Polaroids of a Monster
By Luke Dumas
When I asked my mom where Troy was, she paused and said he was spending a couple nights at a friend’s house.
I believed her.
It’d probably been three or four days since I’d seen my brother, and even though we shared a bedroom I hadn’t immediately noticed his absence. Like many 18-year-olds Troy could be elusive, sliding in and out of the house without a word and at hours outside the realm of my fifth-grade comprehension. It wasn’t uncommon for him to tiptoe in after I’d already fallen asleep and leave again for school before I’d woken. Ultimately it was his bed that gave him away. Troy was a slob; that his bed had remained, for days, perfectly made was a clear sign it hadn’t been slept in for some time.
I asked, “When will he be back?”
Again my mother hesitated. “I’m not sure.”
The next day at school, a Monday, I was greeted abruptly by my best and only friend, a runty, red-haired boy named Sean, who nearly knocked me down into the playground woodchips as he sprinted toward me, shouting my name. “Luke,” he said through shuddering gasps, hunched over with his hands on his knees. “I saw … I saw your brother … on TV.”
“Yeah …Why didn’t you tell me … he got … arrested?”
Sean could hardly have said anything more preposterous – or offensive. “He’s not arrested, what are you talking about?”
Then I recalled Troy’s absence over the past several days, and my usually obsessive mother’s apparent lack of knowledge or concern as to his whereabouts.
I questioned Sean for every detail he could give me, like what Troy was arrested for, but Sean had missed that bit. Or perhaps, looking back, his family had made certain to conceal that detail from him. Finally I stopped asking questions and stopped answering them. Until that afternoon, when my mother got home from work.
People often didn’t recognize Troy as my brother. In fact, he was my half-brother: a distinction of no significance to us, but which manifested physically in our dissimilar appearances. Where I was short and chubby, Troy, eight years my senior, was slender and gawky, with pale freckly skin and charcoal-gray eyes. His hair was black-brown and sheared, for many years, in an unflattering bowl cut. But his awkwardness of appearance and in social situations belied an unstudied intelligence and humor I both aspired to and envied. The way he made my mother laugh left me seething with resentment, and I could only hope one day to match his casual genius at math and science. We fought relentlessly of course. He would pelt me with cruel names like fatty, retard, and cry-baby-baby-girl-girly-man-pink-ranger. He’d hold me down and dangle a rope of saliva over my face, sometimes letting it fall inadvertently into my screaming mouth.
But there were other memories as well. Memories of a kinder Troy, to which I clung following the arrest. The Troy who took me for joyrides to In-N-Out Burger in his 1990 Pontiac Grand Am, topping 100 miles an hour as he blasted Nelly with the windows down. Who spent $30 of his own money on a holographic Blastoise Pokémon card, the crowning jewel of my expansive collection. At some point my mom told me, or maybe she just implied, or I don’t know, maybe I could just tell by the way she spoke of the situation, that Troy’s charges weren’t trivial. Not at all what one would expect of a funny, dorky, deeply insecure kid only just graduated from Poway High. At some point she must’ve told me what they were, but I don’t remember that exchange either. I just remember feeling so sorry for Troy, for clearly this was all a tragic mistake. No way could my brother, flawed though he was, have committed such an atrocity. And I was angry at whoever was doing this to him. Why? I thought. What are they getting out of this? Because they didn’t want money, just fifteen years to life.
I was eleven the first time I first visited my brother in jail. The place was so bizarrely situated, I remember: down by the border, sitting nestled atop a craggy hillside on the far side of several miles of cropland. Fresh picked strawberrys, read a handwritten sign at the side of the road, followed by a metal one that said no stopping for ten miles.
“Why would they do this to him?” I ranted as our car wound sharply upslope. “Is there even any evidence?”
The precarious drive made my mother nervous. She kept her eyes pointed forward as she said, “There’s evidence.”
“From who, the girl?”
Mom said, “And her mother.”
She explained that the prosecution had offered a plea bargain. If we pled guilty, they’d ask for less prison time. Fifteen years instead of 15 to life. Back then, when my mother spoke, it was always “we.”
I said, “But that’s just stupid! He’s not even guilty!”
My mother looked at me briefly, before the road took another swift turn. But I saw her eyes before they flicked away, and they spoke the words she herself could not. I think she knew it, too; she didn’t look at me for the rest of the trip.
An hour or so later, seated behind a glass window and a telephone, I watched as a dozen men in bright orange jumpsuits shuffled into the grimy sliver of a room behind the glass. But not my brother. The man that sat beaming across from me, holding a black phone to his ear, was not the Troy I’d come to see. I did not know this man at all.
The girl’s name was not released to the press. All I know is that she was eight years old, and had gone with her family to the rock climbing gym where Troy worked. Where once he had taken me. It had been my first time rock climbing. He put me in a harness and held the rope as I scaled the wall, grip by grip, shouting reassurances as I went, letting me down when I lost my nerve and became hysterical. This girl, he led her into a broom closet and made her suck his dick.
I still can’t quite reconcile these two realities.
But it was real. He did this thing, and not just to her. There were other girls at the rock climbing gym, and one of our neighbors, a little girl with fat, rosy cheeks and a gap-toothed smile whom Troy had babysat a couple of times. The police went house to house, questioned every child in the neighborhood. My little sister was interrogated at length but she swore he hadn’t done anything. He had threatened to hurt her if she said otherwise.
At nineteen Troy was shipped off to Vacaville, California, to serve a fifteen-year sentence. As a level-three offender he wasn’t allowed visitors under eighteen, so my mother could not force me to see him. Not outside the occasional Polaroid that came in the mail with his letters: pallid and weirdly themed, snapped by a security guard. A washed-out Troy standing in front of a cement-block wall, wearing a beachy hat and Puka shells. He was allowed one fifteen-minute phone call per week, and every so often Mom spared a couple minutes for me. He would ask how school was going, offer to help me with my math homework. I would try to hurt him, saying things like, “Go anywhere fun this weekend?” Or, “Don’t drop the soap.” He would just laugh.
Except the one time when he burst into tears.
“I’m sorry, Luke,” he wept. “I’m sorry, little brother. Please forgive me. Please?”
I told him I did, and felt guilty for the lie.
I was in high school when Troy noticed lumps on his nodes and abdomen. After several months of missed doctor’s appointments (for the prison kept delivering him to the wrong hospital, or to the right hospital at the wrong time), he was diagnosed with Stage III testicular cancer. When given the opportunity to visit him the summer before college, I took it. After so many unsuccessful rounds of chemo and radiation, Troy’s chances of survival had dropped from sixty percent, down to a stratum of improbability in which no numbers were spoken. This was evident in the photos that still came in the mail. His gaunt features and pallid skin were shocking, even unsettling; he was starting to look like the monster the world had always said he was.
It was time to face him, the man who once was my brother.
We left the Vacaville Motel 6 at a little past five a.m. to arrive on time at the prison, but had to go back because I was wearing a light-blue shirt; prison rules forbade visitors from wearing blue to keep them distinguishable from the chambray-clad prisoners. “I TOLD YOU!” Mom screamed at me. “I TOLD YOU! I TOLD YOU!”
But we made it in time. Mom and I sat quietly on the splintery benches in the weedy outside waiting area, and watched the other visitors. Large Mexican families speaking rapid Spanish, looking as comfortable as if they were there every weekend. Lone wives and girlfriends wearing tube tops and mini-skirts, cherry-red lipstick smeared around their eager mouths. I felt so out of place I wanted to cry. When we were called into the office and the clerk said my papers hadn’t gone through correctly, that I couldn’t see Troy, I felt almost relieved. But my mom wept and begged, “He has cancer! He’s dying!” and eventually they conceded, leading us through a barbed-wire fence, down a boulevard of huge cement buildings, and finally into a large dayroom not unlike a school cafeteria. White-tile floors, cement-block walls, and fluorescent strip lights illuminating dozens of tables and chairs.
Eventually Troy was escorted in. Like so many before, I did not recognize him as my brother. Maybe because he was 26 now, maybe because he was completely bald, with hardly any eyebrows, and talked like a Southeast Asian gangster—this a result of his having fallen in with a gang of Cambodian inmates after he’d declined an alliance with the White Supremacists. But glimmers of the old Troy shone through as we ate, joked about the couples deep-tongue kissing at the surrounding tables, and played a game of Scrabble (he kicked all our asses). Before the end of the visit we had our Polaroid taken by a prison guard. The backdrop was a crudely painted mural of a lush garden, complete with sparkling fountain and strutting peacock. Troy threw his arm around me. He did not need to be told to smile.
The call came a year later. I was nineteen and working as a camp counselor in Tucson, Arizona, where my family now lived. My phone began to ring. It was my mom. She sounded frantic, out of breath. “The doctor called. I’m at the airport. There isn’t much time. If you want to see him, you need to get on a plane now.”
I rushed home, threw some clothes in a bag. My hands were shaking.
The phone rang again.
Mom sounded calm, calmer than she’d been in months. “He’s gone.”
The funeral was held at a church in Tucson. People came from all over, and Troy’s inmate friends mailed in letters to be read during the service. Letters that spoke of a dorky and likeable kid, who made everyone laugh and could solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute flat. Letters that mourned the loss of a kind and gentle soul, a loyal friend and a victim of fate. Mom wanted me to write something too, but my Troy was different than theirs. To eulogize him, as to vilify him, was either to lie or to have hardly known him at all.
At the funeral there was a book of photographs, and included in that book was the Polaroid—that pale, underdeveloped snapshot of the last time I saw my brother and he was so happy. It came home with me that day. I still have it.
I could keep it out if I wanted, frame it and hang it up on the wall, since neither the background nor Troy’s outfit tell our secret.
But I don’t.
Luke Dumas is a writer and development professional in San Diego, California. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in print and online, and he is a regular performer and writing coach for local literary arts nonprofit So Say We All. Luke received his master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland.