You wipe away the saliva forming at the corner of your little brother’s mouth. You ask him, ‘Excited about tomorrow? Excited for your birthday?’ He continues to stare at the TV.
You sit back and watch TV with him. It’s an old episode of The Simpsons; one that looks like it probably came out in the nineties judging by the quality of the animation, by the fact that Apu makes an appearance, that the humour lands – so probably it’s an episode that’s good.
Your mother walks past the TV, heads into the kitchen. You recognise your mother as your mother; you don’t know if the same can be said of your little brother. You cast a glance at him and wipe at the saliva forming at his mouth again with a fresh Kleenex, making sure to be gentle and not to apply too much pressure, him seeming not to notice anyway as he watches the yellow cartoon characters on the screen.
From the kitchen comes sound – cabinets opening and closing, the hum of the refrigerator once its door is opened. The kitchen is adorned with various food items that will be served out tomorrow: large plates of cocktail sausages and all manner of various little cheeses wrapped in clingfilm; the big family sized bags of chips and chocolates.
You don’t know if there’ll be a birthday cake present amongst the food items tomorrow. You wish that there won’t be. You wish for no party, no guests, no singing, no candles. You wish for just the bare minimum.
This time last year, you had your mind focused on your little brother’s birthday cake but for a different reason. You had it in your mind that, like you see in all those clips sent off and aired on TV programs, like all of those clips uploaded to YouTube, you decided that you would prank your little brother. You, the big brother, the prankster, you would slam his face into his birthday cake.
It would be a laugh. Something your family might find distasteful in the moment but which later would be a humorous anecdote for them to tell. That time when you drove your poor brother’s face into his birthday cake, him all covered in cream and frosting – diabolical. A real tears-rolling-down-the-cheeks-mouths-agape-with-screams event.
You’d wish that wasn’t the case, but what’s the point? The candles on that particular cake have already been blown out. It’s all on record. The court testimony, the uncle’s camcorder video, the damaged cake that had been impounded as evidence.
One year ago plus one day and you’ve strategically placed yourself behind your little brother as family and friends sing him happy birthday.
What you’re about to do you are going to do because you think it will be funny.
What you’re about to do is give your family an anecdote they won’t forget.
Your little brother leans in and blows out all nine candles on his three-layer stacked Simpsons themed birthday cake. Three layers: two of them vanilla, one chocolate. The multiple layers of cake were perfect; they would minimize the risk of harm to your little brother. No one ever died from faceplanting a cake. From choking? Sure. But there was no need for concern about that.
Once upon a time he knew how to chew without assistance, your little brother.
Your little brother, who is now content to stare at cartoons all day and drool on himself. Currently he’s witnessing a parody of another cartoon on The Simpsons – Itchy the mouse brutalising the Scratchy the cat in an over-the-top, gruesome fashion. Seeing this, here and now, if he finds it entertaining he doesn’t show it.
There and then, standing behind your little brother on that day, his birthday, him leaning back after blowing out the candles, the pale smoke rising from them and into your nostrils, him laughing, everyone clapping – all the cousins waiting to get a slice of the cake, the aunts smiling quaintly, the uncle capturing the whole thing on his camcorder – you lean in behind him and into his ear you whisper, “Happy birthday, Charlie,” and then, in one fast motion, you push your hand into the back of his head and slam his face down into the cake.
There’s the wet sound of the impact, the sound of gasps and few surprised laughs as your brothers face burrows into the cake. Louder than all of that though is your mother. She let out a loud and urgent ‘NO!’ You look at her and you see her with her eyes wide like the paper plates on which the food is served. Her hands raised and held out in the air towards you and your brother, her arms then coming back towards her so that they both cover her mouth. Your dad standing next to her, he looks like he’s seen a ghost. You think that even by you parents standards this seem like an overreaction.
“What?” You ask them. “It’s just cake,” you say as you look down.
Your little brother hasn’t moved, his face still submerged in the cake. Your hand buried in his rug of hair, you can feel the icing swelling up against the side of your palm, it encasing the entirety of your little brothers head like a mould casting. You think he’s playing it up. You think he’s milking this for all it worth – playing the victim.
Grabbing him by his shoulder’s, you say, “Alright. Come on, dude,” and pull, but he’s not budging. You grab his head and shirt collar; this time he starts to come up. “Hope you saved some for the rest of us while you were down there, you greedy little asshole,” you say as you unpeel him from the birthday cake.
Your brother’s face hangs slack, void. His shoulders slumped, arms limp. There’s an excessive amount of goop on his face; goop which you thought for a few moments was jam but wasn’t jam. This substance seemed to ooze out of your little brother’s forehead. You watch as some of it falls onto the cake and that’s when you see it: you see it sticking out in the centre of the exposed cake innards like a rocket ready for blast off. You see the metal spike that was holding the three layers of cake together.
This moment, you get to re-live it over and over again in court. The metal spike, inside a clear plastic bag, brown stains running it’s – as the medical examiner made clear – six- and half-inch length. Those stains that cover it like rust, it’s not chocolate, not jam. As much as you wish they might be, there not. Never will be.
You and everyone else know this because that camcorder your uncle had, it caught everything. You and everyone else sitting in court get to watch you lobotomize your little brother over and over again. There’s the footage of you driving your little brother’s face in his cake, complete with a zoom in. Then there’s the sequence of you pulling his head back, your little brother now with a peephole into brain caught on film at 24 frames per second. They replay the footage again and again – fast forward, rewind.
In reverse, it looks like you’re saving your little brother and everyone applauds and celebrates this. Smoke materializes in the air, forms and then divides itself into separate trails that travel towards and finally touch the tips of the nine candles, alighting them.
Make a wish.
The footage starts again, you know what’s going to happen.
Your wish doesn’t come true. It never does.
In the footage, you look at his cream, frost and blood covered face. Both his eyes have rolled up into his head, almost like he’s searching for the entry wound, the place where the goop, where his brain or whatever is leaking out. You want to do so much but you don’t do anything. Your grip begins to loosen and you little brother’s limp body begins to fall to the ground like a skyscraper that’s had the foundations blown out. You grab and hold onto him, easing his body down to the ground like God lending a hand and assisting a plane down gently onto a landing strip. There’s pandemonium going on around you. The footage shows someone shoving you away from your brother, a pool of blood gathering and growing around his head, and soon your mum and dad are learning over him. The camera at this point was set down on a counter or something, but it was still recording. It caught you standing off to the side, your eyes looking down and never leaving your little brother the whole time. After a while though, the camera shakes as someone picks it up and then the footage ends abruptly.
When the ambulance arrived and took your brother away, one of the first responders took you aside and asked you some questions. You don’t remember the questions or what you said to him. All you remember was a feeling like your head was under water, making every noise sound like it was coming from a distance. You’d perhaps describe yourself best as having paradoxically felt nothing and everything during this time. To the outside world, you seemed to be doing your best imitation of an expressionless marble statue. Your blank slate of a face probably didn’t convey what you felt. Maybe someone knew, maybe they understood. You don’t know.
What else don’t you know? You don’t know if there’ll be a birthday cake for your little brother tomorrow and you’re too afraid, too ashamed to ask.
Your little brother, he turns ten tomorrow. Double digits. Your brother, because of you he’ll always be little. Because of you, he’ll never get to grow up – not really. He’ll never know the intimacy of a lover. He’ll never find a career, never find himself a purpose in life. And he’ll never have kids – never be a parent, a grandparent. He’ll never have or enjoy any of these things because you took the possibility of them away from him. You, the big brother, the prankster, the murderer.
On the TV, Bart makes some condescending joke at Homer’s expense. In response, Homer begins to throttle him. If he finds it funny, he doesn’t let on. Him – your little brother.
He sits there looking happy enough. Content to watch cartoons all day. You wipe away the saliva caught in the corner of his mouth. You do this, and you’ll continue to do this. You can’t tell your little brother that you’re sorry, so sorry, and you can’t show him that your sorry either. But you are sorry – more than anything you’re sorry.
You wish you could make it right, wish you could swap places. But you can’t, you can’t change the past. So instead, you wish for something else. You wish that tomorrow, despite there maybe being a birthday cake or not, despite the fact that he won’t know where he is, how old is, who is – despite all of that, you wish anyway.
You wish your little brother a happy birthday.
This feels like winning.
Awesome. You went from good to great to beyond on this one!