Note: This is another one of my older stories I wrote for a class. I'm still planning to revise it someday so any input would be great.
Middle of Nowhere
We're driving. No, that's not quite correct. I'm driving and he's in the passenger seat looking out the window, watching the fields and road signs go by. We pass an old man walking his equally old dog and the song on the radio changes from lukewarm rock to fluffy adult pop. One of those easy-listening stations, the only type playing in the vast emptiness of rural America.
He plays with the radio, seeking something more to our tastes: metal and angst, maybe a tangible melody if we're really in the mood for focused noise. But the stations don't give us anything, offering up polka and oldies. The radio clicks off to the tinny strains of Sixteen Tons and I look over at him but say nothing.
A clink and grating sound make me frown as he lights a cigarette and cracks open the window.
I'm five years old; he's practically an adult at age twelve. I can't think of a time we're apart. No one's as amazing as my brother.
From my bedroom window, taking in the summer breeze, I watch his escapades in the yard. He jumps his bike off a ramp he built all by himself. The bike flies like in ET, a mile at least, I'm sure, and lands flawlessly on the driveway. I clap and cheer for him, knowing everyone else is just jealous that my brother can do things they can't.
Ryan can do anything.
"Those make your lungs crispy, you know," I mutter and glare at the glowing red dot a few inches from his face.
"Hey, I opened the window, okay?" He takes another drag. "I just need to relax."
"There're better ways." I dig around in the plastic bag at my feet, snacks we picked up at the gas station an hour before. "You've got another Slim Jim."
"Whatever." He exhales smoke out the window, tosses the partially-smoked cigarette after it and I hand him the snack as the red streak falls behind us in the dark.
Again there's silence. He munches the meat stick and I can smell the salty, stale scent of it wafting between us on the air coming from the heater.
I'm six years old and it's summer. We're playing tag in the yard and I can't catch him. He's fast like one of those guys who run in the Olympics only I know he's better than all of them. If he wanted to, he could outrun a cheetah.
The chase ends up on the road, we leave the grass and I yell at him to wait up. My sandal slips on the gravel and I fall to the pavement, skinning my knee. I start to cry and he gives me a piggyback ride to the house so Mommy can put a bandaid on it. Later, he lets me catch him and he buys me a popsicle from the ice cream truck when it comes down our block.
Ryan always knows how to make me feel better.
"So, you still haven't told me why she kicked you out this time."
He glowers over at me, face shadowed and monstrous in the dim light of a passing truck. "Why do you automatically assume Becky dumped me?"
I gesture to the stuffed duffel and ratty backpack in the back seat. "The contents of your dresser drawer in two bags in my car? It's rather obvious…"
"Maybe I dumped her," he replies defensively, pulling at his sweatshirt sleeve and looking away.
"Right. And that's why you had to call your little sister at 3 AM to pick you up off the curb, because you dumped her but let her have the car?"
He rubs his temple, defeated. "Good point." He slumps down in his seat and fiddles with the radio some more, to no avail. The most promising station is on commercial, interesting only in its lack of terrible music, but otherwise the same as all the other stations, with old twangy-voiced men advertising steakhouses and gentlemen's clubs. Sighing, he turns the radio off again and silence falls between us.
My brother Ryan has had a dozen failed relationships, at least that I've noted. Becky is just one of a long list of unhappy exes he's accrued over the years. I'm a little surprised. Ryan has his problems, sure, but he's a sweet guy. I really thought they were going to make it. Then again, it's been a long time since I really understood my brother.
He lights another cigarette, oblivious to my glare.
I'm seven years old and he's up in his tree house. It's the greatest tree house I've ever seen because he made it all by himself, not even with Daddy's help. I know some day he'll be a great builder and make the tallest, prettiest skyscraper the world has ever seen.
His tree house has an elevator for me and we're testing it now. I sit in the suspended laundry basket and he pulls on the rope and it carries me all the way onto the fort like I'm flying in a round swing. We celebrate the invention with peanut butter crackers and soda.
Ryan's the smartest boy in the world.
"What happened this time?" I ask, glancing between him and the road as I open a soda bottle and take a sip, trying to get enough caffeine and sugar in my system to stay awake. "I thought you two were doing okay."
He chuckles. "So did I. Then tonight she went all crazy on me, said I don't pay enough attention to her, I spend too much time hanging out with my friends, and I need to get off my ass and do something with my life."
I want to agree with her but decide against it. That's what I've been trying to teach him for the last five years. He'd never let me come right out and say it, but I know what his problem really is.
Ryan continues after blowing more smoke out the open window. "So I told her, I said, 'why do you think I'm gone all the time? I work at a shit job so we can do stuff together. I do that for us.' But she didn't get it. Said she wasn't going to spend her life waiting for a little loser emo kid to grow up. Packed my stuff up, and threw me out."
"Yeah," he grumbles, "me too."
I'm eight years old and I'm sitting on the swingset, watching him goof off with his new friend Luke. He throws Luke, fully-clothed, into the pool and cackles. I don't get the joke, even if Luke does look pretty silly when he leaps off the ladder onto my brother's back and knocks him to the ground. They wrestle and shout and seem like they're having a lot of fun. I feel left out when they head into the house without even a backward glance.
Ryan doesn't have time for me.
"I need to piss," he announces.
"Good for you."
I pull over to the side of the road, stopping next to a cornfield that seems to stretch for miles around. It's just us on the empty plains, the absolute middle of nowhere, with corn rustling all around us and the stars above us on a moonless night. As he does his business, I climb on the back of the car and stare up at them, gleaming like fireflies in the ink-black sky. It's been a long time since I've seen a sky so clear and unpolluted by light.
Above me, Ursa Major's distinct bowl points the way to Polaris. It twinkles and dances to the beat of its own core tune but also to the added beat of my eyes watering and blinking from the breeze. I like watching the stars; there's something intriguing in knowing something so hot can look down on you so coldly, the perfect remote observer. They bring things into perspective and help me clear my mind.
"Whatcha doin', Mandy?" I jump as he materializes out of the darkness and appears right next to me without warning. "Taking a nap?"
I point up. "Stars," I mumble absentmindedly, sitting up but staying on the back of the car.
He blinks, unaffected by this revelation. "Yeah, Mandy, they have those in the sky. There's nothing special about them." He joins me on the car and pulls out his cigarette pack.
I'm nine years old and I hear whispers down the hall. I walk into the living room to find him and Luke playing with a lighter on the couch. Luke offers him the pack of cigarettes and my brother lights up for the first time. He coughs and the red tip crackles off, burning black spots like cancerous freckles on the cushion. They don't go away even though he rubs at them. Laughing, they see me and put their cigarettes out on the coffee table, waving me in to watch a movie. I lie and say I'm going outside to play in the tree house. He just shrugs. Later, when I come back into the house, I'm upset to smell more cigarette smoke.
Ryan likes to experiment.
"Are we just going to sit here all night?" he asks, raising his eyebrow dramatically, a grin on his face. "Remember how Becky lives very inconveniently far from our house? And how it's…" He checks his watch. "It's 4:21 in the morning, and we're in the middle of a cornfield in who the fuck knows where."
Instead of getting up, instead of looking at him, I ask in return, "When are you going to grow up?"
Ryan laughs, running his fingers through his hair. "Huh?"
"You used to be great at stuff and had big dreams," I say. "Now you smoke two packs a day, settle for any girl who laughs at your jokes, and don't take anything seriously."
Looking over at him, I see his face has completely changed. No longer smiling, a sad, blank mask has come over it. He curls his hand into a fist and punches the trunk of the car so hard it sends a tremor through the whole vehicle and makes me wonder if the metal might've even been dented.
"I don't believe this. Now I have to take shit from my sister too?" He rolls off the car and stalks off into the cornfield. "I don't believe this!"
"Ryan!" I hop off and chase after him, winding through the tall stalks, as the leaves hit me in the face, difficult to dodge in the nearly complete darkness. I stop to listen for his footsteps, unsure where to go from here.
I'm ten years old and I'm peeking around the wall into the kitchen, listening to their little soap opera. Mom and Dad cross their arms, disappointed like God is in the painting of sin and damnation our pastor has in his office. He's slouched in the chair, belligerently ignoring their lecture about the importance of getting good grades for college. His report card's on the fridge, full of big fat Ds and spindly Fs.
Mom says something and he talks back; Dad slaps his cheek so hard his head turns all the way to the other side. He puts his hand to his cheek, rage burning in his eyes, and storms out of the room, pushing me into the door frame as he passes. I grunt and hold my arm; he looks back at me but says nothing, just slams the door to his room as tears come to my eyes.
Ryan only cares about himself.
Following the thump and rustle of his movement, I finally emerge on a low barrier hill, next to a stout, lonely oak. I can hear his foot skittering on the bark as he climbs up, out of reach.
"Ryan, come on down," I plead, crossing my arms and panting a little from the sudden exertion, the adrenaline pumping. "I thought you wanted to go."
"What's it matter to you?" He throws a stick at me; fortunately it's so dark he misses and it hits the ground a couple feet to my left. "I'm not getting in the car with you if you're just gonna bitch at me."
"Fine, we don't have to talk. Just get out of the tree already."
Ryan's silent for a beat, and I wonder if he's going to get down or not. "I didn't realize everyone thought I was a failure."
Shocked, I stare up to where I think he is. "Failure?"
"You know you were thinking it," he mutters. "Everyone else seems to. Certainly all the girls I date do."
I wrap my arm around the lowest branch I can find and haul myself into the tree. It's been a long time since I've climbed a good tree with him but I haven't forgotten how. Carefully picking my way up on the sturdiest-feeling branches, I find him about ten feet up, perched in the junction of two large branches. "That's not what I think of you, Ryan."
"It's not." I look him in the eye. "I just remember you used to be great at things.I thought you'd be an inventor or something but then it's like you just stopped growing up. You're not a failure, I just think you're a little…"
"A little what?"
"Childish," I state plainly, knowing he needs to finally hear the truth.
"Really?" The leaves shift in the breeze, the only sound covering our silence.
I'm eleven years old and I'm in the pool. It's his graduation party and Mom and Dad aren't paying attention to what's going on because they gave up trying with him a long time ago. Luke arrives late and offers up two 24-packs of beer to be sacrificed to the masses. I watch as the teens get progressively more drunk. It's fun at first; they get some pool toys and start a joust like something on American Gladiators. He puts me on his shoulders and I face off against his girlfriend. I feel like we're friends again. Then we all get out and he offers me a beer, quite seriously, as his friends laugh at the shock on my face. I stomp back into the house and refuse to come out of my room until everyone's gone.
Ryan doesn't understand anymore.
"I've always been jealous of you," he begins. "Proud, but jealous, Mandy, 'cause I've never been able to do the things you can do in school. That's why I work in a warehouse and you got a full ride at the best college in the state."
"Hey, I saw your ACT score," I reply. "You're not an idiot, you know."
He crosses his eyes and blows a raspberry. "Right, I'm the next Einstein in disguise."
"Einstein worked in a patent office for years because he couldn't even find a teaching job," I point out. "Obviously he didn't stay there. You just need to set some goals instead of always winging it."
"But you and Einstein have drive and wills of steel. I can't commit myself to anything for more than a day or two. I get bored. I mean," he says, pulling out his cigarette pack and lighter, "I tried to quit smoking and ended up a fucking chain-smoker."
I pat his arm. "You're related to me. It must be in there somewhere." I grin.
"Sure, it's dying of smoke inhalation."
He stares at me. "Just like that, huh? I tried that, remember?"
I smile over at him and hug him, laughing as my hair catches on the tree bark. "Well this time I'll help you. Like you used to help me."
I'm twelve years old and making dinner. It's just the two of us; Mom and Dad aren't home from work yet and they wouldn't like that he was in the house anyway. He's leaning against the counter, watching intently as I chop the vegetables and toss it all together like a pro.
He tells me I should teach him how to do all that sometime and I laugh at the role reversal. He tells me he hasn't cooked in ages, doesn't even know if he can do it anymore without losing interest and burning it all up like an amateur. I'm teaching and he's observing. We're eating dinner and I realize this is how most of our time is now spent.
Ryan hasn't grown up.
"Really?" Ryan smiles but he's not laughing, just paying close attention, serious like he hasn't been in years.
"Yeah, maybe some of that will of steel you claim I have will rub off on you."
"I don't see why not," I say, thumping my head against his shoulder. "Since I learned all I know from you."
"Oh really? How's that work, me being a screwup and you…not at all?"
"You weren't always a screwup. There's still hope for you yet." A loud electronic beep startles us both out of our musings. My watch goes off, letting us know it's now 5 AM. "So, how 'bout we get out of this tree and get on with our lives?"
"Yeah," he retorts, leaping out of the tree and eying me expectantly. "How 'bout that?" He helps me down and we walk, his arm on my shoulder, back to the car. Gravel shoots out behind us as we take off down the road, the student now the teacher.