Lynne T. Pickett
“Don’t, don’t touch it!”
His brother, Rod, picked up the yellow pick and twirled it in his fingers as he looked at his clean, shiny beard in the green mirror-like exterior of the refrigerator. He then shoved the yellow pick back and forth in his beard, scratching his chin and smiling. “Whose is it? Are you having people over and playing guitars when I’m not here?” He spit a little on the pick and shined it on his shirt. “I’m keeping it. There’s like a dozen more in that baggie. Enough for your little ghost band to keep on playing.”
“I told you not to touch it, you asshole. I just cleaned all of them, and now your nasty fingers and beard have contaminated the whole baggie. I’m going to have to clean them all over again.”
Rod stroked his beard and swung open the refrigerator door. “Is that where my soap went, you washing guitar picks? I thought it was canned cat food you needed to wash because of some stupid virus you think is gonna kill you.” Rod turned around and spit on his hand and demonstratively rubbed it up and down the refrigerator handle. “Now you can clean this too.”
“Why the hell did you come over here, just to piss me off?” Hank felt his stomach swirl with nervousness.
Rod looked at the covering of spit on his hand and nodded. “Yep.” He then grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the fridge. “This is mine, for taking my soap.”
Rod opened the bottle and began to guzzle. Hank could feel his body shaking as he watched the Jack Daniel’s dribble into the bare spaces of his brother’s tightly coiled beard. Hank could never grow a beard; only a few patches would appear on his chin, but it didn’t matter. Hank wouldn’t grow one if he could. Contagion of all kinds could make a nice little home inside of it. He also thought a beard looked like you belong in a cabin with a flannel, plaid shirt and the backside of a dead bear underneath your feet.
But it was a perfect look for Rod, who was broad and bulky, even more so by the heavy weights he lifted daily. Hank was thin, never really grew to the size he was supposed to; something about his body unable to process nutrients correctly. He eventually outgrew the problem, but his body remained stunted. It never became similar to his musclebound brother’s.
Hank had interrupted Rod’s favorite party trick last night; it only took a few drinks for Rod to rip his T-shirt apart and roar like he had just turned into the Hulk. It never failed to amuse his outcast friends, a bunch of drunk and high, idiot troublemakers who followed Rod around like he was their superhero. What Rod’s friends didn’t realize as they sat around laughing about how most people were sniveling little losers was that Rod also thought the same thing about his friends. All of Rod’s putdowns about other people really included his friends too, only Rod’s friends were too stupid to realize it.
Rod dropped the Jack Daniel’s from his mouth, grabbed the bag of picks on the counter, and moved closer, invading Hank’s bubble of protection. Hank was beginning to believe the only thing he and Rod had in common was that they both liked whiskey. Rod fished inside the baggie for another guitar pick; he held it up ceremoniously and then snapped it in two with his fingers. “Just did ya a favor; now you don’t have to wash this one.” Rod placed his saliva-covered hand on Hank and pushed him aside. Hank could feel the germs crawling up and down his shirt. He wanted to run and throw it in the washer, but instead gasped with amazement. “Holy mother of God, do you smell like flowers, Rod?”
Rod whipped around. Jesus, he thought. He’d hoped that the Jack Daniel’s would hide that stupid scent. He wanted to shove Hank right out the door, but hell, his brother would probably pass out, die of a heart attack without his plastic gloves and that stupid micro bacterial thing he wore on his head like he was a damn beekeeper.
Rod knew his brother completely believed in some conspiracy crap that there was a sickness out there just waiting to kill them all. In the past few years of living alone, Hank had become obsessed with watching documentaries about all kinds of conspiracies. At first, Rod thought, some kind of weird thing with certain TV shows, but then his brother started leaving the house less and less and started cleaning and sterilizing everything around him. Not only did Hank’s cleaning compulsion and growing isolation drive Rod crazy, but he also resented it. His kid brother used to idolize Rod, they were inseparable, but now they felt like enemies with a line drawn between them; on the one side stood Hank with his insane belief that doom was around the corner, while Rod, on the other side, believed with a religious fervor that sickness and fear were for the weak-minded and emasculated.
Rod dropped the broken pick on the floor. He suddenly wanted to laugh. He couldn’t believe it; his little brother had found the balls to steal all of his soap.
He’d been so pissed this morning finding only his girlfriend’s lavender rose soap as he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, his beard covered in bacon grease (in his hungover stupor, Rod threw the whole pack of bacon in the pan, turning the flames on high). Rod sniffed at the bar of soap, thinking, Hell no. He didn’t mind the floral scent of the soap on Missy. Somehow it smelled on her like an oak tree with new spring leaves, and how could you not love the smell of an oak tree?
The bacon grease began to crust and form a waxy veneer. Rod had no choice. He was forced to wash each greasy hair with the soap. It took him more than an hour to get the hundreds of coiled hairs in his beard clean. As he ran the towel over his beard to dry, he waited for the scent of an oak tree or maybe a pine. He couldn’t believe it when he inhaled a ferocious aroma of flowers. It was as if thousands of roses and lavender had rooted into his skin and burst out into full bloom. He was so furious, his face turned a blood-scarlet red in the mirror, the same color as those damn screaming lobsters he boiled up at the campsite last weekend. Rod punched the wall; he would rather smell like those crazy, clawing shellfish than a florist shop.
Rod threw the towel down and decided he was going to get Hank for this. He thought, That little worm must have gone in the front door while I was hanging in the backyard with my friends. Now after a few shots of whiskey and standing in front of Hank, he was surprised to find himself fighting back a smile. Maybe even wanting to reach out and give Hank a pat on the back. His brother was still there, somewhere. They always pulled pranks on each other when they were kids.
Guess he shouldn’t have been such a dick to his brother, throwing a horseshoe at him last night and telling him to get the hell out and go feed his little pussy. But what the hell was Rod to think; Hank showing up frantic, saying he needed soap to clean canned cat food. His friends nearly falling over laughing at Hank and his weirdness.
Rod searched his brother’s eyes. They still had the same sincerity they had when Hank was eight years old and willing to share his new rocket he got for his birthday. Rod wondered if maybe he should say sorry, but as he took a deep breath, the scent of flowers filled his nose again and he grew angry. “Listen, you wacko, don’t you ever take my stuff again or I’ll make sure everything in here will get covered with millions of itty-bitty germs. Got me?”
Hank counted six crescent moon-shaped wrinkles beginning to form around his brother’s eyes, three on each side, as he wondered how did his brother become such a jerk. They were only three years apart in age, but Rod still thought of Hank as the little kid. Hank backed a few feet away from Rod to regain a protective distance.
“You know, Rod, right now, I really wish I had taken your soap, but guess what? I didn’t. Missy bought a bunch of food and things for you before she went away for the weekend. She came by here first, to say hi. I told her what happened. She was furious. She went to your place, got the soap while you were getting drunk with your friends, and gave it to me. Those guitar picks, they’re Missy’s. I thought I’d clean them for her. I just can’t figure out why a girl like Missy wants to be with someone like you.”
Hank had been close friends with Missy in college, long before she started dating Rod. He couldn’t believe it when she told him she was with his brother. Hank had always thought of Missy like Belle in the story of “Beauty and the Beast”; not only was she beautiful, but also kind. He never thought, when he introduced her to Rod, that Missy would end up with his brother as the Beast.
Missy didn’t seem to mind his beer belly, his unkempt, scraggly hair and beard, his obnoxious gang of friends, or his incessant stories of grandeur where Rod ended up being number one. His brother certainly wasn’t the country club type her parents associated with, but maybe that was the appeal, but for how long?
Hank went to his brother’s last night and asked him for soap to clean a case of canned cat food, but actually he had received a very important shipment of survival canned foods and water. He always cleaned anything shipped to him—it was the first step against disease—only Hank’s shipment of antibacterial soap was delayed until tomorrow. Hank could have waited, but the recent statistics on a sickness across the world made him nervous. He wanted to warn Rod, but before he knew it, the idiots were laughing and a horseshoe was headed Hank’s way.
Hank looked down at the broken pick on the floor. “Guess you didn’t know Missy played guitar. She also sings and plays the piano too. She gave me the cat. She asked me to take care of it for her, because you’re allergic. It’s her cat.” Hank began to walk away, realizing his brother would never accept the information that a terrible sickness could be imminent. There was no point explaining it or convincing him of it.
Rod seized Hank’s forearm and began to lean in so close, when Rod spoke, particles of spit from his breath invaded Hank’s eye, nose, and mouth. “You know what, you’re beginning to become a crazy little fuck with all this germ shit. Mom and Dad would twist in their grave if they could see you.”
Was this it, the moment that would bring Hank’s death? His mind raced as he received the forced inhalation of his brother’s whiskey breath. Was the virus already there? Living, growing, mutating, splattering out of Rod’s mouth and nostrils into Hank’s?
The growing distress vanishing in an instant, taking in Rod’s words. His thin arms seemed to expand, and his muscles bulked from rage as he shoved Rod across the room. “Don’t you say a damn word about Mom and Dad. Don’t you dare. You’re nothing but a fucking monster.”
Rod dropped his hands; he backed away, his bottom lip beginning to tremble. Hank was now the dominant brother, the one in charge. “You can act like Mr. Cool with your friends and with Missy, but I know the truth.”
Rod slammed the Jack Daniel’s onto the linoleum kitchen floor, the jagged cuts of glass slicing the faded linoleum in spots.
“Shut up.” As Rod was saying it, Rod was backing his own body into the wall, as if some invisible force was pinning him. “No one knew…no one knew.”
Hank walked over to the bar of soap that was from Rod’s bathroom and wet a paper towel and began to rub his face. He pulled off his shirt and threw it into the washer nearby as he started to walk away. Rod yelled out from his self-pinned position, “No one knew, you can’t say they did.”
Hank turned around. “Live with it, man, go ahead, drink your Jack Daniel’s and beer, drive your pickup to the mountains, but you won’t get away from it. You did it. You know you did. You killed them.”
“It was a cold, they had fucking colds.” Rod shrank down into a squat against the wall. They never spoke of it. He and his brother never spoke of it. Rod shook his head. He wasn’t a monster, he wasn’t.
“Go home, Rod, find your friends and get drunk.”
Tears ran down Rod’s face. He was crying, like a baby, a weakling. How could he have known when his parents called him that it would get worse. Was he responsible for their welfare? Hank, able to be so innocent because he was away at college, and Rod, the one home working. Was he supposed to rush home from his construction job because they had the sniffles? Sure, he went out with the guys. It was just a beer, then three; okay, so he got drunk. He didn’t hear the second call. He didn’t hear it; he fell asleep. Okay, maybe he passed out.
Rod forced his body to stand up; Hank was crazy, that’s all. As Rod started to leave, he stopped; he saw Missy’s handwriting. I love you, Hank, sitting under a box of canned cat food. Love? His brother? Had Hank and Missy…was there something going on?
Could Hank be trying to steal Missy away because of some sick desire to get back at him because he blamed Rod for his parents’ death? No, what the hell, that would be nuts. Besides, why would Missy choose an obsessed doomsayer? Rod scratched furiously at his beard. He always knew Missy was the kind of girl only rich guys got to be with, not guys like himself. Sometimes he thought she was too beautiful. He felt like a clumsy bear next to her delicate body. He was amazed every time she let him kiss her, stroke her smooth skin, or touch her nipples, which were pink and soft like rose petals.
He held the note in his hand, crumpled it, and walked out. She loved him like a kid brother, for taking care of the cat, something stupid like that. As he slammed Hank’s door closed, he heard a meow in the driveway, the cat…Missy’s cat. He went to find it. “Hey, cat, come here. Shit, I’ll take you to the house. How allergic can I be.” The cat continued to meow and meow. He looked around, and then by his feet, he saw the cat, her tail crushed under his truck’s tire. How the hell had the cat got under his tire? He began to cry. Jesus Christ, was he a fucking monster? Every tear came flooding. Had he killed his parents? He knew they were calling him. He ignored it; he wanted to party; he wanted to drink until he was numb; he was tired of his parents going on and on about how smart and talented his brother was and how Hank was going to be an amazing scientist someday, do great things, maybe even save the world. He hated talking to his parents. He didn’t want to hear it again.
Rod could never compete with his brother. He was stupid, bad on tests, and school was a nightmare. Construction work was something he was good at, where he was stronger, more capable than everyone on the job. Everyone at work admired him, thought he was special. He loved going out with them after work. Christ, he lived for it, the way they joked with him, slapped his back, and said he was the best worker. He was just as special as Hank in those moments.
The cat began to meow harder. Jesus, holy effen mother, if the cat died, he would be blamed. He would be a monster. Missy would think he was a monster, and everything Hank said about him would be true. He reached over. He had to get the tire off, save the cat; then he wouldn’t be a monster.
He rushed to the tool kit in the back of the pickup and put the wrench into the lugs. “Hey, cat, listen, you’re okay; don’t die, you got me?” The tire popped off, and he pulled the cat free. He scooped her up into his arms and hugged her, sobbing. He ran his hand over her body. Her tail was broken. “It’s okay, cat, you know it’s okay. You can heal from this. You can heal from this.”
Hank stood behind his brother. Maybe this was it, maybe this was the way his brother would no longer be the monster he’d become. Maybe this was how Hank could forgive him. Hank began to cough. Rod turned around holding the cat, and all Rod could think was Dear God, don’t let it be a fucking cold.
Lynne T. Pickett is a broadcast journalism graduate from Syracuse University. She also holds a post graduate certificate from Broadway’s Circle in the Square theatre school. Lynne has more than a dozen fiction pieces published online and in print. She grew up in the mountains of Pennsylvania where she loved to wander around old quarries and hidden cemeteries as a kid. Is it surprising that later as a teenager alone in her family’s old inn, her name would loudly float by her ear? Truth. Stranger than fiction.