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13 ½

Richard was hurt bad. He knew it with the awful certainty one
feels in that second when he steps back off a cliff and realizes it
will be the last mistake he makes on this earth; that eternity of
horror before his body smashes on the rocks.

Freakish light filtered through the snowstorm, the bright orange
of sodium arc lamps picked up and tossed back by ten billion ice
facets: sky, ground, tree limbs, air. Rooms in the house were
orange, the whole world the inside of a Halloween pumpkin.

In light the color of fire, Richard couldn’t tell how much
blood he was losing. A lot. Too much. He could feel it pumping,
little squirts against the palm of his hand. For a giddy second he
believed the blood flowed into him from the night and out of him
from his veins, a pool, a lake, rising.

His little brother lay across the bed where he had fallen. On
Dylan’s pajamas cowboys and Indians were drenched in red, a
war on flannel. Blood ran in a sheet down the right side of
Dylan’s face.

Dylan looked dead.

“Dyl?” Richard tried to call out but he hadn’t
strength for more than a whisper. “Dylan, don’t you die
on me.” Richard started to cry, then stopped himself. Taking
a deep breath, he tried again. “Dylan, if you’re awake,
call the operator, the police.”

His brother didn’t move.

From boy scouts and television, Richard knew if he took his hand
away from the gaping wound on his inner thigh, he would bleed out.
For a heartbeat or two he considered letting go, lifting his hand,
and watching his life pump out of his body. It seemed so eager to
leave him, and there’d been so much carnage, why not give in?
Drift into the abyss?

Dylan moaned softly. Despite the muffling effect of death
dreams, in the absolute stillness of a snowy midnight it grated
loud in Richard’s ears. He hadn’t killed him—his
brother was alive.

Dream evaporated; abyss ceased to beckon. Suddenly Rich wanted
to live. “Brother,” he whispered. Dylan’s eyelids
twitched. Richard saw a flash of white eyeball, startling in the
drying red mask. “Wake up, buddy. Please.”

Using one hand and his uninjured leg for propulsion, the other
hand clamped tightly over his wound, Richard tried to move across
the bedroom floor. Fabric and blood stuck him to the hardwood. By
inches—one, three, five—he moved toward Dylan. The
effort was so great there wasn’t room left for thought. Each
tiny movement brought a calamity of pain. The pain had ceased to be
localized; his entire being was on fire.

Don’t. Pass. Out. He forced the words through the
clamor of nervedeath in his mind.

Dylan’s head lolled off the edge of the mattress at an
unnatural angle.

His neck was broken. Dylan would be in a wheelchair, peeing
through a tube. A ragged end of strength rippled through Richard.
Dylan would be helpless; he would need his brother. More than
anything Richard wanted to be there.

Push your chair, brother. Take you for walks in the
An inch. Two. Behind him on the hardwood was a smeared
trail of red. The room was so damn big.

Richard’s arm was failing; his uninjured leg cramped.
Blinking to stay conscious, he tried to remember why he was
bleeding across this wasteland.

The phone. Dial 0, the operator, and ask for the police. The
phone on the nightstand looked impossibly far away, as if viewed
through the wrong end of a telescope.

“Dylan!” Richard screamed. Dylan didn’t move
and Richard was out of air.

Rest. He would rest a moment. Leaning against the
bureau, he watched the orange light pulsate deeper, then paler. It
made him sleepy.

Don’t sleep; stay awake, he warned himself.
Never sleep; your hand will come loose. Sleep is death. He
would just rest a second or two; then, when he was stronger, he
would continue his journey to the telephone, to 0 and rescue.

“Water,” he croaked, seeing in his mind the parched
desert crawlers of late-night TV Westerns. He was so thirsty he
could have cried. He licked his lips and tasted Vondra. After
he’d left her, he’d showered and brushed his teeth, but
the taste was still there.

Vondra. He had been with her when he should have been with
Dylan. He had not been a good brother. Now Dylan was going to

The thought was intolerable, more so than bleeding to death.

Anger gave him strength. By inches and screams, he reached his
brother’s side. He smoothed back Dylan’s hair and
kissed him.

Before he passed out he managed to dial the operator.


Richard woke to white lights and the low constant noise of
controlled urgency. The first face he saw was that of a beefy
policeman, his skin red and fissured from too many late nights in
subzero weather.

The ruddy mask cracked, and from between lips thinner than a
snake’s came the words, “Hey kid.” The tone was
fatherly, warm and strong. It brought tears to Richard’s
eyes. He didn’t fight them. If ever there was a time when
being seen crying was okay, this was it. Hot and tickling, they
trickled from the corners of his eyes and down his temples.

A pair of flat callused thumbs smeared them into his hair. The
cop was comforting him, wiping away his tears like he was a small
and precious child. This unexpected kindness lent Richard a sense
of control. He smiled shakily.

“Hey,” he managed.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” the cop said.

Alive. In a rush, Richard remembered everything that
had happened. “Where am I?” he asked stupidly. Halfway
through the question he realized he was in a hospital, the
emergency room. Embarrassed to sound so predictable, he waved a
hand at the white privacy curtains surrounding the bed and asked,
“Am I in a sheet factory?”

Rather than being annoyed, as his dad used to be when Richard
played the fool, Beef Cop gave the appearance of being charmed. His
eyes, a glacial shade of blue, warmed. The thick shoulders rounded
in to create a less threatening silhouette. Lowering an oversized
haunch, he sat on the edge of the hospital bed.

Richard winced.

“Oh, sorry, did I hurt you?” the cop asked anxiously
and, to Richard’s relief, removed his rear end from the

“It’s only a flesh wound,” Richard said
because his brain was foggy and he couldn’t think of anything
anywhere near witty to say.

The cop seemed to think this was high comedy. A hearty laugh was
followed by a clumsy hair-ruffling.

“No, son, you’re not in a sheet factory.
You’re at the Mayo Clinic. The best there is.”

Son. He called him son.

With that, he remembered his leg, the wound on his thigh.
“My leg.” The words came out high-pitched and scared.
That bothered him but he didn’t try to cover.

“He cut you bad,” the cop replied, looking around
for a place to sit. Richard was prepared to scream if he put his
butt back on the bed. He didn’t. Condemned to stand, he went
on, “The docs’ll tell you more, but the short of it is
they got you stitched up, and you’ll be good as new pretty
near. You don’t worry about that leg. You don’t worry
about a thing. We got you covered.”

The policeman liked him. The belle of the policemen’s
, Richard thought idiotically.

“You’ll be running track in no time,” Beef Cop

Richard nodded weakly and said, “Good.” And
“Thanks.” He had no idea what he was thanking the cop
for, but people liked to be thanked.

“Yep, the Mayo. The best there is,” the cop

Richard needed to see who else was in the room, but, what with
beaming Beef and the sheet factory, he couldn’t see more than
three feet. The last thing he remembered was Dylan, bleeding, his
neck twisted, but still breathing.

Crippled, Richard remembered. His neck looked broken.

“Dylan...” he began.

“Your brother’s alive. At least for now,” the
policeman cut in. His eyes reverted to their arctic shade of blue,
and his cheeks went from flab to granite. He sounded pissed off,
but he wasn’t pissed off at Richard. He was pissed off at

“Excuse me.” Like a leaf on the first winds of
winter, a cool voice blew the cop out of Richard’s line of
sight. A woman in white replaced him, a nurse of forty or so. She,
too, smiled at Richard, a real smile, the kind mothers save for
favorite sons. “My name is Sara.”

Richard liked her voice. It was warm, like she thought he was
okay. He tried to smile at her and failed.

“Your brother is fine,” she said kindly.

Fine. Going to be fine. Fine meant nothing. Fine was a cover-up,
pabulum for kiddies.

The fear that had shortened his patience with the policeman
jerked his jaws together and locked them.

“Is he crippled?” Richard demanded, nearly lisping
through clenched teeth.

“No, no. Just a concussion,” the nurse assured him
quickly. “He’s going to be just fine.” She
reached out as if to pat him on the head, then snatched her hand
back. Richard was pretty sure his teeth were bared, and he
wasn’t sure he wouldn’t have bitten her if she
hadn’t pulled away.

Their “fine” was not his

“Is he crippled?” he yelled, trying to sit up and
barely succeeding in lifting his head. “His neck looked
broken. Goddamn it, is he going to be a cripple?”

“Shh, shh,” the woman hissed, thinking snake sounds
would comfort him. “Your brother has a concussion. He’s
not crippled. I don’t know who told you that. Breathe now.
You’re going to be fine.”

Now, he was going to be “fine.” She filled a
hypodermic needle and squirted liquid out the end just like
he’d seen in a hundred TV shows. Inserting the needle in a
port of his IV tube, she squeezed the plunger a half an inch or

“Just fine,” she whispered.

Warm. Motherly.

But only for him. The way she’d said “your
brother” told him that. Try as she might, she couldn’t
entirely keep the loathing from her voice.

“You just worry about getting yourself well,” the
nurse said as she pushed the plunger all the way in. “That
brother of yours will be right as rain in a day or so. And
don’t you worry; we’re going to take good care of

Right as rain, white as snow, Richard thought, and
wondered where the words came from. Drugs?

“This is going to put you to sleep,” the nice,
motherly Sara was saying as she pulled out the hypodermic needle.
“When you wake up again, we’ll have your leg all fixed

“I’ll be right as rain?” Richard heard himself

The nurse smiled as if he were the cleverest boy in the

In the space of a night, maybe not even a night --- he had no
idea how much time had elapsed --- the world had changed utterly.
Richard hadn’t. They had. They, them, everybody else had.

Beef Cop edged the nurse out of his range of vision. “Son,
was it you who hit your brother?” he asked.

Tears started again. “I hit him,” he said. “I
had to.”

“Good kid.” The cop’s voice turned flinty.
Richard imagined words striking sparks when he talked. “What
did you hit him with? That axe? The neighbor girl...”

Morphine, or Darvon, or whatever it was furred the edges of
Richard’s tunneling vision. Through this black fuzzy sleeve
he watched the cop pull a notebook from his coat pocket.

“Vondra Werner,” the policeman verified.
“Vondra Werner said you spent most of the night with

At first Richard didn’t see the ghost of a grin behind the
cop’s words. Then he did, and he knew the man thought he was
a hero.

Not just a survivor, but a hero.

“That’s enough,” Nurse Sara said. “Look
at him, poor, poor, beautiful Boy…” was the last thing
Richard heard.


Nothing was ever going to be right again, Dylan

Except Rich. Rich didn’t die. He almost died, but he

The first time Dylan saw him again was at the trial. It
wasn’t held in Rochester because everybody there hated Dylan
too much for it to be fair. They were trying him in a little town
called Hammond about three hours away. He had to get up at five
every morning so they could drive him there in time. The courthouse
was small and looked like it was supposed to, with benches and a
fence between the audience and the lawyers. Every day it was
packed, mostly with newspaper and TV people.

Rich, looking like his old self with color in his skin and
everything, his hair a little longer than their mom would have let
him wear it and waving in that surfer-boy style he liked, was
pushed down the aisle of the courtroom in a wheelchair. His leg was
wrapped in so many bandages they’d had to cut open that side
of his pants even though it was probably twenty below zero outside.
He’d gotten skinnier.

Though Dylan knew Rich would spit on him, or ignore him like he
was a bug, or scream he was a psycho, or worse, he didn’t
look away. He kept watching the rolling chair. When it first came
through the double doors, everybody got quiet. Then, as it got
closer, flashbulbs started flashing and people started

Rich was so cool --- academy awards, the red carpet. He was
smiling for the cameras but kind of sadlike. Dylan loved him more
at that moment than he ever had. Nothing Rich had done in the past

This was what mattered. The love hurt Dylan, it was so big.
Since that night the whole inside of him felt black and crusty like
the inside of a lightning tree. Mostly, Dylan stayed in the
burnt-out hole and didn’t think or feel. He didn’t know
what to be or how to be anymore. No one else seemed to know what he
was either. Or what to do with him. Doctors, lawyers, cops asked
questions. A newspaper guy got in, and flashed, and questioned
until the cops chased him out.

Dylan hadn’t been able to answer the questions, so
he’d coiled up in the black and hid. Until he saw his
brother. The pain of loving Rich felt almost good; it made him feel
like a person. He didn’t look away as the wheelchair rolled
down the aisle toward him but steeled himself to take the hit.
Maybe it would kill him, but he doubted it. Nothing he wanted to
happen had happened for a while now.

Then Rich was opposite him on the other side of the wooden
railing. He held up his hand, and the nurse stopped the chair.
Dylan felt like crying, his brother was so cool. He’d made
the nurse do what he wanted without saying a word, like a cop
stopping traffic. Bracing against the armrests, Rich struggled to
get up. The nurse, all done up for the trial in her crisp uniform
and hat, put her hands on his shoulders to make him stay down, but
he shrugged them off.

Dylan stood too. If Rich wanted to hit him, he could. For a
weird jag of time, Dylan experienced his brother’s fists
hammering him, his feet smashing into his ribs and belly, and he
welcomed it. He craved being beaten to death like he craved air
when he’d been under the water too long.

Getting up must have hurt Rich. His face lost color, and he
swayed like he was going to pass out. Holding onto the railing to
keep himself up, he made it the two steps to where Dylan stood

The muttering in the courthouse dried up. Nobody was even
breathing. Time stopped, and the people were hanging on the second
hand, wondering if the clock was going to work ever again. Dylan
wasn’t breathing either. He was waiting to die. Not the good
kind where everything is over, but to be killed inside.

Rich balanced himself against the rail so he could stand on his
bad leg, reached out both arms, and said,

The sere, cinder-lined core of Dylan filled with warm liquid. He
was melting from the inside out. Time flowed backward. He hurtled
from eleven, to eight, to six. A little boy threw his arms around
his big brother’s neck and bawled like a baby. Rich
didn’t have to be so good to him.

Rich was crying too.

People in the courthouse didn’t know what kind of noise to
make. Their murmuring fattened up with awe and pity, then morphed
into white-hot fury. Dylan smeared the tears and snot from his face
into the crook of his arm as the sound grew into the feral growl of
a mob working up to a lynching. Except he was eleven. So they
couldn’t even enjoy being mad at him. He was a little kid.
They had to pretend to be sad at the same time.

Rich fell back into his wheelchair. Mrs. Eisenhart,
Dylan’s court-appointed attorney, pulled him from the rail.
The judge was pounding his gavel for quiet.

They were all mad for Rich, because he wouldn’t be mad for
himself. They hated Dylan. They needn’t have bothered; he
hated himself more than they ever could.

He sat down. Mrs. Eisenhart had brought him the suit and tie his
mom got for Lena’s baptism. He’d been nine then, and
the suit was too small. He squirmed trying to get the crotch to
stop crawling up his butt.

Mrs. Eisenhart kicked him under the table. Rich was being sworn
in; Dylan forgot about wedgies.

The other lawyer, the one against Dylan, began asking questions.
Rich didn’t want to answer, but he’d sworn on the Bible
and had to. He hadn’t seen Dylan do anything. He insisted on
that. He’d been next door necking with Vondra Werner. When
Rich said that, he looked at Dylan and kind of shrugged.

Dylan turned around with a great big, sheepish grin plastered on
his face, looking to see what his mom and dad thought of
that. Men in the courthouse were smiling; when they saw
his face the smiles whispered out, leaving only the scratching
sound of dead leaves in the air. His big old grin brought the
undergrowl back into the ambient noise.

The parched silence, the sudden remembering that his parents
weren’t there, froze Dylan’s smile in a creepy kind of
way. Like a supervillain had zapped him with an ice ray. Flash
bulbs popped. “Butcher Boy,” one of the newspaper
reporters whispered, and a bunch of them scribbled in their

Mrs. Eisenhart closed a sharp-nailed hand on his shoulder and
turned him back toward the judge.

Rich told the jury, the judge, and the lawyers that he’d
come home and found Dylan drenched in blood. He’d tried to
get the axe away from him, and Dylan had nearly hacked his leg off.
Thinking Dylan was possessed, or might hurt himself, or was sick,
Rich, even though he was bleeding to death, got the axe away from
him and bonked him on the head. Then Rich had passed out and
didn’t remember anything until he woke up at the Mayo. That
was it --- the whole story.

The prosecutor made Rich tell it different ways. He tried to
make him add to it, say he saw things he didn’t, but Rich
wouldn’t do it. Everybody was listening so hard Dylan could
feel his brother’s words being sucked past his ears into the

No one listened harder than he did. Mrs. Eisenhart had told him
the story when she’d rehearsed him for the trial --- it
wasn’t at all like on television; the lawyers were supposed
to tell each other what they were going to say and do and not
surprise the other guy; but it was totally different hearing it
from his brother. When Rich said it, Dylan finally believed. Until
then he thought he didn’t remember it because it didn’t

It happened. This hit him like the axe had --- a slam
into his head that scrambled his brain. Mrs. Eisenhart kicked him
again. She didn’t like him any more than anybody else

It had happened. He’d gotten hold of his dad’s
axe, and it had happened.

Excerpted from 13 ½ © Copyright 2011 by Nevada Barr.
Reprinted with permission by Vanguard Press. All rights

13 ½
by by Nevada Barr

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vanguard Press
  • ISBN-10: 1593155913
  • ISBN-13: 9781593155919