BIG brothers look out for little brothers.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
In return, big brothers get to be bigger, faster, stronger, smarter than at least one other person in the whole world. They get to be the one who opens lids and multiplies fractions and all for just the cost of brotherly love. Fair trade. But what if your little brother is better than you? What if he’s bigger, faster, stronger, smarter than you are? You’ve been cheated out of your dominance! You’re giving away fraternal care for free! The deal’s been broken… and he’s broken it.
That’s what happened to Thomas Peele. As he stood there looking at his new-born little brother in the hospital, with his single lock of golden hair, his angelic smile and just the barest outline of a halo above his head, Thomas knew that he had been surpassed. It was only a matter of time before this child was toilet trained and then there would truly be nothing he could teach him. The kid was perfect.
Thomas didn’t come up with the philosophy about big brothers and little brothers right there, standing in the small white-washed ward. It developed slowly over years. Years of being beaten in swimming races. Years of having to ask Henry (he had been named after their father) for help with his homework. And years of being left behind as his little brother raced away into the distance on their cycles to and from school.
Henry was an excellent cyclist. More than anything else, he loved to ride. As soon as he got home and finished his homework (it never took him more than an hour), he would be on his bike exploring the country lanes that surrounded their village. At first their dad had gone with him and they had navigated the hedge-rimmed capillaries of rural England together. Thomas had often watched them return, pushing their bikes, laughing at some private little joke, Dad’s hand resting on Henry’s back the way it never did on his own. But Henry Sr. was never much of a cyclist. He puffed his way up hills and edged his way down. One day he got a puncture riding over a broken bottle in the street. For the next three weeks he’d promised his son that he would get it fixed but he never did. Eventually Henry just started going out on his own.
Big brothers look out for little brothers. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. And Thomas certainly tried to look out for him. The problem was that Henry never seemed to need much looking out for. Everyone at school liked him, teachers and pupils alike. The only fight he’d ever got into was over before Thomas could cross the playground. The other boy was crying and apologising. He brought in a cake for Henry the next day.
The worst part about it was that Henry seemed to be looking out for him. He’d never stepped in when Thomas was getting shit from the other kids, but he’d always seemed to be watching, ready to intervene if it got any heavier than words. That wasn’t right. Little brothers should think their big brothers are immortal, invincible, God only wise. They certainly shouldn’t be keeping an eye out for playground scuffles. Henry would finish the fights as well, Thomas was sure of that. He could go up against a Year 6 and come out on top. Hell, stick him up against a marine and it’d be a close thing. Thomas didn’t know if Jesus had had any siblings, but if he did he was sure they would feel like this.
One day, after school, when they were unlocking their bikes, a kid from the year above called Thomas a mummy’s boy. It came out of the blue. Thomas didn’t think the two of them had ever even spoken before, and their mother never picked them up from school (she trusted Henry to get them home safe), but here he was being accused. He didn’t see much need to argue. It was a fair assessment; he really was a mummy’s boy.
The line had gone down well with the boy’s friends. They were all laughing and the boy himself had a big grin drawn across his face. He had clearly been working on his material all day. That’s when Henry stepped in.
‘Josh,’ (he knew everyone’s name) ‘do you still wear nappies because you want to or because you have to?’ The boy, Josh, went bright red and put his hands in his pockets. He had suddenly found himself the subject of a McCarthy witch hunt and, whether he had Mao’s Little Red Book in his pocket or not, he wanted the spotlight off him as quickly as possible.
‘I don’t wear nappies.’
‘I thought you had to ever since you peed your pants last year in assembly.’ His friends watched him open-mouthed. A Communist in their midst!
‘I never peed my pants.’
‘Yes you did. You tried to tie your jumper around your middle but everyone could see the puddle.’
‘That never happened!’
‘That’s why they all call you Puddleboy.’
‘No, they don’t.’
‘Then why do they call you Puddleboy?’ The logic was undeniable, and as the past was rewritten around him, Josh wondered how he could ever have forgotten such a terrible, embarrassing event.
Thomas and Henry pushed their bikes away towards the path that led to home. The chants of ‘Puddleboy’ followed them as they went.
‘You didn’t have to do that.’
‘It was no problem.’
‘I didn’t want you to do that. You’re the little brother. I’m supposed to look out for you, not the other way around.’ They pushed their bikes in silence for a while. Usually they’d be riding by now, but then Henry would be far in front and the conversation would be over. Thomas tried again: ‘Why can’t you just be like the other little brothers? Why can’t you cycle slower than me and cry when you graze your knee? Why can’t you just let me be better?’ Henry got onto his bike. His eyes were dry but his bottom lip was moving all over the place. Thomas hadn’t expected that. The little brother turned around and said: ‘Why can’t you be?’ With that he was gone, cycling off home. Thomas could never catch up with him, so he set off at a leisurely pace somewhere between crawling and walking. The bike wobbled a bit, struggling to stay upright.
It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t look out for Henry, thought Thomas, he was perfectly normal. It was just that perfectly normal wasn’t enough when you had abnormally perfect in the mix. There should be a clause somewhere in the fraternal contract that says ‘In event of Second Coming, all bets are off.’ He might add one later tonight, since the contract only existed in his head anyway.
Thomas looked up. The trees on either side curved inwards so that there was only a sliver of blue visible overhead. At night, that sliver was like a sheet of black fabric studded with sequins.
Thomas looked behind him. The path was long and straight and narrow. Standing at one end, you could hardly make out the other side. One day after school, the two brothers had counted how long it took them to cycle all the way along: thirty seconds for Henry and a full minute for Thomas, though he was pretty sure his little brother had rounded down when he was timing him. He hadn’t said anything. A minute was bad enough.
Thomas looked forwards. Henry was lying on the path in front of him. Right in front of him. He slammed on the brakes with both hands and nearly went over the handlebars. The front wheel skidded harshly on the leaf-littered floor, coming to rest against Henry’s back. He didn’t make a noise. Thomas threw his bike down and ran to Henry. He turned him over.
Henry’s face was covered in blood. Covered. Thomas had never seen anything like it; it was like all the nosebleeds he’d ever had come at once. And when Henry opened his mouth to cry, Thomas saw that he was missing a front tooth.
‘What happened?’ is a fairly useless question to ask a crying, bleeding child. ‘How did you fall?’ is not much better. And ‘Are you okay?’ seems to just cause more tears. Finally, after bringing the failed interrogation to a close, Thomas picked up his brother and began carrying him home. He left the bikes lying on the path and just walked. His brother cried the whole way, in a variety of pitches, none of them very angelic. Thomas walked even as his arms began to burn and his white school shirt became soaked with blood. He walked even though Henry was better than him at everything. Because big brothers look out for little brothers.
Sixty seconds by bike was ten minutes walking with a load and their mum was peering nervously through the kitchen windows when Thomas turned the corner into their driveway. She came running out as soon as she saw Henry in his arms.
‘My goodness, what happened?’ Thomas held out his arms in what was supposed to be a searching gesture but instead they buckled under his brother’s weight. He and his mum caught Henry between them.
‘Honey, are you okay?’ Henry looked up at the two of them with dreamy, unfocussed eyes. No. He was not okay.
It was four o’clock by the time they arrived at the hospital. A&E was packed and they joined a long line of broken legs and bleeding hands waiting to be fixed up. They weren’t anywhere near the maternity ward but Thomas was reminded of that day, years ago, when Henry had been born. He shouldn’t have been able to remember; he had only been small himself. But there the memory was, tucked away safely in some sunken crevice in his mind. He’d never get rid of Henry apparently, and looking at him, all banged up and bleeding, Thomas wasn’t sure he wanted to. They were brothers. Whatever that meant. Primary school kids only have the dimmest idea of anything beyond their own lives, but Thomas was sure it meant something.
December. The last week before the Christmas holidays. The night of the school disco. Despite minimal enjoyment from pupils, teachers or parents, the school disco continued to run every year through some inertial force of tradition. Everyone went. That was just the way it was.
A ticket bought you entry, a digestive biscuit and a plastic cup of squash, orange or blackcurrant. The theme of this year’s bash was A Night Of Forced Social Interaction. It fit.
Thomas and Henry unlocked their bikes at quarter to five and got ready to leave. Their mum saw them off from the front step.
‘Remember your lights. Front and back.’
‘Are they fully charged?’
‘Henry, uh,’ she paused, ‘keep an eye out for each other.’
It was already getting dark by the time they set off and neither of them liked the idea of cycling home at night. It was only a couple of minutes from school to home but there were no streetlamps along the path. Anything could be lurking in those shadows, even if common sense told them it wouldn’t be. Something primal, some caveman survival instinct told them not to stay out after dark. Stay by the fire where it’s warm and safe and light, and the only shadows are those you cast yourself.
They didn’t say any of this out loud of course; to each other they were stoically brave. After all they had insisted on making their own way back. No lift from mum or dad. It had been a hard-won victory and they weren’t going to give it up. Plus they didn’t want to admit they were scared. The dark has tricked people into being afraid of it on their own.
The disco was a bust. The older kids had split themselves into two camps, boys and girls. For reasons beyond their understanding, the kids they’d played with last year now mildly terrified them. This sense of embarrassment radiated down through the years and poisoned the whole evening. Everyone felt it. Except Henry. He liked everyone and everyone liked him; he made the Year 6’s laugh. He even danced for a bit.
Thomas, for his part, leaned against a corner and watched, not quite cool enough for school. No one came over and said hello but that was all right by him. He was used to being alone. Then: ‘Thomas!’ Henry bounded over.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Nothing.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Can I have a pound for a drink?’ (Mum had given Henry the money).
‘Why don’t you just give me the lot?’
‘But mum gave it to me.’
‘It’s for both of us.’
‘She told me to look after it.’
‘I’m older.’ Henry handed it over. Being the big brother was good for something after all.
‘When do we have to leave?’ Thomas checked his watch. It was digital; Henry’s was analogue.
‘Five minutes! Can’t we stay a bit longer?’
‘No.’ Thomas’ back was hurting. It’d been a long night of leaning. ‘Say goodbye to everyone. I’ll wait for you outside.’
He didn’t wait outside. Thomas stood in the well-lit school foyer until Henry reappeared and only then did they go out together into the night. It felt safer with his little brother there. He was a small totem of sanity, dispelling the fears that wake up whenever the lights go out. Most of them anyway.
They unlocked their bikes and walked them towards the path home. They could’ve ridden but they didn’t. They just kept on walking slowly, the bike-wheels spinning, scraping against the tarmac. Neither of them said anything; neither of them really knew why there were doing it. It was some childish protection, like when you wrap a blanket around yourself to keep the nightmares out. The dark won’t get you if you’re slow or weak or if you close your eyes, that’s how the thinking goes. It likes to toy with you first.
It took them ten minutes to cross the parking lot and when, at last, they reached the start of the path, they stopped and waited, waited, waited for some sort of reprieve, a pardon from High Command. None came.
‘I don’t want to go down there.’ Thomas peered into the gloom. The path was a black hole.
‘Well it’s the only way home, so if you’re not coming—’
‘Don’t leave me!’ It was an animal cry of fear. Thomas felt Henry’s fingernails digging into his arm and the blood pulsing in his fingertips. He was shit scared.
‘We’ll go together.’
They edged into the dark. Slowly, slowly. Never letting each other get more than a few steps away. All Thomas could see was the small circle of red shining from Henry’s bicycle light. All he could hear was the rustle of leaves beneath their tyres, the thundering of blood in his head. And a thousand thousand terrors holding their breath.
He’d let Henry go ahead. Pushed him more like. Partly because he wanted to keep an eye on him but mainly because he didn’t want to face the dark first. He was shit scared too. In front of him the bicycle light shone. A single red eye pulsing in the night, creeping slowly forwards—
It shot ahead, racing along, leaving him behind. Henry must have started riding. Instantly Thomas felt a hot rush behind him as the night gave chase. He leapt onto his bicycle and set off after the red eye, desperately trying to catch up with it. He felt fear bubble up from deep in his stomach, sticky and acrid and overwhelming. It filled his mouth and crushed his throat. Thomas rode.
The wind rushed through his hair and the cold pulled tears from the corners of his eyes, crawling across his face to fall behind him into the void. Thomas rode.
He was up out of the saddle, his legs burning as they pumped, pumped, pumped the pedals. He didn’t let himself sit down, not even when his legs began to twitch and tremble. Thomas rode.
He caught a quick glance of his watch as he lifted his hand to wipe his brow: seven oh-one. But that couldn’t be right. This path only took a minute; they’d timed it. And with fear driving him surely it would take less than that. Thomas’ heart seemed to get heavier and sink inside his chest. Hot pins pricked the skin of his arms and neck. The watch didn’t lie: Thomas and Henry had been cycling hard for five minutes now and they still hadn’t reached the end of the path.
‘Henry!’, he called ahead to the red light in front of him, ‘Henry, stop!’ The light didn’t stop. ‘Henry!’ No reply.
That’s when some dim corner of Thomas’ brain noticed something strange: Henry was an excellent cyclist, far better than him, faster, but this light was travelling at the exact same speed as Thomas. He slowed down and the light slowed with him. He sped up and the light shot off again. Always the same distance between them. Always moving.
Thomas came to a stop and let his bike clatter to the ground at his feet. Looking down, he couldn’t see it; he must’ve forgotten to charge his lights. The darkness around him was complete, without seams or rivets of light. He was in outer space, under the light of a distant solitary sun. He was deep in the ocean, watched by a single red eye.
The red light stopped as well and waited. A few metres away: five steps. Thomas ran forward.
The light moved away. No matter how fast or far he ran, the light stayed the same distance from him. Thomas returned to his bike, feeling for it with his feet, never turning away from the light. It followed.
Thomas reached out into the darkness and tried to touch the trees that lined the path. There was nothing there. He got down onto his knees, never taking his eyes from the unblinking red light, and felt the ground. The surface was cold and smooth like metal beneath his hand. It was slightly slick with moisture, almost as if the floor had been sweating, and it seemed to pulse every few seconds. Thomas didn’t know where he was but it wasn’t the path to home.
‘Henry!’ he cried. His voice sounded stretched and tight. He’d barely got the first syllable out and his voice had cracked on the second. His arms were shaking. Thomas tried to hold them still but his hands were shaking too. The time on his watch read seven ten. They were supposed to have been home fifteen minutes ago. Mum would get worried and come down the path looking for them. She’d find him and Henry and take them back to the house and they’d all laugh about how scared they’d been. But Thomas wasn’t on the path any more. Thomas wasn’t anywhere.
‘Henry!’ Big brothers look out for little brothers. That’s the way it’s supposed to be; that’s the way it has to be. He couldn’t just leave Henry; he had to find him; he had to bring him home. He took a deep breath and held it for what seemed like a normal amount of time. He was having trouble breathing; he kept forgetting to open his mouth.
Thomas took a step forward. The light retreated. It stared out at him from the gloom, piercingly bright. Whenever he turned his head, Thomas saw small green dots projected onto the darkness—afterglows. He prepared himself to take another step.
Then the light began to move towards him. Thomas scrambled backwards, tripping over his bicycle and falling hard onto the strange ground. It was buzzing now against his cheek. He didn’t feel the pain.
Thomas pulled his bike upright and leapt onto it. His feet pumped the pedals and he raced in the vague direction of the school. All that mattered was getting away from that red eye. It was an LED light; it had always been cool to the touch before, but now Thomas felt a white heat on the back of his neck. He felt each individual hair pull against his skin and bolts of cold shoot down his spine. His whole body shook. He wasn’t sure how long he rode for. One minute, five minutes, ten. Enough of his mind never freed itself from fear to think about it. All he knew, from ancient hidden memory, from before the cavemen, from before man, all he knew was that he had to get away.
At last he emerged from the darkness of the path and into the light of the streetlamps that lined the car park. He jumped off his bike and felt that the ground was ground once again. He tried to get up but his legs wouldn’t let him. His watch read eight fifty-four. He and Henry had left the disco two hours ago. Henry!
Thomas looked back towards the path. The red light waited there, inside the darkness. The glow seemed duller than it had before. Then it moved away, back along the path and then presumably onto the not-path. Its light got fainter and fainter until eventually the night swallowed it and it couldn’t be seen at all. Thomas watched it go.
He got shakily to his feet and looked around. A crowd of people stood near the entrance of the school, where he’d waited while Henry had said his goodbyes. Thomas recognised Mr Peachley, the Year 2 teacher, and Mrs King, the head. Mum and Dad were right in the centre, talking to a police officer. Blue lights reflected off the glass of the doorway. Thomas walked slowly up towards them, tripping up on the kerb as he went. He noticed that his shoelaces were untied and his trousers were wet. He caught his Mum’s eye.
‘Oh my goodness, Thomas! My boy, my baby boy!’ She rushed over to him and clutched him to her chest. Her cardigan was wet too. ‘Are you okay? What happened?’ She held him at arms’ length. ‘Where’s Henry?’
‘He’s…he’s…’ Thomas burst into tears. Big sobs started in his head and rolled all through his body. He hadn’t cried the whole time he’d been on the path. The police officer stepped forward. He had a round face and tired eyes.
‘Now this is very important, son. You have to tell us where your brother is.’
‘Go on, Thomas.’
He caught a breath between sobs. ‘…lost.’
There was a stillness. A moment of silence. Thomas’ Mum let go of him.
‘That’s okay. We’ll find him, don’t you worry. Everything’s going to be okay.’ She straightened up. ‘I think we need to get him home.’ His Mum led him towards the car. Thomas remembered how important it had seemed that they were allowed to ride home on their own. As he went, the eyes of the crowd followed him, coldly.
Henry Sr. wasn’t looking at him at all. Thomas knew what it was; he felt it himself. He’d failed. The one thing he had to do; the one time Henry had needed him and he’d let everyone down.
Thomas sniffed as he sat down in the backseat. Big brothers are supposed to look out for little brothers.