THURSDAY: Keeping Family Secrets

BY GARY SMITH JR.

Copyright is held by the author.

BEN IS like a brother to me. I know that’s cliché, especially when talking about your brother-in-law. Being cliché doesn’t make it any less true. Ben is so much like a brother that it creeped me out when Jen started dating him. For the first couple years, my skin crawled every time I thought about it. My sister and Ben sucking face made me want to vomit. It took five years before I could handle seeing them kiss without shivering. By then they were married and little Jessica was starting to crawl.

Ben is like a brother, Jen is my only sibling, and Jessica, now 13, is my only niece. To say that I am a big part of the family would be understating the situation. My bedroom is upstairs, next to Ben and Jen’s, across the hall from Jessica’s. This little family of four is my life. A happy, comfortable life.

Ben and Jen don’t argue often. When their voices do start to rise I take Jessica out for ice cream, or shopping, or to a movie. By the time we get home, Ben and Jen are all hugs and smiles. Their fights never last long or become serious. Sometimes I think the only reason they argue is that making up brings them closer.

The longest I’ve seen them stay mad at each other was around 24 hours. I don’t know what they were fighting about. I doubt they remember what it was about. The fight wasn’t important. That night was important for another reason. That was the night Ben shared his secret with me.

It’s a good thing I believe in keeping family secrets.

We had just finished eating dinner. Jen and Ben were cleaning up together. Jessica was making me watch a new web show that all the girls her age were watching. I was nearing the point where I couldn’t keep from telling her how stupid it was, when I heard Jen’s voice get loud. It was time to take Jessica out for some time together.

We decided to try the new frozen yogurt place because “Ice cream is for babies, Uncle James.” I promised Jessica that we would bring some yogurt back for her mom and dad. By the time we closed the front door behind us I could tell that we would need to take our time. This fight sounded serious.

The new FROYO place was so packed that taking our time would be easy. We walked in and got in the back of the line. I was the only person in the building over 20 years old, including the manager and servers. When it was time to order, I made my choice based mostly on appearances. Vanilla was one of the few options that didn’t look girly or silly.

I decided that I preferred full service ice cream. If I wanted to add my own toppings I would make an ice cream sundae at home. My frozen treat ended up being very plain. It tasted more like a chemical mixture than ice cream. Next time I would insist on a movie or real ice cream, though Jessica seemed to enjoy her colourful heap of candies and cookie pieces.

When we got back, with two medium tropical flavoured frozen yogurts, the house was quiet and felt empty. I didn’t see Jen or Ben downstairs. I sat their yogurts on the kitchen island as Jessica ran upstairs to her room and closed the door. I looked around the kitchen. No obvious signs that anything had gotten out of hand or too crazy while we were gone. There was light coming through the glass door between the kitchen and the back yard.

I slid the door to the side and stepped onto the back patio to see Ben sitting in a lawn chair smoking. On the glass top table next to him were an ashtray, a nearly empty glass, and a Jim Beam bottle, just as empty. Ben smoked when he was stressed. He drank when he was mad. This must have been a big argument.

Jen and Ben never had long lasting, serious, marriage ending issues. They were one of the few genuinely happy couples I had ever been around. Unworried, I took the seat on the other side of the small table and asked, “How you doing, Ben?”

Noticing me for the first time, Ben looked up and said “Hey James. Grab a glass.” His speech wasn’t slurred, but his eyes were as glossed over as I’d ever seen them.

I didn’t move to get up or say anything. He would open up more if I let him do so in his own time. If I prodded or pushed he would shut down or become defensive.

“I thought all this ended when I killed that bastard,” Ben said.

Now I was worried. I knew who Ben was talking about. Anyone in town would know who Ben was talking about if they heard him say that he had killed somebody. It was a popular rumor even though there had never been proof or official charges.

Tommy Wilkens had been a local outcast. During high school a girl accused him of rape. After high school his wife accused him of serious abuse before leaving town. The whole town accused him of being a thief, a deviant, and a drug dealer.

Three months after marrying Jen, Ben noticed Tommy hiding behind a bush in front of their house. He chased him off. A week later Ben chased Tommy down the street after finding him hiding in a tree across the street. Ben found cigarette butts in the back yard, a burger wrapper in the side. At least once a week, Ben saw signs that he believed meant that Tommy was spying on his family. He grew furious and scared.

Ben grew angrier when Jen would say, “He’s harmless, Ben. Just ignore him.” Ben was a new husband and there was a threat to his new family. He wasn’t interested in ignoring this vagrant, and criminal that was endangering his loved ones.

One day Ben stopped worrying and Tommy went away. When Tommy disappeared it took months for the town to notice. He was a permanent fixture in town. He was also ignored. Most people in town thought their lives, their neighbourhood, and their town would be a better place without Tommy.

It didn’t matter that the girl who accused Tommy of rape, accused three other men at different times. She sued every business owner in town for one reason or another. She sued the government a few times. She spent more time in court than most lawyers, and never won a case.

It didn’t matter that Tommy’s wife returned to town shortly after leaving, to visit the police. She dropped all charges and told them that she was worried what people would think if she left her husband for no apparent reason so she made up the abuse charges. She called the local paper as well. They didn’t write anything about the charges being phony even though the initial scandal had been big headlines.

Now, years later, on the back patio, Ben looked up with his glassy eyes and said, “I had to James. Tommy was obsessed with Jen. He was going to hurt her. I know it.”

It’s a good thing I believe in keeping family secrets.

Tommy would not have hurt Jen. I know that. But, Ben didn’t.

“Ben,” I said in my most sincere voice. “You did what you thought was best.”

Ben grinned sadly at me. “I knew you would understand, James. You know I’m not a bad man.” He picked up his glass and drank the last of the melted ice.

I didn’t know if Ben had any more to say. My mouth was too dry to say more. My legs were too weak to stand, so I silently waited.

After sitting the empty glass on the table, Ben continued, “I almost couldn’t do it. The hardest part was that he didn’t fight back. He let me beat him. When I picked up the rock, he didn’t hold his hands up or anything.”

Ben looked me in the eyes. I’m not sure if he was making sure I was paying attention, or seeing if I was horrified. I tried not to show what I was feeling.

Ben looked down at his feet and said, “He didn’t try to stop me physically. He told me he had a disease.”

Ben paused and shrugged, “I guess he thought that would stop me from killing him. I was sitting on his chest with this huge rock in both hands, and he said, ‘I have Huntington’s disease.’ He didn’t ask me to stop. He didn’t beg for his life. He told me he had a disease like he was telling me that he had a cat.”

Ben picked up his empty glass and stared into it, disappointed. I still didn’t trust my legs to stand, or my mouth to form the right words, or I may have taken Ben up on that drink offer just then. There was at least one more bottle of liquor in the house.

He sat the glass back down and continued, “I had to look it up later. After I buried him, cleaned myself up, and crashed for about two days, I looked up Huntington’s disease. It’s some hereditary disease that kills people slowly. I guess he thought I would pity him.”

Sitting back hard and running his fingers through his hair Ben said, “I did pity him later. Part of me did at least. Another part of me felt like I had done him a favour. He wouldn’t have to suffer. That was after I killed him, though. At the time I just wanted him gone.”

I didn’t respond. Ben didn’t look at me, or look like he was expecting a response. He continued, “I thought that all of our problems would be over once he was gone. We wouldn’t have to worry. We wouldn’t have to involve that fat lazy sheriff we had back then. It was best for all of us if Tommy was gone.”    

Ben sighed deeply then stood on unsteady legs. He looked at me again and said, “Now, it’s all we fight about though. Jen’s always bringing up how irrational I was then, how I don’t handle things right, how jealous and unreasonable I can be. And, for all she knows Tommy just left town.”

Ben didn’t know that his wife never thought Tommy just left town. She always believed that Ben had hurt Tommy and run him off somehow. She never told Ben, but she thinks about it every day.

Pausing at the door Ben said, “I’m going up to make up with Jen. Thank you for listening, James. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

I didn’t notice him walking in and barely recognized the noise of the door closing. I was in shock. If I had tried to stand, my legs would have been more unstable than Ben’s.

It’s a good thing I believe in keeping family secrets.

Not Ben’s. He’s like a brother. He’s not my brother.

Jen is my only sibling.

I will keep her secret.

I will also need to let Jen know that Jessica should be tested for Huntington’s disease soon though.

2 comments
  1. I really like the twist at the end. Well-disguised so I didn’t see it coming. Great story.

  2. I know someone with Huntington’s, so this hit hard. The one that I know has had it for about fifteen years. I also did not see the twist coming. It is a hereditary disease. If one partner has it, the chance of a child having it is high.

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