The boy in the woods
My favorite picture of my brother Peter and I sits on my desk. The two of us are standing in the woods behind our grandmother’s house in Southampton, holding up a hawk feather we have found, grinning.
“What kind of bird is this from?” Peter asks. I know he is just testing me. The answer is obvious.
“Its from a red-tailed hawk!”
“Are you sure? It could be from an osprey, or a peregrine falcon, or a turkey.”
“Nope, its a hawk.”
“How can you tell?” He asks.
“Hawk feathers have these things here at the end, like black stripes.”
“Yup. That’s right. But this one is really cool, cause it’s red. That means it’s a tail feather.”
We were six and eight in this photo, young enough to still have the same face; dark brown hair, hazel eyes, the same small nose and over-sized smile. People used to mistake us for twins all the time.
After the picture is taken, we race up the hill to the power lines. I could out run every kid in the neighborhood, except my older brother. I find him hunched over, panting.
“Look…..fox tracks”. He points up ahead. “A mom and….two babies.”
I kneel over the tracks. They are fresh.
“Probably from early this morning.” Peter says.
“Let’s play fox! We can be the pups, looking for their mom.”
“That’s kid stuff!” Peter follows the tracks down the long sandy hill. The power lines hum above us, the tracks disappear into the woods.
“Now what?” I ask.
Peter is missing again. I check the empty lot where we play kick ball. Not there. I check the woods by Montauk highway. I ride my bike to the bay at the end of the street, where we used to sneak into the country club and play on the swings. Nothing. I ride back home, wracking my brain for any patch of woods near our house I could have missed. I walk across the street, to a lot not even half an acre, over-grown with bushes. I find him, closer than he’s ever been when he goes missing, curled around a tree with a bottle of vodka, nearly gone. I am thirteen, he is fifteen. He is much bigger than me, now. I drag him across the street. He leans against the fence post.
“Dad will be home soon.”
He stares straight ahead; offers me the rest of the vodka by tilting the bottle towards me. It’s twelve in the afternoon, summer time.
“No.” I say.
His head wavers like its heavy, like he is underwater. He will never offer me alcohol again, after this moment. He lifts his head up, and laughs. His perfect teeth pearl out from their gums, he laughs loud from his belly, laughs until he is sobbing.
“Don’t end up like me.”
On the hill by the power lines, we find a box turtle nestled under a log. She hides in her shell when I pick her up.
“Count her spots, to see how old she is!” Peter says. We count seven.
“Do you think that’s old, in turtle years?”
“Shh…be quiet, and maybe she’ll come out!” Peter takes the turtle from me; balances the warm underside on his palm. We wait.
Peter’s cigarette butt is under the toe of my black converse. We are sitting around a wooden table at a friend’s back yard, bored out of our minds. Everyone takes turns coating a finger in hand sanitizer, to set on fire, with a bucket of water on standby. Your skin doesn’t burn when you do this, because of the alcohol in the sanitizer. Stupid teenage stuff.
“What’s that noise.” Peter demands. His eyes are glossed over, far away. He looks towards the woods. He walks off, stumbling. The dude with the cigarettes call after him,
“Chill, its nothing!”
“Why is he walking like that? What’s wrong with him?” I ask.
“I KNOW you are over there talking SHIT, all of you” Peter yells. His hands run through his hair, he turns his back to us.
“Shit…he must have got one of the dusted cigarettes” the dude says.
“Dusted? What does that mean? Dusted with what?”
“Why would you–“
“There was only three! I didn’t think he would get one, its supposed to be fun” he interrupts me.
“Well, what the hell do we do now? How long does it last?”
“Shit, I don’t know. He’s your brother. He’s already crazy anyway, doesn’t make much difference.”
Peter stumbles back over. We fall silent. He picks up the bottle of hand sanitizer, and coats his entire hand in it. He takes the lighter from his pocket, and sets his hand on fire. It burns blue first, then red.
“Put it in the bucket! Peter, put it in the fucking bucket!” I scream.
He looks through me, as if I am not even there, and lets it burn.
When we sleep over at Nana’s house, we sleep in the room with bunk beds. We jump from the bottom to the top bunk, over and over, fighting over who gets top. If I sleep on the top, Peter presses his feet on the bottom of my bed, and sends me shooting up in the air. I peer over the edge of my bed, my head hangs upside down. I am jealous of Peter’s blanket. It’s covered in colorful, small frogs, the type you would find in a rain forest.
“Do you think there are any frogs like that in the woods here?” I ask.
“No, those are rain forest frogs, duh. There are only toads here.”
“Oh…well, catching toads is boring. They always pee in your hands.”
“Well…we can catch something else.”
Peter gets on all fours, crouching like a frog. He peeps along to the noise outside the window. I laugh so hard, I have to lay down.
“Tree frogs.” He says.
It’s 3am, and Peter is still awake. I’m on the top bunk, he is on the bottom. In a few months from now, when Peter gets out of the hospital, my father will take down these bunk beds. Right now, Peter is writhing. He throws the blanket on and off, on and off.
“You don’t see it right? You don’t see it?”
“See what, Peter? There’s nothing there.”
“The demons, on the ceiling. How can you not see it!” His breath gets heavy.
“I’m right under the ceiling, and there’s nothing here. Can I please go get dad?”
“No! No! Okay…okay…I have to be quiet. Quiet. We have to be quiet, he can’t know, they will put me away, do you want me to go away?”
“No.” I look to the door. It’s locked. I know if I run for it, he’ll catch me. I’m fifteen, he is seventeen, and still faster than me. I feel his feet press into my bed, hard.
“What is it?”
He cringes. He stuffs his fingers in his ears. “They won’t stop screeching.”
“It’s not real, okay? You have got to trust me, it’s not real.” I peer my head over the edge, my head hangs upside down. “Look at me.” He looks. We have the same eyes. “I am real. You know that?”
“Yes…you’re not safe up there, you’re…”
“I’m fine. You’re gonna be fine, too.” I crawl into his bed by his feet, cautiously.
“Will you…stay until I fall asleep?”
“Yes. Close your eyes, try to sleep.”
“Will you…make sure, make sure they don’t get me?”
“Yeah, I’ll make sure.”
We fall asleep, eventually. I have a nightmare, the same one I always have. Peter is standing on the rocks at Ponquogue, facing the water. He falls down on the rocks, hard, slams his face into them. He gets up, bloodied, and does this over and over again. I call out to him, but he is in his head, in a place where my voice can’t reach.
Schizophrenia is a rare, serious mental illness, affecting only 1.2% of the population. The cause of it is still not fully understood, but it is said to be caused in part by a gene, that skips a generation. Males are much more likely to develop schizophrenia, otherwise, it could have easily been me.
I check my phone after work. Three missed calls from Peter’s group home, one voicemail.
“Hey, it’s me your brother Pete. Give me a call back okay! I love you.”
Last night, I dream I am walking through the woods by my grandmother’s house. There are no toads, no tree frogs, no foxes or hawks or turkeys. The woods are just a patch of trees now, surrounded by houses. It is winter in my dream. I’m alone, searching for any sign of life. I trip over a box turtle, with seven spots. I hold her until she pokes her head out. I look into her orange eyes, until she seems to recognize me, and lets me pet her head with my index finger. I hear a branch snap. I look up; a little boy is in the birch tree above me, watching. He is shivering with cold. He has dark brown hair, and hazel eyes. I realize, somehow, in these lifeless woods, I will have to keep him alive. The boy clambers down, and holds his hands out for the turtle. I give it to him. He swallows the turtle whole; it almost gets caught in his throat. I want to cry, out of grief for the turtle, out of relief that the boy is smiling now; with a grin too big for his small face. He looks up at me.
“It’s okay. We are the same.” He says. “We are the same.”