My brother rises up out of the shadows, aiming a nine-millimeter semi-automatic Luger at me.
"Whoa, Patrick," I say. "Don't shoot. I've got doughnuts. And coffee."
He stands still for a second, and then his arms sag slowly toward the floor, a slump-shouldered giant silhouetted against a rusty halo of dark copper light. The attic is cold and cramped, the roof sloping steeply to the floor; a brown flannel sheet drapes the single window. I come up the last few steps into the attic and kick away a pile of crusty underpants, gray T-shirts, and silver-studded belts, looking for a place to set down the doughnuts and coffee.
"Rachel? Why are you here?"
I set the white paper bag of doughnuts and the cardboard coffee-holder on the bare floorboards I just cleared. A futon leans against the far wall, but I don't want to sit there because the cushions are littered with clothes and bottles and my brother's U.S. Marines sniper rifle, an SR-25, if I remember right. So I just sit down on the top step and peel back the plastic lid on one of the coffees. I rip a couple blue packets of sugar and pour them out into the dark liquid. "Coffee's coming up. Hey, that thing's not loaded, is it?"
"What, my gun?" He stands watching me for a second. Then his hands jerk and I hear the slick metallic rasp and click of the gun cocking. His hands moved so quickly I didn't see them, but I know how he cocks the gun: the right hand holds the gun while the left flies across, snaps back the chamber, and then slides down to support the right hand for balance and aim. I watched Patrick practice cocking and aiming this gun for hours when he was eighteen, before he left for boot camp. He even showed me how to cock, aim, and fire it a few times.
My brother raises the gun again. Sitting on the top step, my head is level with his waist. He only has to lean forward slightly to rest the cool rim of the Luger against my forehead. "It's loaded now," he says.
I don't think my therapist would believe me if I told her that, right now, I'm not afraid. But it's true; at least, it's true that I don't feel afraid. I don't even blink. Instead, I move my head, rubbing my temple and cheek down the cold mouth of the gun. My skin tingles. I smile up at my brother, but his face is hidden in shadow. Then I look down and concentrate on stirring sugar into the coffee with a red swizzle stick. I'm not afraid because I know my brother, and I know that he will not shoot me. I know this because I once woke up to the cold muzzle of a snake's head burrowing against the skin of my cheek. My brother's face loomed over me and he said, "This is a cottonmouth. Don't move."
This was when I was maybe ten, and he was eight. We lived in a small clapboard house in northeast Ohio, surrounded by acres of overgrown tawny weeds, waving fields of Queen Anne's lace, and scruffy pine trees. In ditches and depressions, water collected, covered slowly through the months by pale green skins of algae. We ran around all summer, sometimes hiking out to the woods where deer hunters' chipboard nests, bolted into gnarled oak trees, became our hideouts. And we picked blackberries and sucked the sun-warm juice out of them until our mouths dripped purple and our teeth were stained, vampires with insatiable appetites. Sometimes we even put our mouths over the berries as they clung to the spiny branches and sucked from the living bush itself.
And then the snakes came out. The first time, we saw the snakes come out by accident. We had been kicking at a small hump of sandy brown dirt with a nickel-sized hole in the center. We thought the hump was an ants' nest. The hole suddenly erupted with snakes. Small, moist brown-green snakes poured out of the hole like sprouting hair. They spread over the bare brown patch of dirt, covering it like boiling, iridescent oil. At first I stood frozen, not breathing, but my brother bent down and reached his hand into the erupting snake hole. Snakes covered his hand up to the wrist. He laughed. So I put my hand out, palm flat, fingers outstretched. My skin grazed against the rippling carpet of snakes. The whole earth felt cold and alive and magical.
We had a nest of garter snakes in our yard. A few days later, we found a nest of grass snakes. Grass snakes were thinner, brighter-colored, with yellow stripes. We held the snakes and felt them writhe against our hands, their leathery, muscular bodies contorting around our wrists and winding through our fingers. They were terrified, their tiny tongues flickering. They would let loose a stream of rotting-earth-scented piss that would trickle warm over our wrists and drip down to our elbows. At night, when the snakes retreated back to their holes, our arms and shirts would stink of the strange, earthy musk of snakes.
My brother was the first to think about collecting snakes. He heaved a rusty metal five-gallon drum up to the back porch one day. My mother came to the door when he called. He reached down into the bucket and, when he straightened, his arms were covered with snakes. He spilled the snakes over his head and shoulders and he kept pouring snakes over himself until he finally stood up straight, arms outstretched, a strange mythical creature with a skin of tangled snakes. My mother screamed. My brother laughed. The snakes burrowed into his hair and slid down inside the collar of his T-shirt. Snake piss dripped down his face like yellow tears. My mother clutched at the doorframe and screamed while my brother laughed.
Now my brother laughs and draws the gun away from my head. "Just fucking with you," he says.
I start to say that I know, but then I change my mind and just give him a little smile. I am almost certain that he won't shoot me. I hold out one of the coffees, the red swizzle stick bobbing around like a buoy caught in a whirlpool. My brother crouches down and, holding the gun in his right hand, reaches with his left into the white paper bag. I set the coffee on the floor in front of him and start to pour sugar into my own coffee. My brother pulls out a powdered sugar doughnut. A fine dust of sugar puffs into the air and when I run my tongue over my dry lips, the chapped skin tastes sweet. I sip my coffee cautiously and he takes a bite of his doughnut. He's still holding onto the gun. I want to take the gun away from him, but I don't know how to do that. My brother was a U.S. Marine; he was trained to kill. Even half drunk like he is now, he won't let go of his gun.
"Good?" I say.
He finishes the doughnut and licks off his fingers. Sugar coats his mouth and speckles his cheeks. He says, "Is that my coffee?"
I nod and he picks up his coffee and drinks. It must be scalding hot, but he doesn't seem to notice. He hunkers in front of me and now I can see his face. When he joined the Marines at eighteen, he looked like a wild child, his skin nut-brown from summers spent running around half-naked in the weeds behind our house. His eyes peered feral and bright from under his hair, overgrown like the weeds themselves. When he came back from his second tour in Iraq, he drove home on leave and when he stepped out of the car I thought that he'd been injured and hadn't told us. His head was naked, his hair shaved off, and his skin was stretched tightly over the frame of his bones. His eyes were blank as glass marbles.
He's put on weight since being out of the Marines and he has re-grown his hair. But behind the tangled hair, his face looks the same as it did when he stepped out of the car. His cheekbones are slashes, the puddles of shadow around his eyes are the color of dried blood; even his teeth look wounded. "Eat your doughnut," he says to me. "Or I will."
I reach into the paper bag and pull out the plain glazed. The dough is still faintly warm and sticky. "Oh, yeah. Mm. This is what I'm talking about."
He nods, watching me eat. I can tell he's hungry. His small black pupils follow the motion of the doughnut to my lips with every bite. He watches me chew.
"So why are you here? For real."
"For real," I say. I think: Do I sometimes come for pretend? But I know that I do. Two or three times a year, I drive down the rabbit warren tunnels of downtown Akron, my car burrowing through dingy streets overhung by towering, boarded-window tenement housing, a mist of burnt-rubber smog clinging to blackened brick. Two or three times a year I park my car on the grassy lot between a condemned church and an Asian food store. I trot across the broken asphalt of the church parking lot and enter the house attached to the other side of the church. Maybe once it was a manse or something, but now it is filled with dark cubby-hole apartments, all smelling musty with sweat, overcooked Ramen noodles, and aftershave. Most of these guys go to the University of Akron or work as bartenders, baristas, gas station clerks, whatever they can lay hands on. My brother, when he works, is usually a grocery bagger at the local supermarket, a dishwasher at the Applebee's a few streets over, or an express window attendant at the Burger King across the street. It's a depressing house full of marginally-failed fuck-ups. It would be depressing even if my only brother didn't live here with them.
This time I am here because my mom called last night. She does, occasionally. Her voice trembling faintly, the pitch spiking when she loses control, trying to pretend we are having a casual conversation. "So, have you seen your brother recently? It's been a while since I've seen him, so I was just wondering—the two of you were always so close." She's afraid to call him herself. She's also afraid to acknowledge the truth, that we aren't close anymore, that, in fact, my last boyfriend didn't even know I had a brother.
"For real," I say to Patrick, "I happened to be in the area. Thought I'd stop by. It's Saturday, I have to be at work in an hour. Life sucks. Hence the doughnuts and coffee."
He drains his coffee while I talk and when I finish, he glances at me and then away. He says, "Okay. I believe you. But you're lying. Mom called you." He crushes the cup with his left hand and tosses the exploded Styrofoam bits into the air like confetti. A piece lands in my cup and bobs along the dark surface, held afloat by surface tension, by the anger of the liquid molecules and by their rejection of the air. I watch the Styrofoam swirl around in my cup.
"Sorry," he says. But the sorry comes so late that I know he doesn't mean it. He watches me stare into my ruined coffee.
"You could've brought me a couple doughnuts instead of just one baby one," he says. He scratches at his chin with his left thumb. "I'm still hungry."
I look down at the squished bit of dough left in my hand, and then I put the dough in my mouth because it looks too gross to offer to him. My therapist once told me that when people are depressed they may binge or starve. My brother, as far as I can tell, is normal-hungry. I have no idea if he is depressed. I don't look down at his right hand where it rests against the floorboards clutching a shiny black Luger. I do know that my brother might accidentally shoot someone, might even get drunk and accidentally kill someone. He likes to scare people, or, I guess, he likes to watch people's eyes when they're scared of him. But he never actually hurts anyone, except by accident. I don't know if this makes him depressed.
I say, "Can you show me how to load your gun?"
"I already showed you," he says. He lifts up the gun and looks at it, then glances at me and smiles, suddenly aware that I have been aware of it this whole time. He holds the gun in both his hands and points it first at me, then at himself, and then down at my coffee cup. "Bam," he says. "Bulls' eye. You afraid what I might do with this thing?"
"No," I say. But of course I'm lying. I have been afraid of him—terrified of him—since I was ten years old. The reason I don't act afraid anymore—the reason my heart rate doesn't even accelerate—is that I'm bored. Fear can't maintain itself over long periods of time. Now my fear is just a faintly metallic taste on the edges of my tongue. It doesn't even register as an emotion. I'm tired of my brother, tired of being scared of him, for him, tired of him.
That first summer that we found the snake nest, we told our mother about it and she made us promise not to touch the snakes until we'd looked them up in her field guide to the flora and fauna of the northeastern United States. We looked them up and identified our nests as common garter and grass snakes, both types non-venomous. My brother read that cottonmouths also lived in our area and were the only common poisonous snake. Cottonmouths were water snakes, unlike garter and grass snakes. My brother started haunting the slimy pools of algae-covered water. He would crouch at the lip of the water and toss pebbles, watching the stones slicing down into the pale green fabric of algae, watching the viscous ooze beneath boil up through the rents. Sometimes we would see frogs leap into or out of the water, but never snakes. One day, we had played all morning and I spread my pink jacket out on a grassy knoll near a pond. I lay down and cradled my arms behind my head and shut my eyes. The sun turned my eyelids to pulsing red-gold fleshy membranes. I must have slept because I startled awake to a cold tickle on my cheek. I stared up into my brother's face. He said, "Don't move. It's a cottonmouth."
It's strange, but I understood instantly that my brother was the sort of person who would hold a deadly cottonmouth snake to his sister's cheek. It had never occurred to me before, that there was this alien, terrible mystery inside my brother. I watch Patrick now as he toys with the gun, tracing it through the air as if he is sketching my face, or sketching the shapes of shadows scattered around the slanted attic.
"Hey," I say.
He points the gun at me. "Hey what?"
"I've gotta go soon. Okay?"
He squints one eye, aiming like a sharp shooter. He was a sharp shooter in the Marines. A registered sniper. He says that he was only once in a combat situation. The rest of the time he spent his days in crisp yellow deserts or in the backs of transport trucks, crouching behind fragmented stucco walls or sweating inside the metal-sided containers the soldiers used as bunkers. He says that he never saw a person die. Well, he says he didn't see a real person die.
"I mean," he told my mother once, "I saw 'em die through this." And he'd held up his sniper scope, squinting through it at my mother, transforming the woman who stood three feet away from him into a dissected image transposed onto a glass lens. "Bam, bam," he'd said to my mother through the telescope sight. "Bulls' eye, right through the brain. That's how I shot the little fuckers. Bye, bye, habibi."
While my brother was sweating in Iraq, I sweated at anti-war protests at the university. This one time I was sharing a plastic water bottle with the guy next to me, who looked Middle Eastern. We started talking and he said that he was Lebanese. We flirted and when he left he wrote his number on a scrap of paper for me and said, "You give me a call, habibi."
We met for coffee a few times, although we never dated. I asked him what "habibi" meant, and he shifted in his seat and looked sly and said, "It usually means friend, you know, like, Hey, habibi, what's up?"
"And other times?" I asked him.
"Other times," he said, "it can mean, you know, girlfriend. Lover."
When my brother came back from Iraq he referred to all Iraqis as "ragheads" or "habibis." I said, "Do you know what 'habibi' means?"
He said, "No, it doesn't mean anything. It's just the sound their language makes. You know, they're all like, habibihabibihabibifuckinAmericanhabibi." He laughed.
I said, "It means lover. Or friend."
He said, "No it doesn't. It doesn't mean shit. I told you—" He broke off suddenly and didn't finish. I opened my mouth to say that I was the one who'd had an Arabic-speaking friend, so I should know, and all he'd done was shoot them, what kind of expert did that make him. But then I noticed that there was a dark streak on his face. His eyelashes were clotted into spines and the skin around his eyes was red. His eyes had the dull sheen of a burning fever. After a while, he said, "It doesn't mean shit."
As my brother takes careful aim first at my eye, then at my heart, I say, "Could you shoot me from this distance?"
He smiles a little but doesn't answer, because we both know the answer to that question. I say, "Do you think I could shoot you from this distance?"
"No," he says. "I mean, you couldn't fuckin' miss. But you don't know where to shoot for a clean kill. I could kill you clean. You'd just make a mess of me."
"Let me see it," I say, holding my hand out for the gun.
We both look at my outstretched palm.
We did everything together when we were little kids, my brother and I. Until he stuck that snake in my face.
When I woke up with the snake in my face, I was afraid because I knew my brother was the sort of person who might be telling the truth about the snake being deadly poisonous. So I screamed. In my half-conscious mind, the cold tickle on my face was a numbed web of poison leeching into my bloodstream, paralyzing my face, my neck, my heart, my lungs. I screamed and thrashed out wildly and my brother ducked out of my way and cackled with laughter.
He started flopping his arms around and jumping up and down shrieking like a girl. "Who do I look like? Who do I look like? Aaah! Aaah!"
I punched him in the stomach.
He stopped laughing abruptly. He shoved the snake in my face and leaned in so close that I could feel his breath. He said, "If this snake had bit you, you'd be dead."
I got a look at the snake for the first time. It hung, milk-white, from his hand, a limp silky string. I knew that cottonmouths had white throats and bellies, but they were black on top. This snake was white all around. I touched the tail gently. It fluttered under the pressure of my fingertip, but the flutters faded. The tiny head with its beady golden eyes was still, the white armor-covered skin sleek and motionless.
"Is it dead?"
My brother looked at the snake. He frowned and opened his hand. A thin brownish-red liquid had leaked around the edges of ruptured white skin under where his fist had clenched the snake.
"Yuck," I said. "And that's not a cottonmouth, you moron. It's harmless. And you're lucky you're so stupid because if that snake was poisonous Mom would kill you. You would've killed me, you jackass."
He turned and left without a word. I picked up my jacket and shook the dry scattered grass off it. Then I followed my brother to a tiny pond where he knelt at the edge of the water and lowered the snake into the murky, gurgling liquid. We watched the snake float for a second on top of the water, and then its tail swished once. He reached into the water and grabbed the snake again.
I stood looking down at his face, his intent frown half-hidden by sweaty, tangled hair. I had thought that he was trying to revive the snake in the water.
"Why're you doing that?" I asked.
His fist was buried in the green murk. The snake's milky tail lashed and lashed, each movement an increasingly feeble spasm. And when the spasms stopped, he lifted the snake and it hung limp from his hand. Green algae dripped from his knuckles like velvet ribbons. The snake was streaked in blood and sludge. It was a boneless dead thing.
I looked down at the crown of my little brother's bent head, at the back of the thin brown neck rising from his sweaty T-shirt. He turned to look up at me. And then I saw that he was crying.
In all eight years of his life, I had always been the one to put my arms around him when he cried. But we stared at each other and knew that we both saw the strange thing my brother had inside him. I turned and ran away. I left him with tears on his face by the pond and I have not held him since then.
I have been sitting with my hand outstretched for long enough that both my brother and I can see a faint tremor in my fingers. He watches my quivering fingertips and starts to smile. The muscles of his cheeks contract and the lines on his face are sharp as pen slashes. "You think I'm stupid?" my brother says. I pull my hand back. "You won't get my gun away from me."
He slides the safety catch off the gun. I hadn't realized it was on before. He watches my eyelids, whose muscles I can't quite control, and he says, "Oops. Did I put the safety off? This gun could go off any minute. If I sneeze—" He aims the gun at my left eye. "—you get blood and brain gore on my ceiling." His finger stiffens on the trigger. He nudges the gun against my temple. "Right here. Here's a clean kill." He moves the gun so that the cold metal brushes my lower lip. "Here."
I reach over and slap Patrick's face. Hard. The skin on my palm stings. The sharp slap startles me.
My brother's head jerks with my slap. He raises his hands, laughing. "What? What's your big problem? Gee, if you wanted the gun so bad, just ask."
He reaches over and sets the gun, butt-first, on the crinkled white paper bag. The black matte speckles with white sugar. "You want to shoot, go ahead," he says. "I don't care."
In the weak tea-colored light I can see how waxy his skin looks and I smell the alcohol in his sweat crystals. Like the day with the snake, every time he does something horrible to me, he jokes about it. And then sometimes he apologizes. Other times he starts crying. I don't want to watch him cry today.
I pick up the gun and the handle is sticky with sugar. Sweetness clings to my skin.
"You fucking bastard," I say. I hold the gun in both hands and aim at his head.
I pull the trigger.
The soft pop from the gun is almost gentle, anticlimactic after the sharp percussion of the slap. My brother's head jerks like a convulsing epileptic.
My chest hurts. Pulse. My heart beats.
Patrick stares at me. There is no blood on his face. He rubs the sharp bone under his eyesocket, rubs the burn from pressurized air.
My hands start to shake. An air-powered gun releases a burst of air strong enough to speed a bullet, even when there is no bullet to speed. Compressed air burns. The gun was unloaded, but the shot must have stung him, hurt him, anyway. I drop the gun. It clatters on the hard floor.
Patrick's eyelids slide over the shiny hardness of his eyeballs. He turns his face away.
My hands are shaking. I blink and grab up the empty white paper bag, the remaining Styrofoam coffee cup. I clench the trash against my stomach. "I have to—I'm late—for work. I have to go."
And then I start to cry. Liquid gushing out of my tearducts as if it's been dammed there for years, straining to be set free. Sorry. Oh, God, sorry. I want him to hold me. To forgive me. To tell me that he understands, that he was asking for it, that he deserved it.
But he stays silent, crouched under the brown eaves, watching me cry. The silence stretches out between us like rubber pulled until it is nothing but translucent strands. In the end, I wipe my eyes with my sleeves and stumble down the creaking wooden stairs. Outside, I bend my head against the cold wind snaking exhaust sideways, tossing newspapers against walls. I do not think I will come to see him again.