TAPS by DC DIAMONDOPOLOUS
Peter crouched in front of the attic window and gazed down on old man Mueller’s cornfield. The plow, unhitched beyond the stalks, turned north like he meant to continue but got interrupted. Peter looked toward the barn, no sign of Mueller’s horse and buggy. The Amish and Mennonite neighbors, with their peculiar ways, kept to themselves. Mueller had only talked to his pa when he had accused Rufus of killing his chickens – about a year ago. That was the day his brother’s mind broke, when Gabe went screaming from the veranda, twisting his ears as he ran into Mueller’s cornfield. That day Mueller shot out of the house, the top of his unsnapped overalls flapping as he sprinted after Gabe. Mueller’s wife and five children dashed onto the porch, the boys still in their pajamas.
After that day, Gabe was never the same, and neither was Peter.
At fourteen, he felt all grown-up. His childhood had ended when his brother, his best friend, had come down with a cold inside his brain. Ma said he’d get better. They just had to pray harder. Pa wanted to send him somewhere, to a place where they removed part of the brain or shocked it back to normal. Peter listened as they argued back and forth, Ma blaming herself and Pa’s eyes wet with tears as they tried to decide what was best for their eldest son; feelings of helplessness sat like a centerpiece on the dining room table.
“How come I don’t hear the voices, Ma?” he asked.
“Thank the good Lord you don’t, son.”
Gabe’s trumpet playing now sailed out of his window across the beautiful corn and wheat fields, the notes drifting away as new ones began over the vast cloudless skies of Lancaster County. Gabe played Taps – Taps in the morning, Taps in the afternoon, and Taps at night. Peter thought it must have to do with the sadness inside him, but once in a while, Gabe filled the air with a different kind of song; it would sail smoothly, cut off, spiral and dip. In those moments, he thought his brother had talent, enough to make Peter enjoy the fantasies they provoked. He coaxed Gabe to take lessons, maybe play at the church, learn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, so people would like him—that part he left out. Gabe had scowled, and Peter fell quiet, afraid he’d make his brother go to that place where a chorus of devils shuffled his mind.
Peter learned to rake words the way he did leaves. Words like ‘sure’, and ‘all right’ calmed Gabe, but others like ‘before’, and ‘used to’ could bring on a fit.
The kitchen screen door slammed as Gabe came out of the house and stood on the veranda. He brought the trumpet to his lips and began to play. Peter bounded to his feet. Gabe had never taken the trumpet outside or played it in front of others. Peter hoped this meant he’d been healed, that his parents’ prayers and his own were finally answered. Excited, he ran down the stairs, wanting his parents to see. He passed the room he once shared with his brother, until his pa separated them because of the sickness. He jumped onto the landing and rode the banister sidesaddle down to the living room.
Peter ran through the kitchen where his mother’s cornbread sat on the stove. He caught a whiff of its warm, sweet smell and realized his brother had stopped playing.
He pushed the screen door open, but Gabe wasn’t there.
“Rufus, come here boy!” he shouted from the porch. “Pa?” Where was everyone? His eyes darted from the tether ball to the lawnmower and to the Troyer’s house. The late September day was as still as the sun. It was Saturday. There was always something going on. Life didn’t just stop.
Peter found it strange that his father’s hammer, pliers, and screwdriver lay on the porch swing. Although his brother wouldn’t hurt a gnat, he often hurt himself, so his pa always made sure to keep his guns and tools locked up.
Peter leaped off the steps and ran around the brick house they had moved into three years ago. The front yard looked no different from any other time, the ‘47 Buick station wagon parked in the driveway. Nothing was out of place, except the absence of his folks and Rufus.
Maybe they went to the Kerr’s or the Troyer’s because someone got sick. But Rufus’s disappearance downright confused him. That dog always came when called.
He’d better tend to Gabe.
Peter ran to the backyard and saw a swath cut in the cornfield. The Amish and Mennonites were acquainted with Gabe’s fits of screaming, running away, and hiding in their barns. Like the time he sprinted all the way to the feed store and climbed into a grain sack to get away from the voices. Six months ago, Peter and his pa found Gabe in a dumpster. His pa picked him up by his armpits and dragged his crumpled body over the edge and placed him on the ground. Peter felt like something died that day; a piece of his heart just fell off. His pa helped Gabe get to his feet. He put an arm around his shoulders and said, “It's gonna be okay.” Peter wanted to believe. Later that day his father told him, “You’re the older one now, son. Tend to him like a pup.”
He followed Gabe’s tracks, swatting through the rustling stalks and batting away flies. “Gabe?” He felt trickles of sweat form on his brow as the smothering shoots closed behind him. “Where are you?”
“Where’s our folks and Rufus?”
“I don’t know. Leave me alone.”
Peter took careful steps so as not to upset his brother. He wanted to make sure Gabe was all right and not doing weird things like banging his head against the ground, or clawing his ears until they turned purple blue.
Peter brushed his dark bangs out of his eyes and parted the stalks. Gabe sat cradling the trumpet, rocking back and forth.
“You seen Rufus?”
“Heard you playing outside.” Peter parted the shoots to give them more room. He stepped around his brother. “What’s that on your shirt?”
“Somethin’. Looks like blood.” He reached to touch the shirt. Gabe shoved his hand away.
“Leave me be.”
“You tell me how you got blood on your shirt and I’ll leave you be.”
“It’s not blood. It’s ketchup.”
Peter took hold of his brother’s shoulders and gripped them as he leaned down and smelled the shirt. “It’s blood.” He ripped it open and saw slash marks on Gabe’s chest. “Jesus, Gabriel.”
“Where’s the knife?”
“You tore my shirt.”
“Here, put mine on.”
Gabe did as he was told, but started to blubber as he mismatched the buttons with the holes.
“Gimme the knife.”
“Mueller has it.”
“You’re saying Mueller did this to you?”
He couldn’t trust a darn thing that came out of Gabe’s mouth.
Peter leaped on top of his brother and tried to roll him over, but Gabe fought back, swinging his fists and grazing the side of Peter’s head. “I’m trying to keep you out of trouble,” Peter said as he straddled Gabe’s legs and ran his hands along his brother’s pockets. “Where’d you throw it?” He rolled Gabe’s shirt into a ball, stood, and picked up the trumpet.
“Don’t have it.”
Peter glanced about. It could be anywhere. “Let’s go find Rufus.”
Gabe grabbed onto the stalks and pulled himself up. “Mueller killed him with the knife.”
Peter swung around. He dropped the shirt and trumpet and lunged at his brother, knocking him to the ground. “You’re lyin’.” He looked down at Gabe, not feeling a bit sorry for him. “You can talk crazy all you want, but not about my dog.” Peter felt a rush of trembles coming on. The kind he had as a kid when he’d wake up in his own piss. Sometimes his brother was just too much responsibility. Peter picked up the shirt and handed the trumpet to Gabe. “I’m goin’ home.”
Old man Mueller would never use a knife. He might shoot Rufus if he killed his chicks, but he’d never use a knife. And when it came to hurting his brother, well that just didn’t make sense. It bugged Peter that Gabe could get to him like that; after all, his mind was sharp. He could grasp a situation and pluck its essence clean out.
When they reached the porch, his father’s tools were still lying about. He would put them away once he cleaned Gabe’s wounds and got rid of the shirt. No sense telling his parents. It would upset them too much.
The screen door slammed as the brothers went into the kitchen. “Take off my shirt. I’ll clean those wounds,” Peter said as he took the dishrag from the washbasin and soaked it in warm water. “Put the trumpet down.” He reached into the cupboard and pulled out his pa’s whiskey. “Come here.” He poured a little onto the rag—his pa wouldn’t notice—and wiped his brother’s chest.
“Ouch! That’s for drinkin’.”
“It’ll clean the wounds. Seen Pa?”
Gabe slowly moved his head to the left and the right, reminding Peter of an elephant he saw at the carnival.
Peter took the bloody shirt and put it in the sink. He lifted the lid of his Nana’s bronze striker that hung on the wall, took out a wooden match and struck it, lighting the shirt on fire. When the flames licked it to ash, Peter ran the water. “Let’s go upstairs. We gotta hide those wounds.”
Gabe started to laugh. Peter saw the madness in his brother’s eyes as if his mind hooked a corner and kept spinning, unable to right itself. No amount of shaking, coaxing, or yelling could bring Gabe around. Peter remembered that same laugh during Memorial Day when the Kerr’s invited them to a picnic in their backyard. They had all sat at the long wooden table eating ham, onions, coleslaw, and pudding. Gabe had scarfed down a slice of watermelon and then he had started to laugh. Of course everyone had wanted to know what was so funny. Gabe’s laughter had grown into hysterics.
“Let us in on the joke,” Lester said. But Gabe had kept laughing like it was his own private thing, even as the juice had run out his nose and into his mouth. The look in his eyes when Lester had persisted with, “Come on, what’s so funny,” was dark and ugly.
Peter would never forget the look on Gretchen’s face. Gretchen had hair the color of wheat and eyes as striking as the Blue Ridge Mountains. He wanted Gretchen to be his girl the moment he had seen her in the church choir. But on that day when Gabe had snapped, and she brought her finger up to the side of her head and made fast circles laughing at his brother’s torment, his feelings for her had died.
Did he hear Rufus? Peter raced to the screen door and opened it. He stepped onto the veranda. “Rufus!” As he took the stairs, he felt something strike the back of his head. The force was so great that he toppled forward. He struggled to get away as he pulled himself along the ground. Crawling in his own blood, he was sure he heard his dog.
Rufus sprinted up to his master and barked. “Hey, boy,” Peter moaned.
“Oh my God, Gabriel!”
The distant wail of his mother’s voice reminded him of the way Gabe faded the final notes of Taps.
“Put that hammer down. Now, Gabriel!” The fear he heard in his pa’s voice scared him. Peter struggled to get up.
He felt a searing explosion and lost consciousness.