Conspiracy

[a mini Kate Shugak short story, set immediately following the events of A Deeper Sleep]

Four brothers, four men born one each year for four sequential years, before their parents figured out how babies were made and Took Steps. They were named, in order, Matthew, Mark, Luke and Peter, because their mother refused to burden a child with the homonym for toilet, upon which her loud, rowdy and profane brother had just congratulated her. Her husband, a faithful Presbyterian who disliked his brother-in-law anyway, remonstrated in vain that this upset the gospellian design decided on before the birth of their first son, but she remained obstinate. They compromised on Peter, upon being informed of which her brother then spake aloud and at length on euphemisms for male genitalia, until Peter’s father had more than words with his brother-in-law in the alley out back of the Ahtna General Hospital. A faithful Presbyterian, he wasn’t a pacifist.

The brothers were equal in height (five ten), similar in color of eye and hair (dark brown), and steadfastly united in fraternal loyalty, in part because their parents had died young, drowning when their fishing boat went down off Hinchinbrook Island. Matt had just turned eighteen and so was able to take responsibility for his three brothers, thereby keeping the family together. Exercise of in loco parentis authority was brought to bear, like father like son, mainly with Matt’s fists. It was also conducted in private, which explained why no piece of furniture brought into the family home by their parents survived.

At the same time the Grosdidier brothers were settling on a command structure at home, they were willing, nay, eager to assert their independence abroad. There were a few years when Park rats had only to see the Grosdidier brothers coming in one door to exit immediately out of any available other. Their quadranarily sequential ascent to the venerable age of twenty-one was viewed with alarm, and there was talk in the Park that Something should be Done.

“Like what?” Bernie Koslowski said. Himself, he relied on the baseball bat and the twelve-gauge shotgun behind the bar to discourage bad behavior beneath his roof. Not that he had need of either, because as proprietor of the only bar within driving, snogoing, flying, boating and snowshoeing distance of Niniltna, all Park rats with a wish to imbibe liquid refreshment in congenial surroundings had a vested interest in keeping the Roadhouse peace.

No one had a good answer to his question, and the idea died a natural death, although the commentary on the Grosdidiers’ continued willingness to instruct Park rats and indeed any stray passersby in the code of conduct tolerable to the citizenry of twenty million acres of southeastern Alaska was audible, particularly from those who had been so instructed. The decibel level grew to the point where Ekaterina Shugak, Chair for Life of the board of directors of the Niniltna Native Association, decided to harness all that youthful vigor and direct it onto a road which might more benefit themselves, not to mention their fellow Park rats. She caused an Emergency Medical Technician course to be held in the Niniltna High School gymnasium and invited any Park rat with an interest in the subject to enroll. She went personally to the Grosdidiers’ house and encouraged them to enlarge their collective horizon. Not even the Grosdidier brothers had the backbone to face off Ekaterina Shugak when she was on a mission, and they found themselves signing meekly on the dotted line and arriving at the gym promptly at 8 am for class each morning.

To everyone’s astonishment, not least including Ekaterina’s, the Grosdidier brothers embraced the EMT course with enthusiasm and no little ability. Possibly a trifle bored with having been for so long the proximate cause of injury, they became curious as to how those injuries could be healed. Each graduated as fully qualified EMT-1s, and a few years later off their own bat even signed up for an EMT-2 class in Ahtna. Today, they were the Park’s first responders to every incident involving injury to persons, or “First after Kate Shugak, anyway,” Old Sam said. They subscribed to EMS Magazine and read it devotedly, not scrupling to use what they learned therein on the job, only occasionally to the despair of the M.D. in Ahtna under whose nominal authority they practiced. They fit up a spare room in their house as a two-bed ward, and their happiest days were when those beds were occupied, especially when said occupants required the use of IV drips and defibrillators.

At first the Park rats viewed this metamorphosis with understandable skepticism. One could hardly blame them, so many of them having in the past been on the receiving end of the kind of attention from the Grosdidier brothers designed to put them in need of exactly the kind of attention the Grosdidiers were now offering. Over the years, however, the brothers had proved themselves more than able, and when they spotted an incipient outbreak of tuberculosis in Red Run and were instrumental in stopping it dead in its tracks, they began to be regarded as medical authorities. The following fall they converted another room in their house to a tiny clinic, which was open one day a week for four hours, with two of the brothers always on duty during that time to diagnose and treat the ailments of anyone who walked in the door. People started calling them “Doc,” indiscriminate of identity, which could be confusing, especially when they all answered to it without hesitation.

They were, all four of them, raging heterosexuals. They were all still single. This might have had something to do with a fraternal unwillingness to rock the domestic boat by introducing a feminine component into the mix. It probably had more to do with the fact that Park rat males outnumbered Park rat females seven to one, and competition for available females was fierce.

Which was why, when word reached them via the Bush telegraph that Laurel Meganack had injured herself at the Riverside Café, the brothers’ rush to the front door resembled the action on a bumper car rink. By the time they got to the big yellow Silverado Supercab, Peter’s nose was bleeding, Luke’s jaw was beginning to swell, and Mark was limping. Matt’s hair was a little mussed but he made it into the driver’s seat and was backing out of the garage before the rest of them got their doors open. He’d always had the best reflexes of the four of them.

His three younger brothers watched him reverse out of the driveway, turn left, and spin wheels on the way up Niniltna’s main street. They kept their identical glum expressions in place until he was out of sight.

“What do you think?” Peter said, mopping at the blood on his face.

“Could work,” Luke said, working his jaw with care. It was sore, but his didn’t think anything had been fractured.

Mark stretched out a cautious leg and put all his weight on it. There was a twinge or two, but nothing lasting. “We can only hope.”

They went back into the house and surveyed the post-tornado like conditions that were the Grosdidiers brothers residential status quo. “You know, guys, even if they start going out, nothing says she’ll cook and clean for us,” Mark said. “It’s not like she’s Snow White or anything.”

“I got a broken nose here,” Peter said indignantly. “I want Snow White, dammit.”

“Me, too,” Luke said, still cradling his jaw.

Mark sighed. He nursed a secret letch for Laurel himself, and it had taken considerable sacrifice to allow Matt to respond alone. “Me, three. I’m just saying she ain’t Snow White. We better clean up a little, or the first time he brings her home she’s gonna run like we was actual dwarves.” He added, “Auntie Vi wasn’t all wrong.”

Peter and Luke saw the sense in this, and they began a slow and unenthusiastic clean up.

The truth was that with the exception of the clinic and the two-bed ward, the house hadn’t been cleaned since their parents died. The brothers really hadn’t noticed this until the week before, when Auntie Vi had stopped by to have an ingrown hair removed from her neck. She’d walked into the house instead of the clinic, and the subsequent rant had lasted ten very long minutes, at a decibel level that had their ears ringing for an hour after she had stamped out in high dudgeon. It did sort of get their attention, though, and they looked around themselves with new eyes.

“If we clean it up, we’re probably going to have to paint,” Mark said.

Luke winced. “Maybe we could just hose it down.”

Peter said bitterly, “If she was so upset about the mess, why didn’t Auntie stay here and do it? Cleaning is women’s work.”

“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Mark said. “All we have to do is make it look halfway decent. Just so she don’t run screaming as loud as Auntie Vi.”

Luke and Peter couldn’t argue with that.

“Come on,” Mark said, squaring heroic shoulders. “I’ll start on the clothes.”

The scattered jeans and tees went in the washer whether they were dirty or not because at this point everything had been laying on the floor so long it was impossible to distinguish dirty from clean. Dishes and pots and pans were pitched into the sink with such verve that one might be forgiven the suspicion that Mark was hoping they’d break, obviating the necessity of washing them. Nothing wrong with eating off paper plates.

Upstairs, beds were stripped. At first, Luke was only going to turn Matt’s mattress, on the off chance that his suit with Laurel prospered, and then something got into him and he turned all four. He went so far as to rummage around for sheets without holes in them, and even aired them in the dryer with a Downy sheet for half an hour before he remade the beds. There was no complete set, and he only hoped that if Matt got Laurel as far as the bed that she wouldn’t be too put off by the dull blue flannel bottom sheet, the magenta cotton top sheet, the pillow cases that ranged from Scots plaid to tie-die, and the orange comforter with the pumpkins on it. Their mother had had a thing for pumpkins.

Peter donned rubber gloves and attacked both bathrooms with a sponge and a bottle of Clorox. For days afterward, just walking into either brought tears to the eye. “Hey, guys,” he said, raising his voice. “Did you know the upstairs bathroom sink is green?”

They brought brooms in from the garage and swept everything left on the floor into a pile in the center of the living room, from which they cherry-picked stuff they wanted to keep. The rest was bundled into three trash bags and stowed in the garage.

Three hours later, the three brothers stood regarding the result with not a little pride. “At least we’re not dwarves,” Peter said.

“Nope,” Luke said.

“Not that I ever want to do that ever again,” Peter said.

“Nope,” Luke said.

“Wow,” Mark said, looking at his watch. “Matt’s been gone three hours.”

“Geeze,” Peter said.

They stood in uneasy silence for a few moments. Luke said, “Auntie Vi wouldn’t have shot Laurel or anything, would she?”

They looked at each other, uneasy. Auntie Vi was an acknowledged force with which to be reckoned. There was no telling what she would do.

“Maybe Matt needs help,” Luke said.

“Maybe we should go see,” Peter said.

“Just to be sure,” Mark said.

The three of them headed as one to the door, disentangled themselves so as to get through it one at a time, and went up the street to the Riverside Café. They started out walking, soon broke into a trot, and were running by the time they got to their destination. They burst in, the door banging back against the wall. The four people at the counter looked up in elaborate surprise.

“That not a way to come in,” Auntie Vi said severely. “What manners!”

“Yeah,” Laurel said tartly, “and if you broke that door you’re paying for it.”

“I would say so,” Matt said, very much at his ease, a mug of coffee at his elbow.

Kate Shugak, sitting on Matt’s other side, said nothing at all.

Mark, Luke and Peter looked at them, at each other, and then at the unopened locker with the red cross on it in the back of the yellow Silverado parked out front.

“Are you okay, Laurel?” Mark said.

She looked a little too bewildered. “Sure, I’m fine.”

They looked at Matt. He gave them a lazy smile.

They looked at each other again, and then, accusingly, at Auntie Vi.

Auntie Vi clicked her tongue. “You get that house some clean, you boys?”

They looked at Matt. The lazy smile widened.

Lastly, they looked at Kate. Realization hit fast and hit hard, and they knew her at once for the evil genius of the piece. The corners of the full mouth, indented in the hint of a complacent smile, gave her away. And Kate had been in the house the week before Auntie Vi, when she’d dropped by to ask if they had a spare exhaust gasket in their snogo spare parts inventory for her venerable Arctic Cat.

Matt, Luke and Peter exchanged glances. Oh yeah. They’d been had, but good. Remained now only the matter of retribution.

They couldn’t jump Kate, Mutt would rip their throats out. And then Kate would really put some hurt on them. Mutt, sitting with a deceptive expression of blissful idiocy as Kate pulled on her ears, nevertheless kept one narrow yellow eye trained in their direction.

They certainly couldn’t jump Auntie Vi.

And although each of them had entertained multiple fantasies of jumping Laurel Meganack, not an option, either.

Really, there was only one target, and everyone in the room knew it.

Matt had just enough time to possess himself of Laurel’s hand and bestow a lingering kiss on the back of it before he went down beneath a brother avalanche. He was carried bodily from the room and was seen no more for the present.

“Ah, those boys,” Auntie Vi said, shaking her head sadly. “They never grow up.”

Laurel gave the back of her hand a thoughtful look. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, auntie. I wouldn’t say that at all.”

Kate smiled, and pulled on Mutt’s ears.

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