My Brother’s Keeper

📅 Published on January 26, 2021

“My Brother’s Keeper”

Written by Ryan Harville
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 10.00/10. From 4 votes.
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This isn’t a story.

This is the truth, and I’m recordin’ it all so I never forget. There’s parts I’d like to forget. Hell, most of it. But I can’t let that happen, because then I’d lose the good parts too. And those are worth holding on to.

My father was dying, and had been dying for years. There’s some specifics in there but mostly he was just too goddamn old. He was bedridden by the time he was ninety-one and stayed that way. I thought he’d die a decade ago when he’d had a scare with his heart but the old bastard kept on keeping on. We…we didn’t talk much those last few years. We never had what you’d call a good relationship, he was already past middle-age by the time me and my brothers were born, and we just never really got close to each other. Just too much time between us.

So, it was a shock when my phone started chirping away and his number popped up on the screen. I was an hour outside Knoxville, heading back home after dropping off a haul. I reached over and pressed the green icon, letting the hands-free system do its magic.

At first there was nothing, just the sound of his heavy breathing, neither of us wanting to speak first.

I cleared my throat. “Hello?”

“Hello…Eli.” His voice was raspy but still had some strength behind it.

“Hey, Dad. Is everything alright?”

“I need you to come home, as soon as possible.”

“Dad, listen, I’ve been on the road for ten hours already. I need some sleep–”

“It’s almost time, Eli. I ain’t got too much longer, and I need to see you before I’m done. Both of y’all.”

I wanted to laugh but kept it to myself. Mostly. “Both of us? No disrespect intended here, but there ain’t no way in hell Luke is coming home. You know that, right?”

“He’ll come. He’s always listened to you. Convince him.”

“I ain’t even seen Luke in, what? Three, four years? Now you just want me to call him out of blue?”

“He will listen. I’ll be waiting. Don’t…don’t let me down, son.”

The line went dead and he was gone.

“Shit,” I said to myself. And that just about summed the situation up.

* * * * * *

It was about seven in the evening by the time I got back to my place, tired as shit and needing a bath and a beer in any order.

I parked my rig along the side of the house and stepped out into the knife-blade chill of the January air.

I held my phone up in front of me, just staring at it, not wanting to dial the number. There was something blocking me from doing it, keeping my mind from making my hand move. Maybe it was the time between calls, maybe just embarrassment for not keeping in touch like family should. I don’t know, but it was hard as hell to make it happen. I finally convinced my shaky fingers to cooperate.

It rang once then twice, and by the third I was hoping he wouldn’t answer, but he did.

“Yeah?” Luke said, his voice thick with sleep. “Who is it?”

“It’s me,” I said. “Eli.”

He coughed. “Eli! Hey, man. What’s happenin’?”

“Well, I got a call–”

“How’s uh, Jeanine? Jennie?”

“The divorce was final two years ago.”

“Oh…oh, shit. Sorry, man.”

“Not your fault. I wasn’t around to tell you. You got a minute?”

“This about the old man?” he said, a sharp edge creeping into his voice. “He finally slipped off this mortal coil?”

“Not yet, but he says it’s happening soon. He wants us, both of us, to come tonight.”

There came the unmistakable click of a lighter, and a sharp inhale as Luke took a drag on a cigarette.

“Well,” he said. “Tonight’s not so good for me. I’ve got a soundcheck in a little bit. There’s even talk of a scout bein’ there for the show. And I got a lady friend here who just might want me to hang around a bit.”

I sighed. “It’s Nashville, Luke. There’s always a scout around somewhere lookin’ for guys to sign their souls away.”

“Maybe. But I don’t see any reason why I should drop everything I’m doin’ and ride off into the sunset.”

“Because Dad–”

“Fuck. Him,” Luke spat. “I haven’t spoken a word to him in years and I don’t plan to now.”

An idea started to form. “Well, maybe that’s the problem right there.”


“It’s your chance. Tell the old bastard how you feel. Send him to his grave with an earful.”

There was a long silence.

“Fuck it. Not like I’m gonna make it into the will anyway. Okay, I’ll go, but you’re gonna have to give me a ride. Had to sell my car awhile back.”

“Fine. I can probably be there by ten, and that gets us back in Alabama around midnight. Text me your address and I’ll call when I get close.”



“You think this is really it? You think he’s finally givin’ up the ghost?”

Dad’s voice wound through my mind.

“Yeah. I think this is it.”

I hung up, secured my rig, and jumped into my pickup, the dread of the miles ahead weighing on me.

* * * * * *

Hours later, I pulled up to a slightly worse for wear duplex outside Nashville. The door opened as soon as I stopped, and out strode Luke, a bag slung over his shoulder. The years had been kind to my baby brother. He still had a head full of long, dark hair, and a beard of stubble that lent some authenticity to his whole starving artist thing. Just lookin’ at the beautiful young lady waving to him from the doorway made me too aware of the differences between me and Luke. Everybody had always been attracted to Luke, and I ain’t talking about just physically. Folks were just drawn to him like iron filings on a magnet. He just had one of those faces.

Me, on the other hand. I mean, I don’t think I’m no slouch or anything but I was built for labor, like I was made to plow fields and lift heavy shit, you know? There’s a reason why I was a linebacker in high school and Luke took piano lessons, guitar lessons, and God knows what else. I don’t even remember at this point.

I got out and stood by the truck, unsure of what to do, but Luke made the decision for us, wrapping his arms around me in a fierce hug.

He let go but kept me at arm’s length. “You look good, man. I dig the beard. You look like a redneck Viking.”

“Fuck off,” I said, smiling. “You’re just jealous you can’t grow it like this.”

He laughed. “And cover this face up? Hell no.”

“You ready?”

“No, but that ain’t gonna stop us.”

“Alright, let’s do it.”

We got in and started off.

* * * * * *

After a stop for caffeine and gas, we hit the road proper.

Luke was relaxed, but I could tell the trip was already getting to him, like the closer we got to Alabama the more it weighed on him. I could tell he wanted a smoke but didn’t ask, he knew I hated that shit.

I decided to keep the mood light. “So, how’s it been going? Anything new?”

“We dropped a new album about six months back,” he said, then sipped his Red Bull. “Even got some radio play on the first single.”

“Really? That’s great!”

“Yeah, it’s been okay. Gigs have been steady at least.”

“So, Regret No Choice is gonna be a household name soon, huh?”

He glanced at me, raising one eyebrow. “What? No, I left RNC like two years ago.”

“Oh. Well, what’s this one called?”

“Burn This Day.”

I shook my head. “Seriously, what’s with these metal bands and names that are phrases?”

I thought he’d get sullen but he surprised me by laughing.

“I don’t know, man. We all threw around names and that’s the one that stuck. I don’t even care as long as I’m on stage, you know?”

I didn’t though. I always kept my head down and kept working. Never really had the urge to be the center of attention.

I nodded, because I didn’t know, but I understood what it meant to him.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and it was hard to say. “I should’ve known that.”

“It’s cool, I ain’t got my feelings hurt or anything.”

“No, I know, it’s just…I should’ve been around more. Hell, I could’ve at least called every once in a blue moon.”

“You ain’t the only one guilty of that, you know.”

I nodded. We had an understanding. Wasn’t some huge, emotional breakthrough, but yeah, it was an understanding. Sometimes that’s all you need.

We were silent for a while, and the blacktop stretched out before us.

* * * * * *

We made small talk, time passed, and eventually the headlights hit a big green sign reading “Welcome to Sweet Home Alabama”.

Luke scoffed. “More like ‘Bitter Hell Alabama’.”

I laughed. “Yeah, I guess it can be sometimes.”

“I don’t like this, Eli.”

“I get it. I don’t really want to be doin’ this either.”

He shook his head. “I mean, it doesn’t feel right. Why couldn’t he just get on with it and die? Why drag us back here?”

I took a second before I answered. “Maybe he…I don’t know. Maybe he’s sorry for…for everything.”

“Fuck that. He ain’t sorry. And even if he was, I don’t give a shit. He could make me the sole heir to all his money and I’d still spit in his face.”

“Well, you do what you feel like you have to. I ain’t’ gonna stop you. But at least make an attempt to listen. He may genuinely want to make amends.”

Even with my eyes on the road, I could still feel Luke’s glare.

“His half-ass apology won’t bring Jake back.”

And there it was, Jake’s name dropping from Luke’s lips and landing between us like a rock on a coffin lid.

“Luke, I know that. You think I don’t know that? He was my brother too.”

He didn’t answer immediately, and when he did his voice was flat.

“I know you know,” he said. “But it’s different, man. You’re my brother, and that means a lot, but he was my twin. He was more than a brother, he was the other half of my soul.”

I felt my lips stiffen as I nodded. “I know that too. I wasn’t tryin’ to say that the old man was gonna make everything better, ‘cause he can’t. I was just saying you should keep your mind and ears open and…shit!”


“Missed our turn. Looked like it came outta nowhere. Gonna have to double back or take a side road.”

Luke laughed. “Do whichever is gonna take longer!”

“As much as I’d like to, I think it’s best we just get it over with.”

I got off at the next exit and pulled over to the shoulder of the road, then took my phone off the dash.

“Give me a sec,” I said. “Gonna check the GPS.”

I brought it up and refreshed the screen. The map was gray and blank, the only thing showing were the words “GPS unavailable”.


“What? No signal out here?”

“No, I got a signal, but the GPS ain’t picking us up.”

“What about a map?”

“In my rig, but not in here. I don’t even know how to get back on the interstate from here.”

“Damn. Ain’t you supposed to be the responsible one?”

“Supposedly,” I said. “Look, I’m gonna call the old man. I need to check in anyway, and he’s the only person I know who would know where we are.”

Luke’s mouth twisted in disgust. “Whatever, man.”

I scrolled back through my calls and hit the old man’s number. Someone picked up on the first ring.

“Harding residence,” Gerold said, his accent as thick as a hundred-year-old pine tree. He was my father’s caretaker, had been for God knows how long.

“Hey, Gerold,” I said. “It’s Eli. Dad around?”

“Mr. Harding is at rest right now.”

“Damn. We’re stuck out in–”

“‘We’? Is Luke with you?”


“Mr. Harding will be pleased. Where are you now?”

“We passed the state line a while back and I missed our exit, which is crazy ‘cause I could’ve sworn–”

“I see. So you took the next exit then.”

“Yeah, and I don’t know where to go from here. Nothing looks familiar in the dark.”

“Drive three miles south, then look for Old Forest Road on your right. Follow it and you’ll be where you need to be in no time.”

“Back at the interstate, or what?”

“I have to go, Eli. I have my nightly duties to get to. See you soon.”

The line clicked off.

“That prick just hung up on me!”

Luke laughed. “No shock there. He tell you where we need to go?”

“Yeah, I think. Gerold was as fuckin’ opaque as ever.”

“‘Opaque’, huh? Better stop using fancy words, brother, before people start thinking you’re intelligent.”

We both laughed and it felt good as hell. I pulled off the shoulder and got us back on the road.

* * * * * *

Old Forest Road emerged out of the dark tree line like it had been hiding, waiting to spring on some innocent travelers. The way was overgrown with heavy branches forming above it like an archway.

“That shit isn’t ominous at all,” Luke said.

I laughed. “Yeah, it almost looks fake. Like a movie set.”

I turned my truck onto the road, grimacing at the sound of the branches scraping and clawing over its roof. In no time we were enveloped by the dark, trees standing like sentinels along both sides of the road. We drove along in silence for a long while, the headlights only showin’ more road ahead.

Luke squirmed in his seat. “Let’s turn on some music or something. The quiet is just as bad as the dark.”

I turned the radio on and scanned through the FM stations. Nothing but static all across the board.

“I’ve got the new Gravelscalp album on my phone,” Luke offered.

I shook my head. “I don’t know what that is, but it doesn’t sound like I’d like it.”

“Biggest metal band in the world,” Luke said, talking to me like I was a recently thawed caveman. “Well, turn it over to AM. That’s probably more your speed anyway.”

“I’m only four years older than you, asshole.”

“Yeah, but you act like it’s forty.”

I sighed and switched the dial over to AM.

A man’s voice came over the airwaves.

“‘But Samuel replied: ‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’ So, you see brothers, the Lord does delight in sacrifice, does love oily smoke that billows from the burning fat of rams, surely. He loves the hot sizzle of the boiling blood. But He loves something else more: obedience.”

“Shoulda known,” I said, reaching to turn it off. “Only thing on AM this time of night is Bible thumpers and conspiracy nuts. And it’s usually a mix of both. Believe me, I’ve done enough night runs in the Bible Belt to know.”

“Leave it,” Luke said. “It’s better than quiet. And besides, these guys crack me up sometimes when they really get goin’. Does he sound familiar to you?”

“We live in the South. Everybody sounds familiar.”

The man continued. “Obedience is not slavery, brothers. Obedience is pure joy. It’s giving of yourself fully to the will of God, so you don’t have to worry anymore. Your pain will be inconsequential. You’ll feel nothing but the need to serve, and in that you will find unbridled happiness.”

“Horseshit,” I said. “Sounds like bowing down to a dictator.”

Luke laughed. “You lost your faith, Eli? I wouldn’t have guessed that in a million years.”

I shrugged. “You know as well as I do, growin’ up here you either follow along ‘cause everybody else is, or you open your eyes to the truth.”

“What’s the truth?”

“That if there is a God he would hate these hypocritical assholes.”

The radio squealed with a blast of static and the man’s voice followed.

“‘The Lord detests lying lips’. Do you understand, brothers? Lies stain your lips like a whore’s rouge.”

“This guy is jumping all over the place,” Luke said.

The man’s voice became louder, and a hymn began to play softly in the background.

“Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you.”

”Okay, ‘bout enough of that,” I said and thumbed the ‘off’ button.

Nothing happened, and the man’s voice grew.

“The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, “throw yourself down from here.’ Understand these words, brothers.”

“Not funny,” Luke said, pressing the button himself and getting the same results. “What is this shit?”

“No idea,” I said, confused as hell.

“He was quoting from ‘Luke’,” Luke said.

“Okay, so? He’s a radio preacher talking about the Bible. You got a biblical name.”

“No, something’s weird here, Eli. Turn around.”

“I can’t. It’s one lane with trees right up to the damn fenders. Why are you so spooked? It’s just some Bible-thumper, probably operating out of some church basement somewhere.”

“Just stop for a second and look at me, okay?” Luke said.

I slowed to a stop. The only sounds were the truck’s engine and that weird hymn. I looked at Luke. His face was haggard and drawn.

“I know, this’ll sound fucked up,” Luke said. “But you start talkin’ about the truth, he starts talkin’ about lies. Then he’s onto to ‘Luke’ with barely anything in between, just spoutin’ verses at us.”

“It’s not at us,” I said. “I’m sure we ain’t the only audience, even if it’s late.”

“Then why is he only callin’ the audience ‘brothers’? No, ‘sisters’, or ‘children’, or ‘people’, or even fuckin’ ‘ya’ll’?

I felt an odd turning in my guts. Not fear, exactly, but something off.

“Okay, alright, listen,” I said. “As soon as we come across a place wide enough to turn around, I’ll do it, okay?”

Luke nodded, relief softening his features. “Okay…sorry. I just don’t like it.”

I put the truck back in gear. “Yeah, me neither.”

We drove along. The radio stayed on, the wordless hymn droning on, the preacher’s voice blessedly absent.

The treeline began to thin, and the road became wider.

“You got enough room, now?” Luke asked hopefully.

I spotted something ahead of us. “Hold on a sec.”

“You said–”

“Just hold on, okay?”

There was a bright spot ahead, and within seconds the headlights were reflecting off a dotted line.

“Look, Luke,” I said. “Road. Real, honest to God asphalt. We’re through.”

He let out a shaky breath. “About damn time. Sorry for the way I was actin’ back there.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s just that I felt…Eli. Look.”

He pointed, but I’d already spied it.

The road ended at the parking lot of a church. No other roads were led to it or away from it, just the one we were on. The building was shockingly white even in the dark, and its steeple rose up and in a sharp spike from the ground, the belfry a black rectangle. If there was a cross on top then I couldn’t see it. I had no idea how big or small it was. There were no wings or additions to either side, so any length it had was in the back. Two columns held up an awning, and between them was a set of red doors.

A simple wooden sign stood in the grass to the left of the door.

New Jerusalem Church of God, it read.

“‘The devil led him to Jerusalem,’” Luke whispered.

A twist of anxiety circled up my spine and I snapped at him. “Knock that shit off, Luke. Don’t grasp at things that ain’t there.”

“Please, Eli. Get us out of here.”

“I am, okay? Just hold on.”

I pulled into the empty parking lot and turned around, getting us back on the road.

It was then that I knew the truth. And the truth was we were well and truly fucked.

The road we came in on petered out into dirt, then dead-ended into the woods. No opening, no trail, just a wall of trees. Like it had never been there in the first place.

I stared at the place the road should’ve been for a long while. I don’t know how long, but when I gained control of my wits my mouth was dry and sticky with old spit and Luke was shaking me by the shoulder.

“What? Sorry, I blanked for a minute there.”

“You were just starin’ at the trees and mouth-breathin’ like a damn idiot!”

I shook my head. “For a second there…for a second I couldn’t look away, like my mind kept trying to find the opening. Because it’s supposed to be there. Goddamnit, it’s supposed to be there!”

“I know, man. I know,” Luke said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

I took a deep breath then exhaled slowly. “We need to keep our heads on straight, okay?”

Luke nodded. “Yeah, I know. I’m trying.”

The hymn cut off, and the man’s voice once again floated out from the speakers.

“All are lost, brothers. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But there is an answer, a way that all who are lost can be found. Join us for service at the New Jerusalem Church of God. Join us, and all will be revealed. ‘For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light’.”

“‘Luke’ again,” Luke said. “Of course it is.”

I turned to him. “How do you remember all this shit?”

“Mom,” he said. “She read it to me a lot, before…you know.”

Having Mom and Jake brought up in the same night was jarring. I hadn’t thought about either of them in a long time. Consciously or not, I don’t know.

“I’m going to find a way out of here, Luke. I don’t know how yet, but we’re getting out of here.”

In the rearview mirror, the lights on either side of the church’s door came alive.

Luke and I both turned to look at the same time.

“Looks like somebody’s home,” he said. “Fuck.”

I faced forward, gripped the wheel, and pressed the gas. I expected the screech of rubber on asphalt but there was nothing but a few muffled clicks as the engine cut off.

“Eli,” Luke said softly. “What are you doing?”

“It ain’t me,” I said, twisting the key in the ignition with no results. I realized the truck was still in drive, so I slammed the gearshift up into park and tried again.


“It’s dead, Luke. Nothing’s happening.”

“Shit,” Luke said, hitting the dash. “Shit, shit, shit!”

We sat in the stillness for a moment, our heavy breathing the only noise.

“What are we going to do, Eli?”

“I don’t know. I just need a sec to think.”

“I…don’t think you’re going to get it. Look at the trees.”

The dual cones of the headlights lit up the tree line, and from between the branches and trunks came a fog black as death, darker than the night itself. Smoky tendrils snaked slowly across the ground, reaching up and out.

The headlights began to dim.

“We gotta go,” I said.

“What? Where?!”

“This shit ain’t just in front of us! Look around, it’s coming from all sides!”

“So, what, the church?! Fuck that! No fucking away!”

“I don’t see another option here, Luke! It’s the only goddamn light out here! Come on!”

I pushed open the truck door and jumped out.

Luke didn’t move.

I ran to his side and threw the door open. “Come on, Luke!”

Luke still stared forward, shaking his head. The headlights were almost gone.

“Luke, get out of the goddamn truck or I’ll pull you out and carry you!”

He got out, his jaw clenched and eyes wide. The ink-black fog had reached the truck’s bumper.

“Let’s go!” I cried and pulled him by his jacket sleeve.

Then we were running, darkness circling around us, leaking into the open air.

I knew I could run faster, but I wouldn’t leave him. I kept his pace, giving him a push when he faltered.

“Almost there!” I said between labored breaths.

The black was reaching around the corners of the church like crawling vines.

The red door loomed ahead.

My thoughts were pounding as much as my heart. A constant rhythm of almost-almost-almost.

Luke tripped, going down hard, his head connecting with the concrete with a sickening thump.

I cried out, not even words, just noise. I double-backed the few strides and grabbed him under his slack arms, heaving him up to my chest. I dragged him, pushing myself backwards as fast as I dared. The fingers of dark caressed his boots.

My back hit the door and it opened inward, our momentum sending us sprawling to the floor. I jumped up and slammed the door, then panicked as I realized Luke’s feet were in the way, covered in a shroud of black.

“No, you don’t, fucker!” I said between clenched teeth. I grabbed a handful of Luke’s jacket and pulled him out of the way.

I slammed the door, and the thread of black that had wound around Luke’s feet was cut. What remained on our side on the door solidified, becoming something like a tentacle, but bristling with fine hairs like a spider’s leg.

I was reaching, ready to grab the shit and toss it away, but before I could it loosened and shriveled, fading away as I watched.

I knelt down beside Luke, gently lifting his head from the floor. His forehead was cut on one side; blood ran slowly down into his hair.

“Luke! Come on, man, you gotta wake up.”

“What the fuck,” he muttered.

Relief warmed me like a blanket fresh outta the dryer.

“You tripped, man,” I said. “Got a nasty cut, too. Can you stand?”

He propped himself up on his elbows. “I think so. Give me a hand.”

I offered my hand, he grabbed it and I pulled him up. He was unsteady for a second and I thought he’d topple but he shook it off. I briefly worried if he had a concussion but we had more pressin’ shit to attend to.

“Look at this goddamn place,” I said. I’d expected everything to be dark or at least lit by candles, but I was wrong. The main room was flooded with light, all regular electric bulbs. The walls were the sickly cream color of old bone, the carpet a deep red. The pews looked like they were crafted from white pine, their cloth padding the same red of the carpet. It all looked new and antiseptic, like those megachurches on TV.

Luke surveyed the room. “This is probably the least welcomin’ lookin’ church I’ve ever stepped foot in.”

I nodded, chewin’ on my bottom lip, an old nervous habit. I didn’t want to say what I was thinking, that it looked like we were inside something alive, something with blood and bone. I was thinking other things too, things I didn’t want to say out loud. I snapped out of it when I heard the doors rattling.

Luke pulled on the handles but they weren’t movin’ an inch.

“No big surprise there,” he said. “What’s the plan then? Have a look around? ‘Cause if that’s what you’re thinkin’ then I gotta say that’s an awful plan.”

“Don’t see that we have a whole hell of a lot of choices. Door’s locked, and if you ain’t noticed yet, there ain’t any windows to speak of.”

He nodded slowly, then perked up and snapped his fingers. “Call the old man. See if he can’t send somebody out.”

And there it was just that quick, the thing I didn’t want to speak.

“Nah, I…Look, even if somebody could get to us, they ain’t getting through that oily shit comin’ out of the woods.”

Luke stared at me, his eyes borin’ into me like a drill. “What ain’t you sayin’, Eli? We ain’t twins, but I know your face and I know there’s something you’re keeping to yourself.”

“I don’t know, Luke. Maybe callin’ Dad ain’t the best idea.”


I thought about my next words carefully, trying my best not to sound crazy.

“There’s no way I missed our turn, Luke. I didn’t even see the exit ‘til it was in the rearview. I’ve been up and down this stretch of interstate hundreds of times.”

“Yeah, but you said yourself you were tired as shit.”

“I wasn’t asleep at the wheel, shit, I was talkin’ to you when it happened! I’ve been hauling freight of one kind or another for damn near twenty years, and it’s been about that long since I missed an exit, any exit.”

“Okay, so what’s it mean?”

“I think it was hidden,” I said. “Like the road outside is now. We can’t see it, we can’t get to it.”

He looked thoughtful. “You’re probably right.”

I took a relieved breath. “Glad to hear it. I thought you were gonna think it was crazy.”

”Shit, I ain’t about to discount anything about now, especially with fucking crawling shadows comin’ outta the woods.”

“That ain’t the worst of it though. I think we’ve been set up.”

Understanding made his eyebrows pop up. “You think the old man did this?!”

”Why else are we here, man? He calls me up, tells me to grab you and get down here as quick as shit. Then we get lost, and Gerold gives us directions right to New Bullshit Baptist Church!”

“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill the old prick,” Luke said, wringing his hands together. “If he’s alive when we get outta here, I swear I’m gonna kill him.”

“And I’d tell the cops I didn’t see shit, but first we gotta get outta here.”

“What’s his game, Eli? You’ve talked to him more than I have the past ten years.”

“Don’t know, brother. To tell the truth I’m more worried about how he’s doin’ it.”

“The old bastard’s rich,” Luke said. “You can do a lot of shit when you’re rich.”

“True,” I agreed. “Alright, let’s get movin’.”

We moved down the aisle towards the altar, our footsteps muffled by the plush carpet. The podium was white pine too, standing up on top of a small set of stairs like an obelisk. Hanging above it was a life-sized crucifix, a wooden Jesus pinned to it, his carved muscles straining, his veiny arms forever frozen in the act of pulling away from the nails. I looked into His face, anticipating the look of grand suffering there.

But carved there was a rictus grin, pushing his polished cheeks up against eyes that gleamed with dark humor.

I swallowed hard, my throat dry and painful.

A voice boomed over unseen speakers.


Luke cried out, bending over with his hands clamped tight over his ears.


That same tangled mess of a hymn started up again, trying to drown all thought outta my head.

I spied a door to our left. I tapped Luke on the shoulder and pointed the way. He nodded and rushed to it. We both went through and he slammed it shut behind us. The music became faint then was gone.

We were in some kind of hall. Wood paneling stretched down the corridor, and tube lights ran the length of the ceiling. The end was far enough away that I couldn’t see it.

I nodded to Luke, he returned the gesture and we began to walk. Every so often I’d knock on the paneling, hoping I’d get a hollow thump in return.

At some point, I broke the silence. “I feel like we’re being herded down a chute. Like sheep to slaughter.”

“That’s what I needed to hear right now,” Luke said wryly. “If you’ve got any more motivational quotes, I’m all ears.”

“Nah, I’ll leave that to the old man. He always had some shit to spout, didn’t he?”

Luke lowered his voice and added a little rasp to it. “‘Always keep one eye to tomorrow, and one eye on your back.’”

I laughed, and was a little unnerved as it echoed back at me from the hall. “Yeah, he was a big fan of that one.”

“He damn sure better watch his back now. I’m almost happy about this, you know? It finally got me off my ass, made me come down here and ruin the asshole.”

“I know, after Jake died–”

“After he went missing.”

“I mean, yeah, went missing.”

“You don’t know if he’s dead, Eli,” Luke said, his voice stern. “Nobody knows. That’s the whole fucking point. All of the old bastard’s money and resources and he didn’t do shit. He could’ve had helicopters fly over the whole goddamn state twenty-four hours a day, could’ve pulled some strings with his law enforcement buddies to canvas every square inch of woods between Gulf Shores and Huntsville. But he did nothin’. Not a damn thing but wait. And here we are, still waiting.”

I wanted to hug him, tell him everything was going to be okay, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to make either of us uncomfortable, or at least that’s what I told myself. Instead, I reached out and squeezed his shoulder. It was the best I could manage right then.

We continued our trek, and I’d knock every couple of steps.

Time passed, maybe ten minutes or so, and I was finally rewarded as one of my knocks reverberated behind the wall.

“Holy shit!” Luke said. “You were right! How’d you know?”

I shrugged, then ran my hands over the spot. “I didn’t, really. Just hoped. Figured we’ve been walking for half an hour with no goddamn door in sight that there may be more to this. Here, you grab the edge up high and I’ll get low. Count to three and start pullin’.”

We got into position, fingers dug into the slim crease where one wood panel met another.

“One, two, three!

The panel came off so easily that we both fell on our asses.

A cold breeze came out of the dark within, washing over us and making my skin break out into goosebumps.

“You think it leads underground or something?” Luke said, standing slowly, one hand on the wall for balance.

I edged closer and peered in. “Can’t tell. I think there’s a slope but it’s dark as shit.”

“I don’t think we should be traipsing around down there,” Luke said. “But I also don’t know what the hell else we’re gonna do either.”

”We just take it slow and easy,” I said, then trailed off.

A sound was comin’ up from below.

“What the hell?” Luke muttered. “Sounds like footsteps.”

“Too fast,” I said, taking a step back. “Something’s runnin’.”

The sounds soon joined up with tremors, shaking the floor beneath our feet. The rows of tube lights overhead began to blink in and out with each shake, the intervals between light and dark getting shorter and shorter.

“Get back!” I cried and shoved Luke as far back as I could.

The small whole we’d made shattered into a hail of splintered wood as the thing busted through it.

It struck me full in the chest and drove me into the opposite wall and I could feel the paneling there crack with our weight. I only got glimpses of what it was as the lights cycled off and on, creating bursts like lightning. My fingers scrabbled over its knobby skin as I searched for somewhere to grab and push the thing away from me. Its breath was in my face as it growled, cold and wet, leaving droplets I could feel running into my beard.

I managed to find what I thought to be its neck and slid my hand beneath its chin, then pushed its face away from mine with a cry.

The lights flashed and I was pushing against my mother’s chin, her skin pale. The bruise around her neck from the noose she’d used was a livid purple in the fluorescent light.

I screamed and the blessed dark washed over us again.

I was pressed back even further as Luke jumped onto its back.

“Let him go, motherfucker!” he cried. The weight pushing me against the wall lessened as Luke steered the thing away from me.

The lights flashed and Luke had both his arms around Jake’s neck, their near-identical faces almost touching.

The hall went dark again. The thing roared and I heard Luke hit the wall. I grabbed for him and my hands brushed his jacket. I lunged forward and got two handfuls and pulled.

I hadn’t realized where exactly we were until we were tumbling down the steep incline inside the tunnel. I tried to shield Luke as best I could, wrapping my arms and legs around him as we fell. That’s all I remember before I hit my head and my lights went out.

* * * * * *

When I woke up, I was stiff, sore, and sitting upright. I shook my head to clear it which was a god-awful dumb thing to do. It felt like my brain was loose and slamming against the sides of my skull. I slowly opened my eyes.

I was sitting in a chair, my hands tied behind my back with what felt like some kind of soft cloth. The room around me was large and from what I could tell was shaped like an octagon. It was the same bone color as the church above, but carved deep into the wood were shapes and markings that made my eyes water to look at. One section was cut off from the rest by a curtain.

“Time to wake up,” a voice said from over my shoulder.

“Where’s my brother?” I slurred as the man walked in front of me.

“Right here,” he said and laughed.

I looked up at him, and was about to call him Luke but realized that was wrong.

It was Jake. He was the mirror image of Luke, true, but you had to know where to look. The two freckles under his left eye, the tiny scar on his bottom lip where he fell on a toy chest when we were kids. It was him, no question.

“Jake? What…what are you doing here?”

“Ah, you know, Eli! A little bit of this, a little of that,” he said with a grin. “Better question: what are you doing here?”

I tried to get my muddled thoughts together but couldn’t quite make it.

I answered honestly. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I’m not surprised. I’d blame it on the fact that you were always simple, but to be quite honest with you, the situation is definitely a tad complicated.”

I turned my head away from him, and spotted Luke lying on the floor.

“Luke!” I cried. “Luke!”

Luke stirred and opened his eyes, at first just a little then wider and wider as he saw Jake.

“What the fuck?” he said softly, and shook his head. “Jake? Jesus Christ, Eli, I’m hallucinating.”

Jake walked over and knelt beside him. “Afraid not, brother. I’m very real.”

Luke’s face changed, and it broke my heart to watch. His expression shifted from surprise and hope to outright fear within seconds. He pushed himself away, cringing against the wall.

“Eli,” he said. “This ain’t Jake, Eli.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I said.

“I don’t know,” Luke said, tears welling up in his eyes. “But that ain’t Jake.”

Jake sighed. “You know, if you could’ve just believed for a few goddamned minutes it would’ve made all this a lot easier. Now we’re going to have to bind you up, too.”

“Don’t bother,” Gerold said, stepping from behind the curtain, his slick, silver hair gleaming in the light. “I don’t have it in me to bind another one. He’ll behave. Won’t you, Luke?”

Gerold drew the curtain back, the metal hooks squealing against the rod.

And there, laid up in a hospital bed, was my father. Tubes and wires hung between him and the machines keeping him alive. The vital signs monitor cast a greenish tint over his face, making him look worse than he already did. His small, dark eyes watched me.

“I knew it,” I said. “I goddamn knew it.”

The old man slowly removed the breathing mask from his face. “You’ve come home. To serve…your father, and…our god.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jake said, flashing too-white teeth.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, I always wondered which was gonna go first, your mind or your body, but I guess this answers that.”

“You don’t believe your dear old dad?” Jake said with a pout. “Here, let me show you something.”

He was fast. So fast I didn’t see him move. One second he was in the middle of the room and the next he was in front of me with his hands on either side of my face. He locked his eyes onto mine and I…I went away.

The room was gone, and I was nowhere, and it was dark.

Jake’s voice surrounded me.

“Look around, Eli. This is outside. Outside of time, outside everything. This is home. My home. Do you want a tour? Of course, you do!”

I spun, or at least it felt like spinnin’. Nothing was holding me, no gravity pinning me to anything. I was just floating in a black sea of nothing, its waves lapping against some unseen object.

“See here? This is what you may call a wall, or a barrier, or anything else the pounds of salt and fat between your ears can come up with. But if you just give it a little push…”

The blackness opened and the light of ten thousand fires flooded in. I screamed at the shock of it, then stopped as I looked at what lay beyond the threshold.

The land was the no-color of ash, the sky a baleful orange. Every surface was covered with people, vast crowds as far as I could see. Some walked in circles staring at nothing, making swirling patterns in the multitude. A woman walked by muttering questions I couldn’t hear before a group leapt from the rest of the crowd and tore her apart with their nails and teeth and fists. Her blood seeped into the ash and was gone. I could see the bigger picture now, the random violence that erupted in clusters all over the land. Screams and curses rose up in a choir and I tried to shut my eyes against it but I didn’t have eyes in that place.

“You know what their problem is?” Jake said. “Boredom. Absolute boredom. It breeds frustration, and they kill each other over and over again just to feel something for a few brief moments. Even the excruciating process of being remade doesn’t deter them. But even they have it better than me.”

The threshold collapsed, the dark retreated, and I was back in the room in front of Jake, sweating, and sucking in deep breaths like I’d been drowning.

“See,” he continued. “At least they have something. Wailing and gnashing their teeth and all that. But you saw what was in my home. Nothing. Always nothing. And that is exactly why we’re all here.”

“Was that…was that Hell?” I asked. It was all I could say.

“You want the truth?” Jake said. “I will absolutely tell you the one hundred percent truth, but I promise you’re not going to like the answer.”

I nodded, numb and spent.

“Simple answer: no,” he said with a lurid smile. “What you call Hell is much, much worse.”

“Enough,” my father hissed. “Let’s get on with it.”

“On with what? Tell me!” I cried. “Don’t you think I deserve that much, you prick?!”

The old man sighed. “Out of the three of you, you have been the most dutiful. Very well, then. Do you know how old I am?”

I thought back. “Ninety-three.”

“No, son,” he said. “I’m nearly three hundred years old, though I forget the exact number.”

“What the fuck are you talkin’ about?”

“The first time I was a young man I made our fortune in the slave trade. I met many…interesting people, from all over the world. One of which introduced me to our smiling friend here. A deal was struck. He gets to stay here in human form, and I get to live for a very long time.”

I didn’t want to believe a word of it, but I did. The things I’d already seen… Yeah, I believed him.

The old man continued. “Every time I reach middle age, I marry. It’s usually quite easy with my wealth. A ritual is performed, the wife becomes pregnant, and I have a firstborn son. Then eventually twins. It has to be twins. It keeps me and our friend here connected. I’ve occasionally entertained the idea of having daughters, but if it’s one thing my long life has taught me, it’s that it’s much harder living as a woman. The firstborn – you, Eli – is the protector. Strong and hardy, to watch over your brothers, and to serve me.”

“So, you… what? Grew me?” I said. “Knowing exactly how I’d turn out?”

“Yes, as I said, as a protector. And when we force you from your body, it will become Gerold’s vessel, so that he may continue to serve. Luke is my vessel. I will leave this frail flesh and live on in his body and identity. And I assume you can guess what becomes of the other vessel.”

The thing that was not Jake winked at me.

Luke spoke up. “And what if we say no?”

Dad’s lips spread into a tired grin. “It doesn’t matter what you want. You were born to serve, then pushed through the crucible, made malleable and weak.”

“Your whole production here was to make us weak?” I said, shaking my head. “Untie me and let’s see how weak I am.”

“Spoken like a protector,” Dad said. “Which is exactly why you’re bound.”

“Mr. Harding, sir,” Gerold said, trying to keep his voice low. “We really need to proceed.”

The old man spoke the Jake-thing’s name and I shuddered.

“Armaros,” he said. “It is time.”

Armaros stood before me again. “It’s not so bad, really. One second you’ll be here, and the next you’ll be somewhere else. Who can say where, really? But I can say with absolute surety that I don’t give a shit.”

He held my face again, and I felt myself pulling away to…well, somewhere else. Things began to go dark like before but this time it was different. It felt final, and I knew it was over. I got tunnel vision as the dark ate at the edges of my sight.

Then the old man cried out.

“No! Don’t touch them!”

Right before my vision gave out I watched as Luke barreled into Aramos. With the connection broken, I was returning to as close to normal as I was gonna get in that godforsaken place.

Luke was on top of the bastard wearing Jake’s skin, both with their hands splayed on either side of each other’s faces. There wasn’t lightning or fire or any other supernatural light shows but something was happening between them. They were stock-still, as motionless as marble statues.

Gerold ran toward them, arms stretched out. He placed his hands between the two, like he was gonna pull them apart, and it was the last thing the uppity prick ever did. He fell back, convulsing but still on his feet. Blood ran from his eyes, his ears, his mouth. He sprayed the shit everywhere as he screamed. I didn’t look away as his skin peeled back and shriveled like jerky, and I still kept watching as pieces of him rained down to the carpet.

And as the last of him tumbled down, whatever was holding my hands together loosened and fell away.

I bolted upright, every instinct tellin’ me to get to Luke, but one look at what was left of Gerold told me that may not be the best idea.

I walked towards my father on numb feet.

“Eli,” he said. “Help me, and you can take Gerold’s place by my side. We’ll live forever. I’ll show you wonders, tell you all things I couldn’t over the years.”

I reached his bedside. “You know, I’m about goddamn sick of you talking. Always talking. Always twisting things to get your way.”

“Whatever you want,” he said. “It can be yours. Just say it.”

I tugged the pillow out from beneath his head.

“All I want, is for you to shut the fuck up.”

I shoved the pillow over his face and pushed. He beat at my arms with his weak fists, dug his fingernails into the sleeves of my jacket. Didn’t do him any good. I kept pushin’ ‘til he stopped moving.

I stepped back in a daze, the droning beep of the vital signs monitor filling my ears.

Luke and Not-Jake hadn’t moved a muscle, locked together, reflections in a mirror.

The room began to shake, a deep thrum all around us, pulsing hard enough to knock me down. I put my hands over my head as Dad’s IV pole fell over and bounced painfully off my elbow. Cracks began to run up the walls like lightning bolts.

“Luke!” I cried. “Come on, man! Snap out of it!”

Everything began to collapse as I crawled toward them. The sound of the building shaking itself apart reached an ear-splittin’ crescendo. I squeezed my eyes shut waiting for the first slab of earth to tumble down and crush me. I waited like that ‘til I thought I’d sprain my goddamn eyelids.

But the shaking stopped, and my skull was still in one piece.

I cautiously opened my eyes.

I was lyin’ flat on the gaudy, overpriced rug in my father’s bedroom. The tall curtains were closed but slivers of the morning light still found their way through.

Luke sat cross-legged in front of me, his eyes vacant.

I propped myself up on one elbow and reached out to him. His eyes focused and he took my hand in his.

“What happened, Luke?” I said. “Just what in the hell happened?”

“I found Jake,” he said. “The real Jake. He was still in there, Eli. A prisoner in his own body for ten years. There wasn’t a lot of him left, to be honest. But he recognized me, and he helped me push that asshole out.”

My vision turned to prisms as tears welled up in my eyes.

“Where is he now?”

Luke pinched the surface of the rug and brought up some dust or ash. I couldn’t tell which.

“That’s all that’s left of his body,” Luke explained. “But he ain’t a prisoner anymore. He moved on to somewhere, I don’t know where, but he seemed happy about it.”

I squeezed his hand. “That’s good then. That’s all that matters. He’s free and happy.”

Luke nodded and his tears came as he broke into sobs. I sat up and grabbed him around the shoulders and pulled him to me.

We sat like that for a while, not talking, just being there for each other.

Just being brothers.

* * * * * *

Eventually, we got our wits about us and called the authorities about Dad. They collected his godforsaken carcass, and we both felt a hell of a lot better after that. We had a funeral a few days later. A big affair with all the trimmings. It’s the South, and you gotta keep up appearances.

Things have been pretty good since. About a week after the funeral, we got a visit from the old man’s lawyers, and guess what? Luke was the sole beneficiary in dear old Dad’s will. He got the house, the money, everything Dad was planning on keeping for after he took Luke’s body. It took hours for them to explain all the different places he had money socked away, how it was invested, and loads of other shit I don’t have the mind for. Luke says he’s gonna donate sacks full of cash to a bunch of shit Dad would hate. The NAACP, the ACLU, and some others that would really chap the bigoted bastard’s ass.

We’re gonna sell the house, and find us a couple of places close to each other. I ain’t going to let him out of my sight again. I don’t know if it’s the ritual, the urge to protect that was put in me while I was still in the womb, but I don’t think so.

He’s my family, the only one I got left, and I believe that means more than some bullshit magic spell.

I know now that there are places after this one, places after we die. I don’t know if I’ll ever see Jake again, but at least I’ll have all of this recorded to remind me, ‘cause no matter how shitty it was, I don’t want to forget.

Because for a brief moment he was there, and all of us were together again.

I love you, Jake. I couldn’t say the words while you were here, but I’m sayin’ them now.

I love you.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 4 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Ryan Harville
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Ryan Harville

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