“Be Good”

When I was little, we used to live with my mother’s family. Our house was this creaky old colonial horror that’s been in the family for generations. My grandpa had passed away when I was a baby, my grandmother was stone deaf and usually just kept to her rooms upstairs. So it was mostly me, my mom, my dog, and my uncle, who was my mom’s younger brother. She actually had two brothers, but I’ll get to that.

One of the most vivid memories I have from those times is the phrase “be good.” Just two words, I’m sure every parent says them from time to time. But my family would say them almost constantly, in situations that seem oddly inappropriate when I think of them now. In the middle of washing dishes: be good. Reading a book: be good. In the car coming back from the store: be good. The only family member I knew who didn’t say it was my uncle.

At that point I thought my uncle was the coolest grownup around. He had a real childish quality to him, the man just couldn’t keep a straight face and he was always making me laugh. In retrospect, he was kind of a dick. He would constantly try to get me to crack up(which he was really good at) in situations where it would get me in trouble. He would make some off-color joke or use a word the grownups had expressly forbidden me from saying and I would inevitably burst out laughing. I would catch it from my mom and complain that he’d made me do it. The answer? “That’s no excuse. Be good.”

It’s kind of telling that my mom never really stopped him from bugging me, even when I got bigger and the novelty wore off his act. Instead of the funny manboy, he just got fucking irritating. He was constantly interrupting me, trying to get a rise out of me or something, like it was a contest. That’s about the time I developed my ability to deadpan in any situation. I practiced until I could lock my face down, put my mind on other subjects. This only seemed to make his more desperate for attention, to the point that it would be the three of us, my mom, my gramma, and me sitting stoically at the dinner table next to a screeching Adam Sandler ripoff.

Looking back I guess he had some kind of personality disorder or mental illness that was never diagnosed. That’s a shame, because if anyone would’ve benefitted from treatment, it would’ve been him. But my family’s always been very anti-“coddling”, and I guess Psychotherapy would fall under that umbrella. So even if they had acknowledged it, I doubt he would’ve gotten treatment.

At the time I didn’t blame him, though. He was the middle child of a working family, I figured he had developed his obnoxious personality as a way of getting attention from everyone. Plus, his little brother’s death had to’ve hit him pretty hard.

Oh, about that: one day my uncle and his little brother were walking home from school, through these woods that separated our house from the town proper. It was filled with these really old beeches that were taller than the hills, and grew together so tightly they blocked out the light. We always had to go through them to go anywhere in town or to school. We never get lost because there’s just one big path that winds through the trees, from before there was even a town here. Sometimes you’d see little deer paths that would fork off into the trees, but my mom always said to ignore them because they weren’t real paths and didn’t lead anywhere. Sometimes you’d see a flash of a deer darting off down one of them, sometimes it was something bigger that was gone by the time you turned your head. Mom said to ignore that, too.

Anyway, my uncle said he turned away, just for a second, and when he turned back, his brother was gone. My grandfather didn’t really buy his story, and neither did the police when he told them. My uncle had run up to the house, hysterical, piss all over his pants. He stammered and kept changing details in his story, and when he led the policeman to the place he’d last seen his brother they just kept going around in circles. When the policeman went back with reinforcements, they found the spot the little brother was last seen on. There was a shard of bone, some blood, and not much else.

I heard this story before I was even ten, so I had great practice at steeling myself against all sorts of horrors. Which was good, because when I was around twelve or so, my mom stopped picking me up from school, said I was “old enough to make the walk.” She phrased it exactly like that, gave me this weird sense of foreboding. It was creepy walking by myself, because even though the trees weren’t that close together it was always a bit darker than it should’ve been. I got really paranoid in those woods, kept hearing the echo of my footsteps or a twig cracking and imagined something was tailing me.

So my uncle decided to start walking me home. At this point he’d pretty much worn out his welcome with me, and for him to just invite himself over was pretty uncool. But it got worse when we got into the woods. He would try to make me laugh, but it was really desperate this time, and he would berate me if I didn’t even grin at one of his stupid jokes. After a while he got mean. Started in on a bunch of personal shit about me and my mom and how my dad died. I just ignored him. I think that only made him mad because his jokes gradually got less funny and more hurtful. Finally, one Friday walk home from school, he got physical.

He started whispering a bunch of weird, fucked up shit, words I had never heard anyone use, accusing me of horrible things. It was really obvious that he was trying to get a rise out of me, so I kind of shut down at that point. I guess he picked up on that, because then he grabbed me and shook me around a little. He asked me if I thought I was too grown up for his jokes, if I thought I was better than him, maybe I thought I deserved to live more than he did(or something weird like that) and all this time he was sweating up a storm. I didn’t respond, I just kept on walking.

That pissed him off.

 He slapped me, just hauled off and hit me and he had never laid a finger on me before. He just started screaming a bunch of nonsensical shit, that I’m a bastard and that the devil should come for me because I’m not baptized and that my mother was waiting for me to die, etc.

Anyway, he just ranted and raved, and then all of a sudden he went quiet. Then he just said “no.” I remember that, really vividly. Just “no” like a plea. Then he started screaming like a stuck pig and tried to run, but he got tangled in his own legs and fell. At that point I was fucking done, so I beat cheeks back home. I arrived there perfectly safe, unscathed, and alone.

We moved out of that house when I was about fourteen and my mom remarried. My stepdad’s job took us all the way across the states, so an old spinster aunt went to stay with gramma. We went back once for her funeral when I was twenty, but have lived here ever since.

It’s weird, thinking back to those times. It’s got a dreamlike quality to it, almost like it happened to someone else. The investigation, the funeral over an empty coffin, all of it. The walk through the woods is even now slowly fading from my mind. It’s not like anything big happened anyway. I just turned away for a second, and he was gone.

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