Brother David

J.A Pak

J.A. Pak’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines, from UpRightDown to Quarterly West, Everyday Genius to Kartika. She’s currently working on a blog novella called So Easy To Love. Her home website is
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My brother David was my savior. Even in his dreams. He didn’t have a Christ complex; I was just that much of a fuck-up. Poor David. He was seven years old when he had this dream: I’d pissed off God and got sent straight to hell. What could he do but trudge on down to hell and get me. He said I wasn’t too happy to see him. I was running around with all the other kids who’d ended up in hell, too stupid to realize hell wasn’t a fun place to be. Saviors should know gratitude does not come with the job. David saves me in my dreams too. Whether it’s ghouls from the Living Dead or some creep trying to break into my apartment, when David shows up, I think, “Where were you? Couldn’t you have come sooner?” Once, when I was in college, he drove seven hours straight to get me to the abortion clinic. I’d waited until the last second to tell him. David had been in the middle of a tournament—he was a pro golfer and he was just on the brink of making real money. The thing about David–he never reprimanded. He just accepted—expected—I’d fuck up. He was fine with it. He was so laid back, he never got mad at anything anyway. But then, he didn’t get a bad deal—I did the fucking-up for the both of us.

David had a nice three-bedroom house with a pool. Spanish-style with a sloping terra cotta roof. He’d bought the house with me in mind. Since dropping out of college, I’d been his semi-permanent loafer. I’d never been able to keep a job, or a home. These were my reasons: various accidents, bad economy, 30th birthday, emergency appendectomy, boredom, heartbreak. This time things weren’t so terrible when a freak boiler accident blew up my apartment building.

“Do you think it’s just me?” I asked him, hugging my garbage bags of blown-up recoverables close to me. I didn’t have much; I didn’t believe in accumulations.

David smiled and gave me a big-brother hug.

Three days after the boiler blow-up, David found out he had brain cancer. He had six months to live.

Cancer ran in my family. Now that sounds odd. Like it’s a talent. Maybe it is. Maybe there was some benefit to our plague that we just weren’t seeing. Generation after generation wiped out by cancer, usually after all the reproduction was done and the next generation was safely past infancy. Both our parents were dead, my father from lung cancer and my mother from ovarian. We used to joke about it daily, our turn, what would get us. David was only thirty-four. It was supposed to wait. He hadn’t procreated yet.

“Not to worry,” David said, cheerfully. “Doctors always get this stuff wrong. I probably have a year.”

I’d never seen David worry, I’d never seen him cry. Sometimes I think all I do is cry. If there was a nation of “me”s, we’d have a thousand words for tears.

David began arranging things pretty quickly. He knew what to do; he’d been preparing for this moment most of his life. He had a will leaving everything to me. I was his only family. The house he transferred into my name. And then we planned out his living will, organ donations, the other miscellany of death.

Watching him, I thought, my god, you’d think he was enjoying it. He’d waited so long, caching the anticipation in his jokes, and now—it was a release.

All that legal stuff had both of us beat. At the end of a very bad day, we just sat together on the couch imitating zombies.

“You know what I have a craving for?” David suddenly said. “Remember those cookies Mom used to make when we were little? The ones with the maraschino cherries in the middle?”

“I remember those!”

“They were star shaped, swirly kinds of things. I’d like to eat one of those before I die.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about the sugar cookies—David’s craving had become my craving. I’d have killed for one of Mom’s sugar cookies. I even woke up hungry, tasting sugar in my mouth. It wasn’t even daylight when David found me in the garage, rummaging like a mouse through the cardboard boxes of junk our parents had left behind and which we had lovingly preserved in a pseudo negligent state.

“What are you looking for?” David asked. He’d gotten up, thinking someone was trying to break into the house.

“The recipe for those cookies,” I said. “It’s gotta be here somewhere.”

“What a mess.” He got on the floor and helped me search. “Mom’s life. Our childhood. In recipes. There’s a movie in there, somewhere.”

We sifted through thousands of little clipped out recipes and scribbled notes. I found more than a dozen sugar cookie recipes—none containing cherries.

“She could have just stuck the cherries on,” I said. “She was always adding her own touch.”

“You’re right. But which one?”

“Process of elimination?”

I started baking.

After the eighth recipe, I despaired. “How long do you have?”

“I’ll hold on until you find the right one.”

“A lose-lose situation. I’m used to that.”

As word spread about David’s imminent death, every day was a cascade of well-meaning visitors. Even my friend Trudy who I hadn’t seen in years came by. She’d always had a crush on David, which she kept saying, blubbering like a baby, “I’ve always had a crush on you—I’ve always had a crush on you—”

I guess imminent death turns you into a confessor. There was always some guilty secret someone had to confess—oftentimes not even involving David at all. I’d listen from the kitchen, baking and listening, baking and listening. When the cookies were ready, I’d bring them in for the visitor to try. David made the verdict after we were alone: too dry, too soft, too much sugar, too much salt, too chewy, not chewy enough. I had high hopes for the one with the sour cream in it. Great cookie, wrong flavor. We rated all the recipes and decided to try combining our two favorites. From then on, it was simply a matter of fine adjusting, baking over and over again. I began to wonder just what David was remembering. There was no way he could remember the exact taste of the cookies, and yet he was so sure of what he wanted, what he was remembering.

In the meanwhile, the death visitors kept coming. I wanted to put up a sign on the door saying, “Death does not want you. Go away.” We were getting way too many visitors. So David and I started sneaking off on long drives. He’d put the car seat down as low as possible, dozing, while I drove us up to the mountains or down to the coast. We spent more and more days far from home.

“People are really pathetic,” I said, complaining about all the weird, sometimes even obnoxious things people were saying. We’d driven two hours to Rock `Round The Cluck, a retro fifties-style hamburger drive-in that specialized in chicken wings, deep-fried, barbecued, honeyed, baked, crumbed, crusted, Texas-sized, miniaturized, Asianized, vegetarian—the list was ridiculous. The wings stank, but the burgers were good.

The weather was beautiful and we had the roof of David’s BMW convertible down. I was getting that too.

“Why is it that your death is just an excuse for people to whine and whine about themselves?”

“We’re all self indulgent,” David said, sipping his root beer float.

“Not you. You’re a saint.”

“A form of self-indulgence.”

“Come on.”

“Hey, look at my life. It’s nothing but self indulgence. I play golf for a living.”

“How do you think it’ll get me?”


“Mom had ovarian. All the aunts had breast. Dad had lung. And he didn’t even smoke. Remember what a health nut he was? Thank god, the rest of us are more relaxed about it. Liver. Who had liver? Dad’s dad? No he had stomach. God, this is so fucked-up. I thought we only fall in love with people with the best gene pools. What is wrong with our family? The second we smell cancer and that’s it? Is it the chemo? Is that what turns us on? In all probability, I’ll get breast. You think I should get rid of my breasts? Have them surgically removed?”

“Sure. And your ovaries. Womb. Liver. Lung. Cancer. Brain.”

“Brain’s a new one, isn’t it? You’re the anomaly, David.”

“You know what? I think you’re going to be the true anomaly. I think you’re going to live until you’re a hundred.”

“Decrepit and in La-La land. I’m going to be all alone.”

It hit us both at the same time. I was going to be all alone.

“You know what I want to do?” David sat up. “Let’s go up Cramer’s Point.”

“I can’t. I can’t.”

“I’ll drive. One last time. Trust me. They’ll be nothing to worry about. Cramer Point. You and me. Together. We can do it.”

“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

“Hey, hey, okay, we won’t go. Don’t get upset. We’ll just drive home. Take the extra scenic route. Hey, don’t cry. Come on, sweetheart, there’s no need to cry.”

Cramer’s Point was on top of a vicious hill. The road—if you can call it that—was near vertical and barely big enough for one car. The locals called the hill The Evil Knievel. I couldn’t even drive over bridges. Once when I was eleven, we took a family holiday to Austria and Dad decided we had to drive up Gross Glockner. I was so scared I threw up. The funny thing was, I was more scared driving up than driving down. Something about climbing into the clouds, the crashing waterfalls, the car creeping up the winding road, the miles of mountain side exposed. Why wasn’t I scared going down? It was more dangerous going down.

David loved driving up Cramer’s Point, racing as fast as he could, up and down. That was his ultimate girlfriend test. If the girl screamed out of fear, he’d eventually dump her. David had never married.

And then Natasha suddenly showed up. She and David had been buddies since junior high school. She was the one who’d introduced David to Cramer’s Point, daredeviling her way down the cliff side without a change of expression. It was the closest they ever got to sex. I’d never liked her. She was morose. It didn’t help that she only wore black. And her hair was black too, long and straight, and naturally ashy black, her skin white like fine, see-through china. She didn’t wear a scrap of makeup, but her eyelashes were so dark, and with her eyes such a sapped blue, she was startling to look at.

“When’d you get back into town?” David asked, excited. He’d been trying to get in touch with her. Natasha spent her life backpacking across the world, solo style. Not really fit for human companionship, she stuck to remote, depopulated areas. Preferably without any species of monkeys. She claimed they were as bad as people, latching onto her for days at a time, convinced she was one of them and needed companionship like she needed to eat. They were genetically incapable of thinking outside that box, like none of us could understand a universe that wasn’t three dimensional. Like none of us could understand Natasha.

David had been sleeping when she’d come a knocking and I was telling her to come back later when he’d called out to her. He slept a great deal now, falling asleep to books on tape. He couldn’t read anymore—just too tiring.

“Been around for awhile,” she said. “Dombey and Sons?”

David shut off the stereo.

“David’s decided to make his way through Dickens,” I volunteered.

“I had no idea he wrote so much. He just goes on and on and on.”

“Paid by the word,” Natasha said.

“How you been?” she asked me. “Heard your apartment building blew up.”

“It was the worst day of my life. I was fired, my apartment blew up. But in retrospect, it was a good thing I wasn’t fired a day earlier, or I’d been home and I’d have been the only casualty. It’s embarrassing being the only casualty.”

“Saved for a purpose,” Natasha said.

“A higher purpose,” David said.

I left them to it.

“You know what she is?” I said to David after Natasha left. “One of the Living Dead.”

“Shut up.”

“You only have to look at her. God, you know who she’s a dead ringer for, don’t you? Natasha. You know—Natasha from Bullwinkle. Boris? I mean her name’s even Natasha. See—television does have a bad influence on the young.”

“Shut up.”

“You’ve always been in love with her.”


“So obvious. I simply don’t see the attraction. She’s so depressed all the time.”

“Depression suits her,” he said, smiling in a love-sick kinda way.

“That is fucking sick, David.”

“I’m sleepy, so sleepy.”

“Alright, I’ll leave you alone.”

She started coming almost every day. The nice thing was that she scared away all the other visitors. She could do that. With just one stare. Scare people away.

“You’re running out of time,” I said to David. “Just tell her you love her. God knows, no one else is going to love her.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s cute when you’re chivalrous, although I think chivalry is wasted on Natasha. It’s like being chivalrous to Grendal’s mom.”

“Shut up.”

And then she started coming every day, and she’d stay the whole day. I was mostly in the kitchen, listening, baking. Finally, one day, David began to make his move.

“I sort of had a crush on you in high school,” he said, coyly.

“I sort of had a crush on you in high school.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“Why didn’t you say something?”


“You want to go fuck?” she said.

Almost in an instant David was calling out, “I’m going over to Natasha’s for a couple of hours.”

“Have a good time,” I called out.

I was so close to getting this recipe. I’d even hunted down an extra sticky, chewy maraschino cherry that didn’t harden up like burnt up rubber in the oven. What was it? What was it that was missing? I could almost taste it. Almost. It was driving me insane. I fell asleep, dreaming about cookies. Can cookies taunt you?

David and Natasha were now inseparable. They were always touching, sometimes just by their fingertips. It was like David’s cancer had sprouted Natasha. They were even beginning to mirror each other like psycho twins. If David was nodding, Natasha was nodding, if David was smiling, Natasha was smiling. His hand went up, her hand went up.

“You guys are creeping me out.”

“We’re creeping each other out,” David said. I swear Natasha was mouthing the words. Not that her mouth was moving. I wasn’t complaining, not really, because Natasha was causing a miracle cure. David had more energy: he talked more, ate more, laughed more. The pink shade of his skin had come back. He looked so alive and happy. Happiness is better than faith. Happiness can cure anyone of anything.

I kept expecting David and Natasha to come home one day and say, “Hey, let’s go. We’re getting married.” And we’d rush off to City Hall, because, let’s face it, Natasha was never going to wear a wedding dress, even if it was black. And churches and Holy Water, and crosses? Might be bad for her health.

One morning, I woke up and knew what the missing ingredient was. I screamed with joy, threw on my clothes and drove like a maniac to the local supermarket. I presented the cookies to David and Natasha.

“Bugles please,” I said. “This is it. This is it.”

David and Natasha took a bite.

“Ho, ho!” David laughed. “This is it. My god, this is it.”

He looked at the cookie in his hand as if he held a perfect diamond.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” I asked, crying with joy.

“So what was it? What was the missing ingredient?” David asked.

“Almond extract.”

“Almond extract? How in the world did you figure that out?”

“Mom told me.”


“Okay, last night I was dreaming—you know, one of those banal dreams you never remember—and suddenly Mom pops out of nowhere. Only it’s just her head. And it’s huge. And she looks right at me and says, `Almond extract.'”

David laughed. “That’s it. My life is complete. I can die a happy man.”

“Me, too,” I said.
Of course, life after that became anti-climatic.

“Anything else you have a craving for?” I asked David. It’d been nice, having something to strive for. It was nice, not being a fuck-up. It was nice taking care of David. It was nice, not crying.

“Keep cooking for me,” he said. He looked tired but happy. So happy. He had the sweetest smile. I loved him so much. For such a long time, he’d been my mom and dad and grandma and grandpa—just everyone.

Life was also a bit lonely. David was always with Natasha. Sometimes they’d spend the night at the house, but more and more they were spending time elsewhere. And of course, lovebirds that they were, their plans weren’t going to include me. I was going to have to find a new place to live; I was going to have to find a new job. And maybe not count on David so much. Make him retire his savior role. Because you know what happens when your brother gets married. He’s the wife’s. He becomes the wife’s savior. Although, in this case, I don’t know. In a sane world, I’d be saving David from Natasha. I shouldn’t be so mean. But old habits die hard. I guess I sort of liked ragging on poor Natasha.

Then it happened. A wedding of sorts, I guess. On the evening of their choice, in complete secrecy, the couple drove off Cramer’s Point in a dramatic David and Natasha greets death maneuver. They didn’t bother telling me. I found out through the policeman-knocking-on-your-door-mode-of communication. So I was the next-of-kin and sole inheritor.


Why didn’t he take me?

© J.A. Pak

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