Gerald sits at my kitchen table, hands clasped together on it. They’re shaking despite his efforts. He didn’t make a joke about my answering the door in a nightgown at 6:30 in the morning, hasn’t made a single comment about the French press, how it’s a coffee machine for people who hate coffee. Nothing like that. I’m full of openings he hasn’t taken a jab at, and there is something. I don’t know what, and the not-knowing is a strangeness like waking up to find a stranger in my brother’s skin. He’s big, my oldest brother. Big and solid, with muscles honed in years at a second-hand auto mechanics, knuckles the veterans of dozens of bar fights.
He should be at work. Gerald always complains at how he’s working long before Some People get up, which always includes me. I set a cup of coffee beside him, make my own. He doesn’t press at the silence. He just sits, waits until I am sitting.
“Sang isn’t home?”
“He’s away on business.”
That wins a nod. “Tom, I –.” Gerald holds the coffee, not drinking it. I’m expecting the usual litany: how mom and dad decided their youngest son was the one worthy of an Education, how I work at the university while he is a grease monkey. Never mind that he works with more computers than I do most days, or that he makes more money than I do: none of that fits his narrative.
No twitch at the name I called him when we were kids. “You know how much Emma got from me in the divorce.”
“Some of it.”
He looks away, actually looks away. “I had to take other work, to make ends meet.”
“Not the gangs,” I say, almost a question. Our town isn’t big, but sometimes it feels that way. Most of the crime is the gangs striking at each other, but there’s always fallout. The melting pot boiling over, as my boss Maria called it once during our chats about town at work, since the gangs are probably more diverse than the rest of the town these days.
“Mob. Gangs. People with money,” he says quietly, almost softly, not looking up from the table. “I found plans on the Internet, adapted them. I’m good at making things. I make IEDs. Bombs,” he finally adds when I wait him out.
“Bombs,” I repeat.
His head jerks up. “Not that kind, not the terrorist – none of that shit. The gang members take each other out. Bombs in vehicles to hit each other with. Last night’s was disguised as a present. Only it ended up in the wrong car, the driver taking it out of town. The people I’d given to had the radio, they set it off remotely. I didn’t know any of that until this morning. When I – I – I got a visit. At home.”
“You made a bomb, it was put in the wrong car and set off?” A nod. “And it was traced back to you?”
“I don’t know how.” He looks up finally, setting the coffee down as his hands are shaking too badly. “There was this guy at my back door. Ordinary. Think he was white, but he looked ordinary.”
“So he was white,” slips out, before I can think about it.
“No, I mean – he fit in. Like you could have dropped him anywhere and he’d fit in. That kind of ordinary, like spies are in movies. The kind of –.” Gerald shakes his head. “He looked soft, Tom. Ordinary, like that, and then he held up some plastic, and asked questions.”
And my older brother shudders at that, literally shudders and wraps his arms about himself.
“... he was FBI?” I ask. “People died?”
“No,” says Gerald. “Least I don’t think so. If he was, all those stories about aliens and shit –. Tom, when he spoke to me, I had to answer him. Had to, like his voice was dragging truth out of me, like he was speaking truth so I didn’t have a choice in return. I’ve never heard anything like it. He just stared at me after, looking through me, into me, more than that. Turned out no one had died, but he’d been renting the vehicle and wanted answers.
“He was quiet after. Not a good quiet. Then said I’d been very lucky so far, but luck wouldn’t last. And that I should stop making these for anyone. He could have – have ordered me to. His voice was like that, but he didn’t. He just walked outside. I think he talked to someone on his phone, made some arrangement at 5:45 in the morning because he came back inside with an envelope of bills. Money, mix of new and old. More than enough to – to make up for the money I’d lose not making IEDs.”
“He paid you to stop making them?”
“He said there weren’t many problems money could solve, but it could help with a few. Be a means, but not an end. Give me space, time to think. Then the man just left. Walked out and left, and it was only then I realized he’d unlocked the doors without touching them, that they locked behind him. I don’t know what he was, what this is, but you know things, Tom.”
I almost laugh at the need, at the belief in my older brother’s voice. Only, this time, I have something, at least a little bit. “I asked Sang about North Korea a few times, about stories he’d heard. He told me he and some friends once tried to go north, through the zone between both nations. A bet and dare, really, through an area that has become like a wildlife preserve since people aren’t in it, and they ran into a Korean woman who told them to go back. He says she said it, and they had no choice at all. He didn’t expect me to believe it, but I did that study a few years back of myths in large urban centres. Almost all of them involve at least one person with a voice that can’t be ignored. The rest of it varies, and often gets really outlandish, but I think there is something to them. Or could be. I don’t know what it is, or who you ran into.”
“You don’t think I’m crazy.”
Gerald starts, almost grins at that and finally begins drinking the coffee. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t think I can help you with that,” I say, and he doesn’t make a bitter comment about my Education. He just nods, drinks the coffee, and finally leaves. I’d like to think he’ll use this money for some courses somewhere. Stop thinking a lot of things, and make his own way. But I don’t know. I can’t know.
I make myself another coffee, think about people with voices that can’t be ignored, and stories I’ve heard and never shared with Gerald at all. I decide that today is a very good day to work from home. Just in case the man with the voice is out there. Because we all have truths we never want to speak.