.

“Ralph, can you wait in the barn?”

“Yeah. Sure,” he said.

I wanted to speak the old words, not because I wanted power like Samuel, but because I wanted something of Mama. Cooking wasn’t enough. I didn’t know what would be enough, but I knew Mama wouldn’t want me poisoning Papa. Even if he did deserve it.

Mama didn’t deserve to burn in hell, either, but God and Jesus would know her best. Better than Papa, that’s for sure.

I let Samuel lean on the railing and I bounded on up the steps. Papa’s shades whispered against me, that guilt and grief he tried to push away with Jesus. It was working, in a way. The shades didn’t dwell on him like they did Macaulay. I was surprised at how that relieved me. I didn’t want Papa to suffer, not really.

I just wanted Mama back, and that could never happen. Not even Samuel’s dark words could make everything like it’d been.

Papa was still standing there in the kitchen, dishing up food on his plate.

“Papa, you can’t eat that,” I said, yanking him back. “The steak, I think it’s gone bad. Samuel ate some and is sick as a dog.” On cue, Samuel staggered in and past Papa.

“What?” Papa said, blinking at me. Unpleasant sounds shuddered from the bathroom.

I plucked the plate from his hands and in two steps dumped the whole thing in the trash. I didn’t trust the whole surface, not after that meat had touched it. I threw away the few remaining pieces of steak, too, not that there was much after a hungry seventeen-year-old boy had had his way.

“Here. Have this instead.” I pulled out the icebox pie.

“Is that lemon?” Papa asked. I swear I heard drool in his voice.

“Yeah. Yeah, it is. You listen in case Samuel needs help, okay?”

I walked out of the house. The rage wasn’t in my chest now, just emptiness. I hadn’t forgiven him, not yet. But without that heavy feeling on my lungs, it was easier to breathe, even in that sticky evening air.

The lights were on in the barn, but I didn’t see Ralph. “Hey,” I called.

“Up here!”

I climbed up the ladder and found him in my spot, those math sheets spread out. Figured he’d be drawn to the numbers.

“You got a few wrong,” he said, voice mild as could be.

I snorted. “A few?”

“I could help you, if you wanted. Not going to cheat on tests for you or anything, but I could give you pointers, maybe.”

I plopped down on some old straw, staring at this boy I hated for so long. “Maybe,” I said. I stared out the slats at the fading light. “There’s something your papa said. Do I… do I really look like her? My mama?”

“Sure, you do,” Ralph said. “Probably look more like her as you grow up, too.”

I nodded to myself. Maybe the words would come in time. Maybe I’d learn the hard way, like my great-great-grandma did. But for now, I had some things from Mama, and that’d do.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s have some pie.”

end article

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Beth Cato

About Beth Cato

Beth Cato’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER, a steampunk fantasy novel from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Her website is BethCato.com.