"The Brotherhood" by Jen Currin

Jen Currin

Jen Currin

Jen Currin is the author of Hider/Seeker: Stories, which was named a Globe and Mail top 100 book of 2018. Jen has also published four poetry collections, including The Inquisition Yours, winner of the 2011 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, and School, a finalist for three awards. Jen lives on the unceded territories of the Qayqayt, Musqueam, and Kwantlen Nations (New Westminster, BC, Canada), and teaches writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

The Brotherhood

David wants to pace, but doesn't want to draw attention to himself, so he shifts from one foot to the other, pacing in his mind. He's always the first one to arrive. He checks his phone; it's already five past. Around him, dust and debris swirls. A yellow fast food wrapper clings to his pant leg and he kicks it off. A few yards away, an old woman with a large bag of groceries sits in a bus shelter yelling into her phone and smoking a cigarette. The smell is enough to make him want to choke. A long line of semis spews out noxious exhaust. David feels his lungs tighten and he coughs into the crook of his elbow. He forgot his handkerchief again.

Behind him the columns of the old lodge are still standing, although the stone steps are falling apart and the windows have all been bashed in. Someone has chipped off the symbols above the door and spray-painted swear words on the facade. Cars roar past it nonchalantly, as if the lodge is just an old ruin abandoned in an overgrown field.

David looks up to see Paul barrelling towards him, dressed as always in a double-breasted suit, sweating as if he's just stepped off a treadmill. His splotchy face is more bloated than it was last year and he's out of breath. Still walking, he passes a hand over his forehead and shakes it into the street. David sees the silver ring glinting on one of Paul's fingers and realizes that he once again forgot to wear his. He hopes Paul doesn't notice. The ring is back in his apartment, stuffed in the pocket of the brotherhood robe hanging in the back of his closet.

Paul halts in front of David and looks around as if he thinks someone might be watching. But no one is, and so he reaches out for the handshake. It takes them a few tries, but finally they get all of the movements right. They mutter a few words that sound like Latin under their breath while staring down at the ground. Only after they finish do they look each other in the eye.

"My brother," Paul says, slapping David on the arm.

It always makes David a little uncomfortable when he uses this sort of language, but he knows Paul can't help it.

"Have you heard from Jeremy?" David asks.

Paul looks around, sweat running down his cheeks. "No. Do you have a handkerchief?"

"No. I forgot mine."

"Oh." Paul rubs his face with both hands and laughs. "Well, that should take care of it, I guess."

Just then Jeremy appears, dressed as usual in a beige trench that resembles the uniform of the secret service men who used to attend him. Jeremy examines David and Paul from head to toe but doesn't meet their eyes. After the handshakes and the mumbled words, he gives a strained smile.

"My brother," Paul says. The greeting sounds forced. "We meet again."

"So we do," Jeremy says, his voice flat. After three bouts of cancer, his skin is a dim white bordering on gray. The flesh hangs loosely off of his cheekbones.

The old woman in the bus shelter gets up and tosses her cigarette into the gutter, still screaming at someone on her phone. Horns blare; there is yelling and cursing from the passing cars, thunderous music from a cab's blown-out speakers.

"I don't know why we always end up in this God-damned hell-hole," Paul says, looking down the block at the trash-strewn sidewalk.

Jeremy shrugs.

"It gets worse every year. I mean, look at the temple." Paul gestures at the crumbling lodge, then turns to face a burnt-out building across the street, its bubbly red paint streaked with soot. "And Garcia's." He shakes his head. "Our booth. Those martinis." He smiles nostalgically. "Remember the gelato parlor? Remember Mario? The biggest scoops! Jesus. What I wouldn't give for a dish of praline. He used to say we were his favorite customers."

"He was afraid of us," Jeremy says, pulling a cigarette out of his suit pocket and lighting it.

David starts coughing, waving a hand in front of his face.

"Oh yes, sorry. I forgot." Jeremy flicks the cigarette to the curb. His voice lacks any trace of apology.

"Our brother's asthma has really been acting up, poor sap," Paul booms.

A whirring sound approaches and a large sphere floats into view. It looks like it is made out of soapy water, like one of the bubbles David used to chase through the park as a child. But it is huge, the size of a city bus, and it glides like an enormous translucent jellyfish moving through water.

In the sphere are the shimmering forms of young people sitting in a circle next to a fast-moving river. They are discussing something, illumed in a peachy sunlight that David can tell just from looking is the perfect temperature. A breeze stirs a young man's long black hair. One of them is saying that the stocks are returning, that just last week they saw salmon spawning in a creek bordering their friend's land. Another is asking if anyone wants to go to see the latest Tailfeathers movie at The Urban Forest Film Fest. As the bubble drifts away, David hears another one saying yes, they'll pack pears, sandwiches and can they bring their grandmother.

The three men stare at it for a moment and then turn back to each other, Paul shaking his head. The sun bears down on them, greasing the faces of David and Paul. Paul wipes his hands over his cheeks again, trying to rub in the sweat. "6 o'clock and it's already scorching. Next year let's meet at five."

The other two men don't reply.

"Do you have a handkerchief?" Paul asks Jeremy.

"Only one," Jeremy says, taking it out and dabbing his dry face before pocketing it again.

"So, shall we start?" David asks. His voice is hoarse from the fumes and smoke. "I'm sorry I didn't have time to make an agenda. Does anyone have anything to report since our last meeting?"

Jeremy gives him a blank look. Paul's expression is sheepish as he says, "I tried. I reached out to my old contacts--or tried to get my secretary to." He shakes his head in frustration. "But she quit. Said she'd be better off as a shift supervisor at McDonald's. Just walked out. I think she was pulling my leg, though--she probably started her own business or something. I saw her later in one of the spheres."

"I thought McDonald's went out of business after that sick cow thing," Jeremy says.

"They rebranded. Selling soy burgers now. Going like hotcakes. Christ! I wish I'd gotten in there when the getting was good, snagged a few shares." Paul looks off into the distance. "Foolish. Damn foolish of me."

"Let's get down to business," David says. "Who took the minutes last time?"

Jeremy and Paul look at each other.

Just then, another, larger sphere bounces by, pulsing goldenly. Blue and green club lights burst inside it like fireworks. Flickering images of people writhe to the beat of a halcyon song, laughing and jostling. Several people are on bikes, peddling vigorously to generate energy for the turntables and speakers. Even the bikers seem to be dancing, weaving their heads to the music. David sees one woman with purple and black hair lean in to kiss another woman who isn't wearing a shirt. The music shifts to a heavier beat and the crowd starts jumping up and down, screaming gleefully. The dreadlocked DJ raises their hand in the air and makes a fist, pumping it as if they're at a political rally.

The sphere bounces away and David hears Paul complaining. "It's too hard without secretaries! Nothing pretty in a skirt--there's no reason to even go to the office anymore." He looks off at the noisy street before adding quietly, "My living room is my office now."

"Secretaries?" Jeremy says. "I'd settle just for my old car and driver. Or even just a car of my own. I'm not picky--a second-hand Lamborghini even."

"I miss all of my cars," Paul says. "Every one of them. I used to have my driver take me up to see those blue mountains, the purple light on those hills after we cleared them--beautiful sight." He whistles under his breath. "I made a pretty penny on that one."

"I'd get flown to Geneva," Jeremy reminisces. "Paris. Some kind of summit, a little bordeaux with lunch, a little business on the side..."

"We need to focus, people." David's voice is strained. "I didn't take the minutes last time. I would remember. Do you have them, Jeremy?"

Jeremy doesn't bother to pull out his phone. "No."

"Can anyone remember what we agreed to?"

"I don't think it matters at this point," Jeremy says.

The sun beats down mercilessly and the smell of putrid meat from a nearby hotdog stand is suffocating. Paul's blotchy face is starting to burn. "Jesus, where can we get a steak? I'm starving," he says. "There used to be a great steakhouse right over there." He points toward a trashy convenience store bordered in neon. "Whatever happened to it?"

"Neighbourhood changed," Jeremy says. "Sick cow disease, remember?"

Paul shakes his head. "I forgot. I'm always forgetting," he says mournfully.

"Half a dozen triple bypasses would make anyone forgetful," Jeremy says.

"I could have half a dozen more," says Paul. "I'm still going." He lifts his jacket and heaves his belly up with his other hand. "Dad's belt. One hundred percent crocodile. Still got it."

"So?" Jeremy says.

"It's my good luck charm. Still got it. When Dad left the brotherhood, I got it."

"You mean when he died?" Jeremy asks.

"We're going to need more than your father's lucky belt," David says. He's trying to stay patient. He attempts an upbeat, convincing tone. "We need a new plan. A strategy--"

He stops speaking and looks up as the whirring of another sphere approaches. Inside are glimmering people tending a tangerine orchard. There's the buzz of a thousand contented bees. David imagines he smells honey, thinks of being sick, swaddled in blankets and sipping a huge mug of lemon tea.

The old woman at the bus stop rises to her feet and starts yelling at the sphere, gesticulating. By the way her arms are raised David can't tell if she wishes she could punch a hole in the sphere or if she's beseeching the people inside to take her with them.

"If only we could get in there." Paul points emphatically. "That's where we belong. In one of those. Doing our work. Making changes."

"They won't let us in," Jeremy says.

"All we need is a little money, a little cash flow and we can get one of those billboards up again. You know? Catch them by surprise as they're bounding past. Something bold, like 'DON'T BE AFRAID.' Then slip in a few subliminals, you know, dungeons, someone hanging from a sheet, shot in the head...." Paul trails off.

"They can't see that stuff anymore. It's useless," Jeremy says.

"What we need is another ceremony," Paul says. "Something to get them on our wavelength again. One of the old ones. Tried and true. One of the ones we used for decades." He turns to face the lodge again, looking at it as if his very gaze will turn the lights back on, raise glass in the windows. A semi full of cars rattles by, the sound deafening.

"Centuries," Jeremy says. "The brothers have used them for centuries. But they're all useless now. We've tried, Paul. Remember?"

"And we were almost there! Almost...we just need another stab at it." Abruptly, he stomps up the stairs to the lodge and yanks at the door, but it's locked. He shakes it repeatedly and then finally lets his hand drop, turning back to them with a look of barely concealed rage.

"We have tried, Paul." David thinks of their last meeting a year ago on this same stinking corner full of dust and smoke. They'd attempted a ceremony, walking in circles around the temple as they chanted one of the old spells. It was one he didn't know the words to, but he mumbled along, following after Jeremy and Paul. Paul had insisted that they bring their brotherhood rings and press them periodically to their lips. They must have looked ridiculous, but no one passing by seemed to care.

At one point Paul had interrupted to demand, "Do you feel it? I feel it! Something is changing. I feel the vibration." He held out one chubby hand and looked at it for confirmation. "We'll reach them this time. We will!"

But David had to confess he didn't feel any change. He did feel slightly afraid of Paul, his fanatical blue eyes watery and too bright. Jeremy was lost in his own world, eyes closed, droning on with his arms raised in the air like an evangelist.

Paul returned to his circling and chanting but the momentum was lost. David kept glancing up at the decrepit lodge, wondering what they were doing. He felt as foolish as he had at his initiation ceremony, where he'd been blindfolded, taken to the basement of the lodge and made to walk a plank balanced on a couple of folding chairs. After that he'd been forced to put his hand in a mousetrap while chanting nonsensical words. The entire night had been an exercise in pain and humiliation, and David had wondered if it was worth the promotion he'd get at work, but he'd continued on, too embarrassed to shrug off the blindfold, to call it all stupid and leave.

Jeremy finally came out of his trance and looked at Paul and David like he didn't know who they were. Finally he said, "It didn't work, did it."

A couple years before that they had tried a different strategy. Jeremy had managed to cajole a loan out of one of his former cronies and for a very large sum they had hired a young person with pink hair and a nose ring to unleash a social media campaign across several platforms. But the campaign fell flat on its face. People didn't respond in the same way they once had--they seemed immune to the sure-fire tricks, the easy clickbait. Even Paul had to admit that he couldn't feel any difference in the atmosphere, that the energy around them wasn't any more fraught.

This was toward the end of David's tenure at the insurance company, where he had already noticed things starting to shift. His colleagues laughed more and shared snacks with each other, delicious things like home-made samosas and maple walnut fudge. He overheard them telling stories about helping strangers on public transit or meditating next to a swimming pool in a city park. David tried to use the tricks he'd been taught by his brothers, simple mind control techniques to undermine others and make them doubt their sense of their own realities, but he noticed that the tricks were becoming less effective.

One afternoon he was practicing on a colleague as they were getting coffee in the break room, looking steadily into her eyes as he told her a blatant and mean lie in the smooth voice he'd honed to a perfect pitch. She simply shook her head in disbelief, laughed and walked away.

Anyone could see that things were changing. Instead of the familiar drone of constant worry and anguish, at times a bright clear feeling would flare up and cut through an interaction in the office or across a crowded downtown square. There were rumblings--talk of people being happier in other dimensions, of creating "a better world." David scoffed, but he also thought these rumblings were probably the reason their plan hadn't worked, although he hesitated to share this realization with Paul and Jeremy.


Paul is pacing, his sunburnt face scrunched up in concentration, his blue eyes almost rageful in their intensity. His voice rises over the blaring traffic as he cries, "But have we tried them all?" He looks from David to Jeremy intently, trying to meet their eyes. "Remember that one from The Book, the one we use only in dire circumstances? This is a dire circumstance!" He glances around the intersection, at the stinking cars streaming by, the fearful pedestrians. The old woman has long since boarded her bus and a man in a mechanic's suit now sits on the bench, his face anxious as taps on his phone. He doesn't seem to notice the spheres slipping by, glimpses of other worlds full of people going about their days, weeding gardens, chopping tomatoes and garlic for pasta sauce, having arguments with neighbours, stopping to pet a cat as they walk to work or struggling to convince their grouchy first-grader to put on their shoes for school.

Another ceremony from The Book. David feels sick thinking about it. He's heard Paul and Jeremy and some of the other long-time brothers make allusions to advanced ceremonies known only to a handful of upper-level initiates. He's always shied away from the whispers, afraid to hear more, telling himself he doesn't really believe them although he has a dim sense of the spells, the energies they are supposed to create. Fear rises like a cold draft up the back of his neck as another wave of nausea roils in his stomach. "I never did that one," he says. "I don't know anything about it."

"And they let you stay in the brotherhood?" Paul is incredulous.

David shrugs. "They were desperate for members." He had been recruited by his boss at the insurance company who later left his position and was rumored to have been seen in one of the spheres. David had always wondered how he made it there, what his angle had been. His boss had seemed just like the other men, ambitious and cruel. But maybe there had been something different about him, maybe he had been hiding something.

"There were only a few of us left, and most of us had lost our jobs," Jeremy reminds.

"So if there's no way to fix this then what are we doing? Why are we still holding meetings? If we're never going to get in, why are we even doing this?" Paul's voice is strangled, a deep red rising under the blotches on his face. Sheets of sweat run down his cheeks. He teeters on his feet.

David steps forward and catches his arm, steadying him and leading him toward the temple stairs. "Careful there, Paul. You don't want another incident. No one wants you going to the hospital again. Calm down now. Breathe."

Paul sits down heavily on one of the steps and slumps forward, head between his knees, breathing erratically. Large drops of sweat fall to the pavement. David hesitantly places his hand on Paul's back, and then pats gently. The sun and the sickening gasoline fumes are starting to make him dizzy and he's tempted to bend over for deep breaths as well, but he knows any deep breathing on this corner will just make him feel worse. "Take a few breaths now, Paul. That's it. You're going to be okay. You're going to be just fine."

Jeremy has stepped a couple of paces away and is trying to surreptitiously smoke a cigarette, blowing the smoke over his shoulder in the direction of the bus shelter. David glares at him, but he pretends not to notice.

Paul finally straightens back up, sucking in big mouthfuls of air. His face has resumed its normal blotchiness. He shrugs off David's hand. "I'm fine," he says. He adjusts his tie. "Never felt better, in fact. It's just the heat. It gets to a man." He chuckles weakly and stands up, looking around. "How about these people?" He nods at the traffic. "They're stuck here too."

Jeremy finishes his cigarette, tosses the butt in the gutter, and steps over to rejoin them. "They could probably get in more easily than we could," he says.

"These people?" Paul shakes his head contemptuously. "They don't have anything. They don't have our ceremonies."

"Exactly," says Jeremy.

David thinks of mentioning his former boss, but stops himself. Instead he says, "You made a good point a minute ago, Paul. About why we keep up these meetings. I've been thinking in a similar vein recently."

"Me too," Jeremy says. "Maybe it's time we tried a different strategy. Tried going solo, for example. See how well we might each work alone." He takes out his handkerchief and dabs his dry mouth as if he's just finished a meal. Even in the bright sun he still isn't sweating. David notices that Jeremy also isn't wearing his ring. Paul looks at the handkerchief as if he'd like to eat it.

"Alone?" Paul's indignation is palpable. "Alone? We didn't join the brotherhood to go at it alone! We're in it together, brothers. Until the end."

"I would say this is the end." Jeremy's tone is matter-of-fact. "We've tried everything. These meetings are pointless." He reaches into his pocket for another cigarette and then thinks better of it.

Just then there is a commotion in the street. Brakes squeal; metal slams metal. Two men jump out of their cars and start bellowing at each other, pressing their fingers in each other's chests. A car alarm bleats hysterically. A bus rips over a curb and jams on its breaks, nearly running a red light. A sullen young person in expensive leather boots pushes a shopping cart piled high with retail bags straight through traffic as cars dodge them, honking their horns.

The three men stare at this scene for awhile without speaking. Finally David says, "I have an idea."

The other men look at him.

"We joined, and we can leave too. I mean, there must be a ceremony, a spell or something. It's been awhile since I checked The Book, but I bet there's one in there."

"I was just going to vaporize," says Jeremy. "Disappear. Take up residence somewhere else."

"Where?" Paul says. "No one will have us. Even the colonies aren't colonies anymore. We're locked out."

"I think it's important that we stay positive," David says. Another wave of disgusting gas and smoke passes over them and nausea churns in his stomach. "And practical. Who has a copy of The Book on their phone?"

Paul rummages around in his pockets as Jeremy, phone already out, calmly scrolls down a series of pages. "I seem to recall there was something around page 211," he says.

A few spheres hum by, full of seemingly happy people doing mostly simple things. David shifts impatiently, feeling light-headed. He senses the lodge looming behind him and has the sudden fear that it will come crashing down, burying him in dust and brick.

"Ah," Jeremy says. "Here it is. Chapter 22: Leaving the Brotherhood." He reads silently, his thin lips pursed. Finally he says, "It's not good."

"What does it say?" Paul leans in and tries to read over his shoulder. Jeremy takes a big step away from him.

"It looks like we'd be better off going our own ways." He pockets his phone quickly. Looking at Paul, and then David, he nods. "Best of luck to you both." He strides quickly down the block and disappears.

"Shit," says Paul. "It can't be that bad."

Out in the street the fight between the two drivers has escalated. They are now shoving one another and screaming obscenities about each other's mothers and wives. One man spits in the other's face and in return the man punches him in the nose. The punched man squeals, blood pouring down his face, "You stupid motherfucker!" He wraps his hands around the other man's throat. Paul watches them as if transfixed.

A sphere sails by, lit by fireflies. David sees the long white carpet of the moon's light stretching across the ocean, thinks he smells a campfire. Children and dogs run down the dark beach, leaping up and falling on the damp sand. He glimpses people gathered around the flickering fire and thinks he can taste the salt on the potatoes they are roasting. He imagines the stories they are telling each other and wonders if he or his brothers are in any of them.