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