As soon as I learned how, my folks forced me to read to my brother. They said it was the least I could do, since I came out okay and he didn’t. My mother thought that in the womb, I ate his share of food on purpose, but how could I have? Everything was red and dark and sounded like whale songs, and I came out hairless and toothless. Elijah slipped out right after me, a small mélange of soft bones and half-formed physiology. Light passed through him like a marmalade. One of the nurses threw up. My mom screamed into the night. A rational person wouldn’t blame me for this, but my mother did. She said I had starved him.
Growing up, all I did was read to Elijah. That’s it. I didn’t go outside, I couldn’t make friends, and I had no other chores. My parents said it gave him strength. They said that books contained souls and that Elijah needed more help than others.
When I was five, they hired an artist to paint what Elijah would have looked like. The man intimidated me, but his gaze was comforting. It was like he knew he’d stepped into a circus tent. There was compassion there that I hadn’t felt before. That night, my dad nailed a picture frame above my bed. It was a small drawing of a boy in pajamas. “This is your brother,” he said, “Now get to it.”
And so, I did. I sat in my bed and read aloud to the charcoal eyes and pastel cheeks looking down at me from my wall. I knew this was insane, but there were some stormy nights where I could’ve sworn Elijah was really there, his image humming against the drywall like a million particles waiting to release, a starburst of entropy and new flesh. Would he become smarter with every book I read to him? Or was he just a black hole?
At seventeen I started reading books I found on stoops. Beat up paperbacks of poetry, books about Italian wars, and giant Russian tomes with tiny print and translucent pages made their way into the curriculum. The artist came on my birthday with sunken eyes and a pack of Marlboro Reds. Elijah was a teenager like me now, all tall and lanky with large hands, but still he had a baby’s cherubic face. He looked cramped on the canvas as if he’d soon fold into himself, like a dead spider. Still, my parents were elated. They hurried him upstairs to my bedroom and left me with the artist. He rubbed his eyes and packed up his tools.
“You alright here, kid?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“How many books do you think you’ve read by now?”
“Here’s some advice. Go to college really far away and don’t visit until you have to.”
I took his advice, and I went to a tiny college on the coast of Maine. Every holiday came, and every holiday I passed on going home. I couch surfed. I slept at work. And through all of it I still read everything I could get my hands on. Trying not to read aloud became a burden. I had to get used to the voice in my head. My mother would call, screaming and crying that Elijah was starving. My father would call with threats. I cut them out of my life every way I could.
Shortly, I met a woman and got married. She didn’t want kids either. We had a library with floor to ceiling books, all of them well-worn and dog-eared. Drunk on dark tequila one night, I told her everything, and she nodded and held me. I cried in her arms as a storm off the Atlantic battered our home.
On my 30th birthday the artist called.
He told me he had arrived that day to do his yearly painting of Elijah, and he found my parents dead, smeared across the living room carpet. His voice was shaky. He said the previous painting, the painting of Elijah at twenty-nine was on the ground. He said something was in the house.
I got there the next morning. My wife sat in the rental car. I told her to keep it running. Somehow, I already knew what was happening. I reached into the backseat and got a Jules Verne book. It was big and dense with lots of meandering facts that would distract him.
I entered the house and my parents were the way the artist had described them: smeared. The artist was there, too, pallid gray, drained of everything and folded in the corner like a terry cloth. I could hear the awkward toddling of Elijah, thirty years old, just now walking. And then I saw him, clawing onto the ceiling, moving leg over arm, sidewinding down like a trapeze artist with marmalade skin and disjointed bones and a face that the artist could never dream of.
“Tell me a story, brother,” he said, moving towards me like a lizard. Drool spilled over his misaligned teeth. In his eyes was everything I had ever read. His voice every narrator. In the veins of his spindly arms was prose beyond comprehension. He was a meat sack of broken bones, filled to the brim with words.
“Please, tell me a story,” he begged. “I’m so hungry.”
Alex Gonzalez is a horror author and WGA screenwriter. His debut novel Land Shark was published at Madness Heart Press. His screenplays are represented by Izzy Louis at Thunder Avenue and his books are represented by Lauren Bieker at FinePrint. You can find more of his works at his website alex-gonzalez.me. He’s from Florida and now lives in fear.