Brutes

“You can't even acknowledge you’ve f*cked up as badly as I had.”

“Assassination of Julius Caesar” by Vincenzo Camuccini. Pen and brown ink with brush and gray wash over graphite. 1771–1844.

“Seph!” Ross rang her doorbell repeatedly in a furious rage. “Open the door, Seph!”

When there was no answer, Ross resorted to banging on the door. He couldn’t wait. He’d been waiting and trying and failing miserably for almost two years now, and finally he knew why.

He wasn’t going to wait anymore.

Soon there was a click and the door promptly swung open. Seph stood at the entrance with a cold, deadpanned look in her eyes, and one hand defensively placed on the doorframe.

She glared at him, snorting. “You just can’t keep a promise, can you Ross?”

Ross ignored her. “Why are you turning everyone against me?” he demanded.

“Is this another one of your delusional ad hominems, Ross, because Dave is going to be here in a while and—”

“Answer the fucking question. WHY are you turning EVERYONE against me?”

Seph shrugged, mixing her drink casually with her free hand. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“One of the associate professors in Kikutake State told me a few hours ago that you had told the dean during one of your lectures there that I was a delusional madman with a regular penchant for abuse and that both my doctors and family claimed I had no chance at rehabilitation,” Ross said flatly without even breaking to pause.

Rather than look embarrassed at getting caught, Seph instead raised her eyebrows as if quietly impressed by how Ross was able to dig up that fact so quickly and so suddenly. Well not really that quick, she mused. Two years is hardly something to boast about.

“I was just telling the truth,” she answered casually.

“You were telling everyone that I had no chance at being better, Persephone. You’ve been spreading to everyone in this city that I’m this hopeless asshole with no awareness of his own flaws—”

“It’s not a lie,” Seph interrupted quietly, sipping her drink. “The fact that you’re even here, raging at me, proves that you really are a lost cause. I mean, really, Ross? After you’d just promised me eight years ago you were going to permanently stay away from me, you show up at my home with an anxiety attack?”

“You’ve been deliberately ruining my reputation for the last nine years, Seph,” Ross seethed, “to get back at me for my manic-depressive outbursts. I’m not here because I want to; I’m here because I have to. Enough is enough. I can’t continue with my life like this. We need to talk. And I know is I can’t and will never be able to reach you from your preferred distance so I’m sorry—you’re going to have to settle this with me face-to-face.”

“Well then I guess we’re in sync, because I don’t want you here either. And you’re already ruining my night; I just had a promotion and Dave is coming over to celebrate with me. My friends will be here in a few hours too. So you better be gone before they get here before I have someone make you.”

“I don’t care,” Ross said through gritted teeth. “You can call whoever you want; I’m not moving an inch from your door until you hear my side.”

Seph rolled her eyes.

“Nobody wants to hire me because you’ve been going around every university in this city talking shit about me,” Ross began furiously. “I got fired from my first job in Mountain Bard before I could even last a fucking week because my boss was your college boyfriend and you told him I was a psychopath. Every college I go to thinks I’m this irreparable, unsavable monster, and they always accept me for interviews and tests only to coldly reject me every time, in front of my face, without barely any legitimate explanation to stand for each. And then I find out two years later that dear, dear Persephone, whose request to be left alone I’ve faithfully respected and conformed to over the last ten years, has been going behind my back this whole time, undermining me secretly every step of the way in my desperate everyday attempts to change and have a normal life.” 

Ross scoffed. “A-and I’m sorry—you WONDERED why I broke my ten-year-old promise and came here beyond livid at your door?”

“I guess it never really mattered to me if you’d found out,” Seph answered Ross, smiling. She continued to swirl her drink around. “In fact, sometimes I think, all along it’s what I’ve always wanted, because none of what I’ve done would ever have truly hurt you if you had stayed so blissfully, innocently ignorant. To be honest, the thought that one day you might figure it all out made each try all the sweeter.”

Ross stared at her for a moment looking like someone had just smacked him on the head with a rubbery, then fuck-all hard sledgehammer. Then his face soured, abruptly as if devastatedly hurt, and in pain. “Are you serious?” Seph just stared up at him, her smile never wavering. Ross then inhaled sharply, his voice suddenly breaking as he forced himself to turn away. 

“Was it… wasn’t it enough that you already turned everyone in our high school against me?” he said.

Silence. Ross didn’t see it but if he hadn’t been trying to hide his watery eyes, he would have seen the expression on Persephone’s eyes and lips change, into one of shock, then silent distress.

“Ross, that—”

“What, you thought I’d never notice? That each one of those people I thought were my friends suddenly never returned any of my messages or calls? That every time I’d run into them outside, they would coldly pretend they didn’t see me?” Ross finally looked her over, bitterly. It didn’t matter anymore if he was close to tears, and that Seph could see it plainly. He was in too much anguish to even bother to hide it. Not when it was so painfully obvious anyway. “I know I hurt you and scared you those full seven months, I know I said things I shouldn’t, and even though at the end of the day it was all unintentional, I’ve never denied making that mistake. I know I’m a screwup, I know I fucked up; I’ve never, ever denied that fact. And I’m not saying that to get pity from you or from anyone else; I’m saying it because it’s true and I take full responsibility for it. I didn’t mean for any of it to happen, I really didn’t, and I didn’t mean to hurt you and you know why, but I still hold myself accountable for everything—psychiatric instability notwithstanding. I felt hurt, upset, resentful, and confused because of how you had been behaving when we were still friends and teenagers, but I know that doesn’t justify the way I had spoken to you those days.”

Ross swallowed, painfully steadying himself for the most heartbreaking thing he had been mulling over these last couple hours and ultimately had wanted to say.

“But not once have I talked shit about you, deliberately or otherwise, to any of our peers with the sole intent of discrediting you as you have been trying to do to me. When people ask, I’ve always either lied about my real feelings or said nothing. I’ve always figured that our real misgivings should stay between us and that disgracing you in front of others is crossing the line. Even when I’d shared with what few friends I had the troubles I had with you, I still ended every conversation making sure they didn’t hate you and still regarded you fairly, without unnecessary blind rage and judgment, and if some happened to hold you with contempt, I always made sure to sharply correct them. In spite of the disrespect I admit I’d shown you those couple months, I was still mentally capable enough not to go that far—whether then or after.”

Ross’s voice shook. “But what you’ve been doing to get back at me—discrediting me in front of every institution, in front of everyone who has ever known me—I don’t think you even fully realize how unnecessarily cruel you’re being to someone who has wholeheartedly accepted fault, submitted to reparations, and is already trying so hard to be better. I know I’d hurt you, scared you, harassed you unnecessarily with unwanted manic psychotic emails for months until my episodes finally subsided, but I didn’t ruin your life. The rest of your life went by unhindered. You are a successful salary woman, you’ve had too many reputable boyfriends and girlfriends than I could even begin to count, and you are a respected academic and journalist in this city and beyond. But me, I’ve been so ill this entire time, and I don’t have many friends, if at all, apparently because this whole time you’ve been tearing them away from me. My last and only girlfriend from six years ago left me after she had accidentally joined your department, not knowing you were there, and had become friends with you, despite knowing how bad my mental state has been for years. It’s always been a struggle to get a job and when I was finally able-minded and bodied enough to try, I kept getting rejected for the craziest of reasons, despite acing every test I’ve been given. I’ve always wondered why, if I was just being paranoid about their hate, but now I know. Maybe before I was never fully aware of what exactly you’d done as a teenager that I quietly resented, perhaps because I was too young to understand, but for this case, fortunately or unfortunately, I am. I never ruined your life, Seph, and you know that, but you’ve somehow been able to shamelessly, unfailingly, knowingly, ruin mine.”

Seph bit her lip nervously. Guilt shaded her features but she didn’t feel ready to admit that yes, she might have gone a bit too far in her attempts at revenge. When she decided all those years ago to do this, beginning with telling her closest childhood friend, she didn’t really think this far ahead. For one, she didn’t think blundering, awkward Ross would actually end up not only figuring everything out, but also making a fair point.

“You have all the right to hate me, Seph,” Ross began once more but this time in a small voice, looking her vulnerably in the eye, “and fine, even encourage your closest friends to do the same, but you have no right rallying everyone else against me in your efforts to permanently stigmatize me in front of the world at large. I’ve spent most of our time knowing each other so fervidly devoted and respectful to you, always caring about your feelings to the point of outright, suicidal self-rejection, but then I make one mistake of hurting and scaring you during a psychotic breakdown, which I’ve since owned up to and worked hard to prevent in future cases, and in response my old best friend ruins my life. It isn’t—it just isn’t fair.”

Ross looked up and sighed, tightly holding onto his briefcase.

“Ross,” Seph said, her voice breaking somewhat as well, “I was just—it wasn’t just a simple adolescent altercation that happened between us. The things you told me point blank were beyond painful because they came from someone I’d legitimately trusted.”

Ross nodded repeatedly, looking at the ground as he quietly listened.

“And I hope you realize that because of what you had done, I’ve never been able to properly move on from you since. You’re right. I’ve been successful elsewhere and my social life has remained more or less intact, but I still carry that old scar, I hope you know. And sometimes, it still aches.”

“I know that, Seph.” Ross bit his lip. “Y-you don’t have to tell me; even up to this day, the things I’d said and done—not just to you—still haunts me. And like I promised you, I’ve been spending the last ten years working my ass off to make sure what happened to you will never happen to anyone else ever again. I’ve been going through regular therapy. I let doctors stuff drugs down my throat. I’ve allowed myself to be admitted to the hospital as often as my family and what little friends I had deemed necessary. I did all that because I’ve been genuinely committed to changing and becoming a better person. But by harshly discrediting me and giving exaggerated facts about my mental state in front of every person you meet, you’re taking away my only chance at redemption from me.”

Ross bit his tongue, his voice shaking as he began to cry openly in front of an already unsettled Seph. “Please don’t do that to me, Persephone. Not when I’m already trying so hard. My father and I are nothing alike; he is unrepentant, I’m not. I know I’m sick, I know I fuck up constantly, and I’ve willingly consented to treatment for almost a decade now. He has done nothing of the sort. He also has a shot at redemption but for the longest time has never believed he needed it. But I’ve known for a long time now that I’ve needed, almost required, it. And I’m trying my best, Seph. Every day. Always. Do any of your academic friends even know that bit about me?” Ross added bitterly, almost angrily.

Seph didn’t answer. She couldn’t even look him in the eye. Just as his chest tightened to respond to that pain of silent betrayal, Ross clenched his fist around his other bag tighter.

“That’s it, isn’t it,” he suddenly said, his tone dull and uncharacteristically frosty. He sniffed, his voice starting to shake, no longer from grief, this time from anger. “You just want me to be the same shitty person you know me to be to everyone in the world just so you can still have someone to fuel your hate. So you can still always have your revenge. Instead of wishing I’d change, you kept hoping I never would only so you could continue getting back at me.”

A knot silently formed in Seph’s throat. Her mouth suddenly felt dry.

“In that case, you’re no worse than I am.”

“Ross,” Persephone was finally able to croak but Ross wouldn’t allow himself to be interrupted. She had to hear this. There were so many things she didn’t even know or properly understand.

She HAD to know.

Ross coldly raised his voice. “You are no different from me on my worst day, Seph—”

“Ross—”

“—so you better stop pretending like you’re some angel, that- that you are not capable of being cruel and immature yourself because you are and you’ve just proven yourself to be. At least I’m fully repentant, and I’ve spent much of my life making up for my sins to you. At least I even apologized and I’ve never ceased communicating as necessary. And yet right now you’re just standing there, looking at me like a lost deer, can’t even speak or say sorry, with no willingness to admit to your own selfish pride and misgivings, or at least acknowledge that you’ve fucked up as badly as I had.”

Ross’s face once again soured, but this time in distaste rather than emotional anguish. “I unblocked you all those years ago even though you had already, obsessively, shut me out in everything else because it was always clear to me that I was at fault and it was my way of showing I meant no harm and that I was trying to aim for peace, rehabilitation, and reconciliation. I was also trying to understand you, because I figured you might’ve been going through your own shit that you weren’t willing to share anything about, and I didn’t want to judge you any more than I already had, based on preconceived notions that were likely untrue. I wanted to be fair because I figured you were. But then I discover in the worst possible way that you haven’t been playing fair at all; you’ve been maliciously undermining my support system for nearly a decade now without my knowledge.” Ross’s face contorted in pain as he began to recall the many times he had tried to slit his own neck or leg only to miss the most pivotal parts, the countless times he’d overdosed on aspirin and mixed ecstasy with some antidepressant or perhaps a chug of vodka, only to end up in the psych ward every time, barely alive but to his disappointment, still lying sprawled on a bed, rather than an open coffin. He recalled his loneliness over the past decade or so, the feeling of being openly shunned by his neighbors, laughed at and rejected by individuals he figured could be his friends, the feeling of always being confined in his room, on his bed, like a prisoner to societal prejudice, just outright bad luck, bad genes, and mental illness, always one hundred percent dependent on his aging mother and grandparents to support him.

Before Ross knew it, or rather before he could stop himself, the tears had already begun to stream down his cheeks and all he could do was stand there in front of the girl whose mismatched, imbalanced, unfairly drawn revenge ruined his life, holding his useless diploma and résumé, sobbing quietly, frustratedly, to himself.

Instinctively, Seph tried to reach for the back of his head, tiptoeing to match his tall frame, to stroke his hair to comfort him, like she used to many, many years ago as an adolescent, when she and Ross were still the best of friends.

But Ross could feel her reaching out, and in his grief promptly held back his head as if in defiance, and glared at her. Seph flinched. This look was different from the old one she only briefly saw many years ago; unlike then, this was done in absolute mental clarity, without any mood or perceptual issues getting in the way, and that for her made the hurt on his face all the more real and infinitely more heartbreaking.

“You know my support system is the only thing keeping me alive, and yet you’ve been unabashedly destroying it this entire time. Deliberately pulling out the rug from under my feet just to spite me even though you’ve already been told of the likeliest consequences.” Ross looked down, his chest aching. “How long are you going to keep doing this, Seph? How long until you’re satisfied with your revenge? You’ve already turned me into a social pariah in my own hometown. If I can’t belong or have a normal life here, I’d have to move elsewhere, and I know given your rage, you’ll follow, eventually. Are you going to just keep on doing this, ruining me beyond repair in the eyes of every person you meet, until all that’s left for me is death?” 

The look he threw Seph was beyond aggrieved and wounded. “You really do want me to die, don’t you?” he said bitterly, softly.

At that moment, Ross heard a loud beep followed by the sound of a vehicle pulling over, and he and Seph looked at the source at the same time to see an ashy-haired youth, tall and lean like an athlete, come out of the tangerine sedan and come face-to-face with dark-haired Ross in all his scrawny, sobbing exterior, and in response, Ross wiped his tears away hurriedly, angrily.

Dave narrowed his eyes at him. He was carrying a bouquet of red carnations. Seph’s favorite. Ross still remembered. “What the hell is he doing here?” Dave said.

Ross indignantly looked between him and a now quietly emotional Seph, who chose not to answer (or perhaps couldn’t answer), before taking a deep breath and tossing Dave the tote bag he’d been carrying this whole while. The bag he’d intentionally gone over to his apartment to pick up before dropping by Seph’s for a visit, and originally thought twice before giving back.

“Leaving,” Ross flatly responded. “Just leaving.”

“What the fuck?” Dave stared between Seph and Ross, holding up the bag. “Seph already said no more unsolicited gifts, Douchedridge. She’s not taking this—”

Persephone however suddenly reached out and snatched it from him, hugging it close.

“Seph?” Dave said, clearly in disbelief. “What—”

“Just go.”

“What?” Dave stepped back, understandably confused. However, judging by Ross’s subsequent response, it seems she wasn’t talking to her boyfriend at all.

Ross raised his hands and stared at Persephone frigidly as he sauntered away backward. He gave her one last look—a mixture of anger, hurt, and regret—before finally putting on his helmet, getting on his beloved Vespa, and scooting away.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Seph put on her slippers and hurriedly made her way up the stairs into her room.

“Seph?” Dave asked in a low tone, obviously worried. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah.”

Her voice was rapidly breaking. She couldn’t hold herself back anymore. Especially now that Ross was no longer around. And would likely never be, anymore.

“I’ll be right back, just- just make yourself comfortable,” she told Dave.

She didn’t want Dave to see her explosively bursting into tears when she opened it. She already had a feeling what was inside when Ross had handed it to Dave; after all, it was she who had given him that bag when they were 15.

She carefully unraveled the strings and opened it. Inside was a red, hand-knit scarf with little fluffy balls hanging off either end. Seph pulled it out and instantly burst into tears. It still had her name and Ross’s embroidered on it, with the word “Always” right below, and she still remembered that day she painstakingly carved them in with the needles she’d purchased with the lunch money she’d saved up, and the realization that Ross had given back the one and only gift she had given him—and the one present she’d actually made with her own hands rather than buy, for anyone—hurt her beyond words. More than she’d care to admit to anyone else.

Seph sat on the floor, holding the scarf, crying silently to herself. Without her knowledge, Ross was currently driving down the main road, on his way home, doing just the same.

Dylan Balde
Dylan Balde

Secretly Dead and Strange, writes for a living. Moonlights as a cat-obsessed dork and innocuously wrapped human nitroglycerin. My life is an everyday Westchester incident. 💀 @dylanbalde

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Brutes