Issue > Fiction
Elahzar Rao

Elahzar Rao

Elahzar Rao holds a B.A. in English from Hunter College and is currently earning an M.S. in Special Education at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. His fiction has been published in The Literary Review, Gargoyle, Fiction Fix, Pilot and Hawai'i Review, and his artwork has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Cerise Press, Prick of the Spindle, Fogged Clarity, Convergence and The Centrifugal Eye.

Poor Boy

I returned to the apartment to help my parents move. It was a wonder they had stayed there for so long, with neighbors who had been there as long as they had been there and who remembered what had happened. I volunteered to clean out my brother's room—this was the dirty work. I knew my parents were no longer going to keep anything of his. Whatever cardboard box had his name on it, if they wrote out his name, would be taken to the Salvation Army. It was in a way him they were finally moving away from. When I walked into Derek's room I was not surprised that it looked the same as since I last saw it. For the past twenty-three years his bedroom had remained empty but well maintained, like an exhibit in a museum of someone's past life, continuing not to reveal anything abnormal. Like that of any other American boy his room was a sanctuary of hobbies and superheroes, filled with baseball cards, model planes, ships and cars, comic books and other things of the sort. No one had ever noticed any clues as to why he did what he had done.

Visiting Derek in prison had been like watching a television show about someone else. The seventeen-year-old boy who entered the scene from the other side of an unbreakable window did not look like my big brother. His head, shaved entirely for the first time, was naked, round and dented, and his face was a pale mask with livid eyes and unmoved lips. He wore a uniform, the kind which could have been worn by a landscaper or a mechanic or a custodian, something like my father could have worn to work. But Derek's uniform was bright, danger orange and the chest of the shirt was patched with a number instead of a name. Unable to hear him, I just looked at my big brother sitting there, bald and ugly and dangerous and speaking to my parents through an old telephone receiver while my parents spoke to him through another old telephone receiver on other side, like tin cans connected by a short piece of string. I did not ask to speak with him, he did not ask to speak with me, and our parents did not ask us to speak with each other. There was no private explanation, no last words spoken. Yet he was now living in that part of the prison where last words are spoken. He had been tried and convicted as an adult for a crime that was only his first but had strayed and quickened to his last.

It allegedly began as an attempted robbery. The man who owned the pharmacy was always there and his wife sometimes worked alongside of him. Their son, however, was usually not there, especially in the morning, when all the kids were in school. But Derek chose a Monday morning that fell on the beginning of Christmas break. The whole family was at the pharmacy—and only they were there—when my brother walked in and pulled out a pistol. (It was the handgun that my father kept hidden in his bedroom closet and never told us he had. But Derek and I knew everything our parents had in their bedroom; we had searched through it enough times while they were at work to find anything new.) As my brother later told the court, everything went wrong: everyone, including himself, got scared, but not in the way he thought everyone, including himself, would get scared. Derek shot the father in the neck, the mother in the chest, and the nine-year-old boy in the face.

The boy is what bothered me the most. That Derek could have done such a thing to a boy my own age changed not just the way I saw my brother, but the way I believed my brother saw me. I believed he must have hated me as much as he must have hated the boy, hated me all along. I had been convinced of the opposite until then. He had been everything to me. He was my guardian. My mother and father each had two jobs, not including an office they doubled up on cleaning late at night. While they worked my brother watched after me. I had not thought he minded. I considered us best friends and I thought he considered us best friends as well. We did everything together. He walked me to school even though we went to different schools. He took me to the movie theater with him. We played baseball together (though mostly just catch). We went to the baseball-card and comic-book store together. We also went to the hobby shop together. Aside from collecting baseball cards and comic books, we shared a dedication to remote-control cars. Derek only had one remote-control car but he let me drive it as much as he did. We had planned on getting a much better remote-control car, one they kept locked behind glass at the hobby shop—the Finley Roadrunner 210. Its streamlined body was all metal and had taillights and headlights that worked—turned on and off by a remote control, which was also made of real metal. And the man who worked the counter at the hobby shop swore that the Finley car could go head-to-head with a real car, at least for a little while. I never tested this out though. When my parents finally got me a Finley car for my thirteenth birthday, I sold it off to a younger kid in the neighborhood. My parents were not upset; they now understood that I had lost all interest in the things I used to do with Derek.

I had quickly begun trying to put Derek as far behind me as possible. Suddenly he hated me and suddenly he was gone: "put to sleep," as my parents had explained. (They only explained it this way before he was executed. After he was given a lethal injection, an event which my parents attended without me, I did not hear them speak of it again. And the following week, while doing the laundry, my mother, who had just quit one of her jobs, took up my brother's bed sheets, washed them, dried them, and remade his bed.) But the neighbors, particularly the adult neighbors, would not let it rest. Many of the neighbors no longer talked to my parents, but talked about them, talked about them as though they were as much responsible for what Derek did. However, I was given no part in the crime. The adult neighbors spoke to me politely, too politely. Then from a distance, further along the sidewalk or further up or further down the stairs, I would hear them say, "Poor boy." "His brother...His parents...Poor boy." The children at school and in the neighborhood were blunter. But as children, they were changing fast, too fast to remember certain things about other people's lives. The first year they called me something I pretended to ignore. But the next year I was back to my real name, as the children were already forgetting that I ever had a brother. But the adults would not forget, even when I was as far along as high school. "In spite of everything, he's turning out," they would say. I was turning out, doing nothing my brother had done. When I had reached Derek's last age, I was well into dating girls, taking them to the movie theater. I was working in a grocery store and I drove a car, a real car. I did what others I knew were doing at that age, what Derek was not doing at that age, was not doing them only because, as I now came to understand, he could not. He had been eight years older than me. And while my parents worked he had to watch over me. He had to be everything to me, even my guardian. This, I came to believe, is why he had hated me so much, hated me along. I was his burden, an added responsibility that had paradoxically kept him from growing up, from moving ahead of me. I had stolen from him the life he could have lived, and now that I was a teenager, I was living the life he could have lived. And I continued living that life, continued turning out, growing ahead of Derek, putting him behind me, putting more and more miles between me and his memory, which had permanently scarred the conversations of our neighbors.

After high school I traveled for four years in the Navy. When my enlistment ended I went to college on the GI Bill in a city I had decided was far enough away from the city I grew up in. It took me six years to finish college and a year after graduating I married a woman who waited tables with me at the restaurant I had worked in while going to school. We stayed married for almost two years, and after the divorce I stayed where I was, though I now slept alone in my apartment and worked as an administrator in a telecommunications office. Meanwhile my parents remained eight hours away by car, and I only drove to see them on Christmas, which in spite of everything had remained the most important time to my family. But one night they called me on the phone and told me they were moving. They would be in the same city but in a different neighborhood and in an apartment with only one bedroom but with a small guest room where I could sleep when I visited them on Christmas. They asked me if I would help them move and I told them I would. So the following month, even though it was summer, I drove my car back to where I could help my parents finally leave the neighborhood I had left long ago. I arrived at my old home in the afternoon. In the evening I ate dinner with my parents in a living room that was already cluttered with cardboard boxes. Later that night I slept in my old bedroom for the last time. And the following morning I was helping my parents move, beginning by myself with my brother's room.

Starting with clothes that had been washed but not worn in twenty-three years, I took out of the dresser his folded t-shirts, his folded pants, his underwear and his socks and restacked them all into a cardboard box. As with his t-shirts and pants, I remembered him wearing some of the sweaters that were hanging in the closet. And I remembered him playing the board games that were lying on the shelf of the closet; he only played them with me. I folded the sweaters into one box and put the board games into another box. It went on like this for a couple hours. In flashes of memory I saw him wearing or using everything that I buried in a box—the crumpled leather mitt opening for a catch, the tattered sneakers running, the three-mast sailing ship given wind by the same spindly hand that gave liftoff to the fighter planes. Whatever he had worn now seemed shed, something that had once been an attached part of his living self. And whatever he had used now seemed unusable, things with no use for anyone but him.

I cleared out his desk last. In one drawer of the desk was a vinyl binder of protected baseball cards. I leafed through the plastic pages, wondering how much the cards might be worth to someone else, before fitting the binder into a box where I had already put all of his comic books. Then I opened another drawer in Derek's desk and found a remote-control car catalogue lying among a scatter of dried-out pens and pencil stumps. I recognized the catalogue as another belonging I had not cared to look through since Derek was gone. Finally picking it up again, the browned and musty pages fell open to a place that had been kept over the years by a red envelope. I took out the red envelope and turned it over, discovering my brother's handwriting in black ink. "From Derek" was written in the top left corner and "To My Little Brother" was scrawled across the center. The other side of the red envelope was still sealed by his saliva. I worked my thumb across the envelope, slowly tearing open its sealed lip. Inside was a card which I slowly pulled out. A cartoon Christmas tree was printed on the outside of the card, and when I splayed it open I read on the inside of one half, "Best Wishes This Holiday Season." These words, neatly printed with sweeping curves ending in a bow, came with the card. On the other half of the card, though, my brother's handwriting appeared again. He had written: "Merry Christmas Little Brother. Enjoy Your New Finley Roadrunner 210!" But this gift had not been given to me, not yet.

Poetry

Aracelis Girmay

Aracelis Girmay
When They Ask Me...

Poetry

Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee
House, Asleep

Poetry

Joey De Jesus

Joey De Jesus
Hurricane Irene