Some people ask why I spent so much time with John in his last days. It’s hard to be with somebody in their time of need when they were never there for you. He was such an irritable S.O.B.! But it’s just as well if you don’t ask. My reason won’t satisfy anyone’s curiosity.
He used to stare for long hours at the garden through his bedroom window. He owned the house back then; Mom’d given it to him when she passed on ten years back. He sure did keep it neat and fine. That’s one thing I could say for him: he was neat about the things that mattered to him.
I, for one, was not among those favored things. He treated me about as kind as a stranger – and mind you, strangers weren’t thought of too fondly in our town. When he felt good, it was, “Come on Doug, let’s fish at the pond!”, or “How about settin’ off those fire-crackers you got?” But when times were blue, they got black for me. I was John’s brother.
Yet, there’s no use thinking back on days we can’t change. All in all, perhaps it was better for me. Nowadays I’ve learned to deal with just about anybody. People who don’t know you don’t take the same liberties as an irate brother. As long as fists are quiet, it takes a whole lot to get me stirred up now.
With John it was an altogether different matter. He made a science out of driving me crazy. But enough. What I meant to tell you was about what he said to me just before he died. It was the only thing I’ve ever seen or heard that really spooked me. It still sends chills down my spine to think of it. Since John wasn’t very open about his feelings, it was all the stranger to hear him say it.
It was nearing midnight, and I’d just brought up coffee for the both of us: black for him, double sugar for myself. The pain in his side had abated, and he felt like staying up to enjoy the evening.
It was then that a strange look came over his face. His eyes fixed on the wall, and his jaw went slack. I shook him, and yelled out his name – straight into his face – but he didn’t move. However, his breathing was strong, and he didn’t fall over, so I didn’t worry overmuch.
At first I thought it might be the cancer rotting out his brain, but he started to speak. It was a weird, disconnected garble, but after a while I was able to piece it together. He was saying something about his life. I’m not the verbalist he was, so please excuse me. Maybe I should just try to recount what he said:
He was looking for the things that terrified him in life. He called them the “weeds beneath his garden.” When he looked inward, at his own thoughts, he found himself feeling fragile and unsure. His usual calm confidence was just an act. He kept mentioning something about a sinister “thing” waiting for a chance to get out.
Whenever he tried to do something in life to escape the thought of this thing, he would find himself struggling over minute details – and boy was he a perfectionist! His urge to edit and refine was to him an evidence of something he was too terrified to examine.
He spoke of mind games, and tricks to keep him part of the real world – stuff he would concoct to keep his head straight. And all the while a tremendous anxiety would weigh him down, gnawing at him as he interacted with other people.
Just then he started a bit, as if he would wake up from a nightmare. I’m sure he was aware of what he’d been telling me. But when looked back at me with eyes blacker than coal, and a gnarly shock of hair where he’d lain on his pillow, it was clear to me he’d gone mad. And now that the madness had taken root, all sorts of stuff was coming out.
Pretty soon he was blabbering about monsters and dragons, hideous things finding their way into his normal life. Whenever he spoke in a normal voice, it was if some demon had lowered its tone in an attempt to disguise itself.
When John was young, he used to seek out the things that frightened him. He started talking about this. I remember the trait. It got really queer at times.
As I sat in the room listening to this delirium, he told me again and again about a monster who lurked in his sleepy mind. What nonsense was all this? To this day I can’t understand it. But that was John: not a man to be understood by anyone except himself.
That was about it. After the last bout of madness, he fell back into a troubled sleep. He tossed and turned, until finally everything settled down to normal.
And for one brief moment before my brother departed, it seemed his eyes opened, and I saw in them the same mischievous gaze I’d known in childhood. After that they were blank. The torment had ended for both of us.