Behind the Walls

Wednesday night the walls bled so bad, the smell alone woke me up. Sharp and dirty, like the jar of old pennies Tommy kept on his side of the closet. I tried to hack up the taste but only got sticky night spit, wiped my mouth against my sheets. This was definitely worse than the last two nights.

The messed-up clock read F:68, which meant almost two in the morning. Tommy was doing that raspy hee-haw snoring thing he’d started since he got on his new pills. I let him sleep. Monday, when we first saw it soaking through the wallpaper like chocolate syrup, he got to laughing and snorting and cussing so much that I couldn’t shut him down. I had to call Mom to come home from the bar and man, did we both catch it then. Especially me, cause she thought I’d stirred him up on purpose. I got the whole lecture about no money for babysitters, being in charge, his problems. Like I didn’t know it by heart.

So this time I just waited until the bus stop the next morning, to tell him how there’d been a giant gob of it right above his bed.

“And there was this big ole drop dangling over your head – I thought for sure you were gonna get a mess of it right in the mouth.”

“Brian you ass – s – s –a-hole . . . shoulda woke me up!”

Mom had cut a deal with him – he could cuss as long as he just used the first letter, and didn’t go into the Other voice.

I dropped a rock in the mud puddle by the mailbox. “That’s what it woulda looked like. Splat.”

Tommy started cackling like his hee-haw snoring, only louder and with more grunts. His head jerking like somebody had it on a string. He trickled his fingers in front of his face as the Other voice broke in. “I LIKE IT WHEN IT RUNNNNNS DOWN.”

That crap didn’t scare me, but I knew I’d better wear him down before the bus got here. I started spooky-laughing, chasing him through the giant purple lilacs that ran along the lane. We got kinda carried away – when the bus showed up we were halfway back to our house. Mrs. Gerhardt laid on the horn and then gave us a dirty look when we finally got on.

My plan had crapped out. Tommy was out of breath but really wired now, just waiting to unload on her. I asked how her puppy was doing – that bought us a good ten minutes of potty-training stories.

“Suck-up,” Tommy whispered.

“Butt-kisser,“ I told him back.

“Why don’t you go plant one on her big left cheek?”

Don’t say anything, don’t stir him up again. But I just couldn’t keep it in.

“Dude, if she farts I’m toast.”

That was all Tommy needed.

CUNTFUCKER!“ the Other voice barked out.

“What!” Mrs. Gerhardt yelled.

I punched Tommy’s knee as hard as I could. His next words broke into a bawl.

“I think he stubbed his toe or something,” I called back at her.

“WHAT did he say?”

“Nothing.” Some of the other kids were staring, but most knew better. I glared the few gawkers down while I said, “He just banged his stupid foot.”

He opened his mouth again.

“Come on baby, you’re OK,” I messed with his hair. Behind the tall green seat, I showed him my fist again.

He shut his mouth and sniffled away from me.

The bus driver was back to her dirty looks. “The more I know you kids, the more I like my dog.”

We got to school with no more problems. I thought everything had cooled out, but then right before lunch –

“Can I talk to Brian out here a second?”

Our principal was a big guy who seemed to fill up the hallway. He told everybody to call him Mr. J cause his last name was Polish and like nine syllables long.

“Brian, is anything going on at home? Anything new, unusual?”

“No.” I didn’t trust this at all.

“Well your brother was telling his class some pretty wild stories. Something about bleeding walls and your dad?”

It was like somebody grabbed every hair on my body and pulled them straight out. I tried to look surprised. “Yuck!”

“That’s what the rest of the class thought. Scared some of them pretty bad. He was – very animated, almost had a seizure. He’s OK, but ah . . . he wet himself.”

“Oh. He got spare clothes?”

“Yes. We were going to call your mom, to come pick up the dirty ones – “

“No.” She didn’t need to know about this. Besides, I hated her coming to school in her bar outfit. “I mean, we’ll take them home. Just stick them in a bag, just so . . . you know, nobody sees.”

“You’re a good brother.” He smiled, kinda sadly. “But you don’t have any idea where this wall stuff came from?”

I rubbed my lips against each other, like I was thinking. “No. I don’t think so. My dad – left us a few months ago. It’s hard for Tommy with – you know, everything.”

“I know.” That sad smile again.

“He mighta seen part of a scary movie last night. Mr. J, I should get back to class. Didn’t do so good on long-division.”

Special ed’s lunch period was before fifth grade’s, so I just managed to corner Tommy as he was leaving the cafeteria.

“Dummy! I told you not to talk about –” I trickled my fingers down the wall.

“Wasn’t my . . . g-d fault! Donny said his dead grandma could change the TV channel, so I said well I got a dead –”

I caught him by the skin of the elbow. Twisted it into a knot, then pulled him close before he could scream out.

“You can’t tell Donny,” I hissed. “We can’t tell anybody. Or they’ll take us away from Mom. Remember? I warned you!”

His eyes were bugging out, his lips trembling. For a second I thought he might seize out.

“Hey,” I eased up on his arm, “hey, we just gotta keep it between us. Maybe we can tell other people some day. But right now, its like I said, it’s our secret. Jannio brothers only.”

The idea of a pact, just him and me, calmed him down a bit. “Just for us.”

“Not even Mom.”

Which was kinda funny, since Mom already knew. She’s got to – she’s the whole reason this started.

He did good the rest of the day, so when the bus dropped us off I let him go a little nuts. The lilac bushes battered us as we weaved like fighter planes down the lane. Our tiny house was at the very bottom, right on top of the long pebbly pier that stretched into the dirty-grey harbor like a finger. The water was still socold, even at the end of April, and I had to tell Tommy twice to get his shoes back on.

It’s like it was calling to him, though. Calling both of us, letting us know that summer was closing in. Soon the tourists – terrorists, Dad’d always called them – would overrun us with their boat trailers and stacks of fishing gear. Tommy and I’d had full run of the lane since last September, but soon we’d just be local brats.

We hopped around on the big rocks, scaring up black dock spiders and screaming as they swarmed all over. Our yells bounced off the empty fishing cottages lining the harbor. That’s really all our house was, just four small rooms not meant for year-round living. Dad’d always said he was going to build an upstairs. Tommy and I’d have separate rooms, and the living room and kitchen wouldn’t be right fucking on top of each other (his words).

That was late Sunday night talk, after he’d crewed whatever boat would take him and then staggered home stinking like fresh fish and spilled beer. Sit in his recliner, read his magazine about two-headed chickens and the world’s fattest midgets, and lay out all these big plans he had.

I’d smile. I’d say it sounded great. I’d stay close to Tommy, who didn’t know when to just nod and who I could sometimes get outside before it all started. We would run and splash like we were right now, loud enough to drown out the noises tearing apart the inside of our tiny little house.

Spring fever had swept us up so much, I didn’t notice dusk settling until Mom’s headlights splashed across the water. Then I realized I’d stepped in it bad – hadn’t washed his clothes, hadn’t started dinner, hadn’t even taken our books inside.

She knew, soon as she got out of the car. “Brian, tell me you got his homework going.”

“Oh yeah,” Tommy said. “I left my math book at school. Can we go get it?”

Her eyes burned into me. “You didn’t check his books?”

“Let’s go get it, gotta go get it.” Tommy hopped around in song.

“They’re closed baby.“ She touched his head absently, then pulled her hand back like she’d been bit. “Oh Brian, he’s got mud all in his hair!”

“I told him to quit going through the puddles,” I tried.

“No didn’t, no didn’t,” Brian sing-songed.

I hated the way Mom pushed at her temples as she stared across the darkening water. “Shut up, you little spaz!” I yelled.

“SHUT UP, DUMB BITCH,” the Other voice ordered.

Mom flinched. We both knew who that sounded like. “Inside, both of you.”

We turned toward the dock, to get our bikes, and she cut loose. “HEY! Did I say anything about those bikes? Get in the godda – just get inside. NOW!”

She rushed around the kitchen as I peeled Tommy’s clothes off him in the bathroom. “You knew I was planning spaghetti tonight. You could have started the noodles, or . . . well, done something!”

“Sorry, I didn’t know how late it was!” I snapped.

I didn’t like matching her angry glare, but I couldn’t really look anywhere else. She was still in her work outfit – black jeans too tight on her hips and butt, with a white t-shirt tied just below her boobs. Nobody wants to see their mom like that.

“You’re right,” I backed down. “I screwed up. But you’re late too.”

She said nothing, though her mouth softened. She snapped the noodles in half and dropped them in the rolling water. “How’d he do today?”

“Fine. Just had an accident.”

She didn’t need to know he almost had a seizure. He always almost had seizures.

“I’m in the tu-ub, “ Brian called.

“Here, trade me,” she said to me.

“No,” I motioned a muddy hand. “I got him dirty, I can do his bath.”

A small smile crossed her face. Then it faded out fast, like her happy little thought got run over by something big and unyielding. That happened a lot lately.

At least Dad’s gone, I wanted to say. At least you got rid of him. Instead I started scrubbing Tommy.

She burned the sauce. I still had two platefuls. Tommy was in a picky mood and would only eat the noodles once he’d scraped every bit of meat off them. Mom barely noticed as she went through the mail, creating a small mountain of bills.

She sighed, arms cradling the back of her head. “You’d think at least some of it would be junk mail,” she said mostly to herself.

“Mommy,” Tommy said as he slurped down a bare noodle, “does your boo-boo still hurt?”

He pointed at her left forearm, where you could still make out the top swirl of the burner in the dark pink scar tissue. That had been another night of burned food. Dad, however, paid more attention to the taste than Tommy or me.

She hastily dropped her arm back down. “No, its fine baby.”

“That’s good.” His noodle-scraping slowed a bit. “Mommy, is Daddy coming back?”

I tried to shoot Tommy a warning look. If he started talking about the walls, then she’d know we knew. I don’t want her to freak out. It’s OK. I can handle it, the fact that she killed Dad.

She looked between the two of us, unsure how to answer. “No. I don’t think he is.”

“Oh,” Tommy considered. “That’s good too.”

Then he looked at me with a great knowing grin. And I tried to stare down his enthusiasm. And she continued to flicker between him and me, in uncertain suspicion. So we just sat there, three people eying each other, eating our spaghetti.

Later, lying catty-corner from me in the bedroom, he brought it up again. “Do you think he’s comin’ back?”

“Sure he is,” I said. “Right now.”

The far dock light reflected off the water and through our dirty window, smearing the darkness. Still, it wasn’t hard to see the stains emerging, the blotch on the window-wall peering out like a face.

I heard Tommy’s breathing catch. “You scared?” I asked.

Nervous giggle. “N-no. Kinda. You?”

No. Not a bit. What could a little ghostly blood do that he hadn’t? I watched the stain spread, thought of a dog peeing in the snow. “Are you glad he’s dead?” I asked.

“Kinda. But sometimes . . . I miss him, too.”

“Well he’s pretty hard to miss now.” I waved at the wall. “Hi Dad.”

That creepy giggle again. “HI DUMDAMNDADDY!”

“Shut up,” I hissed. But there were no approaching footsteps – Mom’s TV just continued its background grumble.

Amazingly, he calmed down. Silence settled back into the room so fast it was a little scary. “Do you know you sound like him, when you do that voice?”

Tommy tossed himself under his covers. “Leave me alone.”

“Hey I’m not picking on you, I just – “

My words gave out. I wasn’t even sure what I meant.

I laid quiet and still, watching the blood inkblot its way down the walls. This leaking was just Dad trying to scare us, trying to trick us into thinking he was still in the house, watching us from behind the walls when really Mom had smashed him over the head with a rock, then loaded him into the small rowboat from behind the Lashley’s cottage, paddled out to the middle of the lake while Tommy and I slept, tied the rock that killed him to his feet and-

“Sometimes – like somebody else inside me.”

I bit my lip to keep from screaming. “God, I thought you were asleep!”

Tommy rolled back toward me, his face pale. “It’s like, I’m laughing and having fun, and then all a sudden my heart – “

He shook his fist beneath his sheets.

“ – it starts rattling inside, like something’s gonna break loose and –“

“Tommy, it’s OK – “

“I get these – NASty” – the Other voice lurching halfway through the word – “nasty, so mad but it feels . . . good, so g-d good -“

“Tommy,” I tried again.

The Other voice, crashing over him – “FUCKSUCKCUNTKILL –“

I was out of bed even as I heard Mom rushing down the hallway. I slapped his quivering face. Something seemed to run across his eyes. He started crying whole-hog, big rolling jags, just as Mom came in.

“What, baby, what . . .” She rocked his head against her lap. Her eyes were so tired.

“Was it a seizure?” she asked me.

“Just a bad dream, I think.”

But what I was really thinking was about last summer, when Dad had spotted the dent in the car while mowing. How he’d whipped around with the lawnmower, lifting it up by the handle, the blade humming beneath it like a helicopter or some giant spinning mouth. How he had smashed the mower against the corner of the house. Terrible screeching, pieces of eaves spout shooting like chewed-up bullets, the mower rolling black smoke as it crashed to its side.

And when he’d turned, to where I was hiding in the trees . . . I never understood the smile on his face, until what Tommy had just told me.

. . . nasty feelings, like I’m so mad but it feels good too . . .

When I woke up, the morning sun was slanting across my legs and pointing at the mess on the wall. The other mornings you could have missed them if you weren’t paying attention. It was getting worse though – the stain was setting in. If Mom didn’t see them today, it’d be tomorrow or the day after.

And then what? Would she flip out? Pack us up and run away? That was what he wanted, the whole point of this – to get back in control. But he was dead, and if he could really hurt us he would have by now. All he could do was lay there, killed, rotting at the bottom of the lake.

I really wanted to tell him that.

I looked over at my brother, still crumbled up under his blankets.

The more I thought about it on the bus ride to school, the more it made sense. The doctors had told us brains run on electricity, just like radios. If the radio dial gets bumped, the sound goes fuzzy. Sometimes Tommy’s dial gets bumped.

Sometimes, though, you can kinda hear other voices through radio static. Pick up other channels.

. . . feels like somebody else inside me . . .

That’s what Tommy’s Other voice was – another signal coming in. Tommy was picking up Dad.

It was so hard all day, not telling him what I had in mind. If I said anything though, he’d get totally obsessed, probably start telling people. So I had to sit on it, all the way until after the bus dropped us off.

“Hey!“ I grabbed his arm before he could tear down the lane. “You wanna shut the walls off? For good?”

He squinted at me through the brilliant sun. “You know how?”

“No. You do. I’m gonna show you but you gotta trust me, OK?”

He jumped from foot to foot. “Brothers only?”

“Only the Jannios.”

His face broke into a giant grin as he sprinted toward the bright water. “F-ing yeah!!”

It was Friday night. Mom came home just long enough to bring us burgers and fries. She told me they were already slammed, it’d be long after midnight before she got back. I said we’d be fine. She reminded me about his nine o’clock medicine, all laid out in his med minder. I said I’d take care of it.

I felt bad lying about that.

I tried to pass the evening with a rush of dockside chases and TV. Finally, nine o’clock showed up.

“Ok,” I told him, “Bedtime.”

“What? It’s Friday!”

“Part of the plan. It always starts right after we go to bed. Besides, we gotta be done before Mom gets home.”

“Ohhh,” he pouted. “alriiight. I need my pills.”

“Not tonight you don’t.”

He looked at me like a confused dog – medicine time was a golden rule with Mom.

“Look, I’ll give them after we’re done. You gotta trust me. Brothers only, right?”

His throat clicked as he swallowed, nodded.

I knew he could go a couple hours without his pills – when Dad used to watch us it was a total toss-up if he got them at all. Besides, Mom said those pills kept his brain quiet. Tonight, we needed his channel opened up, live and loud.

The bedroom was stuffy, like the walls were already filled with moisture. I propped the window up with a ruler. The sound of the lake quietly licking against the rocks drifted in. I loved that – any other night that would have put me right out. That night though, I felt like I’d never sleep again. Tommy musta felt it too; he was flopping around in bed like a landed fish.

“What are you doing?”

“I gotta . . . I gotta . . .” He revved his hands in front of him urgently, like a person getting an electric shock. “. . . get all pumped up . . .”

My attention snapped to the wall. “The faucets are running,” I said, bravely.

Dad must have known we were planning something. It came through heavier than ever before, like tar welling up behind the wallpaper, blacker than the night itself.

“Alright,” Tommy yammer-whispered, “whatdowedo?”

I crossed the room to Tommy’s bed. Reached out, hesitated just a second before touching the wall. It was like pushing on a sponge of syrup.

“Ewwwwww,” Tommy giggled. He pulled back as I turned toward him. “Brian, donttouchme with that, please-“

I rapped his shin with my clean fist. “Shut up you little spaz.”

“DICKLICKER,” he croaked. “FUCK BRian you a-hole –“

I shoved my gooey fingers into his mouth. His teeth broke through my knuckle skin, adding my blood to the mix. I clamped his jaw with my other hand before he could bite any harder. I didn’t really feel the pain; my attention was on his eyes. His pupils were flared, rolling.

“You listen to me. Hold still. I’m running things now. You try to hurt me again, there’s gonna be problems.”

I wasn’t talking to my brother.

He started as soon as I pulled my hand free. “LITTLE FUCKER.”

“I’m bigger than you.”


Tommy’s eyes were still going crazy, but he was breathing OK, didn’t seem twitchy.

“Where are you at?” I asked my brother’s glazed face.


“Leave him out of this.” I thought I’d be more scared, but my whole body just felt like a coiled spring, a knife ready to drop. “You’re wrong. We’re know you’re not in here. You’re not behind the walls. You got dumped at the bottom of the lake. How does that feel?”


“You got relocated, asshole.” God this was great, just like something out of a movie. I’d never even dreamed of feeling this strong. “You’re a pile of dogshit. This blood crap doesn’t scare us. You hear us laughing at you at night?”

Brian’s face jerked into a smile. It made me want to pound his teeth in. “RETARD CUMS WITH” my brother’s mouth said about himself.

I ignored that; this was the important part. What I’d thought about all day, how to bluff our way through this.

“You wanna make the walls bleed? Show everybody you’re a big scary ghost? OK, then remember that stupid magazine you always laughed at, with the freaks in it? Bet they’d pay a lot of money for pictures of real bleeding wall. So much money maybe we could even move away from here. From you.”

“CUNT ROTS. TAKE HER AWAYAWAYAWAY.” The face wasn’t even human anymore. It looked like something wearing a Tommy mask for Halloween.

“Yeah, they’ll find out Mom killed you. And they’ll find out about her burn too, and the bruises on my back, and the scar on Tommy’s head. You think anybody’ll give a shit she got rid of you? They’ll give her a fuckin’ medal. And if you don’t knock off this blood crap I swear I’ll do it, I’ll tell the whole world your wife finally kicked your ass and your sons laugh at your ghost. You hear me, Daddy, you fuckin’ bully, I fuckin’ hate you – ”

I’d never cussed so much – it felt so good, to give it all back to him –

“EHHH EHHH EHHH,” This demonic laugh, some Hell-version of how he used to wheeze at us from that ugly recliner.

“You think it’s funny? Think I won’t do it?” I climbed up on Brian’s body now, was squeezing my nails into his biceps. “I’m stronger than you. We all are! You’re dead you piece of shit and all you can do is rot! Sink and rot! Sink and rot!”

“EHHh eHHh ehhh – “

Tommy’s eyes fluttered, just once.

Somehow, that one little flicker broke through enough to tell me I needed to get off him, before I hurt him. I let go of his arms.

That’s when he sprang up like some miniature Frankenstein, thrashing, lurching around the room, tearing at the walls, splattering his own blood as he punched at it and broke his fingers.

I charged him, managed to pull him away from the wall. He let out one long horrible bellow before his body slammed totally rigid, the way it always did during his grand mal seizures. He jerked out of my hands.

When he fell he came straight forward and broke his head open against my bed’s footboard.

Grandma seizures – that’s what Tommy had called them. Why that came to me as I watched my brother die I don’t know.

I had to fight to wake up. Like I was drowning in sleep. I lurched my body forward, to a seated position in bed. I could still feel Brian’s arms under my hands, my fingernails.

Looked like a beautiful day outside. Mom was sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing Tommy’s bed. Very dimly, it bothered me that the police and ambulance guys had seen her like that, in her work outfit.

She slowly applied a smile. “Good morning.”

I crawled over to her and laid my head in her lap. Waited for one of us to start crying. After a while, her silence pulled my eyes up.

She was staring at the wall above Tommy’s bed, at the brownish blotches from Dad’s visit.

“We shoulda left, after he did,” she said as she gently moved my head. She stood like someone rising out of water, still wavering from last night’s sedative. Pills for her, pills for me. Pills for everybody but Tommy.

She approached the wall with measured steps, until her fingers brushed the stain. “We should have tried for more. T . . . Tommy deserved better. You too. At least your own rooms, without rust stains all over them.”

“They’re not rust stains.”

She closed her eyes, leaned her forehead against Daddy’s blood.

“Mom, don’t – ”

Why would she do that? Can’t she smell it?

“Just like a thief, like a dirty thief he left all his clothes but took all the money, after, -“

A gulping sob cut her off

“ – after EVERYTHING he did, he’s the one that leaves, leaves us here and my baby died looking at filthy rust –“

Why was she doing this? Why was she telling this story?

The police were here, and the ambulance guys too. They saw the room, they know its blood. They know its blood, it’s gotta be blood, Tommy didn’t die for a story –

She grabbed hold of me as I started to shake.

But I wouldn’t let myself cry, even as her tears brushed against my hair. I’ll show her I’m strong enough. I can handle the truth.

Tommy died cause Daddy tricked me. And as I heard the lake whispering through my window that morning, I knew how to trick him back.

He’ll be hard to find, but I’ve got all summer. Even in the dark I’m a good swimmer. I’ll follow my nose if I have to. Sniff him out by his blood, and then it’ll just be stone by stone, the biggest ones I can carry from the pier to the bottom of the lake.

I’ll build a wall so thick nothing can come through.


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