Blood Brothers by John McManus

I first met Ray up in the moun­tains at the I‑40 rest stop, where I used to go to meet guys some­times. I found him lean­ing against a wall, albi­no-pale, with these watery fish eyes. We messed around in a stall for a bit, and then he told me to meet him at the red truck out by the ravine.

In his truck cab he pro­duced an uncapped light bulb. Below us roared the Pigeon Riv­er. "Keeps you up," he said, "as in hard," and I yelped when it burned my fin­gers. He barked a joy­less heh. We got to talk­ing: his wife was Sheila and mine was Lisa, and his kids were Ray Jr and Angel and I don't have kids. After we were too high to talk I guess I told him to start dri­ving. Two days and we were in Tul­sa. Now it didn't mat­ter if the bulb was hot; the burn felt good. Some­times he'd smack me upside the head, which we both liked. He asked what I'd do if he broke my arm.

"Go to the E.R."

"But to me."

"Break yours back?" He nod­ded like it was the right answer. He knew this stuff; so did his wife, who had more sense than to do what Lisa does, which is report me miss­ing. Six days after I'd met him we rolled back into Pigeon Forge to find the cops at my place. "Dri­ve," Ray growls, so I did. Halfway up the moun­tain he pulled a sheath knife out and held it to my throat. "You've been film­ing me," he said. "I don't care if it's your wife that called; they've seen the film."

He was giv­ing off this ugly lead­en smell, and I could feel blood drain­ing down through me, through my neck. "Thought it was you film­ing me, Ray."

Ray looked behind us as if back toward Okla­homa, low­ered the knife, and said, "Makes you jumpy."

"Lisa, she was the one."

"If you're a cop, you're a brave cop."

He motioned for me to face him. When I did, he put the knife to my wrist and cut it open. My yell came out as a heh like his laugh. He did the same to his wrist and pressed them togeth­er. He said it was a Bowie knife from the Indi­an Wars and we were blood broth­ers. I said, "But what about…" and the loons hollered and he said if you catch it, you get the flu, is how you know.

At his house, a log cab­in, a girl was jump­ing on a pogo stick. "Call if you get the flu," he said, but then I left with­out his num­ber. Back home Lisa ran bare­foot into the mud and beat her fists on my chest. "I don't know," I told her as she car­ried on, "I woke up an hour ago out­side the hos­pi­tal." Next thing I knew I was in the paper, which upset my ma. When I was twelve, she'd had a heart attack, and from that day on she went to church and nev­er smoked. Lisa always told me "you're lucky your ma's so young" but truth is she wast­ed it on that heart attack. Any­how she arranged for tests, my ma, and I set off mean­ing to have them, but on a bill­board I saw a girl with black teeth under the words "Meth Destroys." Some­thing gunned in me like a jake brake and I decid­ed to find that girl, get her high. I went to Ray's and he walked out in his box­ers fol­lowed by his wife. "You slept?" he said.

"That was a week ago."

"So you slept."

"Can I come in?"

There was this Chero­kee in their house, and the four of us messed around while a pit bull watched from a cage. Next thing, the Chero­kee was lead­ing Sheila and her kids away. "I'll nev­er see those kids again," Ray wept.
I won­dered if I'd missed some­thing. "Is there more?"

"You want to be my bitch?"

"What do you mean?"

He reached over, stuffed my balls between my legs, and said, "My bitch." We drove across to Chero­kee and played slots until we had cash to start cook­ing again. He had me wear Sheila's panties when I went out for Sudafed. Law makes you buy just a lit­tle at each store but it adds up. So does the mon­ey, and we were broke when AT&T offered ten thou­sand to let them put a tow­er on Ray's land. They dis­guised it like a pine and birds nest­ed in it like it was any oth­er tree. Ray would come upstairs with these water bot­tles and say go for a bike ride. In my bot­tle cages they sloshed around and mixed up while I tried to climb Mt. Cam­mer­er. Each day I got a lit­tle clos­er to the top. The day I made it, there was a green cloud like an anvil mov­ing across the val­ley. It hit me with a spray of mist and then I was open­ing a bot­tle, offer­ing it my mix. A car sped by and I chased it down the slope and caught it, flipped it off, sped home to Ray.

"Where's the oth­er bot­tle?" he said.

I seized up: I'd left it at the summit.

"You drink it?"

"Can you drink it?"

"Well, you'll die."

At first I believed I real­ly had. "Guess that's your pun­ish­ment," he said.

"Don't you care if I die?"

"There's more of you where you came from."

That kind of emp­tied me out, which he saw. "Just kid­ding," he said after a while.

"So you think there's more of me."

"Well, just go fetch that bottle."

Folks would come at all hours. There was a deputy who bought five hun­dred at a time and we would lis­ten to his cop radio. One day, hon­est, a dude report­ed his wife had pissed in his cof­fee. "Call and say we'll report to the scene," said Ray. We piled in, Ray and the cop in front and me behind the grid. The siren screamed as we sped across town. At the man's house Ray told me, "Stay." I tried to get out any­how but I was locked up. Whole hours passed before they came out chuckling.

"What hap­pened?" I said when they got back in.

"Filed a report," said the cop, and then a look passed between him and Ray. "Did he think you were both police­men?" I asked as we drove off.

"Maybe you should beat him with your stick."

"Replaced our sticks with Tasers."

"Tase him, then."

"Why don't you?"

"Won't fit through the bars."

"I'll pull over."

We veered off onto a dirt path and then Ray got out. "Stand up," he barked at me. A wild boar was watch­ing us from the woods. It had come to pro­tect me, but Ray would tase it too. Stay back, I begged it in my head, and Ray lift­ed the Taser and at the last moment, as I shook, he said, "Just kidding."

Things got bet­ter. We drove to a cock­fight and bust­ed it up, then went to anoth­er and won some cash. There was a guy the cop said was Dol­ly Parton's broth­er. He smoked with us and Ray said, "Where's your big tits," and when he got mad Ray pulled the Taser out and tased him and we took off. Then the cop got to talk­ing about Dol­ly and her songs. He said she'd writ­ten more songs than any­one in his­to­ry, thou­sands upon thou­sands of them. "I admire that," he said. "Me, I've writ­ten ten, maybe twelve songs."

I said, "I bet she'd be hav­ing fun if she was here with us."

Instant­ly I got scared they'd tase me for being a pussy again, but they must have liked it, because she got in and rode along with us for a bit. She'd done this deal with the gov­er­nor called Imag­i­na­tion Library where poor kids get free books. It was on all the bill­boards, and Ray's kids had read some of those books. Why she was in the car, she'd found out Ray'd stole them from her. I thought to warn him but I looked up and the next light was her road, Dol­ly Par­ton Park­way. The cop thought his own fin­gers were the ones that hit the sig­nal, and I froze and next thing we're at Dale's, but if I tell you we watched Dale screw his girl and took his cash and pis­tol-whipped him, you won't see how I sat frozen while that bitch stared through me and steered us toward hell. She want­ed to show me what hap­pens in hell when you give AIDS to your wife. She had it from her hus­band and that's what her songs were about. She wouldn't kill us just yet cause it would all be there wait­ing, come time.

I woke up alone with a note by the bed that said "Call your mom." I drove to my ma's and let myself in to find her at her table, writ­ing. "Knock knock," I said.

"Hi," she told me with­out look­ing up.

"You copy­ing a recipe?"

"Where's Lisa?"

"Is it your brownies?"

"Who's Ray?"

"He's my blood brother."

I could see she wasn't mean­ing to bake brown­ies. There were some med­ical instru­ments lying around—a blood pres­sure cuff, a stetho­scope, a roll of gauze—along with sev­er­al pill bot­tles, and I fig­ured she was intend­ing to put Ray out of business.

"Lisa called here not fif­teen min­utes ago."

"So then you know where she is already."

"She told me she was at Shoney's."

I can't explain. It was like all women were inside her right then, cussing me for not want­i­ng them hard enough. I got to feel­ing she was a cop. I said if you're so naïve, why'd you have that heart attack? I knew I just need­ed a hit, so I head­ed back to Ray's, but no one was home. For the first time I went down to the base­ment and turned the knob. There he was in a chair, wear­ing a shirt and noth­ing else, waiting.

It took me a sec­ond to scream. I jumped and hit my head on the low ceil­ing. "Remem­ber when you told me you'd break my arm?" he said.

I shook my head, stam­mer­ing sorry.

"How would you do it?"

"I know you don't want me down here."

"Tell you what, go buy some whiskey. Here's twen­ty bucks."

I stum­bled over myself run­ning back upstairs. I knew he'd call his bud­dies, which was too much to bear. I sped through the holler full of dread. I ran over a dog and decid­ed it belonged to a boy who told his dad my license plate so now I'd have to go back the long way while Ray screwed the whole state.

The clerk was a lady I hadn't seen before, with icy eyes the col­or of blue Kool-Aid. "Back for more?" she said.


"Run out?"

She was nod­ding at me, her curls bob­bing along with her nods. "Of what?"

"George Dick­el?" she said, and I thought, maybe I've got a twin, maybe Ray's doing him right now and drink­ing his Dickel.

"I'm an only child."

"I'm the youngest of ten."

As she stared through me, I felt more fear than any sol­dier at war, but she rang me up and let me go. On the way home I passed the tooth girl and tried to count my teeth by feel­ing them with my fin­ger but I lost count. I recalled find­ing Lisa on the phone with her friend, gig­gling about me. She thought Ray was part of her plan but the joke was on her, because I was in love, and I decid­ed right then to help him get his kids back.

I car­ried the bot­tle in, unscrewed the cap, and pre­sent­ed it. "Look," Ray said, ges­tur­ing out the win­dow behind me. I turned and saw the pine woods across the road.

"You mad about the base­ment?" I asked.

He shook his head. "While you were gone," he said, "I real­ized I hate you."

I fig­ured he was jok­ing, so I laughed. "That's what a pussy you are," he said: "I say I hate you and you laugh."

I set the whiskey down and asked what was going on.

"I got you screwed up and screwed your mar­riage up and nev­er used a rub­ber and your ma won't talk to you, but you like me."

"So I should hate you?"

"So I should hate you?" he mim­ic­ked in the high voice of a pussy.

"What do you want me to do?"

He shook his head. "Noth­ing. Stay here. I'm gonna go find my wife."

He descend­ed the porch stairs to his car. "Stop," I called out, tear­ing up, and he point­ed at my tears and said, "There's the prob­lem with you."

After that things start­ed to change. I start­ed want­i­ng to lose my teeth out of just spite. Weeks passed. I looked around for the bill­board girl and found her in Knoxville. Her name was April and she took me to see some folks. There was a dude that hotwired cars, who drove me to the Atlanta bath­house. He left after a few days but I stayed on. Your body needs dreams but you can get them while you're awake. Every few days I bought some­thing to eat from a machine. One day I got sick with fever chills, then I got bet­ter. When I final­ly went out­side, two weeks had passed, because that was how long my car had been impound­ed. The bill was twelve hun­dred dol­lars, which meant it was totaled. I walked to Big Lots, found a truck, and hotwired it, which was the start of not being a pussy. The sun was ris­ing as I reached Mia­mi. I looked in the rearview and saw the weeks of fast­ing had chis­eled my face, which led me to meet some folks. We drank rum in pools and sang Auld Lang Syne and one day I froze up and real­ized it had nev­er got­ten cold.

"It don't," said Vince, the sil­ver-haired guy I'd been hang­ing with, but there'd been oth­ers before; now sud­den­ly we were alone.

"What month is it?"

"March," he said.

"I had a birthday."

"Well, hap­py birth­day." A grin stretched out from either side of his cig­ar. I asked if he'd seen my phone. "They turned it off," he said, "remem­ber?"

I felt uneasy as he hand­ed me his. Out­side on a deck fac­ing the canal I called the only num­ber I could recall. It rang twice before I got an error mes­sage. If I want­ed, it said, I could hang up and try again.

"City and state?" said 411.

I had to grip the rail­ing to keep from tum­bling into the water. "Pigeon Forge, Ten­nessee. Dr. Lighter."

They con­nect­ed me auto­mat­i­cal­ly. Each ring was a shock to my chest but I kept hold­ing on. "Doctor's office," said my wife.

I spoke her name. "You're alive," she said.

"Where's my ma?"

"We tried to find you."

"Lisa, come on."

"It was in Novem­ber, she—"

I threw the phone in the water. The num­ber was on her ID, though. She could give it to the cops. That's what I'm most ashamed of: let­ting myself think about her ID when I'd just learned about my ma.

I nev­er went back inside. Twelve hours lat­er a sign said Wel­come to Ten­nessee. Below those words it said the state was home to Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore, but that had been years ago. I sort of broke down on the shoul­der. The cop asked what was wrong and I point­ed to the sign. He told me to get on up the road and that's what I did. For months I got up the road to wher­ev­er I could. I fig­ured I'd smoke till I died, which would hap­pen when my mind ran out of dreams. All I had to do was quit dream­ing. I would dri­ve through the night, and if I start­ed to dream, I slapped myself. One morn­ing I round­ed a curve and saw the moon over Mt. Cam­mer­er. It had nev­er risen so late before. I start­ed keep­ing a list of the things it does. I built up a book of them that could have bro­ken some ground but there was no use so I ripped it up and kept on dri­ving. One of those AM sta­tions was shout­ing about patience when the preach­er asked, What will you miss when you're dead?

It was the stretch where it stops being Dol­ly Par­ton Park­way and goes to two lanes. I was over­tak­ing this car. I slammed on my brakes by the sign for For­bid­den Cav­erns. I know how it works in those caves, you go through them togeth­er in a group. The whole group gets to know each oth­er and makes friends. What will you miss, said the man, and I looked at the hills and thought, There's noth­ing I'll miss. Not Lisa, because I can't stand what I did, and not my ma because she's gone. As for Ray, my head sent a sig­nal to my foot just as a semi round­ed the bend. I sped up hop­ing to crash into it. The dri­ver would prob­a­bly live but if he didn't, I've hurt plen­ty of folks any­way. I won­dered if my ma would be there when I died, shak­ing her head along with the fuck­ing Lord. I start­ed to cry. My vision blurred and I fig­ured it would keep blur­ring from there into obliv­ion, but at the last minute the truck­er ruined it by pulling onto some dirt.

That's when I drove to the rest area. I sat there touch­ing myself as fam­i­lies pulled in and their dogs peed and final­ly a Hum­mer parked beside me. "You par­ty?" said a fel­low in a Braves cap. "I've got tons of room."

His win­dows had a full tint, so we put down the seats and messed around, noth­ing spe­cial till he pulled a phone out and said, "Know about this?"

"About your phone?"

He swiped the screen and I looked down to see a grid of thumb­nail pic­tures labeled with names. "It's in order of how close they are."

I touched one, and the screen filled up with a guy named Josh. 10 Miles Away, it said in the cor­ner. "So it knows where I am?"

"No, it knows where I am."

"Moon's about to rise." I point­ed through the sick­ly tint of his rear win­dow. Ten sec­onds lat­er it began to peek above the sum­mit of Mount Cammerer.

"Here's a dude look­ing for now, and he smokes for sure."

I took the phone and stared down at the inim­itable fish eyes of Ray. To appear calm, I stopped breath­ing. He didn't look so pale any­more. Maybe he'd fol­lowed me to Florida.

"Hit 'chat,'" the guy said, and I obeyed. It occurred to me to type hey, which float­ed up the screen in a yel­low bub­ble. Sec­onds lat­er came the response: 'Sup?'

"Say '."

'Noth­ing,' I wrote instead, and then 'Horned up' chirped onto the screen. The guy grabbed the phone from me and typed with both hands. I watched the moon rise and shrink while my gut did the oppo­site. "Dude says come over," he exclaimed, and I looked into the future and saw my teeth fall out of me. It would hap­pen that day in 2012 when every­one thinks the world will end. What they mean is the world will car­ry on, but for each per­son some­thing impor­tant will fall out of him.

"I'll tail you," I said, pock­et­ing the phone, know­ing he was too high to notice. I fol­lowed him until we came to an exit ramp. As soon as he'd passed it, I swerved off, crossed the high­way, and turned around toward the first clear des­ti­na­tion I could recall. I fig­ured I had until morn­ing before the account froze. The radio preach­er was say­ing we're made of dust and it won't take much air for the Lord to blow us away. He said one lung of the Lord is the size of the world. I pulled into Hardee's and signed on to find five guys with green dots: Clay, James, Anchovi, Just Lookin, and Kid. Kid was Ray and his dis­tance was twelve miles. I checked my own pro­file: I wasn't the Hum­mer fel­low, but a black guy called Tyrone, twen­ty-one, head­line read­ing "Don't fall in love with every­one you see."

I ordered a ham­burg­er, the first time in days I'd thought of eat­ing. A long jour­ney faced me. An infi­nite num­ber of direc­tions led out from me, and I had to try each one—but sud­den­ly Kid was eleven miles off. After a minute I hit the but­ton again and it said ten. I thought of the jack pine and how read­i­ly Ray had agreed to it. He was com­ing for me and I had no weapon. They hand­ed me my burg­er. I thought I might puke, but some­thing in me reached out and devoured it and I was revved up with gas. I guess that that's when I began think­ing straight. I'd imag­ined dri­ving in cir­cles, hunt­ing Ray like a fox, skirt­ing his cir­cum­fer­ence. I saw now that the phone was a shield. There were eight miles between me and his house, and he was eight miles away, but the road twist­ed in on itself so many times that it was of no con­cern to my pulse to go there.

Back in the car I talked along with the radio to calm myself. Halfway there the phone said five miles, which was bad, but I remind­ed myself it was sup­posed to feel good not being a pussy. That's why oth­er guys liked it so much. I grit­ted my teeth and pulled up to his house and the phone said sev­en again. Maybe it was bro­ken. I used my key and the door creaked open. If he could see me on his phone I looked like a black kid named Tyrone—unless he knew to begin with and my mug had a green dot in his head. That's how it will be in anoth­er few years: like now, but in your head, we'll dri­ve all night just look­ing for folks in our head.

I felt my way to the base­ment and plugged in the bulb. It swung on a cord in front of a mir­ror in which I saw a St. Andrews cross and a work­horse. I walked to the clos­et and swung the plank and there was the knife. Its han­dle was wood and its blade curved and I'd for­got­ten what war it came from.

I was climb­ing the stairs again when my phone rang. Damien War­man, announced the touch­screen, and he said, "Where are you?"

"I'm not telling," I said.

"You two think you can treat me like this?"

I was get­ting ready to apol­o­gize when I remem­bered this wasn't my phone and a non-pussy would take advan­tage of that.
"Who are you?" I said.

"Screw you, bitch."

"No, I asked a ques­tion. If you want to live—if you want to sur­vive anoth­er minute of your worth­less life, then answer it."

There was a gulp. "Where's Tyrone?"

"Dead. You're next."

"Where is he."

"No, you tell me where you are."

"Down­town Hilton."

"Well, you best get your­self out of that Hilton."

I can't tell you what a thrill it gave me to say these things. I hung up, and then the screen showed the earth in space, the clouds mov­ing in real time. The moun­tains were inch­ing toward dawn. I guess the cam­era was on the moon. My blood heat­ed up in antic­i­pa­tion of sun­rise. Just as I was about to catch fire, Damien Warman's name flashed across space. To be a pussy was to answer, to say just kid­ding, so I hit ignore. I found some gin and took a swig and real­ized the dog should be bark­ing, so I went upstairs to his cage, in which he lay dead.

I had a new mes­sage from Kid. "Sup," it said.

"Not much," I wrote.

There was no response, so I looked at his pro­file: four miles.

I began to feel time slow­ing down. I went out into the night and ran the knife blade along my fin­ger. It felt intense­ly strange, and I real­ized why: I was sober. I pricked anoth­er fin­ger, then pricked them all and rubbed the blood on my pants. The cuts all stung. I was so sober I could feel pain. I looked at the moon, which was bisect­ed by the jack pine, and knew on any oth­er day I'd have believed it was broad­cast­ing my thoughts to Ray. I checked the phone again and saw a dis­tance of two miles.

It was curvy those last miles. I had about four min­utes. There's a lot you real­ize when you get sober. It occurred to me to look up "Zeela Tip­ton 1950–2009" on the phone. I read, "After an ill­ness, Zeela went Tues­day to be with the Lord." I learned she was sur­vived by two broth­ers and a daugh­ter-in-law. I knew I might meet the Lord soon myself, and I want­ed him to know there was some good in me. I typed Lisa's num­ber into Tyrone's phone and wrote, "Ask Dr. Lighter for a blood test."

The noise of a motor fad­ed and grew clos­er. The phone said 500 feet. I hit refresh and it said 700 and then 350, which was about right.

I went in and pulled out the fus­es. Through the peep­hole I watched a sin­gle shad­ow climb out of a car. My pulse was about four hun­dred. I saw the shad­ow lurch for­ward and grow larg­er. I had read the obit­u­ary to help urge myself ahead. I moved from the hinged to the unhinged side of the door. A siren blared for a split sec­ond. The last thing before he came in, I looked at the phone, which said zero feet.

The door swung open and his hand reached through the dark. I clutched the knife and plunged it into his arm. It sank eas­i­ly into his flesh. I pulled it out and saw his eyes bulge as I stabbed again. As the blood spurt­ed onto me he lunged toward me and I held tight onto the hilt. "Sarah," he said as he sank, which is when I knew what that siren had meant.

He con­tort­ed away, mak­ing gur­gly nois­es. I let go and ran out­side. The cruis­er win­dow was open, and I could hear cops on the radio. "How do you know a Ken­tucky girl's on the rag," one of the cops asked, and then they all laughed as the pines heard my phone ring.

I've writ­ten ten, maybe twelve songs, I thought.

"Babe?" said Ray when I answered it. "I heard you're back in town."

"How'd you hear that," I man­aged to say.

"I was on my way to you but I drove into the river."

"I don't live at your house anymore."

"Lisa nev­er answers your door."

"I gave her AIDS. I caught it from you."

"But you nev­er came down with the flu."

"You've ruined my life."

"I have some crystal."

The blue of the light bub­ble gleamed in moon­light as he told me he was at the S‑curve near his house. "I like you," he said, and I told him that was retard­ed and he said, "I'm try­ing to say things that I mean."

His front door wouldn't budge. I broke the win­dow with a brick and climbed in and saw the cop sit­ting up against the door, meet­ing the Lord. I reached in his pants for Ray's phone. I held it in hand and checked the dis­tance: 2000 feet. A chill went through me then, because Ray had just talked to me on his own phone. It was like Ray had been talk­ing to me from the cop's pock­et. I put the phone in my own pock­et with the oth­er two. I imag­ined the phones all talk­ing to each oth­er and to the pine trees. If I was high I might have tried to saw down the cell tow­er. Its trunk was met­al but I'd have made saw­dust out of the wrong pine and felt safe.

As I drove the cruis­er, I checked my mes­sages: Sup. Hey stud. Where u at. One was named Lucifer and he was ten miles away, which I guessed was ten miles down. I passed Dol­ly­wood, which is on a back road in a holler, not where you'd expect. I drove deep­er into the for­est. Final­ly I pulled off by a precipice where at the bot­tom of a ravine Ray stood by his wrecked car in water up to his knees.

"There's a way down," he said, point­ing to a path.

I left two of the phones on the seat and car­ried the knife in hand as I scoot­ed down­hill. "How are you?" Ray said from across the water when I reached the bank.

"Fine," I told him, brush­ing dirt off me.

"That's my knife."

"I'll slit your throat with it."

He opened his mouth, then shut it. "The crys­tal got wet."

"My mom died."

"Mine did too."

"I'm not afraid of you."

"Then get on with it." He point­ed to his neck.

"That's the old­est trick in the book."

"Mark's on his way. Call and see."

"Who's Mark?"

"Cop from the dog­fight. I made a deal with him: he'll file it as a suicide."

"Why don't you piss off, Ray."

"But it's real­ly what he's com­ing for."

It was easy enough to look Ray in the eye and still hate him. His eyes were fixed on mine, but that wasn't a prob­lem; nor was I touched by the sound of his voice. I hadn't been pre­pared, though, for the effect of his breath. It smelled of bour­bon and smoke and instant­ly I was in Tul­sa drink­ing bour­bon with him, hold­ing him and think­ing he was just a lone­ly child.

"It's for my kids," he said. "If you had kids, you'd understand."

I guessed there was a fair chance he was telling the truth. "I've been in Florida."

"I like it down there. Took Angel and Ray Jr. to the Day­tona 500."

I kicked some grav­el into the riv­er. It land­ed by his foot, and he said, "Remem­ber at the Bris­tol Speed­way, when you thought we were dying?"

I shook my head. "I've nev­er been to Bristol."

"You were lit up back then."

"You were just as lit up."

"But I was aware of it. You, you act­ed like you were surprised."

I tried to imag­ine Bris­tol, which strad­dles the bor­der of Vir­ginia and Ten­nessee. I pic­tured a state line paint­ed down the mid­dle of a street. I imag­ined fast cars in cir­cles and recalled a race in Mex­i­co where the dri­vers steered by remote. The cars crashed over and over until I knew the sta­di­um would explode. I dragged Ray out into a coun­try I've nev­er seen. What hap­pened next, he punched me, right in front of the Mex­i­cans. "Now you'll have a black eye for your ma's birth­day." He drove me to her house but by then we were in Leo, and she was a Can­cer. I stag­gered inside and found her on the couch with her quilt­ing cir­cle. Those three ladies togeth­er weighed less than me, and they sat in a row like sticks of brittle.

"This is my son," said my mother.

I can't account for what came next. I looked down at the quilt, a patch­work maze whose path mapped all that I'd done wrong in her eyes. I saw my house when the bank forced Lisa out of it. I saw her in 2012, dying of AIDS. I saw my ma get­ting sick and writ­ing in my baby book. It was a list of my firsts, which appeared on the quilt as tri­an­gles arranged in a loop. With that loop she was telling me I would nev­er change. "Up your cunt with a plunger if that's what you think," I said, which she must have tak­en as a response to her words.

I stepped into the icy water and sat on Ray's hood. "I need you alive," I told him, tak­ing his hand, pulling him toward me. He slipped on the algae but I held on.

"You were about to kill me," he said.

"I don't have anyone."

"You've got Lisa."

"I don't want her."

"You want me?"

"You're bet­ter than nothing."

He put his hands in his pock­ets and kicked at some rocks. "That came out wrong," I said, and he looked at the far shore and said, "No, it's true."

Tyrone's phone purred in my pock­et. I pulled it out and Ray took it and squint­ed. "This guy's twelve miles away. Says he's glad I'm online again."

"I won­der what that means," I said.

Ray glanced into his smashed car. "Can you drive?"

I twist­ed around and looked too. I saw the riv­er roar­ing around it, flow­ing into its bro­ken win­dow. Shards of glass from it would reach the Gulf, while oth­ers would sink into the ground here. I knew Ray wouldn't change. He took my hand and pressed his fin­ger­tips to the holes in mine. The wind blew through me and the riv­er was ris­ing: it was near­ly high tide. I could feel the tide even in my blood. That was how sober I was. If the new aware­ness had end­ed there with the glass and the blood, I'd have sur­vived it, but I was aware also of being aware. That was the part I couldn't bear. Oth­er­wise I doubt I would have said, "So long as we find a dry bag first." Oth­er­wise I might have gone look­ing for folks that weren't bet­ter than noth­ing. I might even have told them this sto­ry. As it was, I fig­ured I'd keep qui­et, because I knew nobody but Ray would have cared to listen.

John McManus is the author of three wide­ly praised books of fic­tion: the nov­el Bit­ter Milk and the short sto­ry col­lec­tions Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down. In 2000 he became the youngest-ever recip­i­ent of the Whit­ing Writ­ers Award. His fic­tion has also appeared in Ploughshares, Amer­i­can Short Fic­tion, Tin House, and The Oxford Amer­i­can, among oth­er jour­nals. Born in Knoxville, Ten­nessee, in 1977, he lives and works in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, and teach­es at the MFA cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams at Old Domin­ion Uni­ver­si­ty and God­dard College.

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5 Responses to Blood Brothers by John McManus

  1. JP says:

    Mag­i­cal writ­ing that seems to burst into flames as you read. The feel­ings seem to car­ry the nar­ra­tive. "Your body needs dreams but you can get them while you’re awake." Wow.

  2. Jeff says:

    Yeah, this is a good one.

  3. Joe says:

    Nice work McManus.

  4. Jarrid says:

    Damn. Pow­er­ful stuff, for sure. This one is a def­i­nite win­ner. Still ric­o­chet­ing through my brain-pan.

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