FALSE PROPHET by Brett Willis

About five minutes after merging onto I-95 south, Karl’s mattress flew from the car’s roof. This was despite Tom’s best efforts; he had found a ball of twine in the back of Karl’s ex-girlfriend’s closet and managed a couple of extra loops around. Before its departure, the mattress had flopped on the roof like some overzealous wrestler. As, in the rearview mirror, Karl’s mattress frisbeed over the shoulder, Tom felt the stinging heat of resentment rise at the base of his throat. Once again, Karl would need someone else to help him out of a jam of his own making.

Karl had claimed that even the twine wasn’t necessary, that the belts he’d used to strap the bed to the car’s roof were enough. Of note, these weren’t tie-down belts or anything; they were literal pants belts daisy-chained together and shut in the doors. Leather belts secured to hemp belts secured to cloth belts. And then Karl had goaded Tom into skipping a trip to the Home Depot, claiming they were all good. Look how well the mattress was holding already. They’d be fine on the highway.

“Stop!” said Karl. “Dude, that’s my only bed.”

Tom didn’t stop, not immediately. He looked instead at his brother, willing him to do something embarrassing: cry, jump out, rend his hair. His shaggy, stupid, unwashed hair. Despite what Tom thought, the reality was that his brother was attractively disheveled in a way that seemed to make girls violate their own moral codes. Karl’s latest ex-girlfriend, Jolene, had kicked him out only after he had knocked over her betta fish’s bowl and then stepped on the fish while trying to wrangle it into a mason jar. There had been plenty of infractions before that—leaving food-caked dishes in the sink, being late to virtually any planned event, spending what little money his parents sent him on expensive weed. So now Karl was twenty-three and single and broke and Tom—twenty-seven, a freelance grant writer and video game streamer with a car (most important)—was helping him move his meager possessions back to… somewhere.

“Where are we even going, again?” Tom asked.

“Dude, my mattress!” said Karl, pointing behind himself unnecessarily. Tom drove for another couple of seconds before pulling over violently—no blinker. The minivan behind them swerved, its bleat of indignation dopplering away.

Outside, fallen oak and maple leaves rustled along the shoulder. The mattress was now around two hundred yards back. Karl asked Tom to back up, as if the distance was unable to be covered on foot. Tom threw on the hazard lights and got out of the car.

By the time Karl arrived, Tom had already tried to move the mattress to no avail. His attempts had only smeared more mud on the now-waterlogged pillow top.

“You got mud on it,” Karl said, pointing at the mud.

“We’re never going to get this back on the car,” Tom said.

Karl told his older brother to stop being a baby, grabbed a handle and ripped it off. The mattress had probably gained a hundred or so pounds. Tom looked at the dot of his beige Accord, illuminated intermittently by passing cars. Despite the reality of the situation, they tugged at the mattress anyway. After managing to drag/carry it about thirty yards, Karl gave up and flopped onto it.

“What the hell are you doing?” said Tom. “We need to move this.”

“Naw man, forget it.” Karl star-fished on the mattress, looking up at the light-faded sky.

“No, this is like more than littering.”

“I’ll stay with it,” said Karl.

“Stay with it?”

“Yeah, I’ll just like, sleep here. Come back with ropes or whatever in the morning. The Home Depot is definitely closed.”

Tom didn’t even know if the Home Depot was closed. All he knew was that he was tired of his brother. Tired of his idiotic laziness. Plus, Tom had his stream coming up; he didn’t want to lose any of the subscribers he’d worked hard to gain.

“Fine,” Tom said. “Fine, whatever. I’ll be back in the morning.”

“Hey, can you grab my bag, dude?” Karl yelled when Tom was a good ways away. Tom’s fists balled involuntarily.

 

Under his moniker “Xoomster,” Tom streamed speed runs of Mega Man X that evening for roughly one hundred viewers. He would have rather been playing Mega Man X-3, but more people were interested in X, so he ran that to help build his fan base. The goal was to gain a significant number of loyal fans by playing Mega Man X so that he could pepper in runs of X-3 before eventually switching altogether. His main source of income came from writing grants, two of which he was currently neglecting. It didn’t help that he had two grants due in the next couple of days: one for a public swimming pool in Hartford and the other for an environmental nonprofit aiming to save the sea-run fish population of the Gulf of Maine.

During his first couple of attempts, Tom lost too much life on Chill Penguin and had to reset. His stream dwindled down to fifty viewers even before he choked on Launch Octopus. It didn’t help that he kept looking at the thermometer in his window, noticing that it was hanging out in the low thirties. After another choke on Launch Octopus, Tom threw his controller and abruptly ended his stream.

 

The next morning, Tom got up early. The guilt he felt about leaving his brother on a mattress by the highway—even beside the cold, a drunk driver could easily swerve and pulp his brother’s body where it slept—had made him toss and turn most of the night.

At Dunkin’, Tom grabbed two coffees and two ham-and-egg croissants. He sped past the Home Depot, not wanting to waste any time getting to his brother. Where he’d left Karl, all he could see was a tan pickup truck, parked at an angle. Tom carefully pulled off this time (blinkers, easy on the breaks). “Portland Land Management” had been stenciled neatly onto the truck’s tailgate. Tom got out, expecting to see tire marks running over a ripped mattress, his brother inert in a black bag.

Instead, the owner of the municipal vehicle, his back to Tom, and his brother were both struggling to pry the mattress from the frozen ground. They were a brightly colored duo, the owner of the vehicle had on one of those high-vis fluorescent green vests while his brother wore a bright-yellow puffy coat with duct tape holding together the rips on its sleeves.

“It’s coming!” The city worker said, his voice too high for his body. The mattress popped up with a ripping noise: a few chunks of frozen grass and dirt stuck to the underside. Tom and the city worker both cheered as if they were buds.

Instead of tilting it up on its side, the two of them waddle-walked the mattress further toward the tree line and dropped it just shy of a tall, leaning spruce. Tom followed, paper coffee cups subtly burning his hands.

“Sorry about my brother’s mattress.” Despite trying to suppress it, Tom said this with some residual righteousness. Karl said ooo coffee and took a cup.

“No, your brother is all good,” said the city worker. He actually looked about Tom’s age and had the sort of dark black stubble that, when freshly shaved, looked like a thin layer of dirt. “I’m Chris Benkoosic, by the way, Secretary of the South Portland Zoning Board of Appeals.” He stuck out a fist for Tom to bump and Tom awkwardly grabbed the fist and shook it. Chris the Secretary and Karl shared a look.

“No, I happened to see your brother having trouble with the mattress and, like I told him, this is public land, actually. This triangle right here.” He pointed vaguely from the side of the highway to the forest. “Your brother said he wanted to stay, so we’re just moving him to a safer spot. Further from the road.”

“Really?” Tom said. “He can just stay?”

“Yeah,” said Chris the Secretary, sticking his chin out slightly and cocking his head. “It’s public land.”

 

“You can’t just stay here,” Tom said once the secretary of whatever had departed with a salute.

“Yeah man,” said Karl. “I’ve got warm clothes and stuff. I can hang out in the woods. It’s free land, that dude said. A ‘little-known public space.’”

Tom rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Even if that is true—that you can squat here for free—what about food?”

Karl raised the ham-and-egg croissant and winked.

“That’s one meal,” Tom threw his hands in the air.

“Where else was I going?” Karl said, serious now. “Back to mom and dad’s to live above the garage? Have them ask me what I’m doing all day? Fuck that.”

It was too ridiculous to contemplate. Hanging out on a mattress by the highway with a Maine winter on the horizon? Tom gave up. At Karl’s request, Tom got a whole bunch of water, beef jerky, and some snoballs (the strawberry coconut kind, not the chocolate ones) from a too-brightly-lit Citgo just off the Scarborough exit. Tom felt silly paying with Karl’s wadded-up fivers, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to buy the supplies with his own money. Tom thought of it as a parting gift, the delivery of these last rations.

When Tom returned, a white van with a satellite dish on the roof had parked by his brother’s mattress. A reporter with eyebrows that looked as though they were attempting to summit her forehead pointed a microphone in Karl’s face. Karl had managed to wedge some sticks into a teepee over his bed and had covered them with a queen-sized, royal-blue-and-white gingham fitted sheet. He was framed in his yellow jacket by a rip he’d made for the tent’s door.

“So, is this a demonstration?” the reporter asked. The cameraman waved Tom back when he got close.

“It’s more like, I quit,” said Karl.

“But, help me understand here. Quit what?” the young reporter made it sound like Karl had just said posed some Sphinxian riddle.

“Just like,” Karl looked around and pointed randomly at a Range Rover traveling south. “That.”

“Taking a stand, or rather, a seat against modern life.” The reporter turned to the camera. “This legal encampment one mile shy of the Scarborough exit on I-95 southbound was started by a lone Portland man who would not give his name. Its impact on society remains to be seen. This is Jemma Parkswell for WGBH, your Maine news, mainly made for me and you.”

Once the news crew had packed up and left, Tom couldn’t help staying to pose questions to Karl.

How long would he stay? Karl didn’t know.

What would he do in winter? Bundle up. He had warm stuff.

Was there any plan beyond just sitting there? Why did there always have to be a plan?

After about ten minutes, a taxi pulled up and a young woman, shouldering a stuffed hiking backpack, stepped out. She was probably in her early forties and wore a thick sea foam-colored sweatshirt and black yoga pants.

“I saw you on the news,” she said with hesitation in her voice. She asked Tom if he was camping there too. Tom shook his head very hard.

“My name is Amanda. I heard this was like a movement against everything and I wanted to know if I could, like, also be in it? Oh and I brought some food,” she lifted a reusable shopping bag filled with granola bars and water bottles. Karl nodded his head.

 

Back in his apartment, Tom roamed around. He opened the grant proposal for the Greater Hartford Aquatic Center and wrote a single sentence before closing it. He streamed Super Mario Odyssey, to switch things up and hopefully gain some new fans. After a terrible time on Sand and an even worse time on Lake, Tom threw down his headphones—had a bit of a freakout if he was being honest—and ended that stream with ten people watching. He ate leftover mac and cheese without heating it up.

Nothing could get his mind off of his brother and that girl. And it wasn’t just because he had been on a date recently with a small girl with long black hair who had requested to meet in front of the police station (Tom, of course, had agreed). They had grabbed coffee and enjoyed, what Tom thought, was a really nice conversation about the types of birds around Portland. It had been two weeks since he’d sent her a text, just one, about hanging out again, with no response. But his brother could sit on the freakin’ side of the highway and girls pulled up in taxis.

Tom just wanted to work hard and find success doing something that he actually enjoyed. He had a five-year plan. But his brother could sit on a dirty mattress and…

Tom looked at the temperature, it was down into the low thirties and the sun hadn’t even set. Tom got his keys, jacket, and some supplies.

 

There were now maybe sixty people gathered on the side of the highway. They had brought fire pits, constructed a big shack out of plywood and tarps. Generators hummed amidst the boisterous crowd. A group of children, none of whom looked older than seven, sat on the roofs of a row of port-a-potties. And off to the side, a circle of roughnecks with goatees and vests were even roasting a whole pig. The crowd’s numbers abutted the tree line and some had even put up deer blinds in the trees as if to get a better view. But a better view of what?

“Please move your car,” said Chris the Secretary when Tom drove up. He was wearing a Bruins jersey and now had even more stubble on his face. When Tom got closer, Chris the Secretary did that I-recognize-you-now point and slapped his thigh. “You’re his brother, right? This area isn’t zoned to have cars parked along the highway, so anyone looking to stay needs to arrange for their car to be picked up.”

“You’re living here now?” asked Tom. It seemed too quick for this many people to show up.

“Yeah,” said Chris the Secretary, nodding his head vigorously. “Yeah.”

“Do you know where Karl is?”

“Oh, he’s just about to send out a decree.”

“A decree?”

A bullhorn bleated twice and everyone turned.

At the front of the crowd, Karl stood up on the plywood roof of what Tom had mistaken for a shed. It was actually a stage. A pulpit. Bright lights, powered by the generators, blasted on, illuminating Karl’s tall, gangly body against the cloud-strewn evening sky.

“I have one decree,” shouted Karl. He raised his puffy yellow arms and silence swept across the crowd. Chris the secretary craned his neck and even did a couple little hops to get a better view.

“You should,” said Karl, in a loud voice that sounded ridiculous to Tom, “Uh… you should, like, not care. That’s it.”

 The crowd erupted in one ululating roar; the vibration of so many unified voices scared a turkey out of a white pine. Tom watched the turkey struggle to the ground, its body a ball of feathers in mad motion.

“Wow,” said Chris the Secretary, shaking his head. “So simple and so powerful.” He clapped his hand on Tom’s shoulder. “But seriously,” his voice went flat. “You need to move your car.”

 

Tom drove home in the dark, the supplies he’d brought for his brother—wet wipes, a headlamp, ketchup—jittered on the passenger’s seat. He went directly to sleep.

In the morning, his mother called.

“Did you see your brother on TV?”

“On the news?” Karl rolled his eyes. “About his protest?”

“No,” said his mother, her Massachusetts accent hitting the o like an aw. “No, he’s doing really well with all of those people. He has a channel.”

“A channel? Like a way to express his inaction?”

“No,” Tom’s mother said again. “It’s on the TV. Channel 44 here.” Tom re-scanned channels with the antenna that hung out of his apartment’s window. He flipped until Karl appeared on the screen, a still photograph over organ music. The screen slowly panned in on an image of Karl being crowd-surfed by a group of beaming adherents. Karl’s hands were crossed over his chest like a pharaoh being led to his sarcophagus. Over the music, Karl’s voice spoke softly and slowly. “You have to like, let that ish go. Just like, whoosh. And bam, that’s it. Don’t worry about it, y’know. Just chill out.” Tom made a little aggravated screech. “Mom, you’re not worried about him? Dad isn’t?”

“I think your brother has found a passion.”

“Sitting on the side of the highway?” Then, after a pause. “Mom, it looks like a cult.”

“All those people really do seem to like him.” Then a concerned lilt entered the corner of her voice. “What about you? How’s your video game club going?”

“Mom, you’re not going to do something? Call a P.I. or something?

“I’ll ask your father.” His mother shouted to ask if Karl was leading a cult. Tom heard his father say something from the living room and his mother harrumphed her approval.

“They all seem very relaxed.”

Tom’s father’s voice came on the other line. “Tommy, your brother is an adult. He needs to learn how to do things for himself.”

 

The tone of his father’s voice threw Tom’s mind back to when he and his brother had been at camp in Waterville. His father had been crouching in front of him on the tilted wooden deck of the camp director’s cottage. The night before, Karl, then a J-9, had snuck out during the session-end dance to smoke weed with a group of J-13s from Darien. Tom, a J-12, learned about it a half-hour too late and had run out to look for him. He had found Karl at the tennis courts, jackknifed over the net, his wrists bound by his shoelaces; the J-13s were taking turns smashing tennis balls at Karl’s bare ass. Tom had yelled, immediately regretted not calling the councilors first, and then had gotten beaten up too.

“Tommy,” said his father. “It’s not your job to fix your brother’s mistakes.” But Tom had remembered thinking that was beside the point. What about his, Tom’s, mistakes?

 

Tom opened his laptop to find that the conservation folks had given the sea-run fish grant to another freelancer, due, they explained, to the impending deadline and Tom’s lack of response. In a fit of self-directed anger, Tom went and deleted his Xoomster account entirely. Even with that done, he still couldn’t get himself to open up the document for the aquatic center grant.

Tom tossed and turned in bed that night, thinking of his brother surrounded by all of those people. Nothing good could come of it, but what could he do? And just like that, it was nearly morning and Tom found himself putting on his jacket, grabbing his keys, and getting in the car.

The encampment itself stood empty—remnants of tents, mud-covered blankets, and plastic cups all littered the area. In the place of the stage from only a day earlier, a towering plywood structure stretched up past the treetops, backlit by a peach sky.

Tom knocked on plywood front doors that stretched nearly twelve feet high. Both doors creaked open at once, pulled by wild-haired adherents—each dressed in yellow puffy coats with duct tape on the sleeves.

“Chill be with you,” The angular woman on the left said.

“Um, thanks,” said Tom. “I’d like to see my brother, Karl.”

“Oh,” said the woman, somehow pronouncing the exclamation without any surprise. “Come in.” The room she ushered Tom into felt as large as Grand Central Terminal. Spray-painted Murals of his brother in various states of repose covered the walls. Hanging from the center of the ceiling was a giant plywood sculpture of a flattened, upside-down betta fish.

The man on the right, small eyes and a big chin with a body shaped like a coffin, asked if Tom was here for the moment of supreme chillaxation. Tom told them he was Karl’s brother. The coffin-shaped man produced a walky-talky: “We have a relative.”

In moments, at the top of the palatial staircase that dominated the front of the room, the news reporter with the eyebrows appeared. She was dressed like Jolene: flannel shirt unbuttoned to nearly the sternum, pink bra, sleeves rolled up, ripped jeans and motorcycle boots.

“Come,” she said. “He is pumped to see you.”

 

All the way up the spiraling staircase, adherents in puffy yellow jackets stood. One line of them circled up the stairs while another line snaked back down as if they were in one long procession. Tom and the former news reporter walked through the middle. The people had unwashed hair and stubble on their faces, if possible. The smell of deodorant just covered the chicken soup aroma of armpits. But on their collective faces was a sort of happiness that Tom couldn’t mistake. To a person, they looked sublimely relaxed. 

“You got here at a great time,” the reporter said to Tom, twice, as they ascended.

At the top of the tower, the line looped around in front of an entryway hung with beaded curtains. One by one, adherents were entering the room and walking back out. The reporter pushed past, ushering Tom into what she called the den of sweetness.

The bright, trippy tapestries Karl never let go of after college had been stapled over what few crooked windows had been cut out of the walls—the fabric billowed in and out with the breeze. His retinue lounged on beanbags: one played the hang drum while Chris the Secretary noodled on a mandolin.

In the center of the room, Karl lay upon his soiled mattress. His head, propped up on pillows, didn’t even rise for Tom’s entrance. The former reporter rushed to Karl’s side and he whispered into her ear.

“Hey dude,” the reporter said, amplifying Karl’s whispers.

“Why isn’t he talking?” Tom asked. “Why aren’t you talking?”

Again, Karl whispered into the reporter’s ear and she nodded. “I’m just chilling, y’know?” The reporter even mimicked his intonation.

Tom closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He should have been writing the aquatic center grant. What was he doing here, again?

“What’s the deal?” Karl asked through the former reporter. “Did you come by to see me fully chill out?”

“What?” said Tom. This was weird phrasing, even for his brother. It made Tom take a mental step back. He looked around and notice a cup full of bright-red liquid sitting on the floor by the mattress.

“What is that?” Tom said, pointing.

“That’s the vehicle to supreme chillaxation. My friends whipped it up for me.”

“Supreme chillaxation?” Tom’s confusion turned to dread. “Wait, what is that drink again?”

“I’m going to head out, dude. To show my friends how to relax in the most serious way that exists.” As the former reporter said the word “exists,” Karl lifted himself up on his elbows. The retinue gasped and whispered to each other “he moves… he moves!”

“Wait, you’re going to kill yourself?” Tom looked from his brother to the red drink. “Isn’t it normally the other way around? Like everyone else does it but you?”

Karl shrugged. “It was Chris’ idea and everyone thought it sounded good.” Chris the Secretary gave a thumbs up over his head.

“Wait, are you serious?” said Tom. But apparently, Karl was; he had already stood up and was holding the cup with both hands in front of him. Reality felt like it was tumbling downhill.

Behind Tom, in the room and all the way down the towering staircase, came the creaking of wood as all of the puffy-coated people genuflected.

Tom’s mind raced: he had to stop this. There were too many people for Tom to physically drag his brother out. And he couldn’t just knock the drink from Karl’s hand because if they made one, they could just make another. No, to actually put a halt to this, he had to do something drastic. Something simple.

Tom walked up to his brother, snatched the plastic cup from his hands, and drank it.

 

The liquid was cool and chalky. After swallowing, Tom looked around. Karl had stopped talking but his lips were still slightly parted; the adherents, foreheads still to the ground, hadn’t seen what Tom had done. Tom smelled a mixture of fruit punch and almonds while an intense bitterness stuck to the root of his tongue. Inside, warmth had already started to bloom. Not a searing, burning heat, but more like a benevolent glow. And then came the pain.

A staggering, searing schism opened in his gut. Tom curled to the ground, dimly aware of the fact that nobody was moving. Time, it seemed, had finally slowed. Karl just stood and stared, not doing anything, yet, to help his brother.

Faced with grim reality, Tom’s brain set itself to riffling through scenes from the past: his mother and father waving from the doorstep as he drove off to college alone, how the water on the lake had turned dark blue when he realized the wind had gotten too strong for him to paddle back, the flutter of the torn parrot-shaped kite hanging in the dogwood tree. It was there, reaching for the kite and then losing his footing, that his mind snagged. He had fallen sideways and gotten his ankle wedged between two branches. Tom saw his upside-down childhood home down to the chipped paint of the blue shutters, the maroon door with the old wrought-iron latch. Karl, shirtless and in a grass-stained diaper, was standing below, looking up at him. Tom was crying in this memory—or was it now?—salty snot and tears running hot up his face. He was asking Karl for help. But Karl was just standing there, thumb in his mouth, watching Tom claw at the ankle that the tree’s rough bark refused to release. Each time Tom yelled, it felt as though some limited essence inside of him was evaporating. He couldn’t even remember the moment when somebody came, because obviously, they did. His mind was stuck on the feeling of the tears running up his forehead and the anger and shame that consumed him as he waited and waited for somebody, anybody, to help him.


Brett Willis (he/him) is the fiction editor of The Maine Review and a former resident of Hewnoaks Artist Colony. His writing has appeared in Intrinsick Mag, The Maine Review, and North by Northeast 2 (Littoral Books). He lives with his wife, daughters, and large dog in Portland, Maine.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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