The scenic byway of Joshua Tree National Park could take as long as three hours to reach from Charlie’s rental in Pacific Palisades. But the choice between a long drive and a stupid mistake at home was a clear one, especially since Toby had moved back in two months ago. Getting high in front of Toby was akin to sodomy in front of a priest – an indistinguishable mess of disgust and yearning that Charlie occasionally took some sadistic pleasure in. As Charlie’s convertible zipped along the route’s many cambers, Toby closed his eyes, forcing his pupils up into the back into his head as his brother’s voice sliced through the wind. The unnatural movement gave him a satisfying kind of headache.
“Can we talk?” Charlie began, his first words of the day appearing just as the sun began to set. Toby pursed his lips and nodded. It had been much longer since Toby had spoken. A month ago, Charlie would be counting the hours. But his brother’s silence didn’t mean much anymore.
“Give me somethin’. Seriously.” His eyes still closed, Toby’s chest rapidly inflated and deflated. Charlie watched it in his periphery, preoccupied with the unwanted fantasy that this familiar rib cage was like a toddler’s, delicate and brittle. How easy it would be to slam his fist into it and snap every bone in half.
“What do you want to talk about?” Toby’s frigid annunciation – constructed specifically to ward off further conversation.
Charlie paused. Hadn’t rehearsed with his wife this time. Thought it better that way.
“Uh… I think maybe it’s time for us to look at some …full-time care options. For you.”
“I feel okay,” Toby replied, too quietly to be heard.
“I feel okay,” he repeated, aggravated by the elements – the bitter, suffocating wasteland breeze. Charlie exhaled through his nose. Always kept his hair in a bun when he drove with the top down, but some strands inevitably escaped, black charcoal marks scarring his pale forehead. “Yeah.” Toby opened his eyes. The desert zipped by. A pang of claustrophobia went through him. He tucked his arms together, gaze wide and unblinking.
“I realize that, honey, but— ”
“If you want to get rid of me, that’s fine,” Toby snapped. “Just be honest about it.”
“Okay, can we not… alright, you know what, forget it, okay,” Charlie replied.
“Fine,” Toby repeated abrasively. Meant again to keep Charlie away. To hurt him with the spaces between the words. “You don’t need to force the issue, I get the hint. I can get my own place. It’s fine.”
“Tobes,” Charlie began again. “Please, seriously. This is important, don’t just… Just drop the attitude. I’m not in the mood.” Toby’s vision fixed on a rock formation, imagining what it would be like to live inside. He wanted to reach for his brother’s hand, but Charlie was driving stick. “And you’re not getting your own place. I’d be paying for it anyway, man. Come on. Don’t just… say stupid shit.” The conversation very suddenly disintegrated into the arid atmosphere. After a few beats, Charlie fell into an old rhythm. “See, I hate this… manipulative thing you do. You don’t care about being healthy, you don’t care about the fact that I care about you. You act like I’m the one who doesn’t want to be around you when you’re the one who acts like a moody…” The sight of a cactus wobbling by the side of the road brought him back to his senses before he said something a little too hurtful. “Living with me isn’t good for you, honey. I can’t take care of you like you really need it.”
“You make it sound like I’m at fault here. I’m moody and manipulative. As if you don’t say things to instigate me. I am not at fault here. You are impossible to talk to.” Vocal pace disconcertingly slow, heart darting manically around in his chest; in the same body, the parts belonged to two separate people. “I can see through you,” Toby heaved, his eyes half-closed, the holier-than-thou tone making Charlie’s leg shake with rage. He took in some air, thinking about the time he had carefully explained to their therapist that Charlie would smell blood in the water and know just where to bite. It made so much sense to him, like so many things that no one else could understand. No one else but Charlie. Squirming in his seat, he wished that he would faint.
“Okay. I’m not going to get anywhere with this, I get it. Just drop it.”
“You imagine that I’m going to let you down,” Toby narrated to no one. “Then you do everything in your power to make it happen.” Charlie shrugged at his brother’s poetics. “Stop trying to make it seem like you care about me. Making it seem like you’re this martyr for me. Just be honest, you’re tired of me. You hate me. I know it. That’s all I want is for you to say it.”
“Okay. That’s enough, Tobias,” Charlie barked, moving his hand to the top of the steering wheel and tapping on the gas. “You want me to be honest? I am tired of you. How’s that?” He swallowed the tickle in his throat. Toby caught it next – it floated into his sinuses and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“You happy now? You got what you wanted?” No wobbling cactus could help Charlie now. “When I go back to Illinois, we need to have a plan for you. If you’re not going with me. Or if you are, you can’t stay at the house, that’s just not an option.”
“No, it’s not. Don’t argue with me. If you have night terrors, you can’t just get in the bed with me and my wife like you can here. If you’re having a bad day or week, or you start having an episode, I can’t bathe you. I can’t feed you. Know what meds you need exactly when you need them – with the kids around, I can’t be attuned to you like that. There’s just no way.”
“Fuck you, Charlie.” Toby, with unintentional uncertainty. Toby, with nervous anger. Toby, the youngest one. “I hate you.”
“You don’t hate me,” Charlie replied. Resigned to the process, he let his foot fall harder on the gas. His children said that to him too, when he made them brush their teeth or put on pants. He was all too prepared when the kids came along. Unfortunately, he knew well that no one he loved could really hate him. Less than a minute went by before the next phase hit.
“Pull over,” Toby murmured. Helplessly falling into a regression, he felt his senses start to slip away. First hearing. Then sight.
“I don’t want to,” Charlie told himself. He shifted gears, feeling his brother tense up. The Joshua trees looked less gnarled to him the faster they went – less like old hands. To Toby, high speeds made it feel like they were being chased. But no matter how real the chase felt, he was too petrified to turn around and look.
“Please.” A pause. “You’re scaring me.”
“Good.” Charlie’s joints were growing stiff gripping the clutch – too young for the arthritis that plagued him, among other things. Only around twenty-five miles over the limit. He could have gone a little faster, but it wasn’t necessary. Delicate, brittle Toby very suddenly ripped his seatbelt off, put his hands over his face, and folded his torso over his legs, tucking his head into his lap. He sobbed wildly.
“You win, okay? You win, you win. I’ll do whatever you want. Please, just pull over.” As he howled through his thighs, he felt the wind on his back die down and the car roll to a stop. Another minute of hysterics as Charlie ran his fingers through his hair and re-tied his bun. Blood pressure low, pulse high – a familiar feeling. Toby hesitantly reanimated himself, fearfully peeking through damp fingers until his brother came into view. Still bright in the desert, warm watercolor clouds on a gradient cool canvas, an opaque vision of the moon to the left of Charlie’s ear. He lifted Toby’s hands from his face and wrapped his arms around him, catching the weight of his little brother’s limp body. His fingers sunk into Toby’s manicured haircut, tracing down his spine, to his scapula and around his chest. It was the wrong time to tell him he was getting too thin, to ask him if he had eaten that day. But Charlie craved it. With their heads locked in the crooks of each other’s necks, their loose, inky curls melded together as if they were conjoined. “I’m sorry!” Toby cried. “I care about being healthy. I don’t hate you, I love you so much. I’m sorry. You can put me anywhere you want, I don’t care.”
“I’m not going to just put you somewhere, I wouldn’t do that to you,” Charlie whispered, giving Toby a spiritless kiss on the side of his head. “I love you too, honey. I just want to make sure you’re getting taken care of no matter what. That’s all I want.”
“Okay,” Toby replied.
Charlie cradled him until he felt an uncomfortable surge of emotions too complicated to tolerate. He released Toby, wiping the tears away with his thumbs and giving him another kiss on the forehead.
“You okay? We’re good?”
With a silent nod, Toby sat back in his seat, still facing his brother. “I love you.” Toby nodded again as Charlie put the car back into drive and returned to the road. “Sit back, alright? Put the… put the seatbelt back over your chest. Okay?”
Toby did as he was told, then placed his hand gingerly next to Charlie’s right forearm, a manufactured accidental touch. The silence plagued them as they weaved through the park and got on the highway until one of them turned on the radio. A tentative alliance reforged, the brothers went back to the rental, ordered dinner, turned on a movie, and tried to forget. As they crawled into Charlie’s bed that night, neither pretended that the story they told themselves was true anymore, but the feeling wasn’t discussed. Charlie took a couple of pills before rocking Toby in his arms, following his little brother into an unsteady sleep. Dreaming again of Toby driving his motorcycle off the road, Toby slicing his wrists, Toby trying to hang himself in the garage; saying that the devil came to him as Charlie, as a voice no one else could hear, telling Toby that his life wasn’t worth living. Waking up still holding Toby, rocking himself. He kept in his own tears until family therapy that week when his wife insisted on joining. Seeing her face in a tiny video call square, yearning for her sanity, he wailed with his head in his hands as Toby rubbed his back. Yearning for any kind of sanity – yearning to get high – yearning for another long drive.