by Max Barry

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by The Not Kenneth Branagh of Western Fardelshufflestein. . 66 reads.


12 March 2021

He's sitting up in bed, his face alight with joy and his eyes shimmering with mirth. For the first time in months, he is beaming, and his arms are outstretched toward everyone like he's trying to reach them. And mayhaps he is. 'Tis his party, but he is the one who is trapped, locked into his bed by a tray and the weakness of his body. All of the people who are doting on him and smiling at him are the ones who will scatter in multiple directions to their abodes, but he will remain a patient in this room, sick, uncomfortable, dying. The pain is less visible right now, but Wilhelm knows he spends every waking second in agony.

'Tis fascinating, really, how well he hides it. Or how well he used to hide it. For years, Wilhelm had hardly suspected a thing, or had deluded himself into believing he suspected nothing. So it is not so surprising that Alastair appears to be in good spirits at present. For all Wilhelm knows, this countenance is mostly or completely genuine, but he knows better than to pry. 'Twill work Alastair up too much. He's so sensitive that the tiniest of things can set him off, and then he'll bawl and be utterly inconsolable.

Mother, who up until now has been conversing with Marie, gives Wilhelm a sad smile and walks up to him. She pulls him in for a hug whilst he stiffens, until, slightly awkwardly, he returns the gesture.

"You and Marie did such a wonderful job planning this." She reaches up to stroke his cheek. "You have really been an amazing brother to him. I know he appreciates everything, even if he cannot articulate it."

Wilhelm steals a glance at his brother, who is contentedly watching the subdued hubbub. There is no one here right now except for family members, and, even then, not all of them are in the room at once. Some are loitering outside, conversing amongst themselves, trying to make best of a birthday party hosted in a hospital room.

All three of Alastair and Marie's children are here, as are Marie's two sisters and their families. Wilhelm's daughter is here, too, with her mother and Wilhelm's ex, Greta. Though the two of them are not together anymore, they remain friends, albeit with the occasional flirtations. There is a part of Wilhelm that has not left his old life behind. But he is glad he is otherwise beyond it, for he can only guess what would have happened to him. He could have ended up addicted to drugs or gambling, and then Mother and Father would have been the parents of two addicts instead of one.

"Ja," he mutters offhandedly. He turns his attention to the far wall and fixates on a random decoration, on its garish colors and tacky gleam.

What is it about him that is suddenly so protective of Alastair? He has always loved his brother, and looked up to him when he was in his youth. The two of them used to get up to so much mischief together. Looking back, 'tis only fitting they turned out the way they did, what with all the things they got away with. Their parents only caught them a fraction of the time. They never realised how much trouble they caused and how many sweets they nabbed, even though they generally let him and Allie eat as much as they wanted.

Looking back, he saw clearly why his brother had such an insatiable appetite. Or rather, how his appetite had been augmented by their parents' condoning of his overindulgence. He'd never been one to pass up a dessert, save for that depressive spell several years ago, even though he'd been self-conscious about his weight for as long as Wilhelm could remember. He recalled multiple occasions on which Alastair had been comforted by their parents; they'd hug him and have long talks with him about how he was handsome and they loved him no matter what.

Had his depression been there from adolescence, lurking in his mind like an invisible smog? Had Wilhelm been aware of it? Had Allie himself been aware of it? Whatever unseen forces controlled his brain, Alastair still managed to keep it together until Grandfather died.

"Wil? Are you still here?"

He blinks, remembers Mother is standing beside him. "My apologies."

"Is something on your mind?"

"I was just thinking."

"About what?" There it is, that nagging, maternal instinct that presents itself as altruistic but still manages to fray the nerves. He feels compelled to answer, but he does not want to hurt her. Rekindle negative memories.

"Time. Childhood. The past. Allie." He shrugs. "He's on all our minds these days."

"We're worried about him. We all are. He's--" A sharp intake of breath cuts her off. She hesitates, and Wilhelm wonders if she is thinking of Father.

"'Tis not your fault, Wil. What happened to him. Do not blame yourself."

Almost involuntarily, Wilhelm grinds his teeth. He already tries hard enough to convince himself 'tis not all his fault, nor is it Allie's. Hearing it from their mother's mouth seems to serve as a reminder he is to blame. Yes, Allie is ill, yes, he lost control, yes, the fall was an accident. But Wilhelm was not powerless in preventing or mitigating the severity of his addiction.

He heaves a sigh, then looks at his brother again. He almost cannot believe how much thinner he's gotten. How feeble he is. He may be able to hold Marie in his arms, but he cannot stand or walk without help. Not just because of his brain damage, but because he is still so weak. Wilhelm has grown accustomed to seeing tubes protruding from his brother's stick thin limbs, to the bracelets encircling his wrist and the cannula for oxygen and the nightly dialysis machine. 'Tis been months since his collapse, so Wilhelm has had no choice but to grow accustomed to it all, to Alastair's compromised condition and disease.

But he does not, and will never, tolerate it. He cannot bear to see his brother like this for another second. He wishes Allie could rip out the IV lives and cast aside the cannula, then stand up and throw his arms around Wilhelm, once again healthy, whole. No longer in need of constant care and monitoring. No longer in pain. Wilhelm used to think this healed Alastair was a possibility, perhaps for a fleeting moment, until the reality set in. Until he found himself unable to do anything but watch his big brother fight for his life, until he forced himself to accept Alastair would always be sick.

That must have been the point when he decided he would dedicate himself to caring for his brother. It had been a sort of gradual thing in actuality, but coming to terms with Allie's condition as best as he could some months ago had certainly been a huge factor. Marie and Mother had been with him from the very beginning, but Wilhelm had visited on and off, oftentimes too angry at himself and at the world to even look in the general direction of the hospital. Now he visits nearly every day, sometimes to talk with Allie and other times to simply be with him, which is really all he can do. He is a doctor of English, not of medicine. He cannot prescribe medication or perform a life-saving operation. But he can support his brother and try to lift his spirits.

"Mayhaps not entirely," he finally answers, returning to his present conversation. "But I was in denial for years. 'Twas only when he..."

Why is he dwelling upon such negative things at a birthday party? This is not the time or place for regret. He is in a space with rainbow wall decorations, multicolored balloons on the foot of the bed, brightly wrapped presents in the corner, stacks of envelopes on the bedside table. He is with his family.

"I should go check on him."

He pulls away from Mother, hands in his his pockets, and heads toward Alastair. Allie's face lights up when he approaches. For some odd reason, he is always thrilled to see Wilhelm, though Wil has never done much for him. In fact, there was a period of several years during which he ignored Allie completely. He still feels guilty for that, just as he feels guilty that he did nothing when he saw Allie struggling. He saw Allie struggling with alcohol and did nothing.

"Hey Wil," Allie slurs. He gives Wilhelm a lopsided smile.

Marie, who has been speaking with Allie, looks up as she approaches. "Oh, how now, Wil. Mom."

Mother followed him? Well, actually, that makes perfect sense. She is always coming to check on Allie; she wants nothing more than to take care of him and love him.

"How now, darling." Mother slips past Wilhelm and leans forward, wrapping her arms around her elder son. "Happy birthday."

Wilhelm finds himself standing there awkwardly, unsure whether he should be affectionate or back away. But he has abandoned Allie before; he will never do so again.

He places his hand on his brother's shoulder and stiffly rubs it. Why does he suddenly feel so uncomfortable, out of place--is it the general hubbub of the party, the setting, his own guilt? No, 'tis a combination of all of those things. 'Tis the nagging sensation of urgency, the one that compels him to keep spending time with Alastair.

His brother is dying. Slowly, painfully, the life draining from him as he struggles to get better. His liver failing and his mind fallen apart. Sometimes, Wilhelm does not fully understand who Alastair is anymore because so much of him is gone or fundamentally different. Not "different" in the sense of sobriety versus intoxication, but different in the sense that he seems almost another person. Confused, repetitive, childlike, completely dependent on everyone around him.

It does not make Wilhelm love him any less. No matter what, he's still Alastair. He just needs a lot of help right now. And he...he really does not deserve to die. Wilhelm has always been the cynical, obnoxious, brash one; his failures, while they are burdens he will carry for the rest of his life, are not fatal. They will not kill him. And not all of it was negative, in the end, because he has a daughter whom he adores.

Alastair's vice, contrarily, went so far that it became a sickness. It became less of an indulgence as he lost himself to his addiction, and now he is here, nestled against their mother with tubes in his arms.

When Mother pulls away from Alastair, Allie turns his attention to Wilhelm. This time, he wear a faint, impish smile, one typically reserved for mischief or tacit acknowledgement of a shared joke. 'Tis a smile Wilhelm has nearly forgotten about until now.

"I am ready for cake," he states. The way he says it reminds Wilhelm of when they were young and would often steal sweets together. But there is no need for them to be covert. Alastair is allowed a slice of cake today, albeit a less unhealthy one than everyone else, and it is no secret. The thrill of it for Allie is that he gets to have dessert despite being on a strict diet, and on his birthday, no less.

"Oh. Alright. I can go let someone know." He stiffens, once again giving his brother a once-over. Will he always be this frail? No, he can get better; he can heal. Even if only by a little.

Alastair replies a little belatedly. "Thanks." He seems excited, Wilhelm notes, or hopeful. Ja, that is it--he has hope. Just a tiny thing, a hope for a birthday cake, but hope nonetheless. Alastair still has hope.

"You are going to be alright, you know." Wilhelm is not sure he believes it. But Alastair does, at least in part. There is a brief flicker of joy in his eye, and mayhaps he does believe it, or want to believe it. Mayhaps, if he can cling to the hope that he will be alright, he in less pain. He will not be as miserable. His mental health could improve, and then--

But Wilhelm must not let himself think in this way. He must think realistically, and he must focus on the present. He has no control over Alastair's health. He only has control over how he treats his brother, how he cares for him.

"You're going to be alright," he repeats, mostly himself.