Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Brother's Keeper, by Jon VanZile

Today, I'm up. So everybody, meet Baxter. Baxter, meet everybody.

To see the previous stories:

My Brother's Keeper, by Jon VanZile

As he drew his dying breath, Fred was surprised to learn that the last image he saw in life would be the one burned on his consciousness for all of eternity, like a celestial tattoo.

So there it was: three people in an alley, facing him, the two Germans pointing skyward and behind them, Baxter in his ridiculous yellow jacket and bowtie.

Looking back (after he was dead, of course), Fred realized he should have known something was wrong when his brother lowered his camcorder. Baxter recorded everything. Then the Germans pointed and somebody yelled, "Sieh dich ja vor!" Then a brief moment of crushing pain. Then blackness.

Just before he awoke again (dead, this time), Fred's life flashed before his eyes.

He saw himself at six years old, sitting on Baxter's bedroom floor with a handful of dollar bills from his birthday card. "Listen," Baxter said, "who wants a bunch of dirty paper anyway? I'll give you two 1975 dimes for that one dollar. They're mostly silver, you know. You'll make a fortune if you save them."

"I dunno, Baxter," Fred said. "Mom said—"

"Okay, okay," Baxter said. "Three dimes. But that's my final offer."

Then Fred saw himself at twelve, when Baxter bought his first video camera.

"I'm making a documentary about primitive mammals," Baxter said, zooming in on Fred. "Say something."

"Baxter, stop being rude," Mom said.

"Why don't you stop treating him like a baby?" Baxter said.

Fred next saw himself at sixteen, when Baxter first came home with his ridiculous bowtie and wide-lapelled jacket.

"Hey Baxter," Fred said, "why are you dressed like a waiter?"

"I'm not dressed like a waiter," Baxter said. "This is cool. It's hip."

"I dunno," Fred said. "Nobody wears bowties."

"Baxter, did you know that Fred was just voted president of his class?" Dad said.

"Maybe they should just rename you Golden Boy, huh?" Baxter snorted.

Then Fred saw himself at twenty-four, dropping by Baxter's new apartment. Baxter wouldn't let him in at first, so Fred knocked louder. "I know you're in there," Fred said. "Your peep hole is backwards."

Baxter finally let him in and Fred saw the place was piled with vintage movie posters. "Don't touch anything," Baxter said. "I got two mint-condition Star Wars posters in here that're probably worth twenty thousand bucks each. I only paid a cool ten total."

"You paid ten thousand dollars for posters?" Fred said. "Are you sure that was a good idea?"

"Some of us don't need college to know a good deal when we see it, Golden Boy."

By the time Fred heard they were forgeries, Baxter had already moved on to his next project. In December, he showed up at the family Christmas with his new bride.

"This is Katyana," Baxter said with a flourish.

The girl next to him shuffled and bowed. She smiled nervously and said, "Yah. Yah."

"Hey, Bax," Fred said. "How come your wife doesn't speak any English?"

"Katyana is from Ukraine," Baxter said.

At the word "Ukraine," Katyana perked up and bobbed her head vigorously. "Ukraine," she said. "Yah! Ukraine!"

"Are you for real?" Fred said. "She's a mail order bride? You got a mail order bride?"

"She's not mail order, goldilocks. She's a model," Baxter said and circled his arm around the desperately grinning Katyana's waist.

Finally, Fred saw himself last January, standing outside Baxter's apartment once again, knocking. Katyana let him into the smelly, dirty apartment and stood in the center of the room.

"So," Fred said, "where's Baxter?"

She nodded. "Baxter. Yah. Not home."

"Oh. How's your English coming along?"

"English vurry hard."

"Right," Fred said. "Hard."

Then a frown crossed her pretty features. "Baxter not home."

"You said that."

This was followed by an awkward silence as the girl stood fooling with the hem on her shirt and looking at the floor. Fred crossed the room, surprising even himself, and put a hand out to touch her chin. He lifted her face up and her big blue eyes were sparkling with tears. Her lips quivered a little, and she was the most beautiful girl Fred had ever seen.

"Life's a bitch, huh?" Fred said. "Sometimes you roll the dice and come up Baxter. I'm sorry."

"Not happy! Big mistake!" Katyana wailed, and then Fred had no idea how it happened, but next thing he knew, they were rolling on the floor and ripping off clothes as fast as their fingers could move.

A few weeks later, Fred saw Baxter's number pop up on his caller ID. "Hey," Baxter said. "You want to go downtown for lunch?"

"Oh, sure, Bax," Fred said. "Listen, I got to talk to you—"

"Later," Baxter said. "I got something I want to show you first."

Then the alleyway and the falling ... whatever it was. Fred had no idea what Baxter had done or just how his brother had killed him. He never looked up.

There was only that image burned against his eyes and all the time in the world to think about it. Sometimes, Fred liked to think that Baxter looked uncertain, maybe like he was having second thoughts.

But maybe Baxter was just worried about his aim.

As the eons passed and the universes collided, Fred sometimes wondered what the point was, why he had to spend all of eternity staring at those two damn Germans trying to warn him and Baxter in the background. Was this some kind of elaborate hell? Did he really deserve this?

But he wasn't mad at his brother. Not really. It wasn't Baxter's fault. Sometimes you roll the dice and come up Baxter.


Erica Orloff said...

I think it's really interesting that you and Jude had similar concepts.

But I have to say . . . LOVE rolling the dice and coming up Baxter. Love the name. Love how it fit with the prompt.


Jude Hardin said...

Just the thought of seeing that chick's armpit for all eternity...

Nice Job, Jon. I too loved the repeated line about rolling the dice and coming up Baxter. Sounds like a movie tagline.

So why didn't Baxter film whatever it was that dropped on Fred?

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah, I chuckled when I saw that Jude and I had both done life-flashing; Mark and Jude had both gone tattoo; and other similarities are coming up.


Erica Orloff said...

It is interesting to me since my take on it didn't reference any of that. At all. Although admittedly . . . my take is completely wacky. :-)


LurkerMonkey said...


Thanks. I had an explanation for why that question is left unanswered (and, believe me, I thought a lot about it). But I'm curious ... why do you think he lowered the camera?

Jude Hardin said...

Regret at the last second?

Erica Orloff said...

See . . . I think it's because he wants to SEE it. Really see it.

And I think it was the wife getting pushed.

Melanie Avila said...

I thought that it was the wife getting pushed, too. Interesting that death is taking a role in so many of these. Are we all fighting the happiness in the picture?

Great job, Jon. I love the name Baxter (it's actually on my list for the new puppy) and I love phrases that are repeated effectively like this.

I keep trying to find something to helpfully critique, but you all are wonderful writers!

LurkerMonkey said...

I'm pretty much with Erica on this one ... I figured Baxter lowered the camera because he wanted to make sure it worked (and he didn't want to film anything incriminating). I think Fred knows this, too. He only likes to think Baxter was having second thoughts to make himself feel better -- but deep down, he knows the truth.

As for what got pushed, it's interesting. I hadn't actually thought of it being the wife. But it easily could have been. I wonder sometimes about stuff like that -- leaving unanswered questions in stories. Sometimes I like it a lot, because I get to fill in the blanks as a reader. But sometimes as a writer, I get nervous because people generally don't like uncertainty in their fiction. They mostly want everything wrapped up for them.

Thanks, Melanie! I'm posting yours tomorrow and Erica's on Monday. I'm excited to see what everybody thinks.

Jude Hardin said...

I thought it was a piano or something, but the wife is much better, LOL. Love that!

But I was hoping we'd seen just a smidgeon of humanity in Baxter there at the last second. Guess it's open to interpretation.

Melanie Avila said...

I like leaving a little to the reader's imagination, but then I know I sometimes get irritated as a reader when things are left open-ended. Seems you can't please me. :P

Mark Terry said...

Enjoyed this a lot. I'm fairly comfortable with ambiguity, at least in something short. I might feel differently if I read 400 pages and got to the end and said, "Uh, what happened exactly?" But it works here.

Erica Orloff said...

I totally agree with Mark on that.

Natasha Fondren said...

Jon, I loved the parenthetical elements. They're so rarely used, and even more rarely used well, that it's nice to see an example of how to use them. Loved the rolling the dice and coming up Baxter, LOL! Great story!

I also read your comment above. You might be interested in JJ Abrams speech at Ted: JJ Abrams' Mystery Box.