When we were seven, Marshall and I would play astronauts and Martians. He was always the astronaut, and I was always the monster. By virtue of being 23 minutes older, and somehow much bigger, he always got to be the good guy, but he never let himself be the winner. He was always going down in a hail of laserfire or jumping on an imaginary bomb to save a bunch of imaginary lives.
I wonder whose life he imaged he was saving in the end.
I was the evil, ugly Martian, doomed to die, if I had been playing with anyone else. Not Marshall. Even though I always won, his incessant martyrdom always made me feel weaker. Already significantly shorter and skinnier, and much less athletic, he found a way to make me feel even more helpless by always being the one to sacrifice himself.
I hated him for that. I got over it eventually, but I think even that was temporary.
That is not to say we weren’t close once. Back then, we also used to convince all our friends and family that we could communicate telepathically. It was all Marshall’s idea. We were, of course, faking it, but I think we sold it fairly well. We started off by agreeing on a bunch of predetermined thoughts. So many, in fact, that I had a hard time remembering them all. Each one had a corresponding hand signal. We’d stare each other down and Marshal would be discretely flashing me signs, like a catcher to a pitcher, a crooked grin stretching his face.
If I could remember the sign, I’d say what he was thinking. If not, I’d blink.
Even as we grew older, he still pretended that we could. I had to blink a lot more whenever anyone called on us to prove it, but he somehow remembered each and every sign.
One night, in college, I remember him calling at three in the morning, obviously drunk.
“Little brother, I’ve got a doubter here. What am I thinking?”
His hand then “slipped” and hit the three and four button, respectively. Three fingers, then four, was one I could always remember.
“You’re thinking about kicking ass on Mars.”
“Hell yeah, little brother! I’ll see you there!”
There was some boasting and some feminine giggling in the background before he hung up.
After the funeral, the source of the laughter, a pretty little girl with wild brown hair, asked me to relay this message to him:
I told her I would try.
A few of his friends will still do stuff like that every now and then, usually when I bump into them at this bar or that, and we all raise a glass to him.
“Anything from Marshall?”
“He just says, ‘Cheers.’”
Even in death, he is huge. He was always big, both in size and personality. Growing up, I was always “Little Brother,” especially to Marshall. The funeral was the first time he ever managed to look small. After a lifetime of sharing clothes that were too tight on him, too big on me, but “close enough” according to mom, I’ve grown very used to the idea of Marshall always being too big for everything. His laugh was always too loud for wherever we were, but he was always big enough that no one dared say anything, if he didn’t have them laughing along already.
But he was too small for that coffin. Too young. He looked like a little boy wearing his daddy’s shoes.
In middle school, we moved away from our extraterrestrial games and Marshall found different ways to entertain us.
I remember one time after my first girlfriend had just broken up with me. It was the kind of thing that no one really took seriously, as we had barely talked anyway, but was devastating for me at fourteen. Now I can’t even remember her name. Marshall was dating Melody, the prettiest girl in school, of course, but he ditched her that night to hang out with me. He found me moping in the living room, watching television, our parents off somewhere else.
“I heard the news. Don’t worry, little brother, I’ve got just the stuff to cheer you up.”
He looked cautiously over each shoulder, making sure the coast was clear, even though we both knew we were home alone, and pulled out a little plastic baggie full of breath mints.
“The guy I bought these from told me they were his best, real primo shit.”
I played along. We proceeded to pop them one by one, and do our best impression of being high. We rolled around, laughing hysterically, as we traded obscene hallucinations and mimicked bad trips before Marshall said,
“I need more, man. I’m tweaking pretty bad. I need more!”
He dumped the entire bag into his mouth, gnashing his jaws together, white powder spraying from his lips as he turned the breath mints into dust.
At that moment, our parents returned, only to find one son with ridiculously fresh breath and another clutching his sides with laughter, having completely forgotten everything that had been bothering him.
I’ll never forget that image of Marshall, cheeks swollen with fake pills, smiling through a cloud of white powder at our parents as if there was nothing unusual happening.
I guess you could call that foreshadowing, or practice.
That was Marshall though. He’d do anything for a laugh.
When he did it again, when he did it for real, no one laughed.
I wonder if he thought we would.
Author’s Note: This piece is dedicated to Jesse. It stems from one idea: that the greatest people in our lives leave the biggest holes when they leave. Over time, those voids develop a presence, even a personality, until they are like a ghost perched on your shoulder. This one was mostly written by one of those ghosts.