"It's a void that I can't fill
An empty space I can't replace
With anything at all"
-Empty Space, Air Traffic
Every day, Sasuke walked home from St. Anthony's, the private Catholic high school he attended. Baseball practice had run longer than usual. The pitcher who usually started in their games had injured his shoulder. Sasuke would have to pitch in his place for Saturday's game. He'd pitched for his junior varsity team, so he wasn't worried. Only a freshman, he found he couldn't be displeased with the idea of starting for the team. In fact, he was very eager to tell his father about it. As well as Itachi, who was already home for summer break from Dartmouth.
It was mid-May, but the evening was cool. The slight breeze felt refreshing. He'd showered in the locker room, re-dressing in his school uniform: short-sleeved white button-down shirt, black slacks. The sun remained despite the hour. It peeked out from behind the tall pine trees lining the road. He re-adjusted his backpack, moving it to his other shoulder. It was heavy, filled until the zipper had become taut. He had a final exam tomorrow in Algebra II and his world history class. The road had recently been re-tarred, the smell of it still in the air. The center lines had yet to be re-painted. Cars were scarce, making the trek home calm and peaceful. Thunder might have rumbled in the distance, but it could have been a firework.
Out of habit, because usually he was the first one home, Sasuke checked the mailbox. Of course, it was empty. It must've been near 8 o'clock. Even his father would be home from his job in the city by now. He could hear their dog Max barking in the back yard. Probably at a bird or squirrel. Just the other day, when Sasuke had been sitting on their back porch, Max had come up to him, tail wagging, and presented him with a dead baby bird. Its skin was still pink. He'd ended up flinging its body over the fence as Max let out a long whine.
The lights in the kitchen were on. Sasuke wiped his shoes on the welcome mat. Opening the door, he heard the voice of his father. Sasuke's heart rate sped up. He smiled at first, but then he controlled himself. His father was probably very tired. Sasuke could wait to tell him about pitching. As he stepped into the entranceway, he heard Itachi's raised voice.
With his hand still on the doorknob, Sasuke paused. He knew what happened when they raised their voices to their father. Growing up, he'd had his fair share of belt marks on his backside and now understood very well that Fugaku Uchiha expected nothing less than obedience and respect from his two sons. To disobey was unthinkable. His father had grown up in a very traditional, conservative home in Japan. Sasuke had been born in Japan, but shortly after, the family had moved to Vancouver, then San Francisco. At the age of 7, the family had settled in Woodstock. Moving so frequently had made it difficult for Sasuke to make friends. The person he was closest to had always been Itachi, but for the past three years, his brother had been attending Dartmouth. He'd received a National Merit Scholarship. He'd always been at the top of his class. In fact, Itachi had graduated from St. Anthony's within three years instead of four. Rather than head straight to university, his brother spent 6 months abroad in Japan for an internship. Sasuke didn't remember it well, but he knew that his father had, at first, refused to let Itachi go. In the end, however, his father conceded. Because, as Sasuke had told himself then, Itachi was the first-born and favoured son.
At times it had left him feeling envious and jealous of his brother. It was Itachi that forced Sasuke to work so hard when it came to his academics and extracurriculars. But it always seemed as if Itachi's accomplishments remained just out of his reach. It was hard to remain ambitious when he felt like so little had always been expected of him. Yet, he also knew that his father would not be pleased if Sasuke failed to constantly be at the top of his class. He understood his role very well but often felt torn between two identities. Was he Japanese? Was he American? How could he come to terms with being both?
When Sasuke roused himself from his thoughts, he realized he'd been eavesdropping on a conversation between his parents and Itachi. Their voices had gone low, with his father doing the majority of the talking. Sasuke didn't know what to do. If he shut the door, they would know he was there and had been listening. There was nowhere for him to go. Something in the kitchen crashed. A plate, a glass. Shouts resounded, his father using Japanese. Sasuke made the mistake of dropping his backpack. It thudded as loud as a bowling ball on the wood flooring. Any efforts to try and conceal himself didn't matter anymore as Itachi rounded the corner and almost ran into him. Very briefly, surprise flashed across his brother's face. Sasuke opened his mouth to speak, but when his father stood behind Itachi, he immediately closed it again.
Itachi gave him a look that made him feel ashamed for his own submissiveness around their father. His brother left the house. A car door slammed. Sasuke rushed to the living room, kneeling on the couch as he threw open the curtains and watched Itachi drive off with men he had never seen before. He hadn't even heard the car come into the driveway.
Pressing his fingers to the cool glass pane of the window, Sasuke watched the car disappear down the road. It had been black. Expensive. Beyond the means of the family's current income, for sure. Their father would have called it a waste of money to own such a car. To make such a show of wealth.
When Sasuke got up from the couch and turned around, his father was staring. Not at him, but out the window.
"Father?" His voice cracked.
Slowly, his father's eyes moved and acknowledged his youngest son. "Sasuke," he said, voice gruff, "Do we wear our shoes in this house?"
Sasuke looked down at his feet. He'd forgotten to remove his shoes before he'd run into the living room. "Sorry, father." He sat down on the couch and began taking them off. There was a shine to the leather. He'd buffed them last night.
Sasuke looked up. "Yes, father?"
"Do not follow down the same path as your brother."
Sasuke could do nothing but blink stupidly. "Father?"
"Do not bring shame on this family, Sasuke. Like your brother has done us." He gazed down at his son for a long time.
Sasuke, no longer able to hold his father's gaze, looked away from him, eyes sweeping up the fireplace to the family portrait on the mantelpiece. He touched his palm to the front of his chest, rubbing it where it ached. When he looked over to where his father had just been, he was no longer there. Sasuke heard the steps creak and knew his father was going to his bedroom.
He sat for a long time in the living room as shadows started to elongate and creep across the carpet. Outside, he heard a rumbling noise and knew now that the sound from before had not been a firework. Soon, it would rain, and, vaguely, he worried about the game being cancelled. Then he remembered he hadn't been able to tell his father about being the starting pitcher. He slid off the couch and went back to the entranceway, where he put his shoes away in the closet. The light from the kitchen was still on. Sasuke stood in the doorway. His mother was sitting at the table, her back to him, fingers tightly gripping a half-filled glass of water.
Sasuke didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.
When Sasuke awoke in the middle of the night, he was not frightened by the dark figure sitting on the edge of his bed. The window was open. He could hear the steady patter of the rain. Nothing more than a summer storm.
"I'm the starting pitcher for Saturday's game," he said quietly.
Itachi's silhouette was ghostly as moonlight streamed through the blinds that gently knocked against the wall with the wind. Light fell only on the bottom portion of his brother's face, showing the grim line of his mouth.
"Are you?" Itachi turned and looked down at him. He had his long hair pulled into a loose ponytail.
Sasuke nodded. "You worried mother."
He raised his eyes to the ceiling, listening to the rain. Max whimpered from downstairs. "You woke Max. Did you just come in? What time is it?" Sasuke lifted himself to a sitting position and leaned against the headboard.
"It's late," said his brother.
Sasuke frowned. "What did you and father fight about?"
Neatly, Itachi folded his hands in his lap and sighed. "Father is a coward, Sasuke."
"I don't understand."
Itachi leaned over the bed and pressed two fingers to Sasuke's forehead. He left them there for a while. Sasuke counted each second. Itachi shrugged and started to draw his arm away, but Sasuke grabbed for his wrist and held it.
Itachi moved toward him and whispered in his ear. "One is still what one is going to cease to be and already what one is going to become. One lives one's death, one dies one's life. Do you know who said this, Sasuke?"
Sasuke clenched his fingers more tightly around his brother's wrist. "No." He pronounced the word slowly, ashamed he had surely disappointed his brother. "What does it mean?"
Itachi cupped the side of Sasuke's face. Out of surprise, Sasuke released the grip he had on his brother and shied away.
"Father's coming," Itachi said. He put distance between them as he went to his original spot on the edge of the bed.
Just as Sasuke was about to speak, there was a knock on the bedroom door. Without waiting for a response of any kind from inside, the door swung open, and the hallway light pooled out from behind the outline of their father. There was an explosion of shouting. Sasuke knew he cried out when their father backhanded Itachi across the face. His brother and father stumbled and fought, spilling out into the hallway. Max started barking. Sasuke scrambled out of his bed, but was stopped from leaving his room by his mother, who stood in the doorway with her fingers pressed against her lips.
"Let your father take care of it," she said and closed the door.
The door to Itachi's bedroom banged shut. Sasuke listened by the door, but all had gone quiet, even Max. Eventually, the light from underneath the door went out. Afraid of displeasing his mother and father, Sasuke made his way back to his bed and pulled the covers all the way up to his chin. The blinds rattled. He closed his eyes. Underneath the sheet, he curled his hand as if holding a baseball and started going through all of the pitches he knew, positioning his fingers accordingly: fastball, splitter, curveball, screwball, slider. He didn't stop even when his hand began to cramp. He didn't stop when the tears began to fall.
A nightmare startled Sasuke awake, the sound of a loud bang like a gunshot ringing in his ears. The pain in his hand made him wince. Outside the window, dawn was beginning to break and birds were chirping. Sleep made his muscles feel heavy, or maybe it was the effect of his overzealous training during practice yesterday. He tried to fit together his dreams, but it was like putting a puzzle together without knowing the original image.
Eventually, he threw the sheet off and got out of bed. Right away, his right calf muscle cramped and he cursed quietly. It subsided once he massaged it for a little while. Sasuke glanced at the clock on his desk. It was almost 5 a.m. and soon his parents would be up. Father and mother would leave for work. He couldn't wait that long.
He tried not to make any noise as he opened the door and crept down the hallway. To get to Itachi's room, he had to pass by his parents'. One of the floorboards creaked. At a spot he should have known to avoid. Sasuke stopped and held his breath, listening for his father. When nothing happened, he continued until he was standing in front of his brother's door. He hesitated at first, wondering if he should knock, but, gathering his courage, he opened the door.
Sasuke saw the outline of his brother under the sheets. He had no idea why such a sense of relief washed over him. It made him feel like even being caught now by his father wouldn't have mattered. Even if it meant the belt. He nearly laughed but had the sense to shut the door behind him first. He considered tackling Itachi, even if it would have made his brother very angry. The idea seemed childish, though, so Sasuke, remembering how he'd seen Itachi last night, sat on the edge of the bed. Itachi's bedroom window looked out onto the back yard, which was always well kept by his mother. There was a small vegetable and herb garden. She liked roses, as well. He had helped her plant at least three bushes already. They were in bloom now. He thought he could smell them from here, mixed with the fresh scent of last night's rain. There was a peace he felt that couldn't quite be explained. He tried to remember the words Itachi spoke to him last night. He wanted to ask his brother what they'd meant.
Sasuke prodded his brother in the side, first with his fingers and then, lifting his leg onto the bed, with his foot.
"Itachi," he whispered, poking him again.
Exasperated, Sasuke crawled onto the bed and whipped back the sheets only to discover a pile of pillows and a note in his brother's place. He smiled at first, thinking it a game or a secret of some kind, but then the spell broke and the dread that had accompanied his nightmares flared up again, making him panic. Sasuke grabbed the piece of paper. He read it three times before he could comprehend what it was he was reading.
Sasuke couldn't say why, at that moment, he just knew he would never see his brother again. He should have run to his parents right away and told them Itachi had gone. He could've called the police. Instead, he collapsed upon the pile of pillows and tried to inhale Itachi's scent. He lay there for what felt a very long time. On his way out of Itachi's room, he grabbed the bottle of cologne on his brother's dresser. Sasuke brought it to his room and hid it away inside his underwear drawer. He looked one more time at the note Itachi had written, the scrawl small and neat. Then he glanced out the window, feeling as though beyond this room he'd find he had awoken in a whole other reality, an alternate dimension. Drawing his eyes away from the window, he carefully studied the spot where Itachi had been sitting on his bed only a few hours ago.
When nothing happened, when the world didn't suddenly fall apart, when no one jumped out of his closet to surprise him and tell him this was a joke...Sasuke went to his parents' bedroom, hand clenching the note, and knocked on the door.