A week ago, my older brother was convicted of murder. And I, his only blood sibling, gave the testimony that was the last nail in his coffin. Yes, he did do it. I told the prosecutor this under oath. But is he guilty? I’m not too sure. I guess that’s why I’m writing this now. Because when I looked into his face the night that it happened, I saw no brother of mine.
Even from inside our studio apartment, 30 yards from the main house, we could hear our parents yelling at each other that night. I don’t think there has ever been a time when they would restrain themselves for anyone’s sake. And there was always collateral damage; anyone passing by would be caught up in the maelstrom of abuse. That’s how we wound up living away from the main house in the first place.
So, like every other time, Taylor told me to keep playing my video game while he went inside to “deal with it.” Shortly after, his own hoarse yelling was mixing into the fight. I had become so used to this procession, that I could tell which ones were giving in and which ones were standing their ground simply by the intonations of their screams.
I know, I’m an awful person for letting him try to take care of things by himself. I’ve always had this thought in the back of my head that if I would show my face in the midst of their fighting, they would suddenly be brought into reason. I’ve always felt that I could potentially contribute some logic to the heated arguments. But I hate confrontation. I want everyone to be okay, and so long as I maintained a safe distance from it all, I could go on pretending like everything in the world was normal.
The yelling finally died down a little. Taylor stalked back into the room, more shaken than usual. I could tell that there was no way to pretend now.
“What were they fighting about?” I asked. “You look pissed.”
“Nothing.” He pulled out a small bottle of gin he kept hidden under his mattress, finishing the rest off in one go. I always asked, but it was always nothing. “Let’s get out of here for a little while. It’s a Saturday.”
“And go where?”
“The Koehly girls’ parents are out of town,” he said with a smirk. “Elsa told me a couple days ago.”
“Cool, so I’ll just hang out with myself while you two make out.”
“No, she said to bring you. She’s supposed to be watching Lyla, so we need you to keep her busy.”
This brought my attention around. I’ve had a crush on Lyla ever since junior high, when I first started realizing that girls are really pretty things. But I wasn’t sold completely. I had tried broaching the idea of a date with her several times before, always to be shot down. But the idea had seized me: maybe tonight would change that.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
He was suddenly elated, shrugging off his funk from before. At those times, he had a way of smiling at me that gave the illusion I was even half as good of a brother as he was to me. All I had to do was tag along for one night and then suddenly years of his self-sacrifice would come into cosmic balance. I wish to God that were the truth, but he’s not around anymore to give the illusion.
After a quick shower, we were driving down Jerome Ave. in his Nissan with the windows rolled down, letting in the cool night air. I remembered thinking, he must have calmed down now with something to occupy him. But I figured wrong. Beneath the easy expression on Taylor’s face was something coming to a boil. Under his careful scrutiny of the road before him was a fire burning its way to the surface. I just wish I could have recognized it sooner.
We turned onto Juniper and drove down a few blocks before stopping in front of a trailer home, set in two acres of fenced property. The porch lights were on, barely illuminating an older girl lying in a hammock.
“Tay?” she called to us.
He shoved over me and called out in return through my window, “Yeah! Get your sister and let’s go back to my place!”
“Back?” I eked out. “In our room?”
“No. I’m worried about what mom and dad might say.”
His grin disappeared as he pondered my words. He looked like he wanted to punch a hole through the steering wheel.
“I don’t give a fuck what mom thinks,” he growled.
I was interested in prodding him further, but I thought better about it at the time.
“Scoot up,” Elsa said.
I lifted my seat forward and she got in, followed by the familiar outline of Lyla. Suddenly, I felt very small and at a loss. Taylor, though, seemed to be getting brighter every minute. He regained his composure and talked to the girls more genially than I had thought him capable.
It was a quick ride back to the house, but when we returned we saw an unfamiliar car parked in the driveway. There on the lawn were our parents, and a strange man, obviously in the midst of another argument. Time seemed to slow down as we pulled up to them and got out. Neither of my parents, nor the stranger turned to greet us. They just continued on, gesticulating wildly at each other as they yelled.
“We can all be reasonable about this,” the stranger said as calmly as he could. “We can be adults.”
“Go fuck yourself,” my dad replied, fuming.
The stranger kept his composure, but mom took a step towards him as if to intervene between the two of them. The man came closer and put both of his hands on her shoulders in a comforting kind of way. That was when I saw Taylor bolt away into the group.
“Get your hands off my mother!” he shouted.
He cocked his arm as if to hit him, but the man stepped away and raised his hands in surrender. Honestly, he didn’t seem like a monster. In just those few moments I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, but I wasn’t angry like Taylor and my dad. Looking around, I found the girls exchanging nervous glances.
“The apartment is back there,” I pointed. “Maybe you should go wait for us. Everything is okay here.”
They looked at me like they would rather walk home, but resolved to trudge away to the apartment. Seeing them off, I came closer to everyone. My mom’s voice was breaking now, like she was on the verge of crying.
“I have been… trying to tell you… for so many years,” she choked out. “I have been trying to tell you that I’m not happy here anymore.”
“What?” Taylor said, unable to hide devastation in his voice.
“What are you talking about, Marianne?” my dad asked. He too was suddenly losing the fire in his demeanor. “When have you ever told me that?”
“Every Goddamn day, Steve, but you never listen!” she shrieked. “You hear the words I say to you, but you don’t ever listen to me!”
“They’re listening now,” the man chimed in. “Speak up now.”
“You!” Taylor snapped, pointing at him. “Shut the fuck up.”
“He’s right,” mom said, quietly. “All of our fights. Everything we’ve been through, and only just now are you hearing me clearly.” She gestured to the man. “It took him showing up to get through to you that I have to move on now.”
“What about us?” I asked, too hurt not to join in. Suddenly I was furious with myself for not having intervened sooner, for having buried my head in the sand for so many years. Suddenly I wanted to know how this moment had been coming without my ever catching wind of it. “We’re supposed to have to choose between the two of you? That’s not fair.”
As she looked at me, my mother found it impossible to hold back the tears any longer. She stepped closer to me, but faltered, wiping her cheeks with her hands.
“It’s because of you two that I have tried so long to keep it together,” she sobbed. “To keep trying to get past this all. But I just can’t keep doing it.”
“Fine,” Taylor said. All emotion was gone now. Standing beside him, I could see a void filling his gaze. His eyes were charcoal black beneath the moonlight. His face was stony and rigid. “Fine,” he repeated, “get the hell out of here then. Go off with your pussy boyfriend and leave us alone!”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” the man said.
Taylor took three tremendous strides over the grass towards him, stopping inches from his face. The man did not surrender now. He stood his ground and stared back into the emptiness that had seized my brother. It felt hours passed in silence as the entire universe awaited their confrontation. But nothing happened. Taylor just stepped aside and made for the apartment.
I wanted to stay and see the confrontation through. I wanted to be a part of a resolution for the first time in my life, but something about my brother’s demeanor led me to follow him in. Reluctantly, I trailed after him into the apartment.
We found Elsa and Lyla standing nervously in the center of the room. Seeing the look on Taylor’s face, they almost backed away a little.
“I think we should go,” Elsa finally said, quietly.
“Of course you do,” Taylor snapped. “Of course you want to fucking leave me too.”
“It’s not that,” she said. There was a sorrow so obvious in Taylor’s voice that Elsa moved towards him. I knew they had been seeing each other for a while, but only now was I seeing what really existed between them. She took his cheek in her hand. “I want to be there for you, but I don’t think right now is the time.”
“You’re a fucking liar,” he snapped. He pushed her hand away and looked hard into her face. “You said you loved me, but you don’t.”
“I do,” she insisted, trying to come closer. “I do love you, Taylor.”
“Liar!” he shouted, with such ferocity that she fell back onto his bed behind her.
He flung open a dresser drawer and pulled from beneath his socks a long, silver hunting knife that dad gave him a couple months ago. The stillness in the room was electric, petrifying. No one moved and no one breathed.
“What are you doing, Taylor?” I asked at last.
He didn’t even look at me. The words just bounced off him. I could see the emptiness in his face, taking over his feature in complete blankness. He was a statue, his humanity imperceptible beneath his granite expression. This was the very moment he ceased to be my brother. He was someone else entirely.
“What are you doing with the knife, Taylor?” I asked again.
“Tell me you fucking love me!” he bellowed at her.
“Please,” whimpered Lyla, “Please stop doing this. Why are you doing this?”
“You know I love you,” said Elsa. She spoke not to Taylor, but to the knife in his hand, incapable of removing her eyes from the blade. She was motionless where she had fallen, helpless on her back. “You know that, Taylor. You know I love you.”
“Then why are you leaving us?”
As he shouted, he took a step closer. Elsa winced, struggling away as best she could, still incapable of any real evasion.
“I’m not, baby,” she said softer now. “I’m not leaving you. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Liar!” he bellowed again. As he did, he seized upon her and drove the knife into her stomach, burying the blade up to the hilt in her flesh. “Liar!” He stabbed again, puncturing her lung.
Finally able to move, I tried restraining him by the arms, but he was too solid for me to move. All he did was elbow me away until I tripped and fell beside Lyla. She had her cell phone out now, shrieking the details to a 911 operator. All the while, Taylor seemed oblivious to anything but the mission before him.
“Why?” he shrieked maniacally. “Why are you leaving me? Why don’t you love me? Why am I not good enough for you?!” All the while, stabbing harder and harder, bouncing Elsa’s mangled body under his strength as he did.
Suddenly, he stopped. He removed the blade a final time and dropped it on the floor. He was crying now, crying in a way I had never seen any man cry. His whole muscular body seemed to tremble with the force of his sobbing. As he did, I crept close again and kicked the knife out of his reach, but I knew it was too late now. Elsa was choking on the fluid rising inside, her eyes bulging in every direction like a fish’s eyes when you flop it down on the earth. That’s the one thing I won’t ever be able to erase from my memory: the way she choked and gasped and swiveled her eyes around like a fish out of water.
Carefully, Taylor kneeled down on the bed and laid down beside her. His hands searched over her abdomen and he pulled her wasted body in close to his, spooning her with tears still running down his face.
“Why?” he gasped through the sobs. “Why are you leaving us? We won’t fight anymore. No one will yell anymore. Just don’t leave.”
There he remained for the 10 minutes it took the police to arrive. They entered with guns drawn, but soon pried at his arms to get him to let go of Elsa’s corpse. He would not let go. They had to Taser him before he would finally come loose. As they dragged him away, he looked up at me, with those hollow, voided eyes.
I knew at that moment that my brother, Taylor, had gone away somewhere. Even as I stared at him on the witness stand in his court hearing, he was still missing. The man that looked up at me from the defendant’s table was no brother of mine.
So, is my brother guilty? Yes. He is guilty of abandoning me and our family. He is guilty of leaving everything in this world behind. But I am not so sure if the man I knew as Taylor is guilty of murder. That man is someone else now entirely.