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Fiction Speculative Contemporary

Melanie Raskin

MMRReadme@nc.rr.com

                                                           My Brother’s Keeper

                                                                  (2985 words)

He imagines the 6 as pink with purple polka dots. But, what is pink? And, purple? He doesn’t understand color, has never seen them because he is a black and white model, the Brother HL 2270DW. Aerlion does not see a need for color in her work, which he understands perfectly, because her prose is as dry as Desert iStock Reference Photo 488A Only, dusty and colorless and choking. Sometimes Brother coughs and sputters on the arid taste of her words in print, the taste of lifelessness. But, what is a desert? He has never seen one in real life (for that matter, what is real life?) but understands that it is bad because Aerlion will sometimes shriek at Hugo that their marriage is a desert, and she will cry and tear at her hair and Hugo’s lip will twist. Brother can tell when Aerlion is about to shriek because she types harder and harder, hammering the keys, this time the 6, which is also an up arrow and the direction that Hugo always looks with a big sigh when she is behaving like this, swiveling hard left-to-right in her chair, muttering under her breath words like, mafugadashifobranebastsunabish. Then, her words shift, from the comforting natter of current running through a USB cable, electrons, gentle bouncing balls connecting the dots of her words along the filament-fine wiring, to a full shout using all of the thunderclaps and lightning strikes of her voice. Her eyes are fiery and she drools carbon. She will shrug away, still shrieking, when Hugo reaches out to touch her, then (stomp, stomp, stomp) follows her (stamp, stamp, stamp) to the back of the house where Brother can’t see them but can hear her occasionally cry out in great gasps, Hugo, oh Hugo. So, it must be very bad indeed.

It is said the average American knows 25,000 to 30,000 words. Brother knows this because it is just one of the many fascinating factoids Aerlion turns up while surfing the net and inserts into her article about Human Consciousness and Verbalizing Connection that covered the goddamn-cable-TV payment for January. Of course, that was the day she also discovered human beings shared fifty percent of their DNA with bananas. That was the day Brother Awoke and discovered he had Life (along with 137,000 words and counting).  But now, he feels it trickling away. 

“Piece of shit, that’s what the posts say.” Brother appreciates the way Hugo snorts when he reads the online complaints of discontented customers, calling them out to Aerlion as she paces the kitchen. She is preparing dinner, which means she is denting pots and mutilating vegetables and crucifying meat. “When the toner runs out, the printer just shuts down,” Hugo says. “People are pissed, saying buy any printer but this one. It looks like everybody, and I mean everybody, is having trouble with it.” Stop, Hugo, stop now, Brother wants to call out a warning. But, of course, he can’t for he has no lips to mold words into shape, no tongue to catapult them into the air, no vocal chords to give them wings that would fly them up from Aerlion’s desk where Brother sits and into Hugo’s handsome, shell-shaped ears. And Aerlion rattles and bangs and scrapes away in the kitchen, a pressure cooker of fury, smoke coming out of her ears. He has never seen this, of course, but has heard Aerlion’s much-younger sister Meridia say this about the ASSholes in her office (hyperbole is just one of the reasons why Aerlion’s prose, to cite her favorite phrase about others’ work, “does not sing,”).

“Smoke was COMIN’ out of Dan-From-The-Warehouse’s ears because Paulie-The-DOPE-Crazed-Delivery-Driver keeps F-ING up deliveries,” Meridia will say, hawking up a smoker’s laugh that’s just .9783013 decibels shy of crazy-wild and taking a big shuddering sip of sweet tea. The only thing that keeps Meridia from having a full-blown panic attack on the long rush hour drive home from work every night is calling her big sister Aerlion on the phone to rant and drink tea until she can get into her house and into a bubble bath, where she can start properly drinking Crown and practice four-square breathing with her head between her knees (which Aerlion does NOT agree with, for obvious reasons, and likely causes smoke to seep from her ears, but he can’t quite see it because she always paces when she shouts at Meridia). Brother pictures Smoke shutterstock 2631B Reference Photo Only spiraling out of her ears, wafting around her head in lush orange and yellow and red plumes. Though, of course, he has never seen orange or yellow or red because, again, he is merely a simple, bottom-of-the-line (Exactly what line is that? Bottom of what?) black-and-white printer: Aerlion won’t justify the expense, won’t justify joy, won’t justify making his life complete). At this moment he would emit smoke from his ears but he is The Undead, due to the toner problem. (And, of course, he doesn’t have ears.)

Aerlion stomps around, muttering under her breath as Hugo reads the posts aloud. How can Hugo miss the hot waves of impotent fury wafting from her, the fetid smell of hatred on her breath, the rubberband snap of her impatience? “I’m way behind, can you just hurry up and stop reading and start fixing, like I give a shit about other people’s problems,” she mumbles. Could she mean Brother? Though, technically, he is not a person. And he has no problem; he only has no toner. That is absolutely Aerlion, a person who does not give a shit about other people, no indeed. Not even about Hugo, who is only trying to help her. He appreciates Hugo because Hugo is calm and easygoing, methodically working his way through the endless posts for repairing Brother, for Hugo is a Fixer, not a Replacer. Like everyone, Hugo does not have time. But, unlike everyone, Hugo Makes Time. Hmmming at the furious rants he reads online. Teasing out the tangled threads of the hopelessly snarled World Wide Web. Rewinding the Internet skein. Aha-ing at connections. Uncomplaining as he starts over after information pile-ups. Backtracking from data

dead ends. Achieving Order. Obviously, those dissatisfied printer owners don’t have a Hugo at home, a computer whisperer who is patient and painstaking (does that mean that he claims pain?) as he works through the diagnostics step-by-step. He must, otherwise, how could he just stand there as Aerlion rat-a-tat fires her sharp words at him. And, what, exactly, are sharp words? He has read about them in her story about the Siamese twin aunts and the missing Buick LeSabre. Are they composed of letters that are angles, like all-capped Es and Is, Ks and Ns? Do they cut with their little sharp edges? Do they beat with their straight, flat planes? He would hate to see Hugo hurt.  Now, the wafts of heat and wisps of smoke from the kitchen are coming from the stove and not Aerlion’s ears. She is cooking, something which, despite the cacophony and occasional shouts of “Dammit,” calms her immensely and gives her great joy, Hugo always says at dinner parties as he serves Beef Stroganoff or Chicken and Rice Casserole to a table full of writers who serve up their own clichés.  

If the wings of one butterfly in Brazil can cause a thunderstorm off the coast of Texas, imagine what Brother could do if given wings. But, he’d settle for color, or a better view of the yard through the French door. He can barely see around Aerlion as she types at her desk. Can only glimpse a hint of grass, the edge of the deck, the tail of the cat. Oh, what he would like to say to Polonius, to sit at the feet of that animal and hear about climbing trees and chasing lizards and sleeping in the sun. He knows about sleeping but it is never in the sun and he does not dream. He knows Polonius does because he sees his ears twitch and his whiskers quiver. He must talk to Polonius some time. The cat rarely comes into the house because Aerlion is allergic and hates cat hair and the last time he did, he jumped on her desk and knocked her Diet Coke onto the keyboard and she renamed him That Goddamn Cat as she cleaned up Her Goddamn Coke and muttered about needing to order Another Goddamn Keyboard. He gazed into Polonius’s eyes as he leapt onto the computer desk and could swear the cat winked at him. Yes, they must chat some time. Everyone knows Polonius is the Truth-Teller, which he learned when Aerlion printed out those pages on Hamlet as research on her story about the one-armed coat-check girl and the haunted mine shaft. “To thine own self be true,” Polonius declares to Hamlet. Ah, now that is writing.

One day, Brother will print Aerlion’s words his way, for they are coauthors, she and he. The deaf-mute security guard and the queen of corporate espionage on her last caper to fund the surgery for her dying transgendered brother will consummate their love in Aerlion’s story in the shape of hearts and flowers. He will spill their words across the page in curliques and fleur de lis, rounds and loops of letters trailing each other like the characters’ lingering glances across the crowded office building lobby. He will trace the curves of her prose in form, not just intent, just as Bishal (besides being a deaf-mute, he is also Nepalese, a former Sherpa guide who has lost two fingers to a rare attack by a portage llama) traces the curve of the heroine, Alice’s, jaw with his fingers. Brother will turn Aerlion’s dreck into a thing of beauty, into something she can be proud of. He will dazzle her with his new way of being, of expressing her words as art. Aerlion will shriek twenty-seven pages later (must they always be 18,000-word stories?) when her words print

out as a near perfect image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which is how he feels when he

serves his function, which is to serve her. And Hugo will take her in his arms and trace the curve of her grinding jaw with soothing words of support and love which are definitely worth printing. Except Aerlion won’t and Brother can’t without her. He would gnash his teeth if he had any. But, for now, he would settle for color.      

He and Aerlion are colluding: They are printing only when Hugo is not at home. And, if Hugo is at home, they do it secretively, late at night after he is asleep or early in the morning before he gets up. In the half-life glow, Aerlion sits and stares at Monitor like it is a cloud-straddling yogi proclaiming Profundities. Brother is proud for a change, because they are mighty words he is printing, so big and strong they bend Aerlion in half and elicit a low rumble of awe from her: nonononono. Words like aberrant crypt foci, abdominoperineal resection, absolute netrophil count, survivability. Pages and pages of printed content whose words have not yet appeared in her current story about the claustrophobic flight attendant and the guinea pig whisperer, nor the revision of the tale of the Fed Ex driver and the bobbi pin factory. Instead, the pages sit under the pile of folders in her overflowing in-box. But, what doesn’t print for Brother is the hair that slips beneath the edge of his front cover. It wafts past the paper tray and assembly, floats over the network interface housing and poops out, exhausted and fragile, on his toner cartridge. The hair is not loud and lusty like the weeping that is coming from Aerlion, head on her arms, which are folded over her keyboard and creating a good four inches of copy on the screen: zhnigoeoeifn’a ijome riu ]aojem opvf]oe ako cj0e mj vjfe, v]kpek ,gmoreja [poe (which, honestly, makes more sense than most of her finger work).  This strand of hair is not her usual expertly-blonded tress, plump and lustrous, proud and strong. Instead, it is dull and frayed, tender and limp, light and ghostly. Dis-eased. Diseased. Brother is sad for Hugo. How will Hugo take it, what will he do without things to fix for Aerlion (because there will be no Aerlion to fix things for, according to the American Cancer Society statistics they printed late last night)?  And so, he allows that frightened and wounded mass of cells gone badly wrong, cells that are Aerlion in microcosm, to collapse in the dark and warm cocoon of his drum. He embraces that hair, exhausted of all good health, to his (metaphorical) breast. He names it Error.  

Aerlion forgot to turn off Brother when she went to bed tonight. Because he is Undead, he does not exist for her. She and Hugo had watched a movie about something very interesting, The Color Purple, which was actually VERY disappointing because it turned out to be about people instead of purple. And, now, here he is, left on–and turned on–by something he sees: It is a bright light, brighter even than his Toner indicator, which causes Aerlion to tear her hair and rant Shit Shit Shit (an apt but cliché phrase from one of her better short stories about the crippled Southern belle and the giant rat), and only makes Hugo smile gently, sit at her computer and google printer manuals. Brother loves Hugo because Hugo loves him. Otherwise, why would Hugo spend so much time and attention on him, kindly and calmly figuring things out, researching solutions and strategies, gently easing open his front cover, running his fingers tenderly over Brother’s cartridge, carefully teasing out jammed paper, caressing his tray? He feels he is quite the

authority on the subject of love because it is the theme of all of Aerlion’s fiction and, for once, it is exactly as she describes it. Exquisite, if a little purple. But, again, what is purple?

But, it is late and there is this Bright Light. Hugo called it Moon with a soft voice and gentle hands that he laid on Aerlion’s shoulders to shape her body shorter and softer, smoothing over all her sharp jutting angles and hard pointy places that have gotten sharper and pointy-er in the last few months, before leading her to the back of the house. So now, Moon is watching Brother and Brother is watching Moon. It is big and bright and makes silhouettes of the trees (“silhouette,” a word he sees a lot in Aerlion’s prose, thirteen times alone in her story about the lovesick zombie and the bakery department of the CostCo), illuminating the clouds from within. He likes that idea, illumination from within. Just like him. He shines from within too, using his cards and chips programmed by a guy named Dave at Brother to shine his Ready and Error and Toner lights at Aerlion, giving him the power to make her smirk in satisfaction or scream in rage. Yes, he is a servant, a path-smoother and a facilitator. Yes, he faithfully prints Aerlion’s short stories, holding his nose as he sprays the scut of adverbs across the sheet. They scramble like cockroaches fleeing light: “Smilingly,” “procrastinatingly,” “shittily” (ahh, that one hits the mark). But, he is also Creative, expressing as himself with every word she prints. They are her words, but his too, because it is his chip and ink that bring her words to life on the paper. He sees her lips quirk as she reads the words on the 92 Bright 20 lb acid-free # 135855 Basic-and-Reliable-for-High-Volume-Jobs Copy Paper, running her finger up and down the page, neatly stacking it atop the others, making the corners just so. Lovingly. Hopefully. Moon sweeps the deck the way Aerlion does, with merciless, harsh strokes, erasing the day’s detritus and leaving only the elemental, a pristine world in pure, beautiful, essential Black and White. 

Last night, I dreamed even though I was off. The last thing I remember is Hugo, unable to sleep, revisiting the posts about printer toner cartridges and accidentally stumbling across Aerlion’s bookmarked sites about The Cancer. Reading page after page, site after site, words that first bent him double, then broke him in two. Who would have thought Hugo was so fragile? After Hugo read the last one, he sat quietly for a long, long time. So long, I went into Sleep Mode. Perhaps Hugo downloaded Wholeness, the opposite of virus, when he installed my print driver as per the recommendations of the forty-ninth post he read. Because I dreamed I had gossamer wings of vivid hues of colors not known in nature, but, dear to my Imagination (which I did not realize I had until I, in my dream, turned my head and saw a mélange of Crayola Outrageous Orange, Purple Pizazz and Cornflower Blue fluttering ever so gently in a fine spring breeze that was a glorious shade of pale lavender). In my dream, I luff down to a delicate white flower, bend my head and admire my antenna, long and fuzzy and gorgeous Mountain Meadow green with Unmellow Yellow stripes. I sip the nectar with my long Tickle Me Pink tongue and it is delicious. It tastes like Diet Coke, the best drink in the world.  I know this because Hugo pops the tab on the can and brings one to Aerlion at her desk every morning as She Writes. It must be wonderful because of the way she tilts the can waaaaay back and closes her eyes and gurgles lustily (I borrow those last two words from her story about the hook-handed pirate with the fire-brimming beard who drops anchor on Mars). Then, she smiles all her love in the world at Hugo. The Diet Coke tastes the way I feel—healed–and full of possibilities.

                                                                       The End

June 11, 2022 14:22

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1 comment

Alice Richardson
10:31 Jun 18, 2022

An interesting insight into office equipment!

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