Thicker than Water, fiction by Neva Bryan

You are a beau­ti­ful tragedy. My griev­ous angel. Here, hold my eye.”

My broth­er popped his pros­thet­ic eye out of its sock­et and hand­ed it to me. I heard a girl in the crowd say, “Eww.”

I curled my hand into a fist around Dar­ling John’s eye, extend­ed my mid­dle fin­ger, and waved it at her.

My broth­er squint­ed at Bil­ly God­dard, a senior at my high school, and said, “I shall beat your ass from one end of this park­ing lot to the oth­er.”

Bil­ly held up both hands, palms out­ward. “Whoa, Dar­ling John. I didn’t mean noth­in’ by it.”

You laid your hands on my sis­ter. Rho­da is only fif­teen!”

Rho­da. I hate my name, espe­cial­ly the way my broth­er pro­nounces it “Rhody.”

Why my moth­er hung me with “Rho­da” but named my broth­er “Dar­ling” is a mys­tery. Maybe she fore­saw that the world wouldn’t love him and decid­ed to bestow on him a lit­tle extra affec­tion. What­ev­er the rea­son, I am for­ev­er hav­ing to answer the ques­tion, “Why’s your broth­er called Dar­ling John?”

The oth­er ques­tion I get asked a lot is, “How’d your broth­er lose his eye?”
What a stu­pid ques­tion. It makes it sound as if he mis­laid it some­where. Usu­al­ly I say he got hurt in a hunt­ing acci­dent or that a fire­crack­er blew up in his face, but if I’m feel­ing mean, I’ll tell the truth.

When Dar­ling John was five and I was just born, my father got laid off from the sawmill. He spent the after­noon drink­ing, so when he final­ly come home, he was in a nasty mood. My broth­er was on the porch, play­ing with his Match­box cars.

The way Mom told it, when my father walked up on the porch, Dar­ling John held up a car and said, “Play with me.” Dad­dy kicked him in the face.

Soft lit­tle eye­ball. Steel-toed boot. You get the pic­ture.

After Dad­dy got out of jail, Mom ran him off for good. I don’t remem­ber a thing about the man, so all I have are these sec­ond­hand sto­ries.

Mom had to work two jobs after Dad­dy was gone, so my broth­er pret­ty much raised me. He’s a lit­tle over­pro­tec­tive. Take that fight with Bil­ly, for instance.

I had a crush on Bil­ly. Even though he was a senior and I was only in tenth grade, I had high hopes that he might ask me to the home­com­ing dance. I used all my fem­i­nine wiles to per­suade him. When I wore my tight­est jeans to school, I made sure to prance back and forth in front of him and his bud­dies. When he rode the bus, I slid into the seat next to him, then scooched up as close to him as I could get. But the day I pulled a Toot­sie Roll Pop from my back pock­et, unwrapped it, and popped it in my mouth? That sealed the deal. Bil­ly asked me to the dance.

When Dar­ling John told me I couldn’t go, I sneaked out my bed­room win­dow and met Bil­ly at the foot­ball game. After­ward, we went to the dance in the gym. Frankly, I was dis­ap­point­ed.

The real Bil­ly wasn’t half as inter­est­ing as my dream Bil­ly. All he talked about was foot­ball and NASCAR. I hate both. He didn’t have any smooth moves, either. Couldn’t dance his way out of a paper bag. At that point, I fig­ured the only thing that could save the evening was a lit­tle hot-and-heavy.

I dragged Bil­ly out­side and we walked around to the back of the gym­na­si­um. Oth­er cou­ples were already there, fum­bling in the back seats of cars or perched on the steps of the build­ing. I pulled Bil­ly into the shad­ows at the cor­ner of the build­ing. Lean­ing against the bricks, I brought his hands up to my waist and gazed at him from beneath my eye­lash­es, which were clot­ted with black-black mas­cara. He kissed me.

That was a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing, too. He was a mouth-breather, even when he kissed. No mat­ter how cute you are, mouth breath­ing is not attrac­tive. Just about the time I start­ed to get bored, Dar­ling John showed up.

All he saw was poor Bil­ly paw­ing his lit­tle sis­ter. He didn’t know all the trou­ble I had gone to in order to get that date. Next thing you know, his eye’s out and he’s ready to kick some ass.

What could I do? He’s my broth­er. Blood’s thick­er than water, right? I held his eye and watched him beat the shit out of my high school crush.

Poor Bil­ly.

It was a long time before I could get anoth­er boy to even look my way. And it wasn’t a boy, but a man.

I was almost sev­en­teen by then. Mom had died in June. I was work­ing at our home­town restau­rant, Big Dan’s. The man­ag­er was a guy named Ker­mit. He was sort of cute in a mar­ried-with-two-kids kin­da way. I could tell that over­see­ing a bunch of pim­ply teenagers at a burg­er joint wasn’t exact­ly his dream job. When I told him as much, he didn’t get offend­ed. Actu­al­ly, he seemed flat­tered that I had even noticed him.

It was like shootin’ fish in a bar­rel. Let’s just say Ker­mit was a small­mouth bass and I was a Rem­ing­ton shot­gun. I know a lit­tle about guns. Dar­ling John has a col­lec­tion he’s been work­ing on for years.

Any­way, Ker­mit was real nice to me. Let me eat any­thing I want­ed. Hell, one night he even cooked me my very own meal. A cheese­burg­er, medi­um-rare, with grilled onions and a fried egg on top. The Rho­da, he called it. And he pre­tend­ed not to notice if I slid a few dol­lars out of the cash reg­is­ter and into my pock­et. I didn’t do it often. Dar­ling John wouldn’t have approved.

It’s fun­ny. My broth­er won’t hes­i­tate to stomp the holy hell out of you or cheat at a card game, but he can’t abide a thief or a drunk. I don’t drink, of course, but I have been known to take the five-fin­gered dis­count. Just for fun.

Nev­er real­ly need the things I take, not even the mon­ey. Dar­ling John has always put plen­ty of food on our table and nice clothes on my back. He made good mon­ey when he worked in the mines. After he got laid off there, he worked at a garage. He’s good with cars. Loves them. Always has.

Some­times I think about him play­ing with his toy cars on the porch that day. What if he’d been inside? Or at Granny’s house? He might still have his eye. Maybe he wouldn’t have end­ed up so hard.

Notice I said hard and not bad. There’s a dif­fer­ence. Some peo­ple are born to be bad. Like me. But Dar­ling John? He’s not a bad per­son. He’s a good broth­er. He’s done right by me.

That the whole thing with Kermit…Darling John was just try­ing to pro­tect me.

I had a pret­ty reg­u­lar sched­ule most of the sum­mer, then I start­ed work­ing real late hours. After a week of that, I got home late Sat­ur­day night to find my broth­er wait­ing up for me.

I love noth­ing in the world as well as you, Rhoda…is that strange?”

Peo­ple think Dar­ling John talks fun­ny. It’s true. When we were kids, we found a molder­ing box of books in an old house in the neigh­bor­hood. It was a weird col­lec­tion: William Shake­speare, Damon Run­y­on, Ray Brad­bury, James Still, and Ron Rash. My broth­er read them over and over again. I think it warped the way he talks.

To this day he loves to read. Even though he quit school when he was four­teen, he nev­er stopped read­ing. I think he wore out two library cards. He’s not dumb, my broth­er. I should have remem­bered that.

It’s not strange, Dar­ling John. I love you, too.”

Has that chap Ker­mit been mak­ing eyes at you? Or worse?”

No.” When I shift­ed my eyes to a spot above his head, he knew I was lying to him.

It is my mis­ery. I am doomed to spend my life defend­ing you.”

Don’t be mad at Ker­mit. It’s my fault.” That, at least, was the truth.

Even though I looked him square in the face that time, looked him in his one good eye, he ignored the truth.

Dar­ling John made me text Ker­mit and ask him to meet me Sun­day morn­ing. Ker­mit replied that he had to go to church with his wife and kids, but I told him to fake being sick. He took so long to answer that I thought he wouldn’t do it, but even­tu­al­ly he agreed.

I went to bed but couldn’t sleep for won­der­ing what the day would bring. By the time my broth­er hollered at me to get up, I was already dressed. He ush­ered me into his old truck and we head­ed up the moun­tain behind our house.

The whole back­side of it had been strip-mined in the sev­en­ties. It had nev­er been reclaimed, so it was a dan­ger­ous place to be. Kudzu, hon­ey­suck­le, and sumac cov­ered the aban­doned mine site, hid­ing rusty equip­ment, high walls, and deep pits.

Dar­ling John parked the truck behind a large green mass which turned out to be an old poplar tree near­ly con­sumed by kudzu. I climbed out of the cab and wait­ed at the entrance of the old min­ing road which was now filled with gold­en rod and black­ber­ry vines. My broth­er rest­ed on the tail­gate of the truck, out of sight.

Grow­ing rest­less, I picked a bou­quet of Queen Anne’s lace, then scratched at the chig­ger bites on my ankles. Jarflies buzzed so loud around me that it felt like my teeth might vibrate right out of my head. I was just about to ask my broth­er to take me to town for a sausage bis­cuit when I heard a car approach. Ker­mit.

He parked his car, a used Sub­aru, at the side of the road and climbed from behind the steer­ing wheel. “Lis­ten, Rho­da. You can’t be tex­ting me when I’m home. If my wife saw that…well, I don’t want to think about what would hap­pen.”

Before I could respond, Dar­ling John appeared from behind the weeds and said, “I reck­on it would be some­what ter­ri­ble.”

Kermit’s face turned as white as the soft-serve cus­tard we sold at Big Dan’s. It struck me that he was over­re­act­ing until I saw the gun in my brother’s hand. His Sig Sauer, a com­pact lit­tle weapon he favored, was point­ed right at Ker­mit.

Lis­ten, Dar­ling John. I don’t know what’s going on in your head, but let’s think this thing through.” He stut­tered a lit­tle bit, his eyes nev­er leav­ing my brother’s gun.

There’s naught to talk about, you toad. Now get up that road there.”

What are you going to do?”

Do not con­cern your­self with that. Move!”

Ker­mit stum­bled through the weeds and brush with my broth­er right behind him. I fol­lowed, still hold­ing my bou­quet. It seemed an eter­ni­ty, that walk. When Dar­ling John was sat­is­fied with the loca­tion, he said, “Stop.”

We stood at a precipice, high above a deep pit: the remains of a long-dead sur­face mine. Ker­mit turned to face us. “What­ev­er you’re think­ing of doing, please don’t.”

Did you lay your hands on Rho­da?”

Ker­mit hes­i­tat­ed, appar­ent­ly try­ing to assess what amount of truth would be the least dan­ger­ous. He didn’t real­ize that the truth didn’t mat­ter to Dar­ling John. As far as he was con­cerned, any­thing Ker­mit said about me would be an untruth.

My broth­er pulled back the slide on the gun and the sound of it was loud­er than the jarflies. Ker­mit start­ed to cry, the blub­ber­ing sound of a lit­tle girl. I felt embar­rassed for him. I dropped my bou­quet. Dar­ling John took a step for­ward. Ker­mit took a step back.

When some­one falls from a high place, it’s not like you see in car­toons. They don’t hang in the air for a few sec­onds. They can’t walk across the cur­rent back onto sol­id ground. It don’t hap­pen in slow motion. Gravity’s a bitch.

When I ran to the edge, my broth­er grabbed the back of my shirt to keep me from falling over it, too. He pushed me to the ground and crouched next to me. We peered at poor Ker­mit, dead at the bot­tom of the high wall.

Come on,” Dar­ling John said.

It took us about twen­ty min­utes to make our way to Kermit’s body. He lay on his back, one leg tucked under the oth­er, his head cocked at an angle it could nev­er reach in life. His blue eyes were open wide. He looked sur­prised.

I kneeled next to him and pat­ted his shoul­der. I wished his eyes were shut, but I wouldn’t touch his face to close them. I stared at him for a long time. I hadn’t nev­er seen any­body dead out­side a funer­al home. In a cof­fin, they’re always pow­dered and rouged.

A but­ter­fly flit­ted from a stalk of Joe-Pye weed and land­ed on his head. I flicked it away with one fin­ger, then rubbed the pow­dery residue of its wings from my skin.

I always want­ed to go to the Bad­lands,” my broth­er said.

Where’s that?”

South Dako­ta.”

Bad­lands.” I stood up and ran my hands through my hair. “I like the sound of that.”

Let’s go.”

I fol­lowed Dar­ling John through the wild land­scape, cry­ing out when a bri­ar caught my bare leg and ripped the flesh. When we got back to the truck, he opened a bot­tle of water and poured it over the wound.

It washed away the red thread. Slow­ly.

After all, blood is thick­er than water.

nevabryanNeva Bryan lives in Wise Coun­ty, Vir­ginia with her hus­band Daniel and their three dogs. She is a cat per­son. Neva is the author of St. Peter's Mon­sters and Sawmill Boys. Her work also appears in the anthol­o­gy We All Live Down­stream: writ­ings about moun­tain­top removal and numer­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals, includ­ing Appalachi­an Her­itage and Appalachi­an Jour­nal. She is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia. Her favorite leisure activ­i­ty is watch­ing old hor­ror movies.

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