The Billings Brothers at the End of the World
Chelsea Hanna Cohen
Steven, 22: Cape Cod
Steven stands outside his engagement party at his future in-laws’ beach house, headphones jammed in his ears, smoking a joint to calm himself before going back inside. He can’t shake the feeling that everything is happening too fast, that proposing to Tracy at graduation like he knew she wanted may have been a mistake. She’ll want kids not long after; he knows it from the way she looks at babies in the grocery store and how she likes to browse baby clothes on Amazon “just for fun.” But how is he supposed to think about having a kid of his own after what happened to Sammy all those years ago; he’s never been able to trust himself with children, never been able to hold a baby without wondering what he’s capable of doing to it.
He turns up the volume on the guitars screaming in his ears, eyes closed, thinking about how to make everything slow down, and the music is so loud that he doesn’t hear the tidal wave forming in the distance, doesn’t see it gaining strength, doesn’t notice it until it’s far too late to run. It crashes over the shore, over him, dragging him down, and the last thing he thinks before he can’t hold his breath anymore is this is how Sammy must have felt.
Jack, 20: Kappa Alpha Tau Fraternity House, UCLA
Jack’s drunk, just like he’s been every Saturday of junior year, of sophomore year, of freshman year. He joined a fraternity even though the word “brothers” still gives him a funny feeling in his stomach; even though when people ask him how many “real” brothers he has he says “three” instead of “four” because explaining an absence is more difficult than pretending it was never there; even though whenever his buddies slap him on the back and tell him what a good brother he is he wants to scream.
The bass of the music pumping through the rooms covers the rumble when the ground starts shaking; no one notices a thing until a book flies off a shelf and hits a girl in the head, until bottles of beer tumble to the ground and shatter. “Earthquake,” Jack yells; this is California, after all, and they’re not uncommon.
But deep down he can sense that this is something bigger, and he can see in the eyes of his friends that they sense it as well. The walls shake harder and harder, and as they start to crack and chunks of the ceiling rain down, blocking the door, the windows, the escapes, Jack curls into a ball in the corner with his hands over his head and waits for it to be over, and the awful anticipation reminds him of the two days they spent waiting for Sammy to be found in the lake, and now in this moment he finds that his last thought is of Sammy, as he always knew it would be.
Philip, 18: County Fairgrounds
Philip sits on the Ferris wheel with Suzie Thomas, trying to figure out how far he can get his hand up her shirt before she stops him. He’s this close to winning a bet he made with his buddies before the start of the school year: sleep with both Thomas twins before graduation. His fingers inch farther up her skin until he sees her smirk; then she slaps his hand away.
She looks him right in the eye. “I know what you did by the lake,” she says, and he stops breathing because how could she know there’s no way she could know, but then she continues, “Marcia told me,” and the pieces click: her sister, Marcia, who he fucked in the bushes by the lake during a party, and the relief makes him giddy. He opens his mouth to reply, but as their car reaches the very top of the Ferris wheel, it starts to shake. Philip thinks there’s something wrong with the ride, but then he realizes that everything is shaking and Suzie is screaming and off in the distance the skyline of the city crumbles, entire skyscrapers falling into themselves before his eyes, and he barely has time to marvel at what he’s seeing before the bones of the Ferris wheel give way as well. He’s trapped beneath it, body bent awkwardly, and in the minutes before he bleeds out he swears he sees Sammy dripping wet, and Philip cries I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
George, 16: Home
George is home studying, like he is every Saturday night so he can get the grades that will take him to a college far away from here, where everything reminds him of Sammy, from the ice cream stand they used to stop at every summer Sunday to the spot of dried blood George can still see on the sidewalk outside their house where Sammy fell off his bike and ripped the skin off his knee so bad he needed stitches.
George switches from math to history just as his father calls, “Come down here,” from the living room, and so George goes and watches the news with his parents, sees the earthquakes and the tidal waves and the fires all over the world. “Call the kids,” his mother says, frantic, and his dad calls his brothers one by one but none of them pick up. He’s about to go through them again when the television beeps loudly with a breaking news alert.
Tornadoes spotted says the alert, and the picture that fills the screen is of the elementary school not too far away. They don’t have a basement, they don’t get tornadoes here, so George’s father pulls them into a closet and shuts the door, yelling hold on hold on hold on as a distant roar begins to form. They grasp each other tightly and he’s crying and his parents are too. The roar grows and grows and grows, and then George is saying, “We killed Sammy, it was an accident,” over and over again because he has to say it before he dies, and he doesn’t know if his parents can hear him because he can’t even hear himself when the tornado is upon them and he hears nothing at all.
Sammy, 6: Westhaven Cemetery
Sammy wasn’t supposed to come that night when they all snuck out to the lake after their parents were asleep, but he heard them creeping down the hallway and threatened to wake Mom and Dad unless they brought him along, so Sammy followed, thrilled to be with his brothers, carrying the G.I. Joe he brought everywhere.
They got to the lake and Steven, sixteen and all grown up, said, “Why did you bring that, dolls are for babies,” and Jack, idolizing his big brother, joined in with taunts of baby, baby, baby and Philip and George, who’d each been the youngest brother in their own turn, laughed, because wasn’t laughing at the baby fun? And Philip was the first to grab G.I. Joe and toss it to George, who snickered when Sammy lunged for him and threw it to Steven, who held it above his head so Sammy couldn’t reach it, even as he jumped up and down on his tippytoes. “Come on guys,” he whined but that only made Steven laugh harder and throw it to Jack who threw it to Philip who threw it to George, who paused and said, “Maybe we should stop,” but “Aw come on we’re just having fun with him,” said Steven, and George didn’t want to be the next target so he gave in and threw it back to Steven and they all ran onto the dock, throwing it back and forth and laughing, no one wanting to be the one to say Stop, until finally one of them, none of them would ever remember who, threw G.I. Joe off the dock, sending him tumbling in a long arc into the lake.
No one thought Sammy would go after him because G.I. Joe was just a toy, but he did, he jumped into the water without stopping to think, and then they all remembered at once that Sammy couldn’t swim.
Jack screamed, or was it Philip? And Steven, who was the best swimmer, jumped in after Sammy, but it was so dark and there was no trace and the water was so cold and Steven started going numb and they had to pull him out even though he was yelling that they had to find Sammy, but they couldn’t find him, he wasn’t there, and they shouted Sammy Sammy Sammy until finally they knew it had been too long. “We should call 911,” Jack said, but Philip said, “He’s gone, you know he’s gone,” and “It’s our fault,” cried George, “we’re going to jail,” until Steven, teeth still chattering, said, “We’re going home, we were never here, this never happened.” And George said, “We can’t do that, we can’t do that to Sammy,” but Steven said, “What’s done is done, we can’t take it back, let’s go,” even as he cried. And finally George agreed and they all ran home, the guilt already settling onto their shoulders. They got into bed before their parents even knew they had left, and when their parents woke up in the morning and found Sammy was missing, the brothers pretended not to know where he was. And two days later when they drained the lake and found Sammy and their parents cried, the brothers did too and promised each other they’d never forget Sammy, the one promise they were all able to keep.
Chelsea Hanna Cohen (@chelseahannac) lives in Brooklyn, works in publishing, and plays piano when she isn't writing. She is an alumna of the 2018 Tin House Summer Workshop and is the managing editor of Syntax & Salt. Her work has been previously been published in Jersey Devil Press, freeze frame fiction, and Every Day Fiction, among others.
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