Book Excerpt: “The Little Brother” by Victoria Patterson

The new novel by Patterson, who grew up in Newport Beach, is loosely based on the real-life 2002 sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl by three teenage boys, including Gregory Haidl, the son of an Orange County assistant sheriff, at the elder Haidl’s Newport Beach home. This excerpt from “The Little Brother” takes place at beginning. The narrator is a fictional character named Even Hyde, the younger brother of Gabe Hyde, who is the Gregory character.

Our parents divorced in 2001, when I was beginning the eighth grade and Gabe the ninth. Dad’s drywall business boomed, and he bought a house in Newport Beach. After a bitter custody battle, when the judge pulled me into his chambers for a private conference and asked which of my parents I wanted to live with—my mom’s in Rancho Cucamonga, or my dad’s in Newport Beach—I said one word: “Dad’s.”

I couldn’t understand what was happening to our parents and to Gabe and me during those formative years, and I would have been surprised had someone pointed out that my personality was similar to our dad’s, with my determination to separate, my stubbornness, a will toward self-creation, a sense of self-preservation, and an insensitivity to others if my own well-being was in the crosshairs. A ruthless work ethic pointed not toward the making of money, like Dad, but toward something intangible, something as formless as I felt during those years.

I worshipped him then, even though he wasn’t around much: He worked all the time. But I believed that his success proved his superiority, and as his fortunes increased, most everyone seemed to grant him deference, which only reinforced my belief. Besides, he understood me in a way that our mom never had.

Mom believed anything art-related encouraged homosexuality and weakness. Dad encouraged my artistic sensibilities, telling me, “Making money’s easy. You’re going to do something with your life, something greater than making money, something creative, something that I could never do.”

One time he brought home a bunch of leather-bound books for me—mostly classics, Remembrance of Things Past and everything by Thomas Hardy. He said he got them from a dead man’s library—and though I was still too young to read them (I must’ve been about seven or eight), just having them made me feel enriched and different, a shifting of consciousness—they were for me, just me.

Mom never forgave me for choosing to live with him. She accused me of having a heart made of stone, and of being a materialistic and selfish child.

I learned later that Gabe felt that my leaving him was a double abandonment—first his dad, then his brother left. At the time, I didn’t care, or rather I didn’t let myself care. I couldn’t afford to, so I didn’t think about him.

I also learned later that our dad didn’t fight for Gabe. “I had to let Gina have one of you,” he explained. “It wouldn’t have been right to take you both, and I felt that you and I were better suited for each other.”

Mom’s depression accelerated, culminating in a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, which seemed to make her happy. She has a talent for being happy with ever-increasing amounts of unhappiness, and a diagnosis of an elusive and incurable ailment pleased her.

“Your dad doesn’t think I’m good enough,” she would say. “Now that he’s a big shot, he’s embarrassed by me. That’s why he divorced me.” Her wardrobe consisted of a revolving array of nightgowns, robes, sweatpants, and T-shirts.

I’m embarrassed by you, too, I wanted to tell her.

Those first days before the school year began I spent wandering Newport Beach, celebrating my good fortune, stunned by and happy with the significant upgrade in my living environment.

Dad’s new home was walking distance from the beach; the sky and ocean big and blustery, palm trees shushing in the wind, waves glittering and crashing on the rocks and shore. Moistness in the air that I didn’t know I was missing until I breathed it in. A heavy, satisfying smell of ocean and seaweed mingled at night with the aroma of smoke from the fire pits on the beach.

His new house was a four-bedroom, three-bathroom colonial built in 1973, with a pool and an attached garage. Address: 111 Opal Cove. From the balcony off my room, over the rooftops of the other homes, there was a strip of an ocean view. Each morning at around eleven, the high school girls’ cross-country team jogged past my window like a welcoming crew—lovely and lean in matching shorts and sports bras, with midriffs exposed—and I watched their ponytails swinging behind them, until they disappeared down the street.

I’d never seen beauty like this before, except sometimes on television, and now even the TV was better: Dad, though he didn’t have much furniture yet, had a giant flat-screen with hundreds of channels.

Dad and I stared at it for hours after he came home from work (I was alone to do what I wanted during the day), numb, the super bright colors vibrating: real cop shows and fake cop shows, movies on cable, CNN, Fox News, Law & Order, Survivor, and The Sopranos. Even the commercials were mesmerizing. Surround sound, so that the noise came from above and behind and below us.

We ate our meals—he specialized in omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches; I made pasta and meatloaf or else microwaved frozen dinners—in front of the TV, something that Mom would have prohibited.

Otherwise, we dined out. He preferred dark restaurants, themed toward royalty, with blazing fireplaces and thick slabs of steak and mashed potatoes on plates so hot the server would warn: “Don’t touch, please don’t touch, careful.”

At the restaurants, he conversed easily with our servers, the bartenders, and the valets, his voice distinct and gravelly from years of smoking, though I believe he also practiced to make it intimidating: a low, grumbling, serious tone. (People noticed and commented on his voice more than anything.)

One night, we were passing through the bar on the way to our table at Banditos Steakhouse, following the swaying backside of the hostess, when a uniformed arm reached out and stopped my dad. The bar was bustling, men and women lined up behind those sitting on the barstools.

“Mr. Daniel Hyde,” the man said in an exaggerated, friendly drawl, “my man.”

“Sheriff Matthew Krone,” Dad said. “America’s favorite sheriff.” They came toward each other, patted each other’s backs in a loose-armed masculine hug, and then backstepped. “Wearing his uniform at a bar,” Dad said, assessing him.

“Good Lord,” the sheriff said, as if noticing how he was dressed for the first time. He took a long drink from his glass, wiped the foam from his upper lip with the back of his hand, and then said, “Ladies love a man in a uniform.”

Copyright © 2015 by Victoria Patterson, from The Little Brother. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.

Click here to read our interview with Patterson, from the August 2015 issue of Orange Coast.

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