Killing the Familiar

Chip Livingston
The first time you heard the story you were in ninth grade at Eldorado High, when Will repeated a flunked school year and ended up in the same science class with you and Luke. The brothers seemed so different from each other, set side by side in alphabetical order: dark and light, tall and short, night and cloudy day. And though you knew Will by sight and reputation as someone to keep away from, you were curious about him. Luke you knew from church, and Little League a long time ago, but you’d never gone to the same school. Eldorado High funneled students from three middle schools, and Luke and Will came from the rich side of town.
<p dir="ltr">You read Mendelssohn’s theory of genetics in your science textbook, and you asked your mom how was it possible that two brothers could grow up in the same household, with the same parents, yet look and act so differently.</p>
<p dir="ltr">After she told you about their parents’ history, your mother told you never to repeat the story, that their family business was their family business and you’d do just as well to stay out of it, to stay away from Will. But chance intervened when your mom kept you home; you were sick the day the class chose lab partners and returned to find yourself paired with Will for the school year. Your grades would have been higher if you’d partnered with Luke. He was a whiz at calculations. Will barely attended class at all.</p>
<p dir="ltr">You never mentioned the rumor to your other classmates, but you began a study of the brothers. You categorized every difference between them. Brown skin, light. Dark eyes and blue. Short, tall. Chubby, thin. Good student and bad. One kind, one mean. Was the trait a product of genetics or simply personality?</p>
<p dir="ltr">Studying together at their house, you noticed their mother fawned over Luke, baking sweets and pizzas, and Luke was always appreciative and affectionate with his mother. But Luke was kind to everyone. He smiled often and never joked with meanness. He never called you sissy because you only played with girls.</p>
<p dir="ltr">But no one called you sissy when you started hanging out with Will. With him you gained respect by proximity. He taught you to smoke and drink with him, and though your mother worried about your friendship, your father said it was a Christian obligation. He told your mother to turn the other cheek, that Señor Rios was constant with his tithing, but you suspected he also saw Will as a masculine influence, your first male friend, a way to toughen you.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Luke loved his parents and he adored all animals. He struggled over whether to become a veterinarian or an architect, for he also loved to build things. His furry tabby cat named Duchess followed him everywhere. The cat waited by the door for Luke to come home from school. She jumped into his arms as soon as he put his books down, and perched on his shoulder as he walked around their house.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Duchess ran from the sight of Will, unless safe in Luke’s arms, and you noticed that even Señora Rios kept a subtle distance. Will snarled at any attempt of her affection. Though you’d prefer to have studied at the table in the air-conditioned kitchen, you let Will drag you to his sweaty bedroom above the garage, where he put on heavy metal music from his record collection, showed you stolen Playboy magazines, and devised ways to sneak the car out while his parents were asleep. His only attraction to animals was to snakes and spiders. Will proudly displayed this rebellion with his first homemade tattoo, a striking hooded cobra inked with a sewing needle and loose black gunpowder. He had one pet, a five-inch orange and brown tarantula that ate crickets and small lizards you’d help him catch to feed it.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Like Luke with Duchess, Will let the hairy-legged spider crawl all over him, and it often crouched on his shoulder above the snake tattoo. You held the spider too. But other animals stayed out of Will’s way. You saw that unleashed neighborhood dogs would cross the street to avoid his path, as they had too frequently come in contact with the sharp edges of his hard-heeled combat boots.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Though you weren’t prone to the same kinds of violence, you liked being with Will. You liked the different ways girls looked at you. You liked the association of being someone dangerous. And by the end of seventh grade, your friendship was cemented. Though you were far from a scholar, your attention and attendance, combined with Will’s dissecting prowess in basic anatomy, earned you both passing science grades, and Luke’s future as an architect had been determined. For as much as he loved animals, Luke couldn’t lift a scalpel to experiment on frogs in lab, much less the fetal pigs you were given to examine. Will cut open the animals with morbid precision and fascination. He loved the smell of anesthetic, and if he’d given a damn about school at all, he might have become a surgeon. That year between seventh and eighth grade, you watched Will carve his initials into his left bicep. You were careful not to let him see you wince as he dug the scalpel lifted from your science lab into his skin, W then R, or as he added an A between them.</p>
<p dir="ltr">In tenth grade, Luke transferred to the exclusive Private Academy for college preparation. You were in history class with Will, and he became obsessed that year with Nazi history. He loved studying Hitler and researched his torturing techniques. He started wearing military jackets adorned with rock band patches. Will shaved his long blond hair into a severe crew-cut, but you knew no army commander would approve the scraggly goatee he began to fashion.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Though you didn’t share his surliness or penchant for violence, you took a certain pride in being the rebel’s only friend. You took advantage – for as much as the grown-ups and your teachers distained him, the prettiest girls in town fell in love with Will, and by proximity, the broken-hearted discards were often on the phone with you. Your reputation changed. Instead of a mama’s boy, you were thought of as a ladies’ man.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Luke, on the other hand, dated exclusively, a plump, homely (also rich) girl named Amanda, and Luke’s faithfulness to Amanda rivaled his affection for Duchess and his parents. He’d given her a promise ring, and Amanda wore it like a modest badge of honor.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Coming from Eldorado’s richest family, their privilege was envied and respected, even as Will’s reputation grew in severity. Señor Rios bought Will out of trouble, replacing the cash in the till that he stole from the market, paying others for the things he stole from them, donating money to the Police Department, the school, and to your father’s church.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Señor Rios bought for Luke anything he wanted: the preppy Polo shirts and khakis pants he wore as proudly as his private school uniform; the blue MG convertible when he turned fifteen; the expensive, electric table saw and all the wood for his backyard drafting workshop at sixteen.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Will drove his way through tons of girls. He was super-handsome, despite the growing number of menacing tattoos he made. Will was tall, lean, sharp-boned, and Viking-sexy. Any girl climbing on back of his pieced-together motorcycle and wrapping her arms around the waist of his military jacket knew she was headed for adventure and attention.</p>
<p dir="ltr">* * * *</p>
<p dir="ltr">You’d learned in genetics that brown-eyed parents could carry recessive genes for blue-eyed children, the same for blond hair and fair complexion, but over the years you noted these details among the drastic distinctions in Will’s and Luke’s behaviors. You had no reason to doubt your mother’s story of Will’s arrival, or how she told you that ever since they were babies, the Rioses had favored the second child, and you suspected this lack of parental attention could account for some of Will’s resistance to community. Because you knew this information early in your relationship with the brothers, you felt a fraternal impulse to bond more strongly with Will, especially since he let you. And because he never mentioned any suspicion of this himself, in any of his long, hateful tirades about his parents, you suspected that the rumor had remained a secret from him.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Over the years you’d heard similar versions of your mother’s story, usually from one of Will’s girlfriends, trying to understand how he could have dumped her so cruelly. You only listened. You never confirmed or denied any rumor of his history or infidelity. You gave the girls your faithful ear, a shoulder to cry on, and learned on occasion to maneuver these conversations into make-out sessions you would later recount to Will, lying on the floor of his bedroom, staring up at the heavy metal posters and listening to loud, throbbing music. He got a kick out of your minor advantages with his throwaways, and when you told him how they cried about him, Will made you get specific with the details of their facial expressions. By these he’d weigh the depth of their devotion. In turn you gauged his pleasure by the same reactions. Then he would boast of his latest sexual conquests, which grew more sophisticated and perverse with his research into torture and restraint.</p>
These afternoons or evenings, Luke would be in his own room or at the kitchen table, pouring over his studies, or even more often in his woodshop, making shelves and chairs and models for houses and furniture. He was designing a dream home for him and Amanda for after graduation. Luke had an early acceptance to the college of architecture, and they’d be married the summer after high school before moving to Buenos Aires.

One Sunday, the spring of your senior year, the only day Señor Rios slept in, you’d noticed Amanda was alone at church. Luke stayed home to finish the walnut marriage bed. He was planning to present it to Amanda after lunch. Will was sleeping off a twelve beer hangover in his dark bedroom. The noise woke him. It sounded like an explosion, he told you.
<p dir="ltr">“I opened my door and saw Dad running from the TV room, mother from the kitchen. I dragged myself to the backyard, holding my splitting head, and then to the woodshop, where Luke was lying on the cement floor in sawdust, unresponsive to Dad’s attempts at CPR. The table saw was smoking. The shed smelled like a burned-out engine, faulty brakes, hair singed with a blow-dryer, flesh touched with a lit match.”</p>
<p dir="ltr">Señor Rios pulled Luke away from the electric cord and socket, shouting in a pitch that Will had never heard from him before. On the carport, their dad beat at Luke’s chest, broke his cries for help only to try again to resuscitate him mouth to mouth.</p>
<p dir="ltr">“Mom prayed in loud hysterics for God to save him,” Will said. “I helped Dad lift Luke into the backseat of the Cadillac.” Will was sharpening a hunting knife while he told you about the chaos in the car on the way to the hospital, his mother’s tears and constant beseeching to her God, her Jesus, to every saint who had abandoned them. His father ranted as he sped along the highway, aware how futile was his effort.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Will put down the whetstone and started shaving hair from his forearm. “Luke was dead in the workshop,” he said, “but that electricity still pulsed through his body and he’d twitch every few seconds, giving Mom false hope and stronger cries to Jesus, yelling at Dad to drive faster.”</p>
You asked Will what he was thinking while they drove, and he raised the knife from his skin.

“I was thinking that Luke was already dead, that Mom was gonna lose her shit. I was thinking about Viviana Perez, who I plowed the night before, and believe it or not, I got a woody right there in the car beside Luke’s body.” He used the blade to point out the square on his forearm he’d shaved clean. “I was also thinking about making a new tattoo, a lightning bolt through a skull or something.” He looked at you with those cold, blue eyes to see if your face betrayed emotion.
<p dir="ltr">“Amanda must be sick,” you said. You wanted to leave their house and asked Will if he wanted to do something, go for a ride or try to find some alcohol. He pulled a military flask from under his desk and offered it to you.</p>
The morning of the wake, Luke’s body arrived back at their house for the evening viewing, and in the afternoon, Will took you to the parlor where the coffin sat. Flower arrangements already crowded the casket, and Duchess curled on top of it. Will raised his fist and the cat scurried down and hid behind a thick pot of white lilies.
When he opened the coffin, you immediately noticed the burnt, electric smell of death. This close it was wretched, almost unbearable, and Will unbuttoned Luke’s shirt to show you the scorch marks on his puffy chest. Despite the embalming fluid and the half bottle of cologne they’d splashed on the body, the stench was still overwhelming. You couldn’t take your eyes off Luke’s chest as Will buttoned up the shirt and closed the coffin.
<p dir="ltr">You don’t know whether or not the heat that day played a role in strengthening the smell of the body, but by nightfall the casket was moved outside to the patio, and the woodshop loomed ominous behind it. You’d never seen so many flowers or heard that many voices softened into the same gracious tones of condolence. You had never seen so many people from your small town in one place, dressed to their finest, and Amanda stood sequestered behind Will and Luke’s parents near the coffin, where they stood to greet each visitor. Duchess still curled on the closed part of Luke’s casket, and Will said she hadn’t left his body’s side all day. You were standing at the edge of the crowd, near the back of their workshop, openly sharing the whiskey flask between you.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Around nine o’clock, just as the wake was winding down, you heard new cries of bereavement making their way to the family. Señora Rios’ snotty sister from the city had arrived, and to make sure her delay in getting to Eldorado didn’t suggest a lack in her sorrow, she cried out as dramatically as if she’d just heard about the tragedy.</p>
<p dir="ltr">With loud sobs Will’s aunt stood in the arms of his mother, peering into Luke’s coffin and then shouting at the dark sky. “Why did this happen?” she screamed. “He was such a good boy! God, I want you to answer me!” She finally steeled herself from shaking and slowly pulled away from Señora Rios, turned from the body, and looked around the crowd. She found Will standing right beside you in front of the woodshop.</p>
<p dir="ltr">The crowd cleared from the direct line of eye contact between them. She pointed her finger at Will.</p>
<p dir="ltr">“It should have been you,” she said. Her voice was low but on the edge of hysteria. “It should have been you!” She screamed, “He was the good one! The good one! It should be you in this coffin, not him!” Her knees weakened and she slipped to the ground, still pointing her finger at Will as she collapsed. Señora Rios crouched beside her.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Will crossed his arms in front of his chest, and you braced for his rebuttal.</p>
<p dir="ltr">The visitors stared from the woman’s crumbled figure to Will and then back to his tia. You turned to the coffin, where Duchess stood up for the first time and leapt down next to Will’s mother. The cat sniffed its nose and walked straight toward Will, everyone’s eyes following its path. Will dropped his arms to his sides.</p>
<p dir="ltr">You thought maybe Duchess would leap at him and maybe he would catch her, or he might bend down and pick her up, surprise you all with some show of affection. But the cat didn’t jump into his arms. It didn’t have time to. Will took three steps forward and kicked poor Duchess with all his angry power. She flew over the aunt’s head and hit the brick wall of the Rios house. Duchess dropped to the ground and stayed there.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Will took a long drink from the flask and walked toward the garage. You heard the roar of his motorcycle, heard it rip down the street. Guests began departing. Señor Rios helped his wife and her sister to the house in tears.</p>
The next morning, the aunt sat in a black dress behind Will and his parents and Amanda. You’d never seen Will in a suit before, and he cleaned up nicely for the funeral, goatee shaved, shoes shined, shirt pressed and everything. Nobody mentioned what had happened at the wake the night before; yet somehow you knew Duchess was placed inside the casket. And when they lowered the coffin into the ground, the good son and his cat would be buried together forever.
Back at their house, Will gorged while you picked at your plate from the huge lunch some women from the church prepared. You went with Will to his bedroom. He threw his jacket on the floor as soon as you walked in, kicked loose his shoes, and lost buttons ripping his shirt off. Then came his suit pants. Will sat on the edge of his bed in his boxer shorts and looked at you.

“Lock the door,” he said.

You closed it behind you and widened your eyes at the bandage on his forearm. Will peeled the gauze back.

“Fuck,” you said when you saw the raw swastika, thick and black and bruising already, little drops of blood like perspiration.

“Intense, huh?” he said.

You leaned against the door. “To say the least.”
<p dir="ltr">Will turned back to his artwork. He took a swig from his flask and spit the whiskey on the wound. You winced at how it must have stung. Will picked up his hunting knife and asked you to pass him the dish of shotgun powder.</p>
While he worked on darkening the nasty swastika, you thought over all the mean things he’d done since you met him. You thought about what you’d heard of his parents and the babies.
<p dir="ltr">Where had he come from? What abuse might he have known in the first few weeks of his life? Could the simple awareness that his parents loved his brother more than him have caused his badness?</p>
Will didn’t look at you. He sat in his underwear and socks, concentrating on his forearm. When it bled too much to continue, he washed off the blood with straight whiskey and kept right on poking with the sharp blade. He didn’t even flinch. Then he stood up and took the lid off the tarantula cage.

“You thirsty, little guy?” he said in a soft voice.

“Will, you’re not going to –”

Will raised his hand to stop you from talking.

Just as you were afraid of, he set the spider right on top of the new tattoo. You saw it test the raw tissue as he held his arm out to show you. The spider dipped its head into the tender surface. Lightning fast, Will slapped the other hand down on the tarantula, pressing it hard into the blood and flesh. He pounded it dead with the bottom of his fist, and when the hairy spider fell, Will soccer kicked it with the flat side of his dress sock into a trashcan by the desk.

“Goal, motherfucker!” he said, lifting his fists in simulated victory. He quickly withdrew his arm and studied it to see if he had screwed up the tattoo’s lines.
<p dir="ltr">“Maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” he said.</p>
You shrugged your shoulders and sat beside him. You thought about putting your arm around him, hugging him, but you didn’t. You faced your friend, determined to remember every detail of his expression.
<p dir="ltr">“Maybe it’s not your fault,” you began to tell him. “Maybe you couldn’t help it.”</p>

<td><a href=""><img class="aligncenter size-medium wp-image-1812" title="Chip Livingston headshot" src="" alt="" height="200" /></a></td>
<td>Author Chip Livingston lives in Montevideo, Uruguay. Visit his web site at <a href=""></a>.  He is the author of two poetry collections,<em>Crow-Blue, Crow-Black </em>(New York Quarterly Books, 2012) and <em>Museum of False Starts</em> (Gival Press, 2010), and a chapbook of poems, <em>ALARUM: (</em>Other Rooms Press, 2007).  Chip has received writing awards from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers, Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, and the AABB Foundation.


His poetry has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and has been published in literary journals such as <em>New American Writing, McSweeney’s, Subtropics, Cincinnati Review, New York Quarterly</em>, and <em>Ploughshares</em>, and the anthologies <em>Best New Poets 2005, Best Gay Poetry 2007, I Was Indian, Sovereign Erotics, </em>and <em>SING: </em><em>Poetry from the </em><em>Indigenous Americas</em>.</td>


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