The line in the sand was bold and it was straight. Three men stood and stared at the line, it separated one from two. For each man, the line possessed a varying weight of consequence. The consequence of the line, of each individual decision, also bound them together. Even the wind seemed to recognize the gravity of the drawn ultimatum, stopping so it would not be altered or swept away.
The One stood alone, hands clenched by his side. His face was crisped by heat and lashed by wind. The One clamped his eye-lids shut, shielding brown irises from the unobstructed sun. Shuttered vision deferred the tragedy un-spooling on the other side of the line.
The Two stood side by side. The oldest of the pair fidgeted with his hands. His green, buttoned shirt was stained and greasy to touch. Despite the heat, it was buttoned to the collar- a habit formed in in the fields of Mississippi when he was a teenager. The youngest of the duo ground the stubble on his chin with grimy fingers. Neither man vocalized troubling thoughts festering in their minds- spoken words were not trusted. They did not look at each other. Avoidance.
The One opened his eyes, relaxed his hands, and asked, “What's it going to be?” The sun forced The Two to squint. Sweat stung their eyes. They could not see The One's face, it was blurred. They looked down. The One stepped closer to the line. He was trying to remain calm, trying to dampen flaring rage. Restraints holding simmering madness were buckling. His own desperation distorted perceptions of time and the effort of others. He saw only himself as TRYING, as DOING SOMETHING to get out of their current predicament. The One smacked his dried lips and croaked, “I'm not waiting anymore.”
The oldest of The Two, who could still muster words from a ragged vocabulary in frenzied desertion, asked, “What do you want me to say, David?”
The desperate plea was countered by silence.
The only voice to address The One: David, was compelled to say more. He wanted to reason, to bargain, to even fight. He wanted to yell: “He's my brother! How can I make this choice?” He needed a way around the line. He knew he was stalling. Instinct. The youngest of The Two, whose mistake had forced the three to run, swayed. His eyes were unfixed and drifted over the landscape. He saw David standing beyond the line, alone and agitated. He saw his brother and knew something was wrong. His grasp of their circumstance was loosening, he was confused. He pinched sweat from the corner of his eyes, but that irritated them more. Whatever reserves of will and spirit he had once possessed were gone. He could not continue, not on his own. He said nothing.
The elder brother's thoughts rushed at his mouth, reaching to explode in the air between he and the line. His lips barred the path. Words and emotions were corralled within haunting introspection. Some unknown part of himself, hidden in a place unfamiliar, knew that speaking would not shift David's position or alter their circumstance. Questioning and reasoning and bargaining would not ease the titanic load of divisive choice and arresting decision. He needed to act, to choose. It was the consequence of action that mattered. He twitched with an impulse to scatter the line, to erase it. But, he didn't. And then, a bolt of clarity revealed that the line existed, drawn or not. He heard Old Mr. Talley's voice, “You might as well piss into the wind, boy.” Judgment was unavoidable. A fool would understand that much.
David turned from the line. He admired sand climbing for the sky and watched birds, flecks of black: flying, soaring, and gliding upon bursts of wind. Momentary distractions could not erase or blot the remorse he felt that there was no alternative to the desperate and sad ending. He and the two brothers had worked together for a long time. He cared about them. He had taken care of them. Accumulated time, however, wasn't blood. His father, glassy eyed and dim from a bout of drinking, slurred that sentiment to him, David's only inheritance, one night when he was nine. David did not follow all of his father's advice, nor was much given, but that calloused wisdom remained. He did not know if it was because he believed it or if it was his personal resignation that he was his father's son. David had never been shown his potential. Where he came from though, that was repeatedly beaten into his brain by the cold indifference of adults who judged him by the actions of his old man- his future had been foretold before he had lived. When his father died, killed by a store owner tired of thugs and unwilling to give his money away, outside of Sacramento, he was a family of one, and despite his affection for The Two, he could not, even if he had wanted, afford an offering of sympathy. Sharing such sentiments would help no one. Not then, and probably never. He had bent his rules more than he ever had for the brothers, but he had a limit. There were always limits. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the spreading headache behind his eyes, and said, “I've helped as much as I can, Brian. Stay. Or, cross the goddamned line.”
Brian could no longer delay the moment that had seized all that had been and all there ever would be. His conscience was under siege. He felt the panic of a drowning man: futility of action and tragic inevitability. To stay was certain death. To continue on did not guarantee survival. Could I leave my brother if he surrenders? Brian asked himself. He had only choices void of hope. The pressure of David's cold prompting, anguished contemplations, and the taunting line unraveled Brian's remaining threads of sanity. Brian screamed with feral ferocity. His brother covered his ears and looked at the line. David clenched his jaw. Brian's mind faded to black.
Dragged straight and deep, with the heel of David's deteriorating boots, the line was a mechanism of survival. David had watched the third continue to weaken. He saw Brian losing his own resilience, step by step, wasting dwindling reserves of strength worrying about his younger brother. David forced the confrontation because he knew they could not reach the border as a trio. He did not envy Brian's position nor could he foresee the beleaguered brother's decision. David did know Brian must make the choice, that the decision must be his. Any alternative would only prolong a summation of life that could be resolved here and now.
David's perspective was starved to a point of biological simplicity: he wanted life and he would buy that with the two brother's deaths, if necessary. He was not sure if he was right or wrong, such a contemplation was extravagant and unaffordable. No one alive in the world had always been on the side of what was right, of that he was certain. Such perfection was myth. He filtered his professional and personal choices through a rationalization that what is right and wrong is the dealer's choice. But, corrosive doubts were building. Fatigue and the fringe of his own sanity led him perilously close to an unrestricted conscience- it's presence felt odd and cumbersome. The filter was breaking.
A dark bar in El Paso, Texas, cluttered and dusty, stumbled into Brian's mind. He heard the gravely voiced singer crooning. He saw hunched forms cradling bottles and glasses and flicking cigarette ash on the tiled floor. No one had paid attention to the singer but Brian. He heard, out of the mouth of the red-eyed man perched on a stool, his ips pressed against a microphone, a code he understood: a man who doesn't look after his family is no good. He had followed that code, without prompting, his entire life. The memory did not last long. A fly landed on his nose and revived him. He looked at the only family he had ever known. His brother's head was drooping, his shoulders were rolled, and the fabric of his pants were torn at the knees. Brian had spent the entirety of his life trying to take care of his brother, hoping to help him get past limitations of character and circumstance. Brian wanted a way out of the twisted fate he was fastened to. He had done the best he could. Neither had had many options in the short life they'd known. Brian had worked with what he had understood, what he had learned in his own limited experience. He wished he had done more. He hated that he did not believe more could have been done.
Brian looked up at the sky. He closed his eyes and began to pray. He had never done that before. Brian had never felt inspired by the idea of God or religion and he had never possessed familial obligations of believing. He stopped shortly after he began. The sky looked as empty and expansive as it always had.
The Third, the younger brother, looked up from the line. He grimaced and raised his eyebrows. His question was unspoken, but it was clear.
If any water remained in Brian's body, his eyes would have been slicked with tears- muddy washouts of despair. No tears could be squeezed out. He was gutted by his realization.
A train howled, faint and far away. The sound, a cruel reminder of a world still spinning beyond the small piece of real-estate defined by the line and the three who stood around it. It was a distant world, but not yet unreachable.
Brian stepped towards the line.
David slid his hand under his shirt and gripped the handle of the knife tucked into his pants and cinched by a cracked leather belt, held in place at the small of his back. He studied Brian's face. He fixated on his eyes. Eyes betrayed intentions. He would be ready whether it was in greeting or confrontation.
The gap between the line and Brian was small. Four steps and he arrived at the peninsula of his delayed conclusion. He blinked. He stared. He knew the answer to the unmovable question, but he did not know the words. He did not know how to end something as fundamental as brotherhood. His first words were indistinguishable, fragmented sounds gurgled between lips. His oath had dictated the course of his life, an oath not even their parents had honored- whoever they were. It was the oath to protect his brother that flailed at a strengthening resolve of reason and impartial practicality. The oath was fighting a losing battle. Brian was fucking tired. Fatigue. Time. Life. These were the culprits hacking at the artery fueling the oath and it bled out with a futile prompting, “Cross the line. Come with us. I can't stay. Try.”
The Third looked down at his feet, two of his toes poked through the front of brown shoes two sizes too big. He looked at his brother- eyes wild, his face drawn and tormented. He knew Brian had tried, in that moment and every moment before, to help him. A challenging task. He knew, this time, he would not pin Brian under his inabilities and the burden of who he was. He would not be a cinder-block ride to Brian's death. He couldn't go on, but his brother could. Matthew cut Brian free. He sat. An act of grim acceptance. Redemption at the bell.
Brian's stomach knotted with violent spasms. He felt like vomiting, but there was not even bile in his guts. He did not speak again. Words would be redundant and futile, a waste of energy. He touched the top of Matthew's head, squeezed the blonde rats-nest of curls: a last goodbye, a last physical sensation of the person most significant in his life and an apology. Brian backed over the line: one foot and then the other.
David let go of the concealed knife. He nodded when Brian reached him. David considered tossing the slumped form of Matthew his blade- a quicker exit when the time came. But, David wasn't convinced he wouldn't look for outs eventually too. There were many miles and little hope until the border. The knife remained where it was.
The wind returned. Scattering grains of sand were the only sound. Brian and David turned their backs on the line, the one left behind, and they walked against the wind. They trudged towards an unlikely outcome- an outside chance and a long shot gamble- that they'd find a path out of the sand-box. Brian's departing footprints were quickly filled and erased by the whipping sand, erasing the past and leaving only the present and each step forward. He worried that though he had chosen to press on the cost of survival rendered him an apparition. He had chosen to live, but he feared he was walking dead.
Matthew lifted his head and looked at the line. He stared at it and he believed that he was able to see each individual grain of sand filling the judgmental indention. He did not doubt his decision to stay. He said, to the wind that slung sand against his face, “It was the least I could do.” For the first time in his life, Matthew felt proud. And, pride rarely is free. The wind intensified. He closed his eyes.
The line was gone when he awoke. He wasn't sure how long he had been sitting there. The sun had nearly set. He was tired. He hoped Brian was far away and able to see that there had never been a choice, that he deserved to live as much as he could, for once, for himself. Matthew rolled on his side. He closed his eyes and hoped his dreams were pleasant and kind. The sands washed over him. THE END