I am a cheater. The first time I cheated in college it wasn't for grades. It wasn't for money. It wasn't even for love.
"Brent, you gotta help me," Kevin said on the phone.
My brother needed a monologue for a theater class. He was stuck. He'd tried. He just couldn't write it. Naturally, it was due the next morning. He cajoled. He flattered. But most of all, my big brother needed me. I huffed and puffed and made pointed jokes and told lies about how much homework of my own I had.
And after midnight, tired, irritable, and imagining Kevin sleeping snugly in his bed, I began wrestling with my keyboard. Within moments, a Grinch grin spread over my face. Write you a monologue, huh? Doesn't matter the subject, huh? Just has to be good, huh?
The tale my brother recited flawlessly the next day (he has an infuriatingly keen memory) was true... ish.
When we were children, we would play in the vegetable garden after our dad had rototilled it, churning up big hunks of clay that baked brick-hard in the Eastern Montana sun. One day when we were 12 and 8 years old respectively, I played innocently as my brother threw dirt clods into the air. He chucked one so high it pierced the mesosphere.
On re-entry, trailing flames as it slowed to roughly 750 mph, it landed flat on my head, knocking me out cold. In his (ahem) monologue, my brother expressed how he was afraid that he'd killed me — because he thought he'd get in trouble. He tried to figure out how to hide the body. He looked on the bright side: at least the irritating little tag-along was finally gone. I drew him as a monster and his baby brother as the faithful Golden Retriever who just wanted to be with him. It was a thing of beauty. Consigning Kevin to at least 10 minutes of in-class purgatory, I felt positively Dantean in my passive-aggressive triumph.
Kevin sold it, too. Never accuse the man of flinching. But he didn't get an A. When he got the peer evaluations (which were supposed to judge only his delivery), he found out why. Against a bunch of As, three people had given him low grades, each complaining about the content. One gave him an F: "I'm a little brother. F*#k you," he explained.
Unfortunately, if I was a bit Dante, Kevin had always been a lot Sun Tzu: "He who knows himself and knows his enemy need not fear the result of a thousand battles [and karate and a gun don't hurt either]." Evidence of this ancient Chinese wisdom: my fight record (0-4363-1).
Kevin understood instinctively that if you seek out conflict when you have the upper hand, you can intimidate your opponent into not seeking out conflict when he does. So, after a friendly afternoon of shooting pop cans and neighbors' windows, my brother turned to me, BB gun cradled in his arms.
"Brent," he said, his voice flat, "run." He chambered a 4.5 millimeter orb of copper-colored pain and pumped the gun once.
"Kevin, no. Kevin, don't do it!"
"I'll give you to the count of three." This was him being sporting.
I danced in close, grabbing at his arms, supplicating, appealing to his better nature. I always was a little slow.
"One." He looked at me quizzically. I had the opportunity to run, but if I wanted to make myself an easy target — well, there's just no understanding some people, is there?
Of course, once I ran, that slow, "One... two... three" would become onetwothree! The corner of the house — safety — was at least 10 yards away. Too far.
"Kevin, no! Please! I haven't done anything!" The BB gun could handle 10 pumps, each adding more air pressure. At one, it would give you a wicked sting, but it wouldn't break skin.
He pursed his lips. He shook his head. "You asked for it," he said. He added a second pump: another 137 feet per second, another 2.4 yowls on the welt scale.
But to pump a Daisy Air rifle requires taking the gun off target for at least 1.4 seconds. I was off like a Montana grizzly trying to get off the endangered species list, a mobile mountain moving 33 mph.
In addition to being surprisingly fast, it turns out that from five yards a grizzly is also surprisingly difficult to miss.
Not that I was always so defenseless. The best offense can be a weak defense. Classic ambush: after a long day of low-level fighting, Kevin punched me in the arm in front of Mom, and she threatened him with spankings or gruesome death — the details are fuzzy after all these years. She'd turned her back and I'd howled and held my arm. When she'd turned around, the pure hatred on his face was all the evidence she'd needed for a swift conviction. From behind her back, I grinned my little Grinch grin at him.
Pity the mother with too-smart kids.
But years later, everything was to change. The pastor of our church was inside, visiting for a cup of coffee with this nice family with well-behaved children. I was 17, big from football, big from weightlifting, and just big. More importantly, I was finally bigger than Kevin, who was 21 and coming back from college where he was studying the oh-so manly art of opera singing.
Kevin sought a fight, and found one. He served up a generous helping of pain. I took it. Did I mention his martial arts? But I didn't stop. Today, I would win. Stomach shots, shoulder thumpings, wrist locks, wrestling in the driveway. He hurt me so bad that, big football player that I was, I cried. Crying, I was humiliated. Humiliated, I was enraged. I took the worst of it. I kept going. (File under: Berserker Grizzly.)
It scared the hell out of him. I interpreted his fear as a foretaste of sweet, sweet victory.
And then he did one thing he'd never done in 4,000 fights, the one thing that was utterly out-of-bounds: he punched me in the face.
I tackled him, shrugged off some blows, ended up on top, and took his golden throat in both hands. His beautiful tenor was his most precious possession. I choked him.
Then I thought, What am I gonna do? Kill him?
I hesitated. He threw me off. We staggered apart, a cold realization hitting both of us: If we ever fought again, someone was going to get maimed or killed. Literally.
Thus ended my fighting career on its highest note: a draw. I staggered inside, shirtless, splotchy, teary, dirty. I stormed right past the pastor. Sorry 'bout that, Mom and Dad.
For my whole adolescence, I knew there were benefits to fighting my brother. It taught me how tough I was, and how tough I wasn't. It taught me the difference between simple pain and actual injury. It taught me that when something knocks the wind out of you, you will not, in fact, die. It taught me what low blows are and who uses them. (All useful to know in publishing.) Best of all, I knew that Kevin would always have my back if we had to fight anyone else. We were best friends.
But it was years before I could see that last fight and all the others from my brother's perspective. Kevin and I were about the same size from the time I was four years old and he was eight. For my brother — perhaps for any older brother — every fight was an existential struggle. He had to win. There was no other choice.
Recently, though, what's fascinated me more than that are the rules by which we fought, and what it takes for rules to break down.
I don't recall being told it was okay to hit in the shoulder, but wrong to hit in the face. I don't know how I absorbed that it was fine to inflict pain, but trying to inflict permanent damage was unacceptable, dishonorable, disloyal. I know now that my brother needed me to run away from the BB gun — because he wouldn't risk shooting me in the face.
Man, I wish I'd known that then.
Sometimes after a compliment about my characterization skills, I'm asked if I model my characters on real people. Emphatically, no. And sort of, yes. I don't paste in my Aunt Ethel and have a character look like, talk like, and react like she would. Doing that seems fundamentally uninteresting to me. It also seems like a good way to infuriate Aunt Ethel when I have her betray her husband at the crucial point in the story.
That said, I do use real people. I use everything that fascinates me. If I see someone's endearing quirk, I'll lift it, change it, and use it — shamelessly. I don't know how I could write at all if I refused to use what I learn, what intrigues me, and what moves me.
The Black Prism is a story about two brothers who respect and fear and admire and contend with and shape each other. In other words, it's a story of normal brothers — who happen to be in extraordinary circumstances. It's not Kevin's and my story, but without having lost those 4,363 fights, I couldn't have written how Gavin and Dazen love and loathe each other. Without having fought to that draw and stopped, I couldn't have explored what happens when brothers break the rules — and then keep going. Without having seen how hard a good father had to work to shape headstrong, competitive young men, I couldn't have written how badly things go awry when a bad father picks a favorite.
The Black Prism is a story of emperors and prisoners and magic set in a Mediterranean, 1600-esque world. It's a fantasy story; it's fast and fun and inventive. But I like to think it's a human story most of all: a story of a fat kid who feels like an outsider, a story of complicated love, a story of trying to keep secrets from those who know us best, a story of trying to prove someone wrong. It is, to the best of my ability, a story of what Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself."
So I lied. When I cheated in college, it was for love. The kind of love that tweaks a nose, jabs with an elbow, and finally pats a back. That cheating, that love, is the source of The Black Prism. I hope you really enjoy it, but just a little bit more than that, I hope my brother does.