Pete stood outside their brother’s door a long time with their arms crossed. Bad energy pulsed out of the room like the heat from a campfire. Hector’s room had always felt that way to some extent. Anger was like cigarette smoke; it got in your lungs as soon as you stepped in the room. It was a physical thing, a musk. Pete didn’t want to go in there and breathe it in. But they did.
Hector was lying on his bed with his forehead against the wall. His thick gnarled arms were crossed, and his spine was a canal that showed in the sweaty back of his T-shirt. Hector’s room was sparse. Pete had always covered their walls with comic book pages and maps, and the stark white walls of their brother’s room made them uneasy. It was like Hector secreted a toxin that would dissolve anything he might hang up. The only things that could withstand it were a few sturdy books on a shelf, his college acceptance letter, and his army fatigues hanging from the closet door.
“Did Mom send you in here?”
Pete hadn’t said anything yet. Caught off guard, frustrated, their plan sabotaged, they said, “No.” It was tinged with bitterness. It’s not me, they thought. I’m better than this. It’s just being in this room, it’s just the fumes. They breathed in and out so that Hector couldn’t hear and tried to reset.
“I heard her talking to you.”
“Yeah but I wasn’t going to do it.”
It was true. Go apologize to your brother, Mom had said. And Pete had been incredulous. Apologize? All I did was tell a joke. But you know how your brother is, Mom had said. You know how it is. Pete had stomped off to their room and, chewing at the sleeve of their grey waffle knit shirt, traced the Atlantic Ocean from Maine to Gibraltar and back with their eyes. Hector had traversed it in airspace, twice. Further, actually. Past Gibraltar, over the Mediterranean ocean. He had gone there sullen and come back broken. That was what made Pete change their mind, about going to breathe in smoke. The idea that Departure Hector and Return Hector weren’t just Angry Hector and Angrier Hector. That there was really something changed underneath that coldly perfect crewcut.
So when Hector said, “So you’re not here to apologize,” Pete took a deep breathe.
“No, I am. But it’s my idea, okay? Not Mom’s.” Hector turned his head away from the wall, looked at Pete with sardonic eyes and let a rip of laughter slide over his fat bottom lip. Hector never laughed if it wasn’t ironic. “I’m sorry I always piss you off.”
That was true, too. Pete was good at that. They always felt righteous, because there was no not-pissed Hector. His older brother’s antagonism was so common that they had come to crave his outrage. Hector had his chosen form of combat. Pete had theirs. Tirades of loudly-spoken words and explosions of heavy footfall down the hall.
Hector didn’t reply. He was staring at the ceiling. A whole planet with an impenetrable atmosphere.
“I guess it is actually my fault sometimes.” Hector scoffed again, turned his head towards Pete again, and before the pressure that was building up was released on them again, they said, “Which should be obvious, right, I just was telling a joke. I didn’t know it would offend you.”
Very slowly, his body sizzling across the sheets, Hector sat up with his back against the wall. He studied Pete like they were a training video.
“You’ve just been here the whole time,” Hector said hoarsely. He always sounded like a motorcycle engine about to rev. “You don’t get what I’ve been through.”
“I know,” said Pete, fighting the instinctive twinge, the urge to scream, You’ve always been like this! “I know, I know everything sucks for you right now. It’s really hard. I’ll stop, okay? I’m sorry.”
To Pete’s amazement, Hector didn’t back down. He didn’t soften even a little bit. Just kept firing.
“I hear how you and Mom talk about me and it’s bullshit. I can hear you, you get that? The walls in this house are thin as shit. I’m not a snake, Pete, there are reasons for how I am.”
“Hector, I get that.” The smoke was getting thicker, the fumes getting in their eyes and nose. Their chest pinched up as oxygen became scarce.
“Not everything’s a joke, Pete. I mean, you remember Joel and how goddamn nice he was to you when we were kids. Was he a joke to you?”
“I wasn’t making a joke about him being dead!”
There was a boom as one of the springs in Hector’s mattress gave under the weight of his seething, lunging body
“Get out,” he yelled, and Pete had only just enough time to skitter across the threshold before the door slammed. They ran back to their own room, sailed onto the bed and began tugging fiercely at the pillowcase, chewing at their sleeves. With horror, they realized they had been smiling when they said that. It’s my fault, they thought. My fault. All the bitterness they had sucked from their blood was back there coursing in full force.
No. It’s the damn room. The damn radiation he puts off. Staring at the map, the pale void of the North Atlantic, they thought, I’m better than this. But I won’t apologize, I won’t apologize, I won’t apologize.