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Updated: Jul 21, 2020

I remember the first time I saw Will’s special drawer.

It was midsummer, so we rarely went into the attic that we’d turned into our own playroom until night, when a cool enough breeze came in through the tiny window that it didn’t feel like you were suffocating. Will was at one of his doctor appointments and I needed some blank pieces of paper to write on, so up I went into the heat.

The scent of mothballs bit the stale air as I ascended the narrow stairs, strengthened by the humidity. I found his pad of drawing paper right on his desk near the old dresser, but I paused when I noticed the bottom drawer was open just a tiny crack.

I’d seen his drawings hundreds of times and pretended to love them, just as I pretended to admire any amputee he excitedly pointed out as we walked down the street. But there something more unnerving about revealing the drawer full of Barbie torsos, something about their mindless painted smiles that rose above Will’s sketches of naked, limbless beauties with haunting eyes. I could almost imagine him sitting up there, lovingly removing their limbs like the wings off a butterfly, discarding them in the trash and setting the torsos in the blanket he’d lined his drawer with.

I slammed it shut, swallowing hard as I grabbed the sketch pad and hurried back down the stairs.

Will was a fantastic artist, something I hadn’t inherited, and there really was something magical about watching him bring his creations to life in pencil. But I think I encouraged him mainly to give him a reason to keep both his arms.

“I can always teach myself to draw with my left hand,” he pointed out.

“You need one hand to draw and one to hold down the paper,” I argued. “Don’t hurt your arms, Will.”

I’d like to think I had an influence on him, but a part of me wondered if he was just waiting to finish the job he’d started on his legs, if they were the true villains in his wonderfully artistic, but broken mind.

“It’s an extremely rare mental disorder,” they explained to my hysterical mother the night it happened. Who they were specifically, I can’t remember, all adults seem the same when you’re a child. All I can recall were their shiny shoes on the linoleum floors, picking up the bright fluorescent lights overhead.

“It’s a problem with your brother’s brain,” a woman clarified for my child ears. She was wearing a white coat and glasses, and when she peered over them, I noticed her eyes were the color of chocolate milk. “We just have to make sure you don’t have the same kind of brain, since he’s your twin.”

Much later, my older sister, Sarah, explained to me what I saw, what no one else in my family ever wanted to mention again. I still had no recollection of the incident then, but I pieced together enough to surmise that I had walked in on my brother in the garage and whatever I saw was so traumatizing that I blocked the entire memory out of my mind. My dreams, however, barely floated by without some flash of nightmarish crimson.

Sarah eventually ran away from home at the age of seventeen. I overheard the neighbor lady making the comment that she was just like her mother, running away with a smooth talking older man who would do nothing but leave her with a child and break her heart. No one could really blame her - it was hard to live with Will and I.

My mother didn’t do much to stop her, but her own vices had long become stronger than any inkling of maternal instinct. Come to think of it, I can’t recall a time when Mom’s breath wasn’t sharpened by whiskey, her empty Jack bottles stashed all over the house. We would find them in the most random places, even in the attic. Sometimes I wonder if she ever had enough liquid courage to take a peek, if she ever got close to throwing out the mutilated Barbie dolls. If she had, she never said a word, and we all continued to pretend like we believed Will was just going up there to draw normal things, like a normal kid.

“They hurt, Mike,” he whispered to me the night we decided to camp in the attic. Mom was at the bar, which means she was out for the night, and we lugged our sleeping bags up the stairs to eat stale popcorn and tell each other ghost stories. Mine were always better than his, it was the one thing I was good at, and we’d laid around afterwards in dark silence with our flashlights, hoping the ghosts I invented would show up in the spider-webbed crevices of the room.

“They don’t really hurt, Will, that’s just the part of your brain that’s broken,” I told him as I made an infinity swirl with my flashlight on the ceiling.

“You know they hurt me,” he said. “The doctors just have you afraid to admit it.”