There was only one thing worse than being raised by a cop. Being raised by two cops. After taking my brother's precious car for a quick drive around the block last night, ten minutes tops, he went ballistic. So I didn't have my license yet. So what? No cop in this precinct would give me a ticket, he knew that. Not as long as Dad was the shift commander.
And the scratch on his fender? It would buff out. No problem. Assuming he let me walk out the front door today, I'd show him. Wait, I think he had duty today. Good. After he left for work I would take care of the scratch and all would be forgiven. I strained my ears for the sounds of Gale leaving.
"I'll stick around until Ken wakes up. One way or another he is changing clothes. Today."
Still mad. He called me 'Ken'.
Good lord, what problem did my brother have with my clothes? Sleeping in clothes wasn't a crime, not even in my family. I decided the stupid statement didn't warrant opening my eyes. Gale might have sneaked into my room when I was a toddler to change my clothes for me, I was a little too big for that these days.
And what was that smell? A tart odor clung to the back of my throat. I took shallow breaths so I wouldn't gag. Maybe I would give in and clean my room today, god only knew what was growing under the bed to make it smell like this. After Gale left.
"You can't force him."
A second voice, one which I had never heard before, argued with my brother. A stranger argued with my brother, not Dad. Dad worked nights, he should've come home by now.
"It needs to be your brother's idea, not yours. You saw how he was last night."
More like I saw how Gale was last night. His whole head had turned beet red while he screamed at me for taking his stupid car for a little practice drive. If he'd come home early like he promised I wouldn't have had to do it alone. Did he come home like he promised? Nooooo. I bet he spent the evening hanging out with that guy from his Academy class, Roger or Robert, whatever. He spent more time with that jerk than me.
"You mean, typical?" Gale sounded furious. He'd cool off after I buffed out the scratch. "The way he refused to look at me?"
I discovered an unfamiliar ceiling above me when my eyelids flew open. Off-white. Random texture dotted the ceiling instead of the familiar arcs of my home bedroom. My bed had a pleasant warm hole which cradled my body in perfect comfort. I wasn't home. This was not my bed.
"It's been how long?" The second guy sounded more reasonable than my brother, not a difficult feat. "Four years?"
"Five," Gale corrected in his gruff 'I don't want to discuss it' voice, which I knew all too well. Stubborn jerk.
Five years since what? Five years ago I turned ten. Gale turned nineteen and Dad made him buy the boring sedan I accidentally scratched last night. His fault for not coming home on time.
"Okay then, five years." Gale's friends almost never took my side. They tended to treat me like their bratty younger siblings. Was it my fault I was nine years younger than them? And smarter?
"You've changed in the last five years. I'm sure he has too. He's still your brother even if you haven't spoken in years."
I sat straight up in bed, my ears ringing, gut clenched, all the air in my chest frozen. My throat closed up as my eyeballs tried to escape from my face. Then I saw my legs.
Starting with the knees, my jeans were a dark color as if they were still wet, but they were dry. When I touched the fabric it felt hard as if I had waded through starch and all the hairs on my arm stood on end. A shudder ran through me. My gaze traveled up my legs to see more dark smears.
My stomach lurched and bile stung the back of my throat. Where the hell did they keep the bathroom in this place? I leaped from bed to yank open the first door I spotted.
An off-white hallway stretched out to my left with two more doors. One was closed but the open one had a gleaming white sink. My stomach heaved again. With one hand clamped over my mouth I ran for the porcelain god.
I barely reached it in time. My stiff kneed jeans hit the tile with a crackle like I broke them.
Years ago I had begged Gale to take me to some little fair thing, one of those traveling places which set up in parking lots. Lots of bright flashy lights and portable rides to entice kids like me. Eventually Gale had given in. He let me eat three hot dogs and bought me the wristband so I had unlimited rides. I should've eaten after riding, not before. When I stepped off the last ride that night, this stupid thing which spun me vertically as it whipped around in a circle, Gale swore my face had turned green. I must have thrown up into the grass for half an hour before asking to go home.
This felt ten times worse. Even after my stomach emptied itself I kept heaving. It was like my body knew more poison existed in me and wanted to expel it. Next I expected to start spitting out toenails.
"Easy, Ken." Gale's good voice, the one I knew would make everything all right, washed over me. Some of the knots in my gut untwisted. Nothing like a little vomit to induce forgiveness. Then a warm hand rested on my back. Though I expected it to rub in circles it remained in one place, but it helped. I leaned back into it, my eyes closing as the worst of the nausea receded.
"That's it. Breathe."
I took a deep breath, held it for a count of three, then released it. The sound of water rushing down the pipes erupted from in front of me. Then silence descended. With Gale's hand on my back I pretended for a moment that I was that seven year old at the traveling fair.
Then I did something I hadn't done in years. My head leaned to the side until I found my brother.
Nestling against his throat, I felt the words as vibrations against my skull. Leaning closer until hard warmth pressed against my side, an exhilaration gripped me when a strong arm wrapped around me. There. Now I had him acting more like a big brother than a jerk with a scratched car.
"Better?" His question rumbled through my body. I couldn't answer out of fear of breaking this moment. This quiet, no yelling about some stupid scratch, moment.
"How is he?" When the second voice came from the direction of the hall it took a moment to process we had an observer. I should have leaped to my feet and denied everything, especially if it looked like I needed my brother's arm around me. However I couldn't move away. Instead I curled in closer with some stranger watching and how weird was this?
For an answer I felt Gale shrug.
"Should I bring his clothes in here?"
Again Gale shrugged.
"I'll do that." Heavy footsteps walked away.
"Who is he?" Not that I wanted to know or felt curious, if I had to be honest with myself, but I figured I should prepare myself for possible teasing later.
"Friend of mine."
Crap. Double crap. Maybe I should wear a sign 'baby brother: please tease.'
I suppose I should've answered, I should've asked the friend's name. However I didn't care. Eventually the footsteps returned. I braced myself for more interference from the friend. After a moment of silence the footsteps walked away. I relaxed and wondered how long my brother would tolerate all this touchy-feely crap.
Eventually a new vibration moved through me. "You should change."
I tilted my head back to look at Gale and received my first real shock of the day: My brother had gray hair.
Not a lot, not like he turned sixty in the last week, but clusters of gray fanned out from his temples and lightly dusted his dark blond hair. Plus extra lines had carved themselves into his face. One crease between his eyes, a worry line which had first appeared when Gale started at the police academy, disturbed me by its depth. Either this line resulted from worrying too much about his detective exam or from years upon years of worry about everyday things. I hoped for the former.
"Do you think you can you stand?" The arm wrapped over me left, his hand sliding down until it rested supportively against my lower back. His eyes looked exactly as they should, a deep caring green with golden flecks, though new creases appeared at the corners.
My legs felt like jello at first and his hand helped ease me up. My jeans were too heavy and pulled down on my hips. Carefully folded jeans and a blue t-shirt waited on the bathroom counter.
Gale wore faded blue jeans, white socks with gold toes and a white undershirt. He looked heftier than yesterday, as if he'd put on an extra twenty pounds overnight. Judging by the way his shirt bulged around the middle not all of the additional weight came on as muscle.
"I put the new toothbrushes and toothpaste in the left hand drawer." Gale moved around me to leave. "My soap and shampoo are in the shower, you can use it if you want. There are disposable razors in the drawer on the right. If you tell me what brand you use, I can pick up whatever you need later."
"Are you working today?" The words left my mouth without checking in with my brain first.
He studied me for a moment before answering. "I checked in earlier, it's pretty quiet today. I can stay home."
Home? I peered past him out the strange hallway. This didn't look like home. Not even close.
"Don't you dare start."
My eyes flashed back to his and I held up both hands in surrender. "Not starting. I swear."
His eyes narrowed as if he had caught me with pot. Like I would go through that again. "Why'd you ask?"
"Because I was hoping you could stay." Another glance at the lines in his face convinced me there was a reason I came here. A reason other than to figure out how my brother had aged overnight.
"Then change your clothes." He backed out, closing the door behind him.
Then I caught my reflection in the mirror. It turned into my second biggest shock of the day.