The Coil
Published in

The Coil

The Roof of Heaven

Let go Hell; and your fall will be broken by the roof of Heaven.
—Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

They enter their home for the first time. They’ve both been here before, but it wasn’t their home then.

Treat is wheeled in backward. When the wheelchair lurches over the floor trim, he feels torn open all over again. He thinks he can hear the ambulance sirens, smell the recent rainwater in the pavement’s flumes. Jenna will learn how to be gentle with him.

All the furniture has been replaced and the walls repainted. The refrigerator still has a blue plastic film over its door. The windows are open, letting in the damp-afternoon sunlight. The sound of traffic on the St. Johns Bridge, children’s voices in the park.

She runs the bath. Not for her husband, but for his brother.

“You,” she said, walking up to a corner table at the Lighthouse Bar.

She thought they were firefighters; she would soon be mildly disappointed to discover they were cops. Treat, his brother Alec, and two friends. The friends were both growing out their beards at the time, so they were out of the question for Jenna. She liked her men to look like contestants on a reality dating show. Alec sat against the wall, jarhead haircut, friendly blue eyes, dimples like the points of hunting knives.

Alec and Treat were often mistaken for twins, though they were three years apart. Alec had a permanent smile in his features, and Treat, a smolder. Otherwise, there would seem to be no reason to want one of them and not the other.

That night, it was a matter of positioning. Treat had bought the first round while the others held down the corner booth, leaving Treat to take the last chair. The only chair that faced away from the surrounding tables. So it was Alec at whom Jenna had been glancing for two rounds, whose eye contact she’d held almost unceasingly for another two rounds, to whom she was speaking when she swayed over and said, “You.”

“Can we help you?”

“Not you,” she said, dismissing one of the friends out of hand. “You,” she said to Alec.

Jenna Galloway — of the Lake Oswego Galloways — had graduated from Stanford two months earlier. The night before commencement, her boyfriend had told her he was going on a summer trip around the world. “I’ll miss you so much, too, Jen, but this is something I need to do alone.” The usual lines.

She’d moved back home to Portland and gone out to dance nearly every night since, or just to drink. One morning, she woke to a looming wall of text messages from this boyfriend, announcing — from Dubai, apparently — that he had fallen in love with the daughter of an Arab sheikh or something and that he wished her the best in her life.

Jenna surprised herself with the speed of her recovery. Not ten minutes after she read the message, she rallied the troops with a virtual snap of her finger: I’m single, babes. Lighthouse @9?

If the seating arrangement had been different, everything would have been.

Treat would not have abided Jenna’s drinking, her eating and her not eating, her addictive late-night doom-scrolling. Least of all, her perpetual adherence to etiquette, even at home. In their first year, they would have had more fights about Treat holding his utensils wrong or scraping the plate with them than about anything else.

They would have fought more at first than Alec and she, even broken up a couple times. Unlike Alec, Treat would have made no attempt to mask a contempt for Jenna’s money. But every time Treat would reject the world she came from, he’d grow more perfect in her eyes. Every time he’d taunt her for having gone to Stanford or for going to meet her parents at “the club,” she would rage and then return more helpless than before.

Alec was a charmer, a natural when it came to parents. Treat wouldn’t have been as deft at pretending he had career ambitions, that he was on track to become a commissioner, a politician, or whatever nonsense they wanted to hear. Jenna’s parents would have disapproved of Treat with even more venom than they disapproved of Alec. This would all but sanctify Treat’s and Jenna’s union. If the seating arrangement had been different.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Alec married Jenna because she was everything he found physically attractive. He’d never considered that there was any higher end goal than that. They got along just well enough to remain within the lines of each other’s narratives, and there was nothing to substantially deter them.

Of all the reasons Jenna devised to marry Alec — that he made her feel protected; that he was somehow more real than the boys she grew up with; that, yes, he also looked like the man she’d expected to marry — Jenna married Alec chiefly because she had chosen him. And after the last one, Jenna was going to hold on with her life.

As for Treat, it wasn’t the fulfillment of some fantasy that would make him fall for her. Approximately, it was that beneath the storm of her, there was a bedrock of dedication. To what he did not yet know — maybe it was still undirected, a sword in a stone — but he had never glimpsed dedication before Jenna.

They would have moved in together sooner, with defiant optimism.

The wedding would have come sooner, and it would have turned out to be one of Jenna’s sweetest memories, rather than the worst night of her life.

“I need a ride home,” she said, her eyes tethered to Alec’s in the booth. The Lighthouse jukebox was playing “Wish You Were Here.”

“Don’t any of your friends over there have a car?” Alec asked.

“I don’t wanna fuck any of my friends.”

A wave of smiles around the table. Neighboring glances.

“Um,” said Alec, and smiled at his brother.

Now Jenna did a double-take, noticing the resemblance between Alec and Treat. But her choice had been made. “I don’t know what’s taking so long,” she said, each word eliding into the next. “I’m going back to my friends. Ready when you are.”

They all watched the shape of her swaying in her jeans as she walked away, and then turned to Alec. But he had already sunk the remaining half of his beer and was standing up. Twenty minutes later, after a silent drive to his apartment off Cathedral City Park, Jenna was smiling face-down into his pillows, droplets of rain in her hair, believing that because she was drunk she felt more and not less.

The leftover friends of each had stayed at the Lighthouse. In keeping with the tone that Jenna had set for the night, the girls joined the guys at their table. Everyone went home hammered, but there were no other hookups.

The last to leave was Treat, who wasn’t satisfied with his night. He had developed a friendly rivalry with the bartender and wanted to toy with him a while, to flaunt the plain and simple fact that you can’t 86 a cop. And you sure as hell can’t call the cops on him. After Treat’s seventh drink, he became intolerable, and the bartender cut him off. Treat then went around the bar, taking everyone’s glass, one by one, and smashing it on the floor. Amid the screaming, Treat slapped his cash onto the bar and walked out into the rain.

The groom’s family didn’t swoon over Jenna, either. The men were law enforcement and electricians, the women schoolteachers and hairdressers. They could not explain what Jenna’s parents did for a living (“The old man is some sort of lawyer, and he writes books? And her mother runs around a lot, but I think she’s kind of stay-at-home”).

In fact, her father was a retired law historian and spent increasing amounts of his days rereading his own books. Her mother, with a permanent smile, maintained the house, their finances, a charitable trust, and a highly active social life. Jenna herself had studied biology in preparation for pre-med, and had minored in English lit (“You mean, for fun?” her future in-laws would ask). She drove a brand-new BMW that she’d gotten for graduation, but after several snide comments on her first visit, she learned not to drive it to see Alec’s parents.

Treat was her biggest obstacle to becoming part of the family.

Alec and Treat had, since puberty, been in competition for women, often the same ones. With a three-year edge, Alec had a habit of not only winning, but making a game out of poaching them from Treat. This didn’t leave Treat with a very high opinion of women, especially if they had anything to do with Alec. When it became clear that Jenna would be a permanent fixture, she expected a baseline of courtesy that Treat was incapable of showing.

This made him all the more remorseful — later, after the accident — when she insisted that she could care for him, as there was no way his family nor he could afford a nurse.

“Excuse me, officer?”

Treat turned back to see who’d had the nerve to follow him out of the Lighthouse, but before he could catch anyone’s face, he was pinned to the ground. There had to be at least three guys to hold him that tightly. He could hardly twitch his legs. Each time the big one hit him, he gasped and choked on the rain. It pelted his irises, blinding him.

He quit struggling, went limp to let his body absorb the blows. He’d been trained to do this at the academy, but he’d learned earlier, as a child. For a moment outside of time, the brutal, machinelike hands that clamped his wrists could have been Alec’s. The stranger’s noxious breath in Treat’s mouth, and the fists that struck his solar plexus and battered his kidney. Treat could have been eleven or twelve, kneaded to compliancy like Play-Doh before Alec’s face came down close to his own. The horrible details like the inside of a mask, and then submergence. He tasted blood, not knowing if it were Alec’s or his own. Their skin slid with communal sweat. His brother’s weight combined with his own to make them something greater, inextricable.

The wedding was on a flagstone promontory overlooking the Cascades, the sun setting over a vineyard behind the bride and groom. It had been raining for a week straight — the leaves were still laden with it, and the two-lane roads riddled with small pools — but morning had arranged a ceasefire. Alec, Jenna, and thirty guests had rooms booked at the villa, and the bride and groom were set to fly to Maui the next day. All the expenses were being covered by Jenna’s family.

The day of the wedding had been suspiciously devoid of trouble, but there were signs at the reception.

Alec was doing shots, which Jenna and he had agreed was a bad idea. Treat was spurring Alec on. Though Treat’s ribs were long healed from the fight outside the Lighthouse, he didn’t drink so much anymore himself, opting to get others drunk instead. After watching the ceremony — Jenna in her immaculate white lace, her cat eyes looking up at Alec’s, smiling, expectant mouth before the kiss — a fire was lit. Treat’s first instinct was to drench it with whiskey.

Jenna’s mother was increasingly agitated. Helping the inexperienced photographer wrangle the couple was hard enough, to say nothing of the groomsmen and the bridesmaids, all drunk before twilight faded to black.

The owners of the villa expressed their alarm when the party made its way into the vineyard. Jenna’s mother tried to enlist her daughter’s help, but on approach of the wedding suite, heard Alec’s voice: “… your cunt mother … acts like it’s her party … is how it’s always gonna be … that bitch tells me what to do one more time. …”

Jenna couldn’t calm down either her mother or her husband until they both realized Jenna had given up and was sobbing in the bathroom. Then her mother saw the situation and backed away. Though Alec was the last person Jenna’s mother would have chosen to leave alone with her daughter at that moment, she sensed the futility of any other option. Alec was Jenna’s husband now.

After Jenna’s mother left, Alec went on complaining about her, about everything, an open bottle of Grey Goose hanging from his hand. Jenna screamed through the bathroom door for him to stop, but there were no brakes on Alec.

Treat, who had the next room, finally came in and tried to coax his brother away from her. “Come on,” Treat said. “Let’s find a real party. I’ll drive.”

At two in the morning, Treat and Alec were on the road back to the city, the door still slamming in Jenna’s ears as she cried in the empty tub.

By the time she fell asleep, Alec was dead.

The wheelchair barely fits between the corridor walls, and she has to carry Treat out of it before they enter the bathroom.

“The bath is ready,” Jenna says. “It might be too warm.”

“One way to find out. Thank you.”

The bath water is perfect. Her hands are professional on his body. He smiles nervously, but not a single tell disturbs her face. He’s never been handled this way, never been touched by a woman so devoid of desire. At least, desire for him.

When her hands pass over the gash on his hip, a tiny dragonfly of blood flies out of it and dissolves in the water. In her head, she recalls all she knows about blood — plasma, erythrocytes, leukocytes, platelets — so that she doesn’t think about Alec in his last moments of life. The blood that must have escaped his body, and the internal bleeding. Punctures and lacerations. The windshield, the seatbelt, the steering wheel, all contorted into a hideous maw.

Treat slips a little in the water, has to stretch his neck above the surface to breathe. Jenna’s hands go rigid and lift him by his armpits. He laughs gratefully, as though she had found his keys, but is sharply aware that she has just saved his life.

“Try to keep your back straight,” she says.

It’s all a matter of positioning.

How long can a life stay ruined? It depends on the level of determination.

They’ll live together in the same house, in the shadow of the St. Johns Bridge. Treat will have his friends over for cards twice a week, and if there’s a game. He’ll gain some weight, but Jenna will make sure he doesn’t eat or drink too many more calories than he can burn. Her dedication will finally win Jenna the hearts of his friends and family. Jenna’s family, who had begun to phase her out of their lives the day she announced her engagement to Alec, will only accelerate the process. She’ll feel wounded for a long time before she realizes they were only cutting her free.

She’ll gain weight as well. She’ll hardly see her friends, because they’ll only remind her of the way her life should have gone. She’ll never steer another relationship past the shallows of lust, though she’ll come to feel something for Treat that’s akin to love.

The resemblance will always remain, even in his mannerisms. Especially in his voice. But he’ll know that her labor isn’t out of love for him. He’ll be okay with that, though that’ll go in waves. Sometimes he’ll be wildly in love with her, but even when it’s torture to feel her hands on him without a trace of passion, he will say nothing. Out of respect to her grief, he tells himself. But really he’s still scared to death of his brother.

Treat will find himself dedicated to the simple and impossible task of changing the slightest detail. Of sitting against the wall and letting Alec buy the first round. He lies awake, playing it out again, nearly succeeding. Willing his brother back to life, while at the same time wishing that Alec’s wife had chosen him instead. Hating himself both in life and in counterlife. Passing years without number in a silent house with more than enough rooms to grow a family.

Gabriel da Silva-Schicchi is a Brazilian-American writer. His stories have been featured in Arcturus Magazine and Capsule Stories, and he is at work on a novel.

Finalist for the 2022 Luminaire Prose Award

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