In April 2018, I posted my thousandth post on this blog. To celebrate, I started sharing here all my short stories. Every couple of weeks, I’ll be posting one story from my celebrated Exciting Destinies series for you to enjoy. With over 30 stories so far, I hope you’ll have lots of fun in the coming months!
This week, it’s “Two’s a Crowd,” a story from Infinite Waters. Click here to read some more free stories.
Two’s a Crowd
“Can you believe that idiot?” I spat the words as soon as I slammed the car door shut.
“Honey, that idiot is your older brother.” My wife looked at the mirror and patted her lips with her index finger. She opened her purse, oblivious to my rage.
“Older brother? He’s, like, ten minutes older than me!”
Susan pressed her lipstick to her lips and ran it across them. Why was she bothering, anyway? We were alone in the car. Whom was she trying to impress? “Can we just go?” I said with a sigh. “My head hurts.”
“Why did you have the red wine, then? You know it gives you a headache.” She turned on the radio, obviously anticipating silence during the trip back home. After all, I never had much to say after our monthly dinners at my brother’s. A recurrent affair that I had come to dread and hate with equal passion.
“What choice did I have? That’s all they offered us.”
“I’m sure they didn’t do it on purpose.” She wiggled her fingers and smiled at the couple waving at us from their door.
When she blew my brother a kiss, I leaned down and pretended not to notice them, absorbed by something on my shoe. I probably just stepped on my turd of a brother. The thought made me chuckle, then a thought killed my mirth. “You always support him.” I did not care to hide my bitterness.
She checked the mirror and backed out of the gate. “That’s not true.”
“Sure it is. Sometimes I could swear that you like him better.”
She threw me an annoyed glance. “Not this again.”
Why not? He always stole whatever I had my eye on. Ever since we were children. My precious red ball. My silver bike. My first girlfriend. The bastard even took her to Lover’s Hill in my car. The car he stole from me. Why not you, too? Yet, I knew better than to voice my angry thoughts.
As soon as we arrived home, I brushed my teeth and went straight to bed without a word. Susan took her sweet time getting ready, and I had nearly fallen asleep when she finally landed on the bed with all the grace of a drunken hippopotamus. “You wkmup,” I mumbled.
“Sorry, dear.” She applied some night cream to her face and rubbed her fingers vigorously as she gave me a quick peck on my cheek, then switched off the light on her nightstand.
I pretended to fall asleep right away, although in truth my mind was racing with murderous thoughts. I saw in my head his smirk when he announced he had renovated the beach house, and ground my teeth. The house—this was the last straw. The house that our parents had promised to me. The one that he had gotten through that joke of a will, magically produced out of our dead mother’s drawer. The one I would have contested, but for the advice of my darling wife. We already have a beach house, she had argued. Just think of all the extra cost. Not to mention the taxes! I moaned and turned my back at her, furious at them both. Why does everyone always support him?
It is, perhaps, no surprise that I dreamed of my brother that night. I was standing in the middle of a lush field, a light wind ruffling my hair. The sun bathed my body in its soothing rays. Colorful flowers released their sweet aroma, filling the air with pleasant fragrances. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to take it all in, when a dark cloud cut off the sunshine. I opened my eyes again and shot an annoyed look to the sky. My gaze caught on a sudden movement in the distance. A lone figure stood far away, hands on his hips. I squinted to see better. In a split second, the figure stood next to me. A spasm ran through my face.
“Hey, bro.” My brother’s lips twisted into a wide grin. Behind him, the beach house shimmered into existence, the white-washed walls flickering as if made of smoke.
My hands tightened into fists. Then a thought crossed my mind. I deliberately unclenched them and flashed him my sweetest smile. “Why don’t you show me around?”
His brows knitted for a second, then we found ourselves in the living room. I was surprised by the changes to the house. He had spent half the evening describing the renovation, of course, but I had responded by drinking, in effect blocking him out. And yet here was the brand new staircase, with the polished silver maple banisters. The elegant furniture. The white oak floors. Had he mentioned all this last night? Everything was the same, yet different. The place even smelled different to what I remembered. I traced the fragrance to a discreet device plugged into a wall socket and scrunched my nose.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a smirk on his face. “Like what I did with my place?”
Blood thumped on my temples, but I managed to hide my feelings behind a clenched grin. “Looks great.” I had to get out of there before I punched him. Or worse. “Say, how ‘bout I make us some coffee?” I slipped into the kitchen while my brother stood in the middle of the room, still smirking at the unnerving effect the renovation had on me.
The kitchen, too, was all different from the last time I had been to the old house. I leaned on the spotless counter until I cooled down enough to rummage through the cabinets. Inside one, I found a glass bowl filled with espresso capsules. I fished out two and made sure the machine had enough water before I switched it on.
A minute later, the machine groaned and the coffee’s strong aroma filled my nostrils. I absent-mindedly opened a cabinet while waiting for the first cup to fill. My gaze fell on an orange plastic bottle, a black skull clearly visible on it. I picked it up, removed the lid and took a whiff. The pungent smell burned my nose and I recoiled. Then, on a whim, I dropped a few drops into the steaming cup.
I placed the bottle back into the cabinet before pouring the second cup, making sure I remembered which was which. Once I had both cups in my hand, I walked back out into the living room. My brother was sitting on a new, white leather couch, browsing on his tablet. I sat down beside him and handed him the first cup I had made.
“Watch it!” He took the cup with careful fingers and nodded towards the sofa. “You wouldn’t believe how much this cost. Italian leather and all that.”
I rolled my eyes and watched him take a sip, his gaze still fixed on the screen in his hands. His brow furrowed and he coughed.
“Strong,” he said in a throaty voice. His gaze shot up from the tablet to meet mine. “Can you believe this?” He shoved the device into my hands. I pretended to read the news; something about an old friend of ours, who had lost his fortune in the dotcom bust. I couldn’t care less, really. I waited for him to empty his cup.
A few minutes later, he made a pained grimace. “I’m not feeling well.” He clutched his stomach. “Help me!”
I chortled, enjoying the sight of him emptying its contents onto his precious sofa, and shook my head as he collapsed onto the well-polished floor. Serves you right. I took a sip from my own cup and watched a funny cat video on the tablet. Meanwhile, his body quivered and spasmed, until he finally lay still.
A couple of videos later, a faraway sound invaded my serenity. It sounded like a phone, but I could not see one anywhere around. Then, the earth shook. Earthquake! I jumped to my feet.
It took me a moment to figure out I had been dreaming. The earth was not shaking; that had been my wife, who had swiveled her feet off the bed in order to reach the phone on her nightstand. The mattress groaned under her shifting weight.
“What time is it?” I mumbled. Not really expecting an answer, I glanced through heavy lids at the clock on the nightstand. Oh for goodness’ sake, it’s the middle of the night! Who the hell would call us at this hour?
“Shh!” My wife waved at me with her left hand, her right one pressing the phone to her ear. “We’ll be right there.”
She hung up and turned to me, an agitated expression on her face. “It’s your brother. He got sick after we left. They have him at the hospital.”
“What?” I stopped rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
“Somehow, he got poisoned. We have to go.” She did not even look at me as she dived into her closet. “And don’t you dare start any of your—”
She stopped mid-sentence as I bolted out of bed and tore a fresh shirt from the hanger. Did I cause this?
Minutes later, I was already in the car, buttoning my shirt. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. How is it possible? When I could not take the waiting for Susan any longer, I honked. A moment later, she jumped into the car. “I’m coming, already! Stop honking—you’ll wake everyone up!”
I stepped on the gas even as she was shutting her door. The car screeched in the night and sped down the empty roads.
Susan threw me a worried glance. “Can you even drive? You’ve had a lot to drink.”
“I’m fine.” No, it couldn’t have been me. Could it?
We pulled up at the hospital and I raced out of the car and into a narrow corridor. “Where is he?” I cried out to a sleepy nurse behind a glass pane.
My wife pushed me to the side. “We’re looking for Mr. Thomas. They brought him in with food poisoning.” I ran my fingers through my hair, touching more scalp than hair. I have to tell her.
“Susan, there’s something—”
She threw me a distraught look. “Everything will be fine.” She grabbed my hand and tugged. “This way.” We hurried down a corridor and into an elevator. I tapped my foot, infuriated at the slow ride. My urge to share my dream with her had left me as suddenly as it had appeared. She’ll just think I’m crazy. Four floors up, we heard a soft ding and the doors slid open.
Still holding my hand, she led me forward and into a barely-lit room. On a bed lay my brother. His wife was slumped on a chair next to him. She lifted her head when we entered. “Oh, hi, Susan!”
“Hi, Jill. How is he?” Her voice betrayed her worry.
“The doctors pumped his stomach. Whatever it was he drank, it was so acidic that it burned his throat on both the way down and up.”
“How… how is that even possible?” I stammered.
She looked at me as she had just realized I was standing there. “No idea. He was fine when we went to bed. I swear, I did nothing.” She sank her head into her palms and cried softly, while my wife sat down next to her and took her in her arms. Every now and then, she stole anxious looks at the still body on the bed.
Not you. Me.
The commotion caused my brother to open his eyes. His soft gaze wandered from the two women to me. When it reached my eyes, his face hardened. “What was in the coffee?” he rasped.
My mouth gaped. “I… What…”
His wife shot up and grabbed his hand. “The doctors said you shouldn’t speak, darling. Try not to speak.”
“The coffee,” he said, his eyes dripping malice. “He put something in it.”
“You didn’t have any coffee last night, darling. You said it was too late. You had some scotch after dinner. Remember?”
His face scrunched up in puzzlement. “It’s the drugs,” his wife whispered. “He’s confused.”
I nodded, trying to ignore the thick drops of sweat trickling down my back. My brother closed his eyes and sank his head into the pillow with a soft sigh. Guilt overcame me. I staggered out of the room, holding onto the smooth wall for support. I replayed the dream in my head over and over again, struggling to make sense of it all.
“The doctor said he’ll be fine.”
I spun around and almost bumped into Susan. I forced a smile on my face. “Good.”
She gave me a questioning look. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
You don’t look too good yourself. “Just worried,” I lied. Or perhaps it wasn’t a lie. I was worried, just not about him.
She took me in her arms. “You’re a good brother.”
“You act like you hate him, but when push comes to shove, you’re there for him.” She touched my cheek with gentle fingers. “I mean, look at how upset you are.”
I noticed her ashen face as she said this. We both are. With a sigh, I took her hand and we made a beeline to the car. As soon as we returned home, I wasted no time going back to bed. Surprisingly enough, it did not take me long to fall asleep again. The minute my eyelids closed, I found myself inside the beach house again. With no one around, I looked around at my leisure. He had redone the fireplace as well. I traced the fine carvings on the Cipollino marble, admiring the smooth texture.
“I know it was you.”
I jumped out of my skin when I heard my brother’s voice behind me. I swirled around to face him. His face looked taut, with deep black circles under his sunken eyes. I forced a smile on my lips. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“You bastard! You were here, then you gave me coffee. What did you put inside?”
“We’re twins, remember? If I’m a bastard, so are you.” I took a step back.
He came closer, raising his clenched fists. “You poisoned me, didn’t you?”
“That’s cold, bro. Real cold.” I took another step back and my leg stumbled on something. A fire iron clanged onto the floor. I leaned down and grasped it, then shot back up, holding it in front of me. “Don’t come any closer.”
“Why not?” A wide, contemptuous grin appeared on his face. “This is my house. You’re intruding.”
Maybe if he hadn’t had that stupid grin, I would not have done what I did. But all I could think about was wiping it off his face. I raised the iron and bashed his head with it. “My house,” I bellowed as I pounded him with it. I ignored his scream of pain. “My girlfriend. My car. My wife. Mine! Mine!” With every word, I cracked the iron to his head.
I watched him on the floor. His eyes betrayed his surprise, but he no longer moved. Blood pooled under his head. I watched the pool grow, breathless.
From afar, the ringing resumed.
Next thing I remember, I was standing in the same hospital elevator with my wife. My whole body still shook with adrenaline as I darted into his room. My brother still lay on the bed, only now thick gauze covered the top of his head. A small part of it, wide as a quarter, was a deep red. Right where I hit him. His wife was crying softly next to him.
My wife ran towards Jill. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. Some sort of seizure. The doctors said he’s lucky to be alive.”
“He bled inside his head, didn’t he?” My voice sounded far away, as if the words belonged to someone else.
Jill threw me a surprised glance. “Yes, they called it a subdural hematoma.” She wiped tears from her eyes with a crumbled tissue. “How did you know?”
I nodded towards the gauze. “I saw they opened up his skull to relieve the pressure.” The whole situation felt unreal, like a nightmare. I kept expecting to wake up—only I could not. “How did it happen? Did he hit his head somewhere?”
“No! He just screamed. I could not wake him up.” Her tears started flowing more freely now. “The doctors said he could have died,” she said between loud wails.
I gave her shoulder a squeeze. “We’re here now. Whatever you need, just let us know.”
A pang of guilt shot through my heart when she reached and grabbed my hand. “Thank you.”
It was almost dawn by the time we left. We said nothing on the way home. When we arrived, my wife opened the door to climb out of the car, then paused. “What a night.” A faint smile broke through her lips. “But I’m proud of you.”
I wanted to cackle and cry and scream—all at the same time. Instead, I pushed my lips into an exhausted smile. “Let’s try and get some rest, shall we?”
“Now?” She nodded towards the sky. In the east, the first rays of the sun chased away the night, forming deep pink and purple bands. “I don’t think I can sleep.”
“I’m beat.” I wasn’t lying. My limbs felt leaden. Mixed feelings filled me; feelings I could not admit even to myself. Every now and then, guilt and sorrow strangled the glee, then the joy returned. It all numbed my thoughts. I just wanted to crawl under the duvet and forget this night ever happened. Pretend that I had not almost killed my brother.
But how could it be? How could I be responsible for his condition? I knew it was a mistake. I could not have hurt him. Part of me wanted to, for sure. But I was no monster. And even if I were, how? It was impossible. It was divine justice; had to be. He was being punished for everything he had stolen from me over all these years.
“I’ll call the office and let them know you won’t be going in today. You just stay in bed and get some rest.”
“Thank you.” I loved it when she took care of me like that. It made me feel warm; protected.
To be honest, I did not expect to fall asleep. I thought I would toss and turn for an hour or two, then get up. Instead, I sank almost immediately into a deep slumber. And I had another dream. As before, the setting was the beach house’s living room. The fire iron was tossed to the floor in front of the fireplace, next to a large crimson pool. Countless dots stained the white floorboards and the marble. I leaned closer and dabbed a finger into the scarlet pool. Its edges had turned a rusty brown; the color of caked blood. The center was still bright red. And wet.
A deep, rumbling thunder warned me of an impending storm. I left the quiet of the house to step out onto the verandah. It overlooked a squally sea that crashed against the cliffs below. A gust of wind streamed over me, whipping my face with tiny droplets. Moments later, heavy clouds released sheets of rain. Churning winds ripped across the rocks, howling through the rocky crevices. And yet, I did not move. Even when I saw him.
He approached me from the sea, walking through the air, as if the storm itself was bearing him. My darling brother. His eyes were gleaming like ambers made of fire. When he spotted me, he sped up. There was no qualm in his stride; no hesitation. Only blistering determination. When he approached, he lunged at me without warning. I grabbed his shirt. Using his momentum, I twirled him around, then released him. He crashed against the wall. Screaming with fury, he came at me once more. I tried to grab him again, but he ducked under my hands. His arms clenched around my waist. His shoulder knocked the wind out from my lungs. We crashed down the stairs.
I cried out in frustration and smacked his head with my fists. He refused to let go, pushing me farther down the narrow path that led through the gardens and to the sea. I managed to get my arms under his and thrust upwards. This finally broke his grip on me. We circled each other, both breathless. Our movement brought us closer to the fence. He swiped his arm to punch my face. I bent my body backwards. His fist split the air above me. Without pausing, he swirled around, lowering his body at the same time. He continued his spinning motion, this time aiming at my legs. I dropped and rolled to my side, jumping back on my feet almost immediately.
We glared at each other for a moment. The rain now fell in torrents. “That’s the best you can do?” I taunted him. Bolts of lightning flashed in the sky.
“I hate you!” he screamed.
“You stole everything from me!” I yelled back at him. Thunder boomed all around us.
He smirked. “Including your wife. But you did nothing. You know why? ‘Cause you’re a loser. You’ll always be a loser.”
“No!” I lunged at him. He tried to sidestep me, but I was faster. We crashed against the wooden fence and dropped on the ground behind it, close to the cliff’s edge. I raised myself to my feet and glared at him. “You’ve always taken everything from me. No more. I’ll kill you.”
“No, little brother. I’ll kill you.”
We both screamed and charged each other at the same time. Our hands clutched each other’s throats. We squeezed the life out of each other, too caught up in our rage to notice that our thrashing about had brought us right to the edge. We continued strangling each other even as we dropped into the sea, where sharp rocks shred our bodies apart.
“I still can’t believe it,” Jill said. “You know, I always thought they hated each other.”
Susan reached over and gave her hand a light squeeze. “So did I.” They shared an awkward smile, stifling their tears. In front of them, people laid wreath upon wreath in front of two identical mahogany caskets. “But for them to die like that, at the very same time… the very same night… What could that mean?”
“That they loved each other very much. So much so, that they couldn’t bear the thought of living without one another.” Jill blew her nose softly into a tissue. “What else could it possibly mean?”