My Brother Doesn’t Show Me His Head
We’re leaving the concrete almost-adobe house with the cacti, the orange tree, and the tree we thought was a peach except for the hard teardrop fruits and manic pink flowers that fell off it. It’s right that Alden should take the cat. He found her, scratchy-voiced kitten wet from rain, near the Dollar Tree dumpster on Atlantic. I couldn’t even name her. She was Gatita when I was happy and Cat more often.
The first night, Gatita slept in the bed with us, a little knot. My eyes opened. In a corner darker than the room’s darkness, a figure stood, edges vibrating.
Terror pumped heat into my still body. Gatita sat before it, visible by her white toes and the golden glow wrapped like a pipe cleaner around her silhouette. The figure pushed the air. It reached to take me, but she kept it there.
My mom had night terrors, too. When I was young, she’d described the devil holding her up by the ankles and how she could see her brother Adam and tried calling out to him for help, but her lips were glued and her body paralyzed. When she described it to me, her eyes went wide the way mine do when something tries to get out but can’t.
Nine years ago at Papi’s house, I fell asleep in the middle of the day, thinking about Cody and the zine we were working on but would never finish. Dream landscape bled into former teenage bedroom around me, flat on the grass of the green couch. Cody’s Rottweiler licked my cheek and asked me with his body to play. Cody stood apart, observing me through an unmoving face. I tried to make my real arm move, couldn’t. My real ears heard the soft moan struggling to become the words I can’t move or Help me. Screaming is the most basic thing, but my throat couldn’t even do that.
While Alden and I lived together, I started and abandoned a comic about the night terrors, which meant I started and abandoned drawings of Cody. Occasional 1 a.m. DMs—you’re beautiful like the moon and you’re like sacred to me—were the only reminders of him, for a while. And anyway, there was the Cat.
Gatita’s going with Alden because he can take care of her, and because he found her, and because, when cocooning myself in new meds and quarantine restlessness, I wove in the silk of Cody’s sentences, especially the one I ignored, the one that sticks—I love you and I will always be in love with you—and I bit into Alden on my way out, and the reasons five years with him were enough splattered forth.
I’d so filled the blank months before Alden and I met with cum and pills and river dirt after my younger brother’s death by bullet that I felt ready to meet him when I did. But my brain is unchanged from the moment Dylan blew his to pieces for roommates to find.
Papi told me how, at night, Abuela saw duendes in her house. I’ve read about poltergeists and dark things that hitch themselves to an entire human life, shards of cosmic nonmatter that trauma or mental disorder or malicious unknowable things welcome into your folds, where they seep or bubble to the surface at will.
The sleep paralysis episodes, while terrifying to the root, are only nightmares. I’ve never calculated the amount of sleep lost every night, every week, every year, but I heard somewhere that sleep deprivation can shorten your lifespan by 15 percent. It seems to me a lifespan can’t be determined until it ends.
When Dylan killed himself, I was sleeping on the floor of my friend Becky’s Midtown one-bedroom. Her lease ended, and I found us a cheap apartment in a rotting Victorian by Sutter’s Landing. Our first morning there, I carried pizza boxes down the dim stairwell out to the alley dumpster and saw a shape that almost glittered, blue and green, near the dumpster’s wheel. A peacock, dead with open eyes, tail feathers hacked down to white, stiff stems.
Looking at the curve of its neck, the liquid of its eyeballs, something in my chest cracked open and dribbled out. I thought Becky, who kept an owl in our freezer, should see the peacock. I brought her to the alley, where now an old man stood. Through his cigarette he told us, That thing is cursed.
Becky preserved the portions of the bird she wanted: the head and the wings. She came into the kitchen pale from twisting and cutting the head off with dull garden shears. Later, she painted me topless and cutting apples for pie, for an art show. Alone of all the paintings that covered the high hallway wall, mine fell, glass shattered.
The peacock parts stayed in a box filled with cornmeal in the narrow back stairwell for weeks. Some nights in that house I would feel my calves being grabbed. Others I woke up with scratches.
My more spiritual comadre told me Dylan sent Gatita to stop the sleep paralysis. I was lucky for the two-year reprieve, and I don’t dread the return of the figures in shadow. The paralysis is the worse part. It’s in my brain. It leaks into daytime and squeezes my tongue. Even when the body is in motion, I’m knocked loose in it.
Papi was alone in the house where Dylan had lived, so in the days after he died I stayed there. Asleep in the guest room that used to be mine, my eyes opened to yellow light coming through the half-closed door.
Dark movement in the hall set off the reptile alertness that shrieks until it understands what it is seeing. Dylan’s knee, then his long shin. All black. The rest of his thin body slid out of the impossible space where a wall should be. He lurched through the doorway as though tugged from the belly.
Fury radiated from his obscured figure. As a kid he was gentle, sensitive, but when his temper exploded it settled in layers over everything. He opened the back of Chayo’s head with one swing of a PVC pipe at three years old because they’d knocked over his Legos. It was the jagged plastic edge that did it. Papi held a shop rag to Chayo’s head while he drove us to the emergency room. Blood soaked the blue rag red. I thought, It should be purple.
Dylan crept forward to show me his final wound. I hadn’t seen his body since it lived. Strapped down with open eyes, I watched as his head began to roll toward me. We froze in a moment where everything that hasn’t happened yet was visible.
He withdrew his head, stepped backward into the hall, and disappeared. The light was still on.
Lauren Lavin is an editor for The Hard Times and sister site Hard Noise. She’s had work in The Hard Times: The First 40 Years, Tone Glow, Reductress, Literary Orphans and The Flash Fiction Offensive. She has an MFA from Long Beach State University, where she was editor-in-chief for RipRap Literary Journal Vol. 42, and was named one of the 15 best humorists writing today by Paste Magazine. Find her on Twitter @lalavin666..