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“One Hand In The Coffin” © 2020 by Deoxy Diamond

CONTENT WARNING:


Despite everything, Corey wished Michael back as his twin, Alisha, blew out their birthday candles. Part of this was Patrick’s fault. His best friend had only shuffled his feet and stared down in shame at the faded, wrinkled Spider-Man on his shirt while one of the older boys called Corey “retarded.” Now that boy was about to get a slice of his birthday cake. Michael would have done something.

By the time the thin smoke from the candles reached the apartment ceiling, Corey’s aching hand told him his wish had come true. He searched the smiling faces gathered around the orange cake, grimacing against the way the sound of their clapping scratched his skin. He avoided the itch of their dark and intruding eyes. Instead, he looked for Michael’s half-smiling, full lips, his braided hair with the escaping curls, his sparkling black earrings. Corey’s gaze landed on his therapy puppet, sitting in the corner of the cramped apartment. With its loose, white T-shirt, faded blue pants, and black, Brillo-pad hair, it looked nothing like Michael.

And yet …

“Michael's here,” Alisha said.

Corey turned from the puppet. The sound of her voice had become a rare and missed treasure since their brother’s death. Only he heard it; the walls rang with what Mom called the black happy birthday song: Hah-pee birth-day to ya! Hah-pee birth-day to ya! Hah-PEE biiiirth-DAY!

“Kids in the living room, adults in the kitchen,” Mom said, as she stood on a cracked wicker chair to grab a knife hidden in the shelves above the stove. Her gaze flitted to Corey; he looked away, and Mom began to cut the cake. “Corey, why don’t you do a puppet show for your guests?”

Corey looked at Mom in that way she didn’t like. He hated the puppet, but Mom had worn a big smile when Dr. Adelman found one that was “brown like him.”

“Michael?” Corey whispered as he picked it up. Nothing. Just hollow wood and a dumb, wide smile. He took it to the couch and dangled it over his lap. It smelled a lot like his school’s arts and crafts markers with faded letters and missing caps. Only Mrs. Wright didn’t let Corey draw during arts and crafts any more, not since Michael died, not since the tub and the red water and his older brother’s dead eyes had made it onto the construction paper. Corey had so much more to draw, like football skins and mousetraps, but Mrs. Wright never gave him the chance and Mom never said anything, so when drawing time came around he just laid his cheek on the cold, wooden table. The puppet smelled a little like that, too.

Corey swept his gaze over the half-dozen kids Mom had invited to his and Alisha’s ninth birthday party, avoiding their eyes. They sat cross-legged, waiting for his show. The cartoon characters on their shirts wore encouraging, excited expressions. The boy who’d called him “retarded” sat right up front. Large and round, he stuffed his face with Corey’s cake. Michael would have stuffed his face with something else.

But Michael was dead.

Off to the side, Alisha and a boy from her special school—the school Corey was “too smart” to attend—lined up her dinosaur toys. The two weren’t playing together, not really. The other boy plucked one of the dinosaurs from the middle of the line to inspect it. Corey’s twin sister didn’t seem to notice.

Corey slipped his hand into the puppet’s back, like he had done many times with the doctor who made him talk about Michael and bathtubs and redness. His breath and stomach squeezed whenever he reached into dark, invisible places. He waited for pain to light his fingertips, like Michael’s favorite game: catch the mousetrap. Sometimes Corey won, and it hurt and it burned, but most times he lost and he only had the wait, the not knowing, the promise that metal teeth or cold, furry rat parts were still under the bed for him to find.

The world went fuzzy. Corey let out his breath and his worry. His fingers found the familiar soft pillows opposite each other. He brought them together; the puppet’s mouth closed. The fear of his wish seemed far away now.

“Hello, Ladies and Gentlerats,” Corey said. The room hushed.

“Hello, Laddies and Paddies,” the puppet said, but really Corey had pushed the words out the side of his mouth, like on television. It made for a voice low and not his own. “Hello, boys and girls. Toys and whirls.”

Patrick laughed louder than the others. He lived three floors below, close enough that Corey could reach him on walkie-talkie just about any time of day. Patrick had a good sense of humor. A Corey sense of humor.

“I just flew in from Vancouver and boy, am I tired! Want to hear a joke?”

“Sure,” Corey said.

“What do you call someone who lets his friend get bullied?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fat-trick.” The puppet's head spun; Corey's wrist cracked and sent a dull line of pain to his fingers. The sharp, sudden smell of grease stung Corey’s nose. “Isn’t that right, Fat-trick?”

The boy who liked to say retarded laughed so hard Corey smelled carrots.

“Don’t call him that,” Corey said to the puppet. “His name is Patrick. His mother gave him that name.”

“It’s either Fat-trick or Titty Monster. Pick one.”

Patrick’s head dipped low and a second later Corey’s walkie-talkie crackled. He kept it with him always, even at night. Patrick did the same.

Falcon.” Crackle. “Come in, Falcon.” Crackle crackle. The vibrations tickled Corey’s hip. “Warthog is going down.

The puppet turned to the audience. “Hey, Fat-trick, get off the phone. McDonald’s doesn’t deliver.” The crackling stopped. “Your friends are making you soft, Corey.”

“Michael,” Corey whispered. The puppet looked at him. “I’m telling Mom.”

“Tell her and I’ll shave Alisha's hair off. And you’ll watch, you weak little shit.”

“Awww,” the carrotcake-stuffing, name-calling kid said. “He said a bad word! Ma! Corey said a bad word!”

The Carrotcake Kid ran around the corner towards the roaring grown-up laughter. His tattletale wails soon drifted up and over. Mom said something Corey couldn’t make out. Patrick was already to the front door. Corey swallowed. His tongue tickled the roof of his mouth. He rubbed his puppet-bound fingers together. His scalp itched. Someone’s watch kept ticking. In between breaths, Corey’s stomach thrummed with the beat of his heart. Onetwothreefourfive, onetwothreefourfive, onetwo …

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” he said, finally.

“To K-I-L-L me,” the puppet said.

“You’re supposed to say why?

“Why? Why did you K-I-L-L me?”

“To get to the other side.”

Instead of laughter, Corey heard Mom call his name. She sounded angry.

“Why?”

“I didn’t kill you,” Corey said. He sniffed. “The knife did.”

The puppet began to shake. The wooden parts of its mouth rattled. A hot pain across Corey’s wrist caused him to pull, but the puppet’s insides had shrunk around his fingers. The whirr of a hairdryer made Corey turn. White lit his fingers with a crack that he felt more than heard. He cried out, yanked his hand free, and the puppet fell to the floor. Lying there, it was light, dead wood. The hair had lost its glisten. It didn’t look like Michael.

When Corey looked up, Alisha stood a foot or two away, staring at the puppet. She bent to pick it up; Corey pulled it back. This was his problem, not hers.

Corey crossed the living room in three steps and stuffed the puppet in a trash bag hanging from a doorknob. He pushed until carrot-smeared plates and paper towels buried it.

“I didn’t mean it,” Corey said to Alisha. She had returned to her line of dinosaurs. Alisha didn’t answer, of course. She hardly ever did any more, not even in the special way she had, not since Michael died. “It’s better with him gone. We’re better.”

Corey Daniel Green!

Whenever Mom said all three of his names, she was angry. He didn’t know exactly what he’d done wrong. Wishing Michael back, the puppet show, scaring away all the other kids Mom hoped would become his friends. The way Michael died. All the things Corey wanted to take back.

 


 

“Corey, you can’t say stuff like that,” Mom said. Everyone had gone home. Lazy balloons with cursive celebrations drifted in the cigarette smoke. Large, fading pieces of artwork Mom sometimes called their ancestors watching over us from across the ocean hung luminous and condescending over the apartment’s disarray. Paper plates, soiled utensils, plastic cups with drinks the colors of the rainbow. Mess upset Mom in the mornings. Still, she likely wouldn’t get to it tonight; she wiped her eyes with the back of the hand holding a brown drink with loud ice.

“Why not?” he asked.

“You just can’t. That boy Patrick’s mom called and said you made him cry. Cry! It’s already hard for you to make friends as it is. This is why—” She stopped herself, shook her head, sipped her drink, and sat back. Corey heard the words all the same. This is why Dad left. This is why Mike left. I’m alone because of you.

“I killed him,” Corey said to an abandoned ash-smudged playing card on the carpet.

“Oh, baby. I’m so sorry you have to go through this.”

Corey pulled away from her hug.

“You miss Mike,” Mom said. “We all miss Mike.”

“I wanted him dead,” Corey said. “It’s better now.”

Mom held up a hand, then put it to her face. She began to sob; her tears smelled like the glass she held.

“He was a good kid,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t know. You’d take it back if you could. I know you would.”

Would he? He’d thought about it the hardest at the funeral, standing there just outside his brother's coffin, so close he could smell the grease they’d used to soften his wild hair before braiding it in tight, thick rows. Corey hadn’t looked at his brother, even as he stuck a hand in the coffin to feel his stiffness, because that’s what he’d heard about the dead, how stiff they were, and he wanted to be sure. He’d looked over, though, expecting something of the same from Alisha, but she was staring right at Michael. In all his life—her life, too—Corey had only seen Alisha look one person in the eye, and that was their older brother. That moment more than any other, Corey would have taken it back.

“He loved you. He loved Alisha, too. He was just such a knucklehead, just like his father.” Her face stretched sideways. As Corey watched, tears pulled at his own eyes. Whatever anger or scorn had prompted his wish had vanished; now there was only fear. The fear of having Michael back. The fear that he wouldn’t be able to send him away again.

Mom hugged him. She understood him less than he did her, but he welcomed the hug. This close she smelled like Mom, not like brown drink.

Corey pulled away, wiped his eyes, and went to his room. Mom had already finished yelling when she found the puppet in the trash bag. She’d quietly taken it out and wiped off the orange streaks and stains. Alisha played with her toy dinosaurs while the puppet sat against the wall.

He took a step forward, paused, reached out to the puppet, pulled his hand back as if his fingers found an invisible flame. Black sparkled at both the puppet's earlobes; they hadn’t been there before.

Mom? No, she kept Michael’s things perfectly in place. Then who? Corey looked back at his sister. When she did things even he couldn’t understand, the world grew and he shrank.

“You were supposed to help,” he said to the puppet. Michael. “You just hurt. You always hurt.”

Nothing. Why couldn’t Michael just leave them alone?

 


 

Corey was almost asleep when a dot of cold pricked his cheek and made a wet line to his ear. He looked up at Alisha’s bunk above him. A small orb swelled between the planks, catching a little bit of light from the hallway. Another drop of water was about to fall when Corey felt the eyes.

Drip.

Mom’s sobs continued to drift from the living room. Michael had cried like that, back when Corey was five and Dad left for good. “Why he don’t want me, man?” Corey hadn’t known the answer, and Corey hadn’t cried. Maybe he should have; after that night, Michael turned mean.

Drip.

Mom in the living room. Eyes on him. Alisha, who never looked at anybody now that Michael was gone. Another drop of water. Eyes on him.

Corey turned, wiping his cheek dry. Alisha was across the room, her back to him. She touched the head of a red, spindly dinosaur to the tail of a green, shaven one, adding to a long line stretching across the room. Beyond her, the puppet sat against the wall, its eyes sparkling more than its ears.

Corey shot up. Crackling white spun his world. Water ran down his face and pooled in his lap. He clutched his forehead as he edged over the bed.

“Did it move?” he said.

“Do you see these horns?” Alisha said, holding up the toy. “These horns make Triceratops the king.”

Corey’s stomach wrenched with Michael-fear. Michael was dead. Corey had seen the bathwater darken with his blood. This puppet was just wood and paint and chicken wire. That twist in his stomach, though, he only ever felt that …

Acorn eyes. They glistened, but did they shine? Maybe.

… when Michael had his hungry look, that you can’t protect her forever look.

“Did you know that Triceratops had three horns?”

“I don’t understand—” Corey began, when Alisha turned and looked at the puppet. His eyes—Michael’s eyes—stared straight back at her.

Corey put the puppet outside the room and closed the door.

 


 

“Warthog, this is Falcon. Come in, Warthog.”

Corey waited. Besides studio audience laughter leaking from Mom’s room, the apartment slept. “Warthog, we’re coming in hot,” he said into the walkie. “We need your guidance. Do you copy?”

Silence. The walkie always woke Patrick up. Always.

“Warthog, we’re sorry.”

Silence. Corey turned in bed, squirmed his shoulder until his skin was comfortable against the cotton, and then found the familiar paper cut-thin line of unbroken light under the door. How many nights had he stared at that line, well past when Mom went to bed, waiting for Michael to break it?

 


 

Mom’s body changed when Corey brought home bad grades. Usually History, English, Science—anything where words could break apart on the page and swim around each other. Sometimes Mom’s eyes would melt; sometimes she shrank a little; sometimes she just sighed and handed the report back to him.

Math was the only thing in school that made sense. No matter how far apart the numbers drifted, he could always link them back together. If he focused.

Today he couldn’t focus. His mind was on those acorn eyes, those black earrings, the memory that it moved, it moved clashing with the knowledge that wooden things don’t move, not by themselves. These thoughts left him vulnerable to the full sensations of the room. The scratch of erasers, the sniff of wet nostrils, the flat of the metal seat against his backside, the whispers of kids cheating, the click-clack of the novice substitute teacher’s broken heel against the floor as she sought, unsuccessfully, to weed them out.

When the math quiz was over, Corey rushed out into the hall.

“Falcon! Corey! Wait up!”

Patrick. He’d been just outside the door. Relief slowed Corey to a walk. He had to look up at Patrick, where a year ago they’d stood level. He was wider than Corey, too, but he’d always been that way. His friend wore a smile. Corey knew the name of the expression, but not all the meanings. A smile could mean joy, or fear, or—as Michael had taught him—menace. Was there one for hate? Corey didn’t know.

Maybe Patrick’s smile was a warning.

“We’re still friends?”

“Why wouldn’t we be? What I do?”

“You weren’t on the walkie last night.”

“I was asleep. Did I miss anything?”

“I said some pretty mean stuff.” Fat-trick. Titty Monster.

“It wasn’t you.”

“It wasn’t?” Corey said. It had felt like him. Once, Corey rode in Uncle Junior’s front seat on the highway, even though Mom had told Uncle Junior to put him in the back but Uncle Junior didn't listen because Uncle Junior did whatever the fuck he wanted, and Corey had pumped his arms and bicycled his feet and it had felt like he was running, faster than anyone had ever run, and passing joggers—sweating, suffering joggers, going so slow—made him feel like the most powerful thing in the world. His words, coming out of the puppet, had power; they made Patrick change. Not a good change, but a change. That’s how Michael must have felt most of the time. Corey knew that now. It gave him a headache.

“The puppet said it. Wait, did you give it a name?”

“It’s for therapy. It doesn’t have a name.”

“Mr. Wiggles, then. It’s Mr. Wiggles’s fault.”

“That’s a dumb name.”

“Duh. Dumb ’cus he sounded like your brother. Your dead brother, I mean.”

“I only have a dead brother. And he wasn’t a puppet. You sure you’re not mad at me?”

Patrick patted him on the shoulder. “Mister. Wiggles.”

“Thanks,” Corey said.

“Yeah, yeah.” They stopped at a water fountain, but it didn’t work. “Are you going to get rid of it?”

“I want to. It’s supposed to make me feel better.”

“Does it?”

Corey thought about that Michael feeling, even as his head continued to softly throb. “I don’t know.”

They stopped outside Corey’s homeroom. Patrick was in Mrs. Koenig’s third-grade class right across the hall.

“How was the quiz? What are the answers?” Patrick held a pen against his palm.

The numbers floated by in a beautiful matrix. “Thirty-five. Seven. Six hundred. Zero. Eighty-five.”

“Slow down, Speedy.” Patrick said. “Say it again.”

 


 

After a cereal breakfast, Corey leaned on the wall by the door. Last night’s sleep had played a grueling game of hide and seek, and when it finally tagged him, the thought of Michael’s voice coming out of the puppet took its place. The living room’s mosaic of potted ferns and painted landscapes hanging like windows into a luxuriously unobtainable past were heavy around him. Mom stuffed papers, cards, and scraps of money into her green, scaly purse. She reached into the pocket of her hanging raincoat, pulled out a balled up hair net, and stuffed that in, too.

“Don’t forget to do your therapy today.”

Insurance kept Corey from seeing Dr. Adelman every week, so home therapy consisted of Corey pretending the puppet was Michael. Therapy was the opposite of math. It made no sense; Michael was dead and the puppet had never been alive. Mom was supposed to help, but she was already clipping her hospital ID to her cafeteria uniform. She yawned, long and painful. Her eyes were red. Had sleep taunted her, too?

“With you?” Corey said, despite knowing the answer.

“You know I have to work, Corey. Give Alisha some time with it, too. She loves that puppet.”

“She hates it.”

“Let her decide. She might surprise you. Just spend some time, okay?” She paused to look up at and then past him. “Have you been watching Mike’s TV?”

“No.”

“I don’t like it when you lie, Corey. No going into his room when I’m not here. You know better.” Mom looked at her phone, cursed, and opened the door. She turned back and held up a finger.

“Number one rule?” she said.

“Don’t open the door for anyone,” Corey said. “Even you.”

“Good. Number two?”

“Watch Alisha.”

Mom kissed his forehead. The cold of her lipstick made Corey squirm inside because squirming outside would chase away Mom’s smile, and he liked her better when she kept it close. He pressed the tips of his fingers together as he waited for the door to close. When she was gone, he wiped his sleeve across his forehead. He wiped and wiped and wiped until a deep, building itch gave way to relief.

Then he went to find his sister.

Alisha was bouncing the velociraptor on Mr. Wiggles’s head, the puppet’s short, tight curls acting as foliage. Her velociraptors didn’t sound like the ones on television, but Corey had never heard a real velociraptor and Alisha knew things he couldn’t know. Mr. Wiggles stared straight ahead, seemingly fascinated with the toy chest against the opposite wall.

“Would you have stayed if Dad stayed?” Silence. “Mom hates me. Because of you.”

It didn’t feel like talking to Michael any more. Corey turned away as tears burned his eyes. What had he been expecting? An answer? Some truth?

The puppet fell forward to kiss the floor. Corey rose and stepped back. Alisha bent to continue bouncing the velociraptor on top of his head, then moved down his spine. The plastic dinosaur dipped under the puppet’s white shirt. Alisha's arm began to disappear.

“Don’t do that,” Corey said. He thought of the catch-the-mousetrap game. Once, Corey had refused to play, so Alisha took his place. Although she’d won, she hadn’t cried. She walked around the apartment for the next week, hitting her fingers on the edges of things, over and over and over, until they were raw red. Michael’s laughter was short-lived. He wore rather the look of a worried child who has likely broken his favorite toy. Corey had slept with Dad’s switchblade after that.

Corey grabbed Mr. Wiggles by the sleeve, pulled, and almost tripped from the thing’s weight.

“It’s time for a puppet diet,” he said. Patrick would have liked the joke, but Patrick wasn’t there. He considered going to find his walkie-talkie but chose focus. He dragged the puppet out into the living room, moved a pile of magazines and unsorted mail out of the way, opened the closet of stored winter coats and toolboxes and bags of nails and Christmas lights, and stuffed Mr. Wiggles inside. Corey wiped his eyes. Had the wood been softer? Heavier?

Almost … warm?

He moved to close the door and paused. Mr. Wiggles’s sleeves had scrunched up; hair-thin cracks lined the puppet's forearms. Corey had spied Michael carving lines into his own arm once and tried it himself, but he must have done it wrong because it hurt and the result made Mom scream. Michael kept carving and carving after that; Corey never got the courage to try again. Soon Michael could only wear long sleeves because short sleeves made Mom cry. Even worse, she thought Michael got the idea from Corey.

He looked over his shoulder, past these memories, and back to the window. They lived on the fifth floor. One two three four five. It was a long way down. If Corey pushed hard enough, Mr. Wiggles would land in the street. Corey could see it clear in his mind.

His heart raced. Why did you K-I-L-L me?

He’d panicked. If he got rid of his brother without water and rage and fear, then what?

Corey closed the door. Back in their room, Alisha was crying.

“It’s better without him,” Corey said. He sat across from his sister and picked up a pterodactyl. His fingertip brushed the dull plastic beak once, twice. The winged dinosaur dove to knock over the middle of Alisha’s line. Exactly three dinosaurs remained standing on each side. Corey smiled.

Alisha smiled, too, in that way she did without moving her lips. Of her spent tears, two remained, one slightly further down her face than the other. Corey imagined a dino-slide out of the invisible diagonal line connecting the two. He brought the pterodactyl up and flew it parallel to this line. Alisha laughed without looking. It was nice to hear her laugh again.

She reached into her dinosaur jar and produced a Tyrannosaurus rex. She looked at it sideways, then placed it down.

Corey pointed to the dinosaur. “Michael’s gone,” he said. Air pushed his tongue apart from his palate as he said different parts of both words. He silently repeated the movement a couple more times, the air tickling the back of his tongue.

Alisha roared. Corey had never heard a real life T-rex roar, either. He liked hers. He touched her arm; she was warm where he felt cold. The small hairs just below her wrist curled up and tickled the side of his pinky, making his own hairs stand.

“Michael’s gone,” Corey said again. “Sometimes, I think he shouldn’t be.” Sometimes.

Alisha slipped her hand from under his, pinched his wrist, and made his palm tap the Apatosaurus's backside. She pushed his fingers closed and he picked it up.

She roared. And roared. And roared. Corey dropped the dinosaur—threw it. Alisha continued to roar until flecks of spit flew from her mouth.

Corey looked at the door. Someone had let the dark in. He wished he’d turned on the hallway light while the sun was still out. Now it belonged to the shadows. He imagined Mr. Wiggles or Michael—it didn’t really matter which—standing hidden there, his earrings reflecting black light, silently roaring like the Tyrannosaurus he was, or had been, or still wanted to be.

He wrapped his arms around Alisha’s waist. Her breath and heartbeat synced with his. This was normal. He expected it like he expected a sidewalk bordered by choked, yellow grass when he walked outside their apartment building, expected two uniting numbers to form the same new one every time. With Alisha, consistency was the rule.

They rocked until their breaths slowed, until their hearts beat to the rhythm of a slow song. He imagined they had been similar in Mom’s belly, where there was just sleep and heartbeats. Corey swallowed, tasting himself, and felt his heart slow as the aching in his hand faded.

Then he slept.

 


 

Cold. Bone cold.

Keys jingled. Fine carpet needles itched. Drool stained both arm and nostril. Wet stung at thighs and crotch. Ammonia. A door opened, a sigh, a door closed.

Corey awoke slowly, remembered, and sat up. Someone had let in the dark.

“Alisha?” he said.

He was alone.

Corey jumped up and sprang out of the room. His foot burst through the pile of magazines he'd moved, and sent them sprawling. He swung open the closet door.

“Corey! You scared me!” Mom’s voice.

He ignored her. Mr. Wiggles was gone.

“Why are you up so late?” Mom said. “And, Corey, you wet your pants? You’re nine now. Jesus, boy!” She shook her head as she drifted from the front door over and onto the couch. She pulled her hands down her face and looked over her fingers at him. She smiled the type of smile Corey knew meant something opposite of happiness. It matched the smell of hospital meat and subway sweat.

“I fell asleep,” Corey said, pleading with Mom. Only she didn’t know it. He could see it in the way her eyes narrowed, the tilt of her head, the constant reminder that they were of two different worlds. He tried to use his words, but sometimes his words weren’t the same as everyone else’s words; when that happened words didn't help anybody. “I fell asleep! I fell asleep, I fell asleep, Ifellasleep!

Mom held up a hand. “What’s that noise?” she said. He heard it, too. He’d felt it before he woke up, because, somewhere, Alisha felt it. It was the sound of running water. “Where’s your sister?”

“I fell asleep!” Corey said.

“Oh, Lord,” Mom said. She rose quick enough to send Corey stumbling, but he caught himself and hurried after her, into the hall’s shadows, around the corner to the bathroom.

Mr. Wiggles sat outside the door, a dark shadow covering his small chest. Just before Mom swept him aside, Corey thought he saw the golden brown chin fall. The shadow disconnected and bounced noisily down the hall.

“Alisha! Alisha!” Mom jiggled the handle. Locked. “Open the door. The key. Where's the key?”

Muffled sobs. The door blurred; Corey blinked down his tears, which pushed heavy on his cheeks.

Mom yanked Corey’s arm. “Tell her to open the door!”

Corey couldn’t tell Alisha to open the door, not like this. He opened his mouth to explain but all that came out was, “I fell asleep!

Mom rushed away. Corey moved towards the bathroom. The sound of water faded. He touched the wood. It was warm.

Mom came back with the key. She kept missing the slit in the doorknob. Corey gently took it away from her. The metal was cold and hard and felt different in his fingers. He slid it into the lock.

“Hurry up!” Mom said. He did.

Alisha sat in the middle of the tiled bathroom floor, her head jackhammered between her hands, rocking back and forth. Tears sparkled her cheeks under the light, like porcelain. She wailed, long and high, until she had to gasp for breath, then wailed more. Dad’s pocketknife lay along thin lines of blood beside her. Water began to slick over and down the sides of the tub.

In seconds Alisha had her arms wrapped around Mom’s neck, hands pressed back against her own ears. Mom turned off the water, and they were gone.

Corey walked up to the knife. He hadn’t seen it since the day Michael died. He tried to pick it up, but it burned his fingers. His hand ached as he went out into the hall and found Michael’s basketball. He hadn’t been able to make it out sitting in Mr. Wiggles's lap in the dark, but under the wan light of the hallway he could see the faded Spalding brand and a nickel-sized splash of white from when it had bounced into the street and his older brother made him crawl under an old, leaking pickup truck to retrieve it. Part of Michael’s things, it belonged in his room with all the rest, hidden and forgotten.

The puppet lay sprawled a few feet away, one arm forward, the other twisted back, cheek to the floor. He was in just the right position to have one eye on the bathroom. Wisps of his hair flattened against the cracked, black-scarred wood, some long enough to curl onto themselves more than once. Something caught the light. Corey dared a step forward, kneeled down, and picked it up. A button. T-shirts didn’t have buttons. He looked at Mr. Wiggles, but the puppet was mostly on his stomach, and the shirt looked white. Unchanged.

Corey ran to Michael’s room, and paused. The door was open. Dull light flashed inside. The smell of cigarette smoke floated along the beat of high-pitched, muffled voices. He recognized one of them from South Park, Michael’s favorite show. A laugh cut the air—Michael’s laugh. Corey looked back at the puppet. How long had that awful grin been there?

Corey threw the basketball as hard as he could through the gap that wasn’t supposed to be a gap because Michael was dead and his door stayed closed and dead people don’t smoke and dead people surely don’t watch television. Something shattered, but Corey was already running away. From the room, from that wooden smile angled against the floor. He didn’t stop until he was at the hallway light switch. He flipped it down, waited, and felt some relief.

The dark, and whatever it might bring, was safer than having that smile on him.

 


 

Mom fumed into the living room after Alisha finally fell asleep. Her cries had been long, broken, and stopped without signal. Blood stained Mom’s uniform. She sat at the table with a glass of amber liquid, ice clinking inside. Each clink needled Corey’s side.

“Come here,” Mom said.

Corey sat in the chair next to her. His feet dangled beneath him. He rubbed his fingers together.

“What happened?” she said.

“I fell asleep,” he said.

“How did your sister get locked in the bathroom?”

Corey thought about it. With math, he found solutions for combinations of two new numbers by looking at the dance of other familiar numbers. Michael had locked Alisha in the bathroom before. He was supposed to blow-dry her hair while Mom was at work, but he wanted to play basketball. They had yelled about it and many other things, including Michael dropping out of school, why Dad left, and the new mountain-like scars erupting along his arms. In the end Mom had won because she was Mom. Corey dedicated a close eye to his sister but he lost a Michael-game and by the time he made it back into the apartment, it was too late. He grabbed Dad’s knife and assaulted the bathroom door with his fist. Bang! Alisha! Bang! Mike! Bang! He couldn’t find a key, and banging wasn’t helping, so he shoved the blade into the side of the door like he’d seen in a movie, and when he finally got in Michael was standing over the tub, one hand on the curtain, the other wielding the blow dryer. Alisha thrashed face-up, fully submerged in the filling water. Every time she came up, Michael gave her hot air straight to the face. Back under. Corey didn’t think; he lunged. Michael turned around just in time to move out of the way. But Corey wanted him to pay. Even as Alisha scrambled out of the now overflowing tub, he needed his brother to pay. Corey, chill, I'm just goof—Shit! Dad’s knife sliced Michael’s thigh. His brother grabbed at it, missed, and Corey stuck the blade again. It folded backward; a line of fire fell over his own fingers. But only Michael yelled. Then Corey’s world went all red and blue and black, spreading from hot pain in his nose. When he could see again, Michael held the blade in one hand and wore Corey’s blood on the other. Corey remembered yelling something, something so bad that when the colors cleared on the other side of it, Michael had the blade against his own wrist. You want me gone so bad? I’ll do it, you know I will. And Michael did. He dragged the knife across his wrist. Corey was supposed to call a number and the police would come and Michael would go away and get better, like last time. But something in the red dripping from his brother’s wrist into the water inspired an alien rage in Corey. He didn’t want it to be like last time. Didn’t want there to be another time. The rage propelled him forward and Michael fell back into the bathtub. You little shit! You little shit! Corey ran out into the hall, closed the bathroom door, and waited. He waited for angry splashing to give way to the sound of wet footsteps, a string of curses, something to forewarn him of approaching repercussions. What came instead was distant, muffled crying. Somehow that was worse than the promise of more black and blue pain, worse than the thought of his brother dying, because Michael needed help and Corey didn’t know how to help him. Didn’t know if he wanted to help him. Why wasn’t he getting the phone? Why wasn’t he doing something? He didn’t know. The sobbing stopped, eventually. Cool touched his toes, soaked his socks; dark water crept into the hall. Corey creaked the door open. Time slowed. Michael lay back in overflowing pink water. Not asleep, no. His eyes were open. Glass. Corey sloshed over and turned off the water because it was the only thing he could think to do. Then he closed the door and went to find his sister. He held onto Alisha until Mom’s screams filled his ears, and then he held her tighter.

Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten into the bathroom. Maybe Alisha would be dead instead of Michael. Maybe they’d both be alive. Maybes were hard for Corey. They weren’t like numbers.

“What happened?” Mom asked again.

“I don’t know,” he said. Mr. Wiggles.

“Corey, I’m going to ask you again and I want an answer. How did Alisha get locked in the bathroom? She couldn’t have done it herself.”

“Maybe Mr. Wiggles—”

She slapped him. “Don’t lie to me.”

Corey tightened his face. If he cried, Alisha would cry, and that was the last thing he wanted. His breaths were quick, hard pats that whistled out his nose.

“Don’t ever do that again.” Mom pulled him in for a hug. “Ever. Ever. Ever.” She burst into tears.

 


 

Corey dreamed as Alisha spoke. His nightmares had gone down since Michael died, but they still came. He woke in a sweat. Dreams were only memories that weren’t true. Corey would have gone back to sleep if not for Alisha being awake. He knew this the same way he knew the sun was out without having to look up at it.

“It’s Michael,” she said.

“Where?” Corey asked. He waited, staring at the underside of her bed. He repeated the word, over and over, its whistling sound swirling into the wood above him, making pictures. He was almost back to sleep when he heard a thumping sound. His body remembered it before he fully could. His buttcheeks squeezed together. It was the sound of a flat basketball hitting the wood.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

He turned to the door.

The line of light—his line of comfort, of safety—was split in two.

“Mom?” Corey said. The answer that came wasn’t Mom. Cartman, Stan, and Kyle, paper voices rising in static. Laughter rose between them. The splash of shadow under the door quivered.

Corey closed his eyes. A dream. Had to be.

“Alisha?” he said.

“It’s Michael,” Alisha said.

Drip.

“Stop!” Corey yelled. Quiet now. No television. No laughter. No basketball. Just the sound of his own breath. The line of light was whole.

“It’s Michael,” Corey agreed. That was clear. Now, what was he going to do about it?

 


 

While Mom got ready for work, Corey hauled the ever-thickening Mr. Wiggles into the closet. The cracks on the puppet’s arms had blossomed into moist chasms. The day’s heat conquered their apartment’s one window air conditioner; by the time he’d leaned a chair under the handle, his face itched with sweat and his back throbbed like a heartbeat. He waited, put his ear up to the door, and when there was nothing, walked away. He stopped by Michael’s room. The door was open just enough for Corey to put his hand through if he wanted. A warm breeze touched his cheek. It smelled of cigarette smoke. The black inside was complete, but he could still see his brother’s room in his mind all the same. Videogame cords, basketball shoes, the old television, the intricate puzzles Michael had assembled with Corey back before Dad left, back before things got complicated.

Corey crossed the hallway to the bathroom, found the hair dryer stowed away under the sink, and came back to Michael’s door. Mom never knew the role it had played. She had never asked. Corey threw it into the dark, grabbed the knob, and pulled. A sharp, dreadful whir rose from the black as angry cigarette air pushed against the other side of the door. Lights flashed against the static-chopped voices of excited cartoon characters. Corey grunted, dug his feet into the floorboards, and yanked.

“No more, Michael,” Corey said when the latch clicked closed. “No more.”

The doorbell rang. Even still, Corey waited. He waited until the last of the Michael-room sounds faded away. It wasn’t hard to wait. He had the numbers in his head, always adding together to something else.

 


 

“You sure you don’t want them downstairs?” Patrick’s mother stood a head taller than Corey’s. She was wider than Patrick, but not as wide as the kids at school said.

“Alisha … doesn’t take to new places,” Mom said.

“Patrick, you come right downstairs if you need me. Otherwise, have fun and respect Ms. Green’s house.”

“The boys will be fine.” Mom smiled big and bent her knees. She pulled down the sleeves of her sweater as she spoke to Patrick. “We have two rules. First, watch Alisha—”

“I watch Alisha,” Corey said. They all turned at the same time. Patrick’s mother’s face twisted. Patrick waved so hard his Spider-Man backpack looked like it was shaking its Spidey head. Corey almost waved back.

“You both,” Mom said, carefully. “You both do. It’ll be nice to have a friend over while I’m gone tonight, right, Corey?”

“A babysitter,” Corey said.

“A friend. Patrick’s your friend.”

Mom came over and kissed his forehead. He didn’t resist wiping. It chased Mom’s smile away, like he knew it would, but he couldn’t care because he watched Alisha and Mom knew that. A piece of her smile came back when she turned back to Patrick’s mother, but it wasn’t the same.

“Be good, boys,” she said and opened the door.

“What’s the second rule?” Patrick said.

“Don’t open the door for anyone,” Corey said.

“Except me,” Patrick’s mother said. And then, as she and Mom left together, “You going to be okay with that sweater? It’s hot as all get-out.”

“Freezing in the hospital, though. And it’s cute, ain’t it?”

“I watch Alisha,” Corey said again when the door was closed. He turned to his friend with a look he hoped was serious. Even when Michael was alive and Mom left him in charge, Corey watched over Alisha. He’d messed up, he knew, but still wasn’t quite sure how.

Patrick lifted his hands. “I know. I thought I was just here to sleep over.”

“Mom thinks I’m like Michael.”

“Are you?”

“No. You bring the knife?”

“Oh.” Patrick dug a white-handled knife from his backpack. It was twice as big as the other.

“I said a small knife.”

“Only one I could find. What’s it for?”

“We’re getting rid of Mr. Wiggles. We’ll call it Operation Trashcan.”

“I like it.” Fear touched Patrick’s eyes. “Are … both of us doing Operation Trashcan?”

“Yes. Come on.”

They went over and removed the protective chair from in front of the closet. Corey grabbed the doorknob, ignored its warmth, and was about to pull when Patrick’s fingers dug into his arm.

“Are we going to get into trouble?”

“I don’t know.”

Patrick let go. Corey opened the door.

“You changed its clothes?” Patrick said. Instead of a T-shirt and jeans, Mr. Wiggles wore a collared button-down and black dress pants. This made sense to Corey but puzzled his friend. Why? He searched his memory, found it. Patrick hadn’t been to Michael’s funeral.

“No,” Corey said. He slipped the knife into his pocket, careful not to stick himself with the blade. “You get the legs. I'll get the arms.”

Patrick looked at him sideways, bent over, grabbed one of Mr. Wiggles's legs, pulled, and nearly fell forward. When his friend looked back up, his eyes were wide.

“Yeah,” Corey said. “We have to deal with it.”

The heartbeat ache returned to Corey’s back as they dragged Mr. Wiggles out legs first. Patrick’s eyes burned the side of his face. Corey didn’t have to look to know his friend’s fear; he felt it, too. Heat pulsed through Mr. Wiggles’s cotton pants. The wood beneath had gone soft and thick. The puppet’s head thumped out of the closet and onto the floor, sending a vibration up Corey’s legs.

Corey squatted down and reached his arms under Mr. Wiggles’s armpits. Patrick took his feet. When they lifted him, the middle of his body curved down in a U.

“He smells like gym class,” Patrick said.

Mr. Wiggles’s cheek brushed against Corey’s as he tried to get a better grip. He flinched away but the stinging stubble had already hooked a memory. Michael had been trying to teach him how to shoot a basketball so the boys at the normal school would see him as more than a punching bag. Frustrated, Michael passed the ball so hard Corey’s fingers hurt for a week. Corey didn’t cry, not then, but rather turned to the basket and forgot what his brother taught about lining up the ball or pushing off with his right hand. He instead watched the ball and the rim and his hand like only he knew how and let the quiet part of himself take. The ball went in. Michael hugged him. A real hug, like back before Dad left. Not a fake hug, or a dangerous hug, but the type of hug that made finger pain go away. Michael had just started growing a beard. Its prickle was warm and scary and tipped with love.

Halfway out the door, Patrick dropped Mr. Wiggles.

“He looked at me,” Patrick said. “I swear, he looked at me.”

“Pick him up,” Corey whispered. He looked over his shoulder. Had Alisha heard? “Come on. Please.”

They carried Mr. Wiggles out into the apartment building hallway. His back rested against Corey's leg as they waited for the elevator. They laid him inside.

“Where’s the knife?” Patrick said. His eyes were as wide and as deep as his breathing.

Corey checked under his arm. Not there. “I’ll be right back.” He turned before Patrick could respond, ran across the short hallway to his front door. There it was, resting on the welcome mat. His heart slowed a little as soon as his fingers touched the handle.

Patrick screamed.

Corey whirled around. His friend had fallen against the elevator wall. A dark line fell down the side of his head, like a tear. A black ashtray rolled across the floor. Mr. Wiggles sat upright, firmly holding one end of Michael’s silver chain, the other wrapped tight around Patrick's wrist. He turned his head. Teeth that hadn’t been there before shone through the puppet’s wide, wild smile. As the old metal doors slid closed, Mr. Wiggles turned back to Patrick.

Corey crawled, ran, stumbled to the elevator. He banged the flat of the knife against the metal. “Patrick! Patrick!” The water, was it running? No. That was another time. Another failure. He didn’t have to fail again. He forced himself to step back, take deep breaths. Think.

He ran down the stairs. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight, Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight, twofoursixeight, three flights. When he got to the bottom the elevator gears were still grinding inside the walls.

“Patrick!”

Patrick’s own yells grew louder and louder as the elevator came to a stop. What would he see? Mr. Wiggles—Michael—hitting Patrick with the ashtray, over and over again, until his face was all red? Or Patrick sitting on the puppet’s lap, a wooden hand extending into his back, making his lifeless jaw work as his eyes rolled back …

The doors opened to Patrick’s black moon eyes. Michael’s chain tied his wrist to the elevator banister. His yells solidified into words: “He got back off!”

Corey’s hand ached.

He ran up the stairs, two, three at a time, so fast that the counting part of his mind couldn’t keep up. Falling, shin against metal, the cold railing burning the palm of his hand, pulling up and up and up …

Their front door yawned open. Corey flew to Michael’s room.

Alisha sat in the middle, playing with her dinosaurs. Mr. Wiggles stood behind her, combing her hair with Michael’s yellow pick. He stood as tall as Corey now, if not taller. He turned his head, continuing to lace the pick through Alisha’s thick curls. The puppet’s own hair was half braided, half wild. He wore a black suit jacket—Corey recognized the yellow flower in the pocket from the funeral—but no tie.

“Core-eee.” Mr. Wiggles’s mouth flapped like a cow chewing grass. Somewhere in the black, Corey thought he saw a tongue trying to figure out how to work.

Corey lunged at him, knife raised. The thing smiled its cow smile even as Corey flew through the air. Contact. Pain entered his shoulder and spread, fire-like. It felt like trying to tackle a tree. He fell back, dizzy and empty-handed. Mr. Wiggles, unshaken, stood over him.

“Tuffen up, Core-ee,” Mr. Wiggles said. He grabbed Corey’s neck. Mr. Wiggles’s blood might have already begun to run hot, but his fingers remained cold. They clamped down.

The world went red. Then gray. Corey scratched at Mr. Wiggles—at Michael—scratched until his nails splintered against both wood and flesh alike, thrashed against the hate he’d collected for his brother, a hate planted in the disdainful way Michael looked at his sister, germinated in his games, and ripened by the knowledge he’d won even in death. Because of him, their lives would forever be miserable.

Color came back. The pressure left his neck. His buttocks hurt. He was on the floor. Mr. Wiggles hovered there, eyes wide, unbelieving.

Behind him, Alisha stood, one hand floating a dinosaur across the air, another lodged into the puppet’s back.

“Alisha,” Corey said. He shook his head, tried to regain thought. “Your hand, Alisha, your hand. Get it out.”

“She's good, bro,” Alisha said. Only it wasn’t Alisha. The words came from her mouth, but they were somehow lower. Older. Mr. Wiggles’s jaw mimicked them. “She’s with her brother now.”

“That was my wish. Not hers. She hates you.”

“She wished me here because you’re shit without me. You both blew out the candles. You both need me.”

“No, we don’t.” He knew now why he’d wished Michael back. It wasn’t to beat up a kid for calling him a name. It was because talking to painted wood and a fake smile only made his skin warm. He wanted that puppet to be Michael, so that he could say what he hadn’t found the courage to tell him in life. “I wanted you gone. Everything was harder with you.”

Corey scooted backwards. If he was going to get up, he’d need more room. He looked around. Michael’s basketball sat idly in the corner. One of Michael’s trophies—the last before Dad left—stood tall on his dresser. The hair dryer lay plugged up near his video game system. Patrick’s knife was lost.

“You never liked us,” Corey said. “You wished we weren’t born. Dad left because of us, remember?” Michael had said this so often it had become one of those truths Corey didn’t think to question.

“He did, and I hated him for that. Who took care of you after, huh? Me.”

“You tortured us. You tortured Alisha.”

“I helped Alisha! Every time I tried to be her big brother, you acted like her savior. I made her stronger and you killed me for it.”

“I didn’t kill you.”

“You did, you little shit! You let me bleed out. Your own brother.”

“Shut up,” Alisha said, this time in her own voice. Mr. Wiggles’s head turned towards her. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

“Alisha,” Corey began. He had to get her to take her hand out of Mr. Wiggles.

“Listen,” she said to Corey, drawing out the last syllable. She turned to Mr. Wiggles and repeated the word. “Listeeeen.”

“Okay,” Corey said. “Okay. I’m listening.”

“I loved you, Michael. Corey loved you. You loved us.” But. The lingering but made the room smaller. “You left us. Like Dad.”

“I didn’t—” Michael’s voice was different. “I was teaching Corey a lesson, but he left me there. He should have called 9-1-1. He did it.”

“No,” Alisha said. “You left. You did. You’re better dead.”

Mr. Wiggles’s head turned towards their sister, his jaw hanging open. Alisha’s dinosaur floated through the air in diagonals.

“You helped us, but you hurt us, too. Don’t hurt us any more.”

“I won’t, Alisha. Corey. I promise I won’t. What can I do?”

“Go away.”

With this said, Alisha pulled her hand from the puppet’s back and moved away to fly her wingless dinosaur around the room. By the time Mr. Wiggles turned back forward, Corey was in a wide stance like in the movies, pointing the hair dryer at his dead brother. His imagination had no answer for what might happen when he turned on the power, but the apparent fear in those glistening, wooden eyes was enough encouragement.

And then Mr. Wiggles did something Corey didn’t expect. His bronze face distorted. Lines split in the wood where the transition to flesh was incomplete. His knees buckled. A low hiccupy whir rose from his mouth.

Michael was crying.

“Why …” Michael said, through his wooden sobs. “Why no one want me, man?”

Corey had heard this cry before, when Dad left. He hadn’t known what to say or do. His brother’s tears weren’t from falling down or not getting his way. The hurt was there to stay; how could words fix that? So he’d stood there as his older brother wet his palms with tears.

He wouldn’t stand by silent again.

Corey lowered the blow dryer, took two long strides, and hugged his brother. Michael’s skin was still hard in places and the puppet was skinnier than Michael had ever been. But the scratch of stubble against Corey’s cheek erased any doubt.

“I love you,” Corey said, and he meant it.

Michael hugged him back. “I love you, too, bro. I’m sorry I left. I just …”

“I know.”

Corey stepped away and raised the blow dryer again. He forced himself to look in Michael’s eyes. Hazel. Sad. Understanding.

Corey flipped the switch. Michael let out a single grunt that could have been outside branches scratching against the apartment. Mr. Wiggles shrank. Shine spread across its hardening skin. Teeth slid back into their holes. The buttons disappeared; the black suit melted and faded into the white T-shirt of before.

The last thing to go was the eyes. Corey never got to see them change.

A guttural, high-pitched wail cut the room. Corey turned to see Patrick run at a full sprint through Michael’s door, across his carpet, and throw his shoulder smack in the middle of the puppet’s chest.

Mr. Wiggles sprawled through the air as if made of paper. Wood clicked and cracked against the far wall and crumpled to the ground in a misshapen heap. Corey tossed the hair dryer aside and rushed over. Any sign of Michael was gone. Just Mr. Wiggles. Just a pile of wood and paint.

“Did I get him?” Patrick said.

 


 

Things happened quickly after Michael left again. Mom came into the kitchen as they tried to find mattress bags to clean up all the mess in Mr. Wiggles’s wake. Her talking turned loud and fast when she saw the blood on Patrick’s face. Corey couldn’t remember all he’d said, how much he’d told, but it had been enough to land him in Day Glow Psychiatric Hospital.

The young doctors there asked him the same things every day. If he was hearing voices, seeing things, or had any thoughts of wanting to hurt himself or anybody else. One asked him about Dad leaving, then Michael leaving, and if he had any thoughts of leaving himself. Not any more, he’d said. Corey wasn’t the best at reading expressions, and he couldn’t tell if they liked his answers or not. They sent him home after a week, and life went on.

Mom got rid of the puppet and the therapist. He heard her tell people on the phone that it made things better. He didn’t tell her otherwise.

Corey still saw Michael, sometimes. In dolls, passing faces, photographs, even in his sister. Sometimes in the rare moments of silence in his house, he could hear faint laughter, the buzz of an old television, and the smell of smoke. It never lasted; just long enough to cause Corey’s hand to ache.

“Is Michael here?” he asked Alisha one day before he could stop himself. A faint, familiar laugh had come and gone like a breeze. The babysitter—someone old enough that Mom needed to pay her—slept in the living room.

Alisha didn’t look up from her line of toy monster trucks. Corey couldn’t remember when she had stopped playing with dinosaurs. As long as she was happy, that was okay with him.

“Yes,” she said.

Corey nodded. She was right. And that was okay, too.



Justin C. Key is a speculative fiction writer and psychiatrist. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionCrossed Genres, and KYSO Flash. When he's not writing, working in the hospital, or exploring Los Angeles with his wife, he's chasing after his two young (and energetic!) sons. You can follow his journey at justinckey.com and @JustinKey_MD on Twitter.
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