A family of all brothers find that their youngest isn't as he seems.
I was naked, alone, and terrified, and strapped to a cold stone altar in a dark room with a single light on me. I had been taken just like she had always feared. If only we had known that this is what it meant to be taken, that it would walk up to us well dressed and glittering with lies.
I could still feel them connected to me, like extensions of myself. Four of them. Just by relaxing myself a very little, I could see they were also in similar positions, but they were in smaller rooms somewhere below me. My tiny heart raced like the flapping wings of a hummingbird.
I followed my small, cold arm down to my hands, now numb from the straps and the icy stone. Stuck into my wrist was a lengthy silver needle and coming from that needle was a long red tube. But the tube was originally clear, and it was only red because it was taking my blood, drop by drop. Three more similar needles and tubes were distributed around my body. One in the other wrist and two in my groin.
Suddenly, searing pain rippled across my head then down my spine. I felt myself pouring faster from the cannulas, like someone was sucking on the end of the tubes. A light inside me winked out, leaving three remaining. What had they done?
I reached out with that separate part of me toward where one of them had been. I felt…nothing. It was like a jagged, torn edge of wound where a limb that had been severed angrily. Tears streamed from my eyes as I realized that they had taken one of them from me, irrevocably.
Another pain and then another chased down my body. Twin pains for the identical bonds that they had severed. Two more lights flicked out inside me. I felt out again and the edges felt cleaner this time, but also hollow like the life ended at the edge of my invisible wound.
A fourth, final wave. This one so intense that I cried out in my small voice. I lashed my invisible hand out and grabbed onto him, refusing to let them take that particular part of me. I held him closer, drawing on him to help us stay bonded.
Let me go or they will kill me. His voiced reverberated inside me.
Immediately, I stopped.
I can’t live without you. I waited for a reply.
You’re gonna be alright, I promise.
What are they doing to you? I demanded.
I never said this to you, but I love you.
The hot pain was unbearable this time and I lost my vision and then my hearing and then my sense of touch. The light inside me didn’t wink out, it burned out. It was like an explosion. I felt myself coming back, and the stone beneath me was warm now and soaked in sweat and pee. I reached myself out and felt for the connection. This time, it wasn’t severed. It was like it had been scooped out. It was a veritable crater inside me. We had been bonded too closely to take him from me easily, I saw, and that realization made me feel what I had truly just lost. A part of me was gone, forever.
“I love you, too.” I whispered.
I closed my eyes and lay still in exhaustion. I reached my hands, the invisible ones, inside me and felt the two currents, expecting them to be dry and faint. They were so potent that just looking for them filled me with the lightness I had come to enjoy. I had been the bond holding me and the other four together. They had been glued to me by own my will and the blood we shared.
I suddenly worried that I couldn’t remember their names. None of them came to me. It felt like trying to grab the wisps of mist on a foggy day. I could see it was there, but I could not touch it. I could see their names, the shape of each, even the length. But to actually form the name in my mind was impossible. I reached for the name I knew I should know. That last bond had a name that I cherished. I dug myself into the currents inside of me to try to grab the name. I felt the altar beneath me tremble as a I drew harder and harder to pull his name into clarity.
A single letter.
The tiny face looked up from the bare floor to his mother’s gloomy face. She looked sad or worried, he wasn’t sure which, but she looked unhappy for sure. It was probably the sad news. There were a lot of young people going missing and his mother had five of her own boys to worry about. That seemed like a lot of things to think about at once to him.
His frowned deepened when he saw his mother look at his father in the chair next to the couch. He didn’t worry about them, probably, the youngster thought. His mother was the only adult in the entire world who would miss him if the scary people took him. Maybe Jay, but that’s only because he was always told that if anything happened to his little brothers, he would be the one to get the beating. The boy didn’t think that was very fair, but it wasn’t his rule to worry about. He just did his part by not getting into trouble so that Jay wasn’t mad at him.
“Momma?” he asked softly.
“Yes, baby.” His mother turned her dark brown eyes to his little round face, and a genuine smile broke out on her face.
“I ain’t scared of those men, not really.”
“I’m glad, baby. You’re safe with me and daddy and your brothers.” She smiled at him again, and her forehead started to lose its worried crinkles.
“I only meant that if those scary men tried to take me, I would use my special powers and blast them to pieces.” His mother’s face went flat, and she stiffened. Her eyes flicked to her husband beside her.
“Son, what the hell did I tell you about them stories? You shut your mouth.”
“I would do it, daddy. If they tried to take me or Jay or Indie or the twins, I would blow them up with my mind,” he said defiantly. He wanted to reassure his mother, erase her worries and see her smile again, even though he knew what was coming his way. His father uncrossed his legs.
“Boy, I told you to shut your goddamned mouth.” His hand reached for the flyswatter in the pocket on the side of the chair. “Come here.”
“Daddy…” the slight boy began to plead.
“Come. Here,” his father said between gritted teeth. The tiny boy stood and faced his father. He took one step forward then spun and bolted for the hallway, living up to the nickname his brothers had given him. He was faster than his daddy, faster than even Jay. And if he hid under the bed like a rat until his daddy wasn’t angry, he could come out later and avoid the flyswatter.
He dove under his bunk bed that he shared with three of his brothers, startling the two that were sitting on the bottom bunk looking through baseball cards. He felt splinters from the unworn wooden floorboards stab into his palms and knees, but he crawled all the way to the wall and lay flat. He could hear his father’s feet still stomping in the living room. He could also hear his mother begging her husband to let him go.
“He’s just a little boy, telling stories. No one will believe him,” she said gently.
“You and I both know that boy ain’t normal,” his father said, his feet no longer moving. “He just ain’t right.”
“He’s unusual, yes. I will talk to him about not speakin’ about…it.” His mother knew how to talk down his father. Only she could temper him, and all the boys knew it.
The boy’s next eldest brother, twelve years older than him at a grown-up seventeen, peeked under the bed from above.
“What you do to Pops now, Rat?”
“Nothin’! I was just telling momma that I would blow up the bad guys that’s taking kids, is all,” the younger brother replied in a whine.
“Aww, Ratty, you know Pops don’t like you talkin’ about that stuff. Makes you look weird,” Indie reminded him.
“I’m special, Indie. I could blow them up. Just like that with my mind.” He tried to snap his fingers and sucked in his breath. He had a huge splinter in his thumb. He stuck it in his mouth and sucked.
“Yeah, I know, Rat. I know,” patronized the teen. “Come out and I’ll pull that out of your hand. Pops is sitting down again. You’re ok now.” His brother’s face disappeared from above the bed. As he crept out from under the bunk, the boy looked shyly at his eldest brother, an adult at twenty.
“Jay, can I look at your cards later if I’m real careful?”
“Fine, ok, Rat. Get them sticks outta your hands first. I don’t want no blood on ‘em.” The little boy grinned and held his hands out to his other brother who immediately began to take the splinters out with care.
That night, as the brothers were all getting ready for bed, the littlest boy sat quietly watching each of his siblings. Jay, the eldest, was reading a book. He was the only brother that liked to read anything and sometimes he would read to the youngest from the big books he brought home from the library. The boy often pretended to understand what the book was talking about, but mostly he just liked listening to the deep voice of his brother.
His tall body was muscular after two years of hard labor and his feet hung off the edge of the bed. His large, manly hands turned the pages of his book slowly; hands that would often swat his siblings if they got in his way or if he thought they would get him into trouble. Jay caught him staring at him and shot him a half-hearted smile that made the little brother’s face light up.
The boy’s eyes then landed on his twin brothers sitting together on the floor near the window. They had been given nicknames, despite having perfectly normal names. Toe, because he was born breach and Two because he was born after Toe. Their curly haired heads were bent together over a textbook as they worked on their homework. Identical twins, only the family could tell them apart, and the baby of the family was no exception. Toe looked up and yawned. Two stuck his eraser in his twin’s wide-open mouth and dodged a fist to the nose. Both twins had their own copy of their mother’s eyes, thick lashed and large but their father’s build. They were the only brothers that weren’t thin and willowy, and they often used their strength to win arguments or to start them.
Then the little boy’s eyes touched on his closest brother who was sitting in the bed they shared looking over the young boy’s drawings from school that day. His own version of the black curls tumbled to his shoulders and draped over one eye as he looked up and grinned genuinely at the boy. The light in his favorite brother’s black eyes always filled him with wonder. Indie was shortened from an unoriginal name their father had given him for being the first of the family’s children to be born in Indiana and not Illinois. He knew his brother disliked his name hotly.
As the youngest of the boys looked at his sibling, he remembered asking him one time why he didn’t just go by another name instead of Indie. He was told that if he didn’t have to go by Indiana all the time he would get by.
“I could have been named Idaho, Rat. What would you call me then?” the boy recalled his brother saying with a laugh.
Later that night, while the bright moon lit their room, the boy was cuddled up to his brother in the bed that they shared.
“Indie, if I got taken would you go looking for me?” he whispered quietly.
“’Course. We all would. Shush and go to sleep now.”
“I love you, Indie. I love you so much,” he whispered, his tiny arms grasping his brother’s neck in a tight hug.
“Shut up!” hissed the eldest brother from across the room, the only one of them allowed his own bed.
“I love you, too, Jay!” the youngest of them whispered with a giggle. “And you too, Toe and Two,” he yawned out the twins’ names above him. “I just love you all.”
“Great, now shut it,” Indie said softly.
He beamed and turned away from his brother, looking at the moonshine pouring in the window. It made everything glow coldly and reminded him of his secret place. Sometimes when he took things out, they looked like they were covered in moonlight. He opened his hand and looked at a coin in his palm. The weak light from the window sparkled on the coin’s wet surface. The boy smiled widely and closed his hand. He put his money back in his special place where no one could ever find it and opened his empty hand. He felt the familiar tightness in his chest and breathed in deeply, trying to stretch out the stiffness and wound up yawning. When he closed his eyes, he fell asleep thinking about all the wonderful things he might one day be able to do with his special talents. He was asleep before the shadow stole across the window.
Jay lay awake as he worried about his family and their needs. He had been out of school for two years, but his future was not his own. Immediately after graduating from high school, with honors, his father press-ganged him into putting food on the table and clothes on the backs of his little brothers. Jay was given vague promises of being sent to college or trade school if he wanted, but the littlest brother had to start kindergarten first. That was going on a year ago now and he was still showing up to work at the agency.
His father had connections that led to him being placed with a manual labor agency, an under-the-table collective that doled out the men like work animals. He flexed his blistered hands and thought about the paltry compensation that he received. His aching back was not aided by the perks of working at the bakery or farm, either. Add his parents’ refusal to treat him like an adult still and he was in a near-constant state of irritation. Injustice bloomed in his gut, thick and oppressive, like an inky blackness in his heart.
Across the room, in the dim light, Jay watched as his brother opened his hand and grinned at something dark in his palm. A heady rush overcame Jay and he blinked back a dizziness threatening to make him sick to his stomach. The boy closed and opened his hand again, his fingers small yet still dexterous. The dark shape was gone as was the boy, lost to sleep. After a few minutes a soft snore signaled true sleep, and Jay shook the wavy darkness from his mind. He got up and reached his large finger out to touch his little brother’s baby-like hand. He pried his fingers open and felt in his hand for the shape he had seen him hide. It was empty. Jay slowly reached under the pillow beneath the sleeping boy’s face. It too was empty, devoid of any clue as to what could have happened to the item. A shadow rippled behind him and he turned. He saw nothing but a faint outline of a foggy hand-print, probably from one of his brothers earlier.
Unease played across Jay’s shoulders as he crept back to his own bed. It was impossible, of course, but the little boy’s dexterity, and the ease with which he was able to perform the illusions was disturbing. He hated how his mother handled the situation, too. Her superstitious nature was in combat with her devotion to her youngest son. She refused to outright let the boy flaunt his sleight of hand trickery, but she also did not have the heart to tell him to stop. Their father, no reservations holding him back, was ready to beat down any wonderment in the boy to keep them from being ostracized by their neighbors. Jay punched his pillow in anger and turned his naked back to his brothers, and consequently to the source of his problems.
Their mother woke them early, like she did on weekdays, and handed them each their clean clothes. Jay’s jeans and t-shirt were hand-me downs from his father who was at least a size bigger than him in the waist and several inches shorter in the cuff. The twins got his hand-me-downs and Indie wound up with theirs. Only the youngest, the unexpected one, got his own, brand new clothes. After several stillborn babies their mother stopped getting pregnant altogether and she had given away all their clothes. When she had surprisingly conceived their last brother, she had to resort to making or buying new clothes for the baby. Jay sighed as he tightened his belt and tucked in his shirt.
“Where do you think you’ll be today?” their mother asked cheerily as she poured juice into five small plastic cups on the table. Next to each scratched cup was a chipped plate with a perfect pancake directly in the centre. In the place setting nearest to her sat the littlest brother, enormous eyes shining with excitement. Pancake day was always the best day for all of them.
Jay shook his head and shrugged one shoulder.
“Don’t know ‘til I get there. I hope I won’t be at the bakery, too fuckin’ hot.” A hand swatted him on the back of his head.
“Watch your mouth around your mother, boy,” his father said, coming up behind him. Jay bristled privately. How long did he have to be a grown man before his father stopped calling him that?
“But, Jay,” said the smallest one with his mouth full of buttery pancake, syrup dribbling down his chin. “If you work the bakery today that means we can have bread with dinner tonight maybe. If they have any day-olds that don’t sell or whatever. And donuts! What if they have donuts!”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, dear one,” his mother reprimanded mildly. She stroked his tiny hand and smiled down at him. Jay remembered getting smacked for talking with his mouth full, not gently patted. He rolled his eyes and sat in his spot at the table.
The twins filed in dressed the same in their uniforms. Their shirts, once Jay’s own, were tight across their broad shoulders. Their curly black hair, a trait they all shared, was combed out in short halos around their heads.
“Haircuts soon, looks like,” the maternal figure said, rubbing each of the boy’s heads fondly as she directed them to their seats. The boys grunted and set to their pancakes with a gusto that only teenage boys have. “Where’s Indie?” she asked, starting toward the hallway.
“He’s thinking about pretending to be sick to stay home today. He’s afraid of being taken. Oh, now he’s finished brushing his teeth,” said the tiny boy at the table, his mouth still full. A second later they all heard the bathroom door open and Indie’s footsteps in the hall. Their mother shot a quick glance at her husband’s back and then looked at her youngest son, putting a finger to her lips. He nodded and repeated the gesture, apologetically. Jay was relieved. He didn’t want a scene with their father, either.
The rest of the brothers looked at their father, too. He seemed to be preoccupied with getting his coffee, pouring it slowly and then stirring in one spoonful of sugar unhurriedly. Finally, he turned around and looked directly at his youngest son across the small kitchen.
“You do that shit around other people, boy?” he asked quietly. Jay could tell that his little brother felt the panic rising just by how colorless his face became. He flicked his eyes to Jay’s face who was glaring at him.
“I only do it to make the kids at school smile, sometimes. Just one time, maybe two times.” Jay’s face softened the longer the boy talked. He could feel a beating headed his way if his brother ran his mouth off. If their father found out about him showing the boy off for money it would be the end of him. His honesty got Jay more slaps than Jay’s own behavior did.
“If you don’t stop, boy, you’re gonna be real sorry,” their father threatened. He sounded nonchalant and he peered into his coffee before taking a long drink. “Real sorry,” he repeated, swallowing. He was scarier when he was calm than when he was raging. At least when he was angry there was a way for their mother to calm him down. When he was cold and calm, she had no sway over him.
“Yes, daddy,” the tiny boy said contritely as he shrank down in his chair. “I’m sorry.” Their father dumped the rest of his still steaming coffee down the sink, left the discolored and cracked mug on the counter and stomped out of the room. When he slammed the backdoor behind him, the glass pane in the door rattled, threatening to shatter. The brothers ate the rest of their breakfast in silence, the only sound being the scrape of their dented and bent forks on the chipped blue and white tableware.
Nearing the school, Indie heaved on his brother’s arm, urging him to hurry up. Their shoes smacked the wet sidewalk in the misty rain.
“You’re going to be late,” he warned. “Stop lollygaggin’.” He turned to look back at his sibling to see where his attention had gone. The little boy was just frowning and slowing his pace until Indie finally had to jerk him forward, causing him to nearly trip into a large puddle.
“Indie!” the smaller one squealed, hopped over the puddle with uncommon grace and finally came to his senses. “I almost got dunked.” He scowled up at his older brother.
“You didn’t get dunked. Stop whinin’ and look at me.” He waited until the little boy was making eye contact with him before he continued. “Whatever you’re worryin’ about can wait, ok? Right now, we gotta get to school. Jay said if we’re late he will beat us himself, let alone daddy when he finds out. If you wanna see his cards again today you do as he says, which means do as I say and scoot your ass.”
“I was just thinkin’ about today. What if I accidentally do it and daddy finds out? Sometimes it just happens. You know I can’t help it, Indie.” The older brother sighed in frustration. He was tired of trying to stop the kid from acting like some sort of magician in a black satin hat.
“Rat, you gotta stop this. You gotta stop pretending you can see things. It’s making momma scared and it’s making Pops real mad. You like that flyswatter? ‘Cause it’s going to be a permanent mark on your ass if you don’t knock it off.” Indie was usually the most patient of the tiny boy’s older siblings and the only one that didn’t seriously scold him for talking about his tricks. He saw his little face crumple in injured betrayal and felt immediately guilty.
“Just go away then, Indie! You don’t believe me anymore then go away.” His brother pushed past him with all his might. “You’ve seen it and you still don’t believe me!” he shouted over his shoulder. Indie just rumbled in annoyed frustration.
“I’ll be here at five! Don’t go nowhere, Rat,” Indie called as he turned away from the crying child. He didn’t like to hurt him like this, but their momma really was scared. She was afraid that he was not a normal boy and that he would be taken away to a hospital to be put away as a mental case. None of them thought he was crazy, but none of them thought he was normal by any means. Their mother had lectured them all sternly to not encourage the youngster but also to not berate him too much. They all found it an uncomfortable balance to keep.
Indie looked at his watched and began to jog. He would be late, again, getting to his high school a few blocks away. However, his thin frame was quick, and he made it just as the final bell rang. He put Rat and his hurt feelings out of his mind, confident that, come five o’clock, the little boy would be his best friend again.
The baby of the family had always been attached to Indie, and the feeling was mutual. The only other person to treat the little boy with more affection was his mother, but the rest of the family, brothers included, tended to either ignore the boy or avoid him. Indie knew that he made them uncomfortable. The only time Indie himself ever felt uncomfortable with his youngest brother was when he did the strange things around other people.
Guilt washed over the teen as he entered the school. He knew what his brother did was special, but the boy’s adamance that it wasn’t merely illusionary tricks annoyed him. He had bore witness to some of the boy’s more incredible tricks, such as telling them all what was happening in another room, what one of them might be thinking and so on. Those sorts of things he had harder time explaining away, but then again, Indie had watched the boy go from a tiny infant to a toddler walking around repeating things that no one said aloud so it had just seemed like a part of the boy.
Lunch time rolled around and Indie locked his books in his locker and headed to the cafeteria. The main area of the room was dominated by a long line that snaked back and forth and he joined the queue to buy his hot lunch. He stuck his hand in his pocket and fingered his coins. He would have enough for the day and that was all. Next week, it would be back to asking his mother for apples or the like to take for the mid day meal.
He felt a tap on his shoulder, and he turned to see a girl about his age standing too close for social acceptance. He tried to step back and trod on the person in front of him. He apologized and turned back to the girl.
“Hey, Lissie,” he said as he tried to find a safe place to rest his eyes. She had her school uniform top unbuttoned about three buttons too many and she also had on a thick red lipstick. She had soft, round cheeks like a baby and the gentle rounded figure of a young woman. To Indie, everything about her seemed round, but in a very interesting and uncomfortable way.
“Indie,” she said coyly. “What are you doing after school today?” The question took Indie aback, but he answered honestly.
“I have to pick up my little brother at five after baseball. Coach is picking captain today.” He turned and looked to see the line had advanced. As he walked along, Lissie sidled along beside him.
“Oh, I was hoping you would help me with my algebra. You took algebra last year, didn’t you?” She blinked her long eyelashes up at him and he blushed, for a reason he could not fathom.
“Yeah, I did. I, uh, I didn’t do too good.” In fact, Indie had almost failed algebra, and if not for Jay and his intelligence, he surely would have. “Jay tutored me.”
“Then pass on what he taught you and help me.” Her demand wasn’t sharp but laced with silky femininity that tickled Indie in new places. He often wondered if he was broken some how, because he didn’t experience the lustful drive that all three of his older brothers seemed to enjoy. Sure, he thought of girls, even grown women in ways that his brothers talked about, but more regularly they were feelings of romance, wanting to kiss a girl or hold her hand, or even just spend time with her. Lissie was doing things to him that he had not felt before. Before he could stop himself, he agreed.
“Yeah, ok. Stay and watch me play and then I’ll walk you home.” It wasn’t until she walked away, leaving the line for lunch, that he remembered that he was tasked with picking up his brother.
After lunch, the rest of the day dragged. Indie’s stomach was in knots with excitement and anxiety, and something new, with the prospect of walking Lissie home that evening. He found his twin brothers at their locker, which they shared out of convenience, and asked them to pick up the littlest one instead.
“Why?” Two asked, suspicious.
“I got a thing.” Indie evaded.
“A thing, huh?” Toe dug. “What kind of thing? Girl thing?” Indie merely nodded once and felt his face flush.
“Who?” Two asked, succinct as ever.
“Lissie,” Toe answered for him. “Yesterday, she asked me what math you took last year.” The twins guffawed and Two punched his shoulder playfully.
“Yeah, we’ll pick up Rat so you can get some,” Two agreed.
“I ain’t gonna do nothin’…wrong.” Indie said indignantly.
“I know you ain’t. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with wantin’ to stick—”
“Shut up, Toe.” Indie turned his back to his brothers and strode away, angry and ashamed. The twins cat called his back as he hurried away.
“Pull out or Pops’ll make you marry her!” one of the twins called, and Indie raised his hand in the air and waved his middle finger at his brothers. Indie turned the corner of the hall to sound of their snorting and laughter.
Lissie was waiting for him after baseball, which was disappointingly devoid of any captaincy and abundant in rain. She had her wavy hair pulled back into a ponytail and wet tendrils of it suck to her neck in dark strands.
“You’re looking so hot and wet,” she said as he approached her. He frowned and felt his heart speed up. She held out a red handkerchief and a bottle of water. He sighed and then laughed as he wiped sweat and rain off his face. She reached out and touched one of his wet curls that hung over his eye.
“Thanks.” He drank the entire bottle in one long drink and snapped the cap back down. “Seriously, thanks. I always forget to bring water.” He bent and brushed brown mud from his knees, stains he knew his mother had to scrub out every time she washed clothes by hand.
“You’re good at pitching.” Lissie said and she reached down to get her bag from the bench beside her. Indie bent down and took it from her hands, putting both their bags on his shoulders. She smiled her thanks and led the way. The rain started to pour, and they hurried down the street, splashing in the water.
When they were nearly to her house, which was just a street down from Indie’s own, Lissie stopped and grabbed his hand. Indie looked down at her soft hand in his own, hers pale against his own tanned hand.
“You know I ain’t stupid, Indiana,” she said, addressing him with his full name.
“Indie,” he corrected automatically.
“Indie,” she said softly and stood on her tip toes to touch her lips to his. He pulled back and held his hands up.
“I’m here to help you with your homework. I ain’t here to do nothin’ like that.”
“Alright, sorry,” she said impishly. “I thought I would thank you for helping me, but you’re right. Let’s at least do the homework first.” Her giggle was girlish and made Indie’s stomach roil.
“We can work in the living room. Daddy won’t be home till midnight and Momma’s got an overnight at the hospital tonight.” Lissie unlocked the door and let them into her house.
They worked for an hour, shoulder to shoulder at the coffee table on the floor of her living room. Every so often, Lissie would lean a little more on Indie, or rest her hand just shy of his on the table. It made Indie uncomfortable but also achy in a way he hadn’t ever experienced before. He leaned in while she was writing and noticed that she smelled like flowers and strawberries. Indie shifted, adjusting an increasingly awkward part of himself.
“I think we finished all the work I have due,” Lissie said as she packed up her books and papers. She zipped up her bag and turned to him. He stared at her lips, still stained red from her lipstick. Her dark brown eyes were hooded, and she looked down in what Indie assumed was shyness.
“I’ll head home then. Momma’s gonna have my hide as it is.” Indie braced his hands on the table to stand and felt her hand slide up his thigh. He froze.
“Or stay,” Lissie suggested in a whisper. He didn’t stop to think before he nodded. Without warning, only a smile, she attacked him. Her kiss was aggressive and unexpected, and he held his eyes open in surprise at first before relaxing and letting his mouth move with hers. She broke their kiss and gasped.
“You’re a good kisser, Indie. You been kissin’ a lot of girls?” He shook his head and breathed in heavily.
“Just you.” She leaned in again and this time he met her halfway, cupping her soft face in his hands. They kissed for a moment before she pulled back again and beamed up at him.
“You’re real gentle, too.” She put her lips to his again, and a small moan escaped Indie before he could contain himself. Her hand traveled up his thigh, and he stopped, pulling away from her.
“No, Lissie.” She frowned at him.
“Why not?” she said, confusion written across her flushed face.
“Because I don’t wanna. Not now.” Indie leaned in again to kiss her and she smiled.
“That’s sweet.” She murmured against his lips. “You’re nothing like Jay.” Indie froze.
“What?” he asked, sitting up straight and leaning away.
“I just mean, Jay was rough with me. Yeah, he had been drinkin’, but he was so rough. Pulled my hair and everything,” she smiled at him and leaned in for another kiss.
“When?” he asked, cold dread filling him where hot lust had been moments before.
“Few months ago. It don’t matter. He doesn’t want nothin’ to do with me no more.” She looked hurt, and a little angry but her eyes met his and she smiled. “I like you, Indie.” She put her arm around his middle and laid her head on his shoulder.
“I gotta go,” Indie said as he disentangled himself from her.
“Why?” Lissie said, surprised.
“What he did wasn’t right but tryin’ to get me to do the same ain’t gonna fix it.” He pulled his shoes on and picked up his bag. “I’m sorry, Lissie, for what he did. But I ain’t like him. I ain’t no replacement for Jay.”
He closed the door behind him and felt tears stinging his eyes. He truly felt badly for her. Jay had used her something awful, something he often bragged about doing to other girls, but Indie had never seen the aftermath of his behaviour. The others hadn’t been childhood friends that they had grown up with. He walked home, his heart sore for his brother and for the girl he had broken. He couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for himself, too. Even the girls he got were hand-me-downs.
All day at school, the youngest brother worried. He chewed his lip in his anxiety, finally making it bleed. As he applied toilet paper to it in the bathroom, he squinted into the mirror. He saw his own huge eyes rimmed with long, doe-like lashes but he also saw something, a shadow overlaying his image and he spun around nervously. Nothing was there and when he looked back into the mirror, the shadow as gone.
Kindergarten was usually a happy place for him. The small boy felt so safe and welcome by all his classmates. When he showed off, more often than he would admit to his father, they all yelped in amazed delight. He would always guess the numbers they were thinking of or what color they were imagining. Here, the combined joyful innocence of five-year-old boys and girls enabled him to slip into a comfortable and safe place within his own mind.
But when Indie had broken his heart he suddenly did not want to be in class with the rest of the children. What if they didn’t believe him either and they were actually making fun of him? If he could not trust his closest friend, his own brother, how could he trust these strangers? The little boy cried all day in school, prompting his teacher to pull him aside.
“Son, what’s wrong?” he asked softly. “Did something happen?”
“No, sir.” The student replied. He was about to continue and let his heart spill out to his kindly teacher, but he stopped himself. He lobbed his gaze around, looking for an excuse. His eyes lit upon the newspaper on the table near him. “No, sir. I’m just worried about them people missing.” He nodded at the picture on the front of a ten-year-old boy from their own town.
“That’s a scary thing, isn’t it? But you have a lot of very strong brothers and a mommy and a daddy to protect you. Stay inside after dark and don’t talk to strangers and you’ll be ok, I think.” The teacher wiped a tear that was streaming down the student’s small face. Now that he recalled them, the boy really was crying about the missing people. His teacher ruffled his hair and stood up. He clapped his hands together once and called to the class, all doing different activities around the room.
The little boy joined his classmates and tried his best to be a good, normal boy for the rest of the day. When one girl, so pretty with her reddish-blond hair and dimpled cheeks asked him to guess the next page in the book she was reading his eyes lit up. Then he remembered he shouldn’t do that. He scrunched his face up and held his breath, willing away the picture of a stylized cartoon basset hound that flicked into his head.
“Puppy.” He finally burst out, his breath a whoosh of hot air. The girl giggled is disbelief and flipped the page.
“Yes!” she said, her tiny girl voice raising even higher. “Wait, did you already read this one?”
Elated to have an out that he didn’t have to work for he just nodded.
“You got me.” He winked in what he hoped was a sly way and turned back to coloring his rainbow.
He kept his head down for the rest of the afternoon and wouldn’t answer when anyone excepting the teacher called his name. The final bell rang at three-thirty and he felt his shoulders relax. He had made it one whole day with only one slipup. Indie would be so proud…
No, he wouldn’t.
Indie didn’t believe him. He frowned and shoved his pencil case into his bag angrily. As he stomped out of the school building, he felt the rain start to fall again. It was the perfect end to a perfectly terrible day and did nothing for his sore feelings. He sat down under the oak in the front yard of the school and waited for five o’clock to bring him his traitorous sibling.
The rain decided to become a deluge and the boy got very wet very quickly. He knew his mother would probably be upset about his new shoes being soaked but there was really nothing he could do about it. Unless…
He was not allowed to do anything special. He would just have to be wet and maybe get a spanking or a loud scolding. No help for it. He sat in the wetness and sighed.
Not long after the sky opened on him, the school door opened, and an older student came running out. She shrieked as the rain hit her, immediately covering her glasses with water. She jerked the book in her hands up over her head in a makeshift umbrella and started to jog on the pavement. Her shiny shoes splashed water up her bare legs in her school uniform and she groaned. The boy watched as she beelined for his tree.
Once under the relative shelter of the large oak leaves, the other student lowered her book and tucked it under one arm. She pulled her glasses off her face, wiped the back of her hand across her face and shook her wet hair out of her eyes.
“Aww, granny’s gonna be so angry at me!” she bewailed, looking down at her wet and muddy shoes. She wiped her glasses off as best she could and looked back down at her shoes, readying herself to clean them off. They were spotless. She bent down and touched the toe of her black shoe. They were also dry.
She seemed to notice the boy sitting there for the first time. His eyes were filled with a twinkling glee and he was trying to keep a smile from slipping onto his face.
“What’s so funny, dummy?” the girl said, clearly annoyed at what she thought was his smirk making fun of her.
“Nothin’. Just…” the boy stopped, letting his grin flick onto his lips. Small white teeth bit at his lower lip. “Nothin’,” he repeated and looked away. The girl shook her head and frowned.
“Yeah, nothin’.” An old white car pulled up at the curb in front of them and she pulled the book back up over her head. “Stay dry, weirdo,” she called over her shoulder as she ran to the car.
The boy kept his silence, but he felt the lightness in him bubbling up. Her surprise and confusion were so funny to him. He delighted in seeing people look at him in wonder. He could hear them thinking “How is that possible?” and it made him feel like a giant balloon filled with sunshine was going to burst in his chest. He opened his hand and wiped a glob of icy mud from his palm onto the wet grass beside him. He couldn’t wait to tell...
Indie? He doesn’t even believe you anymore, stupid.
The sun was hidden by the dark storm clouds, making the late afternoon feel more like a late evening. The boy looked up into the sky, past the tree’s leaves, and felt a chill inside of himself that had nothing to do with the wet weather. He perceived a slight alteration to the air around him and closed his eyes and felt around him with his special self. Someone was behind the tree he was resting against. Using his imaginative hands, he pushed them away and turned to see who it had been, but no one was there. He felt his stomach do flips in anxiety and wished Indie would hurry.
Five o’clock seemed to take longer than usual to roll around. Toe and Two, the eighteen-year-old twins were the first the arrive. Shorter than even Indie, the twins were each twice as wide as their youngest sibling. Toe, Joe on paper, and Two, christened Ben, were both in their last year at the high school and the little boy wondered if their daddy would make them work at the agency or the steel mill this summer.
“Where’s Indiana?” the little one called, using his full name to show his displeasure with his elder sibling. The twins glanced at each other and grinned.
“Is he in big trouble, Rat?” Toe asked. He roughly jerked the boy’s hood up on this jacket and grabbed his hand.
“Where is he?” repeated the small figure. Images of his beloved brother being taken by strangers flashed in his mind and he felt tears prickling in his eyes. “Is he ok?”
“Guess he isn’t in that much trouble, Toe,” Two said as he brushed the little boy’s behind off. “You’re filthy. Momma ain’t gonna be happy.”
“He’s meeting up with Lissie,” answered Toe finally when he caught sight of the tears in the enormous eyes of his brother. “He’ll be home a little late is all.”
“Momma won’t like that, either,” fretted the small brother. His anger at his favorite brother melted in his concern. “Maybe we should get him and make sure we all get home together.”
“No way, Ratty. We’re going home, the three of us, and Indie can find us. He knows his way home,” Toe said, leading them away from the oak. Two looked first left and then right before hauling on his brother’s hand and trotting across the street. When they reached the other side, the little boy shook his hand free.
“No, Toe. No way. We find him first or I ain’t moving.” He pulled his arms to his sides, sure that it made him look sturdier and thus harder to move. Two sighed and handed his twin his own backpack. He nodded, understanding what his twin had in mind and slung the bag onto his back. Two bent and took his tiny brother around the knees and swept him over his shoulder, his slight frame nothing on his wide shoulders.
“Then I’ll carry you home and tell Momma what a little shit you are.” The twins laughed in unison, their indistinguishable voices creating a weird echo effect. “Don’t worry about Indie. He’s happy doing exactly what he’s doing, you can count on it.” They laughed riotously and the little boy knew they were being dirty just by how they sniggered. Images of Indie pressing his lips to a girl’s bright red mouth flashed in his youthful mind.
“You guys are gross. He ain’t making no kissy faces with Lissie. He likes that one girl, Ella.” He had stopped struggling once he had realized that if he wiggled too much, his brother might drop him to teach him a lesson.
“Well liking one girl and getting to tongue wrestle with another ain’t got nothin’ to do with each other. Kissy Lissie might not be very pretty, but she’s willing to kiss anything with lips, including Indie.” Toe and Two cackled again and an image of their topless neighbor flicked across the small boy’s awareness, making him blush and squirm uneasily.
“Stop it, Two. Leave Lissie’s shirt alone,” he said quietly and pushed aside the mature ideas. He might not want to do those things, but his brothers sure did, and they weren’t hiding the thoughts. Two hitched his brother up on this shoulder, jiggling him roughly.
“You stop it, Rat, or I’ll tell Momma you were doing it again.” The boy didn’t talk the rest of the way home, draped awkwardly and uncomfortably across his brother’s shoulder. Knowing that Two and Toe probably still believed him made him a little happier, but he was still pining the loss of the trust in Indie. He would forgive him, he knew, but he allowed himself to be angry for at least one day. He would figure out a way to make Indie believe him again.
Jay had, indeed been placed in the bakery by the temp agency that day and the bread that he brought home was nearly perfect. After their mother had trimmed off the few bits of mold and cut it into thin slices and smeared with a thick layer of butter, it tasted like nothing but heaven to Jay. Half the loaf was left untouched on the counter and the brothers all looked at it longingly. If their father didn’t want it with his stew that night, they would be getting French toast in the morning. That was even better than pancakes.
Indie was late for dinner. He arrived just after the streetlights came on, prompting their mother to first scold him and then ground him for a week. It was the first time any of them had been forbidden to do anything after school including sports and it sent a ripple of unease under their roof. They would all rather have the beating and be done with it. Maybe not the youngest, Jay mused as he looked at his smallest brother, cowering behind the twins.
“You all know why, don’t give me those eyes,” their mother said angrily. “You come home before dark or I will ground you all for the rest of your lives.” Her punishment, so absurdly severe took the edge off her threat, but they all saw the seriousness in her eyes. “I ain’t gonna be one of them mommas waitin’ for a child to come home that won’t be comin’ home, you hear me?” They all nodded in understanding. Jay stood to the side of the rest of his brothers, arms folded and nodding in agreement with his mother, clearly under the impression that she excluded her adult son from the scolding. She rounded on him.
“Jay, you stop that nodding.” Her finger shook in her anger. “You will be grounded just the same, even if you think you’re grown now. Come home by dark or else, young man.” His face showed surprise, but an undulation of indignant anger chased itself across his expressions.
“What about when they have me working at the garage, Momma? You want the money or not? You gotta make up your fuckin’ mind,” he asked sarcastically. His mother’s eyes flared in renewed rage and she started toward him with a hand raised to slap him.
Tiny arms wrapped themselves around her thighs and their mother looked down.
“We understand, Momma. Don’t be angry anymore.” He lifted his face up to hers for a kiss and was rewarded with a quick peck on his round, baby cheek. She visibly relaxed.
Annoyance rippled in Jay’s eyes and he turned away from his family and stomped to the room he was forced to share with his brothers. He slammed the door behind him and picked up his baseball from his pillow. He thought of throwing it at the glass window but knew he would feel that later when his father got home. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, he could feel the tension stretched across his shoulders easing. He bounced the baseball on the wooden floor, a repetitive thunk-ka, thunk-ka, thunk-ka that calmed him.
(cont. in part 2)