“Although I have a younger sister, I’ve always felt more like a single child, since we were never very close. Ever since I was little I wondered what it would be like to have an older brother who could be a constant companion like I never had, and maybe beat up bullies and things. I think a lot of kids secret hope for a guardian angel. Someone more devoted to them than their own parents. This story is my take on how that might play out in reality.”
by Evan Marcroft
I was seven when I first met my big brother. It was five minutes after school let out, and Jason Bigmore and his fourth-grade friends had caught me before I could make it out of school grounds. This was a game we played most every day—sometimes I won, but this time around, two of them held me down by the arms while Jason smushed my face into the black dirt beneath the dead old oak tree out by the baseball diamond. They called me the usual names and told me to stick your tongue out, pussy willow. They wanted me to lick the anthill—they called it eating hot sauce—and if I didn’t, they’d let those hungry red ants crawl into my ears and sting my brain. I didn’t know they couldn’t do that then, so mostly I just cried, being seven and all, and they laughed and laughed.
The difference between kids and adults is that adults want years in advance, where kids only want what the moment demands, and they want it with everything they have.
Right then, I wanted help.
Suddenly—a wet, meaty crack. The weight abruptly left my neck. I rolled over and saw Jason’s two goons bolting in opposite directions. Jason Bigmore was flat on the ground, the back of his head an explosion of blood. Another boy stood over him holding a Worth Bat Company aluminum baseball bat with a dent in the middle. There was hair curling up over the tops of his grass-stained socks, and he had knuckles on him the size of jawbreakers. He was big everywhere, tall enough to splinter the sun into a hundred blinding rays, and thick—not a fat kid like I was then, but hard in the belly and the arms. He had to be at least twelve, I remember thinking; that was ancient, back then.
The kid offered me a paw as leathered as a worn-out baseball mitt. I shrunk back at first—Jason looked like he was hurt really bad, wasn’t moving or anything. Then I saw that way up at the peak of him the kid had a pushed-in nose like a pug dog and a big, warm, crooked grin beneath it. “Don’t worry, little bro,” he said, squatting to clap me on the shoulder. “Your big brother is always looking out for you. Let’s get out of here, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. That was the first I could remember another kid being nice to me. We’re all told as children not to talk to strangers, but this kid didn’t feel like a stranger at all.
He walked me home, him swinging his bat at imaginary curveballs and telling me about how great practice went earlier. He told me a joke about a man from somewhere called Nantucket that made me laugh until I forgot about my ant stings. He promised to come running whenever someone gave me trouble. Nobody’ll mess with you on my watch.
From my stoop I watched him saunter on down the block until he turned the corner, out of sight.
Mom had started on dinner by the time I got home. “You’re late,” she said, a little worried, when she saw me coming in through the kitchen door. “And you’re a mess. Did something happen?”
“I fell off the monkey bars,” I said. I didn’t know at the time that I’d never have to worry about Jason again. “It’s okay. Big brother walked me home.”
“You don’t have a big brother,” she said, using the same voice she used to scoff at the comic books I’d buy with my allowance.
I didn’t push the subject. It was nice knowing more than she did for once.
It was almost one year before I saw my big brother again. By then I’d almost forgotten I had one. Nobody from school had seen him except Jason and his friends. Jason was still in the hospital, they said, and he wasn’t waking up any time soon. His friends, Buck and Ernie, never came back to school. I’d told the police as much as I knew, which was that my big brother had done it, but they ascertained that no such person existed. It must have been some school intruder, and twelve months later I’d started to wonder if they weren’t wrong.
Then one Friday afternoon as I walking home from school, the rottweiler in my neighbor’s yard next door finally got loose. It had only been a matter of time; I’d been passing it every day for years, and it could sense how nervous it made me, how weak I was. It came over the fence trailing a broken chain, and I was too terrified to run. But just before it could sink its teeth into my throat, Big Brother’s bat came down like a guillotine blade and smashed it into the sidewalk. He departed just as suddenly as he’d arrived, sparing only the time for a wink and a nod before vanishing behind a streetlight.
I didn’t mind getting yelled at for it when the owner showed up seconds later. My big brother had kept his word.
He didn’t come every time I was in trouble. Just when I was in real danger. I tried once to lift some candy from Olsen and Son’s Drug Store down the street, thinking that if either Olsen or his son tried to stop me that my big brother would come up from behind the ice cream counter and wallop one or the other upside the head. Instead, a policeman came to take me back to my mom, where I got the worst spanking of my life. My big brother didn’t turn up for that one either. I guess maybe he thought his little brother needed to learn a lesson. Tough love, and all that.
He was there when it mattered though. When a pack of teenagers in a night-blue El Camino nearly ran me over in the street, he came sprinting out of thin air to lift me out of the way and went tearing after the car screaming bloody murder until both he and it were gone. I never found out if he caught those kids or not, but I hope for their sake that they drove as if hell itself wore dirty cleats.
Even so, my big brother turned up infrequently enough that I started to forget about him when I got older. When puberty ratcheted me up about two feet overnight, and all the girls in school began to turn incandescent like street lights flickering on one after another, I let him sink into that fluid, liminal space between dream and memory that all kids swim in until their brains grow the lungs to breathe reality. I knew that someone had saved me from Jason Bigmore, from the dog, but the whole big brother thing had to have been a fantasy, because there were only ever two places at my breakfast table, unless my mom had a boyfriend over. I kept my grades up, kept out of trouble, kept clean, and never had to be saved by anybody. My big brother stayed at a practice that never ended.
The next time I saw him, I was all of sixteen years old.
It was a Sunday graveyard shift down at the Boucoup Burger Bar when everybody was already in bed for school or work in the morning, and Old Man McTag wouldn’t stop giving me hell. Christ, he’d say, I’ve never known a kid to show up stinking like a prison toilet. Or maybe, they ask for a buffalo burger and this idiot tells me to make a tuna melt. On and on like that, until it was stuff I hadn’t even done. You’ve got to be the laziest little shit that ever came through this shack, even as I was down on my knees scraping carbonized hamburger out from under the grill.
This was nothing I couldn’t handle. Old Man McTag had been a boxer up until he’d got excommunicated from the ring for throwing matches. For twenty years he’d been a bitter old bastard mad at everyone but himself, and eventually you learned to let him talk. But that night he wasn’t letting up. When I went out to toss the night’s trash he followed after. “I pay you great and you work like crap flowing uphill,” he said, sneering a hole through my back. “If I pay you half as much will you work twice as hard?”
I remembered heaving two trash bags full of burger crusts and waterlogged fries into the dumpster and slamming the lid down harder than I’d intended. A summer job had sounded great on paper. Make some extra cash, chat up the girls that came in, sneak free milkshakes to my buddies. But like whoever said, hell is other people.
“Alright, I’m done,” I said. “I quit. Asshole.”
The bitter old fry cook laughed and started to roll up his sleeves. He’d hung up his gloves before I was born, but his arms were still hilly with slabs of muscle. “Call me an asshole, you scrawny little fuck?” The way he said it, I knew he’d been aching for this reaction. “Glad you quit, ’cause now I can take you to town.”
That’s when I heard it—a voice creaky with puberty, black with hormone-fueled rage.
“Not while I’m around, mister.”
My big brother swung like a vault door into the glow of the streetlight above Old Man McTag. A baseball bat flashed silver and red as it cut through shoaling gnats and moths.
The first blow was a home run, catching the old man in the crook of his back and folding him in half like a horseshoe. The next was a bunt, hammering him into the parking lot. I could only watch, paralyzed, as that aluminum bat rose and fell, rose, fell, a needle pulling threads of gore.
In eight years, the kid hadn’t aged a day, or changed his clothes, or scrubbed the blood and dog hair out of the kink in his bat. I’d shot up more than two feet but somehow he was still taller than me, still bigger. Still twelve, as though the years for him were put together like the intersections in my neighborhood, walkable in minutes. Four foot eleven and impossibly looming in bold-faced defiance of perspective.
Big Brother stepped closer to survey his work; the old man was a nightmare of wrong angles, in-things outed, a body reversed by force. Eyes staring one way, mouth screaming another. “Got your back for life, little bro,” Big Brother said with a wink. “What do you say we grab a malt and watch the sun come up?”
I shook my head no. My back was pressed flat against the dumpster, ice sheeting down my neck. I remember thinking, there is sweat on his forehead. Stains under his arms. Grass in his cleats.
He is real.
Big Brother smiled anyway, popping out a chubby red cheek beginning to sprout zits. He was missing a tooth on one side; a wad of pink bubblegum flicked in and out of the gap like a dwarf second tongue. So many consistent details that my imagination could not possibly have kept straight. He reached over and gave me a playful slug in the bicep that bruised me with irrefutable weight. “’Nother time then.”
The streetlight flickered, and in between spurts of current, he was gone.
Of course I tried to tell people. The cops first, and then my mom. But people will naturally mutilate the unexplainable to fit into the world they understand. Someone had beaten Mister McTag to death—there was evidence it wasn’t me, and maybe it was a pre-teen with a baseball bat like I claimed, but anything more was the product of trauma. I realized that I had proof—throw a punch, was all I’d have to say, and you’ll see—but what then? There would be two corpses instead of one. I didn’t want anyone else hurt, so I learned to live belly-up to the world.
I’d been thinking of trying out for football; I dropped that right away. I learned where all the mean dogs in the neighborhood lived and devised routes avoiding them. I kept my head down at school, made myself a background character to all that teenage drama. Nobody anybody would think to take a swing at. Even so, it was not a guarantee. When I was eighteen, my mom’s newest boyfriend yelled at me for spilling oil in the garage; Big Brother came through the sliding glass door like he’d been waiting in the backyard and beat the man into the same coma he’d left Jason Bigmore in. On my twenty-fifth birthday, someone accidentally swung a beer bottle at my head, down at the Three Strikes Sports Bar. Big Brother caught it in his beefy catcher’s mitt of a palm and shoved it all the way down the other man’s throat.
That was when I knew for certain; the logic on which Big Brother operated had gone threadbare in all that time he’d spent in my closet; there was no knowing what would trigger him. The blanket that had kept the monsters out now had holes in it. If my mother had still been around to spank me, Big Brother would have torn the offending hand off her wrist.
When I was thirty-one, a homeless woman kicked at me as I passed her on the street. From the way she ranted to herself I knew that she was just sick. But still, I felt the electricity in the air change, adjusting to some new mass not yet visible. I ran, thinking that would change anything, that Big Brother, being bound to me, would be dragged along like a mad dog on a chain. When I heard that piercing scream I knew I was wrong, and by the time I reached the end of the block Big Brother was waiting there to make sure I was okay.
“Why,” I asked. The first I’d dared speak to him in twenty years. I seized him by his filthy jersey and shook him until he answered, that small but giant, that young but ancient thing.
“Let’s go down to the fishing hole and see what we can catch,” he said, his grin never failing. “But we’ll have to be home in time for dinner. Mom’s making meatloaf.”
I’d never realized how false he sounded. Like a teddy bear that could speak only in prerecorded quips. If those blue eyes reflected any intellect at all, it was one without an ulterior logic, without want or objective, only purpose. If I were to take his bat and crack his skull apart, I was sure that I would find a real brain, but one tangled vestigially around the same dumb imperative as a shark.
“Love you, little bro,” he said, reaching for me.
I ran until I collapsed.
I still think back on that blue El Camino that nearly rolled me flat way back when. Those teens in their varsity jackets, laughing so hard at some joke that they never saw me in the crosswalk. There are no hard feelings there. I really do hope that they drove faster than Big Brother could sprint. That they didn’t stop to ask what he wanted, just kept going. They could have been twenty instead of four and I don’t think it would have saved them.
For another sixteen years it went on like that. Sixteen years of cowering from the whole breadth of human interaction. Yet somehow I got married. Found a woman who didn’t mind the coward that I was. Somehow I had a son with her. Somehow I was happy.
It was a dream too sweet to be real.
I’d just caught my son Eric smoking pot in his room, again. It was fine with his friends but not in the house, but he was at that age where the rules all looked like finish-line ribbons for him to run through. This time he wasn’t even trying to hide the blunt. He was fifteen, and aware that he was almost as big as his old man, with none of the flab I’d had at that age. This time, he stretched out on his bed and took a cocky drag, saying “what are you going to do about it?” because he’d figured out by now that I wasn’t going to do a thing. He’d put it together that his dad had never raised his voice, let alone a hand, to anyone, and wasn’t likely to start now.
Not that he knew why.
Eric swung his legs off the bed. “Get out of my way, I need to take a piss,” he said, shoulder-checking me on the way out the door.
I listened to him saunter around the corner and kick-slam the door shut behind him. I slumped against the doorframe, as weak as my son thought I was. I’d have been a better father if not for the second shadow forever policing my first. I’d be stronger, capable of discipline, of showing him what a man ought to be. Would it change anything to tell my son the truth? No, I reminded myself. I’d tried, experimenting with strangers. To give voice to reality only made it less real, and me completely mad.
“Dad?” Eric’s voice was muted by the bathroom door.
“What is it?” My heart lifted at the impossible hope of an apology.
“There’s somebody in the window.”
It took only a second for me to understand.
We were on the second floor.
I bolted for the bathroom, moving faster than I ever had in my life, faster than my own desperate howl, but knew on some level that I was already too late by that one second. Those twenty feet seemed to stretch across a planet. Halfway there, the crack of aluminum on bone to which I had grown so familiar hacked through the door like a fire axe. I hit it shoulder-first and exploded through, ready this time to take Big Brother head-on, because for all that Eric had become, I remembered a happy baby with Barnie on his bib and couldn’t help but love him. But Big Brother had already departed. The shower curtain undulated on the breeze coming in through the open window—too narrow for a human body. The room smelled of Big-League Chew and rub-on deodorant and blood stayed warm and dripping across decades.
My son lay sprawled on the tile, belly down, face up.
My wife came home to find me weeping uncontrollably, cradling Eric’s body in my arms. She puts two and two together and produced five. Bastard, she shrieked, clawing at me, kicking at me with her heels. You fucking monster.
She must have thought I’d snapped. That some inner rage had finally broke free. If I’d been in another state, if I’d had five minutes more to collect myself, I might have been able to explain. But right then my thoughts were still slippery with Eric’s blood. I dropped my son and grappled with her, trying to restrain her against my body, but one cannot unsqueeze a trigger or step back onto a ledge.
I could already hear Big Brother galumphing up the stairs.
My trial was as much a show as you ever saw on Broadway. The police knew only what they knew, which was that the only DNA of a still-living person in that house was mine. All those other killings I’d happened to be adjacent to throughout the years got brought up and scrutinized through a darker lens. I gave in and told the truth in the hopes they’d think my truth insane, put me in some sleepy mental hospital where the other patients would be too zonked out on antipsychotics to do me any harm. That was the best life I could hope for anymore—to be a loaded gun locked up in a cushioned box.
But that defense works best in the movies.
When the verdict arrived, I was tempted to lunge for the bailiff’s gun and make him shoot me. I imagined that bullet blowing through my brain, punching a hole in the imagination where Big Brother lurked like a tiger in his cave, ejecting that vulnerable figment wailing into heatless, airless reality. He couldn’t be faster than an explosion, could he?
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it felt too easy.
He killed my son. He killed my wife.
So no. I went to prison with a plan.
My cellmate was an alright guy. Mikey Fitzgerald, former bouncer, in for second-degree murder. I didn’t ask details, and we got along fine. At least long enough for me to accrue a big enough stockpile of cigarettes. There wasn’t much I wasn’t willing to do to earn them.
Six months into my sentence, when our cell had been locked for the night, I woke Mikey up with my proposal.
“You want me to kick your ass?” he asked, incredulous.
“That’s right,” I replied.
“Why? There’s plenty of that for free out there.”
“I need privacy.” If I tried this in a yard full of angry twenty-five-to-lifers, things could get out of hand. If ten guys dogpiled me at once would ten Big Brothers appear to fight them off? I could too easily picture him multiplying meiotically in proportion to an exponential threat.
He looked hard at what I was offering, and then back at me with a wary smirk. “When do I stop?”
“You’ll know when,” I said.
Big Brother manifested as Mikey cocked back his fist. I could feel the cell’s gravity shift as the dark sprouted arms and legs and bloody aluminum. Big Brother, still twelve, still grass-stained and zitty, fresh from practice over for decades. He enveloped Mikey’s fist within his own and bottled up the scream in his throat with one meaty paw. He looked at me as he strangled the man, nodded as if to say you and me together forever, little bro.
I said nothing to him. I merely drew the sharpened toothbrush out of my waistband and plunged it into his eye.
Big Brother bleated a scream that was all too human, the scream of a child in pain. I ignored it, for at the same time, his hand clenched in reflex and snapped Mikey’s neck with a strength beyond human. I withdrew my shiv and drilled it into his neck, and then into his chest flab. The look of injury on his face was exactly what I’d hoped for. Yes, me, his beloved little brother, the last person he’d expect to turn on him. When my blade snapped off in his belly I used my hands to beat him to the ground, where I fell upon him and refused to stop hitting until my shattered fingers could no longer make fists.
It felt like hours before I could stand. I waited for a torturously stretched-out minute for signs of life, but Big Brother neither stirred nor evaporated as I’d expected.
After all these years, I remember thinking, this was all it took. I cackled until my lungs began squeezing out coughs instead.
If only I’d fought back that night at the Boucoup Burger Bar—
If only I’d never accepted that hand-up in the first place—
So many if only’s. A life lived too carefully to be a life. But that was all over. I would never leave this place, but I would be free nonetheless.
I knelt to check Mikey’s pulse, thinking there might still be hope for him—
—and that was when Big Brother sat up.
I watched, paralyzed, as he pulled his jersey back down over an unbloodied gut. There was not a scratch on his face, not a scrape, just fat tears quivering on the flushed hills of his cheeks.
I lunged away but Big Brother, forever ripe with youth, was faster. His meaty hand enveloped my wrist and held me fast. “You’re a bully, aren’t you,” he sniveled, dragging his snotty nose along his other arm. “Well you’d better keep away from my little brother. Got it?”
His eyes locked on to mine, and for the smallest subdivision of time, their baby-blue façade seemed to flicker away like a like a nictitating membrane, and I beheld the thing upon which pounds of zitty blubber had been slathered like so much greasepaint. Dragged by a wave of unwanted truth, my mind snapped free of its moorings. With nothing to pilot it, my body shut down in his grasp.
“I’m always looking out for him,” I heard Big Brother growl. In that moment I felt something peel away from me, something I hadn’t known was there but had been with me since I’d come out of my mother. Pain erupted from an intangible place that had never hurt before. I almost didn’t feel it when Big Brother crumpled my middle-aged wrist like a receipt.
I tore my throat screaming, but by the time the guard arrived Big Brother was gone.
Years from that night, I am still in prison.
This is my world now. Its horizon is demarcated by iron bars; its population wants me dead. Murdering a fellow prisoner does not necessarily make you feared if you are not already fearsome. In my case, it makes you hated. Mikey had friends in there, friends with nothing to occupy their time but vengeance. I am a hobby to them. A red rubber ball to kick around. Men come to hurt me every day, and there is no-one to protect me.
I know presciently that I will live the remainder of my life like this, my underbelly forever to the ground, my spine frozen in a curl. No matter what is done to me, I never resist. Whenever the urge skulks through my thoughts, I glimpse the shadow of a boy looming massively over my tormentors, a crooked bat resting on his shoulder. Whenever my hands ball involuntarily into fists, I swoon at the stench of pink bubblegum, fresh-cut grass, and sweat-stained socks.
Knowledge perforates my brain like a lobotomist’s spike. I understand that everyone is someone’s little brother.
No, no matter what, I will never fight back.
I know who will come to stop me.
About the Author
Evan Marcroft is an aspiring speculative fiction writer based out of Philadelphia, who uses his expensive degree in Literary Criticism and Theory to do menial data entry. Evan dreams of writing for video games, but will settle for literature instead. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Metaphorosis, and previously in Pseudopod.
About the Narrator
Rish Outfield is a writer, voice actor, and audiobook narrator. He got his start co-hosting The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine and That Gets My Goat podcasts, where he and Big Anklevich attempt to waste time entertainingly. He also features his own stories on the Rish Outcast podcast. He once got a job because of his Sean Connery impersonation . . . but has lost two due to his Samuel L. Jackson impression.