Every time a rat from one of the coconut trees got caught on a glue trap, Dad dragged me to wherever it was and made me kill it. Sometimes he made me use my feet, sometimes he handed me scissors. He made my younger brother kill the trapped rats too. I’d watch from the hallway as Dad gripped the back of his tiny neck and pushed him to his knees, my brother’s little hand shaking as he held the open blades over the squirming rat’s body. Snip. My brother cried his eyes raw as the rat thrashed like a fish, the glue trap clapping against the tiles. Dad picked up the flapping plastic, grabbed the writhing tail and separated them. It was as if he was opening an envelope, or peeling a banana. He never seemed afraid of anything, and was always searching for ways to infect us with his fearlessness.
I grew up hearing stories about Dad’s bravery too. Mom said they met at the high school ball, and while all the boys stood shyly against the wall, Dad asked every girl to dance until one finally said yes. Mom had been one of the girls who turned him down. They met again years later when Dad was a police constable. He had a habit of pulling over pretty women, searching their cars, then asking them out on dates. He took her to the local amusement park and teased her until she agreed to ride the rickety rollercoaster with him. As they plummeted down the steepest slope, she screamed until her voice broke. Dad sat with his arm around her, laughing. She cried while he drove her home. Tears were still running down her cheeks when he parked outside her parents’ house and leaned in to kiss her. She let him. Mom said she fell for Dad because he was never afraid to go for what he wanted.
I was born soon after they married and turned five when my brother arrived. Before that it felt like just Mom and I lived in the house. Dad worked late most nights and sometimes he didn’t show up in the mornings either. Then one day he came home with a crying infant in his car. He carried the baby seat to the porch like a basket, gave my mother the handle, then stumbled back to his car and drove off. Mom fed and bathed the baby. And about a week later Dad came home and stopped working nights. They never told me where the baby came from, just that I had a brother now. Mom was always fussing over him, and I was always finding ways to make him cry when she wasn’t looking. Once, while she was working at the kitchen sink, she overheard me telling the neighbourhood boys I only had a half-brother. She marched down the driveway, pulled me aside and slapped me across the face. “You cut that shit out,” she said. “He’s not your half nothing.”
As my brother and I grew older, Dad made us kill more than just rats. We snipped geckos, roaches, spiders, giant moths and whatever else we confessed to being afraid of. One day my brother and I were playing cricket in the yard when a stray dog wandered through the front gate. My brother screamed and the dog started barking. Mom and Dad ran out of the house and found us halfway up a mango tree with the dog circling the trunk. Dad walked calmly across the lawn and locked the gate. He chased the yapping dog into a corner with the cricket bat and ordered us to climb down. He made us take turns. Then he put the dog and the bat in a plastic bag and threw it in a bin by the driveway. My brother and I stopped admitting we were afraid of anything after that.
* * *
Soon as I was old enough, I ran away to study in London, but my brother stayed close to home. I never found steady work or a wife but he found both. He became a police constable like Dad, with a nice house and two boys of his own. I brought gifts for my nephews every Christmas, and though I never witnessed it, I could tell by their dinnertime stillness that my brother had infected them, too.
For New Years, we always drove to Mom and Dad’s house. The glue traps were still around. Mom shuffled between the kitchen and the dining table while Dad stayed in his room until it was time. The last time we were all together, after the boys had been sent to bed, the five of us sat with our glasses on the candlelit porch, and had adult conversations about elections and freshfaced ministers and crime rates. My brother had risen to Superintendent by then, and I asked if he was worried for his job. His wife refilled her wine glass. He glanced at my Dad and shrugged. “We’ll deal with it,” my brother said, “If and when.”
A year later I moved back to raise my nephews after my brother shot his wife and himself. Mom got sick and died soon after that. I took the boys to visit Dad every other weekend. They hated going but I made them come along. The glue traps were gone and the walls were dotted with lizard shit. The mango tree in the yard was infested with rats. In the mornings, Dad went out in pajamas and sang hymns while tossing them bits of stale bread like they were chickens. He started leaving glasses of water around the house and open Bibles on the beds. And at night he demanded we sleep with the lights on. I stopped forcing the boys to go after that, and began visiting him on my own.
The last time I pulled up to the driveway, Dad was wrapped in a sheet and sleeping on the porch tiles. There were mustardy stains on his pajamas and filthy plates piled by his ashy bare feet. He seemed to have been living on the porch, only going inside if he needed to eat or relieve himself. Roaches trickled down the living room walls. Dad followed close behind me as I cleaned what I could, the kitchen, the living room, but he stopped by the bedroom door. He watched from the hallway as I dusted Mom’s things, yelled bible verses at the perfume bottles on the dresser, cried his eyes raw as I opened the closet to give her clothes some air. That evening I made us supper and took our plates to the candlelit porch, where Dad said a long-winded prayer about mercy and fearing no evil, and the next morning I found him lying wide-eyed on the lawn with the rats.
Christopher Lorenzo Thomas is a Jamaican filmmaker, teacher and writer who currently lives in Helsinki. For the last four years he has focused his love and attention on writing screenplays and short prose fiction. ‘Half Nothing’ is his first published short story.