portion of the artwork for Ethel Rohan's story

Ethel Rohan

I didn’t believe that my older brother was real. Short, thin, and blue-tinged, he rarely spoke and I imagined him a ghost or an alien. Soulless. We could be kind or cruel, funny or sad, and still he seldom laughed or cried. He didn’t seem to feel much of anything, not even pain. Just that dead cold stare that looked through us. Mother insisted he was special and doted on him. Dad stared at the ceiling a lot. My brother frightened my mind almost out of my head.

When I was six and my brother was seven, I sat in our dining room, having a tea party with my friends and our dolls, and he sat at the far end of our back garden in the dirt. He sat and sat, his head bowed, doing nothing, forever. My friends and I banged on the window, jeered and pulled faces, but he didn’t flinch. Mother appeared, shouting at our noise. She ordered my friends to go home; our dinner was ready. I went to our back door and called to my brother in a sing-song taunt. I turned back to the kitchen, but stopped. A flutter in my stomach and the eerie chant from our broken gutter pushed me out of the house.

My brother still sat on the dirt with his head bowed and his hands caught between his knees, as calm as a mug of vodka. The nasty “boo!” I was about to unleash caught in my throat. The concrete slab that had leaned against our back wall for months, each of its sides the length of two rulers, had fallen on his foot. The pool of blood spread, and reached for me. I rushed back down the garden, shouting. Dad drove us to the hospital, my brother’s foot in a bloodied basin of water, spurting. My brother never winced or shed a tear. Dad wondered aloud how long he’d sat in the garden, bleeding and broken, as stony as the concrete that had caught him, talking as though my brother wasn’t in the car. My brother stared out the window.

My brother only ever came alive around his collection of toy soldiers. Christmases and birthdays, all he ever wanted was more of the small, plastic, green soldiers with their maps, rifles, bombs, and tanks. He also owned a sprinkling of gray metal soldiers and weapons. In all, his collection totaled hundreds of pieces—the most we had of anything in our house except slaps. My brother mustered his voice all right to fire his toy rifles, explode bombs, and advance tanks. He also grunted and writhed whenever his soldiers were injured or dying, howled against defeats, and cheered for victories. Tiny, plastic, frozen, and mute, those soldiers were more real, more important, to him than anything else.

The evening my brother returned from the hospital with his foot cast removed and his face still a blank, I stole several of his soldiers and a treasured tank. I tossed the pieces into our living room fire and watched them flash, melt, and disappear. This would test him once and for all, show if there was anything human. The next day after school, I sipped sugared water with my dolls in one corner while he sat in his corner, counting and recounting his toys. I watched his face, waiting for surprise to turn to disbelief to horror. His expression remained empty. I wanted to throw red paint all over that nothingness.

Without a word, he searched under the couch, chairs, and table, inside drawers and ornaments, and throughout the house. While he rushed from room to room, my insides filled up on happy juice and I doubled over laughing. When he returned, he stood spread-eagled over his collection and stared at me. I continued to fuss and chat with my dolls, made out that he wasn’t there.

He dropped to his knees and reached for his soldiers.

I watched him, stunned and disappointed.

I flew at him. “You didn’t find them, did you?”

He continued to line up his soldiers into two battalions.

I kicked at the soldiers. “I burned the ones you’re missing. I’m going to burn them all, see how you like that.”

He paused, his hands mid-air and a hint of heat in his face, but he resumed playing.

I grabbed two fistfuls of soldiers and ran at the fireplace. I tossed the pieces into the hearth, atop the ashes from the previous night’s fire. My brother dived on the pile.

From the kitchen, Mother banged pots onto the stove. If she learned about this, she’d leather me.

“That’s all you care about, isn’t it,” I said. “Those stupid plastic soldiers and nothing else.”

His head and shoulders disappeared into the fireplace.

I thought to kick him but hesitated, suspicious of his squirrel-like motions. I reached for his shoulders and pulled him backwards out of the hearth. He struggled up from the carpet and onto his knees—a clutch of ash-mired soldiers in his hands and his face blackened with soot. His mouth worked hard, mashing. I spotted green and froze, realized that he had a soldier inside his mouth. He swallowed hard, making his color rise and eyes water. He popped another soldier into his mouth.

I jumped on him, and forced open his teeth. My fingers grabbed at the soldier on his tongue. I sank back onto my heels, breathing hard. We looked into each other and I had that same sick feeling I got whenever I hit my mother back. I looked down at the wet, teeth-marked soldier in my hand—as icky as I felt—and offered it to my brother. The soldier disappeared inside his dirty hand. I almost told him that I was sorry, that I would never mess with him or his collection again, but I couldn’t speak. I felt as tiny and chewed as the mangled toy, everything I needed to say too huge. My brother pressed his lips together and nodded.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 29 | Summer 2010