Indie learns that his brother can do something truly special.
“Are you still mad, Indie?” the boy whispered in the darkness. No reply came and the little brother turned over and faced the window between the two beds. His brother had refused to talk to anyone for the rest of the night. Somehow, it was their fault that he had been the first one to receive the first-time punishment of grounding on top of the switching his father had given him after he had come home.
“Leave him be, Rat. He’s gonna be smartin’ in more ways than one tonight,” Jay said gently in his rare empathetic tenderness. His anger seemed to have burned itself out. He lifted the edge of his blanket and motioned the small figured over to him. The tiny boy’s heart, touched by the uncommon gesture, filled with a lightness that ruptured from him as tears. The tightness in his chest reminded him of his hiding place. As he climbed in Jay’s bed which smelled like salty sweat and aftershave, the boy looked back at his own bed where Indie lay, still facing the wall.
“Don’t cry or I’ll kick your ass out,” Jay said gruffly.
“Do you think he would like me to bring him some gum tomorrow?” the boy sniffled and asked innocently.
“You still got money hidden somewhere?” his brother asked in surprise. The little boy went motionless and quiet as he thought about where he had hidden his little money, cards and a pebble a few days ago. He counted the change silently, holding his breath. He rubbed his chest, only just starting to be sore, and nodded.
“Do you think Indie would like that, Jay? I know Momma said to let him be and you did, too, but I know if I had a switchin’ and couldn’t be out with my friends after school I would probably be real sad and I think gum would cheer me up a little.” He frowned when he noticed that thinking about the hidden cards made his chest a little more uncomfortable.
“Yeah, that would probably cheer him up a bit.” Jay was silent, his already narrow eyes going even more narrow in thought. “What you else you hidin’ in your secret stash, Rat?” he prodded. The boy knew that Jay, and the others, were curious where he hid his treasure such as his pocket change. He thought guiltily of the cards. Cards that belonged to Jay.
The boy opened his eyes and peeked up at his brother through his lashes nervously.
“Just small things. Nothin’ that important. My money and some rocks,” he murmured. Thinking about each item made his chest hurt a little more. It felt sort of like he was holding his breath or had some how breathed in too much, maybe. He breathed in deeply again, easing the tension across his front.
“If I wake up and my cards are back to where they should be, I ain’t gonna be mad,” Jay said, stifling a yawn. He closed his eyes and turned his head away from his brother, signaling his desire to sleep. The little boy just nodded mutely and breathed deeply again.
Some how the little boy managed to fall asleep, even in his discomfort. He woke to a popping in his chest, like his breastbone being punched and gasped out loud. He jolted upright and felt his soggy shirt clung to him coldly and he had goosebumps all over his arms and torso. The bedroom window was opened wide. He had a terrible feeling that he had just missed someone in the room. When he looked down at the pillow where his head had laid, he noticed his money, pebble, and two mushed up soggy cards sitting in a cold wetness.
He felt in his hiding place and everything was gone. It had all fallen out while he slept, but the tightness in his upper body was also gone, replaced with a raw soreness that hurt when he touched it. Maybe he had tried to put in too much, too fast.
The tiny boy gathered up the treasures and crawled out of Jay’s bed silently. As he crept into his own bed, he felt Indie turn to him in the darkness.
“What happened, Rat?” The concern in his voice made the younger boy tear up. He wasn’t ready to show Indie, besides he wasn’t even sure he could show him right now if he wanted.
“Bad dream,” he murmured instead and shoved the crumpled wet cards and other small things under his own pillow. “Sorry I woke you, Indie.”
“Why’d you open the window? We should keep it shut.” He got up in the relative darkness and quickly closed the window and flicked the latch on top to lock. “You’re safe, Ratty.” The reply came back closer to him and he felt his brother’s arm snake around him and pull him closer. “Ain’t no one gonna get you.”
“What the hell is this?”
The brothers woke up the next morning to Jay shouting at the littlest of them, waving a ruined baseball card in his face. The boy’s eyes snapped open and he blinked up at his eldest brother.
“It’s your card, Jay. I can explain,” he began.
“Shut up. If you take anything else that belongs to me again, I will deck you.” He flung the destroyed card in his brother’s face and turned back to his bed. “And how did you piss on my pillow?”
“Jay, that’s not pi—pee. It’s…” He stopped. Indie had felt his wet shirt the night before and had assumed he had gotten hot. “I just got sweaty last night.” The rest of the brothers all looked at him, the twins already having climbed out of their top bunk to see what was going on.
“I can’t even be nice to you without it fuckin’ comin’ back to bite me in the ass.” Jay bemoaned as he stripped his pillow and tossed the case at his brother. “You tell Momma what you did so that you have to wash it. If I don’t have a case tonight for my pillow, I’m takin’ your pillow.”
“I’m sorry, Jay,” the little boy said, his voice breaking. “I’ll buy you a new card.”
“Don’t bother. Just…just don’t bother me anymore,” Jay said defeatedly. He tramped out of their room and a second later the bathroom door slammed. The four remaining brothers looked at each other, all eyes finally resting on the little brother, still in the bunk with sleep in his eyes.
“Come on, Rat. I’ll help you wash the pillowcase. I’m not going anywhere today anyway.” Indie took the case from his small hands and motioned for him to follow into the kitchen where their mother did the laundry.
At the sink, Indie looked down at his baby brother in concern, nearly shoulder to shoulder with him on his wooden stool. His little face was scrunched up as he scrubbed a pillowcase. Their mother had made them wash all the bedding, reasoning it made no sense to waste the elbow grease on one case.
He wanted to tell him he had seen something strange in the night, that the noise he heard and the things he had seen scared him. He saw the window open by itself and heard a horrible popping noise and then his brother was surrounded by a faint light, outlining an emaciated figure leaning over his brother that flicked out sight when the boy sat up, awake.
But he was the older brother and older brothers weren’t supposed to be scared and go looking for comfort from their five-year-old baby brothers. Instead he apologized.
“I’m sorry about yesterday, Rat. I’m sorry I said those things to you.” Blameless eyes, filled with shock peered up at him, blinking back tears. “Don’t cry, Rat. Stop.”
“You believe me, Indie?” asked the little one in earnest. Indie nodded once, his heart racing.
“I do, Rat. Because I saw…things.” He couldn’t say it out loud. The boy looked around the kitchen and stretched out his neck to see down the hall, checking for eaves droppers.
“Indie, do you want me to show you?” The hope in his voice was so clear and sharp that it hurt Indiana. The teenager frowned, not sure if he was ready to see his brother’s special talent in the light of day.
Indie turned back to the laundry and intensely scoured the sheet in his hand. “Ok, Rat. But not now, please. I’m scared,” he admitted, feeling a weight lift off him as soon as the words were past his lips. Tiny hands stayed his manic cleaning.
“It’s alright. You know those men on the TV that do card tricks or make a coin walk on their hands? It’s just like that.” He looked around the kitchen again, this time searching for something with which to demonstrate. A small dented spoon rested on the countertop, left over from breakfast dishes that morning. The boy hopped off the wobbly stool and picked up the spoon. “Watch.”
Fear skulked over Indiana; his heart was racing. He would be in great deal of trouble if his mother or father found out that he had encouraged his younger brother in his fantasies. But he had seen something, and it had scared him more than the thrashing he would get if he was caught. He nodded once and immediately felt faint.
The small boy held the spoon in his dimpled hand, though it stuck out either side of his fist. He waved his other round hand over and under the fisted spoon and drew his hands apart. As he pulled his hands apart, he opened his fist and Indie watched, the rim of his vision black, his breath stuck in his chest, as the spoon winked with a soft golden light and then vanished. Indie fell the ground in a dead faint, his head barely missing the corner of the counter.
Indie came to with his head in his mother’s lap and an ice-cold cloth on his forehead. His youngest brother was fervently waving an old magazine in his face, fanning him with cool, quick air. When his eyes locked with the boy’s he sat up and awkwardly crab walked backward, away from the child at his side.
“Indie?” The tiny boy’s voice was soft and beseeching.
“What happened, Indiana?” their mother demanded as she got to her feet. She brushed her skirt off and frowned down at her son, nearly a man at seventeen who was glaring in fear at her youngest, merely a baby at five.
“Nothin’. Nothin’, Momma. The water was hot, and I got dizzy, that’s all,” Indie stammered, his voice was rough and broke on his mother’s name. He cleared his throat and ripped his eyes from his brother’s gaze. “I think I didn’t sleep too good last night.”
“I want you to go lie down. I’m going to call and make an appointment with the doctor.” Their mother made her way to the phone attached the wall in their minute kitchen.
“No, Momma. I’m fine. I’m going to go lie down. Really, I’m fine.” Indie got to his feet, doing his best to show his mother that he was sound again. His hands shook as he brushed his cold sweat soaked hair off his forehead. Indie made his way to the hallway but glanced back once at the kneeling figure on the tawny tile floor. The wide eyes that had implored him as he turned the corner held a hurt and serious expression that left Indie with an unfriendly anxiety.
The rest of weekend was filled with rain, and for the youngest sibling, it was also filled with seclusion. The ostracization that so worried his father fell hard and heavy on his tiny shoulders when it came to his brothers. The twins, not grounded nor working, were not home much as they wandered the neighborhood with their friends, playing sports and games. They flatly refused to take responsibility of the five-year-old and once they said no, it didn’t end well for the little one if he pressed the issue. They were likely to finally agree but then abandon him as soon as conveniently possible.
Indie was still avoiding the little boy’s eyes as much as possible. If he could have, the boy thought, he would have denied his existence entirely. As it was, he not only shared a bed with the youngster, but was also grounded and tasked with watching him while their mother did the weekly shopping and other errands. Their Sunday passed in uncomfortable silence that neither sibling could find a way to naturally overcome. The boy’s heart was breaking every minute that passed that Indie refused to look at him. He spent a long time hiding in the wet backyard, an umbrella covering of leaves surrounding him as he scrambled up the maple tree in their back yard.
Jay, also avoiding the littlest brother, had to work and so his anger was less apparent. But it was still on full display when he burst into the bathroom as the littlest was bathing and demanded he get out.
“You’re taking too long. Get out,” he snarled quietly.
“Jay, I just got in. Momma needs to wash my hair first.”
“Get. Out,” Jay spat from between his teeth. “I don’t give two shits what Momma needs to do for you. I need this bathroom now or I will drag you from that water myself.”
The boy scrambled out of the tub, trying not to slip as he pulled his towel around his shoulders. He looked up at his tall brother in terror as he passed him.
“I’m sorry, Jay. Please don’t hate me no more,” he begged. The door crashed closed so near to his face that he stumbled backward in surprise.
Sunday night came and the boy looked at his bed in crestfallen sadness. Would he dread being curled up so close to Indie forever now? Would Indie shrink away from him again tonight, like he did the night before? He felt so alone but there were people all around him, people he would do anything for, people that filled his heart to the maximum capacity. Before Jay could catch him, he tucked the rest of his money under Jay’s freshly laundered pillow along with his own baseball cards, all of them hand-me-downs from the other brothers. He gently patted the pillow in affection and crawled into his own bunk.
Sometime in the middle of the night the boy woke when a strange darkness shadowed the room. He blinked his eyes open and gasped. A spectral bleached face was inches from his face, watching him. He flickered his eyelids again and it was gone. He reached for Indie.
“Indie!” Fright laced his voice, alerting his brother out of a sound sleep.
“What is it, Rat?” He sat up and looked about.
“I saw a face, just here, near my own face.” His tiny hand shook in terror as he held his hand up inches from his nose. “I swear to God, Indie. I saw a man’s face. He was awful white and had the scariest eyes. He was lookin’ at me like he wanted to climb inside me and steal me away,” sobbed the boy. The panic had disgorged itself from him and he lost control, throwing himself into Indie’s arms.
“Hey, it’s ok, buddy. It’s ok, Ratty. Shh.” Indie had been lurched awake by the real terror in the boy’s voice. “You were dreamin’,” Indie insisted.
“No, Indie. I wish I was. I wish to God it was a dream. But I swear. You gotta believe me. It’s them that’s takin’ the people, I bet and they’re gonna take me.” His crying reached a crescendo and Indie saw Jay stir in his sleep.
“Shh, Ratty. You’ll wake Jay and we’ll be in deep shit then. Shush.” His brother pulled him tighter against his chest and he knew that Indie felt his tiny heart beating impossibly fast. His fear was real, even if what he had seen should not be possible, even if Indie did not believe him. The older brother drew him under the covers with him, tucking his face in his chest. But the boy turned back again and looked to the window with eyes so wide that they reflected light in an eerie way.
“Try to go back to sleep, Ratty. I’ll stay awake until you do so nothing will get you,” humored Indie as he stroked the boy’s hair off his forehead. An icy sweat stuck to his palm and he frowned. The boy began to tremble in his arms, shivering so much that the boy wondered if he was having a fit.
“I c-c-can’t sleep n-n-now, Indie.” Chattered the boy, his teeth knocking together painfully. “I’m t-too scared.”
“Trade me spots, Rat. I’ll take the outside and keep watch over you.” The boy nodded and crawled over his brother’s lap to curl into a small, trembling ball near the wall. Indie slipped the covers around him and lay down facing him. “Still want me to hold you?” He offered and opened his arms. The boy’s face looked guilty and he blinked tears out of his bulbously large, frightened eyes.
“You’re not mad at me anymore?” he asked.
“I wasn’t ever mad at you, Rat. I was…I am scared.” Indie replied and motioned the boy into his arms again. As he scuttled closer to Indie, he felt even sadder.
“I would never hurt you, Indie. Don’t be afraid of me.”
“I ain’t scared of you. Not really, anyway. I think it’s more afraid of…what you did. Maybe surprised would be a better word. And there’s…” His words drifted off. He rested his cheek on the boy’s soft curls. “It just seems so impossible that I can’t really make my mind see how you did it. Do you understand?”
“Like when you can’t figure out your math and Jay has to help you?” the innocent comparison made Indie scoff.
“Not quite, but sorta, I guess.” He took a deep breath, thinking aloud. “I think the best way for me to describe it is like when you see the twins drawin’ and you think ‘I know they are real good at this, but they are just like me, really, so I should be able to do it too, but where to start?’ And when you pick up a pencil all you can draw are stick figures because, of course you can’t really do what they do with pencil. They have somethin’ inside them that lets them make such beautiful art.” He stopped whispering and waited for a response. The boy thought about what he had said and decided there was nothing he could say to clarify the idea for him. So, he changed tack.
“Do you want to see me get the spoon back?” Indie held his breath, still as a statue and the boy felt his skin ripple in goosebumps on his arm.
“No, Rat. No, thank you.” Then after a beat. “Where did you put it?”
“I call it my secret place. It’s cold and wet, but not icky wet. It’s more like a creek and then a dry spot under the water. But not a real creek. It’s inside my mind. I can hide a lot of things. But too many things in my secret place makes my tummy and chest hurt. Sorta like I have to pee but not down there.” Indie stopped him.
“Ok, ok, Rat. That’s enough. Let’s sleep now, ok? I’m starting to feel dizzy again.”
“I’m sorry I scared you, Indie. Thank you for believing me.” His shivering had ceased and a yawn, long and wide broke his face in two. Indie whispered after a minute of chewing on his lip in quietude.
“Rat, do you use the same special place to see things, too?”
“Mm?” the tiny voice asked. He raised his eyebrows with his eyes closed.
“Never mind. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
“’Kay. Night.” The ball of brother in Indie’s arms relaxed and started to snore softly in the familiar way that the boy knew Indie secretly treasured. He placed a tender kiss on the five-year-old’s brow and whispered to him, thinking that he could hear him no longer.
“I love you, Rat.”
Indiana and the littlest were inseparable as soon as school ended. Their mother never had to ask who would take the baby for the day; Indiana just volunteered. While it was endearing to her, their father was suspicious.
“What do they do all day together, out there in the neighborhood? I ain’t heard him talk about doing those weirdo things no more.” He mused grumpily one evening shortly after school ended.
“Oh, just boy things. Maybe they’re catchin’ bugs and teasin’ the girls with them.” She said as she darned a hole in a pair of jeans that started out as her husband’s but now belonged to one of the twins. Her scissors snicked loudly as crickets chirped outside. She looked up. “Oh, it’s getting dark.” Her brows furrowed together, and she set down her mending to look up at the clock above the TV.
“Indiana ain’t no child, Dora. He ain’t catchin’ no bugs. I remember being nearly eighteen and he’s more interested in the girls than them bugs.” Her husband said, sipping on a can of beer as he stared blindly at the TV. He belched and crossed his legs at the knee. “Jay’s workin’ the garage tonight?” he asked.
“That’s what he told me.” She stuck her needle in her mouth as she finished the mending. “It’s nearly eight o’clock…” she said to herself.
She paced slowly before the front door for a moment and then turned toward the kitchen. She absently washed a pot from dinner that had been soaking and chewed the inside of her cheek, thinking. Their father had forbidden any children home during the day, sticking to his personal motto that fresh air made boys into men.
Five minutes later, the twins could be heard laughing as they dumped their bicycles against the house. They entered in a flurry of dirty teenage sweat, fresh from their first shifts with the labor agency. Dora ushered them to the bathroom to wash up for the night and waited for the rest of her children.
Dark was just kissing the kitchen, forcing her to turn on the overhead light when her two youngest children came home. Indie looked pale and his eyes were too bright. The baby looked shy and guilty.
“Sorry we’re late, Momma,” he said sweetly and skirted by his mother and into the hallway. Indie tried to do the same and she grabbed his arm.
“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded, not bothering mask her worry. Indie just shrugged and attempted to untangle his arm from her grip.
“Nothin’, Momma. Just tired from running after Ratty,” he lied. But his eyes were hollow and haunted, and her mother’s instincts were sharp.
“Out with it, Indiana, unless you wanna be doing laundry and dishes for a week.” He swallowed hard and glanced over his shoulder quickly toward the living room where his father was sitting. He weighed his options and while he did not want to say anything to get his little brother in trouble, he also could not tell his mother the entire truth without scaring her. He decided that the youngster would probably forgive him faster than his mother.
“Just Rat being…Rat,” he pretended to confide. Her eyes held his and he continued. “Momma, he’s doing it around the other kids again.”
Anger flashed on his mother’s face, but Indie wasn’t sure if she was mad at catching him in a lie or at his brother for doing tricks and he felt guilt icing up his insides. At least he hadn’t had to tell her about the man following them in the trees near the road on the way home. He had been careful to avoid letting his brother see the figure as he rushed them home.
“Momma, he’s fine, really. I’m just tired of him embarrassing me, is all. Leave him be. I’ll talk to him.” He broke her grasp and hurried out of the kitchen to find his brother. He had only partially lied to his mother by omitting the shadowy menace that stalked them.
Indie shut the bathroom door behind him quietly and put his finger to lips as he looked at his brother, bare chested at the sink.
“Momma might talk to you soon, but this time it ain’t my fault, ok?” he put his hands on his hips and looked down at his half-naked brother. “You gotta stop just doing it out of nowhere and you gotta stop doing it in front of other kids. I felt so sick, I almost fainted again. I’m not so scared when you tell me first but when you do it, my head feels so light and I can’t breathe.” The color was slowly returning to his cheeks as he got more annoyed. He felt his irritation strengthening him from the inside out and relaxed a little.
“I did warn you, Indie.” The boy reminded him. He picked up the bar of soap on the side of the sink and lathered up a pile of bubbles to scrub his face and arms with. “I said I was gonna make the girls laugh. And they did laugh. Did you see Ella’s eyes light up?” The boy’s own eyes sparkled when he thought about the tricks he did for the girls. Indie blushed, thinking about Ella’s cerulean eyes.
“I saw ‘em, yeah.” He admitted fondly. “She was pretty surprised, I guess.” Indie put the toilet seat and lid down and sat down near his brother so he could whisper. “But you have to stop, please. I wish I could tell you how it feels when you do it.”
“Like someone tooked all the air from you and then put your head in ice.” The child said as he lifted the handful of bubbles to his face and blew them gently. “It’s how I used to feel when I was thinkin’ about doin’ it but not sure how to do it. I ain’t never fainted, though.” He smirked mischievously at his beloved brother.
“Well I did, and I will again if you don’t stop.” Indie insisted.
“Nah, you won’t. You’ll get better and better and maybe one day you’re gonna see what I see and do what I do then we can make lots of people smile, together.” He blew more bubbles out of his hands, directly at Indie’s face. His confidence startled Indie and made him frown.
“What makes you so sure, Rat?”
“I dunno. Same way I’m sure that Momma’s mad at Daddy right now and that you’re so scared you could pee your pants but you’re trying real hard to be a big man and—” Indie’s hand shot up and covered his brother’s mouth, pressing hard enough to hurt.
“Stop it, Rat. You’re making me sick and I hate it. My heart is racing and I’m going to faint again.” He glowered at the little boy who looked frightened himself. He pushed his brother’s cold hand off his face.
“I told you not to be afraid of me, Indie. Why are you so afraid of me?” his query sounded forceful and not a little angry. He felt the question being asked inside his mind, but in his brother’s voice. Indie saw black around the edges of his vision.
“Rat…” he implored weakly and then toppled off the toilet seat, face first, into the ceramic tiles of the bathroom floor. The boy gasped and then covered his mouth with a soapy hand. He rinsed his hands haphazardly and stood, dripping noisily on the floor, over his brother’s figure. He bent and reached his hand out, felt his back, felt the rise and fall of his breathing and the quick, birdlike fluttering of his heart. The child squinted his eyes closed and reached out with another part of him that wasn’t tangible. He poured his warmth into his brother and prayed desperately.
“Let him be ok, let him be ok. Let him wake up and for Momma not to come in and see him.” He felt his brother’s breathing slow but deepen and then felt his heartbeat slow and even out. Indie stirred on the cold floor and turned his face toward his little brother’s shivering body beside him.
“I…told you.” He gasped aloud. He looked at his brother’s face which was wide-eyed with panic. “What?” he demanded, feeling his strength coming back.
“Your eyebrow…” the little boy said just as blood trickled into Indie’s eye. He sat up slowly and touched his forehead and felt a sharp sting and a large split in his flesh. Suddenly, the boy reached out to touch the wound.
“Stop it,” Indie said, rocking his head away and out of his reach. It made the world around him wobble as though he was in a giant fishbowl filled with water.
“Sit still.” Demanded his baby brother and something in his voice made Indie do just that. The child reached up and slowly closed his eyes. He felt the darkness creeping on the edges of his vision and sucked in his breath.
“Rat, no…” he began. He stopped when he felt a tingling near the wound, not unlike pins and needles after sitting on your foot for too long. Then a sharp, but quick zip. The darkness around his eyes receded as the boy’s eyes opened.
“I did it…” he breathed in shock. “I thought I could, but I ain’t never tried it before.” An enormous smile burst onto his face. “Indie, I fixed it.” Indie reached a hand up slowly and ran his fingers across his brow. Where he had had a bleeding two-inch gash moments before, he now only had a smooth, sticky patch of skin. He pulled his hand away and inspected it. It was covered in blood that was already starting to dry and thicken. He touched his head again. Perfectly smooth.
“Think of all the good things I could do, Indie. Think of the people I could help.” The tiny boy’s face, always a picture of contentment, now looked supremely blissful.
“What the hell is going on?” breathed Indie. “Get dressed Rat. We gotta clean this blood up before Momma sees it.”
Indie pulled out a washcloth from the small linen cupboard beside the bathroom door and investigated his reflection the mirror. Where there should have been a wound requiring several stitches was simply a blank, but shiny swath of flesh surrounded by dark blood. It would be a bruise tomorrow. A dried trickle was tracking down his temple and he was sure that he felt bone before. It wasn’t an inconsequential injury and Indie was sure that he had wandered into a dream, or a nightmare. Which, he did not know. He did know, however, that his brother’s gifts were something that needed close guarding. Memories of Jay using him to place bets, or to impress a girl flooded him. The worst was remembering Jay selling him as a freak and making people pay a dollar to have him guess things they were thinking.
While his older brother washed his face clean of blood, the little one pulled on his dirty shirt, his face left unwashed. He looked at the floor and saw a small reddish black pool near the wall where Indie’s face had landed. He motioned for Indie to give him the cloth and he bent to wipe it up. Just as he was scrubbing the last of the dried blood from the floor, he gasped.
“Momma’s comin’” he squealed at Indie and stuffed the bloodied cloth into the back of his jeans. He looked up at Indie and saw resolve in his brother’s eyes. He looked like he had come to a decision, like he had been riddled with anxiety but now that anxiety was taken from him. Indie smiled at the little boy and nodded back. They opened the door just as their mother had her hand on the doorknob.
“Squared him away, did you?” his mother demanded as she let the littlest one by and stopped Indie.
“Yes, Momma. We ain’t gotta be worried about him no, more.” The confidence in Indiana’s voice was shocking and Indie saw her narrow her eyes in suspicion.
“Why not?” she demanded.
“I told you I would talk to him. I did.” Insisted the teen. He made to move past his mother, but she blocked him.
“What do you boys get up to during the day? What are you doing to him?” she demanded angrily. “Are you making him show off?” the accusation was so close to what he had just been remembering Jay doing that it stung to hear his mother fling it at him.
“I ain’t Jay, Momma.” He said fiercely between his teeth. “I would never hurt him.” His mother’s face crumpled in dejection. Indie questioned if his mother knew about Jay using Rat.
“I know I don’t make it easy for you boys to understand, but he needs to be taken care of by all of us. He will break if we ain’t careful to protect him. He ain’t right, but he ain’t wrong either, you hear me?”
“Momma,” Indie said, his anger deflated. “Momma, I’m with you. I agree and I promise you I ain’t gonna hurt him. No one is gonna hurt him anymore.” He reassured his mother and when he saw her shoulders relax, he gave her a tiny, embarrassed hug. “I understand, Momma.”
“You’re a good boy, Indie. You’re gonna be alright, I think.” She had to look up to see his face, but she touched his cheek and brushed his hair off his forehead. Indie saw something dark pass in his mother’s eyes but she blinked, and it was gone. He wondered if she was thinking about Jay and the shadowy rage that lurked in him.
Indie stood at the door of his parent’s room, listening to them talk through the crack in the door. The night was dark and the silence in the house was only punctured by the footsteps of James, Dora’s husband, while he paced the room and undressed for bed. He grunted as he removed his jeans and tossed them in a pile on the floor. He sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed at his wrist where he usually had his father’s watch on. The tan line on his wrist where he usually wore it was softened by his own natural darker skin tone.
“Did you know that the Nichols’ heard footsteps outside their window last week?” Dora asked him as she slipped into the bed between the crisp but faded sheets. He grunted again.
“How many of their children are gone, Dora?” he scoffed, needling his wife.
“And the Jacobs boy said he saw someone outside his window the other night. That is three doors down from us, Jim.”
“Yeah, Mark told me himself. He checked outside and the flowers under the window were crushed.” He yawned and swung his legs into the bed.
“It’s real, James. Kids are missin’.” She said quietly. He held out an arm for her to snuggle on.
“You’re just scarin’ yourself with this talk. Jay ain’t a kid. Hush and sleep, woman.” He reached over and clicked his alarm clock on. “I’m more worried about me hearin’ about Rat from a guy at the mill. Why does he have my son’s name in his mouth, Dora?” She tensed under his hand and drew in her breath.
“What was he sayin’ about Rat?” she asked.
“That he ain’t right in the head. He said last week Jay charged him a dollar to have Rat guess his birthday or some shit.” Dora bristled.
“How is that Rat’s fault? When his older brother, a man now by the way, tells him do it what should he do? Jay will smack him if he don’t listen. You’ll smack him if he does.”
“Shut up, Dora. If I hear about Rat from anyone else again, I’ll sure as hell smack him.” He extracted his arm and turned his back to her.
Three of the brothers were in their beds asleep, but Jay hadn’t come home. Ten o’clock came and went and then eleven. Finally, at midnight, he heard the latch click in the back door and Jay’s footsteps, heavy in work boots clomped around the kitchen. Indie snuck out of the room and looked around the corner of the kitchen. Jay was making a sandwich out of some bread he had brought home. The butter knife in his hand winked in the moonlight coming in from the window above the sink and he buttered the slabs of dark bread.
Ever since his head injury that evening, he had been trying to think of how to get Jay to help him with their youngest sibling. While he had had just over a month to become comfortable with the situation, he noticed that his younger brother was getting more and more reckless. His confidence was building, and he could tell he was discovering things about himself that he hadn’t known before. The youngest was always their most curious brother and it was just too much fun for him to try all the ideas he had. Jay was the only one who had been skirting the issue for longer than Indie and he needed help with him now.
“Jay.” Whispered Indie. His elder brother reeled, raising the dull knife in his hands.
“Jesus, Indie. You fuckin’ scared me.” He clutched his chest and dropped the silver utensil into the sink with a clatter. “What are you doin’ awake?” Jay piled his buttered bread with pieces of roasted chicken, left over for him from that night’s dinner.
“We gotta talk about Rat.” Indie didn’t hesitate. While he looked more like a man with his muscular arms and labor-carved legs, Jay was barely three years older than him. Indie decided to take the mature man-to-man conversation route.
“We ain’t gotta talk about nothin’.” Jay took a huge bite of his butter and left-over chicken sandwich.
“We do, Jay.” Indie felt his courage falter and his stomach felt cold. Jay’s fury was hard to tiptoe around, harder even than their father’s because Jay had no one that could buffer the rest of them from his anger. “Momma knows you have been sellin’ Rat’s tricks. Pops heard it from one of the mill guys.” Jay’s face slipped into an annoyed mask when Indie mentioned their mother.
“She baby’s him. He’s gotta grow up some time.” Skirted Jay.
“Jay.” Indie pleaded, but he wasn’t even sure what he was asking from his brother. “Please.”
“Yeah, ok. Stop beggin’ like a dog.” He tore another huge chunk off his meal. “I’m so fuckin’ tired from work. They put me in the bakery for ten hours and then asked me to fill in at garage for another eight. Then I had to walk home from the garage. Twelve fuckin’ miles, Indie.” Jay’s mouth was full, and he stopped talking to swallow.
“Momma was so worried about you walking home. She asked Pops to get you, but he said you’re a man and ain’t gonna get hurt.” Indie confided in his brother. He took out one of the small plastic cups from the cupboard and poured his brother a cup of milk. He got him a plate and set it down in his usual place at the table. In the dim light, Indie couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw a thankful but guilty look steal across Jay’s features.
“I ain’t goin’ to the agency tomorrow.” Jay belched and put his mostly eaten sandwich on the plate. “I got a guy that says he has a job for me that might pay enough for me to quit the agency for a little. I ain’t told Momma or Pops yet, though, so keep your fat mouth shut.”
“I’m not stupid.” Indie laughed quietly. “Tell me about this job.”
“I don’t really know. Just a guy came in the garage while I was workin’, just after dusk, I guess it was. Said he heard that I didn’t have no permanent work and wondered if I would be interested in a big cash payday for a day or two’s work. Of course, I was suspicious, but this man was rich, Indie. He was wearing one of them three-piece suits and a shiny grey tie. His hands were cleaner than I have ever seen a man’s hands be. Nothin’ about him said that he worked for anything in his life; everythin’ is just handed to him on a silver platter.” Jay looked into the darkness; his eyes glazed in longing. “He even smelled rich.” He shook his head and looked at Indie.
“He asked me to meet him tomorrow, that’s all. Didn’t shake my hand or anything. Didn’t even give me his fuckin’ name.”
“He didn’t say what he wanted you to do? It seems kinda…squinky.” The teen’s eyes were sheltered by furrowed brows.
“I mean, he was polite to me. I ain’t got reason to think it’s nothin’…bad.” Indie knew Jay stopped just short of saying “illegal” though he most certainly had several reasons to think the man was interested in less than scrupulous dealings in Indie’s opinion. Jay picked at a piece of chicken stuck in his teeth.
“I gotta find a ride over to Timmins or I ain’t gonna make the meeting.” He stuffed the rest of his sandwich in his wide mouth and chewed loudly around his words. “Give me your bike for the day and I can make it, I bet.” It was as close as Jay got to a request. Indie nodded, but it was a perfunctory gesture; Jay would take the bike no matter what he said or did. The brothers sat in silence that grew steadily more uncomfortable.
“Tell Rat I ain’t mad no more.” Jay finally said, regret and a hint of guilt in his voice. Indie knew that if it hadn’t been dark in the kitchen Jay would never have said it aloud to his brother, but he appreciated him making an effort, nonetheless.
“I won’t have to.” Indie said in a soft voice, still scared to breach the topic with Jay. “He’ll know. Ya know, in his way.” They had never spoken together about the littlest of their siblings in precise terms. They had never admitted openly his otherness, only exchanged concerned looks over the breakfast table or nervous glances across the room. “Jay, Rat is…” Indie’s voice trembled.
“Shut up, Indie. I don’t want to talk about this.” Jay stood suddenly and tossed back the milk in the cup. “Pops hates it and I do, too. What I did was wrong but I ain’t sellin’ Rat’s tricks no more. The boy is broken somehow and we gotta stop him from getting’ out of hand.” He washed his plate in the sink while he spoke.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about,” said Indie in relief. “He is gettin’ more and more confident. He can do things—"
“I said I didn’t want to talk about this, Indiana,” Jay said coldly. “Whatever is goin’ on with him ain’t my problem. I would help him but every time I try to be gentle with him, he does that shit. I get...” Jay stopped and pursed his lips in frustration.
“Do you get sick, Jay? Do you feel like faintin’?” Indie asked. Jay’s face in the darkness was hard to read but Indie knew by his perfect stillness that he was listening. “Because I fainted today when he was doing it. I was in the bathroom and I just fell right over.” He strode across the kitchen to come face to face with his elder brother.
“Momma told me you fainted the other day, too. How do you know it’s Rat’s doin’?” Jay said defiantly.
“Because when I fainted, I hit my head, real bad. When I woke up, I felt my bone through the gash in my brow, Jay. I was bleedin’ all over.” Indie let his urgency out in a wash of anger.
Dark eyes flicked to Indie’s brow beneath a lock of dark curls. “What a liar. You ain’t got no stitches.” Jay scoffed.
“Yeah, you know why? Rat reached up and fixed my head. He zipped up my skin like the fly on his jeans.” Indie pulled his hair off his forehead and leaned toward the silver light in the window. “It doesn’t look like much, but you can see how my skin is shiny there. It’s tender, too, and I’m startin’ to bruise a little.”
Jay looked at his brother’s face and finally let his eyes land on the supposed super-healed wound. Indie knew that he could see the bruises, but he shook his head and pushed past his brother.
“Now you’re tellin’ stories. Momma is right to worry about you spendin’ so much time with Rat. He’s rubbin’ off on you.” But Jay’s voice wasn’t as offhand as he had wanted. Nervous tension colored his words.
“No, Jay. Stop it. You know he does these things. You have seen him; you have heard him. He’s doin’ new things now, though, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t tell Momma or she will lose her mind. And Pops will—”
“I know exactly what Pops will do and I don’t think it would hurt the kid to have a good whoopin’ over this. Maybe it would make him stop and think twice before doin’ it.” Jay snapped. “Just tell him to stop doin’ it and let it go.” Jay’s hands were shaking as he dried them off, but it was anxiety, not rage that rattled him. Indie was perceptive even in the darkness and stopped him from leaving the kitchen.
“No. I’m going to help him. If he can…” he waved a hand vaguely to his forehead “Then I want to help learn how to do it. If we ignore it, he might do something stupid and hurt someone, or get caught by the wrong person and locked up forever.”
“You sound like Momma.” Jay accused him.
“But I actually believe in Rat. I believe what I see with the eyes in my head. Momma is just scared that he’s different. She doesn’t really see that it’s real.” Insisted the teenager gravely. Indie saw Jay being pulled in two directions, torn between reality and his own desires.
Jay had wanted freedom from his family since Indiana was a young child. He wasn’t quiet about the unfairness he endured. As soon as Jay had seemed old enough to help take care of the younger siblings, they were dumped on him. Indie remembered Jay drunkenly shouting, remembering having to take the twins and Indie with him everywhere for a whole summer while their mother worked as a seamstress in a tailor’s shop twelve hours a day. He fed them a meal in the middle of the day and tried his best to be a good brother, but he wasn’t patient nor was he wont to be outwardly kind. Indie was eight, the twins were ten, and Jay was only eleven.
Indie also understood that as the eldest brother, the dependency they had was built into him. Just as Indie tried to take care of Rat, Jay had the twins and himself to help with. Indie knew Jay tried his hardest to live up to the expectations of what a good big brother was like. But Indie could not stop thinking about his biggest, strongest brother drunk and sobbing on his shoulder as he poured out his anger and helplessness. He looked at the silvery scars on this palm where he had dug out glass from the shattered whiskey bottle. He wondered silently if Jay remembered much of that night. Finally, Jay locked eyes with him and sighed.
“Indiana,” Jay’s voice was softer than Indie had heard him ever speak, his name a whispered plea in the darkness. “I ain’t staying here for much longer. As soon as the twins are settled in their jobs, I’m saving up and leaving. I’m a grown man, and I have my own life to lead.” His declaration didn’t surprise Indie, and it didn’t really hurt him. He loved Jay, but Jay was not meant to be kept cooped up like a caged tiger.
“You got every right to leave us, Jay, but while you’re stuck with us please help me take care of Rat. Not just watch him or put food in his mouth. Help me keep him safe.” Indie made his final appeal.
“Depending on what this job is tomorrow, I might be around for a bit yet. I will do what I can…to help the family until I leave.” Jay promised. It was as good as he could give Indie and he crossed his arms, daring his younger brother to argue.
“Thank you, Jay. That’s all I want.” He held his hand out to his brother, and they clasped hands. Jay surprised Indie by pulling him in and patting him once on the back.
As they drew apart, a scream came from their room, followed by a dizzy crushing in Indie’s head. He saw Jay stumble and grab his middle as nausea lurched into his own stomach.
“Rat!” Jay yelled and ran for the hallway.
Both brothers burst into the dark room to see the window wide open. Indie dove into the bunk he shared with his brother and felt around.
“He’s gone!” He cried to Jay.
“Fuck!” Jay shouted back and turned to wake their parents.
“I ain’t.” sobbed a voice from under the bed, and the littlest brother crawled out with tears trailing down his chubby cheeks. “But Toe and Two took off after him.”
“Who, Rat?” demanded Jay. “Who did you see?”
“The white face that I saw before. He was lookin’ at me but this time he was opening the window. I pushed him away from the window with my mind.” His tiny frame shook with adrenaline and his teeth began to chatter. Indie pulled the blanket off their bed and wrapped him up tightly.
“Where did they go?” Jay asked. The boy nodded to the window. The frame was white with frost in the middle of June.
“Out th-the w-w-window after him. They heard m-m-me scream and b-b-bolted out. I ain’t n-never seen them go so f-fast. And can you b-believe they f-fit in that w-w-window?” The boy, still rattled and shaking could not but help find the humor in his twin brothers’ bulks squeezing out of the window.
Twin heads popped up in the window frame, startling the three brothers in the room. Toe and Two climbed back in through the window and Two closed it carefully.
“He got away.” he said unnecessarily.
“He was too fast. I didn’t even see which way he went, we just had to guess.” Added Toe.
“We wakin’ up Pops and Momma?” Asked Indie and all four younger brothers looked to Jay automatically.
Jay chewed on his lip, looking from the window to the small shaking boy on the floor. Indie knew he was weighing the choices. His face scrunched up in confused pain and he sighed, finally reaching a decision.
“Rat? What you wanna do?” Jay asked him.
“Me? I say no way. I only want Momma to know that we saw somethin’. And don’t tell Daddy nothin’ or he’s gonna be real mad about it.” The boy took the responsibility in stride, and surprise and relief chased across his face.
“Then you all get back into bed while I find a way to jam the window for the night. I know you ain’t gonna be sleepin’ much, though.” Whether he liked it or not, Indie thought, they needed Jay for a little while longer.