Becoming Arthur by Peter Emmett Naughton

Becoming Arthur by Peter Emmett Naughton
(Image courtesy of Peter Emmett Naughton)

 

Becoming Arthur

By

Peter Emmett Naughton

 

My brother Arthur was always a better person than I was.  He had this fundamental quality about him that was unfailingly kind and thoughtful.  As a child, I did what was expected of me because I feared punishment if I disobeyed.  Arthur seemed to do things because he knew instinctively that it was what he should do even without being told.

I loved him the way that almost everyone around him loved him, but a part of me hated him.  It wasn’t jealousy or envy, though I certainly felt those things, it was that he wasn’t broken the way that I was.  Everyone has flaws, and Arthur was no exception, but some of us go beyond that.  We’re simply wired wrong, and even if we do and say all the right things, people can still tell that there’s something off about us.  Our insides don’t fit together the way that they’re supposed to.  I think most of us know it about ourselves, I know I certainly did, and it only made me feel worse every time I was around Arthur.

Individuals who exhibit these types of traits are often labeled as sociopathic.  Personally I’ve never believed in the idea that people who commit certain societally aberrant acts do so because they are devoid of empathy or other emotions.  I honestly find the entire notion perplexing, as an absence of emotion would eliminate the motivation for this type of behavior.

In truth I believe that it was an overabundance of emotion that made me the way that I am.  When I was young I had difficulty separating accidental offences perpetrated by those around me from perceived personal slights that I always assumed were both intentional and malicious.  Arthur often had to intercede on my behalf when I flew into fits of rage to avoid me being grounded or landing in detention and disciplinary meetings that spanned most of my early academic career despite his efforts.  It would’ve been far worse for me had Arthur not been there to defend and explain my actions, but I still grew to resent his interference.

Over time I learned to keep the more volatile aspects of my personality in check.  It took a great deal of mental effort, which only made me begrudge it all the more, but eventually I developed techniques to assimilate and adapt.  By the time I left university I had taught myself to navigate most social situations without incident.

The only person impervious to this newfound ability was also the only person who’d ever made an effort to truly understand me.  I wanted desperately to embrace Arthur’s actions as acts of brotherly devotion, but whenever he tried to introduce me to a colleague or friend who specialized in mental abnormalities or behavior disorders, I recoiled as if bitten.

It was bad enough that Arthur was better than I was, but he kept throwing it in my face.  He didn’t need the help he so generously offered me.  He was the very picture of mental health; the kind of person those specialists would strive for me to become.

The thought of it made me seethe.

That’s when I decided to take it all away from him.

******

            I had been working for him for the past several months, helping him with his campaign for a run at the Mayor’s office.  Arthur, like most successful people, had grown bored with his initial achievements and had begun moving on from his career as a lawyer.  He had won a seat on the city council only a year earlier and was now moving up the ladder as quickly as he could.

That was my view of it anyway.  In truth Arthur had probably entered politics because he wanted to make a positive impact in people’s lives, but the idea of that made it nearly impossible for me to be around him, so I invented other motivations in order to continue on with my work.

From the beginning I knew that it wouldn’t be possible for me to trip Arthur up in the usual traps.  He could never be taken in by bribe attempts or fall victim to the cheap come-ons of a call girl.  Trying to implicate him in such scandals had already backfired for two of his political opponents and had caused his only remaining rival, the current incumbent Paul Rogers, to stop running his attack ads on television.

Arthur wasn’t flawless or even faultless, but he wasn’t driven by avarice or vice.  He was genuine, even about his failings, and that made people instinctively trust him.  This trust was reciprocated by Arthur to all of the people on his staff, from his campaign manager to the unpaid interns and volunteers manning the phones and even to me.  Despite everything he knew about me, he still trusted me; maybe because we were brothers or maybe because I had always looked up to him when we were growing up.  His inherent honesty had always irritated me, but now I was counting on it.

Most people running for office don’t care where their contributions come from.  If some unsavory donor catches the attention of the media, the candidate can always feign ignorance and explain that it would be impossible to vet every donation.  In the worst-case scenario they could simply return the money, though this was rarely done.  Arthur, on the other hand, was methodical about the process and made sure he could trace back the source of every single dime.  Any money that came from a person or organization that he didn’t approve of was immediately sent back, regardless of the size of the donation.

It was this meticulousness and rigid commitment to stamping out even the faintest hint of corruption that made it ideal for my purposes.  I spent weeks finding the perfect donor and then the rest of the campaign making sure that they couldn’t be uncovered by anyone else.  There was never any envelope, just a check that I slipped into a pile of others on their way to be deposited.

I waited until the day before the election to leak the story, providing a photocopy of the check and the corresponding deposit slip as part of my anonymous tip.

Then I watched with delight as my brother’s world unraveled in front of him.

******

            Coverage of the donor scandal dominated that evening’s news and was the leadoff story in every major paper the next morning.  If it had just been a wild accusation my brother might have been spared, but the photo showing the check and deposit receipt were damning and even if they had been fakes there was no time to disprove them.

Arthur looked on in dismayed horror as his once promising projected lead vanished in an instant.  The story had appeared too late to affect an all out landslide, but he still lost handily.  Every time another district reported in I watched his expression grow more and more blank, his face slowly transforming into a featureless mask.

I had to stop myself from grinning as I watched my brother disintegrate like a sandcastle being washed away by the tide.   This wasn’t something he could simply brush off with his positive mental outlook and can-do attitude.  It hadn’t happened because of chance or fate or even a simple case of bad luck.  This was done to him.  It was a personal attack meant to cause grievous injury and it had caught him completely off guard.

“Who would do this to me Ben?”  Arthur said.

“Rogers has been at this a long time.  He was slinging mud at people when we were still in diapers.”

“This didn’t come from Rogers.”  Arthur said tonelessly.  “It came from someone on the inside.”

“You don’t know that.”

“How the hell could the press have gotten a copy of the check much less the deposit slip if it didn’t come from someone working on my campaign?”

“Who made the deposit?”  I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Beth.  She’s made all the bank runs since November.”

“Have you asked her about it?”

“No.”

“I’ll go and find her right now.  If we make her confess maybe she can talk to the press.”  I said and started to go.

Arthur grabbed me by the shoulder and I had to fight the urge not to squirm out of his grasp.  “Ben stop, there’s no point…it’s over….”

I watched as he slumped down in his seat and poured himself another bourbon; he looked completely defeated.  I sat down next to him and placed a sympathetic hand on his knee, but inside I was reveling in his misery.

I really thought that was the end of it.

******

            My life got remarkably better after that.  Watching Arthur brought low changed how I viewed myself.  Simply knowing that my brother was now as broken as I was made it seem more normal to me, and I began to suspect that deep down everyone was damaged, most just didn’t realize it.  Those of us that did actually had an advantage.  We knew the worst about ourselves and once you came to accept that you could use it.

After the campaign I came out from under Arthur’s shadow by railing against the corrupt political system that had seduced and ultimately abandoned him.  I funneled my rage into impassioned speeches about reform, attacking the failings and weaknesses in both parties.  I lashed out at people the way I had at school, but this time instead of being shunned and scolded, I was applauded.  People didn’t care what I was about or what I stood for, they just wanted to see blood in the water and I spilled as much of it as I could.

I initially cast myself as an independent, but I had no real interest in running for office.  It only took a few months for campaign managers and political aides to start contacting me.  I became a strategic consultant, which mostly consisted of me finding ways to hobble the competition.  Since I had no loyalty to any party or ideology, I could be bought by anyone who met my price and didn’t object to my methods.  At one point I was actually hired by two opposing campaigns in a heavily publicized east coast governor’s race with each side thinking I was acting as their double agent.

Being a political hitman turned out to be my life’s true calling.  It allowed me to indulge all my vulgar impulses and focus them on whatever target I’d been contracted to take down.  I found the work extremely satisfying and was amazed at how pathetically easy it was to ruin someone.  The truth is that my targets mostly destroyed themselves.  People really are their own worst enemies; it was something that I now knew was true of more than just broken souls like myself.  I began playing a little game to prove my theory, making each subsequent sabotage more slight and subtle than the previous one, seeing how little I could interfere and still accomplish my objective.

Eventually everyone discovered that I was just a viper for hire, but that only made me more popular.  I had success and respect, but the best part was that I didn’t have to hide anymore.  I wasn’t seen as an outcast to be sneered at and ridiculed by classmates and colleagues.  I was someone with a special set of skills that could be appreciated or even admired the way my brother always had been.

I lost track of Arthur during those years.  He tried to continue on in politics for a short while after his mayoral defeat and then tried returning to law, but he couldn’t make a go at either of them.  We’d meet for lunch every so often or catch a movie or a ball game, but the longer he languished the less I saw of him until eventually he was out of my life completely.

It was almost four years before we finally met again.  I found him late one night waiting for me outside my office building.

“Hey Benji, long time no see.”  Arthur said.

He was wearing an old college t-shirt and jeans that were ripped at the knees.  It was one of the only times since graduation that I’d seen him not dressed in a suit.

“Jesus, Arthur?  Is that you?”

“In the flesh.”

“You look like shit.”

“Thanks Benji.  You always did know just what to say.”

“Sorry, it’s just...I mean I barely recognized you.”

“Yeah, I’ve been going through some changes.  Why don’t you get in the car and I’ll tell you all about it?”

“I’d love to Artie, but I’ve got a meeting I’m late for.”

“Please.”  Arthur said.

I went with him, though to this day I’m not sure why.  I know that it wasn’t guilt over what I’d done or any sense of familial devotion.  I suppose it might’ve been my own morbid curiosity; that a part of me wanted to see the fullness of what I’d wrought upon my brother, an itch that seemed never able to be fully satisfied.

We drove for what felt like hours.  The lights of the city slowly gave way to residential neighborhoods, then to scattered industrial buildings on the outskirts of town and finally to barren fields with sparse outcroppings of trees that had once been forest.

During this time we did not speak or even look at one another.  When the car finally stopped my brother got out without saying a word.   He leaned against the hood for a moment and lit a cigarette; then he walked off into the dark.

I waited a few minutes before getting out myself.  I followed the glowing orange tip hovering in front of him as it faded in and out and finally found him about a half-mile away standing very still and staring up at the stars.

“What’s this all about Arthur?”  I asked.

“I think I always knew it was you.”  Arthur said.

I considered asking him what he was talking about, but then decided against it.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I’m not sure.”  Arthur said, taking a long drag from his cigarette.  “I guess I was waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“For you to tell me what you’d done.”

I started to say something, but Arthur cut me off.

“I think a part of me believed that if you came forward and admitted it, then it would all be worth something.  That it would signal some kind of change and prove that I’d finally gotten through to you.”

“Did you honestly think that was going to happen?”

“I don’t know....”  Arthur said, blowing a plume of white smoke into the air.  “I think I thought that maybe this would finally be big enough to trigger something.”

“Trigger what exactly?”

“Some kind of normal reaction.  Regret, remorse, anything....”

“I felt those things long before I did what I did to you.”

Arthur stared at me with a pained, twisted expression that made his features grotesque in the orange glow smoldering around his face.

Then why?!  Why did you ruin my life?!

“...because the hate was always greater....”

“You really are a bastard, aren’t you?”

“I’m whatever I was made to be, same as you.”

“That’s just an excuse!  A license to act however you want without ever accepting responsibility for anything!”

“It is what it is Arthur.  I’ve stopped trying to understand it.  You’ve known I was

 

like this for as long as I have, maybe even before I did.”

“...I know....”

“After I realized that I could never be like normal people, never be like you, then all I wanted was to tear it all down.  But it turned out that I was wrong.  The world needs people like me.  You helped me discover that.”

“Then I guess I proved something about you after all.”  Arthur said, flicking his cigarette butt to the ground and crushing it out with the toe of his shoe.  “And it looks like you proved something about me too....”

I never saw what was in his hand, never even felt the blow.  I woke up in the dark.  I wasn’t sure where I was or how long I’d been there, but I knew that I was never meant to leave.  Arthur made very sure of that.

Fortunately for my sake my brother had once again underestimated me, though to be fair I had greatly underestimated him as well.  It’s a mistake I don’t intend to repeat should our paths ever cross again.

It makes sense to me now, but I must admit that I didn’t see it at the time.  I had been so obsessed over trying to learn my brother’s secrets, to be what he was, that I never thought to look any deeper.

What I now realize is that while I was trying to become Arthur....

...I inadvertently taught Arthur everything he needed to become me.

 

Bio:

Peter Emmett Naughton was raised and currently resides in the Chicagoland suburbs with his wife and cats. His writing has appeared in The Delinquent, Candlelight, Black Words On White Paper, Spook City, Apiary, Crack The Spine and Graze.

 

 

Filed under: Prose/Poetry, Submissions

Leave a comment