9

On the Outside

On the outside I appeared calm. Leaning back in my chair, arms crossed, and seemingly uninterested in the on goings around me. I guess you could say I'm good at putting up fronts. I have been all my life. It was needed when I moved away from home and has been useful when I haven't met the expectations of people around me. No one has ever been able to see through my fronts, except for one person. My younger brother, for some reason, has never been fooled by the show I put on and the feelings I hide inside. When I left home during high school, he watched me go with large, sad eyes and had told me that he didn't want me to go. Maybe that's the reason I had decided to call every so often, even after five years. Maybe that's the reason I'm sitting here, throwing up another front while inwardly, my thoughts are running wild, and my ears are tuned in to the rhythmic ticking of the clock. Every person wearing a white robe is like a flashing light to my eyes and it seems time has never seemed to move more slowly.

"Hello, may I speak to William Thomas?"

"This is him."

"I'm afraid I have some bad news. Your parents and brother were in a serious car accident. I'm sorry to say that your parents did not make it. Your brother's injuries are critical. You are his closest relative so he has been placed under your care. He is at the Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in the ICU."

"Mr. Thomas?"

I looked up slowly to the young doctor that stood before me.

"We've done all we can and have been able to stabilize your brother, Jayden." The small smile that had been on the doctor's mouth slowly slipped away. "I have some bad news though. Due to the significant injuries from the accident, Jayden has become paralyzed at least from the waist down, if not more. He may or may not have good balance and trunk control, but he definitely can't feel below the waist. We will have to wait until he wakes up to figure out for sure how bad it is."

I took the information in without letting my façade falter. The doctor continued talking to me, even though the words he said were now just a jumbled buzz in my ear. I found myself following him from the waiting room and into a separate room filled with machines, nurses, and a single bed that held a broken, sleeping boy. My eyes never left the small form in front of me. I walked to the side of his bed and stared at him wearily, wondering if the doctors had really been telling the truth. The nurses left and I heard the doctor's concerned voice behind me, but I paid him no attention.

I hadn't seen my brother in the five years since I left, but I knew he didn't look right. His body was pale and thin and seemed like it was far too frail for an energetic boy of eleven. His hazel eyes were shut and brown hair was strewn messily across his face. There was a large black-blue bruise on the right side of his forehead that extended down towards his eye. His entire right arm was set in a stark white cast and the equally white blankets had been pulled up past his waist. It felt wrong, unreal to see Jayden like this. When he was six and I still lived at home, I remember him being one of the most energetic and annoying kids I had ever met. He was always moving, always going.

"Will, will you play with me?"

I looked up from my computer screen and pulled out the ear buds I was listening to.

Jayden lifted up the soccer ball and asked again.

"Why don't you go play with your friends? I'm kind of busy," I replied, turning back to my computer.

Jayden walked into my room and next to me, setting the ball on the desk in front of me. "Because you're my brother and I want to play with you."

I glanced at him again with a cool glare. His eyes were determined and locked on mine. They pierced through my aloof exterior and watched the real me inside.

I sighed inwardly, "Fine, but not for very long." I grabbed the ball and followed him as he marched contentedly down the hall and out into the back yard. I can still remember the constant smile he wore while we kicked the ball around. And I'll probably never forget nor be able to live down the fact that I got beaten at a game of soccer by someone eleven years younger than me.

I waited and waited for Jayden to wake up. The doctors couldn't estimate when he would regain consciousness, but assured me that he would. I had pulled a chair up, but most of the time I couldn't make myself sit still enough and ended up pacing back and forth next to his bed and glancing up at him every other second to check if he had woken up yet. After three hours of waiting, Jayden's eyes finally blinked open. He slowly looked around with a confused expression and I stepped towards him. He noticed the motion and locked his eyes on me as I stood at the left of his bed. If anything, when he saw me his confusion deepened.

"Who are you?" He asked in a soft, scratchy voice that half startled me at its weakness.

His words hit me almost like shards of ice that pierce through your skin. Without my mask I might have wavered and stepped back from the blow, but I stood steady and returned his gaze with a solid, unemotional stare.

He blinked slowly and his confused scowl lightened. "Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you," he said quietly as he closed his eyes again.

I watched him fall back asleep.

"Why are you leaving?" Jayden asked, curious and concerned as he watched me from his position sitting cross legged on my bed.

I stuffed some random clothes into a box along with anything else that was within arms reach. "Dad and I just don't get along. I need to get away where I can be my own person or else I'll suffocate underneath the pressure," I explained while tapping the flaps of the box closed and lifting it up. I carried it through the house and out the front door, loading it into the back of my pickup truck. Jayden followed me and watched me quietly. I returned to my room and started packing another box. Jayden returned to his post atop my bed.

"You know, you could help me."

Jayden looked at me with eyes that made me stop and look back at him. His face was blank, but the emotion in his eyes was very clear. "But I don't want you to go."

I turned back to my packing and shrugged of my brothers words. "I can't stay. I love you guys, but like I said, Dad and I just –"

"– don't get along," he finished slowly.

Jayden had slept well into the next day. I had barely left his side since he had waked up the first time. A nurse finally managed to make me take a break and get something to eat in the cafeteria. I wasn't really hungry though and threw away nearly the whole tray of food. I picked up a bottle of soda and made my way back to Jayden's room in ICU. The hallways were mostly quiet as patients slept and battled for their lives while family members waited endlessly, hoping their loved ones would be okay. I froze when I passed through the open door to Jayden's hospital room and noticed his eyes open and looking around. Without knowing, a smile slowly grew on my face and I stepped forward to the side of his bed and set my drink on the side table.

"Will?" Jayden questioned slowly, his voice still so soft and weak.

I quickly hid my smile with a mask and looked down at Jayden's form. "Hey, how are you doing?" I couldn't help but think that I had just asked the most stupid question to a patient in the ICU.

He smiled a little; he had seen through my mask. "Okay, I guess." Even though he looked so broken and beaten, his eyes radiated pure joy.

I sat down in the chair I had left next to his bed.

"What are you doing here?"

"Well, when I get a call from the hospital and find out that my brother had been admitted, as a big brother, it's my job to come and make sure you're okay," I explained flatly.

Jayden scowled and his eyebrows knit together in the fashion they usually did when he was confused. "What happened?"

I hesitated. If I were to say what happened, I would have to tell him the news about our parents. I wasn't sure he was ready to hear about that yet. "You were in a car crash; it was raining and the car hydroplaned. Dad lost control of the vehicle and it flew off the side of the road and crashed into a tree."

"Are Mom and Dad okay?" he asked worriedly.

I smiled and tried to avoid the subject. "You know, it's been over five years since we've last seen each other. You've really grown up."

Jayden looked away from me and stared straight ahead at the ceiling. He had obviously seen through me again.

I hesitantly reached out my hand towards his. I decided that he had already seen through me enough. It wouldn't hurt to remove my mask to be there for my brother when he needed me most. I took Jayden's hand in my own and held it tightly. He looked back over to me with downcast and watery eyes. My heart skipped a beat and my stomach clenched at the sight of my brother nearly crying.

"Hey, hey, it's going to be alright." A tear fell from his eye and down his cheek. I reached up with my free hand and wiped the wetness away. "I was thinking that you could move in with me, how's that sound?"

Jayden nodded slowly and, like a broken dam, a river of tears burst forth. I had no idea what to do and sat by his side awkwardly holding his hand and trying to comfort him as best I could.

Jayden stayed in the ICU for the next couple of days before he was moved to the normal recovery section of the hospital. His doctor continued to come and check up on him and he had begun rehabilitation. Jayden's doctor had said that he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life, but it never hurt to at least try.

Rehabilitation was slow and frustrating. He tried not to show it, but I could tell Jayden was really pushing himself. He was definitely irritated at his situation. Normally he was a cool and collected kid who tried not to let his thoughts and feelings trouble others, so when those emotions started to shine through, I knew he was pushing his limits.

"I think you should be done for the day." I spoke to both Jayden and the rehabilitation worker.

She nodded and I helped her move Jayden back to the hospital bed. Jayden scowled as I followed the rehabilitation worker and shut the door after her.

"It's impossible," he said softly. Without intending to, his frustration shone through in his voice.

I sat in the single chair that was kept next to his bed. "You thirsty?"

He turned towards me and scowled fiercely. "How am I supposed to do this? Why did I have to get paralyzed in the first place? It probably would have been better if I had just died like Mom and Dad!" he half yelled with some vehemence in his voice.

"Hey, listen to me," I spoke firmly as I locked eyes with my younger brother, "Don't you ever think that. Things might be hard right now, and I'm sure there are many more obstacles we will have to face in the future, but it wouldn't have been better if you were dead. Do you hear me?"

He didn't respond and in instead looked down.

I stood and stepped closer to him. "No matter how tough things get, I'll always be here, okay?" I bent down and wrapped my arms gently around Jayden, careful not to push too much on his broken arm. He leaned into my chest and nodded his head again into my shoulder.

"Will?" he mumbled into my chest.

"Yeah?"

"I want to go home now; I don't want to be here anymore."

I squeezed him tighter, "I'll see what I can do."

I stared over the edge of the crib with something akin to curiosity. I had learned all about babies in my health classes, but a real baby seemed way different. My new baby brother did nothing but sleep, eat, and cry all day and night. I knew he would eventually grow out of it, but I wished it would happen faster. Not only was Jayden loud, but I thought it would be fun to have a younger brother to play with sometimes. I silently lowered the side of the crib and reached my arms in. I picked up my little brother and cradled him next to my chest. I looked down at him as he slept soundly. His small eyelids were gently closed and he continued sucking on the pacifier even while asleep. I ran my fingers over the miniature version of my own fingers. A half smile grew on my face when Jayden's hand clasped tightly around my index finger. His eyes fitted open and panic started to well inside of me. If I knew nothing else about babies, I knew that most of the time when they were awake they cried. Jayden's face contorted and the first of many loud cries emerged. The pacifier dropped to the floor forgotten. "Shh, shh, don't cry Jay, your big brother's here," I said softly like I had heard Dad say. I bounced on the balls of my feet and moved from side to side like Mom did every time Jayden cried. He started to quiet down after a few minutes. I carefully bent down and picked up the dropped pacifier and sat on the edge of the bed, baby Jayden still in my arms. "There we go, Jay, nothing to worry about." Jayden willing accepted the offered pacifier and stared up at me with large green eyes. I smiled. "Big brother's always going to take care of you."

"I've never seen your house before," Jayden mentioned as I transferred him from the car to his wheelchair.

Over the five years that I had been gone I had only called, no more than once a month at that. I had grown away from my family quite a bit and knew it would take a while for Jayden and I to get to know each other again. I took Jayden inside and gave him a tour of my small, one story house. There were only two bedrooms, one of which was completely filled with junk and stuff I never used. I had asked one of my close friends to bring Jayden's twin bed over from my parents' house and stuffed it in the bedroom with my bed.

"I'm pretty tired," Jayden said at the end of the mini tour. He looked exhausted even though we had not done much that day besides rehabilitation.

I picked him up, one hand underneath his legs and one behind his back while he wrapped his good left arm around my neck, and transferred him to his bed. He wiggled around a little bit, trying to find a comfortable position before he gave up and settled for where he was. I unvelcroed the standard, navy blue, hospital-issued sling and set it on the cluttered end table. I remembered that I had forgotten to get an extra blanket for him and grabbed a blanket from my bed; it was my favorite one, very soft and warm. I never slept without it and figured Jayden would like it too. I spread it out on top of him, pulling it up to his chest and tucking the sides in like Mom and Dad used to do when they put us to bed. I kept my mask blank and he looked up to me with a smile. His messy brown hair had grown long enough that it fell into his eyes and covered the nasty, greenish-purple bruise on his forehead.

"Thanks," he said softly.

I nodded mutely and left the room, leaving the door cracked so I could hear if he called for me. I busied myself by surfing the internet and calling our grandparents. I talked to them for quite a while and they insisted on flying in a couple of days from now so that they could be here to support Jayden and I.

It had been nearly three hours since Jayden had gone to sleep and I figured if he slept too much he wouldn't be able to sleep later tonight. I was surprised, though, when I walked into the bedroom, to find Jayden awake, with his hand resting behind his head and staring blankly at the ceiling. When he noticed me, he looked over in my direction and smiled brightly.

I frowned, "You could have called for me when you woke up."

He shrugged, "You were talking to Grandma and Grandpa on the phone and I didn't want to disturb you."

"They wanted to talk to you," I replied monotonously as I watched him struggle to sit up on his own. He used his left hand to push himself up, but his abdominal muscles had been paralyzed enough that he couldn't pull himself all the way up. I walked over to him and helped him up the rest of the way.

I noticed him shoot a quick, fierce glance at me, but acted like I hadn't seen it. He quickly covered up with a smile, "I can just talk to them when they get here."

Lately, I had noticed him pretending to be happy. He would use a smile and some upbeat words to cover up his self pity and frustration at having to be helped with everything. I picked up the arm sling and strapped it on around his neck.

"I'm excited that Grandma and Grandpa are coming! I haven't seen them since last Christmas." Even though his voice and words sounded happy, he kept his head hung low.

I watched him. I didn't like the fact that he was starting to use a mask. I had used masks my entire life and it had never been beneficial. I had always felt like I was pretending to be something I wasn't and now that I'm older I feel like no one wants to or would be able to understand me if I didn't use my façade.

"Hey," I spoke gently. I placed my hand on his chin and turned his face so that he was looking at me instead of down at the bed. "Cheer up."

Jayden had to run behind me just to keep up as I walked away from our parents to where a clown was handing out balloons. I really wanted a balloon, but I was fourteen years old and I knew people would make fun of me for wanting one, so I had brought Jayden along as an excuse. I wove through the waves of people until I reached the shiny metal cart where a big cluster of balloons where attached. Jayden showed up at my side a few seconds later and looked up at the balloons in awe. I painted on a look of boredom when we moved up to the front of the line.

"What color do you want boys?" The clown asked. He actually looked kind of scary with his rainbow hair, white face, and huge red lips.

"Pink!" Jayden shouted.

I struggled not to smile, "Why would I want something as stupid as a balloon?" I asked with disgust even though I was staring longingly up at the colorful objects.

The clown laughed and grabbed two balloons from his collection, one pink and one blue.

"You can have one anyways," the clown said with a smile, handing us each one of the balloons.

I started walking back to where our parents were waiting several feet away, holding the balloon away at arm's length so people didn't think that I actually liked the bright blue balloon, while Jayden trotted happily next to me. The park sidewalk was crowded, so we were walking on the edge of the cobblestone pathway. We passed close to a low hanging tree and suddenly, my balloon hit a sharp branch and popped loudly. I stopped and stared at the string that hung limply in my hand with the deflated, dull, blue plastic at the end. I stomped over to a nearby trashcan and angrily threw the string in the garbage. Jayden ran up next to me and tugged on the edge of my jacket. I turned and looked down to him. He held out his hot pink balloon at arm's length towards me.

"It's okay," he said innocently with the slurred speech of a young child, "you can have my balloon since yours popped."

"Why would I want your balloon," I asked with fake disgust. Jayden probably had wanted a balloon more than I had and I didn't want to make him give it up just because I let mine pop. "I didn't really want a balloon in the first place." I turned and continued walking towards our parents. I checked over my shoulder to make sure Jayden was following me. He was still standing in the same spot with a silly grin on his face. He ran to catch up to me when I called his name, his hot pink balloon flying around wildly above him.

I moved past Jayden's wheelchair to turn the water on in the tub. When I turned back around Jayden was staring down with slightly flushed checks and a shy and embarrassed expression.

Inside I was laughing to tears as I realized Jayden was embarrassed for me to see him naked. Outwardly though, I kept a blank and somewhat bored expression and acted like I didn't know what was wrong with him.

When I asked, he replied quietly, "It's just weird."

"I don't know what to tell you; I'm going to see it eventually and it's not like I haven't seen one before."

He shot a fierce glare my way. I could feel my act start to slip, but managed to subdue my laughter. I knew that if I laughed I would end up hurting his pride.

"You've got to get undressed whether you want to or not, but if it helps any, I promise not to look."

He scowled and turned his head to the side. "Fine," he spat.

I removed the sling from his arm and helped him pull off his shirt and pants. I picked him up, pointedly avoiding looking down for his sake, and carefully set him down in the tub. I handed him the soap and shampoo and let him wash himself as I moved the wheelchair into the other room and waited. When he finished, I came back in and wrapped a large towel around his shoulders before picking him up and carrying his dripping form to the bedroom. He made sure to pull the towel low enough to cover his private area. I handed him some clothes and let him dress himself. I had to help him some as he couldn't manage to pull up the right side of his pants because of his broken right arm. He chatted happily while we went through the daily exercises of stretching and moving his joints to prevent future injuries. I kept up the conversation, but noticed how he covered up his emotions by talking and keeping his mind off of his new disability.

"Cannon ball!" my best friend, Cameron, yelled as he took a running start and jumped into the middle of the pool with a big splash.

A wave of water rose up and flowed out of the pool, getting my legs wet as I sat on the edge of the pool in my swimming trunks with a bored expression.

Cameron came to the surface with a huge grin. "That was big, right?"

I leaned against my left hand and nodded with a completely bored expression. I had fractured my right hand a week ago skateboarding. It was covered by a hard, black colored cast right now. So, when my friends decided they wanted to swim at my house, I sat on the sidelines and watched them enjoy themselves.

"No it was not!" Dawson, my other good friend, yelled. "Mine was much bigger; almost two times the size of yours." He stepped up and walked to the edge of the diving board while he spoke to Cameron who was climbing out of the pool on the opposite side.

I watched, but said nothing as Dawson's cousin, Cory, stealthily snuck up behind him. Dawson didn't know what hit him when he was pushed off the diving board and into the water. He waved his arms wildly, but hit the water with a loud smack on his stomach. Everyone laughed, even Jayden who was standing next to me. I smiled a little. Cory was laughing the hardest though, and was sent an evil scowl that promised revenge when Dawson resurfaced.

"Will, can you blow these up?" Jayden asked as he held out one of the plastic floaties that he wore on his arms while swimming.

I took it and began blowing the first one up as I watched Dawson climb out of the pool and begin chasing his cousin. His stomach and chest were a bright, flaming red.

They ran around the pool, and Dawson, clumsy as he was, managed to slip in a puddle of water behind me. He fell in slow motion it seemed, flinging about his hands to catch himself, and knocking into Jayden who had stepped closer to the edge of the pool to get out of the older boys' way. Jayden fell backwards with wide, surprised, and terrified eyes. He had not learned to swim by himself yet and still needed floaties. I was frozen as I heard him yell and fall into the water while he looked towards me, pleading for help. The sound of the water splashing jerked me out of my daze as Jayden struggled to keep his head above water. Cameron, Dawson, and Cory watched, unmoving, as Jayden slowly drown. I stood and dove into the pool. I grabbed Jayden, who had just sunken below the water's surface, and pulled him up. He desperately wrapped his small arms around my neck and gasped for air before coughing out all the water in his lungs. I held him tightly to my chest with one arm while swimming to the side. At the edge, Cameron took Jayden from me and set him on the sidewalk while Cory helped me out of the pool.

"Sorry, Jayden, I didn't mean to push you in," Dawson apologized as he looked on worriedly, not even noticing his own injuries.

Jayden continued to cough loudly.

I walked over to him and pat his back. "You okay, Jay?"

He nodded after a moment when his coughing had subsided and smiled up at me.

Mom took me to the hospital right after that to get a new cast since mine had lost its form after getting soaked in water. Jayden sat by me the whole way smiling like an idiot.

I found myself awake at 2:52, looking through the darkness to where Jayden's bed was located. He had unintentionally waked me while noisily dreaming. I slowly stood from my bed and walked over to him, standing over him and watching him. I reached out my hand to wake him, but he suddenly opened his eyes wide, gasping in a huge breath. He looked frantically around the room before his eyes settled on me. I could hear his breathing. It came in short, panicked bursts as he tried to calm himself down.

"Are you alright?" I asked softly with a scratchy, tired voice.

He said nothing and just stared up at me as he tried in vain to composed himself.

I could tell that the nightmare had badly shaken him and made a decision on my own. I hoisted him up from beneath the covers, adjusting him in my arms as I walked back over to my bed.

"W-what are you doing?" he asked after a moment's hesitation.

I met eyes with him as I set him on the bed in the position closest to the wall so that I wouldn't push his broken arm or accidentally shove him off the edge of the bed in the middle of the night. "I'm letting you sleep with me," I said simply, laying down in bed next to him and pulling the covers over the both of us.

A small, unsure smile was apparent on his face; he was still upset about the dream.

I put my arm around him and pulled him into my chest. "Go to sleep, Jay," I said quietly above his head.

He relaxed against my chest in the warm embrace and closed his eyes, sighing lightly. He fell asleep quickly with the knowledge that I was there next to him. I had to smile at the sight of his peaceful face. With his eyes closed and his brown hair sweeping gently over his forehead, it looked like he hadn't a care in the world. My brother needed a lot of support at this time in his life, and I was happy to be his one strong and solid pillar to lean on.

I woke up due to the bright rays of sunshine that were filtering in through the blinds. I stretched and looked over to Jayden who was looking back at me and smiling. I was immediately put on guard. I knew for a fact that Jayden was not a morning person and was usually grumpy until he had waked up.

"Good morning," he spoke lightly.

I ran my fingers through my hair with one hand and I propped myself up with the other. "How long have you been up?"

He looked up in thought and shrugged his shoulders at he looked back at me. "I don't know, a couple hours I guess."

I sat up all the way and frowned at him. "You could have waked me up, you know."

He struggled to sit up as well. I helped him into a steady position as he replied. "It's okay; I didn't want to wake you up early just because I couldn't sleep."

I got out of bed and grabbed a pair of clothes for Jayden and myself. I set his clothes for the day on the bed beside him. "I'm going to get ready real quick and then I'll come back to help you." After getting ready in the bathroom, I was surprised to find Jayden half dressed already. He had changed from his pajama shirt to a loose red tee shirt and had taken the plaid pajama pants off. He had pulled his jeans up to mid-thigh, but was struggling to pull them up the rest of the way. I hid my proud smile and pulled the pants up the rest of the way for him, buttoning and zipping them. We went ahead and completed his daily exercises and I transferred him to his chair. He had rehabilitation first thing today, so we quickly ate a hearty breakfast of cereal and orange juice. I made sure to give him his medication and then drove him to therapy.

I could tell Jayden was frustrated and depressed when I picked him up after rehabilitation. He was silent during the entire ride to the restaurant where we had decided to eat our late lunch. I knew he was feeling especially bad since he wasn't even trying to hold up a front like he had been earlier that day and the previous day. I did not interrupt the silence, and waited until we were seated at the restaurant to start up a conversation. After a little bit of prodding, I was able to draw Jayden into a conversation that would take his mind off of his disability.

"So, what do you want to do today?" I asked, popping a french fry into my mouth.

"Hmm…could we watch a movie?"

"What would you want to watch?" I watched as my little brother rambled out a list of movies.

He took a drink of his water before continuing. "But what I really want to watch is that one movie with the guy that makes an iron suit. Do you know which one I'm talking about?"

"Yeah, Iron Man, haven't you ever seen that movie?"

Jayden shook his head and stared at me.

"Well then we're going to have to fix that. Right after we eat we'll go rent it from the movie store."

Jayden nodded.

I took a bite of my cheeseburger. Hopefully the movie would keep his mind occupied for a while. It seemed that whenever he was alone or had time to think he always grew depressed and saddened. It would be best to keep him pretty occupied for a while. I racked my mind for other things we could do. I knew we were running low on food at home and I needed to get to the grocery store. I looked over to Jayden and secretly watched him. He was much less energetic than he had been before rehabilitation. He must have really worked hard. It wouldn't hurt to leave him at home while I go to the grocery store, could it?

He glanced up while I was staring at him. "What?" he asked while his mouth was still full.

"Nothing," I said as I sighed and rubbed my head.

He chewed the rest of his mouthful slowly and swallowed. He looked down and played in his blob of ketchup with a fry. "Sorry it's so much work taking care of me. I heard the doctor explain everything to you about being a caretaker for a paraplegic, what with the daily exercises, rehabilitation, giving me medicine, checking for injuries or sores, help bathing and dressing, transferring; I can tell that everything is wearing you out. Not to mention that we haven't lived together for five years. You left because you didn't like us in the first place, so why would you want to take care of me now?"

"I did not leave because of you, do you understand?" I stared at him seriously as he continued to look down. Recently becoming paralyzed was enough for him to worry about. He didn't need to start blaming himself for making me leave. "Look at me," I commanded sternly. He slowly lifted his head and stared at me with sad, slightly wet eyes. "You are the last reason I would leave home, don't ever forget that. Things may be rough in the beginning; we'll have to get used to living with each other again and adjust to new routines, but we'll get used to it in the end."

"Yeah, I guess," he said unconvinced.

"Jay, I want you to stay with me, no matter how tough things are," I concluded.

He met my eyes and a slow, shy smile grew on his face.

When I finally got my license, it felt like heaven was shining upon me. The single, most important thing was at my fingertips: freedom. That is, until I was asked to run to the grocery store, to go fill up the tank in my parents' car, to take my brother to a friend's house or pick him up from school. Dad was out of town on a business trip and Mom said that she had to work late today for a big presentation she was giving in a few of days. Hence, after my school was released at 3:15, I headed to Jayden's elementary school. He was in kindergarten, which released at noon, and stayed in day care until a guardian came to pick him up. I walked into the day care center, spinning my keys around my finger on the ring, and wrote my name for pick-up on the sign-in and sign-out sheet.

"Hi, Will," Ms. Susan, the head of the day care department greeted me. I had picked up Jayden from daycare before and had gone to the same elementary school when I was a kid, so I knew nearly every teacher that worked here.

"Ms. Susan," I greeted with a nod.

She smiled kindly. "Jayden is outside playing on the playground right now."

I forced a polite smile and walked out the glass door, waving over my shoulders. I walked through the outdoor hallways to the playground and field at the back of the school. Kids of all ages were playing on both the playground and in the grassy field. I walked up next to the teacher in charge who was sitting on a picnic table right next to the playground. Mrs. Davis was a young newlywed who had just begun teaching at the school and was still trying to get a hold of the ropes. We had only met a couple of times before.

She smiled when she saw me. "Hey, Will. Are you here to pick up Jayden?"

I nodded and she scanned around, finally pointing to a group of older kids talking to Jayden on the grassy field on the other side of the playground. "Ah, there he is," she said.

I watched the older kids laugh. Jayden's back was towards me so I wasn't able to see his reaction, but wondered why a group of six to eighth graders were talking to a kid in kindergarten.

"How has teaching been going?" I struck up a conversation while I watched the older boys point to the straight, black pavement sprinting track that separated the field from the play equipment.

"It's alright; this is my first time teaching a class, and the kids can be pretty hard to deal with sometimes."

I hummed and nodded. It looked like the older boys had proposed a race. They lined up at the starting line, Jayden running in the very middle lane. They took off. I was surprised that Jayden was able to match the speed of the kids that were twice his size. He made it half way down the track before I watched one of the boys trip Jayden. He lost his footing and tumbled forward to his hands and knees.

"Oh no!" Mrs. Davis exclaimed, standing from her seat on the picnic bench .I guess she had been watching the race too.

"It's okay, I'll go," I said, walking towards the track at a leisurely pace. The older boys stood a few feet away laughing and snickering. Jayden had picked himself up and was sitting on the ground examining his scratched and bloody knees and hands. His head was tilted low enough that his hair covered up his expression from being seen. I walked up behind the older boys.

"Which one of you did it?" I demanded.

They spun around, startled by my sudden presence. They were quick to turn on their friend and point out the culprit.

I dug in my pocket and pulled out a scrap piece of paper and a pen I had hurriedly stuffed in there when school had been let out. I scribbled three large letters on the paper: IOU. I handed it to the boy who looked quite terrified the moment he read it. He looked up to me with wide eyes.

"Leave my brother alone, got it? Or else I'll do the same to you as you do to him. Now get lost."

I waited until he ran away with his friends to approach my little brother. I squatted down in front of him. "Hey, you alright?"

Jayden lifted his head slowly. He sniffled and his eyes were so full of tears that I was surprised that they hadn't overflowed down his cheeks yet. I let myself smile a bit. He had been trying to suck it up and not cry in front of the older kids. He never replied, but sniffled again.

I grabbed his hand and examined his bloody, torn up palm. His knees were even worse as they had absorbed most of the fall. I looked back up at him, "You know, you were keeping up with them pretty good. I think you might have won if you hadn't been tripped."

A small smile pushed away part of his pained expression.

I stood and easily lifted him up, setting him on top of my shoulders and holding on to his ankles. "Let's go to the office so we can get you bandaged up."

Upon returning from the grocery store, I stayed in the car after parking in my driveway. I used the time to cool down, let my stresses go, and paste up a new front for my brother. I couldn't let him see how worn out and exhausted I was from taking care of him in only two days. It would only do harm to the physiological part of his recovery. He still pitied himself and felt like he was a burden to me and others around him. I breathed in a deep breath and released slowly before getting out of the car and walking into the house, several white plastic bags in my hands. I spotted Jayden in exactly the same place I had left him on the couch. He looked at me when he heard the door open and close.

"Your back!" he said excitedly. I knew he was pretending to be happier than he really was.

I smiled slightly, "Sorry I'm late. Are you hungry?"

I brought in all the groceries and Jayden insisted on putting away the cold foods in the frigerator by himself. He helped me make supper and after we ate we decided to start the movie since it was already getting late. I transferred Jayden to the couch, put in the DVD, and sat down next to Jayden as he situated himself. He pulled his legs up onto the couch and leaned against my arm. I looked down at him as the previews started to play and noticed how blank and unemotional he looked. His façade had faltered and I was able to see part of what he really felt. I lifted my arm and wrapped it around my little brother, keeping my face blank and my eyes on the screen. Jayden looked up at me and was silent for a long time.

"Will?"

"Hm," I replied monotonously.

"Why do you always act like that?"

I raised an eyebrow, "Like what?"

"Like nothing at all bothers you, when really it does; all you do is hide what you feel away so that no one else can see it," he said quietly.

I stared down at him silently. He had always been able to see what I was feeling on the inside. I never knew how he was able to do it, but he always managed to thwart my efforts.

He shook his head. "You don't have to put on a show for me. I know it takes a lot of work to care for me now, but like you said, things will get easier, right?" he asked, ending with a lively note.

I frowned at him. "You don't have to pretend for me either. It's not good to bottle all your emotions inside, because eventually you're going to burst. Don't do what I did and hide everything inside until you can't handle anything anymore."

He lowered his head in thought and was silent for several minutes. "Then, can I tell you something?"

The movie had already begun but we weren't paying any attention to it. "Anything," I replied.

"I…I really miss Mom and Dad and I can't stand the thought of never walking again."

I already knew that he missed Mom and Dad and I figured I would hate the thought of never walking again just as much as he did if I were in his situation. "I know."

We watched the movie and about half way through, I noticed Jayden begin to nod off. His head would slowly fall down and after a few minutes it would jerk back up again. I told him to lie down and guided him so that his head was resting on my lap. After a few minutes I could tell that he was fast asleep. Without fully realizing it, my hand began to run through Jayden's hair the way Dad used to run his fingers through our hair when we sat near him.

When the movie finally ended, I stared down at my little brother as I continued to stroke his hair. I scooped him up, my hands under his legs and under the upper part of his back, letting his head rest against my chest. I wasn't sure if I would be able to completely do away with my mask, old habits do die hard, but I had promised Jayden that I would always take care of him. If he needed to see the real me instead of my front, I would willingly shatter the delicate porcelain mask so that he would not learn to build walls and cover up his emotions like I always had. Truthfully, it doesn't really matter what people see on the outside. What matters is that on the inside you are true to yourself and find happiness in whatever life throws your way.