Twins. One of two. That’s how each was known, but the unique bond common to twins never existed between them . For even in the womb, Benjamin asserted his dominance. Prenatal examinations often revealed the larger twin turning his back on the smaller one, as if the tiny body developing beside him in their watery silence was intolerable. On other occasions, the twins appeared to be clinging to each other, but on closer examination even an untrained eye could discern the larger twin holding his head erect, forcing the smaller twin into a beseeching posture. Two in the womb, and yet, not quite twins at birth.
Benjamin, a lusty screamer, arrived at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, September 12, 1950, weighing a healthy 6 pounds, 4 ounces. His parents first child. A son. And then, almost as an afterthought, six minutes later Raymond was born on Friday, September 13 at 12:05 a.m., scrawny and sickly, gasping for breath. His ashen body was a feeble replica of his brother’s.
While Benjamin spent his first two months nestled at his mother’s breast, Raymond was touched only by gloved hands as he fought for his life in a sterile incubator engulfed in never-ending light.
By age two, their mother, a mouse of a woman, whose bangs always drooped over one eye observed that Benjamin considered his six-minute younger brother a weak shadow, an inferior mirror image of himself, and thus he treated Raymond with disdain. She mentioned this to her husband who said, “That’s none of your business. Let the boys figure it out. After all,” he added, “this is a dog-eat-dog world. Only the strong should survive.”
Loving both her sons, the only children she would ever bear, she pondered the wisdom of his decision not to intervene. Not wanting to suffer another tirade on how a weak woman raising sons made as much sense as a stray cat nursing orphaned mountain lions, no good would come to either animal, she remained silent.
By age five, the boys were physical clones, but even dressed in matching outfits, people still questioned if they were twins. Benjamin wore his polo shirt and designer jeans in a casual manner suggesting a life of privilege; the same clothes on Raymond appeared worn and rumpled. Their faces were identical while they slept, but when awake, Benjamin was quick with a smile or scowl while Raymond’s face was a blank slate devoid of emotion.
When the boys were eight, their Cub Scout Den competed in the Pinewood Derby. Their father helped Benjamin create a racer weighted with lead. Benjamin sprayed on black paint and added silver skull decals. Raymond worked alone. He whittled his block of wood pencil-thin and covered it with yellow paint left over from a kitchen project. In the first heat, Benjamin’s racer broke away from the pack and easily won. In the fifth and final heat, Raymond’s pencil racer shot down the track like a yellow rocket and won. Raymond’s pencil-car wont the third heat. In the final race, Benjamin and Raymond competed with three other boys for the coveted trophy, a cheap plastic loving cup. Benjamin’s racer finished a slow fourth to Raymond’s prizewinning yellow car.
In the sports section of the Sunday newspaper, a large photo showed Raymond proudly holding his trophy, surrounded by three of the other boys who competed in the final race. Benjamin had refused to be in the picture, having no desire to be listed as an ‘also-ran.’ Their father offered no praise to Raymond, instead, he berated Benjamin for not ‘sucking it up like a man.’
Silently, Benjamin cursed his brother. Raymond’s like fly at a picnic. Nothing but a damn nuisance.
On their thirteenth birthday, against their mother’s wishes, each boy received a rifle from their father. For the next two years, the boys and their father spent Saturdays shooting rats at the junk yard or hunting whatever wildlife was in season. Benjamin looked forward to the weekly outings, bragging about the number of animals he had killed. Raymond did not mind shooting rats, they were pests, carriers of disease, but he disliked shooting rabbits, doves, ducks and deer, all of which were left to rot where they fell since their father only counted trophies. Wild game was unfit to eat.
One Saturday in November, a freezing rain covered the windshield of the pickup as the threesome drove to their favorite hunting spot. Vultures circled overhead, waiting for the free lunch they had come to expect every weekend. Within minutes, Benjamin shot a deer. A sloppy shot. He watched the majestic animal try to stand upon it’s shattered leg with laughter and morbid curiosity until the buck was too weak to try and collapsed.
“Put the damn thing out of its misery. Kill it,” their father said.
“Why?” Benjamin asked. “It’s funny.”
Raymond fired. A clean kill. The deer thudded to the ground. Reviled, he crunched over the frozen corn stubble to the truck, took the shells from his rifle and never loaded it again. He endured Benjamin’s taunts on the ride home while his father drove with jaw-clenching silence. By their sophomore year in high school, Benjamin had become the varsity quarterback; Raymond was relegated to the second string, ignored. With effort, Benjamin could have been an all-American, but he sought only the adoration of the cheerleaders. When the girls flocked around Benjamin after a game, a game he’d won with another spectacular Hail-Mary pass or a clever quarterback sneak, he’d grab Raymond, give him a nuggie and say, “I owe it all to my brother. If he hadn’t kept the bench warm, I never could have done it.” The girls would titter and smile. Before their admiration waned, Benjamin would thrust out his chest and stride to the locker room, his eyes glinting with sexual desire that he knew a girl would soon quench.
Benjamin’s decision to attend the state university came only after he was wooed and promised an assortment of under-the-table gifts. He was welcomed on campus as an academic plum, a stellar athlete, and future leader. Raymond’s admission went unnoticed. At the university, the spotlight sought out Benjamin, passing over Raymond as if he were litter on an otherwise pristine landscape.
The evening of December 1, 1969, was a defining moment in the twin’s lives. For the first time in his exemplary life, Benjamin did not want to be a winner. That night at Duffy’s Tavern, Benjamin and Raymond watched the Selective Service Lottery surrounded by their fraternity brothers and dark walls and stained floors that reeked of smoke and spilled beer. When number 242 was called for September 12, Benjamin let out a ‘whoop’ and chugged his Pabst. “That number ought to give me another year in college.” He flattened the empty can with his fist and signaled to the barmaid for another. “What number did you get little brother?”
“Not as good as you,” Raymond said. “One-seventy-five.” His eyes were dull orbs in his motionless face while he pondered if a call to arms would be another curse or prove to be his salvation, allowing him at last to escape from his brother.
As 1970 slipped into its final two months, Raymond knew the old cliché, “his number was up” applied to him. At their Thanksgiving dinner, Benjamin said, “Tough luck, little brother. I’d go to Canada before I’d go to Nam.” Not wanting to serve in the Army, Raymond enlisted in the Marines. His father drove him to the bus depot and waited with him beside a recruiting poster with large letters stating, “We don’t promise you a rose garden.”
When Raymond’s unit was shipped to Vietnam, Benjamin felt as if a large cancerous tumor had been removed from his body. Now he would receive the attention a firstborn son deserved without being compared to his almost “first born” brother. The limelight was now his, as it rightfully should be.
Raymond felt the same lightness. He was alone at last, free from the tether that had kept him in the shadow of his twin for twenty years.
While many disdain the military’s regulations, orders, and loss of identity, Raymond thrived, quickly advancing to Corporal. One night, while on a routine midnight patrol through the sweet smell of rotting vegetation near the Ho Chi Minh trail, thoughts of making the military a career distracted him. While imagining gold rosettes on his shoulders, he missed a trip wire.
The explosion flushed out a nest of Viet Cong. With no thought of his pressing medical needs, Raymond ordered his men to kill or capture the VC before evacuating him. His blood seeped through a dense layer of fallen leaves before the VC retreated and grunts from his platoon lifted him aboard a helicopter hovering overhead like a noisy dragonfly. Once again Raymond was fighting for his life, as he had at his birth, but this time it was to be a life without legs. Instead of considering Raymond’s injuries the result of inattention to his duties, the Marines deemed his actions heroic. Raymond returned home with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. While recuperating in his small hometown hospital, national news media interviewed him, and a Hollywood producer contacted him about buying the rights of his story for a major motion picture. The local newspaper heralded him as an American hero. A color photo of Raymond adorned with his medals and a lengthy article praising his life and actions were on the front page.
Benjamin read the article, searching for a reference to his accomplishments. Almost as a footnote, the last sentence stated, “Raymond’s twin brother attends the university.” With clenched teeth, he crumpled the paper and tossed it in the trash. He had been reduced to a nameless brother, ignored like a used postage stamp. “Damn you, Raymond. You never quit,” Benjamin snarled as he stormed from his fraternity house. He opened the glove box of his car, searched for his keys, then jammed the key into the starter. The Mustang roared to life. He sped away; his face as red as the candy apple paint on his convertible. With his horn blaring at slow drivers, he swerved onto the Interstate and drove toward home. He was destined for fame and fortune, and yet none of this had been mentioned in the paper. As usual, he was linked to his brother, an underachiever, and now this legless freak had cast a pall on his shooting star. Just once, he’d like to be identified as Benjamin, not as a twin, Raymond wheeled himself into his parents’ back yard. The spring sun flooded the yard highlighting the hint of new leaves on the bare branches, a stark contrast to the thick jungles of Nam where sunlight was filtered through layers of broad leaves. He watched two squirrels cavort and chase each other, a precursor to mating. Midway through their chattering romp, they stopped. Their ears stood erect like furry-peaked mountains; their beady eyes focused on something behind Raymond before they scampered up a nearby utility pole and raced away on the overhead wires. Raymond turned his wheelchair to see what had startled the squirrels and looked into a face like his, but the eyes staring at him were filled with hate.
Benjamin pulled a Saturday night special from his jacket pocket. “I cried when I heard what happened to you in Vietnam. My frat brothers thought I was upset because you almost died, but I was madder than hell that you survived. Just once, I’d like to be me, not your twin.”
Raymond’s emotionless eyes stared at Benjamin’s sweaty finger curled around the trigger. “I was never a threat to you,” Raymond said. “You did your thing, I did mine.”
“Yeah, but you were always there. People were always comparing us. No matter what I accomplished you were always mentioned. Maybe if you were six years, instead of six minutes younger than me, we could have been like brothers.” For a second Benjamin had a faraway look in his eyes, as if contemplating being a shining example to a much younger brother. “Nah, that wouldn’t have worked either. You still would have been a pain in the ass, a snot-nosed kid, a baby seeking attention.”
A single shot. A brother collapsed. Their father lowered his rifle.
“Why did you kill him?”
“To put him out of his misery.”
“Yeah. He was like a wounded deer. Too weak to stand on his own legs. You were my favorite. He could have been really great, but he was indecisive, never worked for a damn thing, always took the easy way. Was petty, didn’t have any spine, ran away from his problems. You, on the other hand, earned the right to be called a man, Raymond, and no second rate brother should bring you down.”
Rebecca Willman Gernon has been published in Bylines Magazine, Lutheran Digest, Delectable, Daily Devotions for Writers, and in several anthologies. Her play, BitterSweet Chocolates, won awards in Virginia and Louisiana were it was produced. Her one-act plays, Artistic Expressions, and The Size of Texas were semi-finalists in Drury College’s 2008 and 2010 play competition. Gernon lives three-feet below sea level in New Orleans.
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