Art by Dave Danzara
Story by Gray Winsler
Originally published in Birdy Magazine
I swear I can hear his voice, like hushed whispers escaping from the abyss of my subconscious. The words are muted, barely audible, but it’s him. I know it’s him just as well as I know it cannot possibly be true, and I remind myself of that fact again and again. But my imagination is as treacherous as it is relentless, and my anxieties have never found facts to be especially persuasive. Decades of guilt are too good fodder for facts to have any sway.
It is that guilt which drives me to question my own good judgement, stirring endless uncertainty in my mind. What if it was him, trying desperately to communicate with me after decades of involuntary silence? What if I have failed him again by closing myself off to his pleas?
What a fool I’ve become, letting my guilt inch me toward entertaining such ridiculous questions. Perhaps my subconscious hopes that in bringing him back in the form of auditory hallucinations, it may ease the conscience. How pathetic. It is a guilt I deserve and will carry with me to my last day. Of that you have my word, Luke.
I sign my journal with the date and tuck it back into its drawer. On my desk sits a glass of bourbon. I drink, just as my father did in this very study for years before me. The memories of him still haunt this room, but it is a comforting reminder of his departure. I take the bourbon in hand and walk to the window of the study. The moon looms low on the horizon, swallowing the stars with its violet glow.
Downstairs I pause, seeing Luke’s motionless body awash in moonlight. His wheelchair faces out to the back yard where it always does. He adored watching the birds flutter through the trees as a kid. It is my hope they bring him some amount of joy now. But the birds have returned to their roosts for the evening, and it is time my brother did the same. His head is tilted to the side, mouth agape, features limp. I take my handkerchief, dab saliva from the corner of his lips, and say, “Time for bed, Luke.” The moon hovers over us both. I’ve never seen it quite so large.
I wheel Luke to bed and lift him out of his chair. His body is frail, skin sagged over weary bones. I tuck him in and replace his IV which drips life into his arm. Take it out. A hushed voice whispers in my head. I turn to Luke, but his expression is vacant, staring up at the ceiling above. I tell myself it is only the wind and say, “Goodnight, Luke.”
In the night I cannot sleep. Anxiety stirs in my chest, constricting around my beating heart. I feel its each and every thud with acute awareness. I curse myself for drinking so close to bed, tossing and turning, seeking some semblance of comfort. But the moon is blinding, it’s light breaking through my curtains. I raise to shut them tighter, but the light slips through all the same. I swear it hasn’t moved an inch, sitting fat over the trees like a pearl plucked from a titan’s necklace. I find myself both in anger and in awe of its magnificence.
Something topples in Luke’s room below, echoing through the vents. Heart racing I run down to his room, bursting open the door. But Luke is not there. Instead there is an empty bed, perfectly made. And beside it, the metallic rod which holds Luke’s IV glinting in the moonlight, tossed to the floor, dripping into the carpet.
Just like old times, Mikey. That voice whispers.
I whip around but see only an empty room.
“Luke?” I say under my breath.
Footsteps skitter in the hallway.
My feet tremble as I walk toward the hall. “Luke?” I call out again, louder, more forcefully this time. My chest is tight still, as if some creature is wrapped around my ribs.
You never said the magic words.
I hear Luke’s laugh reverberating around the vaulted ceiling, just like when we were boys playing hide-and-seek. My spine prickles as I step out into the hall. The shadow of his wheelchair cascades down the floorboards. I turn to see Luke slumped over just as he was before, facing out toward the woods, the moon hanging over him.
“Luke? How did you…?”
As I walk toward him, images of the accident, of that horrid memory on our rooftop, strobe in my mind’s eye. Luke’s voice is shouting, “Dad said you’re not supposed to be up there, Mikey!” as I pretend not to hear. The ladder rattles as Luke ascends to find me. I can feel myself screaming “No!” begging him not to climb up to the roof, not to find me. But the memories flash again, and now I see Luke slip, sliding down the metal sheeting of our roof. I can hear him scream “Mikey! Help!” as I am unable to move. It’s the last thing he says before vanishing over the gutters. And then I see Luke’s body, splayed over our fence, the metal picket stabbing through his spine, the image that has haunted me all these years. It flickers away and I’m back in that moonlit hallway, looking at that wheelchair he’s been condemned to ever since.
“Oh Luke …” is all I can manage as I walk toward him, tears stinging my eyes. I can see him in the reflection of the sliding glass door now. But it’s not him at all. It’s only a hollowed out husk of skin, empty black eye sockets staring back at me through the reflection. I stagger back, falling into the floorboards. The wheelchair begins to turn, the wheels creaking.
“I’m so sorry Luke …” I sob. “You must know …”
The wheelchair turns, inch by maddening inch.
“If I had only listened to Dad …”
The wheelchair turns full circle now, the emptied husk facing me.
“Oh God Luke, please, I’m so sorry…”
Its mouth falls open, an empty black hole that descends into depths no man was meant to see, and from it the screams of thousands pour out, intertwined in each other’s sorrow. I am stoic, unable to move, unable to think, possessed by the husk’s screams. And amidst those screams a voice cuts through my own horror and whispers in my head:
It’s time you let me go, Mikey.
I wake in the morning, shivering in the fetal position on those floorboards. My whole body trembles, breath ragged as I sob, tears and spit pooling on the wood beneath me. The breaths grow longer, and I am able to push myself up off the floor. I see my brother in his wheelchair, looking out to the morning sun. The birds are chirping.
I find the energy to stand and walk toward him. I look to his eyes and see a trail of tears down his cheeks. “Oh Luke,” I say, knowing now with certainty what I must do. I go and retrieve a syringe from the fridge and take it back to him, injecting it through the port in his arm. The voice, his voice, whispers, Thank you, Mikey. I feel a warmness come over me, a peace I have not felt in years.
I open the sliding glass door and wheel Luke out onto the grass. Birds flutter back and forth before us, singing their morning songs. I sit beside him, holding Luke’s hand as he takes his last breath