Although the month usually assigned with the number one is January, this story begins in June. January marks the start of a calendar year, a new numeral to write down when recording the date, goals to accomplish in the 365 days to come. June is the beginning of a different kind of period.
To Arthur, stretches of time passed not in the traditional January to December fashion, but by how time was spent. He believed that the beginning of a year should not only mark the start of one thing, but also the end of another.
January marked neither of these. It was the middle of winter, the middle of the school year. The only thing remotely related to beginnings was its name – January. It was for Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings.
June, on the other hand, was important. June was the beginning of summer, and the end of spring. It was the beginning of freedom, and the end of the torturous school year.
One particular June even included the moment that set the rest of his life into motion.
That June started the same way as any other – long, hot days spent navigating the bustling school hallways, the air thick with an anticipation tinged with excitement and nerves. As the school year approached its end, everything accelerated. Finals needed to be studied for, last minute projects needed to be completed, but thoughtfully; this was the last impression, the last grade, this was important.
When it was over, Arthur got the feeling of standing at the start of a long road, stretching on until it hit the horizon. He wasn't like some of the other kids, who thought that it went on forever and ever, with no idea of stopping. He knew that somewhere, depending on how fast they drove, at some point everyone would hit the same roadblock from which they had started.
Still, summer provided good reason for excitement. It was a glimpse of freedom, a taste of being able to do whatever he wanted whenever he felt like doing it. He had imagined the feeling of school ending that year was a fraction of what he would experience graduating, but it was enough.
He savored the walk home, luxuriating in the feeling that he was saying goodbye to everything along the route while paying attention to everything along it, in some kind of attempt to preserve it in his memory. The routine was comforting; a thoughtless path that the body followed without the mind's consent, but this was a path he would allow to fade into the back of his mind, along with its destination.
He was free. Free from the shackles that homework locked around his evenings, free from the piercing scream of his alarm clock every morning. He didn't have any idea what to do with the extra 9 hours of his day, but he was excited nonetheless.
He only had one plan for that whole summer. On the 22nd, he was going out to dinner for his little brother's birthday. He had bought him a toy car on his way home from school one day, one whose horn honked and played noises of a roaring engine. He had spent precious minutes away from his studies to watch videos on how to wrap it. He'd hoped the errors in his recreation would reflect his efforts, instead of a sloppy gift put together at the last minute.
He couldn't wait for the smile that was sure to break out on his brother's face, for the skinny arms to wrap around his legs, only to yank themselves away and dart off to play with the new toy.
And so he couldn't help the grin that slipped across his own face when they all piled into the car to go to the restaurant. It was called The Painted Chicken, and they always ordered two variety plates to split between the four of them.
Arthur's grin widened when his brother prodded at the gift as they pulled out of the driveway, shaking it, smelling it, and picking at the lines of the wrapping paper.
"What is it?"
"You'll see when you open it."
"Can I open it? Pleeeeeeaaaaase?"
"No! After dinner. We have to have our special dessert before presents, remember?"
The stubborn pout could not hide the excitement in the younger's eyes.
"I can't wait for dessert!"
They had never eaten that dessert.
They had never even made it to dinner.
. . .
That year, July was not its own month. It was an extension of June, as most of that summer was.
Mmmmmm. These pancakes are the BEST! You're the awesomest big brother EVER!
Nothing tasted good anymore. Why would he force it down his throat only to have it reappear later, in the middle of the night, covered in cold sweat as he knelt in front of the toilet?
Ew. Are you making coffee? Yuck. Smells HORRIBLE.
I can't believe you're being one of those caffeine zombies like the people at mommy's work.
Arthur's mornings no longer consisted of a warm kitchen swirling with the rich smell of coffee brewed minutes before his arrival. He had tried to make it, once, when they had gotten home from the hospital.
The absence of his brother's complaints had sparked the grief that he had grown numb to, and he'd had to dump it all down the sink and spray the room with air freshener.
He couldn't seem to get rid of the stench of the memory, though.
LAAAST CHRISTMAAAS I GAVE YOU MY HEEEAAART, BUT THE VERY NEXT DAAAY YOU GAVE IT AWAAAAAY.
THIIS YEEAAR, TO SAVE ME FROM TEEEAARS, III'LL GIVE IT TO SOOOMEOOONE SPEEEE-CIAAAAL, speeee-ciaaaal.
Any other July, Arthur would've heard the song and attempted to cover his brother's mouth with a gag and stuff him in a closet.
That year, he would've given anything to hear those lyrics belted out from upstairs, echoing through the house no matter what time of year it was.
He was glad that the accident hadn't happened in December. He didn't think he would've been able to take it if the song began playing on the radio and no one was there to sing along.
Arthur, stoooop it. You're gonna mess it up and I don't want to go to school with Einstein hair like you do!
Sometimes, he'd instinctively reach down to ruffle his brother's hair like old times, only to have his fingers slide through empty air. It was a brutal reminder.
Arthur would never be able to ruffle his brother's hair again. He missed the way the chocolate brown strands curled against his fingertips, warm and full and sitting on top of scrunched eyebrows and a nose just like his and—
If it got to be too much, if he started thinking, maybe I can just pretend, he had to stuff his hands in his pockets so that his parents wouldn't think he was crazy.
They'd told him to see some kind of therapist, that it's normal to be upset, and We think it might help to talk to someone. As if some kind of doctor could sew up the gaping hole in his chest. As if a conversation could somehow piece together his broken heart.
The only thing that could possibly heal him was his brother, and that was impossible.
Look, look, Arthur, look! My own room! Look how BIG it is! Bigger than yours! And we finally don't have to share anymore! I LOVE this new house!
His brother had been wearing the widest smile he had ever seen when they moved into their new house. After showing Arthur his room, his first room all to himself, he had skipped down the hall, arms flapping and fingers skimming along the walls. He had been the epitome of joy, all laughter and smiles and crinkling eyes paired with an enthralling duet of tapping feet and upbeat humming.
Arthur only had the pictures littering his desk to look at now. They captured the wide smile, lips stretched over crooked teeth, with the left canine missing. They captured the eyes that he squeezed shut as tight as he could, as if by closing his eyes he could make his smile even brighter. They captured the lines that formed on his neck as he clenched his muscles to jut out his chin, pushing the grin closer to camera.
They could not, however, capture the warmth that had emanated from his body. It was a jarring contrast to the cold body lying in the coffin, to the eyelids pulled shut with the weight of a lifetime's memories instead of being scrunched together over the apples of his cheeks. No picture could capture the way that his fragile body managed to bring blinding light to every situation, shining with laughter and smiles and stupid jokes that made Arthur wonder why he was laughing so hard.
And so that July was spent remembering. It was the month that flew by the fastest, the one that Arthur remembered the least of. Instead of days and weeks it was a single stretch of darkness, a road that kept going further underground until he was surrounded in inky blackness. New chains wrapped around his wrists, ones stronger than those from school were.
Instead of restricting his free time, they poisoned his thoughts. Thoughts of, that was his favorite food, I can't eat that without him or he loved that movie, it would be cruel to watch it without him. Everything became a betrayal. Even the most meaningless actions became injustices that wracked through his body like a nail digging into the resigned wooden plank.
Though it passed in a rapid flash of fractured moments, that July was slow and sluggish. Instead of green summer grass and warm yellow sun, it was reduced to the gray scale of old photographs. The kinds that capture the outline, the shadows in the subject, but are nothing compared to the living, breathing colors. Sounds grew garbled, as if they had to fight through the sludge that was clogging his ears. He wasn't sure if they had lost their abilities or if his brain had just decided that there was nothing really worth listening to. It made everything difficult, not allowing food down his throat or words to come from his lips. It stopped his hands from feeling, his eyes from seeing. His tongue became a foreign lump resting in his mouth, unable to shape sounds into something intelligible or taste the food he forced himself to chew in front of his parents each night.
That June was a play without a script. It said, go here, do this but gave no instructions as to how. It was watching a movie with no sound. It was a sky that lacked a sun, or a moon, or clouds, or the stars. It was living life without a soul.
He felt like a fire without oxygen, like he was dying down as he gnawed away at the logs that sustained and would soon go out with a wisp of smoke if something didn't happen.
. . .
That August was the first time he ran out of oxygen. He was staring at his ceiling, not only thinking of something to do, but trying to summon the motivation to do it. He would sit up, the sheets pooling at his waist, and stare at the closed blinds, at the few spears of light slicing across the walls from the edges.
And then his head would spin, and he would lay back down.
Arthur had had several days like that, he assumed everyone had, but it wasn't just a day. It felt like forever, it felt like a minute, and it felt like nothing.
Most days, his brother would burst through the door, giving off enough energy for the both of them. He would daringly yank up the blinds, not shying away from the piercing sunlight. He would march over to the bed and fling the covers away, causing a gust of air to wash over them.
For the first week of August, Arthur waited for him.
He stared at the ceiling, ears straining for the sound of footsteps thundering through the hall. He squeezed his eyes shut, ready for the moment when the harsh sunlight forced its way in. His hands clenched in the blankets, wrapped tight around his shoulders, so that he could hold on when they threatened to be torn away.
Each day, the door would creak open, and Arthur's heart would jump to life. And then it would open slowly, hesitantly, a ray of light thickening on the floor in time with the drawn out creak of the door, and he would turn back to his pillow.
His brother had always blown through the door in a burst of chaos and vitality that made it rebound against the opposite wall in its haste to stay out of the way.
He knew his parents meant well, telling him in soothing voices that he should eat, that he should get up, you'll feel better.
Eating wouldn't make his brother come back. Getting up wouldn't make his brother do the same.
So he wouldn't feel better.
He snapped when they brought a man into his room, with a leather bag and gray slacks and a button down shirt rolled up to his elbows. The man offered medicine, as if he were sick.
Honey, we think . . . we think you might be depressed. Dr. Walsh has brought some pills; he says they might help you feel better.
He curled deeper into his cocoon of sheets. His mother's voice grated over his ears like nails on a chalkboard. It wasn't his brothers, so he didn't want to hear it.
Come on, bud, don't you want to go out and do something with your friends again? It's summer! Dr. Walsh's got something that can help you enjoy it again.
His father's encouraging voice twisted through his ears until it turned to the hiss of a snake. Forget your brother, it whispered, go back to the way you were before.
All of his senses sharpened into pointed needles as he threw the blankets from his body.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he said, and his voice scratched his throat, coming out as a rasp. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he repeated, putting more strength behind the words and feeling strangely pleased at the looks of horror on his parents' faces.
"You want me to just – to just take some fucking pills so that I can forget about him and move on with my life?"
He paused, took a breath. He was not used to exerting that much energy. The biggest movement he had made that week was reaching down to the floor to grab a slice of apple, bringing it to his lips only to realize that his tongue wasn't letting him taste anything.
"Sweetie, that's not what we're—"
"HE CAN'T GET BETTER!" he screamed, breaths coming in sharp pants, vision blurring. He could only make out his mother's eyes, could only see that they were full of concern for him. Her eyes were warm but just for Arthur and her voice was soothing but just for Arthur and why doesn't she care about him?
He fell back in to the blankets and refused to respond to anything else.
A week later, when he went to the bathroom, he saw a bottle of pills next to the sink. It sat on a sticky note so bright that it burned his eyes to look at it too long.
His fists clenched. He knew it was irrational and stupid and useless but he felt like they should be putting effort into saving his brother; he was the one lying still and cold and unresponsive.
It prompted him to wonder why the universe hadn't chosen him. His brother was the one that brought light and laughter and smiles and happiness. Arthur had bullied him on occasion. Arthur made the adults frown at his dark humor. Arthur had trouble making friends, fitting in, talking to other people.
Whatever his brother deserved, Arthur deserved worse. His brother had gotten death. The least Arthur could do was make things even.
. . .
His parents forced him to see a therapist after finding him in the bathroom, throwing up the entire bottle of pills. He remembered their horrified faces, eyes wide, eyebrows scrunched in fear or worry or a sickening mix of the two. But it hadn't felt scary.
It had been pretty good.
Blurry, sure. But he found himself realizing that he didn't want to be able to see everything in the harsh, critical light that it would be bathed in during any other situation. He felt better when every little thing hidden in his world that reminded him of his brother was unfocused and out of reach.
When he honestly didn't want to get up, to pretend, to live.
The beginning of September was okay; it was days spent in bed, eyes closed, in a warm bubble isolated from everything. It was also dreading every Tuesday, the day when he had to go outside, had to fidget in a waiting room, shoulders pushed to the ground by the heavy stares of the other patients.
He knew how he looked—his mother had told him countless times to change out of that grubby sweatshirt, or take a shower. Change his pants. Wash his hair.
He hadn't expected everyone else who had to talk Dr. Walsh to be dressed like they were interacting with someone who actually mattered. Weren't they all as crazy as he was? Or at least going in that direction? How did they summon the motivation to get up and put clothes on and make themselves look like they didn't want to dissolve into the air they were breathing and float away as a liberating exhale?
And then there was Dr. Walsh. Dr. Walsh, with his massive muffin top of hair curling right over the rims of his glasses. They were thick and clunky, not at all suited for anyone's face, but they blocked some of the look that he gave when Arthur walked in.
That I am staring straight into your soul look, and oh, no improvement, well, we'll see what secrets we can rip out of him today look. Arthur always imagined that somewhere, deep inside, Dr. Walsh was grinning at the challenge.
One day, on a date that was lost to Arthur (was it the ninth or the tenth? Or maybe the twenty forth? It was a Tuesday, though, he knew that) his suspicions that Dr. Walsh was secretly a psychopath who enjoyed giving his patients a false sense of security and then releasing them into the real world to be crushed under reality were proven to be correct.
"I think he should go back to school. It'd be good for him."
School. Arthur hadn't even thought of school. He looked to his mother, surely she wouldn't make him do that, he could barely function, he never spoke, rarely ate.
Her eyes were sad, but she nodded. "If that's what you suggest."
The beat of Arthur's breaths accelerated to a stuttering staccato, the buildup to the blast of violin at the climax of the symphony. He wanted to bolt from the building, fling the doors open and run until his feet burned as they slammed against the pavement. He wanted to stand so still that he became one with the wall behind him. He wanted to press himself against the floor in hope of dissolving into it as he fell apart.
He wanted to punch Dr. Walsh.
So he did.
. . .
After his scuffle with his therapist, September passed in a similar fashion to July. As the days trudged by, they were slow and sluggish and sickening. But when Arthur looked back, it was as if it was still June, and they were still climbing into the car.
He hadn't returned to school, as Dr. Walsh had suggested, instead deciding to make an attempt at withering away in his bedroom. When October arrived, his parents had stopped trying. Perhaps they finally realized his purpose.
Which he was unclear about. Why did he want to disappear?
Did he want to make things even? Did he want to take the chance of seeing his brother in whatever world waited behind the doors of death? Or did he just want it to end?
Sometimes, the last idea seemed the closest to what he felt. When he saw the wind blow by, tugging browning leaves from their branches, he yearned to go too. There was a tug in his chest at the idea of the breeze just picking him up, with gentle fingers skimmed his skin with the ghost of a touch, and carrying him far away until he was just air.
In the middle of October, his parents seemed to lose their sympathy. It had probably been happening for a while, but Arthur hadn't felt the need to see past their concerned charade. So it all seemed to bubble up at once when they both strode into the room, cornering him with their gazes.
He saw that they were still concerned. They wanted him to get up because they thought it would help him, they thought they knew what was good for him. They thought they understood.
"Come on, bud, up and at 'em."
He pulled at the blankets and Arthur tensed because that isn't your job you can't do that and then he was breathing too fast and his head, it pounded, like blood pulsing in his veins but in his brain and then his vision dotted and he couldn't see, was he going blind? Why were they strangling him, they were his parents, they loved him, or did they? They were grabbing his wrists and his shoulders and it was too much, it was too heavy, he didn't have the strength to take a breath under that weight and then there was something in his lungs and it wasn't air and he couldn't breathe and—
. . .
November was the month he went back to school.
It was just like he remembered, except for the way he looked at it. He questioned his old its school, I have to do it. Before, skipping homework had been a sin, it had been unthinkable.
He'd started doing it on a regular basis.
They called his parents when he had walked out three out of the five school days. It was their fault for leaving the doors unguarded, an invitation out of the prison without even a lock. He'd have been crazy not to take it.
And that night, sitting with tense muscles around the dinner table, it had come out.
"You think this is what he would've wanted?"
He hadn't thought of that.
"Listen, Arthur, please just hear me out. I don't know what's out there. Maybe there's a heaven and hell or an afterlife. But I can tell you this: your brother would hate to see you like this. I know you miss him, and it's hard, it always will be, but please just try. For him."
It was as if someone had plunged their hand through his skin, through his ribcage, and gutted him. He no longer felt angry at them. He no longer felt like smothering himself in his pillows. He wasn't even upset anymore. He wasn't capable of being upset anymore. Why had he been so set on disappearing? It wouldn't change anything. It didn't matter. Nothing did.
That whole time, he had been making his beloved brother guilty.
He picked up his fork and resumed the meal. When he had finished, he brought his plate to the sink. He said good night to his parents, gave them a hug and a kiss.
When the memory of his brother going through the same routine came, he didn't wrap himself up in it or push it away as he had used to. He just observed it. There was Arthur, rolling his eyes, and there was Ben, dutifully wrapping his arms around his mom before going upstairs to read a story with his big brother.
He walked upstairs and showered before going to bed. When his alarm went off, he rose, dressed, and went back down for breakfast.
He smiled with his parents. They exchanged small bits of conversations. They all laughed.
All day at school, he stared at the teachers, listening to their every word. He filed all of his assignments in his binder, and didn't glance at the door at all, during any of his classes. During lunch, he did homework. During a study hall, he read a book.
He walked home, looking at the once familiar route with an unbiased eye. When he got home, he worked on homework. When his parents got home, they settled down for dinner.
He smiled with them. They talked about their days. They all laughed. When it was over, he placed his plate in the sink, bid them good night, and disappeared upstairs. He showered before he went to bed.
. . .
He realized that it was December when the radio stations started playing Christmas carols. A light dusting of snow covered the ground, crunching under his boots on the walk home from school.
He realized that it was nearing Christmas when his alarm went off, and his mother informed him that he had the next week off when he went downstairs.
He realized that he hadn't seen his grandparents since before when they greeted him with sympathy in their eyes.
They were going out to dinner one night, Arthur's parents in the front seat and him sandwiched between his grandparents in the back. The radio was murmuring, a whisper of a melody against the growl of the engine.
"Ah, this song!" his grandmother had exclaimed. "Your brother used to love this song! I remember coming to your house in March and there he'd be, singing his heart out."
The lyrics eventually distinguished themselves from the hum of the car, and the song twirled around the edge of his senses. He could just make it out if he listened, but he realized that that wasn't the best thing to do.
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away.
And suddenly it was too much. He felt it, that toxic sludge in his chest. He had been pushing it down, keeping it under weights labeled routine and success and normality. But now it was coming up and he wasn't sure if he could keep it up, the smiles, the polite conversation, the getting out of his bed every morning.
This year, to save me from tears, I'll give it to someone special.
His jaw clenched at the little glance from his dad, the little you good? that shouldn't have been necessary but was.
His grandparents didn't mention Ben again until later, when they got home.
Arthur was sitting on his bed, skimming over the newest magazine when they came in. He should have realized something when the first thing he thought of was that day, when his parents squeezed him until he'd shattered in their grip.
His grandmother perched on his bed; his grandfather sat on the desk chair opposite.
"You look like you're still having a rough time," she said, expression the epitome of sympathy and worry and all of those smothering feelings, and he couldn't keep it down any longer.
He had forgotten how tiring emotions were, how much energy people wasted on feeling. When they flooded his head, when he let himself give in, it hurt. It burned him from the inside out, made him want to scream at her, make her see that she doesn't understand so why was she looking at him like that, like she gets it, that I know what you're going through?
He wanted to cry, to become a boneless lump of tears and sadness and pain.
And for the first time since November, he wanted to disappear. He felt that urge again, to jump into the wind and let it carry him so far that he forgot his name, his life, everything. He wanted to become a statue until everything forgot he was still there, that there was something there at all. They would forget, because there wouldn't be. He would grow invisible and the lack of existence would eat away at his edges, like flames eating the end of a match.
It was strange, having such a clear view on what he wanted. He wanted to be that match, the flames releasing him from his solid form so he could float up into the sky, into the atmosphere, until he could spread so far out that he would cease to exist.
So he did what he could. He screamed at them to get out, tears streaming down his face, and curled into his blankets until the air around his face was hot and sticky from his breath.
. . .
He went back to school at the end of Christmas break. And he performed all of the actions that went along with it.
He did his homework.
He studied for tests.
He interacted with others.
He even raised his hand sometimes.
The days were long and cold, and he had taken to studying in the library until his father got out of work and could pick him up. On the brief ride home, they made conversation.
How was your day?
You do anything interesting? Learn anything? A wink and a knowing smile.
Eh. A shrug.
You got a lot of homework?
Not too bad.
When they pulled in the driveway, Arthur trudged up the stairs and settled down to do his homework. He ignored the room down the hall, the room that had once been filled with laughter and smiles and stupid children's games. It was the office now.
The night before his midterm, he studied all night.
He got an 84%.
His parents asked if he'd like to go somewhere, to celebrate, because they had started celebrating for the smallest of reasons.
He told them that he'd rather stay home, work on his science homework. He got a 94% on that, but homework wasn't important enough to require a celebration, so they simply smiled and said they were proud.
It didn't really matter that they were. It didn't really matter that he got a 94% on his science homework.
None of it really mattered, but he did it anyway.
. . .
There was this one kid, Ryan, in Arthur's math class. He seemed to think they were friends, and Arthur didn't have the energy to tell him otherwise.
He'd walk into class, sit at the desk directly across from Arthur, and rant about whatever class he had just left. Arthur nodded in places, or offered a short 'oh' and 'gee, that is annoying' when it was needed, but rarely anything more.
So it surprised him when Ryan began asking questions. And to Arthur's surprise, he answered them.
"What classes are you taking? Other than, like, math and English and stuff."
"French. And Journalism."
"Cool. I heard the teacher for that sucks, though."
"My sister had her, she's two years older."
Arthur really didn't like where this was going.
"Yeah. You got any siblings?"
Arthur paused. He thought about lying. He thought about getting up and leaving the class like he used to do. He thought of telling Ryan to shut up and mind his own business because did he care? Did it concern him? Did he NEED to know this kind of information about that kid who he always ran his mouth to?
"I had a brother. He died, last summer."
Ryan looked horrified. "Oh, dude, jeez, I- I didn't know. Sorry, man."
"It's fine." His face said otherwise.
They didn't talk anymore. Arthur lost the energy to respond, and Ryan grew tired of talking when no one was listening.
. . .
The snow was beginning to melt. The grass began to show. It wasn't like those poetic exposures of spring that Arthur always read about, with the sun bursting through the clouds and the snow melting away to reveal the emerald green life that had been building its strength throughout the winter beneath the icy blanket—the grass was flat and wet and ugly. Everything was still gray. Days were still sluggish. And cold.
But he had gotten used to it. He had gotten used to going to bed without giving anyone a hug or a kiss. He had gotten used to staying in on the weekends and working on homework instead of going outside to play catch. Or kick a ball back and forth.
That had been his favorite. It usually happened after a rainy day, because there is something invigorating about the sun bouncing of the wet pavement, or the glistening drops in the grass catching the light and shimmering like jewels. There is something about the fresh, clean air that inspires the urge to go outside and do something with the energy bubbling up inside.
They would do just that—run around the yard and laugh and yell. Sometimes they would trip, and that would just make them laugh harder, regardless of the bruises that would pop up the next day.
There was a faded soccer ball from when Arthur had used to play soccer when he was 9 years old. They would run into the garage and pull it out from under the constantly growing pile in the right corner. Sometimes it was flat, but their father had always taken care of that, because fathers always take care of things like that. Little things, that don't mean anything until they do.
They would kick it back and forth, and Arthur would roll his eyes when his brother kicked it way off target. But he was smiling, even if he was hiding it behind an annoyed expression.
He was always smiling when he was with his brother. He had just never realized it.
. . .
April was the first month that seemed to get how Arthur was feeling. It rained. A lot. The skies were always churning with barely contained anger, before they released it in the form of tears raining from the sky.
A day could look clear, but there were always thick, gray clouds lurking behind the deceiving blue sky. The sun might've been shining in the morning, but it was rare to see the moon at night.
The Monday night when he found out was cloudy. The tips of the moonlight reached out to touch the ground in a skittish caress, leaving corners dark in the way that blotted out anything residing within them. It was passive and thick and all consuming, pooling at the edges of the streetlights and feeding the shadows.
Unable to sleep, he had trudged to the bathroom. As he passed the stairs, he heard someone crying. Not just the quiet, polite crying that is done in front of others, with sniffles and crooked eyebrows, or hands fanning the face with an almost amused expression, as if to say, how silly of me, crying like this, over something like that. I'm fine, obviously, just give me a moment.
He crept halfway down and crouched behind the spindles of the railing.
It was his mother.
She was hunched over the table, shaking with the force of her sobs, but only harsh breaths escaped her lips. His father had an arm draped across her back, and his arm ran up and down her shoulders loosely, but his face was tight with something that looked a lot like pain.
"I miss him so much," she got out, face crumpling into a wet knot of misery. He knew from experience that that face went hand in hand with stuttering breaths, out of time with the heavy inhales necessary to breathe around the pain. It was always accompanied by that tight feeling in the chest, as if someone thrust their hand through the skin to wrap fingers around the heart and squeeze, squeeze until there was no more space for the hope and happiness and love.
"But I can't," she continued, and Arthur frowned. "We have to be strong, Jim, we only have Arthur now and can't let him—we have to show him that," a hiccup, "that we can be strong, that we can—we can get through this and, and—"
The words faded into more sobbing. They felt like knives to Arthur's battered soul.
. . .
Arthur learned to fool them, after that. He learned to fool everyone.
He could make his lips curl into a smile no matter what he felt like, could make his eyes crinkle as if he was laughing from the pit of stomach when all he wanted to do was cry. He had mastered small talk, and learned that just agreeing with what people said, and interjecting a thought every now and then, created acquaintances.
Acquaintances, not friends, because friends were people who you genuinely want to talk to, people who you think about even when they aren't right next to you. Acquaintances are people you spend time with purely for the sake of not being alone.
Hey, Arthur, what's up? They might ask.
Oh, nothing really. Just came from Journalism. Sometimes, if he was in an especially good mood, he'd tell about something interesting that happened.
Cool. I took that last year. I really hated the room, you know? Like all of those annoying posters and the way all of the desks were by themselves. It was so weird.
Yeah. He'd say, even if he'd never considered it. Stating a different opinion would spark more conversation. Adding detail would add another level of depth to the conversation, and he was perfectly content just skimming the surface.
Delving deep meant digging. Digging took energy. And sometimes, he didn't like what he found.
They'd both nod. The conversation would die down, as if he had cut off its air supply. He was clutching it by the neck, squeezing so hard that his fingers trembled. But his face, his face stayed blank. Disinterested. As if he wasn't aware of the murder, just watching it keel over and gasp for breath from a distance.
The bell would ring. He'd walk to another class. Someone new would sit next to him. Another conversation would die.
It wasn't that different to what happened at home, really, but there it was with his parents. They always made an intense effort to salvage the motionless corpse, as if poking and prodding at it would revive it.
Arthur just squeezed tighter, until they were performing CPR on nothing but a rotting corpse.
Soon, Arthur's approach to conversation expanded to his general approach on relationships.
Soon, it became the way he viewed day to day actions.
Soon, he was taking his entire life into clutched fingers and dragging it so deep underwater that there wasn't even a possibility of reaching the surface.
For years, he watched the air bubbles pop up around him as the person he had used to be clung to their breaths like some kind of addict.
He was almost relieved when they slowed, too weak to reach the surface, where he was trapped. His legs were submerged in the murky waters and they stood on his soul, crushing it, keeping it down. Yet he couldn't bend down and let himself sink to the bottom.
Ropes were wrapped around him, holding up, stopping him from joining the cool comfortable oblivion lapping at his hips. If he looked close enough, they had words.
They were the strongest. The rest were so frayed that he couldn't make out the twisted letters. But one rope was clutched around his neck, and even though it stopped him from submerging himself in the peaceful blankness, it was just tight enough to make him wince at the pain.
He couldn't see what its name was, but he could guess.
. . .
It has been 3 years since that June. Arthur stands on the roof of his apartment building, not sure how he got there or what time it is. But it is June 22nd, he knows that. In his hands is a toy car, the same one he had bought walking home from school.
This time, the wrapping is better, from the practice he has gotten from all of the Junes between then and now.
He has a card, too, one of the cheap ones from CVS. Inside is a picture, and a message.
Happy Birthday, Benny. I'm so sorry. I miss you.
When Arthur falls, the picture breaks free from the card, and a boy with smiling brown eyes and warm brown hair and a mouth curled with laughter flutters through the air.
This June is not the beginning of anything.
It is the end.