The waitress was perhaps a bit too bright and perky for her age, Carl thought, as he squinted down at the cracked, plastic menu clutched in his weathered hands. The small black font swam before his eyes. He knew he shouldn’t be so stubborn; he knew that buying a pair of glasses wouldn’t actually make him older. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“Um, yes, I would like the fries with the house sauce, but on the side, please,” Carl told the waitress.
“That’s what I’m getting, too, Mr. Whitaker!” Charlie exclaimed.
Carl smiled at the younger man, whose blue eyes were wide with delight. If only he, too, could believe that their same order was some sort of spectacular coincidence. Of course, the waitress hadn’t written down their order, and it wasn’t because their order was so simple. It was because they had been ordering the same thing from the same spot for a long time — and the same time every day for the past eleven years…
* * *
“So why did you want to come here so early this morning?” Carl asked, as the young waitress placed a basket of fries on the table before them, the special sauce in a neat little white bowl on the side. Carl reached for a fry, hoping that Charlie was about to tell him about the latest girl he was dating, or about a paper his tough English teacher had failed. Anything that wouldn’t justify the tight squeeze in his stomach.
Charlie let out a long, slow breath. “You’re not going to like it.”
“Do I ever?” Carl muttered. He dipped his fry in the sauce, one end and then the other. A bite and the taste burst in his mouth, sweet with a hint of spice and salt. Even though they had been coming to this diner for just a little over two years now, he couldn’t imagine ever getting tired of eating these fries.
“I’ve enlisted in the army,” Charlie said. “I leave in two weeks.”
Carl choked. He couldn’t seem to remember how to swallow the rest of his fry, half-chewed and tasteless in his mouth. He lifted the napkin to his mouth and spit it out.
Sure, Charlie was always doing something rash, but this? And how could Charlie have not told him first? They did everything together. Always had.
Carl swallowed, hard. He refused to let the lump in his throat grow any larger.
“I’m coming with you,” Carl said.
Charlie leaned back in the booth and laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. The army will destroy you. You don’t have the constitution for the army life, especially if we get into the Occult Division.”
“I’m coming with you,” Carl repeated, louder this time. He ignored the waitress at the counter, who looked over at them curiously. “You didn’t ask me, I’m not asking you. We both know there’s a war coming up soon, and I’m not going to let you get yourself killed alone.”
Charlie shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Then a slow grin spread across his cheeks, a twinkle of mischief shining in his eyes. “I knew you’d have my back, brother.”
Army life hadn’t been so bad, at first. Although Carl didn’t enjoy it, he’d taken less time than he had expected to adjust to the strict structure of the army, and to the constant yelling.
Charlie, on the other hand, thrived. He was always the first at the end of the finish line, the one who could do the most push-ups, the chosen confidant of his fellow privates. At that time, everyone looked up to Charlie. Just like Carl always had.
* * *
“Sorry, Mr. Whitaker, would you like some?”
Carl blinked. He had been so caught up in the past, he had lost track of the present. A chagrined Charlie gestured toward the already half-empty basket of fries. For the past five minutes or so, he had been shoveling them into his mouth, a handful at a time — so fast that Carl’s trembling hands couldn’t find a pause long enough to grab a fry of his own. But Carl didn’t mind. He wanted Charlie to get his fill. Fries were one of the few things that Charlie still enjoyed.
“Go on,” Carl said. “We can order more if we run out.”
He watched Charlie wolf down the fries for a little longer, his mind drifting again to the past.
* * *
The beginning of the army training may have been tougher on Carl, but he would never forget the first time the army began to teach them the art of spellcasting. Both of them had loved the magic, and that had made every tough moment worth it. It also turned out that they were good at it.
Better than good. If Carl admitted the truth to himself, they were the best the army had ever seen.
The thing was, magic made most people tired. The more they cast, the more exhausted they became, and the more time they needed to rest.
But not Charlie and Carl. If anything, it made them stronger. Within weeks of starting their magic training, they became instant celebrities, climbing quickly through the ranks of the privileged Occult Division. It had seemed as though nothing could slow them down.
“Charlie? Is that you?”
Charlie looked up from his perch on the administration building’s front steps. Lines of tears streaked through the dirt caked on his cheeks. He scrambled to his feet and threw himself at Carl, weeping in his arms.
“What happened?” Carl asked. “Why didn’t you come back to the barracks? We’ve been looking for you for hours.”
“I couldn’t remember where I was,” Charlie sobbed, his voice muffled against Carl’s shirt. “I didn’t know how to find my way back.”
Carl frowned. How was that possible? They had been living on base for nearly a year now. They knew every square inch of it by heart. In fact, they were going to be deployed overseas tomorrow; it was supposed to be the first big battle of the inevitable war. But could they go, if something was wrong with Charlie?
It took a bit of convincing, but Carl finally managed to drag Charlie to the army doctor. The doctor asked a bunch of questions, and Carl listened with increasing concern as Charlie admitted that this had not been the first time he couldn’t remember something simple. No, Charlie didn’t know how long this had been going on, but he had been more focused on the war. Who could think of themselves at a time like this?
“I see,” said the doctor. “Can you tell me what this is called?” He held up the pen he had been writing with just moments ago.
“Pen,” said Charlie.
“This?” asked the doctor.
“Apple,” said Charlie.
The doctor pointed to the silver watch on his wrist. “And how about this?”
Charlie stared at it, his brow furrowed.
Watch, Carl thought. It’s called a watch. Say “watch.”
But time ticked by, and Charlie said nothing.
“Okay,” said the doctor. “Can you spell ‘world’ backwards for me?”
It went on like this for a while, until Carl couldn’t take it anymore. He excused himself and eased out of the room, collapsing against the wall once he was out of sight. How could he have missed this, when it had gotten so bad? How could he have failed Charlie by so much?
* * *
“Are you crying, Mr. Whitaker?”
To his surprise, Carl realized he was. He couldn’t even remember the specifics of the magic they loved so dearly; only that they had been combat spells. How important every detail of the spells had been then, and how little they meant now.
Carl wiped away the thin drop of water trailing down his wrinkled cheek. It was foolish of him to cry here in front of Charlie. It may have been a tougher day than usual, but that was no excuse. He had to be more careful.
“Just an old man reminiscing,” Carl said. “Don’t mind me.”
“What’re you thinking about?” Charlie propped his head on his hands, his face open and eager. “Is it about the war? I love your stories about the war. Will you tell me one?”
Carl’s lips trembled into a smile. “Of course. If that’s what you want.” Years ago, he had started telling these stories, hoping that one of them would bring some kind of recognition, no matter how faint, in Charlie’s mind. But never once, in all these years, had Charlie recognized himself as the hero of the stories.
* * *
“I have the results of the MRI,” the doctor said. Carl and Charlie looked at each other, and then Carl reached down and gripped his twin brother’s hand like they were three years old again. “I’m afraid it’s not good.”
The doctor clicked a few buttons on the computer, and a flat cross-section of Charlie’s brain appeared on the screen.
“If you look here, you can see the gyri and sulci of Charlie’s brain — the hills and valleys, if you will. At your age, the gyri, or hills, are supposed to be large and full. Unfortunately, they’ve appeared to have atrophied to a significant degree. Your brain looks more like the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient. But to get Alzheimer’s at nineteen — that’s pretty much unheard of.”
The doctor turned toward them, his face the perfect image of sympathetic professionalism. “At first, I thought there had been a mistake. I double-checked everything, but there is no denying that the scan is yours, Charlie. I conferred with the best of my colleagues, and we have a theory. I’m afraid you’re not going to like it.” The doctor shook his head. “I’m afraid our country isn’t going to like it.”
The doctor was silent for so long that Carl began to think the doctor wasn’t going to tell them the theory. His fingers were going numb, Charlie was squeezing his hand so hard. But then the doctor looked up and met Charlie’s eyes. In that moment, Carl wanted to yank Charlie out of the room and never hear whatever it was the doctor was about to say. If only his legs didn’t feel heavy as lead or his mouth hadn’t been glued shut; their lives might never have had to change.
The doctor said, “This is happening because of your magic.”
The secondhand of the office clock clicked as time passed in silence. Distant yells of officers training new recruits floated through the open window. Carl didn’t understand. How could magic cause this terrible damage to Charlie’s brain? Wouldn’t someone have warned them it could happen?
“When I first began monitoring your magic sessions, I thought it strange that magic didn’t affect you the way it did other men,” the doctor finally said. “Normally, it breaks down your red blood cells, which causes anemia and fatigue, until the body can replenish more. Over time, the body produces more red blood cells than it used to, making up for the increased turnover and allowing men to cast more spells before they become tired. I figured perhaps your blood was more immune to magic’s effects, and not so easily destroyed.
“In reality, you’ve been paying a different price. Instead of blood, your magic has been breaking down the neurons in your brain for energy. The more magic you use, the more your brain will disappear. The hippocampus, the part of the brain where we store our memories, is one of the most vulnerable parts of our brain. I don’t know what you’ll lose next — your hearing? Your vision? All I can guarantee is that if you continue to cast magic, the damage will continue.”
“What about me?” Carl blurted out. “I don’t get tired when I use magic, either. Am I losing my brain too?”
“I’m afraid that even though your DNA is basically identical, your magic has been utilizing a different part of your body for energy. I wish I could explain to you why. But this is magic, not science, after all.” The doctor pulled a black, handheld mirror out of one of the drawers and handed it to Carl. “Look.”
Confused, Carl and Charlie peered into the mirror. They had always looked so similar that even their own mother couldn’t always tell them apart. At first, Carl didn’t know what the doctor wanted him to see. They still had the same upturned noses, the identical clefts in their chins. And yet, something was different.
Carl’s eyes darted back and forth between his brother’s face and his own. It was subtle, but there were deeper lines in his skin, a few more sun-kissed spots on his ears. His black hair receding, wisps of gray at the edges, and yet, Charlie’s remained untouched. He looked like Charlie might in a few years. And then, with sudden frightening clarity, he understood exactly what the doctor hadn’t told him.
The magic wasn’t taking his memories. It was taking his life.
* * *
“Once, a long time ago, I was young like you,” Carl said. Charlie hung on his every word, as though he had never heard this story before. Then again, Carl never knew what would stick in Charlie’s memories, and what would have to be repeated. “I was supposed to have left with the army for the Battle of Anigua, the first big battle of the war, but a… a fellow officer and I became sick, and we had to stay behind. Only five of the hundreds of men who went lived to talk about it.” (Sometimes, Carl still woke up in the middle of the night, haunted by the faces of the men he and Charlie were supposed to have led that day. If they had been there, would things have turned out differently for those soldiers?) “Our country lost battle after battle, and it looked like we were going to lose the war. Things were terrible.”
“Because if we lost, the Sanguans would have take over, right?” asked Charlie.
“Exactly,” said Carl. “Their leader was a dictator, a mage who stepped on his people’s rights every day while murdering them in cold blood on the streets. If he had won, we would have lost more than just the war. We would have lost our way of life.
“But my sick friend and I, we had one last card to play.”
* * *
A full basket of fries lay untouched on the table between Charlie and Carl. They hadn’t ordered them this time, but the waitress had brought them anyway. It was a kind gesture on her part, but neither could bring himself to eat. Neither had had any energy since they had been discharged early from the army, the price of their magic too high to bear.
“I’m going to do it,” Charlie finally said. “I’m going to use my magic and try to win the war. Don’t try to talk me out of it. I’ve made up my mind. I’m the only one who might be able to save us.” He slammed his fist down on the table. “I can’t sit by anymore and watch our country go to hell when I can put an end to all of this. I can’t do it!”
“I know,” Carl said.
Charlie nodded then, once. The fire died in his eyes. He understood without words why Carl wouldn’t stop him, and why Carl seemed so calm about his decision. After all, they had always had each other’s backs.
“I’ve been rather selfish lately, haven’t I?” Charlie said quietly.
Carl shrugged. “It’s hard to think of others when your problems consume you. At least I’ll still know who I am at the end of all this.”
“But how long will you have to enjoy it?”
The two of them sat there for a long time. They didn’t have to speak to know the other was imagining the worst of what could happen to them. After all, they didn’t know how much magic they would need to use, and how much each little bit of magic would take from them.
If only they knew that their magic would be enough to win the war, and their sacrifices would be worth it in the end. But even once it was all over, there was a good chance that neither of them would ever know.
* * *
That moment had been exactly eleven years ago, almost to the minute. Carl looked at the clock, the tears in his eyes spilling over his eyelids and onto his cheeks. He couldn’t hold it in any longer; his sole comfort was that Charlie would forget his weakness in a few minutes, just as he always did.
“…And then, with final, twin blasts of magic — perhaps the biggest, most complex combat spell ever cast in the history of the Occult Division — we won the war,” Carl said. He didn’t mention that he had aged another thirty years in that one moment, or that afterward Charlie had looked around in total confusion, with no clue of who or where he was. Some small bits of memory had come back after that final spell but not much. Never enough.
“Wow, Mr. Whitaker,” Charlie said breathlessly. “I wish I coulda been there to see it. That must have been the best moment of your life!”
Not exactly, Carl thought. Even so, he said, “It was.”
Carl pulled out his wallet from his back pocket and placed a few bills on the table. He didn’t need to ask for the check to know how much it cost. After all, he had been coming here for the past eleven years and then some. If there was one thing he knew for certain, it was how much a basket of fries cost at this diner.
“You ready to go?”
“Yeah!” Charlie jumped up from the table and ran out, the mind of an eight-year-old trapped in the body of a thirty-year-old man. Carl watched him go and then stood up slowly, his knees creaking with arthritis. He waved good-bye to the waitress, and she smiled back, although it didn’t quite reach her eyes. She was one of the few people who knew what Charlie had been like before the war, and she was one of the many people he no longer recognized.
Carl picked up his wooden cane and limped after Charlie. Already he was looking forward to coming back tomorrow.
* * *
“Promise me that if we both make it, and I don’t remember anything, you’ll take me here every day to get these fries?” Charlie asked on that long-ago day.
Carl knew his brother was trying to lighten the mood with a pathetic joke, since they didn’t know what was about to become of them, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile.
“I promise,” said Carl.
The two of them paid their check and left. They headed straight to the army’s nearest office and told the officers what they were prepared to do for their country. There were a lot of speeches and gratitude and medals awarded in advance, but Carl didn’t pay attention to any of it. Years later, the only thing he would remember from that day was the last thing his brother had asked of him.
. . .
The day after Charlie and Carl were released from the hospital following the final battle, Carl drove them straight to the diner. He thought maybe, somehow, the taste that had permeated so much of their time together would jog something in Charlie’s mind. He told himself he would be grateful for even a small part of Charlie to come back to him, but he wouldn’t expect it. Maybe he even believed it. But when Charlie wolfed down the fries as though he had never tasted them before, the sharp jolt of pain in his chest told the lie.
Carl spent most of that first visit locked in the stall in the bathroom, sobbing. What would he do now? How could he go on, when Charlie never would?
* * *
And yet, he continued to bring Charlie back. It took him a while to understand that he returned every day not just because he didn’t know what else to do, but also because Charlie loved it. It didn’t matter that Charlie almost never remembered being there before. In some ways, that made it more precious.
Maybe Charlie somehow had understood how much it would come to mean to Carl to bring his brother joy every day, and that’s why he had made his final request so simple. Or maybe it really had been the pathetic joke Carl first thought. But in the end, it didn’t really matter. The war may have taken a lot from both of them, but it hadn’t taken them from each other. And that was the most important thing of all. *
About the Author: Sheri Rosen is a California native who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Creative Writing. She is also a third-year medical student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She will go to great lengths to improve her skills as a budding writer and physician; for example, during her surgery rotation, she decided she needed to empathize more with her patients and therefore had a gallstone attack at the very top of a 7-mile hike with a 2,000-foot elevation gain. Imagine what she will do to get a novel published! Please feel free to contact her with any comments at sabrosen [at] gmail [dot] com.
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago has magic powers.