2nd Place (2012/13) - I Am My Brother’s Keeper by Michael Powell

I Am My Brother’s Keeper
by Michael Powell

I knew that he was dead before the phone call.
       Now I sit staring at the handset on the kitchen table in front of me. February snow floats lazily past the window. The washing machine starts the spin cycle. The towels inside smack against the metal drum.
       Yes, I’d known. Memories of my brother are already drifting through my mind. Soon they will swell and drown out all other thoughts.
       When the phone rang I had asked what had happened. Despite everything, I needed to know how he died. I needed to understand.
       A climbing accident they told me. He had been bouldering somewhere in the Australian Outback and he’d slipped. He’d fallen down a canyon and become trapped. By the time they’d got to him he was critical and died on the way to the hospital.
       I asked her how long the rescue had taken?
       There was a pause before the woman spoke and said that the rescue team had worked as quickly as they could but that it was, possibly, seven hours.
       That was about right.
       What were his injuries? That was my next question. She was reluctant to answer, but when I pressed her she told me he had broken both legs as well as six ribs. A punctured lung was what had done him in.
       I rubbed my side.
       The list went on: fractures, abrasions, damage to organs, which led to internal bleeding. It was amazing he was alive when the rescuer workers got to him; she claimed. But I didn’t agree. The human body is tough. Too tough sometimes. Sometimes you wish there was an off switch. That you could just blank out. When the pain got too much.
       I didn’t say anything for a while, which probably prompted her to speak again. He didn’t suffer, she told me. But I knew that was a lie. He did suffer. He had been in unbearable pain the whole time. He would have drifted out of consciousness, but the pain would have dragged him back in again. Unable to move, unable to breath, slowly suffocating.
       Climbing is dangerous, I used to tell him, and he could get really hurt, to which he would smile and reply that if he fell he’d be sure to land on his head so he wouldn’t feel it. Stupid bastard couldn’t even do that right.
       The woman asked me if I would be alright. What a stupid question. Of course I wasn’t going to be alright. I didn’t say that. I even thanked her. Then I hung up.
       Both my legs hurt. My chest feels tight.
       Outside it’s cold, but I get my coat and head out anyway. I have to get ready. I know about pain. I've had more than my fair share. But I know about dying too. The car accident that killed our parents had almost been my last night on this planet too. My brother had been at football practice and we were on our way to pick him up. I was only 11. You always imagine that those sorts of accidents happen on a cold rainy night, when the world seems dark and sinister. You don't think that it would happen on a hot Saturday afternoon when children are out playing and people are sunbathing in parks.
       Even now when the sun is shining I think back to that day, trapped upside-down in a tomb of twisted metal with the corpses of my parents in the front seat ignoring my screams of pain. I had been stabbed and broken, I felt my lifeblood draining out and pooling on the car roof below me. Later my brother told me that he had felt it everywhere I had been hurt.
       They call it a 'twin thing'. Sympathy pain. But I bet there aren't many others that feel it like we do.
       I trek down the snowy high street, taking extra care at every crossing, eyes scanning every passerby for any suspicious behaviour. I live in a good area, but you can never be too careful. Especially today. Life seems so much more precious.
       A ‘twin thing’. Ha. One hurts the other feels it.
       They've done tests. There's nothing scientific to say that it's true, but what does that matter? It’s real. Who cares if they haven't managed to prove it in the artificial conditions of a lab. It happens in the real world, not in their sterile bubbles.
       I can hear him now. I can hear him screaming out in pain. I'm glad I understand how he was hurting. It helps.
       Stupid bastard.
       He's been so reckless since they died. We were brought up by our grandparents, and they were so good to us. But that didn't stop him did it? Galavanting all over the world, high risk sports and daredevil stunts. He knew what I'd been through and how much I'd suffered from my injuries, but did that stop him? No, of course not. Not him. Not my brother. Always so loud, always so confident - yelling at the world because he didn't have the quiet voice of a mother or a father whispering in his ear to be careful. The day that crippled me, made me timid and scared of the world, made him daring and stupid.
       But in the end, had he been scared? Trapped down there, watching the sun set on his life? Feeling the adrenaline make his heart race, pumping his blood out of his veins all the faster. Did he think that he should have played life safe like I do? Or did he just laugh through the agony and think that none of it mattered because, even if he died, I was still here.
       I remember when we were young and he would tell me that we were the same; that we were once the same person. We're not just twins, we were once one single cell that was both of us at once. Those protein chains and phospholipids; they remember. They held on to the pattern that made our first embryonic cell and they stayed connected. But the cell itself though became so full of the potential of us that when it divided we split it in two. And though it might have been broken down long ago - still those fragments remember and long for their connection.

I go into the supermarket and get a trolley.
       Usually it's just a basket. I make my way around the aisles and fill it with food. More than I think I'll need. It becomes heavy and unwieldy and I fight to get it to the checkout. The flat isn't too far away, but I need to use the trolley to get the food back. The snow has stopped but the air feels colder.
       By the time I get to my front door my muscles are shaking, not just from the effort of carrying the food up two flights of stairs, but from the memory of my brother. He had cried many times over those seven hours. I start to cry too.

Back inside and I begin to cook. I'm not fat. I'm not a big eater, but I have always found comfort in preparing food. It's therapeutic. My brother, on the other hand, he was always lean, a happy side effect of his active lifestyle. I prepare pasta and stew, pizza and cakes. I eat as I cook - snacking on cheese, bread and vegetables. I only stop when the surges of tears force me too.
       I drink.
       It helps.
       While the food cooks my fumbling fingers take the towels from the dryer. Then I take a roll of plastic from under the sink and cover the kitchen floor. The towels are then laid on top. I don't call my grandparents. They are old now and my grandmother hasn't been good these last few months. They don't need this. They hated the fact that my brother was always away in far off countries they'd never heard of, doing sports that didn't even exist in their day. To hear that he'd died virtually alone and in pain so far away might finish them off. Besides, I don't think I can even speak anymore. I think if I called them it would be little more than a babble down the phone. I can barely think. The memories of him are now all my brain can handle. His whimpers and cries and screams of pain deafen me. I stumble around the kitchen; a sobbing ball of grief. As soon as the first dish is cooked I shovel it into my mouth. Within minutes my stomach is full to bursting, I feel sick but keep going with the pizza that comes piping hot out of the oven. As the sun starts to set, I lose control of my legs and slump to the floor. Through the fog in my mind I try to think if I've done everything. The door is locked, the oven is timed to switch itself off when the rest of the food has finishing cooking. No one is coming.
       I pull off my clothes, fighting jerking uncoordinated limbs. The garments are flung across the room until I lie naked on the warm towels, stomach swollen, pale skin glistening with sweat. And then it starts. And how I hate it. My mind explodes and the echoes of my brother’s screams suddenly fill the room as they issue from my own mouth.
       The cell. The atoms. They remember. But we weren't once just the same cell. That would be too normal. We were once the same soul; split in two, but still the same soul. Half a world away, with the whole planet separating us, but still the same soul, still joined and connected.
       Mitosis happens exponentially. My skin stretches, my muscles tear and my skeleton splits in two. My eyes divide, my testicles rupture, my heart breaks. When my vocal chords duplicate our two voices fill the air.
       There is no pain; only agony and release.
       Liquids - red, yellow, white and clear, ooze from every join and orifice, as once again we become two people.
       It takes nearly an hour for my brother to drag himself out of me. When he's free we both lie there next to each other, gasping, our bodies drained of energy, starving and emaciated. Eventually he reaches out a thin trembling slimy hand. He takes mine and holds it tight.
       His voice is little more than a whisper but he tells me he loves me.
       I'm too weak to even reply.

It's him who's up first, scraping himself dry with the towels before struggling to his feet. He shuffles to the sink and switches on the tap before dipping his head to guzzle the cold water.
       All I can do is watch.        After he's finished he fills a glass and makes his way slowly to me. I cannot understand where his strength is coming from as he lifts my head and pours the water into my mouth.
       It is glorious.
       He tells me that next time there should be a bottle of water within reach. I pray there won't be a next time.
       Within hours he has cleaned me up and starts to take out the cooked food from the oven. He feeds us both until I find the strength to feed myself.
       It will take us days to build ourselves up. Days before we are well enough to leave the house.
       It always reminds me of that first time, me fighting my way out of him hours after the car crash. Our grandparents hadn’t understood. They just kept it a secret.
       As we recover we talk. We'll call the authorities tomorrow. He'll tell them he's in the country, tell them his passport had been stolen months before, he'll be sorry that he didn't report it, but the thought hadn't occurred to him. The body in Australia will be forgotten when the questions become too hard to answer. The real world isn't like Hollywood, there aren't secret government departments looking for paranormal things like us. International investigation would be too much of a headache for a normal hospital coroner. Accidental death; identity unknown. A John Smith. End of story.

He jokes again that we should be super heroes, or spies.
       I tell him I just want a quiet life. He scoffs, but doesn't push the matter. He wants me here, safe and sound. I'm his insurance. That's why he won't stay. That’s why he’ll never ask me to come with him. That's why he likes to keep a planet between us. If one dies the other makes sure We are still safe.
       I wonder what he’d do if I started living recklessly. But the thought frightens me. Dying once was enough. I don’t know how he keeps doing it.
       I tell him to take care. For me.
       He tells me to take care.
       For both of us.