With You, Without You
"Can you watch Jamie tonight?" Mom sticks her head into my room, as always without knocking first. Fortunately, I'm used to her and her antics. When she's home, I never do anything she wouldn't approve of or anything I don't want her to see, since she apparently knows nothing about personal space. She won't even let me get a lock on my door. She claims she became this way because of what happened, but truth is, she has always been like this. It's not that she's overprotective either. I guess she just doesn't think about what she's doing.
I sit in my bed, balancing my laptop on my crossed legs, fiercely clicking on the mouse button, killing people, and grimacing at both her words as well as what's happening on the screen. I don't look up when I make my response.
"Josua!" She's using that tone again, making me groan inside. "Look at me."
I do. She stands in the doorway, hair fixed in a neat hairstyle and wearing a dress, pearls around her neck and red lipstick - the whole appearance revealing she has a date. Again. Assuming it's with the same man as usual, I really hope they won't get married someday. I have only met him once, but he didn't impress me at all.
"You know I don't want to," I complain, narrowing my eyes.
"I'm not asking you," she tells me sternly.
I could say, Actually, you did, but I don't. Instead I sigh. There's no use in arguing; I won't win anyway. Not when she's going out for dinner.
"Fine," I mutter.
"Charlie leaves at seven."
I already know that. "Whatever."
"I'll try to be home before midnight." She smiles at me, like that makes it any better. I don't return it, and she hesitates for a moment, but then she silently closes the door again and walks away, her high heels clicking against the parquet floor in the hallway. I stare at my game for a moment before I angrily hit the button, shutting the computer off.
It's not fun anymore.
At a quarter to seven I peek into the living room. Jamie sits on the carpet, trying to fit some small, bright colored cubes and balls and triangles through the right shaped holes in a wooden box. I think it's a baby's toy, but Mom says it's good training. I don't know. I think it looks ridiculous.
Charlie sits next to Jamie, cross-legged, helping him coordinate his movements.
"That's good," he says, and earns a smile. My brother has drool on his t-shirt.
I guess I make a noise, because Charlie looks up at me and grins. "Hey, Josua."
He looks good. He has a smooth face with smiling eyes, long, dark hair braided in dreadlocks tied into a thick ponytail. As usual, he's dressed in all black - jeans, t-shirt and shoes. But he's too old for me, I know. At least he's in his mid twenties. Besides, I think he's straight. And even if he wasn't any of that, I wouldn't date him anyway. That would be weird.
Slowly I limp through the room, throw myself down in the couch. "Hey," I mutter, folding my arms. This evening will be a disaster.
Charlie pats Jamie on his head and rises, then sits down next to me. The couch squeaks underneath him. "I'm sorry I can't stay," he says. He knows how I feel about taking care of Jamie. "Your mom asked me to, but I can't." He really looks apologetic.
"It's fine," I say, even if it's not. But it's not his fault. I reach up to rub my eyes, then let my hands fall back in my lap. I'm not crying. I'm just tired.
Charlie watches me with concern. He stares at my empty hands for a moment, and I know what he's thinking. But I'm thankful he doesn't say anything about it; it's really enough with my mom and my physiotherapist's nagging. Instead he says, "He ate at six, but he'll probably want a sandwich before he goes to bed."
"Yeah, I know." I avoid looking at any of them. Charlie, because I don't want him to see how upset I am even if he probably knows already; Jamie, because of ... obvious reasons. It's not that I don't love him. I do. It's just hard.
"So," Charlie says, picking up his keys from his pocket and jingling them. Jamie shrieks, reaching out to take them, making Charlie laugh. "Ah, you want them, do ya?"
Sometimes I wish I could be like Charlie around my brother. Easy-going. Accepting. Always smiling and in a good mood. But I can't. There are some big differences between us. Charlie never knew Jamie before. And this is his job. He gets paid to take care of him, to help him get dressed and feed him and play with him and teach him things. When he walks out of our door, he can forget about him if he wants. And if he gets tired of him, he can get another job. He's not stuck with him.
Jamie studies the keys, but when he's about to put them in his mouth, Charlie hurries to take them back.
"Hav'ta go. Bye, kiddo," he says to Jamie, who only dips his head, picking up a yellow cube. "See you tomorrow." Then to me, "I can keep my phone on if you want." He raises his eyebrows slightly while waiting for my answer. I lick my lip, wanting to say yes. I really do.
"I can handle him," I say instead, meeting his eyes briefly before I quickly turn my gaze away again. Then I start to rise, planning to follow him to the front door, but he puts a hand on my shoulder, holding me back against the couch.
"Take it easy, Josua." I frown. I hate when people do things like that. I'm not fragile. "I can find my way out, ya know." He looks amused, laughs for himself when he leaves. I'm glad he doesn't sees that I'm blushing.
When he's gone, I sit down on the floor in front of Jamie, forcing myself to study his face. His blue eyes avoid my gaze. Once we were the mirror images of one another, except for our hair, but now he looks younger than me, even if he's not. He used to tease me about the fifteen minutes between us. He even did the last day.
Our parents are throwing a garden party. Our big lawn is filled with women in dresses, men in white, short sleeved shirts and ties, standing in small groups talking or walking around with plates and wine glasses.
And there are kids. Screaming, annoying kids, running around everywhere.
"I hate kids," I say to Jamie, taking a gulp of my Coke. We have escaped to the house next door and are hiding on the porch. The older couple who lives here, the Andersons, is at our place. No one will disturb us here. My brother laughs at me, takes another drag on a stolen cigarette.
"Hey!" I take it from him, putting the bottle next to me on the floorboards. "It was my turn."
"Sometimes you're so immature, Josua," Jamie says. "I guess it's because of your age."
I grunt, shove my fist into his shoulder.
"Ouch!" He turns to face me, puts both his hands against my chest. "You better watch it!" Seconds later, I'm on my back. He lets me go immediately, chuckling, and I struggle to sit up again.
"You made me drop it," I complain, picking up the cigarette butt before it makes burn marks in the floor. I put it out in Mr. Anderson's ash tray in the corner. It doesn't taste good anyway.
"We have to go back," Jamie says. "I promised Mom that I'd take care of the hot dogs." He drags a hand through his messy, brown hair.
"For the kids. I thought you were taking care of the lemonade." His smile is teasing.
"Not what I heard," I lie and grimace. "Damn it, Jamie. Can't we just go to Lucas' place instead?"
"Later." He rises. "C'mon."
"You're a pretty mama's boy," I complain, but he just bursts out into a fit of laughter as we walk back to our place.
"C'mon, Jamie!" I put the sandwich back in his hand, but he drops it on the table, whining. He keeps his eyes on the table top, smacking with his mouth. He does it a couple of times before transforming the sound into a word.
He doesn't talk much, and when he does, Mom beams. I don't. Right now I'm just frustrated. We have been sitting here for half an hour, and he hasn't taken one bite.
"Yeah, you're Jamie," I tell him. "Now eat!"
"Mmmm jem," he shouts out, lolling his head. He never sits completely still.
"God!" I put my elbows on the table, hide my face in my palms. I push my finger tips hard into my eyes, so hard that I see stars. I can't handle this. I think of calling Charlie and asking him what Jamie wants; he would know his vocabulary, but I feel bad because I don't. I'm his fucking brother. I should be the one that knows.
I feel a hand in my hair and fingers twist around a wisp, dragging.
"Knock it off, Jamie," I groan, disentangling his fingers out of my hair without losing too many straws. I lift the sandwich again to try once more, but his hand flies out and knocks it out of my grip. It lands on the floor. Sighing, I let it be, taking a new piece of bread and reaching for the butter and cheese. Jamie starts to rock in his chair, back and forth, getting upset.
"I don't know what you want!" I throw at him, angry now. Jamie pouts, glaring at me and the food in my hands. Then it hits me. Just all of a sudden.
"Jam?" I drop the butter knife, asking uncertainly, "You... you want jam?"
He nods and something hot spreads in my stomach, up through my body, reaching my head. I feel almost dizzy. It's the first time in six months my brother has actually communicated with me. I stare at him, meeting his gaze. I wonder if he's still in there, somewhere. The real Jamie. I get a lump in my throat, try to swallow it down. Unable to look at him any longer, I slowly rise and make my way to the fridge and the strawberry jam.
I know there's no point in keeping my hopes up. They told me. It's just so hard not to, when the only thing I want is to get Jamie back.
I help him on the toilet, help him brush his teeth, help him undress and dress him in his pyjama pants and a t-shirt to sleep in. He doesn't like any of it. I have never seen him fight this much with Charlie or Amber or Ricky. I grit my teeth, hating that Mom just had to go out a Saturday night, the only time a week we don't have an assistant here for Jamie. I try to bend his arm to get it through the sleeve.
"Stop struggling!" I tell him, using more force. He whines and grunts, but finally, I succeed. When he is finally in his bed, under the comforter, the clock is almost eleven, an hour after his usual bed time. I'm exhausted.
"Night, Jamie," I say by the door, flicking the switch to the lamp in the ceiling. The room goes dark. He doesn't answer me. I blink a couple of times, before I turn around to go.
I limp back to the bathroom to take a shower. I throw my clothes on the floor, standing in only my briefs in front of Mom's full body mirror on the wall and biting my lip. My right leg is killing me now, and my scars are ugly. They cover my ankle, my knee, my hip, my arm. They told me I was lucky. I don't feel it. There was no luck that day. Sometimes I wonder why we even survived.
"Mom?" I've finally found her, standing with two of her female friends in the backyard, talking about her rose bushes. Jamie and I are finished feeding the kids, and we only had one incident with the ketchup and a boy ruining his summer shirt, but I don't care. I know the family can afford a new one. Here, everyone can. We're not awfully wealthy, but we're above the middle class. Our street lies in a nicer part of town, and most of our neighbours have well paid jobs like doctors or lawyers.
"Mom?" I repeat. "Can we go now?"
She turns her head. "Go where?"
"To Lucas' house. He's having a movie night," I explain. She frowns slightly, but I continue before she has the time to say anything. "You promised we could go if we helped out with the kids."
Her forehead goes plain again. "Right. Okay. Have fun, sweetie. Don't come home too late." And she continues to chat with Laura Carmichael and the blonde I don't know the name of.
I go back to Jamie who's waiting on the driveway with our bikes. We have our own car, bought for us at our sixteenth birthday some weeks ago, but Lucas doesn't live far, and besides, we like to cycle sometimes. And it's a nice summer evening; taking the car seems unnecessary. But when I grab my handle bar, swinging my leg over the frame, I hear Jamie swear.
"I can't believe I have a flat tire!" He kneels down by the front wheel. "Fuck."
"Don't get so worked up about it," I say. "I'll give you a lift."
He grins at me, then jumps up on the carrier, holding on to the saddle. "Then let's go."
I push my black bangs out of my eyes. Some years ago, I decided to keep my hair a bit longer and dye it, and I think the biggest reason is so that I wouldn't look exactly like Jamie. We used to love it when people got confused by us, not knowing who was who when we dressed the same way, but what was fun when we were kids wasn't as fun when we got older, and now I think we both want to have our own personalities. Jamie has kept his natural hair color and always cuts it somewhat short.
We ride down the road, going past well-kept gardens and big, tidy houses. My legs go round and round. Jamie tells me a story about something his girlfriend said yesterday, jabbers about school that will start again soon after summer, then lets go of one hand to point out something he sees. I turn my head for a moment, follow his finger. Just a short moment, then I look forward again.
"Hey, Jamie," I interrupt him. "What if-"
Neither of us is wearing a helmet, and that thought hits me hard the second it's too late. I stop talking and my mouth forms a silent scream. Jamie can't see anything.
"What?" he says when I squeeze the handbrakes to stop, but the car doesn't. It doesn't.
It hits us, makes us both fly. The car cracks my arm, cracks my knee and hip and ankle; the asphalt cracks Jamie's skull, changes him forever.
Beta-read by goudacheese.