My younger brother and I don’t look anything alike – a fact that insensitive people are always quick to point out. David is 5’7″ at 300 lbs and I’m 6’1″ at 160lbs. Strangers sometimes comment on how strange it is that I seem to have gotten all of the good genes…yes, people seriously say that right in front of him. It’s absurd. All I’ve ever known to do is laugh it off and try to look reassuringly at David. But he just stares at the ground in silence.
It’s worse at work. We share a house in Salmon, Idaho, where people usually stay stuck in whatever job they can land. There’s fewer jobs here than people, so we’ve been lucky just to have worked at the same gas station for a little over seven years now. Brittany, a friend of ours, has worked there just as long. And for that entire amount of time, David has been in love with her.
When we all started out, she had gotten a little flirty with me, but he never noticed. He later told me about his feelings and I knew that I could never go after her. I wished I could have. Brittany is every bit of that beautiful kind of small town girl you find in little places like Salmon. More important to me than a girlfriend, though, is my brother’s fragile self-esteem. So I stepped back and let him take a shot with her, year after year after year.
He finally got fed up with everything about a month ago. It was late and I could hear him blasting Bright Eyes in his room. I found a half-empty fifth of Jameson on the kitchen counter, so I could only assume that he was completely drunk by that point. I knocked on his door to make sure everything was okay. He turned the music down and burst out of the door, wrapping me up in an enormous bear hug.
“I’ve got a plan!” he cheered, releasing me. “I’m getting a technologically advanced formula of weight-loss supplements!”
“No. Shut up. I don’t want to hear your negativity.”
“You’re a genius then,” I said. “You must be the first person in the world to think of such a brilliant plan.”
But there was more. All the while he talked, I could smell the whiskey hot on his breath. He was drunk as shit. Still, he sounded so enthusiastic as he unrolled his master plan, I had to nod along. He had stored up three weeks of vacation time. He was going to use them all to take the pills and exercise.
“In three weeks, I’ll be a new man,” he said. “When I see Brittany at work, I’ll tell her that I got healthier for her because I’ve always loved her. Then she can’t say no.”
I half-expected him to wake up the next morning and say that he regretted getting so drunk and coming up with such an absurd plan. But he never did. For the entire week before the pills arrived, he was the happiest I had ever seen him. He even started fasting already, to get a jump on the deal.
Finally the supplements came in the mail, and David’s vacation time came into effect. The last day he worked before the vacation, I overheard a really awkward conversation between him and Brittany in the cooler. Okay, I was eavesdropping, but only to see if I needed to help him with his approach to this.
“We’ve known each other for a long time now,” he said. “Do you remember when you told me you were pregnant, and that your boyfriend left the state when he found out?”
“Why are you bringing that up?” she asked.
I felt embarrassed for him. Without even seeing him, I was certain that he was probably biting his nails right now. He always does that when he has to socialize with people. He even starts going so far as to bite at the skin on the tips of his fingers when the nails get too low to nibble.
“Because that night,” he continued, “I bought us some wine coolers and chicken and we hung out at the creek until the sun rose the next day.”
“Yeah,” she said flatly. “That was cool.”
I can’t remember exactly what they said after that because I started getting too nervous for him. He started telling her how much he understood that she couldn’t return all of his feelings, because she was looking for someone who can take good care of himself physically, as well as mentally. He told her that he was going to be gone for three weeks, and when he came back, he believed he will be a man she would want. She was really weird towards him for the rest of the shift that day, but I don’t think he noticed. He was too excited.
As the first week of his vacation was nearing an end, I started seeing less of him. And what little bit I did see was like catching rare glimpses of an exotic animal. He seemed to be melting, the weight was shedding off of him so quickly. That was when I first became worried. He was starting to get dark rings under his eyes and I noticed that his fingertips were bitten down farther than normal. The tip of his ring finger looked like it had just stopped bleeding.
I knocked on his door, but he just called out that he was fine. He said that he didn’t want me to worry about his methods, so I should leave him alone to sort it all out himself. Reluctantly, I gave in to his demands.
While he shed the weight, he seemed to be eating insane amounts of food. I went shopping three times in several days before I got mad and told him it was his turn to restock everything he was devouring. Still locked inside his room, he said that he couldn’t go.
“Why?” I asked.
“What if I run into Brittany?”
His voice didn’t even sound the same when he replied. It sounded like the raspy voice of a lifelong smoker. I asked him if he was smoking in there, and he said no.
“Look, here’s some money,” he said, sliding a twenty under the door. “I’m sorry.”
I took the money, but I was not ready to let it go. He’s my brother and I was getting to be legitimately worried about him. I knew how determined he was to be “Everything Brittany wanted,” so I was sure that if the weight-loss pills were having a toxic effect, he would not stop taking them. I figured it was time to set a trap.
It was two weeks into his dieting plan and I decided to go shopping at midnight at a Walmart. I made sure he was still awake before going, and I drove out to get the groceries. When I came back, I told him I was going straight to bed and to have a goodnight. But instead, I hid inside the walk-in pantry and looked through the crack of the door, waiting. An hour or so had gone by before I started rethinking my brilliant plan. Just as I was about to climb out, I heard footsteps coming over the tile.
There was only a weak light coming in from the living room, but even that was enough to reveal his appearances. David looked like a skeleton wearing a fur coat, wearing nothing but sweatpants. The loose skin from all of the weight he used to have was sagging down as though it was attached to nothing and could slide off at any moment.
“What the hell, man?” I asked, stepping out of the closet.
“I know,” he said, waving me off, with his emaciated, bony hands. “It’s only been two weeks, there’s still time for me to lose more weight.”
“No. You. Fucking. Can’t.”
I assured him that he was literally skin and bones. He must have weighed under 80 pounds, maybe less. I could barely even process what was happening. Even when I pushed him in front of a mirror, he saw nothing but a fat person in the mirror. Still, he sat at the kitchen table and devoured everything I had brought from the store. It was then I noticed something about his hands that I hadn’t seen before. They were nibbled down all the way down to the flesh.
The tips of all of his fingers looked like a rat had been chewing them down to the bone. I had no idea how they weren’t bleeding all over the place. All I could surmise was that he had been steadily chewing them day in and day out, giving them time to coagulate before chewing them down again. All of his fingernails looked half as long as normal.
“You’re going to a hospital, David,” I said, grabbing him by the wrist. “Right now.”
“No, we can’t,” he protested. “Brittany is coming over tonight.”
“It’s one in the morning.”
“She worked the night shift. We’ve been texting the whole time. She said she can’t wait any longer because I’ve been telling her that everything has been working.”
I was at a loss. I first considered calling her and telling her not to come, but then I figured that if there was anyone who could get him to go to the hospital, it would be her. Even as he sat eating, David looked like he could tip over and pass out at any moment. He looked exhausted. Even his eyes seemed to be hollowed out, devoid of any substance.
“So hungry,” he was muttering to himself, between bites of raviolis. “Nothing is ever as good as…” he trailed off, looking down at his hands.
When he found me staring, he looked away, as if embarrassed. I couldn’t even process at the time what he was about to say. I had no idea. What’s more, I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I decided that I could not be there when Brittany came over. Call me a bad brother, but it was just too much. I went into my room and laid down, wishing that sleep would take me. And it did, but not for long.
I woke up to the sound of screaming. I was startled at first, but then I remembered. This was exactly what I had expected to happen, so I waited a little bit before getting my slippers on and making my way to the living room. Flipping the lights on, I found David flat on the floor, rocking himself side to side with his face buried beneath his raw, chewed up hands. Brittany was just getting up from the ground. Her mouth was bleeding.
“He bit part of my lip off!” she screamed, scooping her hand under her mouth as if to catch hold of the blood running down.
She threw one last incredulous look down at David and ran out of the house, holding her mouth with her hand. David was still rocking with his face buried, apologizing profusely.
“I’m sorry!” he cried out. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Brittany, please!”
“She’s gone,” I said, trying to stay calm. “She said you bit her lip off, David. What the fuck?”
“It’s the only thing that tastes good,” he cried out.
When he removed his hands, I found that his lips were just as chewed as his fingertips. Brittany’s blood was splotched on his bare chest where his loose skin swung as he rocked himself harder.
“I just wanted to be handsome,” he wailed. “She said I’m worse than before. I just wanted to be handsome like you.”
I looked hard into the dark circles of his eyes. I was scared to touch him, but I put a knee down and planted my hand by his head. He was still there, I was sure. There was still humanity in his tears, despite his devoured lips and the blood splashed over himself. Despite the folds of his skin and the shape of his skull, so clear beneath his face, I knew he was still there.
“That’s too bad,” I said softly. “Because you never will be.”
Gently, I took a pillow down from the couch beside us. He lifted his head so I could tuck it beneath him, but instead I pushed his forehead down with my fingertip. He had not enough strength to resist as I laid the pillow down on his face and secured it with my knee. And I pushed, as hard as I could. I pushed until he stopped moving completely.