2. The Sign.
The signpost crucifies the dusky sky.
Elijah waits. He arrives an hour after he told Jeremiah to get there.
3 hours before they need to get Lucky from the prison.
He feels the sickness inside of him. It racks his body. He retches and lurches up a gutsful of thick, black blood. He spits in the dust again and again, until his saliva is white and frothy. He paws his heel in the dirt, mixing the blood into mud.
People could never believe Elijah and Jeremiah were brothers. Jeremiah was a drunk and a gambler and a pathetic romantic, but he had bad points too. Elijah gripped life with such jittering intensity, that any joy dripped away, drop by drop, through his mitts.
It is still an hour and a half till Jeremiah arrives.
He drags his shadow in the late fall sky.
Ely squints and scowls and Jeremiah returns the stare.
- You’re late.
Jeremiah shrugs, what’s an hour? A year is a long time.
The punch to the head is a surprise. A year of hard labor has turned Ely’s skinny frame into leather and muscle, the effects of the disease too slight to notice.
Jeremiah takes the first blows unflinching, but after his eyebrow splits in two, the haze of laudanum cracks and he flails and bursts Ely’s nose.
Elijah’s wiry hands clamp down on Jeremiah’s neck, the veins in his forehead bloat as slugs after the rain.
Jeremiah’s vision blurs through his bloodshot eyes, he snarls and snaps and he chomps at Ely’s hand like cornered game, rust trickles to his mouth.
They leap apart. If Ely damages his hands, it is worse than death.
- How are you, Jeremiah?
- Fine. You?
- I’m fine. You look thin. You back on the medicine?
They have both lied. Elijah is anything but fine and Jeremiah- well, on technicality, Miah never really stopped, so he isn’t using again.
Ely scans his brother. Jeremiah is dressed extravagant as is his custom; a top hat and long indigo cloak stitched with scraps of fabric from a near dozen cultures, chunks of gold and turquoise and navajo jewelry; cuff links, pocket watch, tie clip and strange trinkets, all worn and scratched.
These would have been lusted after flawless and then bought and treated with indifference that borders on disdain.
Underneath that white shirt, dark indian ink slithers onto his skin. The simple text around his wrist - Never Give Up - has been attacked, the first word obliterated by thick scar tissue.
How had they grown so far apart?
They wait for Lucky to be released, in silence. There is nothing to say.
Without him, they had gone their separate ways – Elijah to work down the mines, to send money back to his wife and baby girl.
Where Jeremiah went, God only knows, maybe only the devil herself.
This was how it had always been with them. They lacked the nuance to debate, they lacked any sense of shade and so conversation was near impossible.
Miah’s hedonism fueled Ely’s neuroses.
They fall into familiar patterns as easy as old lovers to new beds.
Jeremiah stares at him long and hard. The waistcoat, ribbon tie and pocket handkerchief that were his brother’s uniform are gone. Ely had always seen himself as elegant, an upperclass artisan - though his innate lack of style had always made him look like a book keeper. The miner’s overalls were an actual improvement, though they were ever clean in a way that would have alienated him down the tunnels.
Jeremiah is relieved by how healthy Elijah looks.
He wished he ain’t been late.
He wished he ain’t been so sedated.
It is like they can’t help but see each other as they were, rather than as they are.
- It’s good to see you, Elijah.
- I know.
It’s the first true thing he’s said. And that makes him uneasy.
That warmth hangs in the cool night sky, it feels unusual for both of them.
- I need to see her, Miah. I need to see Ameliene soon.
- What does Lucky say?
- He wants to come home.
Jeremiah is impassive.
- We forget the tour?
- We play the whole way back.
Jeremiah tries not to let the grin crack his face in two and he concentrates on the suspicion that comes natural to him around Elijah.
- You happy to play together again Ely? I thought you said-
- Are you?
They threaten smiles.
And like that, it was decided.
And in that moment, they are the two kids with scabbed knees who would share a bed so they could wake up together, ready to throw rocks at wagons, sneak onto locomotives, the boys who would release snakes and scorpions into the markets, before running wild into the woods.
Jeremiah always worshipped Elijah when they were boys, running at the heels of his big brother. Lucky even then, caught in his own thoughts.
- Let’s go the low road.
- The high road will get us to the prison quicker.
- You never even been-
- I still can read a map-
They had promised each other they could change.
As the saying goes, the road to oblivion is cobbled by the corpses of good intent. Everything else is mere detour.