BROTHERS • by Hunter Stern

All around Foster are ash trees slipped through by a cold and unexpected wind that has hit Washington and turned the State Department grounds prematurely orange with a litter of ash leaves. The old building looms above the tree line and above the roof the sky makes its dreadful curve. It reminds Foster of how easily any two points on earth can be traversed.

***

“But why?” said Foster.

“We believe it’s an accident. You know their safeguards are very sketchy.”

Foster thought about the word ‘sketchy’. It was not a word that adequately described what was being described.

“How many,” said Foster.

“One, we believe.”

“Believe?”

“Satellite intelligence confirms one trajectory.”

“Where?” said Foster.

“San Francisco, we believe.”

“When?” said Foster.

“Twenty-five minutes.”

Foster was unsatisfied.

“Twenty-five minutes?” repeated Foster.

“Twenty-five minutes, we believe.”

Foster knew it was true.

***

At 5:26pm he calls his brother in San Francisco. Foster hears indecisive clicks over the phone line. He wonders if there is a phone at the other end. He knows Reese doesn’t need a phone; he can walk down the street and find someone willing to sell. And he knows Reese has pawned what he doesn’t need, sleeping on the floor, sometimes cutting patterns in it with a knife, tiny imitations of the art he had once vowed to make. Foster doesn’t know how it happened, how it progressed from perhaps a thrilling moment at a party to something terminal.

He called Reese a few years ago and they discussed the weather, the differences between Washington and San Francisco, everything that was effortless. Both grew bored with the conversation. Foster wished his brother well and Reese did the same and that was it. But, Reese continued to call and leave messages. Foster knew the San Francisco weather from the newspapers. He had become bored with his brother’s mediocrity, his lack of plans, and an addiction that Foster believed would eventually turn Reese into someone foreign: a sweaty fundamentalist or other type of anguished sectarian.

But, Foster still remembers the art contest. When Reese was fifteen he won a school art contest. The painting was a view from the edge of a beach. An iron pyramid was rising from the ocean, an Atlantis reborn as steel rods connecting an intricate system of ducts and valves that were compressed into the heart of the triangle. To Foster, it looked industrious and beautiful. Now that he is an Undersecretary, he still motivates himself by thinking of the painting. He believes in the idea of a complicated but ordered structure, a steel world that rises based on his every decision and action.

At 5:28pm the call goes through to a computerized voice. It says the number is no longer valid.

***

Foster goes through his wallet, looking for the card. He finds it and calls the number. A firm but tired voice answers.

“San Francisco Center for Recovery and Wellness. Can I help you?”

“Yes, I want to speak with Reese Mandlestein.”

Foster absolutely believes Reese will not be there.

“Who may I say is calling?”

“What?”

“Who’s calling?”

“My name is Foster Mandlestein. I’m his brother.”

“His brother.” Foster can’t tell whether the voice has grown more firm or more tired at this revelation. Either way he feels unwelcome.

“One moment. Let me see if Mr. Mandlestein is available.”

“It’s extremely important,” Foster adds.

“Please hold.”

The phone line clicks.

“Who is this?” Reese’s voice sounds flattened by a great weight. Each syllable is spoken with the effort it takes for an entire word.

“Reese, it’s Foster.”

“Foster? Foster. You never returned my calls.”

“Reese, I meant to. I am, in fact. I’m returning your calls now. I need to tell you something. It’s very important. Are you okay? Can you understand me?”

“I’m getting better. That’s what I wanted to tell you. You don’t have to worry about me. If you were worried.”

“I was. I was worried. Now listen. Is there a subway nearby or a basement? I want you to go down there and wait. Something is going to happen that will damage San Francisco. Can you get to an underground shelter? This isn’t a joke. You know who I am.”

“Yes, I know who you are. What do you want? Take the subway? I’m taking sedatives so I’m a little drowsy. But, I’m getting better. You wouldn’t believe it. I started painting again. Foster, is it really you? I mean I can’t be sure unless you tell me twice because the meds, they make me think slow. Everything has to be twice with me. One time isn’t enough. It never was.”

“Reese. Did you hear what I just said? Go down into the basement of the hospital. Or, if there’s a subway nearby, go down and stay there. Do you understand me?”

“I have this nurse. Her name is Joan. She’s very nice. I talk to her about you. I told her to find out your birthday, so I could send you a card. They let us send cards. It’s kind of a prison here. But we’ve all committed crimes. Did you get my birthday card?”

Foster mutes his phone and screams.

“Why don’t you visit me? Visit me, Foster. I have this old painting I want to give to you. It’s the one with the big pyramid in the ocean. The one where it’s sinking down under the ocean. Do you remember that one?”

The phone disconnects.

***

Later, after the accident, after Reese has been buried, Foster is walking on the beach. He looks out at the ocean. All this time he thought the pyramid was rising. But, it wasn’t. It was slowly sinking beneath the sea. He wishes Reese was alive. He wishes Reese had given him the painting. They could have unearthed this buried thing and started with it, touching it together, feeling the shapes that divided them.


Hunter Stern writes in California.


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Every Day Fiction

  • This story has a sad beauty to it that touches me. The bureaucrat and the artist is always a fascinating juxtaposition, and I believe the author has handled it with delicacy here.

    The Grammar Nazi in me has to point out that “but” is rarely followed by a comma and should not have been in any of the cases above.

  • Rose Gardener

    I think the first descriptive paragraph should be omitted. Beautiful though it is, it is not an effective hook and the story loses nothing without it being there.

  • I agree with Debi that this story has a haunting beauty. The sense of regret is overwhelming.

    The only aspect that didn’t quite work for me is the number of scenes for a short piece, but the impact of the story over-shadowed that.

    I loved the image of the pyramid and Foster’s misinterpretation.

  • Jen

    I don’t really understand the middle. Is Reese in a nursing home or a mental institution? Sorry, I think I missed something.