We are nearing the entrance of New Crest when Julian sneezes, shaking the whole car. His hands waver, and with a smooth swerve he positions the car once again to a perfect alignment with the white traffic lines. There are no other cars on the road, but one can never be too cautious.
“Oh, you better hurry,” I say, craning my neck to look out the window. Indeed, ominous-looking clouds hover at the mountaintops. “This one looks big.”
“Yeah,” Julian agrees. “Gray monster coming up.”
I continue fiddling with the radio dial, searching for better stations—to no avail. Every single one of them either play classical music, or NBA game reviews. Other than those, it’s pure static.
“Hey, Alvin,”—sneeze—“can we switch?”
I shrug. “Sure.”
By the time we’ve changed positions—me on the driver’s side and him on the shotgun—Julian has already sneezed thrice. His eyes are already watering, and his nose is becoming redder than it usually is. He slaps his hand on his thigh in frustration. “Why do I have to be allergic to incoming rain?” he asks no one in particular. I only laugh at him. “Not funny, Alvin.”
“It isn’t. But trust me, other people’s got it worse. Remember Maria? My classmate in ninth grade?”
Julian grunts a reply. “Red hair? Pretty eyes?”
“Yeah. She’s allergic to compliments.”
Poor Maria had been a walking time bomb because of her allergy. It didn’t help that she’s popular—a member of a famous clique, daughter of a rich pharmaceutical owner, a natural talent in the swimming team—and so she gets loads of compliments left and right. And that’s exactly the problem.
“Whenever someone so much as looks at her dreamily, she gets rashes along her arms,” recalls Julian.
“Right. It got to the point that she had to stop going to school altogether.” I glanced at Julian, who’s sulking and doesn’t look like the brother who’s two years older than me. “You get my point?”
“Do I have a”—sneeze—“choice?”
The first spatter of rain across the windshield signals the end of Julian’s sneezes. It also welcomes us into the nostalgically familiar archway of the New Crest entrance. The rusting sign at the side of the road claims that the town has over six thousand populace, and that New Crest is a sleepy but crime-free town.
New Crest is a town to be in if you wanted a loose way of living, a town to give you, not obstacles and challenges and a purpose to strive toward, but sunsets and cornfields and front doors that chimed when opened. Julian and I lived here most of our lives, chased each other through the numbered streets, stolen a few coins from our father to buy ourselves ice cream, and learned to appreciate the simple and innate beauty of existing. This town is where Julian first fell in love, where I first broke a girl’s heart, and where we first fell and broke our arms trying to wrestle with each other at the top of a birch tree.
We were stupid kids with impossible dreams, and New Crest let us grew up like that.
“Welcome home,” Julian mumbles. I look over at him.
“Dude, are you crying?”
Hastily, he wipes at his eyes. “What? No, must be the allergy; makes me tear up.”
It’s my turn to sneeze; I’m allergic to lies.
“Shut up,” I say. “You’re crying, like a baby.”
“Would you blame me?”
I chuckle at him, then I sniff. It does feel like coming home from a long journey. “Honestly, no. Julian, you don’t have to lie to me about crying. You do realize I’m the guy you woke up in the middle of the night when we were fifteen because Emily broke up with you, right?”
Julian doesn’t reply, but I can see him smiling through my peripheral vision. He’s my best friend in the world, but sometimes he’s really an idiot.
When I pull over to park the car in front of our house, I take my time staying inside. Julian and I stare at the front garden adorning our front lawn, at the American flag flapping incessantly at its post, at the achingly familiar dark wood walls of the exterior, at the separated garage that witnessed so much of our childhood with father, but is now abandoned and has never been opened for years now.
Julian is full-on sobbing now.
“You need a hug?” I ask.
“Shut your filthy mouth, Alvin.”
I open my arms, and after several seconds, he falls face-first into my chest, crying. I smile and rub his back soothingly. “There, there. Everything will be okay, Charlie.”
He laughs and pulls away. “Alright, I’m ready.”
“Sure you are.”
We leave the car and, side by side, walk over to the front door. The first face we see is Charlie’s—the real Charlie, our ten-year-old brother—an adorable smile painted on his lips. Then my view is covered by his messy chocolate curls as he fastens his arms around me.
“Alvin, you’re here!” he squeals.
“Yeah Charlie, I am. And I need to breathe.” I hug him back with more strength, though. Goodness, I missed this kid.
Charlie was an unexpected child. He came to our life when everything else seemed fine; father has a successful car shop two blocks from our house; mom was a regular book club host and is well-respected in the neighborhood; Julian and I are partners-in-crime. We were content. We were happy. And then Charlie came and proved to the family that no, we were not whole yet. Charlie, beautiful and soft-spoken Charlie, completed the Kauffman house.
“I mean, it’s not that I’m jealous, but . . .” Julian trails off, winking at our younger brother.
Charlie giggles, pulling away from me to hug Julian.
“Well, you can’t blame him for choosing me as his favorite brother,” I say. “Dude, I’m obviously way cooler than you.”
“Says the boy who screamed for ten seconds straight when Julian accidentally spilled ketchup on his t-shirt.”
I turn to the source of the lovely voice, and find myself looking at mom. Wearing her uniform—that is, her checkered cardigan topped with floral apron—she looks as beautiful as ever.
“Seriously, mom. You don’t seem to age.” I wrap my arms around her and channel Julian as I feel tears prickling my eyes. I always, always get emotional around mom. I may act tough when I get wounds and gashes as a kid, parading my injury around like it’s a trophy, but as mom treated it with the home first aid kit, tears would spill. “How are things?”
She doesn’t answer, so I pull away to let Julian hug her.
As Julian tightens his embrace though, I notice mom wincing, as if in pain. “Dude, back up,” I say. “You’re not exactly thin, you know?”
“Mom, is everything okay?”
She hesitates, not knowing what to do. Her eyes search my face, and her hands are wringing each other. She’s nervous.
“You’re not answering because you’re thinking of lying,” I say. I hear the edge in my own voice, but I can’t seem to care too much about it. “And you know that I’ll know it when you lie.”
“Alvin . . .”
“Mom,” says Julian. He puts a hand on mom’s elbow. “I thought it stopped?”
“It never did.”
It’s Charlie. And somehow, he’s the one who slices the tension in half, splintering pieces across the rosewood floor. He’s not looking into any of us, but is instead staring at the floor. At that moment he looked so tiny and fragile that my heart breaks. I start to walk toward him but Julian beats me to it.
So I turn to mom. “Where is he?”
“Mom, where is Robert? Is he at work?”
Slowly, she nods. Her hands are shaking, her eyes wet. She tries to speak, but finds that she couldn’t, not without opening the dam and letting everything out, so I lead her to the kitchen where I help her sit on the breakfast corner stool.
“Charlie, remove your books from the table, okay?” I say, already picking some and handing them to him. “What do you even do with these?”
Charlie absolutely loves reading medical books, especially those that show human anatomy. It’s ironic because he’s allergic to exposed blood. We’re a little more wary with knives and other sharp objects around the house because the presence of visible blood gives Charlie rashes.
Julian fetches a glass of lukewarm water and gives it to mom—she’s allergic to any cold liquids. Once we’re all seated, sans Charlie, who’s in his room, mom noticeably relaxes.
“Mom,” I start. “This can’t keep happening.”
“We swore to dad, you know?” Julian says, looking at his hands. “While he’s dying on the hospital bed, we swore that we will always protect you and Charlie.” He glances up at mom. “Robert doing this to you, hurting you, abusing you . . . it means we failed.”
“Julian,” says mom, and her voice is so frail that it leaves a hole in my gut: a burning, gaping hole. Why haven’t I noticed this earlier? “It’s my fault. Robert is—”
“No, don’t give us that crap, mom,” I say. “None of this is your fault. We all thought Robert would be wonderful. He appeared so kind and sincere and selfless . . . he was able to fool me, mom, and I’m allergic to lies. He’s that good at manipulating people.”
“And he’s still doing it, mom,” adds Julian. “He’s still controlling you like a puppet, so you wouldn’t speak, so you would continue on this life like this is normal, and it’s not. Mom, what do you think will we feel if one day we come home, if one day Charlie comes home from school, and we find you and it’s . . . it’s too late?”
“Julian, don’t speak like that.”
“But mom, it’s true.”
I reach out to hold mom’s hand. Thin and paperlike, her hands, but still strong. I squeeze it and hold on. “Mom, that’s why we’re here. We’re here, your sons, your only remaining family. You used to call us your little soldiers, remember? When Julian and I would come home bloodied because we protected each other from bullies twice our size?”
Mom is crying now, tears creating tracks down her cheeks. She nods. She remembers, she always will.
“We’re still your soldiers, mom,” I continue, only to realize my own tears are running across my face. “But we’re not little anymore. We can protect you. We will protect you and Charlie. Just let us.”
“Mom, what’s happening?” Charlie’s little voice comes from the entrance of the kitchen. “Is he hurting you again?”
I look at mom, then at Julian. “I’ll talk to him.”
Charlie settles down on the sofa. The television is on, but the sound is muted.
“Pretty heavy stuff, huh?” I say, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
But Charlie isn’t having any of it. He shakes his head, almost as if he’s disappointed in me. “You’re treating me like a baby,” he pouts.
“But Charlie, you’re always my baby, no matter how old you get. So get used to it.”
That pulls off a smile from him. I reach out to gently touch his arm.
“Hey. Is he hurting you, too?” I ask, terrified of what he’ll say.
Fortunately, he says no. “But . . . he said I’m too whiny and—”
“I don’t care what he told you, okay? Charlie, I want you to know and remember: none of this is your fault.”
Slowly, he nods. “Should I have protected mom?”
“No. That’s mine and Julian’s job, and we pretty suck at it.”
Charlie, sweet and naïve Charlie, takes my hand in both of his and holds it against his chest. “You don’t. You’re the best protectors in the world, and I want to be your protector. Can I be?”
“Charlie, you only have to protect yourself, that’s all. You don’t have to protect me and Julian.”
“But I want to,” he pleads. “Please?”
And who am I to deny him? “Of course.” I glance up at the kitchen, where Julian and mom are still talking in hushed voices. “Charlie?” I ask. “What time does Robert go home?”
Charlie hesitates. “Eleven at night.”
The interior walls of the garage are covered in grime and cobwebs and deserted tools. And barely remembered memories. It’s dark, and even with the single light bulb dangling dangerously from the ceiling, it’s hard to see around. But I can see enough.
I approach the figure in the middle of room, and, carefully, pour the pitcher of cold water onto his face.
Robert stirs, and then finally wakes up from his dazed state. His eyes are wide, searching, scared. And then they land on me, and his anger comes in waves. He mumbles something that sounds like, “You.” I expected something more sinister, to be honest.
“It is me,” I say.
Robert makes an outraged sound from his throat, something I can’t clearly hear because of his gag. He trashes around in the sturdy chair, but the restraints I put on his feet and hands stop him doing anything else.
“Seriously, Robert, just stop trying. No one will hear you, not from here. And this garage, this is my father’s; never been visited and opened since he died. When they come looking for you—assuming they will—they wouldn’t even look here.”
Still, Robert screams, a muffled sound of agony and wailing that echoes off to my ears. His eyes are now slits; I can almost feel his fury.
“I debated whether you actually deserved this or not, but then my head aches thinking about it so I just gathered myself together and did it.” I look at my wristwatch and see that it’s now 10:07 PM; we only have fifty-three minutes left. I pull out the knife strapped from my belt. “Now, what should I cut off first?”
Robert glances at the knife, and has the nerve to laugh and mock me.
When I laugh back at him, his eyes fill with terror. Slowly, I inch toward his face.
“I don’t care how itchy my rashes will be, as long as you suffer.”