should've named you polemos
To be honest, I don't know why I answered the door. There's no one on this planet who knows that particular way to knock besides Ethan. It's the tune I sang to him when we were kids and he was frightened. It's the song we listened to when he came to me for the first time again, after I hadn't seem him in two years, with a broken nose and a black eye and asked me, "So, how've ye been? Want to order pizza?"
I stare at him now, thinking of all the days in the past, where we were nothing but kids trying to figure out how not to get caught doing something we shouldn't. Ethan looks like someone from another family, all tall and pale and chestnut hair with big brown eyes—the complete opposite of me. He looks exactly the same as he did four months ago when I last saw him, when I told him not to come back again. He is still wearing the same stupid pair of shoes and I bet those jeans are the same too. The only real difference is the blood on his bare chest. Hell, even the bruises look the same as back then, as though he just keeps recycling them.
I always get this empty feeling when I look at him, when I think of him as a little boy, which is what I end up doing every single time our paths happen to cross. Back then, Mom liked to say you can't fix anyone that's broken—ever; she would tell us this with a cigarette between her lips, washing the dishes and glaring out of the window, trying to spot my dad in the garden.
Ethan's looking down at his hands, which are somewhat clean but shaking, and he looks sick. He always looks sick. I can never help but think about the year when he was four and so claustrophobic he was afraid of hugs. I used to find it funny; it really wasn't.
Nowadays, I wish that was still his biggest problem.
"What do you want?" I manage to ask. Briefly, I think about adding his name. I even consider moving towards him, just so I can close the door behind myself, wanting to keep him out some more, but he's so focused on something beyond me that I'm afraid to do either. I don't even repeat myself when he stays quiet.
I think of Ethan as a child, with his eyes devouring all the little details the world had to offer. He had a story for everything you picked out for him, and he had a way he'd smile that made Mom sick and turn away. He once said, "the one's who know how to truly hide are those who were seekers for far too long in life," when he was five and I am still not sure how exactly that slipped from a child's tongue. He had no experience in life back then, but he spoke as though he did because Ethan, little brilliant Ethan, always saw the light.
His eyes were always fierce, like he could pry me open with nails and tongue and words unspoken, and something inside of me would scream for me to go, to stop whatever I was trying to do, but the moment would pass too quickly for me to recognise it.
Now, while I continue to stare at him, I try to ignore the way he'd whispered, so, so long ago, in a voice that seems to have grown more desperate over the years on repeat in my mind, "It's all right. I am. I am all right," right before he decided to step out of my life for a while.
I pretend I can't feel the way my heart jostles. Instead, I join him looking at his hands, staring at those thin fingers. They look like he's been starved as a child, which I know he hasn't. There's a tinge of red to them. It looks a little fake, like the blackberries we used to eat. It makes me think that he might have wiped the blood off his fingers and palms and onto his chest, like someone would do to dry their hands on a shirt. It's certainly something he would do.
A dozen police sirens rang in the background.
We walked away, slowly, speaking to each other as though nothing happened while everything around us was a blur of colours and screams. Ethan laughed so loudly it rattled down my spine and bounced through the street, pretending I had told him some kind of joke. I smiled just to keep up the facade, but my muscles were tense.
The buildings were still aflame behind us. The matches felt heavy in my hand, a weight I wanted to rid myself of but couldn't. I wanted to do anything to let them go, but they were tethering me to this planet, to this moment—they were the reason I walked beside this fourteen-year-old boy who couldn't get enough.
All the ash made it look like it was snowing; I started hating winter that year.
We simply walked away from the scene we had caused, unharmed, with warm feelings in our guts, both for different reasons—a sour taste in my throat and on my tongue. This was a routine, something we did that became forgettable to him: wake up, eat, school, work, set fire to something, walk away—rinse, rinse, rinse, rinse—I bathed so often my skin felt raw—and repeat, again, cut, again, cut—take 1723.
I study him, and no matter how long, or often, I do such, I still don't understand how we've fallen so low. I suppose I should have; honestly, it wasn't as if he ever hid anything. Ethan was honest about who he was to me. But I still get angry, flashes of heat singe through my bones and it makes it hard to breathe because I don't do well with this sort of anger. I grit my teeth and try to swallow because I hate Ethan, God, I do. He makes me want to tear at my own skin just to rid myself of his touch.
I hold my breath for exactly three seconds before I exhale again. "Ethan," I say quietly, with much more force than I intended to, though.
But Ethan does not react. Ethan stands there, still staring at his hands as though he isn't sure if they are truly his. And it's weird seeing him like this, not quiet but gone because while my talents lie within drifting in and out of life as I please, Ethan is all flashing grins and loud laughs, a grenade—pin held loosely between his own fingers.
He's always been so poised about everything, elegant in a way I've always envied him for. He somehow knew how to be the right amount of insane. He and I, we used to breathe together, with his head on my chest and the smoke demolishing our lungs. Together, we were equal to a storm, but Ethan was the only one who got named for he was just so much more disastrous. I always wondered when exactly he would explode. I used to imagine how it would go down, had every scenario play out in my head like a black and white film.
I thought I would find some sort of sick pleasure in seeing him finally fall.
Obviously, I don't because watching him now, half-naked and bruised—avoiding eye contact—I still don't grasp any of it. Seeing him so lost within himself only makes me want to vomit, and the silence just continues to grow around us. I've see Ethan go from frantically psychotic to sudden shutdown in a matter of seconds, but—quite frankly, I like him more as a psycho; at least then he would be talking to me—never like this.
"The tank still full?" Ethan asked. He still had that grin on his face, one that was much too wide for it. On days like this, he seemed much older than sixteen. I looked over to Mom's car, trying to remember whether it was or not, and then ended up nodding at him. "Good. Let's go," he said, flicking his cigarette away and into the grass. He'd stolen Mom's pack.
I didn't move. I stayed right there on the edge of the farm and watched all the scarecrows in the field. They were burning—everything was. The skyline was black.
"Get a move on, slowpoke." Ethan pushed at my shoulders, but I couldn't move. I couldn't bring myself to walk away from this. "Hey, you okay?" Of course I am, I would have told him three years ago. That wasn't true nowadays. It wasn't true because what we were doing was sick; what Ethan did was sick. "Ye gotta talk to me," he said through gritted teeth, fingers clenching and unclenching by his side. The conviction in his voice vanished. He always wore it like a badge. I had never even heard him speak without it and that's what made me glance at him.
My chest felt like it was being crushed. I could feel every breath fight to be exhaled. "You killed the cat," I murmured. I could've sworn I saw him smile when I said it. I still have the picture of it behind my lids. I can still smell it, taste it on my tongue when I stood there, gaping at him beside the barn. I still see the intestines spill out of an open stomach.
"Everything dies," Ethan explained, "just speeding up the process."
I turned to stare at him, then. His hair was greased-back, soaked in the cat's blood he put there when he pushed it back again earlier as he looked up to speak to me. And I wondered, if I were to dissect him the same bitter way, would I find bone-chips, like the fine broken china from Mom's cupboard, lining his stomach, forming some kind of new creature that's bulging with all the fragmented dreams I had of him pulling his nails from his fingers?
Would I find something resembling a soul? Because I didn't think he had one.
"I ain't got a place to stay," Ethan finally says.
For a moment, I am stuck on memory lane. Ethan's a six-year-old boy setting fire to our curtains and laughing. He's a nine-year-old nailing birds to trees. He's ten and getting off on the idea that he could sacrifice mere mortals. He's an eleven-year-old boy knotting tiny ropes to hang the rats in our basement, forming colonies of dead bodies to burn when the piles become too much—sometimes cutting off their limbs to see them squirm and bite beforehand.
For a moment, he is just the little boy crawling into my bed and asking for protection from the monsters in his head, begging me to stop the itching underneath his skin.
And I don't want to say, "That's because no one wants you," but I do.
Ethan looks at me then, betrayal speaking volumes between us. I can only think of him as the hurricanes that last for hundreds of years on jupiter, and it frightens me to know that he likes the way fire feel against his skin. Nonetheless, Ethan... We don't have the same last name; we don't even share the same alcoholic father. I don't care if he has a home, not since he burned ours down when he was twelve. I don't care for him, but—I do.
It's just that I don't actually want to.
This is it, this moment right here defines us. This is the thing that will be our undoing, just some simple words, like a glass Mom handled carelessly once again, breaking in her hands and cutting her palms, but Mom is asleep and Christa, my daughter, is with her, and I know they won't wake. Neither of them ever do when Ethan comes to visit.
It's like I am attuned to the clumsy patterns of his breathing and the quiet way he carries himself lately, and no one else but me flinches when the motor of his bike rumbles behind the house. And...and my dad is dead and I don't think he ever knew what to do with Ethan either, besides just look at him in astonishment, knowing what he was up to but deciding to keep quiet about it, as though it wasn't all that bad, really, and the emptiness of his goodbye resides in my chest when Ethan looks at me that way because no one else knows now besides me.
Mom's sadness lingers like a weight on my shoulders, like a goodbye over the phone, and the traces I find of Ethan in my daughter's chestnut hair and big brown eyes scare me so much I am distant at times. And in the back of my mind Ethan is a four-year-old kid telling me that our parents just don't care because it's much easier to overlook things than to try and figure them out. That look on his face, that's it—that's what I can not handle, out of all of the horrible things we shared together.
And fuck it, I care that his chest rattles with the very breath I've just stolen from him. I care that his brows scrunch together and he looks at me as though he is trying to understand why I'd let the monsters have him. I care that his shoulders collapse as if a world had just been placed right atop them and he's hunched over as though, somehow, he could fold into himself and disappear and it would be better for both of us if he did, but he doesn't. Ethan doesn't know how to be nothing, how to stop himself from being the erring flare he's always been.
His lips tremble when he says, "Yeah." The word feels like it's dying on his tongue, and I don't even think that's possible, but that's just how he makes it feel, pink and brown, all mushy around the edges with pus leaking from its core. His eyes are wide; I can still see old Rick's farm burning there. "Yeah," Ethan repeats, a little quieter, "but I need you right now."
His hands are shaking and he holds them up, reaches out, keeps them right in front of my eyes, as though he's begging and it does not suit him—to grovel isn't his style. And just like that, I feel like he's chewed me up only to spit me back out with the tissue of my skin still stuck between his teeth like corn. I hold still against everything that tumbles through me, all the emotions that make me sick and I've honestly no clue why I am still standing.
The hallway smells like regret and that is all I am capable of breathing.
I watched Mom cry, fuss about the family pictures and oh how could we afford this. I watched her slap my dad across the face repeatedly, yelling at him, telling him how we could've had insurance if he wasn't so damn stupid. Dad knew exactly what had happened.
All the while, Ethan's eyes were alight with life and joy. He was practically bouncing on the heels of his feet. He reached out to the flames with one hand; his fingernails biting into my palm with the other. He had pointed earlier, repeatedly asking if I saw the light too—if I felt it.
He was godly, that was what kept trying to tell us, Ethan said.
I stood by, watching Mom scream and ask the firefighters if they knew how badly they were doing their job, holding Ethan's hand, which felt much too small in my own, much too cold for such a warm night, and I wondered if he felt the shaking of my own hand.
By now I should know better, but still, I clasp his shoulders and pull him into the house.
The sense of right and wrong has been trapped underneath my skin, inside my bones, and swallowed like pride so often it's practically gone. The dimly lit living room is still warm despite the raging winter outside. I tell myself it's because the draft was catching, that's the only reason I am letting him in this time—and the lie is so thick I can barely swallow. Ethan stumbles on his way in, suddenly unstable on his legs. His entire body is shaking, I notice.
"You always need me," I correct him while closing the door.
I can't help but think I edged him on further on nights where I went with him, setting fire to the world to feed whatever it was that needed sating inside of him. I also can't help the frown when I turn to look at him. He looks small, fragile even, and that's exactly what Ethan isn't. It's then that I wonder how long it's been since I let him move in with his demons.
I am not even sure anymore. I remember him telling me to be his hero and ever since then, all I ever see is my little brother asking me to make them stop, but I never could because I am not a hero. I am not trying to save the world. Sometimes, I am not even trying to save him.
Some days, I pretend Ethan doesn't exist, pretend I forgot him—but I can't.
I looked back at the car while Ethan was at a loss for words, licking his lips, nervous about the fact that I still hadn't moved, let alone spoken again. All I could think was that we were ruining lives, even if we hadn't ever hurt anyone physically.
The cat was the last straw. That was it; Ethan couldn't be fixed.
I knew Mom had a pistol in the glove compartment. I could just grab it and hold it to his head. Ethan wouldn't do anything. He would never harm me, I knew that without a doubt. I would just let go of the trigger and save so many people the trouble of having to live with him. I could just take his life and everyone would think it was suicide because Ethan was always just a little weird. Mom would complain about the funeral cost and it wouldn't matter.
"Don't leave me," he whispered. "Don't leave. What...what do I do without you?"
Ethan's just standing there, looking at me. The blood is so dry on his chest that it's already flaking. He looks fictional, as though he's crawled right out of a crime novel. His hair is a crazed mess and I think of Christa and the way she looks in the mornings after a good rest and how they look so alike. I take a deep breath, trying to stop my fingers from shaking.
The way Ethan looks at me, like he always looks at me, makes me feel like I am at fault. This is all my fault. I am older; I should know how to save him. I should know how to stop it all from making it harder and harder to breathe for him, his chest rising and falling, shuddering slowly with every breath he fights to take. I can see the way it all constricts him, eats him from the inside out and there is nothing I can do about it. I never could do anything about it.
"I am—" Ethan begins and stops; his voice is breaking. There's panic weaving through his vocal chords, and I feel like he'll start crying any minute now. It would be fine if he cried, but he never does. I've seen him cry once, when he was five, with closed eyes while his lashes glistened and casted feather-light shadows across his face. He cried, telling me he really didn't like doctors or needles or the way I hesitated before I touched him.
And he looks just like he had back then, like he would break down any moment now and ask me why I am hesitating to keep him close now, too.
Thinking back to our shared bedroom as kids, with the door always locked to make sure no one would come take him at night, I lean forward and kiss his forehead. He shudders beneath my lips. He smells like dirt and oil and blood, and Mom's old cigarette brand.
Ethan has always been this gleam, this comet, this radiant light—now worn and brittle—that, if it catches the right parts of the world, is somewhat inspiring. When we were little, he would go outside, stand in the middle of our little garden and spin in the grass; he'd just keep spinning, as though he would catch fire if he'd just do it fast enough—over and over and over again until he'd puke. Then, he would laugh at the sky.
I don't pull away—I never fucking do. I linger there, within his space, within the unfathomable between us. His breaths are warm against my collarbone and I bring my arms around his shoulders and pull him close. It's all I can ever do for him—all he's ever asked of me.
I always knew that something was swallowing him and I knew I could never stop it. It's never been a secret. There are days I feel so tired and thin, as though the mere thought of Ethan has managed to suck the life force out of me, like he's managed to peel my skin back and crawl between my organs to rest there, just for a little while.
I think of Christa and Mom and how Ethan will be gone before they wake; how they won't ever know he's been here. His scent will linger, as it always does, but no one will be able to trace it back to him. Mom will think it's my dad's ghost walking around the house and, as I usually do, I won't tell her to stop. I won't correct her. Ethan, whom I've taught to speak and walk and shown love to, will be gone and only his shadow will linger in my mind, curl around it and occupy it until I reach for a glass of whiskey to finally stop thinking.
"It wasn't a cat this time," he stammers eventually, wrapping his arms around me.
And all I can say is, "Do you want some pizza?"