Deceptive Cadence

Corben Horten

“Charlie,” my mother says over dinner. “Pass the salt.” I watch my brother’s long, delicate fingers wrap around the saltshaker as he presses it to my mother’s short, stubby digits. My brother’s hands were made to play the piano. This is what my mother tells him in rapturous whispers. She loves music but lacks the finesse with which to evoke melodies from those ivory teeth like Charlie can.

“Vic,” my father says to me as he watches his knife cut apart the steak on his plate, “eat your food.” I can’t—I know that the white flakes sprinkled on the meat are really just salt mixed in among other seasonings, but every grain reminds me of that euphoric look in Charlie’s eyes as he stared into open air, overwhelmed by the substance I saw him devouring. So, I don’t eat. It’s easier to pick, to play with, to push around. My father chews on in silence, unbothered.

A week later we sit in the soft, dim light of an immense auditorium as Charlie plays for the stunned audience packed into every red-cushioned seat available. I read the brochure that pictures my brother’s dazzling smile on the cover. The words are hard to make out and the sound of my brother’s fingers making the piano cry wash away the melodic chords I try to hold onto.

Charlie finishes his last song with a crescendo of music that ends in the notes of our parents’ uproarious applause. He bows to the entire congregation of people who have assembled here. They cheer his brilliance, and I see the prideful satisfaction in his eyes as he takes it all in, his chest swelling with that same rapturous bliss that I see played over and over again in my mind.

He is a god to these sycophants. I alone am the unbelieving; knowledge has stolen my faith in him.

I excuse myself and find the bathroom. The vision of his grin is the only thing I can see as I vomit into a toilet while the distant percussion of all those clapping hands cheers me on as my stomach contracts for an encore.

“That was wonderful, Charlie!” My mother’s fat, trembling fingers caress his flushed cheek.

“Vic,” my father says quietly to me as he pulls his phone out of his pocket. “Take a picture of your mother and brother.” I reach out and accept the phone from him, careful to avoid the hairy, calloused fingers that speak to my father’s strength as a man. I watch him weave between silk-covered tables across the large, fancy dining room in pursuit of a waiter carrying a tray of champagne glasses.

Though I earned my driver’s license eight months ago, he will drunkenly refuse to let me drive us home. My mother will whisper to me, “It’s just how he is. Now fix the seat cover for your brother; I don’t want his suit to get dirty.” I will sit silently as my mother makes sacrifices at Charlie’s feet while my father struggles to stay in our lane. “I took on a few extra shifts this month to pay for your plane ticket to Albert Hall. I’ve already spoken with your instructor, and he’s bought his ticket for the 18th of next month, so he’ll be able to fly with you and help you navigate London.”

She will have completely forgotten that I asked for a new winter jacket two days ago since my last one was ripped apart at the seams in our washing machine. This will remind me of how she bought a new suit for his eighteenth birthday a few months ago but couldn’t afford to pay for the cost of my class’s field trip two weeks before that.

Right now, though, I try to fit my brother and mother within the view of the camera. “Oh, Vic,” our mother says as her hand flutters to the curls of her short hair upon seeing the phone in

my raised hands. “Give me a moment.” She pulls a tube of red lipstick from her small purse and applies it to her lips before making small popping noises with her mouth. Hidden, Charlie rolls his eyes in annoyance. My finger twitches to touch the screen of our father’s phone and capture this rare break in his façade. But then our mother turns to him, and he is her son once again.

I freeze this moment in time for our mother to look back on until the day our father will throw his phone in frustration and despair and lose this unsaved memory forever. She is smiling, right arm wrapped around my brother’s waist, head pressed to his shoulder. He grins lazily, hands in the pockets of his suit pants that our mother worked sixteen hours of overtime to afford.

They separate when I lower the phone. It’s difficult to tell who pulls apart from who. Our mother, who envies Charlie’s gift and puckers her lips at his lack of wonder for the music he plays? Or Charlie, whose eyes have been caught by flesh swaddled in a red dress across the room?

No one speaks to me. I stand in a dim corner, a single Bluetooth earbud hidden by long strands of hair that my mother occasionally catches in her hands and tuts at as if she can cut them with a scowl. Drums, loud and fast, ride along the strings of a guitar while the raw voice of a man sings about a wasteland of corpses walking their dogs and taking their kids to school. My brother once saw my phone’s screen as I listened to music, and before I could stop him, he’d leaned close enough to read the song’s artist and title.

A few hours later he had found me in my room and said, as if he’d just checked the weather outside, “They’re pretty trash.” I’d stared at him until a corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk and he returned upstairs to his own room.

The night ends. Drunken father, sacrificing mother, silent me. Charlie’s hands twitch in his lap on the drive home, and I watch the tips of his fingers bounce against one another from the shadows. Our father pulls into the driveway, nearly hitting the curb, and kills the engine. He stumbles out of his seat and our mother quickly exits the car to help him walk inside to bed despite his protests.

Charlie and I sit in the car and watch them enter the house. For a moment I feel as if I do not exist; right now, the world has turned its eyes on Charlie and waits for his next move. “I’m tired,” he tells it as he opens the car door. “Think I’ll head to bed.” He shuts the door behind him and follows our parents inside.

I sit separated from the world, watching as if from behind a pane of glass. I am a spectator. Nothing more.

I’ve grown accustomed to his routine. Play the piano. Stun the audience. Lavish in their praise. Act the prodigal son.

These are the things he lets people see. But his secret knows me, and it reels me in towards his darkened room at three in the morning where no one is left to witness him, to look to him like a deity. I push open the door and step into darkness. My shaking hand flips the light switch, and I find him sprawled on his bed in a puddle of his own drool. His open, unblinking eyes stare at me. There is something missing there, stolen by the glaze that has overtaken them.

Charlie hadn’t realized I was there when he inhaled those lines of white, crystalline powder on his desk and threw his head back in rapturous bliss so long ago. I’d watched from the darkness of the hallway outside his barely open door as he sniffled and shuddered, finally free to relinquish the Lieto fine he so often played for others. He didn’t know that with each shuddering breath and every sigh of ecstasy he was shackling this moment to my mind forever and making me its prisoner.

I gag him so that his body is forced to eject the poison he fed it into the toilet of his bathroom. Unconscious though his mind may be, his body recognizes this pattern. It doesn’t fight me as I force it to expel even more of whatever he put into it.

I clean him up and place him back in his bed, too tired to care that he’s still wearing the suit from his performance. Besides, removing it would risk the possibility of questions, and I wouldn’t be able to offer any answers.

Later while lying in my bed, I hold my hands above my face to examine my fingers: the long, delicate digits my brother and I share, though mine have a bit of the meat of my mother’s. They are not fingers meant for piano, and I am able to breathe as I think this thought to myself. They are not fingers like his.

About the author

Corben Horton is a senior of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. After graduating, he plans to attend graduate school to pursue a doctorate in Creative Writing in order to teach at a university. His desperate, impossible dream goal is to become a published author in the fantasy genre in the next six years, and he’s currently working on a manuscript that he hopes will be accepted for publication after it’s finished.


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Frontier Mosaic Copyright © 2023 by Corben Horten is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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