Brad and I did get to be like real brothers in one sense.  Because we was living together in the same house day in day out year after year, we got to know each other in ways no one else ever could.  But that didn't mean we was close.  We wasn't.  We was competitive though.  For instance, when Brad was in the eighth grade he joined the wrestling team.  About a year or so later, so did I.  After he joined the wrestling team Brad started lifting weights.  Once you'd joined the team you more or less had to, and so after I joined I started lifting too.  In order to stay on the team, Brad had to buckle down and do well at school.  I did that too – for awhile . . .

Of course, everybody thought I was trying to be just like Brad, including him.  But I wasn't.  I mean, I suppose in a way it was true enough – just not in the way that everybody thought.  They was all saying, "Brad wrestles.  Brad lifts weights.  Look at how well Brad's doing in school!  He-eey, why don't you give it a try?"  Like me turning myself into a copy of him was some kind of genius idea.  Only that wasn't what I was trying to do.  It's just that there was certain things he was into that I saw might be useful to me.  For instance, I wanted to find out what it felt like to make my muscles grow big, like I saw Brad's was doing.  I wanted to see how it felt to pin some guy to the mat, like I saw Brad do when he wrestled.  I wanted to find out how it felt to push people around, like Brad done to me when I was a kid, a kid who once upon a time really did want to be just like him.  What I wanted most was to find out how it felt to be in control.  And what I found out was, it feels good.

To be frank, I wasn't a particularly good wrestler.  Coach Williams said I lacked discipline.  That's bullshit though, I just had my own ideas on the subject was all.  For instance, I wanted to find out how you take a guy down, quick and easy.  So I learned all the correct moves and did them, just like I was told, all regulation like and according to the rules.  For awhile anyhow.  But I mean, the whole point in wrestling was to take a guy down . . . right?  I found it hard sometimes to really give a shit about how I did it.  Which didn't help me out none at meets.  I racked up alot of penalties for making illegal moves.  Kept being told I was too aggressive.  Well, fuck – like that wasn't the point?  Far as I was concerned it was.

I was finding it harder and harder as time went on to give a crap about rules – any rules.  To tell you the truth, rules irritate the hell out of me.

I stayed with wrestling for about a year, almost two years in fact.  But then I got into . . .  Well, let's just say I got into a little trouble.  Alright alright I busted a guy's nose once.  And maybe bruised one or two of his ribs – some shit like that.  Not on the mat – off.  Little punk had it coming to him though.  Even coach Williams said he deserved it, what with the way he used to mouth off to me all the time during practice sessions and then talk all kinds of shit about me behind my back.  Fuck, when we finally got into it it was only cuz the little bastard dared me to fight him.  How could I disappoint him?  I got a three-day suspension out of that.  And coach Williams said he didn't have no choice, he'd have to kick me off the team.  Ok – fine by me.  I'd learned what I wanted to know.  And proved it.

The weight lifting I never gave up though.  It made me feel too good.  Jimbo had bought Brad a set of weights and a bench for lifting – they was sitting down in the basement and when I got interested, I just helped myself to them.  Brad was a little pissed, but Jimbo and my mother made him let me.  I think they thought maybe it would help the two of us be friends, if we had something in common.  I think they thought Brad might be a "good influence" on me.  But Brad wasn't interested in nothing like that – he had his own shit to worry about I guess.  He was a good wrestler I suppose.  Good enough to get a partial scholarship to state college anyway.  He was always good at playing by the rules, at playing the game.  But he played people too – at least that's what I thought.  Like, Jimbo and even my mom couldn't get enough of him, cuz he got good grades, he was a good wrestler, he showed an interest in the family, yadda yadda.  He was their golden boy.  "Hey – it gets me where I need to go," he says to me once when I was ragging him about it.  "Yeah, great," I says to him.  "'Cept it also makes you act like a dickwad."  He just gives me a look, like, Jesus, you sure as hell are one dumb little fuck.

Uh-huh, whatever.  Like being a part of their world was what I wanted to be?  No thanks.

When he graduated from high school everyone made a big fuss over him, threw him a bunch of parties and acted like he was Mr. Wonder-of-the-World.  Jimbo even went so far as to give him a brand-new used car fresh off the lot, and then my mom gets all teary eyed the first time she sees him behind the wheel.  I didn't care.  Make 'em laugh, Brad – make 'em cry.  Who gives a crap.  Just go.  Just go already, that was my feeling.

"You better straighten your act out, little bro," he tells me the day he was leaving for college.

"Uh-huh.  And you better get your act out the door," I tell him back.  "Mommy and daddy're waiting for you, Brad.  Bye-bye!"  I give him a big grin and wiggle my fingers in his face.  He just looks at me and shakes his head.  Picks up the last of his bags and heads off down the hall . . .

And then there I was, standing alone in my room, listening to the sound of him climbing down the stairs, listening to him and Jimbo and my mom get into their cars.  Listening as the cars roared into life, rolled down the driveway and faded off down the street . . .

Sweet Jesus, I thought, standing there alone in the empty room listening to the silence ringing through the empty house.  This is the sound I been waiting for.  This is the fucking sound I been fucking waiting for.  The sound of freedom.

Freedom:  It not only sounded good, it felt good.  Cuz with Brad gone, it was like there wasn't nobody overshadowing my anymore.  Nobody breathing down my neck.  Nobody riding me.  Jimbo and my mom shut up about it at home, shut up about Brad and all his accomplishments, all his trophies, stopped wincing (my mother) every time they heard about my latest "failure," stopped needling me (Jimbo) about "growing up" and "showing some responsibility," like guess who did.  Best of all, there wasn't no more Brad at school.  When I came into high school Brad was a senior, and he didn't pay attention to me all that much but every time he did didn't he show himself to be the great big asshole I always knew him to be instead of the prize package Jimbo and my mother was always thinking he was.  He might not do nothing more than stop me in the hall or follow me into the restroom – or once, when I got suspended a second time for getting into a fight, bawl me out in front of a whole busload of people – but one way or another he was always finding a reason to get up in my face, telling me I better straighten my act out and stop acting like such a jerk all the time, yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .  It pissed me off.  I mean, I didn't really give a fuck, but then neither did he about me not giving a fuck.  Result – him talking to me that way was like getting my nose rubbed in shit.  Annoying as hell and there wasn't nothing I could do about it.  He was too much bigger than I was.  At least in those days he was . . .

But hell, once he was gone, things started going great.  I had all the space I wanted.  I had the space to like, focus – no distractions.  I started hitting the weights hard.  I dunno, it just seemed like . . . like my body knew that this was my time, my time, and I started lifting with an energy and a drive I'd never felt before.  But then, it was like that with everything in my life.  Everything started fitting together.  Like for instance, when I started to bulk up – when my arms and chest started getting bigger, really bigger, so that the muscles showed even under my shirt – I noticed people starting to get out of my way at school.  I had a couple of friends, guys who was into working out and shit like me, and they was cool, but mostly all I wanted was for all the high school punks and pussies to know they'd better stay clear of me, cuz . . . well, just cuz I was me, and they'd better know enough to stay out of my way, that's all.  And guess what?  They did.  Hell, even my grades started to improve some, and I wasn't even trying.  Maybe the teachers was starting to get scared of me too.  I dunno.  Life was just going good for me for once.  It was fucking awesome.

Brad didn't come home for Thanksgiving.  He was supposed to, but from what I'd heard he'd told Jimbo something about the guys from the fraternity he'd joined wanting him to hang out with them over the break.  I don't know what they was supposed to be doing – studying maybe.  Bonding.  The fraternity was mostly wrestlers, wrestlers and other kind of athletes I guess, so maybe they was working out together, or practicing wrestling.  And boozing, probably.  Boozing and puking.  And fucking sorority chicks.  Boozing and puking and fucking sorority chicks – that sounded about right.  For all the fuck I knew.  For all the fuck I cared.  Jimbo kind of freaked though, and my mom too, Brad not being there for the first time on a holiday.  Result – Thanksgiving was basically just a slightly-more-fancy-than-usual dinner.  But I guess they figured, so long as he came home for X-mas, it'd all be ok.  They could check on him then, make sure their golden boy was still golden.

When he came home for winter break though, I thought I noticed a change in him.  I don't know if Jimbo or my mom did, but I noticed some kind of a difference in his attitude.  Only thing was, I couldn't quite make out how it was he was different.  He looked . . . I dunno.  He'd gained some weight maybe, sure.  Muscle mostly, but not all of it from what I could see.  He looked a little rougher, a little scruffier around the edges too.  Hairier maybe?  Hard to tell.  I hadn't looked at him all that close in awhile, and he'd always been a pretty hairy dude, even in high school – he took after Jimbo in that respect.  Tired?  Yeah, maybe.  There was something almost sullen about him now, sulky.  And awkward – it was like he couldn't quite figure out how to fit into his own body.  Which struck me as kind of bizarre.  I mean, he acted like he was sore at his body, in this really freaky, fucked-up kind of a way – like, he'd shrug one shoulder up, then the other one, squeeze 'em both up, let 'em drop, twist from his lower back, right, left, right, left, do some neck rolls . . .  Like any dude loosening up, right?  But I watched him once.  The look on his face, it was fucking strange.  It was like he couldn't get comfortable with himself, like he couldn't understand his body anymore.  And his mouth, screwed up tight like he was tasting something sour . . .

Weirder still, he seemed like, totally glad to see me.  When he first got home I was up in my bedroom, and he comes pounding up the stairs two, three at a time and plows right into my room – don't even knock – and as soon as he sees me he gets this big grin on his face like we was long-lost buddies or something.  Then – boom!  Before I know it he's giving me this big, hard bear hug.  Only it was too freaking hard, and it went on too freaking long, and finally I had to push him away – practically had to shove him off me in fact . . .

He didn't like that.  He tucked his head down, hitched his shoulders up and gave me a long, hard stare.  After awhile he moves his eyes down my body and then back up again, from my nikes to my baggy jeans to my grey sweatshirt with the cut-off sleeves and on up to my baseball cap, which I'd turned round backwards soon as I heard him coming into the house, I don't know why.  When he sees that one corner of his mouth tips up in a kind of a smile.  Tugging on his own baseball cap, he gives me a nod.  "Lookin' good, little bro," he says.  "So, tell me how ya been doing."  "Me?" I say, shrugging.  "How I been doing is fine – just fine."  As in, How the fuck did you think I'd be doing?  I see the corner of his mouth tip up again, and he gives me another little nod.  "Good," he says.  "Good."  Then his eyes drop, and his smile fades.  He turns away from me and just kind of slumps out of the room . . .

That sort of freaked me out a little.  I mean, this was Brad the tough guy.  Brad the winner.  Shiiit.  If things had gotten rough for him up at college somehow, if he was having trouble keeping his act together, keeping his grades up or . . . whatever, frankly I didn't really want to know.

By the time spring break rolled around he seemed a little more like himself again.  First time I seen him, even with a loose-fitting button-down shirt on I could tell he'd gotten thicker in the arms, through the shoulders and chest – he looked meatier pretty much all over, and I guessed they must've been working him hard up there, his coach, his roommates, whatever . . .

Just like I'd been working myself.

When I saw him I stuck out my hand.  That way he couldn't grab me in no bear hug again.  But he takes hold of my wrist and jerks me towards him anyway, seeming to enjoy the way he's caught me off guard.  Circling one arm loosely round my shoulder he claps me three or four times hard on the back.

"What's that shit?" I muttered, pushing back from him.

He laughed.  "What, you don't got no affection for your own family?"  I just looked at him.  "Uh-huh," he said.  "Still think you gotta take on the world, that it?  Yeah, mom told me about your getting into trouble at school again.  What's up with that shit?  I mean, I thought Paulie McKinnis was a friend of yours?"

I shrugged and stepped back, resting lightly on the balls of my feet.  Shook my arms out to get rid of the tension.  Easy, bud, I told myself.  Relax.

"So?  Wha'd'ya bloody him up for?"

I shrugged again.  "Private matter," I said.  But Brad shook his head.

"Huh-uh," he said.  "Not good enough."

"Look, he pissed me off is all," I told him.  "Not that it's any of your business."

"Pissed you off?  Riiight.  Wha'd he do?"

"Nothing.  Like I said, it ain't really none of your business, is it?"  I tried to shove my way past him but he pushed me back with his shoulder.

"You know what, little bro?  You need to figure out something to do with all that . . . aggression you got."

"Yeah?" I said, sensing a dare.  "Like what?"

He raised his hands up, palms out.  "Don't be so defensive.  All I'm saying is you need to figure out a way to channel your energy.  Get back into sports maybe.  Take up wrestling again.  I always wondered what made you give up wrestling anyway."

"Uhh, it wasn't exactly my choice," I said, just to remind him of what I'd done to that kid.

"Sure it was," he said.  "You made the choice to throw it all away."  I didn't say nothing to that.  He waited a moment, then he goes, "Aaron – I just asked you a question.  Why did you give up on wrestling?"

Jesus.  Who the fuck did he think he was – Jimbo?  My mother?  Again I tried to shove past him.  Again he tipped me back with his shoulder, pushing just a little harder this time.  My muscles tensed with frustration.  He shifted on his feet, moving over till he was standing right in front of me, legs splayed, knees slightly bent, shoulders hunched low.  Elbows in, hands up – he'd squared off in the traditional wrestler's stance.  I didn't think twice, but lowered myself automatically into the same position.  "Little turd," he growled at me.  "When I ask you a question, you answer me."  What the fuck!  I didn't say nothing for a moment, just watched him.  Then I stood up, shaking my arms out again to relieve the tension.  "Yeah, yeah," I told him.  "Yadda yadda."  He reached for me – I knocked his hand away.  I meant to leave then, but wouldn't you know, he had to go and reach for me again – and snap!  Suddenly the room's spinning and something inside me just cracks.  I spin on my heels and dive for him.  Grab him round the middle, driving my head up sharp to snap his fucking mouth shut.  And if he cut his tongue open or loosened a few teeth in the process – oh well.  Or, I thought, maybe I'd pull him in tight and flip him over my hip . . .  Whatever.

But I was out of practice.

I don't know how and I sure as hell don't know why – it happened so fast I couldn't even keep track of what was going on – but the next thing I know Brad's turned me round and grabbed my head so that my face is butted up against the side of his chest.  He's got me in a headlock.  With his other hand he cinches his arm in tight.  My fingers scrabble at him but his arm's too solid, I can't find anything to get a hold on, and he's got me clamped up against his side so hard I can't work my elbow into his belly like I want to . . .  Then he jerks up straight.  Starts walking me round in a circle, round and round and round, him pulling my head in against his side and dragging me all over the room like I'm some kind of fucking dog on a fucking leash.  "Tough guy, huh?" he says.  "That what you think you are?"  I grunt and with one fist hit him as hard as I can in the small of the back.  He snorts back a laugh.  With the other fist I try hitting him in the belly.  But there ain't no give anywhere.

Finally he lets go of me – flings me off him like I wasn't nothing, like I was just some flyweight . . .  I stumble back a few steps and stand still a minute, getting my bearings.  Twist my neck around a few times to work out the kink he's put in it.  But all the time my eyes are steady on his.  And what's Brad do?  The fucker grins at me.  He grins, and suddenly it's like that time I fought him when I was just a kid – the look on his face is so open, so pleased, so goddamned friendly, I feel my own face flame up.  Cuz I hate it when he grins at me like that.  I hate it as much now as I ever did.

I keep my eyes on his, forcing my breathing to steady.  Once I get that done, I square off again.  Drop my shoulders.  Raise my hands.  Brad's smile dims, but it don't disappear.  Then I see that the part of the smile that's left his mouth has worked its way up to his eyes.  I look straight into them.  Straight into his eyes.  They're brown, with little flecks of gold scattered through them.  Brad, the golden-eyed golden boy.  Those eyes flick up and down the length of me.  They register sarcasm.  They also register respect.  I rock lightly back and forth on my feet, shoulders lowered, hands ready . . .

"Not now, little bro," he says softly.  I make to reach for him anyway but he steps away from me.  "Not now," he says.  "I ain't got time for it now, little bro.  I got friends picking me up tonight.  I gotta go."  I drop my hands and stand up straight.  I can feel my upper lip curling with disgust.  "Chickenshit," I say, spitting the word out.  His breath catches at that, but he don't lose his cool.  Instead, he gives me a nod.  "Alright, little bro," he says.  "Tell you what.  Come this summer, I'm gonna do you a favor.  I'm gonna let you try it out on me.  We'll see what you can do.  We'll see what you're made of."  He stares hard at me while he says this, like he thinks he can freaking psyche me out or something.  Fuck that shit.  I stare right back at him.  Straight back into his eyes.  Both of us is breathing hard now.  Brad's lip is curling up, just like mine is.  If a door hadn't slammed down below, if my mom and Jimbo hadn't come home just then . . .

I turn away.  Brad calls out, "Hey, little bro!  I can't help it – I gotta go.  I got to.  But come summertime, we'll see.  Come summertime –"

"Summertime?" I growl.  "What's wrong with now?"

"I'm busy now," he says.  And suddenly it's just like it's always been.  Him going off with his friends, and me tagging behind.  Suddenly I don't even want to look at him anymore.  I just want to leave.

So I do.  And you know what?  It ain't even hard.

"Don't worry, little bro," he calls after me, a taunting, mocking edge creeping into his voice now.  "You still want it come summer, you'll get it alright.  You hear me, little bro?  Come summertime we'll see . . ."

Maybe he said something more after that, I don't know.  I don't know.

I slammed my bedroom door behind me.  I was already gone.