Brothers

Ben DuPree

“Remember when we found that lizard?” Ryan asked.

“We did?” Caleb asked.

The boys stood with their backs against the chain-link fence that enclosed the school yard. The other kids played tag on an adjacent lawn. It was recess. Ryan pointed across the yard to where oak trees with broad green leaves grew up a steep slope. After the trees came big homes and then the Santa Monica Mountains.

“When our class went into the hills on that nature walk,” Ryan said. “When Jimmy Wareth fell and hit his head?” Caleb asked.

“That was before.” “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Time confused Caleb. It moved fast when he played and slowly in class. His mom also told him he was nine, but he could not remember that many years.

“We found it under a rock,” Ryan said. “Caught it and kept it in my pocket.” “I guess,” Caleb said.

“Kicked over the rock and there he was. Just reached down and scooped him up.” Ryan punched Caleb’s shoulder. “Isn’t that right?”

Caleb couldn’t remember the lizard, but the more he squinted at the distant fence and trees the more he could picture the small creature thrashing as Ryan’s hands trapped it.

“We brought it home and took it for a swim in the bathtub,” Ryan said.

The memory was built in pieces. The lizard was small and in the tub with them. Ryan churned hot water with his hand. Steam carried to an open window. The lizard struggled, its legs slapping wildly.

“Sure,” Caleb said.

“You liar,” Ryan said. “That never actually happened. You’re such a liar. You’ll say anything.”

Caleb felt heat on his cheeks and around his eyes. He bit his bottom lip. “Sorry,” he said.

The bell rang. Kids groaned and began walking to classrooms.

Ryan hit Caleb again. “Come on you liar,” he said. “Can’t stay out here forever.”

Ryan rushed ahead and joined the others. Caleb put his fingers through the fence and gripped it hard, focusing on the cold metal, taking deep breaths to keep from crying.

                                                               #

The year before, Caleb’s mom and Ryan’s dad divorced their spouses and married each other. After the wedding, the new family moved into an area of west Los Angeles called Brentwood Glen, near the 405 and the southeast end of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The new house was big and the color of the ocean. The boys had separate rooms on the ground level connected by a shared bathroom. Outside their windows were the backyard and a chain-link fence draped with ivy. Behind the fence was a slope that led up to a copse so dense the branches overlapped.

People often mistook the boys for brothers; they were both in the fourth grade, with matching buzz cuts and the same pale green eyes. This confusion vexed Caleb. While others focused on similarities, he considered the differences. Ryan walked fast on shorter legs. Ryan spoke quickly and loudly. Ryan liked stories about monsters, or pirates, or people who were lost.

When Caleb was unable to sleep, he lay in bed and traced worries across his mind. He wondered how others could consider he and Ryan brothers when they were not truly related, and if families could be undone as quickly as they came together. If his mom could say “I love you” to Ryan, did that mean that, someday, she might love Ryan more? On those nights Caleb sometimes heard noises from Ryan’s room, like the other boy was moving around.

Caleb was sleepless the night after Ryan made up the story about the lizard. Part of him wanted to slip away to dreams, to forget. But he knew that sleep would bring tomorrow. He pulled his comforter up to his nose and formed sentences in his head. Stop teasing me, he could tell Ryan. It hurts.

That night, as he whispered pained words to his blanket, Caleb heard a scraping sound through the walls. It was brief and sharp, like metal against metal, followed by silence. He got out of bed. The room was still. He heard the scraping sound four times, and then it was gone. He wondered if Ryan also had heard the sound, but hesitated to knock on Ryan’s door. Tomorrow would be even worse if Ryan knew he was scared of the dark.

Caleb started back to bed when he saw a light out his window and a short figure moving through the yard. Caleb opened the window and leaned out.

“Ryan?”

The figure turned. A beam of light hit Caleb’s eyes.

“Why are you awake?” Ryan asked.

“I heard a noise,” Caleb said.

“Go back to bed.”

“Where are you going?”

Ryan gestured toward the ivy-covered fence with his flashlight and put a finger to his mouth. “It’s a secret,” he said.

“A secret,” Caleb repeated.

“As in I can’t tell you, mind your own business, go away. Secret.”

The boys stared at each other.

“Are you going to go crying to your mommy?” Ryan finally asked.

“What if I do?” Caleb asked.

                                                               #

Ryan ground his feet into wet grass. “Please,” he said. The uncertainty in Ryan’s voice surprised Caleb.

“I won’t tell,” Caleb said.

“You won’t?” Ryan asked.

Caleb’s legs and the tips of his fingers tingled. “Only if you take me with you.”

Caleb watched Ryan climb the fence behind their house, and then he followed. The ivy over the metal was slick between his fingers. When he reached the top, he looked down. Darkness was everywhere. Caleb tensed as he looked for Ryan, but then he saw the flashlight’s beam.

“Hurry up,” Ryan said.

Caleb climbed down and they moved up the slope and into the trees. Ahead, the flashlight unzipped wood and uncertainty. Ryan moved like his feet knew how to avoid each root and rock. Caleb struggled to keep pace, often slipping to his knees. He grasped handfuls of cold dirt as he pushed himself up.

“Come on,” Ryan said.

Behind Caleb, darkness hid the way home. He fixed his eyes on Ryan, who looked impossibly tall ahead of him on the slope. His face was a blur except for his mouth.

“We’re almost there,” Ryan said.

Soon the trees thinned and they came to a wide lawn with short grass. Ryan turned off the flashlight. Caleb saw broad trees spaced evenly apart, holes filled with sand, a distant dirt path lit yellow-orange by street lamps, and a half moon alone above the trees.

“The golf course?” Caleb asked.

Ryan walked to the edge of a nearby sand trap, pulled down his pants, and began peeing. “I’m marking my territory,” he said. Ryan’s hands were on his hips and his feet were wide apart.

Caleb stood next to Ryan and pulled down his pants, too. He focused on the sand, but nothing came out.

 “I’m on an island,” Ryan said. “It’s my island.” He poked Caleb’s shoulder. “You’re only here because I’m letting you be here.”

Caleb nodded.

“There’s a sandy beach and there are coconuts in the trees,” Ryan said. “I pick them and eat them by the ocean. Everything is perfect.”

Caleb only saw the golf course. A breeze prickled his skin. He longed for his bed, for the stuffed bear that slept by his head, and for the safety of his blankets. But he was afraid to go back alone or to ask Ryan to take him.

“Are there monkeys?” Caleb asked.

“Sometimes,” Ryan said.

The boys pulled up their pants. The moon and the lights from the path were at their backs.

“I was on a ship that hit a rock and started to sink, but I’m a strong swimmer so it was okay,” Ryan said.

“Were you scared?” Caleb asked.

“No way. People lost at sea always wash up somewhere. I ended up here, and it’s great. There’s a little creek where I can get water, and plenty of food. I sleep under the stars. When I close my eyes, I hear the ocean.”

“What do you dream about?”

“All of it.”.

Caleb had trouble remembering his dreams. It made him feel sad, like pieces of himself were slipping away.

“You won’t tell my dad, will you?” Ryan asked.

Before Caleb could answer, he heard movement behind them. He turned and saw the outline of a tall figure.

“What have we here,” a man said.

“Go!” Ryan shouted. “Run!”

Caleb tried to step back, but his feet were stuck. The man moved toward him.

                                                               #

Ryan crashed past trees. Branches raked his face and arms. He tasted blood.

The man’s voice had been deep and slow, like how Ryan tried to make his own voice sound when he read scary stories aloud. And the man’s face was hidden, part of the night.

He reached the fence behind his house and started to climb.

“Hurry,” he said. “They’ll hear us.”

Ryan reached the top and jumped. His arms were wide, like he was trying to glide on the air. He landed on his feet. He turned, expecting to see Caleb climbing the fence. But Caleb wasn’t there.

“Caleb?”

Ryan gripped the fence with both hands and watched the trees for movement, but there was no sign of Caleb or the man. Ryan looked back at the house. The windows were still dark. He could return to his room, wrap himself in his blankets, and forget about the man and about Caleb.

Ryan had been upset when his dad told him that he and Caleb would be brothers.

“How can someone go from being a stranger to being family?” Ryan had asked.

They moved into a new house. Ryan’s real mom went away and was replaced by a woman who smelled wrong and said the wrong things. And she brought Caleb with her, who was constantly getting in Ryan’s way, asking to borrow his toys, asking to play.

That’s when Ryan first visited the island. He jumped from a sinking ship moments before it disappeared under dark water. Then he was alone, floating on an ocean, trying to find land. It was night. The sea and sky were everywhere and empty. He thrashed against waves until his body ached. He was scared, but never doubted he’d make it.

The island became Ryan’s safe place. Things on the island didn’t change unless he wanted them to change. When he wasn’t on the island, Ryan was often angry. He yelled at Caleb and

his parents. He got frustrated and broke things. He didn’t pay attention in school or finish his homework.

Ryan’s dad sent him to a man in a tall building who worked in a dim room lit by small lamps. The man was thin and his forehead was covered in wrinkles. He asked Ryan questions in a quiet voice. Ryan sat on a sofa and told the man that he was tired of things changing. But he never told the man about the island, because he knew that the man would try to take it away.

The moon above Ryan was bright. He saw his reflection in his bedroom window, and that he was crying. He wished to be back on his island, for the man to disappear, for Caleb to disappear, and for everything to go back to normal, when he and his dad and his real mom lived in a house that looked down on the ocean, when they would walk a sandy path to the beach and Ryan would swim in warm water that was the color of the sky.

                                                                #

The man was tall and smelled like smoke. Caleb couldn’t make out his face, but he imagined a mouth that searched for him as the man bent forward at the waist. The man’s teeth would be massive and drip with saliva. The man’s eyes would be the only light fixed on Caleb. And the last thing Caleb would feel would be the man’s hot breath.

“Let’s see what we have here,” the man said. A beam of light hit Caleb’s eyes. “Barely a mouse. You’re not supposed to be out here.”

Caleb squinted. The man didn’t sound like a monster.

“What’s your name, son?” the man asked.

“Caleb.”

“You’re trespassing, Caleb. Do you know what that means?”

Caleb shook his head.

“It means this is a private place,” the man said. “Like if I were to walk around your house without your say-so. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”

“I guess not,” Caleb said. The light left his face.

“Of course you wouldn’t.”

As Caleb’s vision adjusted, he saw the man was older and heavyset, with a white beard that covered most of his face. The man wore a tan jacket zipped up to his chest and shoes that looked like tennis shoes, except they were black.

“Looks like the other kid’s long gone,” the man said.

“That’s Ryan.”

“You two related?”

“He’s my brother, but not my real brother. Our parents got married.” Caleb hesitated. “I didn’t run because I thought you were a monster and I was afraid.”

“A monster?” The man laughed. “I haven’t heard that one before.”

“It’s dark.”

“I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s my job to make sure people aren’t causing trouble.”

“Others come out here, too?”

“Sometimes. Teenagers. Kids from UCLA. You’re the youngest I’ve seen.”

Caleb clenched his teeth and stared at the ground. The golf course was Ryan’s secret, but he had been forced to show it to Caleb. Was that like trespassing? And if others came to the golf course, did that mean that multiple people could have a secret kept in the same place?

“What were you doing out here?” the man asked.

Caleb wondered if others could discover secrets as easily as he had found Ryan’s, and whether Ryan would be extra mean because Caleb knew his secret. “I can’t tell you,” Caleb said.

“No?”

“It’s a secret.”

                                                                #

Ryan was almost eight when he first went to the island. It was his first night in the new house. It was raining; he lay in bed listening to drops hit his window. His room was bare because his toys and books were packed in cardboard boxes. He closed his eyes and tried not to forget how his room used to look.

Ryan had not believed that his mom and dad wouldn’t be together anymore and that another woman and her son would come to live with them. Throughout the divorce and remarriage, he waited for things to go back to the way they were. But that first night in the new house, Ryan knew he was wrong. He hid under his blankets and hoped the sound of the rain would hide his crying. His eyes burned. The air around him was wet and close.

Then the tears stopped. Ryan felt like he had been transported. He saw that he was still in his room, but he also knew that he was in a different place and that he needed to escape. He left his bed and got dressed. The rain had slowed to a misty drizzle. He opened his window, went into the yard, climbed the fence, and stumbled through the wooded area behind the house. He felt an emptiness chasing him that would swallow him up if he slowed. The trees blocked the city’s lights and the clouds hid the moon. The emptiness was an ocean. It would be easy to slip beneath the waves if he lay down and closed his eyes.

Darkness became a pale light as he found the golf course. To Ryan, the light was a sunrise, and it was beautiful.

He stood in a sand trap and imagined he was on a beach. He kicked off his shoes and put his arms in the air. He felt like a survivor.

“I made it!” he shouted.

He looked back at the trees and saw the ocean. The house beyond was a memory, a ship beneath the water.

                                                                #

Ryan peered out from behind an oak on the edge of the golf course. Caleb and the man were close. Both were in a place where light didn’t quite reach.

This was the first time the island was in danger. Ryan was mad at himself for not being prepared and for running when threatened. He blushed and remembered the darkness and the waves and his empty room on that first night. There were worse things to fear, he thought, and he’d braved them all because he was strong.

If he wanted to save his island, he would need to do it himself. He knelt down and felt around until his hands found a rock. He picked it up. It was heavy.

                                                               #

“Do you have any brothers?” Caleb asked.

“Three of them,” the man said. “Although one’s not with us anymore.”

“Where did he go?”

The man’s eyes were heavy and sad. “He died.”

“Oh.”

“We were young, like you. This was a long time ago. Back then we lived in Oregon, in a town outside of Portland called Troutdale. Do you know where that is?”

Caleb shook his head.

“It’s north, far away,” the man said. “We lived by a big river called the Columbia. Some nights, my brothers and I would sneak out after our folks went to bed and play by the water. We’d have us big adventures, floating on tubes from tractor tires and trying to catch fish in the near-dark.”

“That sounds fun.”

The man smiled. “That night things were good. It was just us. We were the kings of that river. We wouldn’t have traded anything for it.”

Caleb tried to picture the man as a child, but he couldn’t imagine him without his beard.

“Know the feeling?” the man asked.

“I was just following Ryan,” Caleb said.

“I suppose that was me. I was the youngest by a couple of years, but my brothers had me along anyway. That night was our last one out, though.”

The man was quiet. His lips twitched, as if he wanted to talk. But then the words didn’t come.

“My big brother John was there, and then he was gone,” the man finally said. “I thought it was a joke. I watched the water. Everything was black. We were laughing, waiting for him to wrap around our legs and drag us on down.”

Caleb was silent.

“After a few minutes, we got scared. We couldn’t find him,” the man said. “So we ran home and woke our parents. They called the police. By morning, seemed like half the town was out searching for him.”

 “What happened?” Caleb asked.

“We found his body later that day.”

“His body?”

“He drowned. He was so pale when they pulled him out of the water, not a hundred feet from where we were playing.”

For Caleb, fear was waiting for something to happen but not knowing if it would happen. It was an emptiness that bad things or monsters could fill up. Caleb wondered what it was like to be afraid of something so far in the past.

                                                               #

Ryan’s feet were cold because the water on his shoes had soaked through to his socks. He imagined himself standing on the beach at low tide, where the ground was slick with seaweed and bubbles. Ahead were Caleb and the man, standing at the place where water washes up to their ankles.

“No!” Ryan shouted.

Caleb and the man turned toward Ryan, who held a rock over his head with both hands as he ran.

“Ryan!” Caleb said.

Ryan closed in on the man and saw that he was massive; light and shadow cut diagonals across him. Maybe he was a pirate, with a rounded gut and a greying, bushy beard. Maybe he was a monster coming out of the dark. Maybe he had been on the island the whole time.

He threw the rock as hard as he could.

                                                               #

The man lay on the ground next to the rock. His eyes were wide and locked on Caleb. There was blood on the man’s face.

 “There might be more of them,” Ryan said. “We have to go.”

“More?” Caleb asked.

“I’m sorry I ran. I was scared.” Ryan took Caleb’s hand and led him away from the man. “But I was brave in the end,” Ryan said. “I protected the island.”

Soon they reached the trees between the golf course and the house. Caleb could no longer see the man.

“This is my secret,” Ryan said. He squeezed Caleb’s hand until it hurt. “But you’ll help keep it safe, won’t you?”

Caleb pictured the man’s surprise as the rock hit his face.

“Won’t you?” Ryan asked again.

Caleb wanted to break free and run, but Ryan’s grip was too strong.