Thomas was always different to the other boys. Different to everyone, really. I remember when we walked to school for his first day. I held his hand, but he even did that wrong, his fingers like a dead spider in my palm. Edward, he had whispered, little face enamel-white as he stared at the school’s steeple. This is your place. Why am I going here? He couldn’t understand changes like that: he stuck to routine as if his life was a series of circles going round. I could always get him to do something new though. That’s why I took him to school on the first day, rather than Mum or Dad. All I needed to do was tell him to follow, and he’d obey, running behind me in little bird-like hops.
The other children made fun of him, of course. He talked weird, moved weird, and his skin had an unhealthy look to it, as if covered in the thinnest layer of grease. He didn’t seem bothered. I don’t think he really understood their mockery. When he was excluded from the football he didn’t say anything, just stood and watched, head jerking to follow the ball as if every movement was a surprise. When the others had gone, I saw him stroking it, eyes shining like it was something alive.
He always did that kind of stuff. I caught him talking to one of Dad’s grandfather clocks once, listening as it ticked back at him. Stop it, Tom. It’s not alive like you or me, I had said. How do you know? he had said back. He never learnt. One time he cried after he broke a photo of Mum, knocking it when he tried to pat it. Mum was weirdly happy at that – she even called Dad in to watch him on the floor, his greasy skin made shinier by his tears. Oh, Jeremy, she had said. Look, he’s sad because he broke the photo of me. But I knew he was crying because he thought he’d hurt the frame. I caught him trying to kiss it better later on, lips awkwardly pressed down on the wood.
There were loads of photos like that around the house, as if Mum wanted to fill the place with memories. Six of me, one for each year I had been there, crammed into various spaces. Only seven of Thomas though, despite the fact he was eight and not adopted. They were laid out in a row on the fireplace – one of him as a baby in Mum’s arms, and then a gap, like a missing tooth, before another of him at three with Mum again, holding a toy hammer the wrong way around. I’ll never know what he looked like at two – it was a year and a bit before I arrived. When he was drunk, our family friend Roy had said that it had been a hard, lonely time, especially for Mum in hospital, as Dad had been spending all his time in the clock-shop. In hospital? I had asked, but he hadn’t answered, face going almost as pale as Thomas’s. Don’t tell anyone I told you that, he had said.
It does bother me sometimes – the difference between those two photos. In the first one Mum almost glows. She has a huge smile, bigger than I’ve ever seen in person, and she holds Thomas close to her chest. Behind them both is a magnificent grandfather clock – one of Dad’s masterpieces, I guess - Thomas seems tiny next to its filigreed bulk. In the second photo though, Mum’s smile seems forced, and her body is slightly turned away. Her arm is around Thomas, but if you look closely, you can see most of it isn’t actually touching him, as if she’s scared of placing too much weight on his shoulders. They are in the same room, but the clock has disappeared. I’ve never seen it around the house at all. I almost want to bring this up with them, but I’m not sure how they’d react. I love them, of course, but I know I’m not their biological child. There’s only so much I can get away with.
Sometimes I do wonder if my parents adopted me just so Thomas would have an older brother to look after him. I was nine when I was adopted, old enough to look after a little brother – and god, he needs it. Even animals don’t like him: cats hiss at him, and dogs jump as he walks past, ears cocked as if hearing something the rest of us can’t. There’s never any hope of giving him a pet to look after. A shame really, as he loves animals. I watch him chase the neighbourhood cats around, longing to share his Yorkie bar with them. A few times he’s been scratched, but not as much as you’d think. They don’t like to be near him even to lash out. I feel guilty when I realise I understand how they feel. His skin doesn’t feel quite right – almost plasticky – and I have to stop myself from flinching when he comes for a hug.
I see the same revulsion on my mum’s face, though she tries to hide it. She always returns Thomas’s hug though, holding him near, stroking his hair, and sometimes her face becomes incredibly tender: the closest I ever see her to that woman in the first photo. Dad looks at Thomas differently - there is warmth there, I think, but often he stares at him the same way he stares at his clocks. Sometimes I wish he’d look at me with such pride. I’ve tried to follow his passion, connect to him on some other level – like a real father and son should – but he won’t let me come to his workshop. It’s too complicated, Edward, he says, as if forgetting I’m the top of all my classes. My work is not like the other clock-workers – there are loads of them in the city – its more specialised. More… in touch with life. I’ve asked Mum too, but she just says We don’t want that life for you, something cold and hard in her voice.
It hurts when they say this, because I know Dad has taken Thomas to his workshop several times. Thomas always comes back full of life after those trips, bouncing up and down. The next time it happens, I don’t return Thomas’s hug when he gets back, and he looks at me with his pale, glassy eyes, trying to comprehend this change in routine. I still feel raw the next day, so much that I don’t bother following him when he goes out to chase a cat, just watching him run away with that strange, jerky gait of his.
He is gone for over an hour, and when he returns his head is bleeding. I get up, guilt rising in me like a cold wash. He doesn’t cry, but I can hear the fear and confusion in his tick-tock voice as he tells me how he fell. I walk him up to the bathroom. He takes the steps ponderously, and I worry he has concussion. The blood is dark on the back of his head. As I start to sponge it off, I notice there is black mixed in with the red. It feels slick on my fingers, like bicycle oil. My heart seems to stop – in horror, my fingers run over his cool scalp, trying to find the wound. I feel two tiny bumps, and when I push his hair back I see two tiny screws; they look loose, as if jolted by the impact, and the blood-oil liquid is leaking from a square around it. The pressure of my fingers causes something to click, and the breath freezes in my chest as the screws clink on the floor. A square section of Thomas’s head drops open like a jaw.
Gears. I stare in fascination and terror. Thomas’s head is full of shining, twisting gears. At first I just see the large ones, huge and golden, but the longer I look, the more I see. Some are almost as small as a dust speck, and between them I see pulleys and levers and springs. They all tick at different times, and the image is so complex that I have to look away, feeling sick.
Somehow, Thomas is still awake, still alive. “Thomas,” I say. “Can you hear me?”
He turns his head to look at me. “Of course,” he says. “Will I have to go back with Dad now?”
Go back with Dad? I see again him exiting the car, back from the workshop, full of new energy. The grandfather clock, a testament to Dad’s mastery - there in that first photo, then gone. Mum in hospital. The gap in the photos, as if for a year, Thomas wasn’t there. Your father at the clock-shop all the time. As if, for a year, Dad had been working on something huge.
“Yes,” I say. “Probably for the best. Turn back around, and we’ll go.” With shaking hands, I pick up the screws off the floor, resisting the urge to touch the gears and feel if they’re real. I push his head closed, twist the screws back in.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s take you to Dad. He’ll know what to do.” I lift him up. His short-sighted eyes peer into me as if searching to see if anything has changed.
“Edward,” he says. “I love you.” He holds onto my hand as he always does: uncertain, awkward, pressing down now and again, as if reassuring himself that I am there with him, his older brother, in this world that he was built for rather than made for.
“I love you too,” I say. And I press back, feeling the texture of his plastic skin, the tick of his life under my thumb, and I hold him close.
Author bio: Sam is an English with Creative Writing Graduate living in Leicester, UK. He loves writing and reading anything and everything, though the breathtaking scope of fantasy and science fiction genres will always have a special place in his heart.