The day my brother died I told him guinea pigs once grew ten feet tall.
“They weighed two thousand pounds,” I said, “and had tusks like elephants, which they used to defend themselves.”
He was looking out the window. I wasn’t sure if he heard me. The IVs in his arms weren’t working. On the table beside the bed was a picture of us with our old guinea pig Thoreau, whom we had stolen from the Institute where my brother was now housed.
This was about the time the coughing began, back when we thought his difficulty breathing was something he’d grow out of. We lived on the edge of the Institute and above us rose the bone-white buildings. For sixty years the Institute had been a home for tuberculosis patients. Scientists grew guinea pigs like Thoreau to inject them with serums and anti-toxins in the hope they might find a cure for the disease. When they finally succeeded and the buildings began to empty of tuberculosis patients, Mr. Wilkins, the last custodian, took care of the guinea pigs. When he died, we knew they’d be all alone.
The morning we went to save them, my brother had to stop often to hit his inhaler. We rested in the shade of the buildings among the old-growth pines. Pine trees were once thought to be an expedient for the cure of TB, and many of them had stood for hundreds of years. The Institute, despite the disease it holds within it, has always been beautiful. Our mother worked there for ten years, since just after my brother was born, but now she sits at home watching soap operas all day where people are suddenly struck down by terrible diseases.
At the top of the hill my brother said his lungs were burning, but he made it to the bunker where the guinea pigs were held. We had a key we’d stolen from our mother, and when we went in we saw them there in cages. There weren’t many left. We opened the cages and carried the guinea pigs—so small and warm in our hands, their hearts beating madly beneath their frail chests—outside, where we let them go.
The last one my brother kept. He named it Thoreau because they shared the same first name, or so I thought at the time. But maybe my brother already knew what was inside him—Henry David did die of TB, after all. We took Thoreau home, stopping often for my brother to hit the inhaler or rest beneath the big trees, me holding Thoreau and wondering what had been done to him in the secret rooms of the Institute where the scientists had, supposedly, saved the world.
We had him for less than a year. My brother would not cage him, and so Thoreau sometimes chewed through the baseboards and got beneath the house. Or he’d dart outside when our mother went on the front porch for a cigarette, and I’d have to catch him because my brother could not pass through the smoke.
The last time Thoreau got away my brother coughed so hard he began to shake. When he took the kerchief away from his mouth, we saw the fine spray of blood. Above us, the bone-white buildings stood like sentinels.
We always thought it was asthma, that he would eventually grow out of it. Turns out he was one of the first to get the new strain. Turns out tuberculosis can linger in small bodies and old buildings much longer than the scientists thought. We didn’t know then that the old diseases could come back. Or maybe my brother did, because he wanted desperately to find Thoreau. We looked under the house and all through the neighborhood and finally across the highway where the dark woods closed in. I could see my brother stopping often to draw in deep breaths and I thought he was dying, but I couldn’t get him to rest.
“We have to find him,” my brother said, voice almost unrecognizable, the handkerchief turned dark red now. In a month he’d be unable to get out of bed. Six months after that the Institute would re-open its doors, and he’d be the first patient admitted. The World Health Organization would send out its warnings, but it was already too late. The guinea pigs would be brought back. More tests run to try to stop the new strain that had sprung up all over the world. Some of the guinea pigs would escape the sterile halls where they were poked and prodded with needles, and before my brother died we could look out the window and see them all over the grounds of the Institute.
“That one looks like Thoreau,” he said once, not long before the end, which reminded me of the day I thought he was dying. His indrawn breaths sounded like sirens, or the first coming of some great cataclysm.
We never caught Thoreau. I saw him the day before my brother died, as I was walking back down to the house across the grounds of the Institute after visiting hours. He had grown as large as a house cat, but he ran when I got near. The next day my brother said Thoreau probably didn’t want to be caged anymore, which was why he ran.
“Did guinea pigs really weigh that much?” he asked. He would die in the night, alone. He looked so small in his bed. He had lost close to 50 pounds. The thin skin of his arms was bruised from all the drawn blood. We could see our house down the hill, and I knew he was imagining a world where Thoreau was as big as a mountain. Too big to be poked and prodded by men wearing sterile masks. Too strong to be brought down by any strain.