“…and that’s exactly when all the lights came back on!” my older brother Phil chortled, ironing the crimson tablecloth on either side of his plate with large powerful hands topped with patches of rugged black hair, a thick gold bracelet dangling loosely from one of his unbreakable wrists. Because every last detail just has to scream gangsterish masculinity, I thought as the rest of the table snickered and giggled at Phil’s story, its lewdness only insinuated and so just falling within the parameters of appropriateness for a Christmas Eve dinner at which kids are present. My kids, specifically.
He had always had a knack for that, Phil. Pushing the envelope just enough to reasonably assure his audience, usually a gaggle of fawning women, he was a bad ass, but one with a vulnerable aw-gee-shucks heart. After all, here was a guy who not so long ago had been juggling two different women and when he sent the wrong text to the wrong woman and they found out about each other, rather than getting his balls kicked in as justice would normally dictate, they showed up on his doorstep arm-in-arm and treated him to a threesome. Little did he know that earlier in the fall, I had planned to murder him.
I glanced over at my wife, Judith. She was smiling at Phil, a crimson flush creeping up from the nick of cleavage at the flat neckline of her black dress and mottling her slender white throat. That slightly twisted shy smile belying a ravenous sexual appetite and adventurousness I had thought, until we started dating in college, only existed within the confines of my porn-inspired fantasies. It had permanently smitten me and now as she deployed it on my brother, in combination with blinking doe-eyes, a frenzied buzzing noise, like enraged bees swarming from a batted hive, began to fill my ears.
“Hey Dave, you got one of those itty-bitty bones stuck in your throat or what?” asked Phil’s latest girlfriend, Shelly. Allegedly a successful interior designer, the gaudy orange bangles on her anorexic wrist sang metallically as she waved ludicrously from across the table like a castaway. “You look a little peaked.”
“Yeah, Dad!” chirped my daughter who, normally all grunting teenage sullenness, had gleefully underwritten every spurious assertion Shelly had uttered over the course of the meal. Having discovered in one another a kindred vegan spirit, the pair had united in sanctimoniously boycotting my turkey and lamented its devastated remains now relegated to the end of the table where my mother used to sit.
“I’m just fine, Connie,” I said tersely while contradictorily shaking my head in an effort to dissipate the sordid images occupying it.
With her hands stuffed up her sleeves again, making a straitjacket of her hoodie (why did she always have to do that?), Connie said smugly, “it’s called karma, dad.” My son, Malcolm, only a year younger than his sister, snorted derisively at this, hacked a long flap of flesh from the turkey’s dismembered leg, and earned an appreciative nod from me by stuffing the whole thing into his mouth and making smacking sounds with his lips as he chewed predatorially.
“That’s not nice Malcolm,” Judith admonished half-heartedly. Malcolm looked to me and there it flashed once again. I had only first noticed it at a pool party Judith had hosted the summer prior. A broad toothy smile pushed out from a handsomely beefy face, he was in that fleeting moment (those teeth!) the spitting image of my brother who, himself, was the reincarnation of J.F.K.
In the weeks following the party I became convinced that my brilliant beautiful son, already getting rich identifying software bugs and vulnerabilities for big tech companies, not to mention the drones under construction in the garage, was actually Judith and Phil’s 15-year-old love child and resolved to prove it. But the test had exonerated Phil. Malcolm was my son after all. But the rage that had been consuming me went unabated with the news and as I gazed upon Phil now, sitting across from me with his hand in Shelley’s lap under the tablecloth, almost certainly molesting her judging from the strange alertness on her face, I fought to suppress the urge to ask Malcolm to hand me the carving knife so I could plunge it heel-deep into the slackening folds of his stocky throat.
“…and that’s exactly when all the lights came back on!” guffawed my brother-in-law Phil after reciting yet another thinly veiled sexual boast from a seemingly inexhaustible catalog. His boneyard new girlfriend, Shelley, who donned a ridiculous flapper wig with a silver sequined headband and smelled like stale cigarettes, exchanged rolling eyes with my sulky daughter Connie. Still, it was an amusing enough anecdote and we all laughed. Except for Dave, my husband. He remained stony quiet and seemed somehow transfixed by Phil’s builders’ hands pawing the tablecloth, the oily bristles bedecking them as appealing as unwashed pubic hair.
As fond as I was of Phil, I marveled again at his endless parade of younger women. Even the ones who weren’t exactly the pick of the litter (Shelley was a good example) were “doable” as men would say, usually with careers. What did they see in him? He was nothing standing next to Dave and I cold shuddered at the thought of those simian hands on me. I banished it with one of how Dave had been fucking me these past months. He’d always been terrific in bed but the sheer aggressive desperation of it these days was simply thrilling. I even had to get the legs of our bed bolted to the floor after it got dragged clear across the bedroom one night and we had to face our kids, too aghast to speak, at the breakfast table the next morning.
Snapping out of it, I realized I had been gawking schoolgirl-like at Phil as if he had swapped heads with Dave. Turning to real Dave, he had all the look of a man having his skull slowly crushed in a vice and Shelley said something brainless about him choking on a turkey bone. This was also new and less welcome. The first time had been during a pool party I hosted last summer. I was watching him watch our son Malcolm slinking along the diving board, arms outstretched in preparation for a dramatic leap, the swelling pride in his face suddenly dissolving into the same death mask he wore now. At the time I wondered if he’d suddenly, finally, come to the realization that his son was gay and an artery had exploded in his chest.
Dave was okay but later that night I walked in on him in the bathroom plucking strands of hair from Malcolm’s hairbrush and holding them up to the mirror light as if they were photo negatives. He was in such a state of squinting concentration, he hadn’t even noticed me come in.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Jesus Christ!” he almost shouted, whirling around. “Don’t do that!”
“I repeat, what the hell are you doing, Dave?”
“Nothing. Just looking,” he said, shuffling his feet.
“Just looking? For what? Lice?”
“Looking for nothing, Judith,” he said firmly, a hint of menace in his voice. He held the flat back of the hairbrush up to my face like a microphone and said, “And don’t sneak up like that again, or I’ll pull up that nightdress and take this thing to your ass.” This made me laugh and I kissed him on the mouth. But he pulled away, his face a peculiar blend of horniness, sadness, and anger. “I got to get out of here for a bit,” he muttered, shaking a filament of Malcolm’s hair, still statically clinging to the end of his finger, into the toilet bowl. “I need some air.”
With that he abruptly left the house and drove off and I didn’t hear the crunch of gravel under tires, signaling his return, until long after I had gone to bed. Since then, meltdowns followed by nocturnal excursions had been slowly increasing in frequency. It faintly occurred to me he might be having an affair but whenever he came home, he came straight to bed and the last thing he smelled like was a woman. What he smelled like was the woods.
I guess he’ll be disappearing again tonight even though it’s Christmas Eve, I thought as I observed with some detachment Malcolm stuffing his face with turkey for no other purpose than to torment his vegan sister. I noticed that Connie had buried her slashed wrists in her sleeves again. Dave was as willfully blind to his daughter’s juvenile self-harming as he was to his son’s homosexuality. “That’s not nice Malcolm,” I said absently, more preoccupied with Dave’s mental state than Connie’s. Malcolm ignored me and grinned at Dave who dropped his hands into his lap. Interlacing his fingers, he pushed his palms together like there was a rock between them he urgently needed to pulverize, his knuckles fit to burst from the skin stretched tightly across them.
He stared placidly across the table at his brother, Phil, eyes not blinking.
“…and that’s exactly when all the lights came back on!” laughed my boyfriend Phil, a natural storyteller. And I could laugh along as comfortably as the others because Phil’s regular allusions to being such a stud were just that: great big stories. The truth was that if Phil didn’t get the Viagra dose just so, crushing the pills into powder and carving up the portions with a razorblade as if it were cocaine, he either produced a boiled vegetable or a pre-maturely squirting broom handle. On these occasions, Phil’s despair was inconsolable. No amount of reassurance on my part could dissipate the pall of failure and I could expect days of mopey avoidance tactics before he rallied the courage to try again. One way to alleviate his gnawing private anguish was to project this fiction of Casanova-esque virility upon the world. It seemed to work too considering his sister-in-law Judith, a minxy stunner despite the crow’s feet stamped around her eyes, was now gazing at him from under the thick dark brown bangs encasing her forehead as if she wanted to fling her panties at his face.
I adored him. His hands were so big they reminded me of my father’s when I was little, and he would grab me around the waist and toss me into the air. Also like my father, Phil always had me laughing, even when he accompanied me to the lemon-tiled room where lemon-scented disinfectant hung in the air and identical lemon-colored recliners were lined up alongside IV stands for the stricken to sit in and watch their hair fall out, the large rotating hand of the wall clock terrifyingly knocking out the seconds.
His cool and aloof brother Dave, Judith’s husband, had observed his wife’s ogling and now looked set to have a seizure. The contorted grimace suddenly replacing his composed sculpted features almost made me laugh out loud, but I held back and instead, as a diehard vegan, gently mocked him about choking on one of the vile turkey bones discarded on his plate.
Dave was something of a curiosity. Earlier in the day, I had sneaked out back to have an ill-advised cigarette. The late-afternoon sky was heartless and gray, a cold sun tangled in the bare tree branches as it sank behind the clouds. Dead leaves skittered across the pool’s debris cover and the lonesome wail of a semi rumbling down a nearby highway made me shiver.
“Could be worse,” I sighed. “Could be stuck in the lemon room.”
“Lemon room?” came Connie’s slightly hoarse voice from a shadowy corner of the patio. She was smoking a joint and the burnt rope smell hit me now as the wind changed direction.
“Oh, shit. Hi Connie. Sorry. Didn’t see you there. I just came out for a smoke.”
“Want some of this?”
I hesitated but my gut was aching, and I did want some of that. “Okay. But can you forget about what I said just now?”
As we smoked, I noticed Connie’s glassy eyes were set just a little too far apart and her ears stuck out just a little too far from under her stringy dirty blond hair. It wasn’t that she was unattractive, but the best of her parents’ impressive genes had apparently skipped right over her only to take root and blossom gloriously in her clearly gay younger brother, Malcolm. Maybe that was one reason she looked so pained. “You know kid, you don’t seem so happy in your skin,” I croaked holding the smoke deep in my lungs, the THC surging through me and melting away the pain.
In a perfect deflection Connie said, “A couple weeks ago I told my dad his hoity-toity Dutch beer tastes like dick.”
“Right? It just came out before I could think about it. He’s barely been able to look at me since.”
“He’ll get over it.”
“But my dad’s so weird, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s just pissed I dissed his precious suds.”
“Trust me, Shelley. He’s a really weird guy. Especially lately.”
This intrigued me. Dave seemed like a pretty cut-and-dried successful suburban dad, with two half-decent kids and a BWM each for him and the hot stay-at-home wife/mom. I was about to quiz Connie about him when Phil suddenly emerged from out back of the garage (what the hell was he doing in there?) and I fled back inside before he could catch me smoking dope with his underage niece…
“…it’s called karma, dad,” Connie drawled, and I regretted having teased Dave. He genuinely seemed to be suffering. Malcolm leapt to his defense by being disgusting with a mouthful of meat and Dave looked like he wanted to kiss him. Phil too was relieved and, holding my hand in my lap, made circles in my palm with his thumb. But when Malcolm leered greasily Dave’s face froze and, turning to Phil robotically, stared at him with dead man’s eyes.
“…and that’s exactly when all the lights came back on!” I concluded with a chuckle. The story had been one of my less-embellished but it still drew laughs from around the table. Except for my brother Dave who just smiled tightly in his way, his sharp clean-shaven face and flashing eyes like a hardened Roman general’s surveying a battlefield. Even though he was the younger one, I had always been the one looking up to him. I had dropped out of high school to start a construction business and even though it had been successful (I bought a Mercedes when I was only 24 and Dave was penniless), Dave was the thinker, the problem solver. While the stock market was busy assassinating the careers of his peers during the Great Recession, Dave had somehow cashed in on it and now his name was on the outside of a tall glass building downtown.
And then there was Dave’s wife, Judith, ever the smoldering sexpot whose devotion to her husband had been total and unwavering throughout their long marriage. She was smiling nymphomatically at me now but her supernova eyes, black winged lashes fluttering, were staring straight through me as though I were a translucent apparition behind which something real and mouthwateringly desirable lurked. Like Dave’s dick, for example, which I suspected glumly he could instantly get up on command and control like a 20-year-old boss. I looked down at my hairy killers’ hands beached on either side of my plate. Dave had long slender hands, the kind you could imagine performing brain surgery on an infant, and suddenly all of my inadequacies seemed to assail me at once.
“Hey Dave, you got one of those itty-bitty bones stuck in your throat or what?” said my vegan girlfriend, Shelley, waving through the fog I was in. I looked up and Dave did seem in some distress, so it wasn’t right for Shelley to be antagonizing him about the turkey again. I took her hand under the table and squeezed gently in a signal to leave off. She got it and, in a voice recalibrated to sound concerned, said, “You look a little peaked.”
But it didn’t end there. My niece Connie, also a vegan, jumped in to taunt her father some more until my gregarious nephew, Malcolm, silenced her with a gruesome display of carnivorousness worthy of a caveman. That was something else Dave had on me: two great kids and of course, perfectly, one girl and one boy. I had always wanted kids and now that, deep into middle age, I had at long last found ‘the one’ in Shelley, she had just had her ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus removed. So, all I wished for now was for Shelley to survive and to be as good an uncle as possible to Malcolm and Connie.
“You want to check out my new drone, Uncle Phil?” Malcolm had asked earlier in the day.
“Sure,” I said, and Malcom led me out back to the garage.
“Here!” he said, proudly holding aloft the mechanical multirotor insect by one of its legs, a black box with a glass cyclops eye protruding from its belly.
“That’s a camera, I assume?”
“THAT is a night vision camera with a 3D facial recognition sensor. I just perfected it.”
I didn’t doubt him. I wouldn’t doubt him if he told me it could fire miniature cruise missiles and the Pentagon wanted to buy the patent. The kid was a genius going places. As he stood there reciting the technical specs (he may as well have been speaking Swahili for all I understood), I was distracted by how his free hand was parked on a thrust-out hip. I had noticed this effeminacy before but what kind of gay teenage boy builds drones in his dad’s garage? He was probably just in the sway of some androgynous pop band, I concluded.
“What’s the plan for it?”
“Well,” he said, taking his hand from his hip and running it though his thick mane of dark brown hair, “I– “
“Hold on,” I said, cocking my ear. I thought I could hear Shelley’s voice outside. Malcolm shrugged and resumed with the technobabble. I stepped over to a little window and peered through the bug corpses and garage residue smeared across its surface. There she was on the back patio huddled with Connie around a spliff, both of them looking frail and at risk of liftoff in the swirling winter wind. I wasn’t even angry she was doing drugs with my niece. Just saddened anew by her incomprehensible inability to quit smoking.
“… and maybe for dad as well!” declared Malcolm in triumphant conclusion to his response I hadn’t heard a word of until then.
“Sounds great, Malcolm. I’m going to go back to the house now,” I said, trudging from the garage and leaving him alone in disappointed silence.
So much for being as good an uncle as possible, I thought bleakly as Malcolm finally swallowed the turkey with a loud gulp and “Ahhhhhhhhhh!”
“That’s not nice Malcolm,” said Judith tinnily, a half-assed rebuke he answered with an open-mouthed smirk that somehow reminded me of me. Dave shifted awkwardly in his seat and turned to face me. I got that translucent apparition feeling again as Dave stared right through me. But his eyes were cold hard steel as if whatever it was lurking behind me this time was there to break open his skull and eat his brain.
I stood at the edge of the hole leaning on the shovel, steam billowing from my mouth and exposed skin under the blue light of the starfield overhead. The woods encircling the snow-dusted clearing were black and silent except for the occasional creak of frozen branches. Lifting the shovel, I harpooned the waist-high mound of chunky soil and hacked-off tree roots and wiped the sweat from my hands on the front of my jacket. I reached into my pocket and fingered the hard enamel shards, squeezing the pulpy masses clinging to their tapered ends.
I picked up the discarded hammer and, holding it before me, inspected the lone strand of hair caked onto its claw, the bulb of its DNA-rich follicle bobbing slightly in the still air. My arm fell to my side and I was about to drop the hammer into the hole where the jawless thing lay when I suddenly heard a whir, like riffling playing cards, approaching fast. The contraption streaked over the treetops and came to an abrupt halt, hovering above the clearing. As it sank lower into the basin like a spider on a thread, rotors spinning in a blur, it trained its dark monocle on me, a red light winking in unison with shutter sounds.
“Malcolm,” I whispered as a tingling sensation crept out over my scalp and the ground disintegrated beneath my feet.
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Night Vision), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.