national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Family Values

Emily Sinclair  • 
Emerson College

My oldest brother is named Levi, but he goes by “Tray” when he’s selling drugs. The alias occurred to him when he was high on meth and our brother Silas, in a similar state, put a cigarette out on his arm. Levi’s only response was to laugh and say, “you can call me Tray, Ash Tray,” and for whatever reason, the name stuck. I like to think his pseudonym is fitting; he’s always burning holes in his shirts when he gets too fucked up to keep his cigarette steady between two fingers.

I’m making dinner and Silas and Jude are smoking a joint when Levi calls my phone from Maine, mumbles something incoherent, and hangs up. He sounds stranger than usual, and when my brothers ask who called I tell them it was fucked-up Levi probably coming out of a K-hole on his girlfriend’s couch—it’s her apartment he’s staying in.

Levi is something of an anomaly among the four of us boys in that he’s the only one who can’t keep his shit together but still insists on living several states away where none of us can keep an eye on him. He thinks Jude and me are too young and inexperienced with drugs to make any comment on his various habits. Silas could probably get through to him if he wanted to, but Levi is his hook-up and Silas wouldn’t be able to pay for community college if not for the constant supply of weed he provides.

The thing about Levi’s being the oldest son in our family is that we’re something of a patriarchy and it doesn’t seem right for us to question his actions. There is some irony in the fact that he’s the smallest and least athletic of us. Despite the absence of the six inches the rest of us have on him, calling Levi out on being a fuck-up could be almost as grievous an offense as telling our father to lay off the beers cause he’s got work at seven the next day, or not take the truck out after finishing a fifth of Jim Beam. We’re the Byrne boys, and we can handle our shit, I guess. We don’t tell each other “That’s enough” or “You’re too fucked up,” cause it’s not and we never are. That’s the idea, anyway. Although I was too young to remember it, this is probably the reason my mom took off and moved across the country to live with some hippie-dippy-fuck-head and sell handmade jewelry for a living in Colorado. But we don’t talk about that.

The night passes uneventfully. My dad stumbles home around eleven from Blazer’s Tavern, bald head shining with sweat and flecks of whatever greasy slop he ate for dinner trapped in his full, gray beard. He claps me on the shoulder before going in to pass out, a gesture I’ve gotten used to, since as soon as I got to be as tall as he was we were done with all that lovey-dovey shit. I’m pretty sure I hear Jude puking after he and Silas have a shotgunning contest with the skunked thirty rack of Natty Ice that’s been sitting out in their room for at least a month. It’s Wednesday and I have my statistics class tomorrow so I’m not trying to get drunk. I like math and I like the guy that teaches it. I finish my homework around one and go outside for a cigarette when I hear the phone ringing. Everyone is out cold. I let it go to voicemail and some guy leaves a message. On the porch, his voice is tinny and I can’t make out the words. The phone rings again before I finish smoking but whoever it is doesn’t leave another message.

I go inside and press play on the machine. The message goes like this: “Hello, my name is Dr. Bradford and I’m calling from Mercy Hospital in Portland. We treated Levi Byrne for several fractures in his right leg and two cracked ribs earlier this evening. He gave this number as an emergency contact and I wanted to ask a few questions regarding the circumstances of his injury before Levi is released. You can reach me or another attending physician here at Mercy Hospital. Please call us back soon.” My chest is contracting like it does when I’m having an asthma attack and I feel an enormous amount of guilt for not calling my brother back earlier to see what the fuck he was saying. I run into Jude and Silas’s room and can’t get them to wake up, and my chest is so tight, and finally Jude hears me talking and swats me away and says, “Calm the fuck down, dude, he probably just overdid it and fell down somewhere, chill.” But he gets up when he notices that I’m wheezing and gets my inhaler and takes me out to the porch to sit down.

When he’s sure I’m settled in the lawn chair and won’t pass out, Jude goes into the kitchen and calls the doctor back. I watch him checking himself out in the kitchen window while he waits for someone to pick up, tousling his hair and flexing his abs like an idiot. He turns away and I hear him explain that Levi has been crashing at his girlfriend’s place in Portland and hasn’t been here for about a month, and we don’t know what happened, and how bad was the damage, anyway, to be calling someone’s home phone at one in the morning. He talks into the receiver for about five minutes then comes outside, puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them both, and hands one to me. I’m still shaking but my breathing is back to normal. I ask if Levi is okay.

“Chill, pussy, he’s fine, he just has to be in a cast for like two months.”

“Do they know what happened?” Jude looks at me in a way I haven’t seen before, gray eyes like flint in the dark.

“You gonna have another asthma attack?”

“No.”

“I guess he got jumped. Doc said he was pretty out of it when he came in, some lady found him by her car in a grocery store parking lot. Levi didn’t really say anything about what happened and it sketched the doctors out. He had alcohol and ketamine in his system so he probably didn’t even remember how to talk. You know Levi. He just went a little too far.” Jude seems like he’s expecting some kind of reaction, but all I can come up with is “I don’t know.” We finish our cigarettes and don’t say anything about the strange call from Levi or about being worried for him.

 

Other than an exhaustion-fueled screaming match with Silas and seeing some skanky sophomore get pulled over on the way to school, the next day is uneventful until third period. I borrow Jude’s truck like usual at lunch and drive the loop down Kearsarge Street through Davisville and back down Main Street to get back to school. The one thing I love about living in small town New Hampshire is the roads, which are often cracked or even unpaved but have no traffic and lead to some nice scenic spots. The loop I drive takes twenty-five minutes, during which I listen to my new Deertick CD through Jude’s blown-out speakers and smoke three cigarettes before heading back to school.

Our chem teacher is new this year, a former private school teacher originally from Holland. He has deep-set eyes and a large, sharp nose. I’m zoning out and sketching him as a predatory bird diving from the sky, talons out, headed for a student using a Bunsen burner incorrectly when Brooke Jackson opens the door.

Brooke is one of the hottest girls at school and, as such, has slept with two of my three brothers. I once fantasized about what it would be like to be her boyfriend, to hold her hand in the hallways, to have her over to my place to watch a movie and maybe cuddle her up in my arms so she’d end up using my chest as a pillow. I can’t imagine that now. Jude and Silas’s bedroom shares a wall with mine and I heard her in there fucking on four separate occasions, three times with Jude on school nights and once with Silas when we threw a party and she got drunk. I wonder sometimes if she knows I heard everything, heard her telling both of them that they had the biggest dick she’s ever seen, telling both of them they were the best lay she’d ever had.

Mrs. Jackson works in the main office and Brooke hangs out in there most afternoons because her mom likes to keep an eye on her. Sometimes she runs errands for the secretary. Today she knocks on the door and says, “Excuse me, Mr. Woolner, Ms. Keaton sent me down to grab Ryan Byrne.” I panic for a minute, thinking this must be about how I take Jude’s car on my lunch breaks, a privilege reserved for seniors only. I concentrate on keeping my breathing even as I follow her out.

“Do you know if I’m in trouble or anything?” Brooke laughs and flips her hair out of her eye, which I imagine must not be as effortless as it looks, because I can smell her hairspray from three feet away.

“Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t.” She winks. I think about asking if she’s trying to make a Byrne family hat trick out of her sexual career and say nothing. “Don’t be such a baby,” she says, “your dad called and wants you and your brother dismissed from school early. I was supposed to get Jude but I couldn’t find him anywhere.” Last week, Jude had mentioned that he was bored with Brooke plus there was a rumor going around that she might have herpes; there’s nothing worse than having some nasty chick you don’t want blowing up your phone all day. But I don’t tell her this. We walk down the hallway in an uncomfortable silence that I’m happy to uphold, and when we get to the office it’s not my dad waiting for me but Silas, who doesn’t return the high five I attempt or look me in the eyes. His hands are balled into fists. He signs me out of school and we walk to the parking lot without saying a word.

My dad is in the front seat of our family car—a beige Buick that guzzles gas but still hasn’t broken down after ten years and 250,000 miles. Silas gets in the front and I’m in the back with Jude, who doesn’t say anything to me either. The car is moving before my door shuts. We go up Maple Street and get on the interstate going north.

“What’s going on? Did something happen?”

“We’re going to see your brother.” My dad has a tall boy of Narragansett in his hand. He tips it to his mouth, chugs most of it, and sets it back in the cup holder.

“Ryan shouldn’t be here,” Silas mutters.

“Why shouldn’t I go? Levi’s hurt and I want to see him. Is he coming back with us?”

“Fuckin’ better be after this shit,” my dad says.

“What shit?” I ask. The heater is on full blast, making the air syrupy and thick.

“Your idiot brother got himself in a real mess.” Jude interrupts and explains to me that Levi knew who jumped him. It was his girlfriend’s twin brothers. He didn’t say anything to the doctor that treated him for fear of police involvement; the twins promised another round if anything like that happened. They dragged him off the couch of her apartment and drove him down the street to the empty grocery store lot and beat him senseless with a tire iron. Levi’s girlfriend, Caitlin, told her brothers that Levi had been smacking her around when he got high. That’s how it started.

“Not fuckin’ likely,” my dad says, “kid may be fucked up on one thing or another ninety percent of the time but Levi wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s as much of a hippie shithead as his mother. No way was he hittin’ that girl.”

“So what,” I ask. “Are we just going to get him and bring him home?” Silas looks at my dad with hard eyes.

“Yeah, Dad, why don’t you tell your sixteen-year-old son about your plan?” Without taking his eyes off the road, my dad backhands Silas with enough force to cut into his cheek with the class ring he still wears. Silas is silent as he rummages in the glove box for a napkin. He presses it to the wound and closes his eyes. Jude and I are wearing matching expressions— neutral, unaffected, pretending that our ears aren’t ringing with the sound of my dad’s hand on our brother’s face. It’s not like he hits us all the time.

“Ryan, you love your brother, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“None of you boys gets in trouble without the other three running to defend you, right? No matter what?”

“No, sir.”

“We’re just gonna to teach those two dipshits a thing or two about fuckin’ with the Byrnes. We’re gonna give ’em a taste of their own medicine. What do I always say?” His eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror.

“If you can’t take a punch you better not throw one,” I answer.

“Damn straight. We’ll show those faggots what’s what. My boy ain’t smackin’ anyone, not even their speed-freak whore of a sister, and he didn’t deserve what he got. No one deserves to get beat down cause a some bitch’s lies, am I right?”

We agree. Because we’re the Byrne boys, and we can handle our shit.

We drive for three-and-a-half hours to Portland in almost-silence, stereo set to classic rock. Every so often Silas looks back to me and opens his mouth like he has something to say but it doesn’t come out. I’m trying not to remember how sweet Caitlin was to me the few times Levi brought her by the house. She didn’t seem like a whore or an addict, although neither would be surprising considering the company my oldest brother keeps. It’s not like they’re bad people, they’re just as fucked up as he is, that’s all. I fall asleep eventually. When I wake up it’s dark and we’ve come to a stop.

 

Mercy Hospital stands alone, outside of the city, on a large hill. I think it would be a great setting for a zombie film. The building is gray cement and most of the structures are fairly tall—I can picture snipers perched on the rooftops, shooting at the undead hordes.

I shake myself awake when my dad cuts the engine. The car is wedged so close to the curb that I trip and almost fall when I try to get out. Jude pulls a face but no one says anything. Silas and our dad walk into the main entrance. We stay outside to smoke a cigarette.

“Don’t you hate being the two youngest sometimes?” Jude asks.

“Why?”

“Like, Dad and Silas are inside planning this whole thing out, and we don’t even get a say? What the fuck is that? Are we just supposed to be the muscle?” I laugh. Silas has at least fifty pounds of protein-fueled bulk on both of us. He takes a drag off his cigarette. The lights in the parking lot color him halogen-orange, exaggerating the sharpness of his face. “I mean I’m eighteen. I’m an adult. I guess they probably just want me to keep you company.” Jude doesn’t sound like he believes himself.

“I can handle it,” I say.

“Yeah, dude, I know.” He’s shorter than me, but he manages to pat my shoulder in a hesitant but encouraging way. Some flash of emotion makes his sharp face soften for just a moment, but he knows I saw it.

“Oh,” he says, “I almost forgot. I brought your inhaler, just in case.” I don’t like when he tries to be so protective, but I take it from him anyway.

My dad comes out with our brothers in tow. Levi has one arm around Silas’s shoulder and is holding a crutch with the other. His face is blue and yellow and distorted. One of his eyes is purple and swollen shut, with stitches over the eyelid. The last time I saw him he had dreadlocks but now his hair is cropped short and there is a bandage over a shaved patch above his left ear. Jude says, “Hey, man,” real quiet and I take the crutch from Levi and put his free arm over my shoulder so we can get him to the car faster. He is wheezing and takes away his arm to clutch at his ribcage, in so much pain that he is nearly doubled over.

In the car, Levi sits in the front and I squeeze between Silas and Jude. I can’t stop staring at the fingerprint-shaped splotches on his neck. The bruises are so dark they are almost black. He makes a joke about how good the painkillers were at the hospital and none of us laugh, so he just gives my dad directions to the small home improvement store where the twins work unloading trucks.

The further away from the main streets we get, the rougher the roads are. My father is grumbling about potholes and the poorly plowed heaps of gray snow that wall the road, making it too narrow in some places for another car to pass. Levi rambles on about how the brothers don’t usually get off work till about seven, and then they hit the bars, so maybe we should just follow them there.

“Really, Levi? A fight outside a bar? That’s about the most obvious fuckin’ place I could think of. Jesus Christ.” Levi’s pupils are too large and he’s gnawing on his lower lip.

“I don’t know, Dad,” he mumbles. “We don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do this.” In the closest thing to a tender moment I’ve seen my father have with any of us, he looks at Levi, his blue-steel eyes soft and wet and gentle-looking. “You’re my oldest son, kiddo, relax. I know I give you a lotta shit, but let your old man take care of it for once.”

“Thanks.” Levi’s eyes dart back and forth. They are large and green, like our mother’s. He probably bears the closest resemblance to her of the four of us. I am the spitting image of my father, six-foot-four with a premature beer gut, straight nose, and the ability to grow a full beard by eighth grade.

“But you really don’t have to—”

Silas says “Shut up,” and his voice is air in the dead of winter, cutting your skin even when the wind isn’t blowing. Levi bites his lip so hard it bleeds, just a drop caught in the pale chapped skin around his mouth. We take a hard right into the lot he points to, which is almost too large for the cottage-sized building in the center with its dilapidated advertisement board promising the lowest prices and best customer service in all of Maine.

Levi makes this animal noise, a whimper, and we see two guys swagger out the front doors and head around back. From the car I see one of them hold his two fingers to his mouth like he’s got an invisible joint in his hand and the other one laughs and makes this noise like he’s hitting a bong. Both of them are built like boulders—average height, maybe even a little stocky, wearing bomber jackets and stained canvas work pants. They look like they could put up a fight, but they also move slowly, and something about them makes me think they’re not too bright. Except for the greased-up black hair, I imagine that’s how I look from behind; maybe I’m a bit bigger, and less sure-footed. Jude says “fags,” and Silas scoffs. Levi sinks lower and lower into his seat. My dad cuts the lights and cruises in low gear, keeping his distance before sidling up behind a large dumpster, positioning the car so that we remain unseen by the twins in the back lot but can keep them in our sights.

The words of my family are white noise. My father and Silas are out of the car and on these two unsuspecting nobodies so fast they can’t even get the first hit off their joint. Jude’s breathing is ragged and he whispers some inaudible mantra to himself, clearly in his own head as far as I am in mine. He doesn’t respond to anything I say. I watch my dad hit the first twin he reaches, square in the eye with his ring hand. He goes down. The remaining twin keens, emitting this feral lowing I’ve never heard come out of a man’s mouth, and jumps for Silas, kicking out his leg from behind. Jude sees this, tears out of the car and opens the trunk, bringing out the bat Dad bought him when he was a freshman and thought maybe all he wanted to do was play baseball. I remember how heavy it was, how Dad called him ‘slugger’ and ruffled the shock of corn silk hair he has, just like the rest of us. Jude is on the second twin with his bat. He winds up like he’s waiting for a pitch, aims for the back of the guy’s head, and swings. The sound of wood on flesh is dull and almost wet. The twin falls back in slow motion—his knees buckle, ankles give out. His body twists until he lands face-first on a carpet of salted asphalt. I wonder about a pulse.

Levi is trying to get my attention, I think. He’s screaming out of the car window, totally freaking out, yelling, “Shit, bro, shit, Caitlin is gonna be here to pick them up! Dude, fuck! I didn’t mean for this to happen…I didn’t mean for any of this to happen!” The brown-red stain on the bandage behind his ear seems to have blossomed, expanding larger still. The stitches on his eyelid seem to swell and pop. A thin red stream runs down his face from the wound; Levi’s blood pressure accelerates as rapidly as my airways begin to close.

“Ryan!” My father calls me. This is a dream. I am removed. I walk over to my father, standing above the first twin. He tells me to hit him, I think, but I’m not sure; he sounds muffled and I can barely breathe or see. I get him square in the nose. My father eggs me on, cheering for me the way he always did for my brothers at their games. Silas gets himself up from the ground and watches me with wild eyes. I’m imagining Levi curled up in a ball, all bleary eyes and slurred words, these two guys yanking him off the couch so fast he doesn’t even have time to clear his head, to ask what he did, to beg for them to stop. Innocent Levi, misguided Levi—it’s not like he could hurt anyone, it’s not like he knows how to fight.

I punch the stranger in the face over and over again. Up close, he looks about my age, maybe still in high school. I hold a lighter in my fist to support my fingers, the way Jude has taught me. After the fifth strike I feel his nose give way. The sixth hit is a broken tooth—the jagged edge cuts into my knuckles and I am blinded by the purest rage I have ever felt. How dare this little motherfucker think he can hurt my fucking family and walk away? In my head there is only the sound of my own ragged breathing and an image of the bruises on Levi’s neck. My hands are at the guy’s throat when my father pulls me away. I wonder if he was the twin who left those marks on my brother. I shout at him, did you think you were a tough guy while you were choking out my brother? Levi couldn’t hurt a fly, I scream through coughs, choking noises. Dad wrestles me away from this fucker right when I start to see spots and I hear Levi yelling from the car, “She’s gonna be here soon!”

Jude pulls Silas up and kicks my twin in the ribs, over and over, till I hear him puking. Silas takes the bat and hits him over the head. The sound is loud and final, and when I hear it I imagine brain matter crushed up between fractures of skull. I stop breathing. There is blood on my pants that isn’t mine. Jude drags me to the car and puts me inside and he’s screaming for my dad to go, seriously, “Jesus Christ, hit the fucking gas!”

Our windows are down. Before my dad can get the keys in the ignition I see the first twin stumble to his feet. When I push myself up to see, he’s shaking his brother and calling out in that same guttural way, only this time it’s a name.

“Andrew!” he howls, “Andrew, goddammit, get up! Please, Andrew.” The engine drowns him out. Jude shakes my inhaler and holds it to my mouth. The edges of my vision morph into the sort of blackness that happens right before you faint, before you surrender and collapse into silence and darkness.

We whip around the corner of the store, out of the parking lot. There are no cameras; my father does a sweep to check for security. As we approach the exit, all my brothers and our father speaking in a strange fuzzy language and my eyes narrowing to slits, a black sedan enters the parking lot. Caitlin’s car. I remember it cause I went to the liquor store with her once, in New Hampshire, to show her Levi’s favorite local beers. Her blonde hair is pulled back and she doesn’t look over at us.

The right side of her face is a yellow-green-blue-black mess of bruising. Her eye looks like my brother’s. She has a deep gash below her mouth. Before I lose consciousness, I look at Levi, trying to ask him what the fuck you sonofabitch how fucking could you but he meets my stare and presses a finger to his lips. He is crying, or maybe pretending to. He mouths the word, please.

I wait for the nausea to come. I feel like I should be sick. I want to vomit out of my window and collapse on Jude’s lap, stay unconscious for the rest of the ride while I try to grapple with the knowledge of what Levi made us do. What I did. Instead my stomach is quiet and settled and my eyes are dry. I have been biting the inside of my cheek with such force that I taste iron, the same color and smell as the fresh stain on my jeans. If I could see inside my own head, I imagine it would be empty—empty and white and still and quiet.