My brother used to have a mug; one of the ones with a picture on the side that changes when it heats up. The picture on this particular mug was of Cheshire Cat (the original, mind you; not the Disney one), sitting up on a branch, staring down at a young and rather startled Alice. In one corner of the mug there was the quote “Well, I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing!” And, of course, in accordance with the words of Alice, when the cup was filled with the hot beverage of choice (in Alphie’s case it was always straight dark roast) dear old Cheshire would disappear, leaving only his grin, floating in the air.
Looking back now, I see with equal amounts of surprise and understanding that I had never really questioned its presence, or more specifically its origin. Understandable under normal circumstances, I suppose; after all, it was a mug. As far as I know people don’t usually keep track of their sibling’s dishes. But in this case it was more than that. It had been a constant in my life, something that was always there, always in the background. For as long as I could remember he had had it, even as far back as when we were kids. With every memory I recall the mug makes another appearance, and I can’t help but think how blind I had been, not to have noticed it for so long. And yet I know why I’d never acknowledged it, or more accurately never allowed myself to acknowledge it. Hence the equal amounts of surprise and understanding. To make use of an old cliché, it all makes sense now. The mug had always been there, lurking in the background, but like a lot of things in my life, I’d simply never brought it up. At least, not until about a month ago.
I had spent the night, a drunken mess afraid to go home to a girlfriend who had warned of the last straw. It wasn’t the first time either; Alphie and I had reached a sort of unspoken agreement that I could always count on him to cover my ass, especially my drunken ass, and that his door was always open to me, no matter the time of day (which more often than not was sometime around two in the morning.
Immediately after waking, sprawled out over the couch in his living room, I was overcome by that incomparable sensation of a right powerful hangover, the kind that washes away all other thoughts as though wiping the slate clean of the night before. It was just a feeling, so intense and foreign (yet uncomfortably familiar) that my mind could not cope. If I had to compare it to anything, I would say it was probably how a computer might feel when being reset. For the briefest of moments nothing else existed, not even a concept of pain. Everything else was gone. There was no sense of who I was, where I was, what I was feeling. It was like my mind was so overwhelmed that it couldn’t even decide what it was feeling, and was so preoccupied with sorting through the sudden rush of incoming data that it couldn’t be bothered with even the most basic of functions. I was nothing but a series of reddish blurs in the darkness, an indescribable sensation in a series of nerves. I was nothing.
It was a release.
Then it was over , just as soon as it had begun, and like a druggie coming down from a high the real world rushed back in with painful vengeance. Suddenly the feelings were being processed, categorised, and the overall consensus was discomfort. Intense discomfort. The sensations were so powerful I felt as though my body would be incapable of containing them all, that I would expand or explode. Unfortunately neither of these things happened, and instead my mind adjusted accordingly to match the almost global proportions of my sensation overload.
I was the Earth. My mouth had become the desert, my head a volcano on the verge of eruption, and my bladder home to all the ocean. I shifted onto my side with a groan of pain, bringing my wrist up in line with my eyes, and squinting through the tears and blurriness to read the time on my watch. 7:00 am. Fuck. Thirty-four years, and it still happened every morning. No matter what time I went to bed, no matter how tired I still was, no matter how much I had had to drink the night before. Always 7:00. My arm went limp, swinging back down to my side, and my vision settled on a bottle of Advil and a glass of water set on the coffee table in front of me. Despite the pain, I managed a grin. The old bastard never let me down.
I sat up and the volcano erupted, and the searing white burst of pain was almost enough to knock me back down, but I held fast, gritting my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut, one hand pressed to my forehead and the other reaching blindly for the Advil. I took three, washing them down with the water, and then took three more after a brief reconsideration. I sat there for a while, completely still with my eyes closed, waiting for the drugs to do their thing, taking the time to think about what I would say to my girlfriend. I stayed like that for what felt like an hour, just sitting there thinking, waiting, until eventually the bladder urgency outweighed the pain of moving and I was forced to go to the washroom.
The ocean successfully drained, I spent some time at the sink, washing my face in cold water and combing my fingers through my hair in a rather futile attempt to make myself more presentable. It really didn’t matter, after all Al had seen me a hundred times worse, and it wasn’t like I cared. But I did it anyways, and I knew Alphie would approve, even if he didn’t really care. It didn’t make sense, but it was what it was. We were a strange pair, my brother and I. Such dedication to appearances. It’s strange that I only see these things now.
He was out on the back porch when I came out of the bathroom; I could see him through the window wall in the kitchen that overlooked the entire backyard. He was sitting at the table with his back to me, facing the sunrise over the forest at the edge of his property line. I stood there for a moment, watching him, wondering what he was thinking as I so often did. The coffee maker’s click startled me back into the real world, and I noticed he had set out a plate for me for breakfast, with scrambled eggs and bacon. I grabbed cutlery from the drawer and a mug from the cupboard, and in accordance with one of our many unspoken agreements, grabbed the coffee pot and brought it out with me.
“About time,” he said, without turning his head from the sunrise. “I’d been beginning to think you may have finally cracked it. Come on then; I’ve been dying for that coffee.”
I smiled, making my way over. “Good morning to you too brother, it’s always so good to see you.”
“Oh, dispense with the socially compulsory pleasantries, why don’t we. Why do we always have to say things that other people already know? I think conversations should be about saying things that the other person doesn’t already know, and about avoiding the sharing of mutually known information as best we can. Now, bring over that coffee.” I obeyed, revelling in his presence. It may have been childish of me, but even then I had looked up to my brother, had practically worshipped the ground he walked upon. Not to say that there was an imbalance in our relationship as adults, but sometimes I would just find myself marvelling him.
“Thanks for breakfast.”
“Again, with the mutually known information. I know you appreciate the breakfast, and you know you appreciate the breakfast, so why say it out loud?”
“Because it’s only right to show other people your appreciation. Don’t you feel good when I thank you? Doesn’t it make you feel good?”
He shifted in his chair. “How I feel is inconsequential.”
“Ah. You’re in a mood.”
“Shut up and eat your breakfast.” We were both grinning now, and again I obeyed, shovelling the scrambled eggs into my mouth and thinking that nothing had ever tasted so good. He poured the coffee, first in my mug, and then his own. “Sleep well?” he asked, filling the mug to the brim before levelling out the flow. I opened my mouth to answer him, my eyes briefly catching on the picture on his mug, and suddenly the words dried up in my gaping mouth. Cheshire had begun to fade away in front of my eyes and Alice’s, and soon only his grin was left, hovering in the air between a suspiciously cat-shaped space in the tree’s leaves. “Hello?”
“Are you okay? You just… zoned out for a minute there.”
I blinked, still staring at the mug. “…Yeah. Yeah, no, I’m good. Listen; where did you get that mug?”
“That mug,” I said, pointing. “The one with Cheshire.”
He frowned, clearly perplexed by my question, but after a moment he just shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t remember; I’ve had it so long. Why are you freaking out? I mean, it’s not like this is the first time you’ve seen it. Not that freaking out would be an acceptable reaction upon seeing it the first time either. I mean, it’s not exactly a ground-breaking advancement; it’s a mug that changes colour with temperature change. Whoop-de-doo.”
“I’m not freaking out. And yes, I know I’ve seen it before, but that’s just it. It’s only just occurred to me that I have no idea where it came from.”
“So? It’s my mug, and I’ve had it for a long time, and even I don’t know where it came from, so it’d be weird if you did and I didn’t. I assume I bought it one day, just like every other piece of dishware I own, as is hopefully the case with you and everyone else. I mean, do you know anyone who keeps a detailed account of every dish they buy? Do you have any idea where that mug came from?” He gestured to my own mug, a rather plain if not bright orange one in comparison. “And before you respond, I have to say, it’d be rather strange if you did.”
“No, I don’t know where this mug came from, but it’s different. For as far back as I can remember, you’ve had that mug, and yet neither of us can remember where it came from. I don’t know, it just struck me as odd for some reason. Forget it.” I took a sip of coffee, ignoring his gaze as he studied my face, presumably looking for a glowing neon sign that said ‘losing my mind’.
“You okay?” he asked eventually, as I had known he would. “Is everything… okay with Cheryl?”
I sighed, resting the mug back down on the tabletop. “If by okay you mean same as usual…”
“Don’t I always,” he quipped.
“…then yes. Everything is more or less the same. But the same gets exhausting, doesn’t it? After a while, you start hoping for some change. Any change. Good, bad, ugly, anything.”
“Then why didn’t you go home last night?”
I scoffed. “Because man was made a coward, and because I don’t intend on facing change of any kind when I’m drunk.”
He laughed, raising his strange, omnipresent mug in my direction. “I’ll drink to that.”
“I think that saying only applies to alcoholic drinks.”
“Says who? The act of drinking is the same regardless of what you’re drinking.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you, I just think that’s the way it is.”
“Fuck the way it is.” We chuckled together, under the light of the morning sun in the brisk chill of the morning air. That was the last good memory I had of us together, just the two of us, happy.
He killed himself two weeks later.
His neighbour found him, quite by chance, when he went over to return some household appliance of one kind or another. I don’t remember what it was. A lawnmower, maybe. Al’s car had been parked in the driveway, so after a few minutes of waiting, the neighbour started to get worried. Later on he claimed he had ‘had a bad feeling from the start’ otherwise he wouldn’t have thought that much of it. In other words he would have just assumed my brother had been on the shitter, rather than lying in a bathtub filled to the brim with a mixture of water and the blood that had flowed from his own slit wrists.
He ended up calling Al a few times, both on his cell and on the house phone, and when that didn’t work he called the cops. The knock on my door came about four hours later. My girlfriend held me in the doorway where I collapsed, held me as I cried like a child, cried with no regard, no thought for the two policemen awkwardly standing before us.
At the funeral, I kept hearing the same phrases muttered under heavy breaths over and over again, numb and disbelieving.
“…he was such a happy man…”
“…how could this have happened…”
“…always had a smile on his face…”
“…didn’t see it coming…”
The realisation hit me halfway through my eulogy, and it hit me hard. My speech cut off, and I began to choke up, staggering backwards as though hit by a physical blow. I imagine the crowd’s reactions would have been interesting, but I can’t remember any of it. Suddenly all I could see was that mug, that damned mug being filled with darkness, Cheshire fading away, his smile fixed in place with nothing to support it. Other visions began to flash through my mind, visions of an approaching shadow outside a bedroom door left ajar, visions of thin, pale hands buttoning the top buttons of white collared dress shirts, visions of two young boys standing side by side in a church pew, hair combed neatly to one side, visions of red lips pursed tight in a grim, ominous smile. And then they were gone, and I was back in my childhood, to a memory I hadn’t even known was there.
We were at the zoo, the three of us walking side by side. I was young, somewhere around six, my brother no older than ten. Our mother, a prim and proper character who seemed to tower over our world, could have had the entirety of her essence summed up in one word: stick. Her figure was as thin as one, her patience just as quick to snap, her lashes just as severe, and she lived like she had one lodged firmly up her ass. The Stick. Had we been more creative (or rather more daring) as children we might have called her that behind her back, in hushed tones and giggles beneath bedsheets at night, the security of our small world illuminated by a tiny flashlight. But we had been raised better than that.
The zoo was one of many regular family outings we would partake in throughout the week, none of which were for the benefit of the family itself, ironically enough. We all knew what they were really about, even at that young age. We knew, but never spoke of it. That was one of the great rules of our family: certain things were never spoken of.
Despite the rather unfortunate underlying intent of our outings my brother and I still managed to enjoy ourselves, or at the very least as best we could. After all, we were young boys, and such matters held little sway over our perceptions of the world. And the zoo had always been one of our favourites. Even then, I like to think that we had felt more than just the usual fascination for the creatures, that somewhere in our subconscious minds there was an awareness of a kindred relation between us and those poor creatures, both locked away behind bars which everyone saw yet no one acknowledged.
We were in the felidae section of the zoo that evening, walking between the cages of magnificent beasts, docile and submissive behind their bars. We did not stop to watch each one in turn, did not pause a moment to read the signs hung over the cage doors containing little tidbits on the creature hidden in the shadows before us. We walked forwards, my mother possessive of a purposeful stride poorly disguised as a leisurely stroll. We had learnt long before that straying behind (or ‘lollygagging’ as our mother called it) was unacceptable to the highest degree, and as such out of the question. So we kept pace, our eyes quickly darting from side to side in an attempt to gain their fill of each creature we passed before they were gone again, passed by with no chance of returning for a second look. That was how things were with us. We passed things by and never looked back.
You see, we didn’t go to the zoo to see the beasts. We went to the zoo so the beasts could see us.
It was on that particular day that a wrinkle arose in our mother’s plans, the plans she so meticulously ironed. My brother tripped and fell on a crag in the concrete walkway. I saw it happen, because I happened to be looking in his direction to the creatures there. His body fell forwards, and his bare knees scraped against the ground, his hands opening up before him, the skin on his palms grating. He shot up almost as fast as he had fallen, looking startled and rather dazed, as though unsure of what had just transpired. I watched him, my mouth agape, and then simultaneously, like trained dogs, we both looked to my mother for an indication of what would happen next. She was staring at him, and while I couldn’t see her face from where I stood I knew she was pursing her lips.
“I- I’m sorry, mother-” poor Alphie began, stuttering as he so often did when talking to our mother. Tears welled up in his eyes as he fought to come up with an adequate apology, stammering through unrecognisable words and phrases. I realised he was going to cry, and a feeling of dread formed in the pit of my stomach. Suddenly she crouched over, grabbing him by the shoulders. Passersby would have seen nothing more than a mother comforting her son, making sure he was okay. Only I could see the indents in my brother’s shirt sleeves where the fingers dug in hard and deep. Only the three of us heard my mother’s tone, her voice low and dark, like a cat crouching in the shadows of the undergrowth as it crept up upon its prey, the eerie and ominous calm before the explosion.
“Don’t you dare cry,” she had said that day, looking right into my brother’s eyes. “I don’t care how much it hurts. Don’t you dare cry. I want you to smile.” She spoke through gritted teeth, bared in a menacingly fake smile. “I want you to smile, even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts. I want you to smile and I want you to never stop smiling. Even when there’s nothing behind it, I want you to smile until the day you die. Do you understand me?” Alphie looked up to her, the tears drying in his eyes, and he nodded. And then he smiled.
Later that day we found ourselves in the zoo’s gift shop, and my mother bought Alphie a gift, “for being such a brave little man.” It was a mug, the kind with a picture on the side that changes when it heats up.
They put me in the mental-health clinic almost immediately after the funeral, under suicide watch. I’ve been here since, wasting away in a bed that can move up or down whenever I want. It’s been a month now, 31 days since my brother killed himself, 45 days since I noticed the mug and brought it up. I spend my days going over that moment again and again, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering if I could have stopped him, wondering if it was my fault somehow, for noticing the mug and bringing it up. I know the answer, but it’s easier to pretend I don’t and to keep dwelling on it than it would be to accept the truth. I’m not ready for that. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.
People come and go, visiting me for a little while every few days just to make sure I’m still alive, just to say that they made the effort. It’s all about appearances, darling. There are no repeat guests; once is enough, and they never stay longer than is required to realize they’re not getting anywhere. My girlfriend is the only one who comes more than once, and even she has stopped coming as often, the days between visits growing exponentially since the first time.
“They’re thinking of letting you go,” she said earlier today, sitting on the bedside, idly picking at her fingernails to avoid having to make eye contact. “They say you’ve been okay, but they want to make sure it’s okay with you. They just need some sign that you’re going to be alright.” I didn’t respond. I was staring directly ahead, at the wall, at something that wasn’t there. She started to cry, sniffling quietly. “You’re breaking my heart, Chester.” She turned to me, eyes red, looking for a reaction, a sign that I cared, a sign that I was still alive. At least we had that much in common: looking for things that weren’t there.
She cried for a bit longer, her stifled sobs echoing through the dead room, but eventually she stood up to go.
“Oh, I’d almost forgotten.” She reached into her purse, looking for something. “They found this at your brother’s house. There was a note beside it. He said- it said it was yours now. I thought, you know, you might like to have it here. To remind you of him.” She finally retrieved the item, holding it up to show me. I didn’t look, didn’t have to look, didn’t want to look, because I already knew what it was. My eyes started tearing up, but I blinked them away, refusing to avert my gaze from the wall. She held it up a moment longer before giving up, placing it on the windowsill with a sigh. Then she left.
I could feel his eyes on me, boring into my soul, could feel his smile, the teeth grinning back at me from the darkness, waiting for me there. I resisted for as long as I could, but he was strong. I sat up, pushing the bed sheets aside and turning to my side, my legs sliding off the side of the bed. For a moment I stayed like that, hesitating one last time, then I stood, walking over to the window, to the mug. His eyes followed me as I approached, his smile never wavering. There was no kettle in the room, but there was the knife I had kept hidden beneath my mattress after sneaking it back from dinner several nights before. I dragged the edge clean across my wrist, watching as the hot blood flowed down my arm, pouring into the mug’s gaping, thirsty mouth. I watched as the mug was filled to the brim, watched as the surface of the dark liquid caught the reflection of the moon and seemed to glow in the moonlight. I watched, and I waited. And, in accordance with the words of Alice, dear old Cheshire disappeared, leaving only his grin, floating in the air.