R. Keith

Something fierce

The same nurse from yesterday shakes my arm and I’m startled awake in the hospital chair in my brother Ryley’s room. I get up and walk out the room, putting the copy of Animal Farm in my duffle bag. Don’t let me catch you sleeping here again, you know visiting hours are over at eight. She says that to me every time she does her rounds.

Outside at summer’s dusk the weather is fine, so I’ll spend the evening wandering around downtown collecting bottles until the recycle depot opens in the morning and I can have enough cash to buy some sandwiches and fruit out of the convenience store. When the Library opens I can fall asleep there until some security guard pokes me and I’ll go back to the hospital and hang out with Ryley until they also kick me out again.

This has been the routine for nearly 25 years now. Pretty much every day. For the first few years my parents used to visit my brother. They’d wait in the hall outside his room until I left then come in to see him. After a while they stopped. Came on a couple of his birthdays. Then it was just my mom that came. Then only me. At least my dad still pays the hospital bills while Ryley is still in a coma.

25 years ago, I was turning 15. Ryley and I were very close. I followed him around like a shadow. Now I’m 40, him 42. His hair has grey streaks Mine hasn’t turned yet.

Back then, I had a girlfriend. Tonya was her name. We dated for three months. When you’re that age, three months is forever. When I wasn’t hanging out with her, I was at home with Ryley. I was nearly 15, she 14. I don’t know what she does now. I heard somewhere that she moved across the country to study reflexology, whatever that is.

Since Ryley’s coma I gave up trying on life. My parents sent me to a cadet school and were going to enlist me in the military when I turned 17. When my dad came to my school to get me for x-mas break he told me in the car on the way home that the military would be the best place for me afterwards. I stayed at my parent’s house a couple of days and then packed my duffle bag and just left.

Living this way is easier than you might think. I like to stay up for most of the night. I collect bottles and cans downtown, and turn them in at the recycle depot. I can make twenty bucks, sometimes thirty in a day. Or night I should say. It’s enough for some food out of the convenience store. Now and then I’ll grab something from the hospital cafeteria and bring it up to Ryley’s room when we’re hanging out. I catch a nap at the library, then I usually fall asleep when I’m reading Animal Farm out loud to Ryley.

I don’t consider myself homeless. I don’t beg for change on the street or sleep on cardboard under a bridge or whatever. I don’t hang out with those kind of people. Nothing against anyone who lives that way, it’s just not what I do. I stay clean shaven and catch a shower in Ryley’s bathroom. Someone always replaces the soap in the bathroom that I use. It’s never a problem. Every couple of weeks I go to the laundromat. If I have some extra coins, the laundromat has a couple of those old school arcade games, I play a few rounds as my clothes spin around the washing machine.

Way back when, Tonya and I had an argument. I can’t even remember what it was about. She flipped out and broke up with me. Of course I was down for a few days, a week maybe. I was 14.

I remember at school the other kids around my grade would snicker at me in the hall, in class, anywhere I went. Something was up. I had no idea what. This went on for a few days when finally one of Tonya’s friends told me that my brother had slept with Tonya. Of course I was stunned something fierce. What the fuck.

I found Ryley outside the school sitting on a bench against the wall of the building and slammed his head into the brick wall I don’t know how many times. His body slumped over and he fell off the bench onto the ground.

I remember being in the principal’s office, then some police came, then my parents. After that I was sent to that cadet school. I didn’t even learn that Ryley was in the hospital in a coma until some months after. I thought I had just knocked him out. He’d come to in a few minutes. Then I’d really kick his ass. I don’t really know what would have happened after that.

If I remember right, I was twenty or twenty-two. Twenty-something. Tonya came into my brother’s room. She had a cactus in a little brown flower pot and set it on the table. I didn’t say anything to her. She told me that she never actually slept with my brother. She just told a few of her friends at school that she did, and they told others, and others told others and on and on. I think she might have said sorry at some point. I just sat in there chair looking at Ryley. Before she left she told me If you need anything just gimme a call, Bryan. As if I had a phone. As if I needed anything from her.

So, this is how I got to where I am. Where my life is. This is how everything turned out. My life is quite easy the way it is, though I’m waiting for the day that my brother wakes up. Will my parents talk to me again when that happens? How will he catch up on the 25 years that he’s missed out on. I know I’d have to make some changes in my life and routine when he wakes up but that’s not really any concern. What matters is that he wakes up and we can put the past behind us. Would he even remember how he got here, what happened? Does he know I’m here every day, can he hear me reading Animal Farm to him?


I’m shaken awake and expect the usual nurse to yell at me to get out because visiting hours are over and not to sleep here like she barks at me every time. I snap back and it’s not the nurse. What I see is my mother’s face. You can’t sleep in all day, I don’t care if it’s Sunday, get up! Go outside get some fresh air.

Sitting up in my bed, I watch my mother leave my bedroom door open as she leaves. Ryley, take your little brother outside for a while, go do something. Both of you.

The mirror in the hallway, I look at my reflection. I slept in my Soundgarden t-shirt that I thought Tonya stole back when I was 14. Ryley’s reflection behind me. Where is his grey hair? He looks the way he did when he was 17. We’ll hang out at the mall, come on.

I’m walking. Walking with my brother who has been in a coma for a quarter of a century now. I’m 14. Again. Why? …what is this?

At the mall my brother gets us cans of 7-up at the kiosk that sells newspapers, magazines, cigarettes. The date on today’s paper is August 8th, 1994. Ryley hands me a can. Why are you so quiet today?

We wander around the mall, like we used to back when we were teenagers. But we are teenagers. But I’m homeless. I’m 40. You’re in a coma in the hospital. But we’re lingering aimless in the mall like it’s ’94. It is ’94.

There was no magic lamp. No genie popped out of anything. No Zoltar Speaks machine. No wish granted. No Mr. Peabody, no boy Sherman, no Way Back Machine. No DeLorean. My mother who hasn’t spoken to me in two decades woke me up today to kick me out of the house for a while.

We wander around the mall until Ryley says he’s gotta piss something fierce. I wait for him outside in the food court and realize in two days Tonya and I fight about …something. She breaks up with me. Then I bash my brother’s head in and he goes into a coma.

This is all in my head. This isn’t real. Tomorrow the nurse will wake me up. I’ll be in the chair in my brother’s room at the hospital. She’ll bark at me to get out. I’ll come back the next day. And the next. Like I always have.

Back at the house my mother yells at us something fierce for eating at Wok & Taco in the mall. She had prepared macaroni and bacon and told us to put it away when it cooled down, and to run the dishwasher. Ryley and I spent the rest of the night playing Super Nintendo and drinking kool aid until I passed out on the couch in my dad’s den, which he never even uses because my brother and I took it over.

This is totally strange. I’m 14 going on 41. But I’m back with my brother. I can change things. If I’m still around here tomorrow. Where ever this here is. Or whenever. I know where things can lead to. Where people will end up. I know the outcome. Now I can avoid it.

On the couch where I passed out last night Tonya pounces on me, waking me up. Get up already. Her mouth presses against mine. My eyes stay wide, as I remember she had bleach blonde bangs that made her look like a sheepdog. Her hands flow on me in all different directions. All I can think of is Am I 40 or 14 now? She tells me my parents left for work and Ryley is in first period in school now. We have the house to ourselves.

Her hands are all over me. This is the day we argue about I don’t remember what. She hands me a peppermint from out of her pocket. I forgot we used to do that. I’d put a mint in my mouth and go down on her, then she’d do the same to me. Gave it all a tingly sensation. I usually finished pretty quick and came something fierce.

I pull her off me and tell her Listen, I …I wanna break up. What I expect is a bouquet of screams out of her mouth. All she says is Why? I lie to her and tell her that dad is putting me in Cadet Camp. I leave in a few days. It’s for two years, then they want to put me in some Military school afterwards. I can’t ask you to wait that long for me to … I hear her sniveling as she goes towards the front door of the house and slams it something fierce behind her.

I stay at my parent’s house all day alone. Why should I go to grade eight classes when I’m 40? The things I learnt in those classes didn’t get me anywhere…or they won’t in the future…or whatever happens next in whatever place I’m in right now.

In my brother’s room I find the copy of Animal Farm and sit out on the back deck drinking coffee until I hear the front door slam shut again. Ryley comes out Hey runt, what are you reading that shit for? and asks why I didn’t go to class today. Uh…yeah, umm Tonya and I split today, I wanted time to uh…think and….you know?

We eat microwaved macaroni and bacon. I thought you hated coffee something fierce and you’re drinking it black now? I tell my brother I guess I’ve developed a more adult taste…

We hang out in the mall again like we did when we were teenagers. This was where I would come if it was raining outside, or if it was too hot to be outside, back when I was 40.

Tonya parent’s car is parked in the drive way of my parent’s house when Ryley and I get back. As soon as I open the front door our mom asks me to come into the living room. Tonya’s parents and my mom are on the chesterfield and my mom tells me to sit down on the love seat. Tonya’s parents just sit there without saying anything. My mom tells me that Tonya is in the hospital. She had cut her arm with a piece of broken mirror in the washroom at school earlier today. Anything happen between you two this morning? Tonya’s mom tells me she came here this morning. I look at the carpet and say that we split up today. She didn’t seem to take it that hard but she left right away…

Her parents and my mom stay sitting on the chesterfield as her mom cries and cries with her husband and my mom trying to comfort her. I keep staring at the carpet. All I really want to do is play Super Nintendo with my brother and not be here. Not be 14. But not be 40 either.

On the kitchen counter the next day there’s a note saying which room Tonya is in, in the hospital. Of course it’s the same room that my brother was in when he was in a coma. Or will be in a coma, or I can prevent him from being in that room. Of course she’s in the same room. Why wouldn’t it be the same room? Everything else about this situation is bizarre, just one more thing to add to the list. I figure that I’m not going to bother going to see Tonya. If she’s in the hospital now, she won’t be able to sleep with Ryley if she did that or not. Or is going to or not.

What will I do now? If this is some sort of second chance. Why do I get one? How to make up for the lost time? I am 40. I am 14. I can do stupid things and get away with anything because I am 14. I get a slap on the wrist. Because I’m 40 I don’t really care to do anything that would bring trouble for me.

What if my brother’s coma was all in my head. I haven’t been 40. I haven’t been a day over 14. Can a person dream so vividly? Make up 25 years of the future in their head? If that’s the case should I have broken up with Tonya? This can’t be. I never would have thought that my parents would stop talking to me. But they did. Now I don’t know if that’s what really happened, or if it’s something I made up.

What would make me dream of Ryley in a coma?

If that is the real dream what do I do now? To make things right? Was this dream just a warning of some kind?

Which outcome is real?

Could it have been me that went into a coma? I dreamed everything up as I was out, and now everyone is trying to act normal like it never happened?


I’m in my bed and I can’t really sleep. I want to be around Ryley in case anything happens. He’s going to think it’s weird if I’m trying to babysit him. He’ll skip classes with me for a day. Maybe two. What then?

In the morning I’m shook awake by my brother. Dad drove mom to work, she left her car so I can take you to visit Tonya. I tell him that I don’t want to see her. What kinda shitty boyfriend are you, what the fuck’s wrong with you? I tell my brother that I’d rather just cruise around with him, that Tonya and I split up yesterday. So, you still care about her, right? Get dressed and I’ll take you there.

I say I’d rather not see her in the hospital. He asks me if I care about her or not. I reply Maybe. Ryley sighs and says Maybe is the nice way of saying No.

We drove around aimlessly throughout town in mom’s car. What else was there to do? When I was pushing 40 I thought I missed being younger. I guess I forgot how boring it can be and the mundane things you did to entertain yourself. We pulled up to a self-serve gas station, two cadets in uniform were hanging around outside the gas station. Ryley told me to put twenty bucks worth of gas in the car. I’m pumping the gas, watching an old man…what would be an old man to me if I am 14…push a shopping cart full of cans and bottles up to the curb and he sits down at the locked up cooler that stores bags of ice. The sun has weathered his face something fierce, his nose looks like raw hamburger.

Ryley comes out of the gas station with a six pack of 7-up and hands me a can. He opens his and chugs a bunch of it back. Look at that fucking loser with his shopping cart, why doesn’t he just get a job. I don’t reply to what my brother just said. He opens the driver’s side door and hurls what’s left in his 7-up can at the man with the shopping cart. Recycle thiiiiiis!

Ryley totally missed when he flung the can at the man with the cart, but that’s not really the point. When he stands up and starts walking towards mom’s car my brother says What do you think you’re gonna do, old man? Don’t you have trash to pick through, you fucking loser? Ryley shuts the car door, he has the 6-pack ring with 4 full cans in his hand. Get the fuck out of here. My brother swings the cans at him when he comes closer, again missing completely.

Ryley is on the pavement. I’m in the car, watching the old man who is watching the two cadets working over Ryley. The cadets both stand up. One gives a can of 7-up to the other before helping himself to one. The old man pushes his shopping cart off in the distance.

Do you need me to call someone? I hear through the car window. The gas station attendant looking in on me from outside mom’s car.

I watch an ambulance take Ryley away. I pull one of the last cans from the 6-pack. A handful of flyers from the Cadet corps lay on the curb near where the man with the shopping cart full of bottles and cans sat down. Join now! Leadership. Character Building. Academic Excellence. Choose your future.

R. Keith works with fiction,visuals, poetics and exophonic writing. His recent books include Wild Rose Country (Cajun Mutt Press) and FLOP (Rust Belt Press). His visual art has been presented in galleries in Canada, Malta, Italy and Russia.
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