a short story by Justin De Mello
About the Author
Justin De Mello lives in Taos, New Mexico with his longtime partner and their Cocker Spaniel after spending 50 years in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.
Profoundly deafened at the age of 39, he is currently a columnist for Hearing Health magazine. He has been writing nonfiction — self-help, poetry, travel, essays, and memoir — since 1987, published in Life After Deafness and Tri-City Tidings, among others. He also serves as Vice President of the Association of Late Deafened Adults (ALDA), East Bay of California chapter.
“Brothers” is a journey for him into the fiction arena after finding that the realities of life need a bit of fiction to assist one along his merry way (even if the tales are not so merry). A former computer systems developer, he spends his time in Taos writing full-time and enjoying the serenity of the high desert.
“A riveting story. Justin’s mastery of detail and intensity was quite engaging for me. I hope he’ll share more stories.” –B. Devaney
My father sat next to me, pressing me awkwardly against the end of the first pew along the center aisle. I did not want to be there, next to him or anyone else. He had been staying close ever since my uncle brought me home a week ago. We were not close enough in heart and mind to be so physically pressed together, but the entire family had huddled collectively, as if the proximity would heal the rift that was tearing us all to pieces. No one wanted to be isolated; no one wanted to be left within their own misery, alone, on a second aisle, with distant family members or mere friends.
The organ bellowed its dirge, adding to the somber feelings that threatened to suffocate everyone present. There was a thick, gray overcast outside, the kind you know will not give way to rain; the kind that hangs heavy, cold, creating a barrier between you and the warmth of the sun with no hope of lifting. When I had first entered the church, I saw that the unpainted white plaster walls had grown dingy from years of neglect, and I had regretted looking at them. Looking down at the floor presented my eyes with an unpolished charcoal slate. Even the casket looked monotonous – a blue-gray flannel that reflected nothing – sitting center-stage, absorbed in itself, with its lid properly closed, ten feet in front of me.
I had not said anything to anyone. People stopped to offer their condolences, pat me on the shoulder ever so gently, and say their little phrases that were supposed to resurrect a person from hell, but I just glanced up at them, flashed a vacant smile, and looked away again. Their eyes were teary and red – mine were frozen in their own ashen emptiness, keeping to themselves, unwilling to give over to sentimental outbursts. Of course, I knew more than anyone else about what really happened; I knew that my brother’s death was not an accident. It was not like a real accident that happens suddenly, giving you no time to think, no time to prepare yourself to take sane action. I told everyone that I tried my best. They all said the same thing: “I know; it’s okay; it’s not your fault.” They don’t know the truth, not all of it.
We had gone up to our uncle’s house for a long weekend; he lived on the north end of Lake Tahoe in Incline Village. My brother wanted to climb the side of Mt. Rose, just a few miles north of where our uncle lived, to do some hiking and enjoy the views out over the lake. Mt. Rose was not a stand-alone mountain; it was more of a series of rises, some gentle, some ruggedly steep. I had been up there by car with my uncle, following the many twists and turns, but never thought about walking up it through the wilderness.
“Hey, Kevin, you want to hike up Mt. Rose?” Doug had asked.
“Really? That is a long way!”
“Not all the way, fool. We can go up high enough to get some good views out over Tahoe and then see how our time is doing.”
He was nineteen, older by two years. He always called me “fool” or something like that, but I wanted to go with him anyway. He never invited me anywhere when we were home. We weren’t really close, and we both knew that, but there in the mountains I thought that maybe things would be different. It was not long, however, before I began to regret my choice.
“Hey, fool! Think fast!” That was when I looked up, just in time to shield my face from a flying piece of granite the size of a large marble.
“Damn you, Doug! Knock it off. I’m gonna go back.”
He smiled at this and said, “you’re such a pansy,” and tossed another rock before heading on.
It went like that most of the day; he did everything he could to try to tip my scales; I never understood why. At home, he would often shoot BBs at me when I was up in the clubhouse that I had built on top of the shed behind the garage. My friend, Sam, and I would be up there yelling for him to stop, watching quarter-sized pits appear in the glass panes, shielding our eyes from flying shards. It wasn’t until he hit me in the leg that he quit shooting at us. I tried to shut it all out the way my mother had told me.
“Just ignore him, and he will stop,” she’d say.
I despised him most of the time and had no idea why I subjected myself to more of his abuse to climb the rubble of Mt. Rose. It was almost noon when we had come upon a wall of granite that we could not go around. The hillside was fairly steep, but the cliff face was almost straight up. Doug looked at it as if studying the intricate pattern of a spider’s web.
“No way.” I said. “No way am I going up that cliff. Forget it.”
“Don’t be a baby, Kevin. It’s not that bad. Can’t be much more than fifty feet up.”
Then he looked back at it with his hands on his hips, surveying something I knew he knew nothing about.
“I’m not a baby, so shut up! This is suicide, and you know it. Let’s find another way.”
“There isn’t another way; we don’t have time to go around this. You go up first, and if you have trouble, I can help you.”
“No,” I said as I turned to head back, perhaps to look for another way. I was not really sure where I was going.
“Don’t be an ass. Come on, let’s do it. You’re just gonna be a wimp all of your life, is that it?”
“You want me to be stupid like you and kill myself, and you call me the ass. Yeah, right.”
“Well, maybe you’re not an ass, but you’re definitely a pansy ass.” His annoying smirk was replaced with a cold stare. “When we get home I can tell everyone what a chickenshit you are, but they already know that, don’t they?”
My jaw set tight against his taunts. I wondered why I thought that a hike up Mt. Rose would somehow change things. Maybe I was a fool afterall. Without thinking, I rushed past him and started to climb the rubble at the base of the cliff as if were I alone, recklessly kicking aside rocks, trying to find footholds as I climbed upward. Doug was barking out commands to go this way or that, but I ignored him going any way I could find. A small part of me wanted to fall, to hurt myself, just to make him feel like the piece of shit that he always said I was.
About twenty-five feet up, the climb became very difficult. There were fewer footholds, and the ones that I found were thin and crumbling. We wore only Keds, not shoes designed for mountain climbing, and the treads on the rubber soles were slick from wear. Doug was directly below me working his way up when I stopped, clinging to the warm granite, unable to find a new place to grab in order to go higher.
“Put your hand up on your right where that crack is and grab it, then pull yourself up.”
I had seen that crack but had thought that there might be snakes or something, hiding, waiting for some fool to come along and stick his fingers into poised and patient fangs. I knew that I had better not mention these fears, and sweat ran down my sides, soaking into the thin cotton of my T-shirt as I put my fingers into the crack and pulled up about a foot. A small lizard ran from the darkness of the crevice out into the light, stopped for a moment, and then ran up the warm face of the wall. Just as it did, I inserted my hand again, getting a better hold, and pulled myself more. With my legs shaking, I tried to hold still, calming myself, not daring to look down.
I heard bits of stone falling from the face of the cliff and thought that they were probably hitting Doug below me — a thought that I enjoyed far more than I should have. Doug’s climbing grunts got closer, but he never said a word about rocks hitting him, and he wasn’t directing me anymore as we went up further. We were both glued to the face of the cliff, and this silence was a small blessing. All I wanted was to be off of that rock. I wanted to go home and to forget about the anger that was consuming me for agreeing to be up there in the first place.
“Kevin, move it,” he snarled, hitting the back of my foot with his hand.
I could tell by Doug’s voice that the climb was not much easier for him than it was for me. The sound of it gave me a needed boost of confidence. I pulled myself up another few feet to about thirty-five feet above the strewn rubble where we had begun. I could taste the sweat dripping from my hair, smell the warm pine-filled scent of the dry afternoon, and feel the hard stone pressing against my body, all while thinking that I was going to fall at any moment. My groin dragged upward against the stone, clinging to it like that lizard. I felt the heat of the stone and myself mix as if we were becoming one. I wanted it to hold onto me, to pull me into its core, to make me safe from my own stupidity.
It was maybe forty feet, after clawing my way slowly upward, that I began to cry. It was very soft; I don’t remember making any sounds at all. I could not go up any further, or down, even if Doug had not been there below me. All I could see was a glimmering blur of rock.
“Get it together, Kevin. Now! You fall on me, and I’m gonna kill you.”
Doug’s disembodied voice ripped through the silent heat, sending a chill up my back that electrified the hair on the top of my head.
A small dry rasp escaped my lips, “I’m scared.”
“So what! You can do it. Just quit the damn crying and get a grip on yourself.”
The entire face of the cliff felt as if it were moving in slow motion. I saw blood on my upper arm through the pools that formed in my eyes and thought that I must have torn my shirt on the rock somewhere along the way, scraping myself without knowing I had done it. My legs shook violently, and I feared that this would loosen my already frail grip. I had multiple images of voluntarily letting go, of relaxing into a backward dive.
Then I thought of Doug. It was as if I had just remembered the secret hiding place of some important document that I had been searching for after having long forgotten its location. I wasn’t going to let him see me crumble any more than he had already seen throughout our lives.
I squeezed my eyes tight trying to press out all of the tears that had gathered there. Small streams ran down my cheeks into the corners of my mouth where I could taste the sweet salt of myself. Then, after blinking rapidly, I was able to see my way again. I found another hold to grab, pulled myself up, and placed my foot on a thin ledge no wider than a watchband. I felt my excitement rising, amazed that I was still alive.
A flash of blue, flickering in the sun through filtered treetops, caught my right eye. I turned my head and looked out over the forest; we were almost above the trees. It was a crazy thing to do, but everything was crazy by now. I just wanted to look, to take my eyes off that granite slab before me. Maybe I did it thinking that if I looked away the struggle would vanish, that it would somehow make everything okay again, give me the needed rest that would allow me to get myself safely to the top. So, I looked, and the day was as clear as water dripping from the tap. I could see the great expanse of the icy blue lake glittering in the sun between the trees. There was hardly any sound at all, only our breathing and the faint sound of pebbles falling. If I were to pick a day that I would surely not die, that day was it. Everything told me how alive I was; everything was so exquisitely clear. It was a brief glance outward, and then, I looked back at the cliff face. There were no more than three feet to go before I was completely safe.
By the time I got to the last foot, the sweat was running so freely that I wondered why I had not just slid off of that cliff like a slug washed away in a rainstorm. My fingers were cut and bleeding. My clothes were torn. When I reached the top, I saw a long, thick root from a stunted pine tree extending itself close to the cliff’s edge. I grabbed onto it and pulled myself up. As I did, I loosened the small granite shelf that I was standing on, and it slid downward. There was a muffled thud, then a strangled cry, followed by the sound of stones clattering below me. Panting, I crawled up onto the flat top of the cliff and turned myself around to lie on my stomach. I kissed the warm stone beneath me, silently thanking it for being there before I looked down to tell Doug that I had made it.
Doug was frozen onto the face of the cliff; his eyes closed in a tight wince looking like that spooked lizard. I could see blood running down the side of his face. I just looked at him, happy to be where I was, safely on top, knowing we’d be on our way soon; nothing else seemed to register.
“I’m gonna kick your ass when I get up there,” he said, seemingly gagging on his own words as he pulled himself up slightly.
There was no granite shelf for him, nothing more to grab onto or pull up on. He looked around as he clung to the cliff, his eyes searched desperately to find anything to raise himself higher in order to go the last few feet to safety. For a single, flashing moment I felt sorry for him. His hair was wet from his own sweat and blood; bits of gravel clung to it. The blood dripped down his dirty face in thick drops onto his shoulder, staining his T-shirt a dark red. He seemed to brush it all aside as if none of it mattered.
I could not tell from where I was what he saw, but his eyes widened just before he reached and pulled upward again. I looked down holding onto that root, not hanging out any further than the base of my neck, when he looked up, reaching with a free hand.
“Bend down and take my hand. Help me up, ” he choked, as if he was ready to plunge to the bottom of the lake, and he needed to hold his breath.
I leaned out just a bit, holding tight to the root. I saw him hang there by one hand, while the other reached and clawed toward me. His feet scraped the face of the cliff like a dog trying to get someone to open the back door. The sight of him terrified and amused me all at once.
I stretched my hand out toward him and felt the ledge dig into my collarbone. I reached down as far as I could but only barely touched the tips of his fingers. It was just the tips, hot and dusty, caked with drying bits of blood, looking exactly like my own. I could see the large boulders far below him, sitting there like eggs in a nest of ruins. They were not the large, jagged slabs of granite that I remembered crossing. Nothing looked familiar. Had we been down there? Were we even there at all? I could not remember. It seemed so far away, so long ago.
Then my eyes caught that glittering and twinkling, filtered by damp hair hanging down in my face. I was above the trees and felt like a bird sitting high on a cliff ready to leap out into the open expanse and glide on the warm air currents in total control over my every movement. I glanced out over the Tahoe valley before me. It was exquisitely beautiful. There were water skiers out on the lake. I saw them leave thin, white streaks across the glistening surface, looking like tiny motorized toys buzzing aimlessly in the sun. The casinos at South Shore sat quietly at the far end of the lake, reduced to the size of Monopoly hotels. To the right, I saw the scarred face of Heavenly Valley ski resort, snowless and patiently waiting for the dead of winter.
It was only a moment’s look, a small restorative gaze. I did reach. I was sure that I felt the tips of his fingers, but when I looked back down, Doug was not there. For a moment I thought that maybe I had been climbing alone from the very beginning, that there was just me out there, perched on the edge of the world, looking into its depths, trying to understand the many facets before me. The rough gnawing that had been pressing into my collarbone had moved down further, to the middle of my chest. Blood spilled into my head, and I felt my lips grow hot and bulbous from the pressure. Then, like the glittering of Lake Tahoe, I saw Doug lying between the boulders far below me. He was looking up at me, his arms twisted in an odd way.
It was very quiet. I heard a bird chirp but did not see it. Maybe it was a lizard. I remembered hearing lizards chirping in the fields behind my school. If you were very quite and did not move, you could hear the sound of their clicking and twittering. Many times I had tried to catch them and bring them home, but all I was ever left with was their tail spilling bits of themselves out of one end.
“It’s okay, it wasn’t your fault.”
A look toward the voice revealed my father standing next to me. The church was empty except for the two of us and the gray casket that held my brother. I wanted to tell him that I looked away, that I did not mean to do it, but I did look away. I needed to say that I just glanced at the lake for a moment, wanting to see something safe and beautiful way out there beyond that horrific moment. I had told our parents that he had screamed, that I could not get to him, but the truth is that I had never heard him scream at all. There was just that open expanse and a great, warm, silence.
I don’t remember when I began to cry. A week had passed since we were on that cliff without a single tear shed. Not even when I managed to walk the two miles out of my way to get back to where Doug lay, build a fire to get someone’s attention, and wait, sitting next to him, silently staring at the small, smoking pile of branches in the clearing. When the firemen appeared late in the day, I simply told my lies with dry eyes. As I sat in the church, though, I could not stop the tears from coming. I wanted to die. I wanted to crawl into that coffin and never come out again.
We buried my brother an hour later in St. Joseph’s cemetery along Road 20 in the city of San Pablo, California, but he was not alone. I crawled in with him, nestling myself close, forever whispering into the darkness how sorry I was, waiting to hear him say, “It’s okay, it wasn’t your fault.”
“Brothers” Copyright ©2002 by Justin De Mello.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should email the author.