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1

En las colinas de Nebraska, entre alambradas y cardos de púas, la luna que se aproxima ve a un niño a caballo pasear por las acequias inundadas con agua de oxidadas tuberías de hierro y la profunda hierba de la pradera. Su hermano menor, desacostumbrado a montar a caballo e inseguro de la oscuridad que los rodea, las vacas, todo iluminado por el faro de su hermano, se encuentra aferrando silenciosamente la parte posterior de la camisa del mas grande, no dispuesto a admitir la derrota pero dispuesto a admitir lo obvio:

"Estamos perdidos". Las palabras retumban en un chillido pre-pubescente. Es moreno, con la piel aceitunada, no es ningún amante de la naturaleza, y está claramente enfocado en la situación lúgubre, los ojos inteligentes parpadean con la luz del LED y el brillo de la luna nublada.

El más viejo está claramente más acostumbrado a la silla de montar. Él agarra las riendas con fuerza, se mueve rápidamente. Un buen tomador de decisiones, pero no un solucionador de problemas inherente, el chico pelirrojo con botas de vaquero y el bronceado de un granjero avanza en una dirección aleatoria y no elegida. La propiedad es nueva para él de muchas maneras, grande y abarca todo lo que siempre ha deseado en su corta vida, pero es joven, un niño de la pradera y propenso a los errores. Él permanece en silencio. La terquedad corre en la familia.

"Estamos perdidos, ¿verdad?"

"No, sé exactamente dónde estamos."

"No, no."

"Si, lo se."

El más joven dirige su mirada hacia la hierba. Está muy lejos. Él sabe que podría lograrlo si se cae, pero no va a intentar caerse de un caballo. A pesar de su aversión, se aferra un poco más a su hermano mayor, creyendo en su confianza.

Se quedan callados durante un rato, mientras el mayor dirige al caballo por las colinas y los árboles. No es hasta que la luna está llena sobre sus cabezas y los grillos están en plena canción que el joven rompe su trance contemplativo habitual para hablar.

"¿Crees que mamá ya tuvo a su bebé?" Aunque este fue el evento más interesante que tuvo lugar en las vidas sencillas e intrincadas del dúo, hay sentimientos encontrados en la voz del más joven. Una hermana. Los tres, el más joven con Jamie, el dueño del rancho, en la granja, fueron en general neutrales a este anuncio. Tres fue suficiente. Tres fue mucho. Tres tenían que compartir una habitación y despertarse con alguien que gateaba sobre ti y jugaba con tus cosas. Cuatro, sin embargo, era otra historia, ya que habían discutido en conversaciones nocturnas en los últimos nueve meses. Cuatro, y estás a medio camino de tu propio equipo de fútbol. Y una niña, ademas.

Para prepararse para una hermana, los tres combinaron su conocimiento de lo que les gustaba a las chicas. Muñecas. Cosas rosadas. El mayor tenía una niña en su clase a la que le gustaban las pistolas, así que la agregaron a la lista, solo para estar a salvo. Decidieron mutuamente que las muñecas y las cosas rosadas no eran algo en lo que se metían, pero las armas eran geniales, así que tal vez no sería tan malo, después de todo. Debatieron si se permitiría que el nuevo bebé entrara en su fuerte, lo que significaba que era demasiado pronto para ver dónde yacen las lealtades y que el voto debería posponerse para una fecha posterior. Consideraron, brevemente, dónde dormiría el bebé, a lo que decidieron que estaría en el dormitorio de sus padres por ahora, o simplemente dormirían con el más pequeño en su cama. A medida que se acercaba la fecha, y sus padres se entusiasmaron más con la nueva llegada, los tres se encogieron hasta cierto punto, experimentando una extraña forma de melancolía que ocurrió con la perspectiva de compartir sus vidas con una completa extraña.

Y ahora la noche estaba aquí.

Su madre había hecho arreglos para que los tres pasasen la noche en el rancho de Jamie, donde el mayor trabajaba frecuentemente. El más joven, no acostumbrado al aire libre y menos acostumbrado al trabajo agrícola que sabía que seguiría, estaba menos entusiasmado con esta propuesta, pero decidió acompañar a su hermano para escuchar a las vacas a caballo como una alternativa para jugar Monopoly con Jamie y el más joven. Aunque el chico de cabello oscuro no estaba familiarizado con el trabajo manual, preferiría trabajar antes que morir de aburrimiento.

Y aquí estaban, perdidos, por la noche. Era una subestimación llamar amargo al niño de en medio actual.

"No sé." Se burló el mayor. "¿Qué te dijo mamá?"

"A las Diez." Él respondió. "¿Sabes que hora es?"

"¿Cómo diablos voy a saber eso?"

El niño del medio se encogió de hombros. Por lo general, los mayores sabían cosas así, como cómo distinguir la hora del sol. El caballo trepó por otra colina, fuera de la pequeña arboleda que habían atravesado.

De repente, el mayor retiró las riendas y el caballo se detuvo bruscamente.

"Jack." Murmuró el mayor. "Mira esto."

El chico más joven se sentó alto, agarrándose a su hermano por apoyo, y miró por encima del hombro izquierdo del mayor.

La luz de la luna se derramaba sobre la extensión frente a ellos, mezclándose con la nauseabunda luz artificial atada a la frente de su hermano mayor. Pastoreando en la oscuridad, la hierba agitándose suavemente sobre sus tobillos, estaba de pie la manada de vacas que les habían enviado a escuchar. Estaban paradas, de la cabeza a la cola, en un singular anillo que se extendía desde la viga del faro hacia formas oscuras indistintas extendiéndose más de media milla; silencioso, extraño, el ruido de 65 en una línea circular prístina. No hubo ruido de grillos. No hubo ranas cantando.

Jack toma aire y, a muchos kilómetros de distancia, en un hospital de la zona rural, Claire respira por primera vez también.


2

Le toma un momento a la herida sangrar.

Hay un momento, mientras Jack Bright mira hacia el jardín delantero detrás de la mesa del comedor, que todo permanece en suspenso. Mikell en la acera, la escalera en el techo todavía. TJ mueve su cabeza hacia el exterior y el mundo se mueve en cámara lenta en respuesta al sonido del hueso que se quiebra sobre el cemento. El cuerpo se asienta. El sol brilla.

Mikell en el pavimento.

Jack salta, pero TJ ya está en el porche, llamándolo a medio camino afuera, la vieja puerta de madera cerrándose con un golpe. Mikell está quieto, duerme, la sangre comienza a llenarse y rellena los pequeños remaches en el pavimento, cubre las piedras pequeñas y rocas como el agua en un arroyo con el sol brillando y el calor del verano y el cabello rojo de TJ brillando, sus pecas brillando, Mikell en el pavimento. La puerta vieja se cierra de golpe y TJ agarra el brazo de Mikell y grita.

Le toma un momento a la herida sangrar.

Hay un momento en el que Jack Bright, de 17 años, mira hacia el césped frente a él, y todo permanece en suspenso. Mikell en la acera, la escalera en el techo todavía. TJ mueve la cabeza hacia la hierba, retrocediendo de dolor y confusión.

El sol de principios de la primavera cae sobre la acera, y golpea la sangre oscura que se enreda en el pelo naranja y las pecas marrones suaves.

Mikell se acerca, se enfrenta a una expresión de aturdimiento, luego confusión, luego alarma. La sangre de TJ hace la hierba pegajosa, pasmosa, cayendo en la hierba. Las nubes flotan lentamente en una neblina de algodón a través de un mar de azul prístino, y el hijo más joven y brillante permanece quieto, inmóvil, tan quieto como el mundo mientras siente el dolor de su hermano.


3

"Este número de teléfono ha sido desconectado". De pie en la cabina telefónica del hospital, Jack busca en su bolsillo el papel arrugado, miró alrededor para ver si alguien estaba mirando y marcó el código.

"Por favor, cuelgue e inténtelo de nuevo."

4 – 5 – 3 - 3- 8 – 4 - 7 - 4 – 4 – 4 – 5 – 1 - 0

El mensaje telefónico pregrabado se interrumpe con el pitido electrónico prolongado e inalterado de un teléfono que quedo descolgado. Jack contó los segundos y miró a su alrededor otra vez: un auto se detiene frente a la puerta principal, y él observa cómo entran una madre y su nuevo bebé, padre a cargo. El calor del día empaña el plástico rayado de la pequeña cabina, se desliza bajo su camisa, lo hace sudar. Mikell solía hacer esto. El miedo a meter la pata de algún modo en su interior. Jack revisa la pluma cursiva de su padre, sí, realmente dice 128 segundos. ¿Ha pasado tanto tiempo? Quizás debería intentar de nue-

"Por favor, recita tu código de conexión." Es la misma mujer que le dijo que lo intentara de nuevo. La camioneta Toyota gris conduce hasta el descolorido estacionamiento del hospital rural y desaparece sobre la colina.

"Um, sí, eh…Travis, Viejo, cuarenta y dos, sesenta y seis, ocho, Secretario. Condición Caja Roja."

Hay un momento en que Jack Bright aguanta la respiración, esperando la confirmación, sabiendo que no habrá ninguna. Para su deleite, el pitido de llamada telefónica colgada no continúa. Comprueba nuevamente la letra cursiva de su padre, bajo el título Llamar en caso de emergencia. El maíz en el campo vecino cruje suavemente en el viento caliente y estancado.

"Operador, por favor indique su solicitud y tipo de conexión."

"A-Adam Bright, Nivel 4, conexión familiar, código de emergencia seis-diez-oh-cinco? Es Jack."

"Oh, chico, um-" Es la voz de una mujer, lo cual no es una sorpresa: Jack nunca le ha hablado a su padre en el trabajo, solo una espiral de asistentes femeninas en espiral. Tenía sospechas sobre esto, como lo hicieron los tres hermanos; no tenían el corazón para decirle a Claire, a los seis años, que era muy probable que su padre no volviera a casa con sus únicos cuatro hijos."-Mira, está ocupado. ¿Puedo recibir tu mensaje?"

"Sí, um. Dígale que TJ está en el hospital-" El teléfono comienza a crepitar violentamente, y Jack cierra los ojos con desesperación mientras escucha los sonidos de la línea que se cruzan con confusión.

"Ja-" La línea regresa al sonido del teléfono, y esta vez sabe que no se recuperará. El hombre en la cabina cierra el teléfono de golpe en la cabina y se toma un momento para limpiarse el sudor de la nuca antes de sacar el segundo cuarto, el que había tomado de la alcancia de Claire hace 45 minutos para esto propósito exacto, y poniendolo en la ranura de hierro. Papá no había pagado la factura del teléfono fijo; en este punto no se quejaron, solo improvisaron. La mayor parte del tiempo de Jack y Mikell cuando sus padres no estaban lo gastaron de esta manera: improvisando.

Jack golpea diligentemente el número de teléfono de 10 dígitos y selecciona el código de conexión correcto para el vacío negro con el que sus padres se disiparon tan a menudo. Mamá no siempre contestaba, pero que si Evelyn Bright perdió la correspondencia que ella inventó en el último momento; el recibo del hospital podría pagarse milagrosamente, tal vez, o podría haber una carta escrita apresuradamente en la mano de Mikell mientras obtenia gasolina. Una idea de último momento era mejor que nada.

"Operador, por favor indique su solicitud y tipo de conexión."

"Evelyn Bright, Nivel 4, conexión familiar, código de emergencia cinco-oh-oh-siete".

"Espere por favor."

Jack abrió la boca para responder antes de darse cuenta de que no había nada a lo que responder. Los pájaros piaban y cantan en árboles distantes, contradiciendo su propia ansiedad creciente.

Sus padres les dijeron que se irían por unas dos semanas por negocios.

Pasaron dos semanas, luego tres.

Pasaron los meses. Halloween y Navidad pasaron. Mikell comenzó a pagar sus cuentas con el dinero que ganaba en el trabajo, donde sea que fuera. Evito que el gobierno descubra que habían estado solos por casi ocho meses. Mikell era hábil para llamar a su trabajo porque lo hacía todos los Miércoles por la noche en la cabina telefónica de la desvencijada estación de servicio a dos cuadras de distancia. Mikell regresaba con su bicicleta todos los miércoles cuando Jack y TJ comenzaron a acostar a Claire. Mikell entraba por la puerta todos los Miércoles por la noche diciendo que no, que no habia depositado, esta vez no, y Mikell luego tomaría el revólver de su padre sobre el refrigerador y verificaría que había una bala en cada cámara, clic, clic, clic, clic, clic, gírandola en círculo como el juguete de un niño con el dedo en el gatillo, Jack se sienta en la sala de estar y pensaba que un Miércoles por la noche lo va a disparar directamente en la cocina, justo en el azulejo o en la ventana o en su boca, el clic de jugar con la muerte con la melodía de los grillos cantando en los campos de soja fuera de…

"Lo siento, ¿puedo tomar tu mensaje?" Es el hombre del otro lado otra vez. Jack se aleja de sus pensamientos.

"¡Sí! Sí. Um, solo digale a ella…" Jack se retractó de la historia que él y Mikell habían discutido. "-Que TJ se cayó del techo mientras ayudaba a Mikell a teñirse, y se lastimó. Estamos en el hospital ahora, están diciendo que estará bien, pero que necesita puntos de sutura y lo mantienen de la noche a la mañana. Mikell está con él ahora, y Claire está aquí con nosotros solo para estar a salvo.

Había más de lo que Jack quería decirle a su madre. Tal vez algo sobre querer que ella vuelva a casa, o al menos hablar con ellos. Acerca de todo lo que ha estado sucediendo en casa. Sobre Claire o Mikell. Cualquier cosa. Solo para escuchar su voz.

Pero Jack mantuvo la boca cerrada cuando el secretario le preguntó si había algo más, luego le dio las gracias y se despidió y colocó nuevamente el teléfono en el gancho y el papel en el bolsillo y el corazón en el pecho y caminó por la polvorienta puerta giratoria hacia dentro.


4

“…Jack.”

“Mmm.”

“Jack.”

Jack se acerca lentamente desde su lugar en la rígida silla de hospital con el sonido de grillos afuera y una niña de seis años tirando de su sucia camiseta Walmart.

"Claire…" Jack se frotó el ojo con la palma de la mano, mirando adormilado el reloj digital junto a la cama de TJ. 3:46 a.m. "…Mierda. ¿Qué es?"

"Tengo que orinar."

Jack gimió.

"¿Por qué no puedes pedirle a Mikell que te lleve?"

"Él no está aquí."

"…¿Qué? Él es…" Jack entrecerró los ojos por la habitación oscura del hospital hacia el sofá doblado, donde Claire había insistido que Mikell durmiera junto a ella. Vacío.

"…Bueno. Sólo, vamos…um…vamos."

Jack se puso de pie y extendió una mano, sintiendo pequeños dedos alrededor de los suyos.

"Guarda silencio, ¿de acuerdo? No queremos despertar a TJ, ¿sí?" Jack miró a la figura que dormía en la cama, al tenue brillo de los rizos anaranjados contra la luz de la luna filtrada del país. Ojos negros azul púrpura hinchados y cerrados, su hermano menor aún dormía, recuperándose de los apretados puntos negros cosidos en su frente.

"Sí."

"¡Oye! Deja de hacer eso. Eres demasiado grande para eso."

Claire se quitó el pulgar de la boca mientras Jack la conducía por el pasillo vacío hacia el baño. Aunque Jack había tenido sus momentos con Claire, ella era la más cercana a TJ, luego de Mikell, luego de él. Eso era lo que era tener varios hermanos. Sabías dónde estabas en el tótem del amor, y Jack, como el cínico niño del medio que fabricaba y vendía alcohol dudoso desde la parte trasera del garaje, hizo lo posible por no quedar grabado como modelo a seguir de ninguna manera, figura o forma. Mikell hacía cosas paternas como techos de tejas y cargar pistolas y trabajaba hasta altas horas de la noche en un trabajo. Jack se aseguró de que la cantidad de dinero que obtenía no se volviera sospechoso para el banco. Mikell cazaba ciervos para ahorrar en comestibles y los despellejaba en el porche trasero y los cocinaba y vendía los cuernos y las pieles a la granja por el camino para ganar dinero y congelaba el resto de la carne para que no murieran de hambre y les mostraba cómo cocinar una comida y atrapar conejos y ardillas y cortar leña con un hacha como el jodido Paul Bunion y obtener lo que él sospechaba era una vida dura y honesta, como si quedar solo con 21 años para cuidar a tres hermanos era para para lo que habia nacido.

Jack shoplifted and gambled gently and ate a worm for $2 just last week.

He liked to think it was an equal trade off, even when he felt worthless in comparison- they about broke even on legally and illegally obtained cash when the two of them sat down to pool their earnings at the end of the week. They had a system: Mikell would take the cash and tell him that he really looked like he did well this week at his explicitly legal minimum wage job, and he would say yeah, he did, and then pass Mikell a flask of the leftovers under the table. If Jack got caught in front of TJ or Claire, Mikell would make a show of condemning such hideous underage acts and Jack would act in mock horror of what he had done, and then would continue to brew and gamble anyway, because it had become a surprisingly stable form of income in recent months, especially when the electricity was cut off mid-December and they scrambled to pay in a week-long scare. Promote good citizenship, live off bad citizenship. The Bright way.

Halfway down the hall back to the room, in the haze of florescent lights and cracked wallpaper, Claire stopped walking. It caught Jack by surprise, making him lurch back and stumble.

“Hey, come on.”

Claire stood, thumb in mouth, staring down the hallway. Let go of his hand. Tears welled in her eyes.

“No.”

Jack sighed. Oh, he was not doing this at 3AM.

“Well, where are we gonna go then?”

“No.”

Jack knelt down to her level.

“Claire, come on. What’s wrong? Hey.” Jack reached out to take her hand, seeing she was crying harder now. His little sister reached out to his forearms.

“Don’t hurt.”

“What?”

“Don’t leave. No. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“What, you think I’m gonna leave?”

“You will.”

“Claire, I’m not gonna leave.”

“Promise you won’t get sick.”

“What do you mean?”

“Promise.”

Jack sighed.

“Look. Look at me.” Jack raised her chin with a finger, so her line of sight matched his own. “I’m okay. See? I’m gonna be fine. I’m fine. Yeah?”

“Promise.”

“Okay. I promise.”

Claire seemed satisfied.

Jack took her by the hand again and led her back to the darkened room, praying she would fall back asleep. When she did- with Jack laying next to her on the couch – he slipped out of the room, closed the door behind him, and made his way down to the sidewalk outside.

Jack’s eyes widened at the sight of Mikell.

“Dude. Mom is going to kill you.”

“Not if she doesn’t find out.” His older brother exhaled smoke from the cigarette in his hand. “Isn’t that right?”

“Oh.” Don’t tell mom. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s just…”

Mikell raised an eyebrow. Don’t talk to me about it. Jack relinquished, swallowed, and went to stand next to him, his brother raising the cheap camel back to his lips. They stood in silence for a minute, looking off at the darkened fields of beans and corn, the singular farmhouse in the distance. The stars shone and the crickets sang. Smoke drifted from his older brother’s mouth as he breathed.

“Some guys came to TJ’s room earlier.”

Jack looked at him. Mikell exhaled.

“They were asking questions. About what happened.”

“Really? You think they saw?”

“Depends. Probably to some extent. If we keep our story straight, we’ll be fine, just don’t tell anyone.”

“What do you think they’ll do to him? Like the X-files or something?”

Mikell smiled.

“You know where mom and dad work?”

“Yeah. The government.” Jack looked forward again, examining the shadows on the pavement. “I don’t know. They said they couldn’t tell me.”

“Yeah, they can’t tell you.”

Jack jerked his head back to look at Mikell.

“Wait, do you know something about them?”

“I work there too.” Mikell smiled and looked at him. “I’m not going anywhere though, don’t worry. But anyway. People like TJ…You know.

“No, actually, I don’t think I know.” Jack’s blood rushed with anger and anxiety.

“Oh…” Mikell looked up at the stars, contemplating. “Look. You know what they say about, ‘If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Well, here’s how I see it: there have always been people like TJ. You read about them in the old world texts or whatever, like, witches and warlocks and shit. Back in those days, when stuff like this happened, you know, people didn’t really know how to describe them, and they just passed it off and the person went to live in the woods and nothing bad happened. Like yeah, people cared, but it was magic, or someone pissed off Jesus or something. You follow?”

“I guess.”

“Yeah. Well, now that we’re no longer living in the dark ages, people are smart. When someone like TJs born, there’s no casting them off to live in the woods. It’s systematic removal. I’m talking CIA and FBI caliber. So when shit like this happens, where I fell from the roof and TJ was clearly the one to take the injury from the fall, people start watching. It’s no longer the fact that god didn’t will me to take those injuries or some shit like that. These people see that, and they see something larger, someone that really is a witch or a warlock, and they start watching. And they keep watching. And they watch and watch, and if they see something that indicates that something deeper is going on, then they get taken. No more problems. Situation is safe, the people are safe, and the people will continue to be safe through this happening over and over again. That’s the idea. So, like, if it happens, and there’s no one around to see it, then it’s fine. But I think they might be keeping an eye on him.”

“Where do they go?”

Mikell shrugged.

“But anyway. The way I see it, it’s like…” He waved his cigarette. “You know. TJ has always been special.”

“Wait, what?”

“You haven’t noticed that? Like, when he was younger. He could always do shit when he wanted to. Like when you were nine and fell off your bike, you remember that?”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“He healed you.”

“No he didn’t. I got lucky. I fell on the grass.”

“And he was bleeding.”

Jack opened his mouth to respond, then shut it again. Shit.

“Look, like…” Mikell exhaled more smoke. “…I think it’s different now, though. Like back then, he wanted to take that for you. He was eight, he felt empathy for you. He healed you. But this time, I think he was trying to help me, and something happened and he accidentally took it. I don’t think he wanted to feel my pain, I think he was trying to make sure I wasn’t dead, you know? And that’s when it happened.”

“So he’s changing.”

Mikell shrugged.

“Puberty. What can I say, he was always a late bloomer.”

“What about Claire?”

“What about her?”

“Is she special too?”

“I don’t know. I think TJs the most obvious, we’re gonna have to work to keep that covered up. Claire…If you watch her, Jack. She’s…I don’t know. She knows shit.”

Jack laughed.

“You’re fucking crazy. Listen to yourself, Mikell, she’s seven, she likes fucking polly pockets and cabbage patch girls or whatever shit. What the fuck does she know?”

“The future.”

Jack wheezed.

“I’m dead fucking serious, Jack. Look, okay, I was shaky on it too, but last fucking week, last fucking week she was coloring, and she gave me a picture of me on the roof.”

Jack stopped laughing.

“Significant events, Jack. I don’t think she knows what they are, but she sees them.” Mikell dropped the cigarette onto the pavement and put it out with the heel of his boot. “Look. Don’t tell anyone what I just told you about, okay? This is between you and me. We keep TJ safe, we keep Claire safe, we make sure nothing happens.”


6

TJ is a pale, freckled child with red hair- their father's- and a frame that stands wiry in worn hand-me-downs. Often onlookers comment on his striking resemblance to Mikell, but to Jack, his youngest and oldest brothers look and are, in essence, entirely different people. TJ lacks Mikell's broad shoulders and tanned shoulders and arms, his sunburnt neck, his iron resolve and firm competence. TJ wavers in the path of decisions; Mikell thrives in it. TJ is soft spoken and feminine in nature; Mikell is accustomed to confidence, a short-haired cowboy with adventurous resolve.

His older brother has always moved as a subtle and direct force of nature one might even call clean, careful, swift, (lethal)— but such thoughts do not occur to him then.

So when addressing the conflict of TJ's acquired tendencies, Jack and Mikell first make sure he's asleep in the other room, and then speak over the dining room table. His older brother drinks a cheap beer from a can, and after a moment, Jack moves to the fridge and gets one for himself, too- he is not yet of age, but such things are a formality in the battered barns and sun-bleached houses of small Midwestern farm towns. It's disgusting, but he drinks it anyway. The alcohol fills a widening pit of frustration in his stomach. It calms his nerves.

(it calmed his father's nerves, too, in a time before TJ and Claire were born, when it was just the two brothers and their mother and the smell of heavy alcohol and charms from AA meetings, but they understand to this day that they are not to discuss this time)

They reach a decision, or at least, a heated compromise. Jack finishes his beer and Mikell takes another from the fridge not because he wants another, but to give him something to do to keep himself from throttling some god damn sense into his younger sibling. Jack goes to bed. Mikell plays with the revolver in the kitchen, even though it is not Wednesday, and the next week- with TJ recovered enough to return to school- Jack outfits him in long sleeves, long pants, and thin gloves, and sends him off with one instruction: touch no one.


7

In late April, Mikell says he’s receiving a promotion. When TJ and Claire are in bed, his elder brother opens a locked steel box on the kitchen table and shows Jack two faded leather holsters with a revolver in each.

In words that he did not yet know, Jack knew this object was special. It felt radiant, powerful, unearthly before him. He studied it closely. These revolvers were much different then their father’s on top of the fridge—no, these were old, old guns, weathered down with sweat of generations. The yellow glow of the dining room light above them turns the handles a sickly iridescent off-white, the barrels, a diseased grey-green, engraved with tendrils and elaborate vines of faded gold. The belt is an old, brown leather that is somehow miraculously still bound together, but to Jack, the weighted feeling of unease is only in the silver objects the belt holds. Mikell picks them up and Jack is surprised, like he wasn’t expecting the movement to be physically possible. They fit so well in his brother’s calloused hands that he can feel the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.

“That’s not pearl.” Jack sputtered out. “The handles.”

They remain off-white even when lifted into Mikell’s hands, shining not by nature, but by polish. When Mikell killed deer, he would boil out the marrow into a stew, then throw the rest out; all sorts of parts in the pot. Femurs sitting on the kitchen counter to be used. Skulls he let TJ hold.

To a Jack in the future, in a different life, anomalous is a bone-stained word on iron breath. It’s a word that’s laced with gold.


8

In late May, Mikell leaves for work and does not return in two days as previously promised.

Jack spends more time sleeping then he ever has before. Being a man of science, but not without an imagination- left as a residue from his childhood of books and roleplaying games with his brothers on hazy Midwest summer nights, not needed but only sometimes unwelcome- Jack dreams more than he ever has before. He dreams of his mother and father, of trees that fall in the forest and are never heard. Of Star Trek reruns on TV. Cows standing in a circle, tail to muzzle, some sort of unholy shrine. Sometimes he dreams that Claire is in there with them, in the center, sitting on the ugly rug from their living room with her dolls in the middle of the soft prairie grass. No getting her there, cowboy- he dreams of rabid animals, too, and all to often imagines the heard, all 67 of them, twitching and lurching through the grass in a sickly, uneven sort of rhythm, rotating the circle in a slow, even, mesmerized pace. Round and round, the circle gets smaller, and Jack feels the need, from his spot on the hill, to rush in with some kind of paternal duty, but is frozen to the spot.

Sorry, cowboy. Close but no cigar.

Jack wakes up, always, in the same hazy, nauseous way he tends to do these days, with a guilty weight settled right under his ribcage and his vessel aching, breathing shallow. He sits at the kitchen table with a restless energy that breeds anger in his chest like some small animal gnawing at his sternum and he’ll find himself grinding his teeth in an old nervous habit. After about an hour of dazed, drunken silence, Jack will wander to the garage and continue his illegal moonshine activities with shaking hands that make the condenser wobble when he touches it; so much work for so little gain. Frustration it isn’t faster, but brewing is a slow burn kind of business. It pays the bills.

“You okay, buddy?” Asks the potbellied redneck he usually sells to. Two gallons for forty dollars; he pays in cash, as he usually does. Jack sits hunched on the garage steps feeling like he’s conducting electricity. He’s not one for small talk. “Coming down with something?”

Jack nods, and puts on a weary smile. “Mm. Something like that, yeah.” His chest squeezes with irrational rage; he doesn’t want to speak, but feels like he has to allude to things being alright, at least to some extent. Not like the redneck would call child services anyway. He hopes he doesn’t look like he feels, but judging by the scruff on his face that he’s been too tired to shave away and the weight he’s lost, it’s a stretch. “Probably the weather.”

“Your brother back yet?” The jugs go in a compartment under the redneck’s floor mats, not that the police would care anyway if they found it.

“Nah.” Jack scrambles to find something to say; this has been the first human interaction outside of Claire and TJ he’s had in two weeks. “Business trip.”

Business trip. Not entirely false, he reasoned.

And Mikell does come home.

Mikell comes home in the rain in mid June. He pulls in late at night as Jack sits at the dining room table with his hands around a beer, half asleep. He's pale and weary-eyed in the field it will be days before you sleep and the holster is around his waist still powerful, radiant, you are the right hand of god and will kill for him; he mumbles a tired and half-hearted hello the first time is always the hardest, darling and collapses in bed, and Jack pays him no heed other than that he is home.

Mikell sleeps. He sleeps until the next afternoon. He sleeps with the guns loaded next to him, where he can see them reflecting light in a sleepy haze.

It will be a thousand years before you rest; it is the way of this place.


9

Mikell has worked at the same ranch since he was 16 years old and had been riding a horse as long as he could remember. Jack himself could never quite understand what his older brother could possibly find entertaining about herding cows on horseback all day, but what made up for it was the competitions Mikell did for fun.

His older brother always got excited about the working cow horse runs. Jamie, the owner of the ranch and prime proprietor of Mikell’s apparent aptitude for the industry, was always happy to allow he and Chestnut to enter and ride in aimless circles in a sandy enclosure while fellow hillbillies looked on and cheered. Jack would lean up against the metal fencing with John Deere ads strung up along it and watch Mikell and his horse kick up sand in tight circles under florescent lighting and country music with a smile on his face and an odd sort of contentment that comes with seeing your sibling do something stupid. Even if Jack was no cowboy himself- preferred the likes of Star Trek reruns to baying cattle- he could tell Mikell was good by watching how his father swelled with pride, how the judges talked about him over the speakers, how Jamie praised him.

Mikell was good. Mikell was always good at being a ranch hand.

When Mikell was 16, Jamie taught him delicate art of bull riding, and encouraged him to enter in his first rodeo.

Now Jack had never regarded his older brother’s job and subsequent hobbies to be too entertaining, but quickly realized that he had a deep, burning passion for watching his older brother get thrown off large animals at high speeds in front of a crowd while wearing ridiculous clothing, and decided to always be in attendance. After all, Jack had never seen a stupider sport than riding a bull for eight seconds.

The only thing was that Mikell was good.

This was infuriating to Jack, who came with the specific little-brother goal of watching the person who he constantly bickered with get thrown off something. No, Mikell was good, too good. Jack would watch with anticipation in a small sports arena a couple hours away from home as his brother grabbed either side of the chute with difficulty, fastened his helmet, and awaited the buzzer with hand on rope reins, only to hold on for the full eight seconds with frightening ease. Rider after rider would be thrown off violently before and after him, but no, Mikell never fell, and Jack would bathe once again in the burning feeling of inadequacy that came with having an older sibling that succeeded in something at all.

When Mikell was 19, Claire tagged along with Jack and his father for the first time to see Mikell ride at a Rodeo. When it was time for him to go, Mikell threw one fringe-adorned leg over the side of the chute and waited for the handlers to allow him on. This bull had been particularly violent, and it was clear that Mikell was nervous, watching the previous rider not only get thrown off in the first three seconds but get stepped on repeatedly as the animal continued to buck.

The handlers on horses drove the bull back into the chute to the crying jeer of the crowd, and Claire tugged on Jack’s pants sharply.

“What?” Jack had to raise his voice over the clamor of the competition, the buzz of excitement and anxiety that made Mikell grip the metal chute tighter then he had before.

“He shouldn’t go in.” Claire yelled. “Don’t let him go in!”

“What?”

The handlers gave the signal, and he watched his brother climb in the tight chute completely, hands on either side, steadying himself, locking the dented helmet and mouthguard. The announcer started reading off his name and number, to which his father cheered next to them. Claire looked at him, eyes wide in panic, then turned sharply and put her hands on the fence surrounding the arena. The buzzer went off, the timer started, and chute opened, sending Mikell and wild animal into the ring.
But the bull didn’t buck.

Mikell looked confused at one second on the timer, still holding tight to the rope as he had when the bull charged inward. The bull didn’t buck. The bull stood, still, in the middle or the arena, despite knocking the sides of chute with anger a few moments prior. Two seconds. Three seconds. The audience is in shock. The ref looks to the announcer.

At four seconds, the bull starts to move again, and Mikell continues to brace for the first impact that never comes. The bull is walking. The bull is walking back towards the chute. Mikell looks dumbfounded. Five seconds. Six seconds. At this point, even if the bull was to start bucking, Jack figures that Mikell could hold on for the last two seconds and still make the round, if this even counted. The bull finishes walking back to the chute of it’s own accord and huffs loudly.

Seven seconds. The crowd is silent. The bull faces the chute, and it’s very clear now that Mikell is expecting to die, to be thrown in the air in the most violent buck in the history of all Rodeos.

When it hits eight seconds, the buzzer goes off. The crowd acts like it isn’t over; remains silent, entranced. When the chute opens again, the handlers don’t need to do anything; the bull walks in on it’s own accord, the chute closes, and Mikell, a little stunned, stumbles off, pushes himself back over the side of the chute, and lands on his feet, just as blood trickles down Claire’s face from her nose.

(he would have died had i not changed it)

Jack thinks of this now. Jack thinks of this as the crickets chirp and pierce through his angry haze that clouds his thoughts and mind. Jack thinks of this and Claire wanders in and asks if she can sleep with him, she had a nightmare. Jack thinks of this as he lies awake with her there, thinking of trees falling in the forest and wishing there was more he could do.


10

Jack will learn, in another life, the importance of not letting one's guard down.

There is be endless safety videos in his future. There is even a future ahead of him where he, too, will be an enforcer; he will reprimand violations of human imperfection in a place that must by all lengths strive to remain industrial, clean, separated. He will learn to place a wall between people and things that only look like them. He will even learn- long into his future- to control himself, to be disciplined, and to fine-tune his sense of situational empathy. He will pick his battles and save what may be saved and move on, and some will call him heartless, clinical, stubborn, and others will call him Director.

But Jack is a child, and he can not see the consequences of these things. He cannot act fast enough. He does not yet have the eye to anticipate; to see where incidents happen. He is not dutiful to security, containment, protection because he does not need to be.

And so when TJ runs over and hugs Mikell, Jack does not stop him. He does not stop him when Mikell's fingers touch TJ's bare neck. And had he known that Mikell was unusually tired because he had been treated recently for a still-healing gunshot wound that had shot through his shoulder and sent him to a Foundation hospital for two weeks, he may have acted differently, although it is not likely; carelessness is not an easily avoided trait.

And when TJ's breath hitches sharply, and he falls into Mikell's arms as dead weight, Mikell makes a decision in the sharp, quick way that he does, that he will not let his youngest brother suffer. Some would consider what he does to be barbaric, and would scream and fight with him as he wordlessly loads their 14-year-old sibling into the back of the car as Jack does.

Others would consider it a necessary evil, as Mikell drives away and does not return for another several weeks, saying to him, do not let them take her, Jack, there's hope for her yet.


11

Summer day fades into hot, burning summer day. Jack’s body aches in an endless haze. Claire plays outside with the neighboring children and he sits at the dining room table and feels cold and fuzzy, distant; his thoughts are a single, tired string, fraying, searing in the summer heat but cold against his skin. In the mornings, as he rouses himself from deep, dreamless sleep, Jack’s body is heavy. Claire needs to eat. Jack doesn’t, or feels like he doesn’t. There’s no appetite. The heat sickens him in a way he has not experienced before.

On stormy days, the water is hot, comes down in sheets that darken the sky, flood down the cracked road into old cement gutters. Droplets strike the pavement and Jack stumbles outside for the first time in weeks- blinking, body aching and dragging- sitting on the damp, sun-bleached porch just as birds chatter nearby.

The door creaks open- old, rusting springs that his father promised he would fix.

“Jack?”

Light filters out onto the porch and onto the back of his neck. Jack focuses his eyes on the afternoon rain pelting the sparse grass of the front lawn. He aimlessly wonders about the date- wasn’t paying attention. Days and weeks slip together in a sort of disjointed, hazy way. Late June, maybe. Something like that.

“Jack, can I play with Sydney and Gabby?” Claire hangs to the door handle, red raincoat over tiny frame, rubber boots that were handed down through three Bright boys before they reached her coming up to her knees. Jack looks out wearily past the broken-down porch and the patchy front lawn to the girls splashing in mud puddles across the street.

“Mmm-hm, just stay where I can see you.”

“I will.”

Jack rubs his eyes as his little sister races across the street, greeted by cries of joy. June already- had been a month since graduation. He should be thinking about college.

But he can’t.

A long ways away, in another life, a short, fat man would sprawl in a battered armchair at the training center he ran and would tell Jack all he knew about the births and birthings in a serious, lucid tone, a rarity preserved for close friends. Jack would tend the old brick fireplace and open some liquor and they would drink and the blond haired veteran would tell him about the myths in the field, stories of cattle dying and dogs being nailed on trees. The storms and violent winds. Cars flipped and people gone. Hume readings fading in, out, spatial anomalies. Kant counters breaking, phones not working. Guns jamming.

The child would be born within 5 miles, and when it would breathe- said the old rumors spread around GOC task forces- all the strange happenings would stop, and so no one would notice it; only lasted the mother’s labor. The universe preparing for a new god. The star of Bethlehem.

Stranger things have happened, said the man with the rifle. No way to test it; would make sense if it was true, I suppose. The way they come and they way they leave, all these kids, not just the greens, the legends are the same. Always a little strange, ‘post to get worse with the power and significance, all that kind of shit. I knew guys that used to peel out if they saw the cattle run, you know.

Do you believe it, was Jack’s question. Something he knew the answer to.

The man sighed, readjusted slightly. Jack, science loathes coincidence. Ask any shithead on the street and they’ll say they’ve seen something strange at some point in their life. For the sake of standing on solid ground- no, I don’t think I do.

Jack on the rainy steps, pale and weak, decided he was too tired to think about it right now. Leaned his head so it rested on the splintering wood railing. Watched Claire splash in puddles with her friends under a sheet of rain.

Jack on the rainy steps was born with his umbilical chord wrapped around his throat in a tight death grip. They thought he was dead; didn’t cry for minutes as they worked to loosen it off.

When Jack on the rainy steps was four, he caught pneumonia that landed him in the hospital for a month. They thought he would die.

When Jack on the rainy steps was eight, he ran into the street to chase a raccoon and was hit by a car; the impact sent him skidding on the ground, bleeding from his chest.

When Jack on the rainy steps was eleven, the top of their snow fort caved in on top of him.

Jack on the rainy steps, at 19, couldn’t understand why he couldn’t do anything right. Why TJ and their parents were gone; why there was no reason for him to really be here at all. He feels listless; he wants to hurt something. He doesn’t know where to let the anger go. He wants to know why he feels this way, why he can’t pull himself together long enough to be an adult for Claire. Why he can’t just be like he was a year ago: happy and content and not barley functioning and exhausted.

Jack on the rainy steps doesn’t want to die, but doesn’t want to live. Jack on the rainy steps wants to fall asleep and not wake up anymore.


12

When the agents came like Jack knew he would- the tree falling in the forest agents with their bulletproof vests under stiff button up shirts- Jack crosses the house to the kitchen, reaches up on top of the refrigerator, and loops his fingers on the old iron revolver that clacks quietly in his hands, a dangerous weight. Jack has never been a terribly good shot, but his father had had him and Mikell shoot enough dead-eyed plastic deer that he was decent. The shiny dress shoes fitted with concealed steel-toes make the old wood of the front porch creak, and Jack has a sharp moment of panic like an electric shock at his holding a gun. What did he expect to do? Shoot them? A person in a stark black suit wasn’t a pheasant or a squirrel-

“Jack! Someone’s at the door!”

Jack whipped around to meet the tree in the forest about to fall, playing with her dolls. Her eyes widen when she sees the gun, and Jack fumbles silently-

“Go. Room.” There’s a sense of urgency in his voice that he hopes carries. “Now. Hurry, Clarie.”

Claire abandons her dolls and bolts down the hall to their shared bedroom just as the knock comes on the door with knuckles that have been broken, healed, broken again. Jack’s chest compresses tight again for a moment and he remembers tree in the forest, if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, tree in the forest, tree in the forest, they’re here for her and his chest swells as the constant anger he’s felt burning inside him for a little over four months now suddenly blazes into hot fury.

He swallows, palms starting to sweat a little.

And when they took his little sister away, that hot Midwestern afternoon, her shrieks rang and echoed down the empty street and resonated in stagnant air and the buzz of lazy insects. Jack did not shoot. He did not shoot because they took her from her room, because there had been four of them, not two, and because he was foolish and sick and lost and didn't know what to do when they immediately grabbed him and threw him to the floor and knocked him out. He didn't know what to do when he woke up alone and wandered around the house in a daze looking, looking, looking as bats roosted in nearby barns and herding dogs barked in the distance.

He didn't know what to do and didn't know where to go. He felt frustrated and furious but empty and dull and sick with anxiety. He wandered out of his house and down streets with the hurried pace of someone looking for something they know they've lost. He ran until the street lights ran out and he hit gravel roads and long, endless fields of corn and beans, obscuring his vision into the clear, cloudless night sky and the lightning bugs that blinked among them.

And eventually, he turned around, because what else could he do? Where else could he go, to find the person he needed to protect? He walked until the sun came up and it hit his neck in a hot, humid haze of morning, and kept walking, walking. Sweating in the morning sun. He walked past his brother's horse grazing in Jamie's pasture. He walked into his neighborhood with the kids playing basketball down the street. He wandered back in with a pained sort of desperation settled tight in his chest, but his body felt heavy and his spine felt tight.

So Jack Bright slept, and slept alone.


Dream Sequence:

From bed, Jack finds the strength to move.

He is shaking with anticipation but never has he even thought of doing this before, no, all thoughts are driven, pointed, he is sure, not Mikell, not his mother, not TJ, no, nothing and no one could stop him- the hallway to the bathroom is a dark green mile that he walks briskly. Someone has pulled the trap door out from under him and there is nothing below but hate and disgust.

Claire is (not anymore shes not here anymore) sleeping in the bedroom next to his own, and when he locks the bathroom door someone drives down the rickety concrete outside and he sees the headlights continue into nothing from the tiny bathroom window, hyperaware. Jack refuses to see himself in the mirror- he has not moved far from bed in weeks- and instead opens it to the tiny metal shelves and scans quickly, like a man dying for water, like a man craving. His mother’s medication sits gathering dust. Mikell’s toothbrush. His father’s razor.

Some strange, distant part of him doesn’t take apart the razor for the blades because he cannot bring himself to break something of his father’s, but the blades are still sharp- Jack has accidentally cut himself with less. There’s a moment, as Jack holds it in his hands, that he wonders what his mother would say. It is not factored in. Jack knows what she thinks of him.

Damage:

Pain screams down his arm and leaves him stunned, drunkenly happy, high off fumes. There’s buzzing in his body and screaming in his mind that tells him to strike again and he complies, dazed and ruptured, riding the feeling that feeling gives him. His breathing starts to slow. Relaxation. His mind is spiraling down like a dying plane from the sky.

Damage!

Jack’s knees are week, the world is spinning. He strikes a third time, barley able to see his skin through the nine even scores of ragged, bleeding flesh, and the craving leaves his body like a soul. It stings and burns like nothing he’s ever felt in his life, exploding and shrieking, his breath comes in a calm, even rhythm. There are black spots in his vision. He rinses off the razor and red fluid he forgot he had runs in streams down his arm and dribbles into the sink. Jack is okay. Jack is calm. Tranquility comes over him as the hate starts to leave his body with his consciousness.

Ethereality:

Jack is awake.

Crickets sing out in the summer air that rustles the soybeans outside in the grey heat of early morning. He’s thin enough now that Mikell is able to scoop him up from the bathroom floor and out of the puddle of red fluid staining his shirt. Jack feels like all the energy he had is gone from his body, and lets his older brother carry him-slumping into his chest in the most direct form of human interaction he’s experienced in weeks. Another car drives by outside, a farmer headed to the fields. When he’s laid down on the beaten couch, Jack almost wishes Mikell would keep holding him, for just a while longer; human touch has become a rare commodity. Gauze and bandages pull against half-clotted blood, swollen red cuts and bruised skin sting with rubbing alcohol. He feels sick, lightheaded, but satisfied. Mikell squeezes the cloth wrapping his arm gently, letting it soak up the access fluid. All the hate is gone from his body. He deserved that. He deserved that. He deserves more, is too weak to deliver. His brother presses an ice pack to the wounds, lays his arm at an incline on Jack’s chest. The popcorn ceiling is a color in the early morning light that Jack hasn’t noticed before. There are blankets pulled over his pale body, up to his chin, and feels a warm hand on his forehead. It’s shaking with fury in the moment it lingers there. He has made Mikell angry in the past, but not like this, not furious into silence. Jack feels no remorse, lays there in a silence of his own. Cold, feverish, distant. Floating. The scum of the earth.

Suddenly, Mikell has a bulky cell phone that he’s never seen before in one hand and is running his fingers through his hair with the other, sillueted in dawn light flooding through the kitchen windows, reading “Travis, Elder, Forty-two, sixty-six-oh-eight”. He vaguely remembers TJ and Claire, but there are no feelings, no connection in this moment in time. Briefly thinks of mom and dad, and wished they were here in an odd, offhand sort of way, as he’s wished for the past ten months. Dreamlike, condensation beads on the windows as the humidity rises. Mikell is pacing and talking on the phone, then redialing, redialing again, reading off numbers and letters and words. The old radio turned on low sings a song his father liked. Jack feels strange, but content with the pain searing in his arm. Claire left a polly pocket on the floor near the rocking chair. He’s so tired, angry. Across the street, the sound of the dogs TJ likes to play with waking for breakfast. He wants to fall asleep and not wake up. In a distant, far off place, Mikell exhales in relief, “Mom”.


13

Jack is awakened by the kind of deep, rolling thunder that accompanies Midwestern summer storms, the kind that leaches humidity through the windows and coats the streets in a thick, sickening heat. The clock reads 2:24 PM and the world outside is cast in a deep black hue, the shadow of thick grey clouds forming a solid, rolling wall in the sky, like water rushing over a dam. There is no rain pounding on the window, and Jack becomes deeply, innately aware upon this realization of what this means; from where he lays still in his bed, the middle brother bright feels the wind whistling through the cornfields, hears the lack of hearing children at play and sound of the TV turned to the weather channel in the other room, senses the fundamental disturbance that comes with the testing of the old great plain. No dogs bark. No cars rattle down the cracked suburban asphalt. There is only the thudding of his heart in his bandaged arm and the sound of the clouds approaching.

Mikell is at his bedside, absentmindedly picking under his fingernails with his pocket knife. He sees the ember glow of a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth.

"I told you." Mikell growls under his breath, and the past two days hit Jack like a truck. "I told you to keep her safe. I told you."

The room falls into silence, and Jack grips the sheets tighter. He grimaces for a moment, and looks at the ceiling. Mikell knew where she was. He must have known.

But Jack has failed profoundly in many ways in the past six months. So instead, Jack looks back at him and says,

“Don’t smoke in the house.”

Mikell looks at him, takes a long, slow inhale, removes the cigarette, and exhales the smoke pointedly into the air.

“Asshole.” Jack croaks. He feels like a grey scale; weak, sick, hurting, empty and strange, but no longer floating. Mikell takes another drag on his cigarette and leans forward, elbows on knees.

“You were really out this morning.”

Jack squeezes his eyes shut. He had been hoping they wouldn’t talk about this, especially not with Mikell. His older brother removes the cigarette and exhales smoke thoughtfully, looking at the floor. Jack holds his breath. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He isn’t sure that Mikell wants to talk about it, either, in the solemn way that his father wouldn’t. Wind rustles the soybeans behind their house and disrupts the neighbor’s wind chimes. It’s a cold wind in a stark heat.

“Sit up.”

Jack complies, surprised at the searing pain his arm makes when he puts pressure on it. It didn’t feel real when he did it; it felt real now.

Where’s TJ?

Mikell transfers his cigarette from his right hand to between the middle and index finger on his left, and slaps him.

Jack reels back out of surprise, then immediately throws off the blankets and bolts up to meet his brother eye-to-eye, world swimming gently as he does so— he's a bit out of breath and off balance, but after a moment of wavering, his eyes bring Mikell into focus, and he feels his own breath boiling hot in his throat with rage,

“Hey! What’s your fucking problem?!”

“You’re my fucking problem.” Mikell takes a drag from the cigarette. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You think I have the time for your melodramatic shit?” Smoke comes out of his mouth hot as his words. Some ash falls into the carpet.

“I don’t know, maybe if you were ever here you’d have the time for it.” Jack feels the familiar heat of frustration rising in his chest. Mikell laughs and shakes his head, smiles, and takes another drag on his cigarette.

“Look, Jack, I love you just as much as the next guy.” Mikell starts, voice deep and sarcastic, scraping the edges of his tenor register. “But our sister's gone now, too, and you know, that might be a problem, you know? Say, did you consider that, huh? Did you even try when they came to take her? Did you even care?"

"Don't you try to tell me I don't care about them!" Jack screams, anger boiling over. Mikell's face contorts into a look of humor and surprise.
"Well, I mean, you sure don't act like you care. You don't really act like you care about anything, actually, so maybe if you really don't-"

“-You don't fucking understand—"

“Oh, fuck, I don’t understand you. That’s right. No one understands you.” Mikell pushed him back, getting ash on his shirt. “Poor you. You know, I think it’s always been about you, you know that?!”

“All about me?” Jack guffawed, blood boiling. "You know, I think that's pretty funny that you say that, you know, since you've been gone all this time and I've been trying to handle both of them at once. I don't know, just a thought here; maybe if you cared you would actually be here at all."

Mikell laughed. “Oh, shit! I forgot I was actually doing something. You might want to try that."

“You know what? That’s fine. Fuck you.” Jack grabbed his backpack and threw open the dresser. “Fuck you. You wanna play that shit? Fine.”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Jack threw some clothes on and extras in the pack and pulled on a pair of discarded worn sneakers. Thunder boomed in the distance. Mikell laughed again.

“You’re fucking stupid. You’re a fucking stupid, impulsive little brat, you know that?”
Jack grabbed the bag and swiftly walked to the kitchen, throwing open cabinet doors. Granola bars, water bottle.

“Oh, shit! He’s running away!” Mikell snarled, leaning on the counter, exhaling cigarette smoke into open air. “Better call the fucking police, folks, he’s a walking menace. Look at that. He’ll fuck you up just as soon as he stops fucking himself up.” Cabinets slam shut. Jack’s breathing comes in hot, ragged breaths, and Mikell continues in a slow, angry drawl. “That’s right folks, man of the hour. Look at this melodramatic little shit. Spineless fuck, that’s what he is.”

Before he can stop himself, Jack whips around and throws a punch directly at his older brother’s face; Mikell catches his clumsy throw by the wrist and twists sharply, sending him slamming onto the ground.

“Oh, fuck, folks, he’s fighting! We got ourselves a fighter! Damn!” Jack closes his eyes sharply and lets his back take the impact of hitting the kitchen floor. Mikell is on his feet now, cigarette discarded, hand still around Jack’s wrist; Jack grabs his arm with his other hand and pulls sharply. Mikell crashes to the ground just as the tornado sirens start, taking off in shrill, sweeping tones that roll over the prairie like a flood. Jack spots something he hadn’t before, on the table a few feet away, above his head- a heavy looking grocery bag. The smaller of the oldest bright brothers wiggles free from his brother’s grip just as Mikell has time to reorient himself and grab his ankle; Jack awkwardly hits his arm with his other boot, thankful for the first time in his life that they’re steel toed, and makes a go for the blunt object, not really knowing what to do with it-

But the bag is heavy in his hand. Heavy and clunky- it’s a metal box inside, labeled with a thousand numbers and codes and “IN TRANSIT” stamped on the front, but before he can slide the lock and yank it open he hears the click of a gun, and turns to see his older brother standing, no longer smiling and laughing with rage. Still, calm. Both hands on one revolver, his older brother backs him up until Jack’s back is pressed against the wall of the kitchen. Jack realizes with stunning clarity that he has crossed a line, and decides with the same stunning clarity to cross it further, driven with rage and the thin electric wire shooting pain into his thoughts and driving his body to self destruction.

“Put it down.” Mikell growls. His fingers are steady on the gun; it’s pointed, direct, confident. There’s a moment of silence as sirens sweep back up into a pitching howl.

“What, this?” Jack swings the lock box up; something metallic clatters inside. “What are you gonna do? Shoot me? You seemed pretty obsessed with me living a few minutes ago.”

“Jack.” Mikell is solemn and clear. “You don’t understand.”

“What did you do with TJ?” Jack demands. Clearly he has some leverage here.

“Damn it, Jack, he’s fine!”

“You took him away, didn’t you!” Jack’s ears ring; he knows what Mikell’s done. “You took him to that…that place!”

“Jack.” Mikell keeps the gun trained on him. “Put that down. Now.”

There’s a moment, as Jack bright looks down the barrel of his brother’s gun, that he becomes aware of the weight of the box in his hands- the heavy, important feeling, the godlike divineness, the strange, prophetic kinship- all this and rage drives Jack’s thumb to the latch and the latch to the left and the top of the iron box open on welded hinges.

Mikell’s gun jams.

He hears it go off, and it’s in this moment that Jack no longer cares about the mud-caked ornate amulet approximately 15 centimeters in circumference made from white gold, with thirteen (13) ██k brilliant-cut diamonds surrounding a ██k oval-cut ruby in a starburst pattern presenting itself to him from inside the shoddily locked box. Mikell’s eyes widen. The silver ivory creature in his brother’s grip has never jammed and will never jam again, and Mikell, understanding the weight of this cosmic decision, does not shoot as Jack thinks he will, instead lowering the gun, one slow, creeping inch at a time, until it is level with his leg. Mikell looks at him a long, careful second- and makes a decision of his own.

It’s in this moment, and the moments that follow- when the tornado sirens shriek up into the sky and down to the ground just as Mikell orders him out onto the street and he drops the metal box onto the tile floor and takes off into the stormy world outside- that Jack knows he cannot die, and somehow becomes complete, a fully developed person, like a his brother’s guns or his sister’s cows.


14

In another life, not far away from here, it takes the wound a moment to bleed.

There’s a moment as Jack Bright, level 2 researcher, looks onto the metal pole impaling his abdomen, that everything remains in suspense. Briefcase open, artifact rolling to a stop against his skin. He moves his head a little to the side as it gleams. His body settles. The florescent light shines.

It takes the wound a moment to bleed.

There’s a moment, as blood wells from his snapped body and soaks through his stiff button up shirt, that Jack begs not to live in a forceful, horrid way he hasn’t before, not with all the days of summer slipping through his fingers and smearing together in an ugly heat, no, Jack Bright has never been more sure in his life that he is not wanted then he is in this moment in October of 1973. Not with the days unable to move from bed, not with the rain coming down on the concrete, not with the night with the razor or the sound of the radio on low singing an endless, melancholy song, nothing has changed, and nothing will change. Jack is still nothing. Jack is still no one.

The amulet glimmers in the florescent light, and in a moment, with the first leaves falling from the trees outside, Jack is not Jack anymore.


15

The Present

Secure instant message log between Dr. Charles Gears, North Eastern Region Research Director, and Dr. Jack Bright, multi-site Director: Beginning Date: 12/24/16

Director Bright | 20:11
Gears
Are you up

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 20:35
Addressing a minor disturbance in the lab, please stand by.

Director Bright | 20:45
Damn it
My plane leaves in 15 min
We’ll talk when I get to Omaha

Director Bright | 01:23
Fuck
Okay well
I made it but can’t catch my connecting
everythings grounded
snowstorm
nothing like site 19 snowstorms but enough to keep everyone down
Are you there

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:30
Yes.
Holding tank malfunction. Unfortunate damage

Director Bright | 01:30
What do you mean by unfortunate damage
Youre worrying me here

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:30
Major damage. I'll repair it today.

Director Bright | 01:31
Anything out?

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:31
Yes. Momentarily.
Unfortunate severity

Director Bright | 01:31
Gears
What do you mean by unfortunate severity

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:31
Moderately severe

Director Bright | 01:32
Shit
Well
I was hoping to be back next week and if I can catch another flight out tomorrow I might be able to make it

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:33
I would not be optimistic. It's a snowstorm here as well.
Typical Siberian snowstorm, but the cold is also unusually severe
If you were able to fly to London and then into Moscow as planned you wouldn't be able to fly to the site until it warms slightly
We've been having mechanical failures. Nothing with the chambers, but the outer doors are suffering some problems. The latest supply shipment was a close call

Director Bright | 01:35
Damn I was only gone for two months and the place is falling apart
Stop typing it was a joke
Still I was hoping to get back

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:37
You aren't required back for another two weeks
I was expecting you to spend more time at 88, personally
Is there something you need to attend to?

Director Bright | 01:37
Yeah well
Look
On a personal note I'm you know
winding down into an episode again
You know how it is
I'd rather be in a psych ward I know if I have to be out of commission for a little bit

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:38
I see.

Director Bright | 01:38
Yeah sorry
That was weirdly personal
Shit hit the fan at site 27 and I'm fucking exhausted like holy shit you wouldn't believe
Like fuck

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:39
I see no problem with you seeking comfortable aid if you are feeling unwell, Jack.
Where are you? Omaha?

Director Bright | 01:39
Nebraska yeah
Only like
An ocean away
I could try flying up through Canada and take the Alaska route but
If you guys are snowed in than the Barrow port won't be much better

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:40
A reasonable assumption

Director Bright | 01:41
Hopefully it won’t be that bad and I’ll just need a few days
A few days rest and I can let it blow over
It’s not as bad as it used to be but sometimes I miss my meds

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:41
Again, reasonable.
Nebraska

Director Bright | 01:42
Charlie i fucking swear to god dont do it

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:42
Don't you have family there?

Director Bright | 01:43
Fuck you did it
Shit
Yeah
I do
I was avoiding that option
But my brother still lives here
He owns our old house and a ranch
Hometown is like an hour away

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:44
Could you stay there?
Until you can fly.
To be perfectly honest, Jack, I would be more comfortable knowing you were staying in a Foundation connected area
I'm wary of hotels in your situation, considering the amulet and your potential to self terminate in this state of mental health

Director Bright | 01:46
Omg could you imagine
Me
Showing up at his ranch
At 3 am
on christmas
Youre a funny guy Charlie

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:46
You seem hesitant.

Director Bright | 01:47
Okay so like how do I put this
Mikell is one of /those/ people when it comes to mental health
I dont know if hes still like that but he was when we were younger
Maybe I could just not tell him but if something happens
You know how I get Charlie
And plus quite honestly I havent been home since I left when I was like
Fuck
18 I think
it was kinda funny actually like looking back. How I left I mean
if we were adults then I think we could have handled it better but we were both young and kind of in rough patches
tl;dr: there was a lot of frustration and depression and testosterone and also some other stuff that happened
but familys family I guess

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:50
You aren't presenting any evidence not to.
How far away is it?

Director Bright | 01:50
Like an hour out from here I think
I'll take a taxi
Shit this should be fun
I only ever see him at family stuff really
Hey shit that reminds me
How's TJ?

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:51
Alright.
I haven't heard anything to indicate to me otherwise, but there haven't been any tests this winter, so I would not know. That would be more Agatha's realm.

Director Bright | 01:52
Yeah I know but shes asleep like all the other normal people on site so I can't annoy her
Look I'm gonna loose connection when I leave the airport here in a few minutes
Thanks for helping

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:53
Yes.

Director Bright | 01:53
You don't need to repair that holding tank today if you don't want to
As long as the thing is moved to one thats okay and its not gonna break a second one
Its christmas like what the hell
Take it easy

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:54
I appreciate the sentiment, but I am not one for festivities.
Although I encourage you not to strain yourself today either, especially considering your health.

Director Bright | 01:54
Yeah
Thanks
Hey keep me updated on the mechanical problems
And you know
Everything else

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:54
As always.

Director Bright | 01:55
Yeah, as always.
Merry Christmas Charlie

Dr.Gears (Шестерни) | 01:55
Ditto, Jack.
Come home soon.


16

When Mikell had his first heart attack two days after the Christmas of 2016, it was Jack- dressed in boxers, unshaven and stumbling through a strange but familiar numb stupor- that found him collapsed on the floor of his office in a fetal position. And it was Jack, too, who started acting like himself again after a couple days of sitting on his laptop in his hospital room, bickering and snarking at him as he wished. Mikell liked it. It felt familiar.

05-4 came to visit him a short while after he had his stent put in, and Jack, being a man with few barriers, bantered and bickered with her, too, as Mikell slipped in and out of a painkiller-laced sleep. It was a while before he realized, fully, that he had guards- people in nurse costumes with guns in their pant legs, people standing outside in black. Someone important is here. Mikell didn't feel important, but then again he never did- the elusiveness of his Overseer position and the protection it required was never something he quite got used to. Jack explained his snow bound situation to them in casual conversation over coffee-stained classified paperwork and his laptop with the secure connection, and Mikell himself fell asleep again (he doesn't remember ever sleeping this much in his life, and it bothers him greatly). Jack types and occasionally sends over a pointed comment about him being old and having to eat bran muffins, and Mikell sleeps and slurs back a couple swear words to let him know he's not fucking nursing home age yet, fuck off.

It feels comfortable. His brother is lively and snarky and shaven again and Mikell is pleased to note that he wears short sleeves- it wasn't that bad of an episode, not like the ones in the past that had him out for weeks and left him listless and barley functioning. Jack does not kill this body and does not hurt it. He recovers well, because he's a damn strong person as much as he is a damn asshole. It'll leave him numb, it'll leave him angry. He'll fall behind on his paperwork and live in isolation for half a week. He'll sleep and starve himself and feel nothing, but goddamn, he's no pussy when it comes to stalled neurotransmitters. He's proud of his brother; Brights don't go down without a fight.

It's probably one of the better Christmases Mikell's had since his divorce.

But it's funny how delicate these things are.

The thing about the business is always the delicacy of it. It takes so long, so, so long to build up this narrative, to write this story. It takes pages and pages to make a site. Logs, readings, paperwork. Hundreds of people. Daily communication. Cameras and training simulators. Safety procedures and breach doors. Guns and guns and guns of all different kinds. Shift after shift of guards. Fences on fences on fences, titanium feet thick. Dormitories. People. It doesn't matter when it goes to shit. It never does.

On New Years of 2016, Jack and Mikell do not watch the ball drop. They do not partake in celebrations. Jack is pale and trying to process, ten of his little devices showing ten different readings from one site in Siberia are screaming off the hook. They do not speak to each other. There is no need to speak; they have just transitioned from family business to industry business.

It happens so fast. There's nothing to do. You can call and type and try to get a hold of people on the inside to know what's happening, but despite all of Jack's lockdown orders and overrides and the people that Mikell knows that he's picked for this situation, it all comes down to brute force, like a broken dam. It's a painful way to loose everything. Little mistakes snowball into bigger ones. When you're on the outside, and a breach of that caliber happens, there really isn't much to do but watch the casualty count rise and the electricity go out.

And then there really is nothing. Nothing at all.

At 3am on January 1st, 2017, Jack sits down and stares at the floor between his feet. He does not cry, but he trembles. Mikell knows his brother is the Director of three sites, but 19 is the largest, the one that he put his blood, sweat, and tears into, the one he spent the most time at, the one he tried to make sure was pristine and functioning on all calibers, always. During the winter season, when the population of the Site is reduced to a "Skeleton Crew" of 1,400 people instead of the usual 4,000 plus those passing through, there's about one item in containment per person.

It's funny how things fall apart like that.

Jack is not afraid for himself, although he should be. Because it's funny how things fall apart like that, see, breaches never work out as they should. Not breaches like this, not Tempest Nights. Not the ones where the walls themselves smash open and leave the Siberian winter to form drifts over abandoned lab equipment and cold bodies. Not the ones where lone lightposts throw long shadows over people whispering and hacking off clammy limbs for bait. Not the ones where people spend months isolated 23 floors down because the rescue teams just can't clear the rubble that fast.

Never like the safety videos. Never like procedure. All the words and time and effort, all the carefully planned and submitted containment logs and carefully crafted chambers. It doesn't matter when the levee breaks. Maybe it never mattered at all.

So six months and several disciplinary hearings later, Mikell Bright watches the containment teams at Site-17 use long, metal tongs to grasp his brother's life in their hands. It slides off easily, over his surrogate's limp neck on a medical examining table. They lift his head with a gloved hand to slide the chain over. They place it in a foam case labeled with 4 different locks and 3 different identification tags- standard procedure- and put it on a plane to a small safe-class site in Thailand, where the case itself slides perfectly into a dark little locker with its number stamped on it. It locks behind him.

Mikell does not cry, but he trembles.

For the first time in Foundation history, there were no survivors. Not a single one of 1,400 people lived. Some lived to board a helicopter to another site, once the rescue teams could access the carcass of 19, and some even lived to see a Foundation hospital and give an interview of what it was like to chop off their own arm to free it from a locked door, or to be poisoned by a contagious memory, or to see containment wing G explode into tongues of flame with something roaring inside, or to not sleep for days, to live in little camps with other people and survive by lighting files on fire to keep warm, to see the face of the people who started the raid, dead on the ground, to see the carcasses of GOC tanks in predictable hallways.

So Mikell likes to imagine that it's like sleeping, or a deep meditation. That was what it was like to be dead in the way that Jack was. He likes to imagine that his brother is INERT, as his logs put it, because he was the only survivor, because he wasn't on site at all, and that's why the blame fell on him. Was it fair? No. Was it for the best?

Maybe.

His brother did not function well after the 4th month of the 19 fiasco. He did not do well in a humanoid containment cell, and Mikell knew this was because he was a child with olive skin and curly black hair that belonged back in Nebraska under clear skies and open cornfields. They tried to paint him as INCOMPETENT, and maybe he was, by the end; tired and frustrated as he was. And that was why Mikell had voted 'Aye' when the "formal containment of the Site-19 director" vote came up. Because after all that, it really was for the best. If they were trying to be humane, and Jack was no longer eating, no longer thriving, no longer living in a profound way that Mikell hadn't seen his brother before in all the years he'd known him— then why force him to try?

(Do you have any family history of depression? The doctor in the ER asked Jack Bright as his older brother lay sprawled on a gurney)

So a few years later, when Mikell Bright had his second heart attack, he was alone, and not so lucky. Because karma's a bitch. Because these things build up so slowly and then crash down so quickly. Because the universe gives Brights when it needs them and takes them as it pleases.

And that was the story of how Jack Bright survived.

Because some people are just meant to.

Item #: SCP-963

Object Class: Safe

Special Containment Procedures: SCP-963-1 is to be contained in a Safe-class containment locker. Flesh-to-artifact contact is not permitted. Further testing is not permitted.

Description: SCP-963-1 is an ornate amulet approximately 15 centimeters in circumference made from white gold, with thirteen (13) ██k brilliant-cut diamonds surrounding a ███k oval-cut ruby in a starburst pattern. It was discovered in the personal effects of ██████ ███ who had been found dead by apparent suicide, surrounded by a number of supernaturally-related books. Our Agent in the area found that 963-1 was incapable of being damaged and brought it in according to protocol XLR-8R-██.

Dr. Jack Bright is a possessive entity bound to SCP-963-1. Dr. Bright was bound to the amulet following its death in a Keter breach, see file B-963-4. The consciousness of the late Dr. Bright is projected onto any living anthropoid that comes into direct skin contact with SCP-963-1. It is known that memories native to it transfer from host to host. For more information regarding Dr. Bright, see archived medical file for complete psychiatric admittance history and medication lists.

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