When I Believed In Dinosaurs
Imagine the power of an older brother. He wields the Truth. How can he control himself?
I don’t remember what Brian Dimmit did to me on the playground, but I remember saying, “I hate you.” He must have done something bad. He was capable of bad things. Like this:
I went to his house one time, and we sat at the computer, watching him play a game.
“Can I play?” I said.
“In a minute,” he said. “Watch this.”
I watched it. I watched it for 10 more minutes.
“Can I play now?”
“Hold up,” he said, “I just want to do one more thing.”
He did 24 more things.
“Can I play?”
“Yeah, when I die.”
He meant when his character died, but it started to seem like he meant when he, Brian Dimmit, died.
“Can I play?”
His mother happened to be passing by and heard me.
She stopped. “Brian, let your friend play.”
“In a minute.”
“No,” she said, “now.”
“Fine,” Brian said, but he didn’t move. He kept playing. I had a feeling he knew his mother was still standing in the doorway three feet away, then in the room, but he pretended not to know. He also pretended not to know that I was there too, his guest. He played on, even muttering to himself the way a person will when they’re playing computer games all alone, muttering things like, “come on… come on… go, go go,” and whispering “Yes!” and whispering, “No!”
“Brian,” his mother said.
I didn’t like being between them. It was like standing between a mother bear and the rotten cub she wants and needs to punish.
“Brian,” she said again, but this time she reached down for the power cord.
“No!” Brian shouted, then he was up. You would think his mother had threatened to pull the plug on Brian himself.
Brian barked down to me, “Play.”
“Go ahead,” Brian’s mother said, removing her hand from the cord.
I moved from my chair to the computer chair and played. Brian stood seething over my left shoulder. His mother stood seething over my right. Even the best computer games suffer when played this way.
Thankfully, his mother left and Brian sat down.
I don’t remember the game, but I imagine I was a little character who refused to stand any way but sideways, a blocky little traveler who loved foreign lands and stomping the locals to death for health and money.
Brian didn’t appreciate how well I was doing. I could tell, because every time I did well, he punched the computer desk.
Still, I held nothing back. I was amazing. I leapt over pits where he had fallen. I found secrets Brian didn’t know about. I slaughtered my way through levels until the blood stained even the hands of my grandchildren.
Then I got to the hardest part. Brian folded his arms and smiled. “You’ll never make it.”
I made it.
I was just looking over to smile at Brian when he punched me squarely in the nuts. The pain was amazing. Nut-punch pain doesn’t stay in the nuts. It travels to the stomach as if your body believes the nuts are that vast. And the body’s right. When nuts get slammed, they become as large as their pain, colossal as the flaming double-suns of Tatooine. I fell on the floor. Brian sat in the computer chair and started playing again.
Oddly, I remember staying to the end of the visit. I was afraid to tell Brian’s angry, plug-pulling mother what had happened and ask her to call my mom. So I didn’t. I stayed and we ate supper in the TV room, restoring our friendship by watching the best picture of the decade: Gremlins.
What Brian had done to me on the playground must have been worse than the nut-punch (which sounds like a party drink in hell), because it made me say, “I hate you,” something I’d never said to him before.
As soon as Brian heard it, his eyes lit up. He smiled a smile of fangs then ran and told the teacher.
Our teacher, Mrs. Hall, did not like hate. But if she really didn’t like it, she wouldn’t have made me do what she made me do.
I had to stand in front of the entire class with Brian Dimmit and shake Brian’s hand and say, “I’m sorry for saying I hate you. I didn’t meant it.”
What Mrs. Hall didn’t know was how good it still felt to say “I hate you” to Brian, even when it was almost completely ruined by “I’m sorry for saying…” and “I didn’t mean it.”
I hated Brian Dimmit. I hated him forever until lunchtime when we sat together constructing tater-tot massacres using toothpicks for swords and ketchup for their baths of blood. This is usually how I hate. It comes and goes. It’s a hot fire, but it leaves behind not a single glowing coal.
So, maybe I don’t hate people, not the kind of hatred that lasts and becomes a part of you, adding onto you the way healing bones do when they thicken at the broken place. Actually, I think I’ve only truly hated one person.
When I tell people about my war with him, I say, “It was psychological.” My brother didn’t punch or push or kick. He talked to me, teaching me early on that a person is made of words. Pretend a person is a ship. Positive words make for a light cargo. The ship rides high on the waves. Negative words are a heavy cargo and sink the ship lower and lower in the water, until the mermaid on the bow is plowing the choking waves with her hot, wooden face. My brother filled the USS Dan with heavy, heavy words.
(Read about one of these words in “The Time I Tried Murdering My Brother.”)
Today, my brother is an electrical engineer. I don’t know what that is, so I think of him as a scientist. Scientists test things. Here’s one of his old tests:
BROTHER: Does this word hurt?
BROTHER: What about this one?
BROTHER: Really? This word here?
ME: Yes! It hurts!
BROTHER: Amazing. What if I combine it with this one?
ME: Ahhh! That’s much worse!
BROTHER: And if my friends and I surround you in a circle and all say the words?
ME: I’m dead on the inside!
BROTHER: (Looks at his watch) Okay, I’m calling it. At 3:47 p.m., Subject B1 died on the inside during testing. Test number 982. Fascinating. Okay, let’s revive him.
Sometimes, my brother didn’t use mean words, but tried lies instead. Imagine the power of an older brother. He wields the Truth. How can he control himself?
OLDER BROTHER: Satan lives in your closet.
OLDER BROTHER: Yes.
ME: I 100% believe you.
One day, my brother and I were standing in the driveway. We had a unique driveway. From the crown of it, you could see the world, miles and miles, all the way to round-top mountains that looked like they were made of mist, mountains I called The Purple Mountain Majesties Mountains.
We were looking at the Majesties, looking at a rogue crow crossing the sky, looking at smoke-snakes slithering out of faraway chimneys, when my brother said, “You know pterodactyls?”
I was holding a pterodactyl. “Yeah.”
“They’re still alive.”
“Yes. They could pick you up so easy and carry you away. We’d never see you again.”
And just like that, the sky changed. And I changed. I had been a boy who only worried about Satan and bears and marijuana farmers deep in the woods. Now, I had to fear flying dinosaurs too. The one in my hand was just a baby. I imagined his mother. Her shadow on the ground would be as big as an airplane. But she wouldn’t make a sound. She would be as silent as cloud shadows moving over the woods.
She sees a boy, small as a mouse. Me. She dives, opens her huge and horrible hands, and carries me into the sky, screaming. No one ever sees me again.
A nearby crow cried. I screamed and ran for the house, my brother running after me, for some reason trying to stop me from sharing with mom the awful truth: there is now death in the skies.
It took a while for the air to clear of pterodactyls, and longer for them to leave my dreams, but looking back, I’m thankful. How many people can say they know what it feels like to be hunted by a dinosaur? I can. And I haven’t forgotten it. And I’m thankful to the pterodactyls for giving me an awareness of death that makes living more precious. Though they’re gone from my skies, I still feel them hunting me. I sense every day that I’m being followed by something monstrous, silent, and so fast that no matter how hard I run, I will never make it to the house in time. For every day that I’m not carried away screaming into the sky, never to be seen again, I’m thankful.
A couple years after dinosaurs turned our little Maine town into a prehistoric hell, my brother and I were on a hill in the woods. My father called the hill “Birch Mountain” because it was a high hill and had birches all over it. He also called it Birch Mountain because it was on our property, and it’s better to own a mountain than a hill.
My brother was weaving dead branches into a lean-to. I was in a tree on the mountain, looking off into distances, thinking of death.
“Joe,” I said. That’s his name, and when I said it, I made myself sound scared.
He didn’t answer.
“Joe.” I tried to sound even more scared.
“There’s a bear.”
“A bear! There’s a bear!”
He dropped the stick he was holding. “No there isn’t.”
“It’s in the swamp,” I said. There was a swamp at the bottom of the mountain. “It’s coming toward us.”
“There’s no bear,” he said, though if he really believed this, he would have gone back to working on the lean-to. He didn’t. Instead, he looked down the mountain toward the swamp. He could see nothing, because you can’t see the swamp when you’re standing on the mountain. You can hardly see the mountain itself. There’s too much brush, too many birches in the way. But if you’re in a tree, like I was, you see everything.
“Yes there is!” I said. “It’s big!”
“Is there really?” he said. Now he sounded scared, terrified, and that scared me. I looked to the swamp and down into the brush and birches of the mountainside, searching frantically for bear.
We’d been taught all our lives to fear bears. One time, our father crept up on us in the woods where we were playing with a deer skull, shoving it around with sticks. He charged from behind a tree, screaming, “ROAR!!!” the universal sound of bears, and we temporarily died.
In Maine, the threat is real. Black bears kill the children who believe in them. And they don’t kill like grizzlies, which is sometimes mercifully fast. They kill slow. They dig at you with their long claws like they’re digging for grubs. It can take weeks.
“Are you lying?” my brother said.
“No! It’s climbing the mountain! Run!”
My brother spent a few more seconds trying to see if he could spot this gigantic bear that was rolling our way as silently as tumbleweed made of feathers.
“Hurry!” I yelled.
And he did, but instead of running away, he ran for the tree, my tree. He jumped to the lowest branch then climbed. He climbed higher and higher as fast as he could, breathing heavily, groaning a little as he climbed, and between it all, managing to say, “You… better… not… be… lying.”
It was fun to see him climb. It was great that he was afraid and that I had made it happen. But it occurred to me as he got closer and closer that the only dangerous animal climbing in the area was my brother, climbing right toward the high branches where I perched.
When he was just beneath me, he stopped and said, “Where is it?”
I pretended to be looking everywhere for it, but there was a nervousness beneath my bear-seeking expression, and a smile too. Both managed to spoil my act.
“You lied,” Joe said.
“No!” I cried. “I thought I saw a bear!”
“You’re a lair.” He was looking up at me. I could feel it through my boots. I looked down at him. That’s when he said, “I hate you.”
It hurt to hear this, and I would have to tell on him. “I’m telling.” Our mother, like Mrs. Hall, did not like hate.
“Then I’ll tell that you lied,” he said.
“You lied about the pterodactyl.”
This made him smile. “And you believed it.”
“You believed about the bear.”
“Not really,” he said.
“Yes you did. You were scared.”
“No I wasn’t.”
“Yes you were!”
We fought. We slung verbal foulness at each other with the single-mindedness of reincarnated enemies. But we also stayed in the tree. Even though my brother hated me and I hated him, and the lean-to wasn’t built, and there was no bear, we stayed right where we were, fighting, and then eventually talking, and maybe thinking, Let’s stay up here a little longer. Just in case. Thinking, If there is a bear, we’ll be safer in a tree.
And maybe thinking, We’ll be safer if we stick together.