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As Brothers Go
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by Narsil

The world was splitting, stretching, opening to swallow him as he fell through the blackness, his stomach rising inside him with the sudden, awful realization: he was going to hit the bottom.

James Wilson jolted upright, gasping. The room was illuminated by the pale rays of the nearly-full moon coming in through his apartment window. He blinked a few times as he took in his surroundings, shaking slightly; he was hunched over in his bed, the sheets twisted around his legs, trailing over the side onto the floor. The digital clock beside him read 2:19. He groaned, ran a sweaty hand over his forehead and flopped back onto the pillow.

The phone rang, loudly, and he jumped. He leaned over and picked it up, realizing idly that that must have been what woke him. Who the hell would call at this time of night?

“Hello?” he managed groggily.

“James?” The voice on the phone was deep, and slightly hoarse. It was a voice James knew very well.

“Matt?”

“Yeah, did I wake you up?”

“Oh no,” he said. “I was completely awake. In fact I was staying up just in case you wanted to call me in the middle of the night.”

“Sorry.”

James sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “No, it’s fine. I guess it’s not that late really. Just didn’t get much sleep last night. People really weren't kidding when they said med school is hell.” Matt grunted in acknowledgement, but said nothing. “So why did you call?”

“Funny you should ask,” Matt muttered with a chuckle.

James waited for his brother to elaborate, letting him hear the silence of his skepticism. Why would he call? He never called. Not lately anyway. The two had been pretty close when James was younger, as brothers go, but things had changed as they got older. When James started his junior year of high school, Matt went off to college, only to drop out halfway through his second semester. He spent the next year working random jobs for months at a time, moving from place to place. Eventually, after repeated urging from the entire family, he had finally started applying to schools again, and got himself accepted into a small but respectable community college. He was now less than a year away from graduating with a degree in business. His parents were pleased; they knew he was smart; they knew he could be a success if he applied himself. More than anything, though, they were relieved that the younger two hadn’t followed Matthew's example, as they had feared. Benjamin was sailing through high school, making the honor roll every term, and James -- James was well on his way to becoming a doctor.

James and Matt now rarely saw each other aside from when the family got together on Passover and Hanukah. They hardly ever talked, not because they had no desire to, but simply because their lives had so little to do with each other. James was always busy, and he assumed his brother must have been as well. But now he was calling, at 2:19 in the morning. It must have been something important. The pause stretched painfully and James held his breath as the air around him seemed to become quieter.

“Matt?” he prompted. He heard Matt inhale as if startled by the sound of his voice. James sat up, folding his legs beneath himself, intent now. “Matt, are you ok?”

Matt blew out a breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Listen,” said Matt, suddenly. “I was kind of wondering if I could come up for a minute.”

“What?”

“I mean…” He paused. “Well, actually, I was hoping I could crash at your place for a little while.”

James hesitated. “Where are you?”

“Look out your window,” he said, a smile evident in his voice now.

James laughed in disbelief. “Are you serious?”

James got up from the bed and padded over to the window in his socks, parting the shades to look down at the street. Sure enough, there was his brother’s beat-up Toyota, pulled up against the curb, and there in the window was the man himself, grinning up at James lopsidedly, a clunky car-phone at his ear.

“Jesus, Matt.”

Matt’s breath was visible in the brisk December air as he laughed, the scratchy sound of it reaching James’ ear through the phone with a second’s delay.

“So… Gonna let me in, kid?” he asked, affecting an air of casual innocence.

It occurred to James that he must have driven all the way in the middle of the night, apparently on a whim.

“You’ve really lost it,” he laughed, shaking his head.

“I know,” Matt said quietly, strangely serious all of a sudden. His face was turned away from the window now, focused intently on the steering wheel under his hand, with its tacky tiger print cover from the previous owner.

“Alright, come on up then,” James said, leaving the window, his hand rubbing the back of his neck roughly in agitation. He paced around the room a bit, before returning to his bed to sit, until hearing Matt’s muffled voice call his name over the intercom’s crackling.

James hurried over to briefly unlock the front security door of the apartment building. He flicked on the lights in his room and stumbled into the bathroom to splash some water on his face, feeling a little out of it. He still had no idea what was wrong or why his brother was there. A moment later, two quiet knocks came from the hallway and he moved to open the door.

And there he was; there was Matt, in ratty jeans and a large, gray, hooded sweatshirt, leaning against the wall wearily, pale in the fluorescent light of the hallway. Strands of stringy, dark hair emerged from beneath a maroon ski-cap and a grubby backpack was slung over his shoulder casually.

“Hey, kid,” he said, offering a weak half-smile which James mirrored, beckoning him in. Matt trailed after him into the kitchen and then stood there, silent and awkward. James opened the fridge.

“Do you want anything? Maybe some coffee? Or are you going back to sleep probably...” His eyes widened as he caught sight of the large blood stain on Matt’s shirt. “Shit... Matt...” The refrigerator beeped in protest and James jumped and shut it. “What happened? Are you bleeding?”

Matt shook his head; James couldn’t tell if that meant no or if he was simply dismissing the question. His eyes were locked on the refrigerator door, as if it was still open and beeping; they looked bloodshot and hollow.

“What happened?” James asked again, quiet this time.

Matt bit his lip and leaned forward to rub his forehead with his left hand; the other buried in his sweatshirt pocket. “Can I use your shower?” he mumbled, looking up at James at last. James stared at him for a moment without answering. Finally he gave a small, reluctant nod.

As his brother disappeared from the kitchen, James stood and leaned his face against the cool glass of the kitchen window, watching the orange-black night sky of the city. A siren was wailing in the distance and some students were wandering home down the street, laughing loudly. Not a star could be seen. It was difficult to believe it was the same sky the two of them had once studied through the skylight of their bedroom, counting far more Big Dippers up there than could possibly have been correct. Ben got his own room, but they didn't mind, because their room was twice as big, and simply cooler. They had the skylight. James enjoyed having a skylight as a kid. It was only during the summer, when the storms came rolling in, lighting up the room with lightning that made their eyes widen and their pupils shrink, as the rain beat down above them, that he became scared. He looked to his brother, nearly three whole years older than him, for protection, but the wild fascination and exaltation in Matthew's face somehow only made the storms more frightening.

A foggy mark had formed on the glass from James’ forehead and he pulled back to rub it away with his sleeve. He grabbed a pillow and some extra blankets from a closet and laid them out on the couch.

The sound of the shower stopped and a moment later Matt emerged in the same ratty jeans, his dark hair dripping onto his bare chest, the towel hanging around his neck. A few nasty-looking bruises decorated his skin, but nothing that could have warranted that great blood-stain on his shirt. There were, however, quite a few interesting scars along his spindly white arms. Track marks.

“You want some clean clothes?” James asked, clamping down on the panic and outrage flaring in his chest and pretending he saw nothing. Without waiting for a response, he hurried past him to his room, grabbing a t-shirt and some sweatpants out of his drawers, returning to toss them to his brother. It was too late for a fight; he couldn't deal with this right now. And Matt clearly needed sleep.

Matt caught the clothing in the air and pulled the shirt over his head, flopping down onto the couch apathetically. He leaned his forehead against his palms, dark hair falling over his face, staring blankly at the floor through his fingers. James stood by, watching uncomfortably.

“So, uh,” he began, scratching at the back of his head. “You look pretty out of it, man. You should probably get some sleep... We can talk about stuff in the morning.” He coughed awkwardly. “I have class early tomorrow, so you can just sleep in if you want and we can get something to eat when I get back... Or something.” Matt didn’t respond and James rocked on the balls of his feet. “Ok. Night.”

James headed back towards his bedroom, stopping briefly at the door to glance back at his brother. He hadn’t moved.

“Matt,” he said, suddenly. Matt turned to look at him over his shoulder. “What about..." he began, but fell silent, unsure of what he was trying to ask. He opened his mouth, and then closed it. He tried again. “Graduation is just a few months away...”

Matt blinked, held his younger brother’s gaze for a moment, and then let his eyes drop to the floor.

“Was,” he said, quietly.

James squinted at him from the doorway for a moment, his face clouded with sadness and confusion, before turning and closing the door.

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