by Jeremy Ford
I wasn’t sure my brother understood what happened. I knew he didn’t understand what it all meant. You see, Jacob’s didn’t process things the way you or I would. They’d told us he was on the spectrum. Which meant little to me. I knew my brother better than anyone—well, except maybe my mother—surely better than any doctor or psychiatrist.
Jacob did have a tough time expressing himself; that I will admit. He’d holler if you didn’t come home at the exact time he expected. He’d repeat words and phrases as if the rhythm felt good on his tongue. And more often than not, his responses had no relation to the question you asked him. Jacob was a smart kid though. He was good with numbers and things like that. It was the big abstract ideas that gave him trouble. The hardest thing was he could never tell you he loved you.
It was just the two of us and our mother at home. Our father ran out on us when I was six and Jacob four. My mother worked hard to support us. She was a waitress at a steakhouse, had been since before I was born. Needless to say we didn’t have much money. She never complained though. I’m sure her feet had to hurt from pacing back and forth across the restaurant, and it was obvious when her back started giving her problems. Still, she never said a word. Not about money, not about her job, not about our father abandoning her, never about Jacob.
When I got to high school, I took a part-time job at a mechanic shop to help with the bills. My mother and I worked out our schedules so one of us was always home with Jacob. Now that I had graduated, I was ready for a better job, with better pay, benefits and all that. My mother would have less to worry about. She could stay home with Jacob and things would get better. It’d be my way of paying her back for everything she’d done. Jacob would be better off too.
It happened two weeks after graduation. Jacob and I were driving to town to pick up a bag of red potatoes for my mother. She was making pork chops for dinner. We were on a road I’d taken every day of my life. A road on which I sensed the approaching bends before the headlights revealed them. Even in the dark, I knew the trees and distance to the ditches. So I had no worry when I took my eyes off the road to find my can of dip. But the truck drifted to the shoulder and when I looked up it was too late. I heard this terrible explosion, slammed the brakes, and watched through the windshield as a man helicoptered in the air and landed in the grass. He laid there motionless, his arms and legs splayed like disjointed vines, two streaks of blood running from his nostrils onto his shirt.
The first thing that struck me, after the initial shock, was that I’d go to prison if I called the cops or waited for them to show up. Jacob wouldn’t have handled that too well. Equally problematic, all the plans I had for the future would dissipate like steam off boiling water. It was wrong to flee but I believed I did it for the right reasons. Besides, there was nothing I could do for the guy at this point. I knew a dead body when I saw one. I’d ruined his family—my God, I’d ruined his family. If I turned myself in, I’d ruin my own, too.
I drove another mile before I pulled into a vacant lot and got out to check the damage. Jacob followed behind me. He held his hands clasped above his waist. He shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet. He had this still expression as if nothing had happened.
My entire body shook when I saw the dent and the cracked headlight. I checked for blood spatter. Somebody was going to find that body, and if they matched the blood on the shirt to the blood on the truck—suddenly I saw it again, lying in the grass, bloody and lifeless. But what was I supposed to do? What would you do if you were about to go from being a savior to a failure in your own family? That everything your mother worked for would be for nothing? That you’d be worthless? I thought all I had to do was make it to Monday without questions being asked. I could take the truck to the shop and fix it up myself. Jacob and I got in and I whipped it onto the road toward our house.
“Where we going?” Jacob asked. I was a little concerned, but at the same time grateful, that this had thus far been his only reaction.
“What do you mean?”
“We need potatoes.”
“Mama said we need potatoes.”
In all the confusion, I’d forgotten why we were driving to town in the first place. But here’s the thing: Mr. Mason, the grocer who presided over his store at all hours, had known us since we were kids, and I was certain the guilt had spread its pale gray color across my face. I couldn’t show myself to him. Facing my mother was going to be enough. Until then, what I needed was time to think, time to calm myself. More importantly, time to explain this to Jacob.
“Forget about the potatoes,” I said.
“Mama said we need potatoes.”
“She can cook without potatoes.”
“But we need potatoes.”
The clock on the dashboard showed 8:15. Mr. Mason’s store stayed open til nine. “Store’s closed,” I said.
“Mr. Mason closes at nine.” My brother never forgot a time or a number.
“He’s out of town.”
Jacob seemed to accept that for the moment. He turned his head and looked out the window. I reached in the center console for my dip, this time keeping my eyes focused on the road. Looking through the windshield, the pine trees stood like ghostly giants against the black sky. I rolled down the windows. The hot air was hot and dense as mercury. I stuffed the pinch of tobacco in my lip, and the scent of wintergreen brought a sliver of comfort.
Three miles up the road we came to the intersection that forked into two roads both going north. Colonial Road was a straight shot home while Highway 21 curved a little east before rounding toward our house. We’d taken Colonial Road into town because it was faster, but I took the highway home. I couldn’t pass it again, lying there like a dead coyote. Plus, I thought it’d give me more time to explain things to my brother. He’d still shown no signs of witnessing the wreck or the body, and I worried whatever thoughts he was having on the matter would suddenly burst through him at the worst of moments.
We drove a few minutes in silence. I had to say something. Finally, “I don’t want you to worry about what happened, Jacob. Everything will be all right. We just can’t say anything about it. It was an accident.”
“Yes, an accident. An accident is when you didn’t mean to do something.”
“He flew like the birds.” And there it was. The words stabbed through my chest like shrapnel.
“He flew like the birds,” Jacob said.
“You can’t say that.”
“But he did. He flew like the birds.”
“You can’t say that. Do you want me to go to jail?”
“Yes, jail. Remember how I told you about jail? Remember? That place next to the courthouse where they put the bad people.”
“No jail,” Jacob said. He seemed to think for a second. “Jail is for bad people.”
“That’s why you can’t say that. What if I had to go to jail and you never saw me anymore? Do you want that?”
“No,” Jacob said. “No jail.”
In order to keep Jacob quiet about all this, it wasn’t enough to tell him so. He wouldn’t understand it that way. I needed to convince him why his silence was necessary. Not that it was his fault for expressing himself, or that I wanted to trick him, or even thought I could. The hardest mind to trick is one that is all reason and little emotion, one diligent in detail, more honest than beguiling. I could’ve easily convinced a friend of mine, but with Jacob, I needed to show him the necessity of it: that we were brothers, and because of this, he couldn’t do without me and I couldn’t do without him. This is what I came up with:
“Do you remember when we were kids and the barn caught fire?”
“Yes, the barn. Do you remember the fire?”
“The barn. It was big fire.”
“It was a very big fire. Mom was outside screaming and you were in the there. Do you remember? How I ran in and pulled you out?”
“Yeah, it was big fire,” Jacob said.
“I got you out. And do you know why I got you out?” I paused. “Because we are family. I got you out because we are family and I love you.”
I wondered what Jacob thought when he heard those words—“love” and “family.” He said them sometimes but never directed at anyone. I figured he just repeated the words because he heard them. People say things even when they don’t know what they mean.
“It was big fire,” Jacob said.
“Yes, but I got you out because I love you. That’s why we can’t say anything. We can’t say anything because we are family.”
“Yes. Do you know what family is?”
He looked out the window and shifted in the seat. “Family,” he said again.
We were ten minutes from the house. The engine rumbled. The smell of burning gasoline billowed out the old muffler. I checked my speed.
“He’s probably fine anyway,” I said under my breath, as if my mind was trying to alter the facts. “We weren’t even going that fast.”
“Forty-three miles an hour,” Jacob said.
“Forty-three miles an hour?”
“Forty-three miles an hour. The clock, the clock said forty-three miles an hour.” He meant the speedometer, of course.
“How do you know what it said?”
“I saw it. Forty-three miles an hour.”
“No, you didn’t. You didn’t see it. You didn’t see anything. And you can’t say ‘forty-three miles an hour’ either.”
For a moment I thought about pulling over to make sure Jacob understood what I was telling him. But we had to be home soon. We’d been gone for over an hour, and my mother tended to worry. I’m not sure stopping would’ve done any good, anyway.
Looking back, there was probably some excuse: we got a flat tire, the engine died, we hit a deer, which would’ve explained the dent and the cracked headlight, but none of that occurred to me then. We drove down the little dirt path that led to our property and parked in the yard. The front porch light and the kitchen light was all that lit the house. I was nervous. I didn’t know what was about to happen, how I would react standing before my mother stuck in a lie, hoping neither Jacob nor myself revealed the truth. I sat in the truck and tried to calm the tremble in my hands, but it was no use. I rolled up the windows and got out. I could almost see my mother moving around the kitchen. The thought hit me that a mother can always tell when something is wrong with her sons, and my hands began to tremble more than ever, my spine itching to join them.
Jacob walked a little in front of me. His short legs made quick little steps toward the house. Our feet crunched the ankle-high grass. The air clung like a leech. Sweat formed along my hairline. I took the tobacco from my lip, tossed it to the grass, and opened the door.
My mother was standing in front of the stove, her back hunched across her shoulders, her frame thin as a pencil. Her wrinkles had become more defined in recent years. She wore a white dress down to her shins, decorated with patches of yellow lilies, and held a wooden spoon in one hand.
“Y’all get the potatoes?” she asked.
I had no answer. A harmless question can have so much intensity behind it depending on the situation. I put my hands in my pockets like a man awaiting his sentence.
“No,” I was somehow able to mumble “We couldn’t. The store was closed. Mr. Mason must be out of town.”
“Out of town?” my mother asked. “I just saw him yesterday.”
Outwardly I shrugged my shoulders; inside I was in complete distress. Jacob stood next to me with his hands together, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. My mother looked from me to Jacob then back at me. I thought right then mother’s intuition would kick in and tell her I was hiding something, that some mistruth underlined every word I said. But she just turned back to the stove. “I can make rice with pork chops,” she said. “Is that all right with y’all?”
She removed the lid from the pot. The pork smell, with onions, garlic, and thyme, rose in the steam as she stirred the contents with the wooden spoon. She put the lid back on and stooped to grab a smaller pot from the cupboard beside the sink. As I watched her struggle to bend down, I had a strange sense that this was my last opportunity to do something for my mother, however simple it was. “Let me get that,” I said. “I got it,” she said, and the opportunity was gone.
I didn’t know what I feared more: jail, or my mother’s reaction when she inevitably heard the news. Even though Jacob and I were the only ones who knew anything, I started to realize that at some point the truth would crash down upon us. My mother wouldn’t get upset; at least she wouldn’t show it. But the disappointment—that’s what would hurt. There’d be the disappointment in myself, too—that feeling of failure, as if I was of no more value than the father who ran out on us. That’s when Jacob said, “He flew like the birds,” and everything from the lines in my forehead, to the wrinkles over my knees, even the knuckles buried in my pocket, locked up like a jammed door. I stood there a prisoner of my own guilt, not knowing what to say and so not saying anything.
To my surprise, my mother didn’t react. She put two cups of rice in a colander and washed it, then put the rice in the smaller pot with water and ignited the burner.
“Are y’all okay with rice?” she asked again.
“I’m really not that hungry,” I said. The words came out of desperation, the way acts of courage come to those who run into burning buildings.
“What do you mean you aren’t hungry?”
“I’m kind of tired. I’m sure Jacob is tired, too. We might just go to bed.”
“Jacob?” My mother looked at him. “Are you tired?”
Jacob stood there rocking on the balls of his feet. He was looking off to a high corner of the room. “He flew like the birds,” he said.
“Why does he keep saying that?” my mother asked. She had this look of confusion on her face.
“I don’t know. He must’ve heard it somewhere. I think he’s just tired.”
My mother’s eyebrows turned toward her nose. “What am I supposed to do with these pork chops?”
“We can eat them for lunch tomorrow,” I said.
She sighed and returned to the stove. “Y’all go on to bed then.” Her tone failed to hide her displeasure. All she wanted to do was cook for us, the way she’d done for eighteen or so years, with no other intention, no other motivation than to be there for Jacob and me, to give us a better life than the one she’d been given. I felt like I’d just crushed an injured bird in my palm while trying to nurse it back to health. But what was I supposed to do? I was going to break down at any second, with my body shattering like a thin pane of glass, and everything inside me spilling out onto the floor.
I took a step toward Jacob and very softly and sadly said, “Come on, let’s go to bed.” He followed me down the hall. I watched him enter his room before I went into my own.
That night I laid in bed restless. Sleep felt as far away as childhood. I stared at the posters on the wall of Billy Cannon and Ricky Jackson. I watched the window blinds hang still, with the moon’s light touching the outside. I feared that if I closed my eyes I’d witness it all again, not as a memory, but as a recurring horror in vivid detail—the sound when the truck hit, the body in the grass, the shirt looking as though it’d been dabbed in a bucket of squashed cherries. The innocent man stripped of his life by the no longer innocent eighteen-year-old. Then I thought about Jacob asleep in his bed. In a way I envied him. I envied him for his innocence. I wanted to go back to when we were kids and the future unknown, back when I was innocent too.
I heard my mother put away the pots in the kitchen, then the floorboards creak as she walked past my room toward hers. I considered going and telling her everything. Just to get rid of it all. But I didn’t. I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling, laid there a long time, long after the house went as quiet as if it were abandoned.
As the night went on, I knew there was no way this would stay hidden forever. It wanted to pour out of me like a cloud unloading its burden of rain. I wasn’t going to say anything if I could help it—I didn’t want to confront the consequences—but it was coming. Now my only hope, my only request, was for Jacob to understand what he meant to me, and for him to realize what I meant to him. That’s all anybody ever wants, really: to mean something. It was almost four o’clock when I fell asleep.
My alarm buzzed three hours later. I put on jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of boots and walked across the hall, as I did every morning at seven, to wake Jacob for breakfast. His eyes blinked open. He rolled over and sat up. He seemed to move in slow motion. He looked fragile, almost helpless. There was nothing to say to him. I just watched him and tried to appreciate who he was. He put on a pair of pants then looked in the drawer of the bedside table. He put on a shirt and opened the closet.
“What are you looking for, Jacob?”
He mumbled something then stood in front of the mirror.
“You ready?” I asked, feeling as though I was asking myself the same question.
We walked down the hall to the kitchen. My mother was already there. She laid several strips of bacon in a pan then buttered some toast. She had the small portable television on the counter tuned to the local news.
“Y’all sleep okay?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said as Jacob followed in behind me.
The news anchor finished one story. The way he started the next petrified every bone in me. He said a man’s body had been found on the grassy shoulder of Colonial Road. Gary Patterson was the man’s name. His picture popped in the corner of the screen.
I stared at the television, seeing for the first time the brown eyes, small mouth, cropped hair, and broad cheeks of the man I’d killed. The details of his face didn’t matter, but seeing them made me feel like I knew him, like we were somehow connected for the rest of eternity, my children and his children, our grandchildren and so on.
“My God,” my mother said, turning to the television. Things like this didn’t happen often in our town, so it was big news. She raised the volume.
The newscast cut to a live shot of a reporter standing across the road from an area blocked by yellow caution tape. Several police officers moved around behind her. What I saw next gave me a chill cold enough to burn. Standing next to her, with his gray hair and flannel shirt, was Thomas Mason, the grocer.
I knew what was to follow, but I had no choice but to stand there and wait for my life to change. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the color leave my mother’s face and the skin go taught around her cheeks. Her eyes stayed fixed on the television.
Mr. Mason told the reporter he had come across the body after leaving his store the previous night. He said he spotted it in the grass on his way home, and that he didn’t know what it was, but because it looked odd, he pulled over. While he spoke, the horrible images of that poor lifeless figure swarmed me like insufferable wasps. My hands trembled violently. My muscles clenched. My shoulders felt as if they were crushing the sides of my neck. When he finished, my mother shut off the television and faced me.
“I thought you said Mr. Mason’s store was closed?”
There was a long pause in which the only sound was the bacon cracking in the pan.
“Miles?” my mother said.
I said nothing. Any words that may have come to me froze deep in my throat.
“Miles?” She turned to Jacob.
“He flew like the birds,” Jacob said.
“Why does he keep saying that?” My mother’s voice rose. She now looked worried and anxious. She was putting things together.
“Birds,” Jacob said. “He flew like the birds.” He held his hands together like a man praying. “The truck said forty-three miles an hour.”
“Miles?” My mother nearly shouted. “Miles, please.”
I still said nothing.
My mother wasn’t going to accuse me of anything. It wasn’t her way. She would wait for me to say it. I looked at her and then at Jacob. I thought about all the things Jacob and I regularly did together. Sundays at the Pancake House. Breakfast at the kitchen table. Friday night football games. They all seemed like distant memories now, memories belonging to a previous lifetime. But there was something in those memories. Something I hadn’t considered. It was the little details. The way Jacob acted when you were there, and the way he reacted when you weren’t there when you were supposed to be. I knew then that though Jacob may never be able to tell me or my mother that he loved us, he felt it, and in his own way knew what it was. He’d always understood; it was me who didn’t. He just had a different way of showing it.
At that point there was but one thing left to do. I sat down at the table and told my mother everything. I even told her how I tried to keep Jacob quiet about it. I don’t remember exactly what I said or how I said it. The words leaked across my tongue as if I had memorized them for a speech.
Jacob came and sat across from me. He held his hands together as he moved back and forth in the chair. His face was still and his mouth hung open. His eyes were soft and deep in his cheeks.
My mother looked at us with this sympathetic glare in her eyes. Mothers know how to handle certain things. They know what to say and when to say it. And they know when to say nothing. She finished making breakfast and brought over three plates of bacon, eggs, and toast, and the three of us sat at the table and ate as if nothing had happened. We talked about the summer, about the places we’d go and the things we’d do together.END
About the Author:
Jeremy S. Ford’s flash fiction has appeared online in the Akashic Books series Mondays Are Murder. His nonfiction has appeared in Birdwatching Magazine and Nola Defender. He lives in New Orleans and is currently working on a novel.