by Billi Fabrikant
He was sadder than I remembered, and angrier too. "What's wrong?" I kept asking. "Jerry Garcia died," he kept saying."That was almost a year ago," I kept reminding him. "So I'm a little late," he’d say. "Kill me." I didn't know if he was kidding. He'd been back from college for three days, but if I hadn't walked in on Mom crying when I got back from school on Thursday, I wouldn't have noticed he was home. He wouldn't sit in his favorite chair until we moved it into the corner, and even then, he wouldn't stop fidgeting, looking over his shoulder like someone was watching. Dad told him to come into work with him -- who cares if he didn't make it through school, it was a waste of money anyway, all you really need's a strong work ethic these days -- but he had a lot of trouble leaving the house, like he didn't trust he'd be coming back. The farthest we could get him to go was Mr. Robinson’s, and even then, he began to sweat.
The day he got back, after Mom got him to change out of his muddy clothes and get in in the
shower, I walked him back to his room. Mom and Dad said I could take the big room after he left, but I never did. Some part of me knew he was coming back.
He wanted to go to sleep, so I tucked him into bed. He clutched the stuffed panda he’d been
proud to leave home all those months ago. He looked tiny under the white blankets, like a lonely penguin in the middle of the arctic.
"Don't leave," he said, quiet like. So I stayed with him until he fell asleep -- by then I had too.
"What was college like?" We'd always been close, but now we seemed simultaneously closer and more distanced. He was always hunched into me, constantly scooting closer, never breaking eye contact-- but every few minutes he'd start a sentence he refused to finish, no matter how hard I pressed him. It seemed natural, at first, as it always had, to tease him mercilessly, but now, instead of pulling my hair or calling me names, he'd just smile and nod, like he was looking at a photograph of the moment we were in.
"It was freeing. You're going to love it," he told me with a half-hearted smile.I furrowed my brow. "Well, I'm not going if you're not going." "Yeah you are, squirt." I was shocked when he put a hand on top of my head and ruffled my hair just like he used to. There's Bel, I thought. For a moment, he was back. He gave me a grin. "You feel like a nap?"
"Yeah." Neither of us was tired, but we pretended to be; closing our eyes and draping on top of each other like lion cubs, unwillingly awake in that almost silence, still for as long as time itself.
He picked me up at school on Friday in dad’s car. His van hadn’t returned with him, it seemed. I
got in with a grin, but he wasn’t looking. He stared out the windshield, breathing loud so I could hear. He had an ice cream cone in one hand, but waited for it to melt before he began it.
We began to drive home. Between us there was silence, but it was interrupted by the crackle of
the radio. We were out of reach of whatever station was on, but when I reached to change it, Bel shook his head. It was subtle, but over the week he’d been home I’d grown to notice these things; everything he did now was small, controlled, like he didn’t want to get in trouble. After a few more seconds of driving, everything clicked into place -- we were in range of the radio tower, finally.
The song was already almost over, but it was easily recognizable; it was our roadtrip song. We
had it on every mixtape in the house, and we loved it so much we had to ration how many times we played it so we wouldn’t get sick of it. I grinned at Bel and he grinned back at me, and I waited for the words to come back before I began to sing. “But if you wanna leave, take good care -- I hope you make a lot of nice friends out there -- just remember there’s a lot of ...” I trailed off. He was looking at me funny, like I’d grown two heads. I turned the music down. “... a lot of bad and beware,” I finished, cocking my head to the side, feeling like a Doberman. “You alright, Bel?”
He giggled like a little girl. “Didn’t know you knew this song, is all. My little sister’s all grown up, I
Bel, this is our song, I nearly screamed. This is ours. But I was scared; more scared than when I
fell out of the maple tree in the yard; more scared than when I fell asleep during the Regents; more scared than when Bel left for Chicago. He was back now, and I was more terrified than ever.
I gave a weak smile, but where once he’d have seen straight through me, he now smiled widely
back. The radio was low now, but it was enough, and we finished the car ride in silence. The next songwas Mom and Dad’s wedding song -- Danny’s Song -- and I hummed along, but Bel didn’t notice.
When we got back, all the windows were open, and he began to laugh. “I told them the AC was
broken,” he said, pulling into the driveway without a sound. It was a windless day, and we could hear the voices from inside the house drifting across the yard. He put a finger to his lips with a smirk. “... don’t know what we’re going to do,” Mom was saying. “I mean, who’s gonna pay well for a college dropout, Stan? We were counting on him.” I bit my lip, making eye contact with Bel. We should go inside, I mouthed, but he shook his head vehemently, still vaguely smiling.
“C’mon, he’s got a GED -- that’s more than most can say. We have to believe in him, don’t we?”
Mom let out a long sigh, and my eyes began to well up. “Haven’t you seen him since he got
back? He barely touches his food, he sleeps all day. He only ever talks to his sister. The other day, I mentioned that Laurie was home for the summer --
“You know, the girl he went to prom with? Jesus, Stan. C’mon. I mentioned her and Bel looked at me like I was crazy. I don’t even think he remembers her anymore.”
“Jeannie, listen --” “No, you listen, Stan. Our son needs help. He’s scaring me. Where has he been for the last few months anyway, huh? We only got a bill from the school for his first semester, honey, and he’s been away for almost four. And you know what? Lucille from down the street -- you know, the one who pretends like she doesn’t wear a wig -- she told me that some of the high school kids found a yellow van sunk in the swamp down by the Robinson’s place. How many other kids do you know with a yellow van, Stanley?” Dad didn’t respond. I could tell, in that bloodline way that I sometimes could, that his knees were shaking just as hard as mine, knocking together like they were in a twister. The words didn’t hurt like a
knife; they hurt like frostbite. I felt my insides growing hard and black. I wanted to amputate them. Next to me, Bel had a giddy smile on his face, like he’d just heard our parents planning a surprise trip to Disneyland. It gave me goosebumps.
He walked in, making sure to make a lot of noise, loud and obnoxious like he used to be, so
they’d know he’d come home. He gestured for me to follow, and I did, but slowly -- carefully -- counting my steps like they’d be my last.
"If I hadn’t left, where do you think we would be now?" We sat under a canopy of soggy trees. I’d never been this deep into the Robinson’s swamp, but trekking in, I realized I didn’t care how new my shoes were, anyway. Now we had a perch to sit upon,mustard yellow in the middle of the brown swamp, the epitome of an eyesore. Next to me, he threw rocks
down below. He’d prepare for minutes, as if he expected them to skip, just to see them sink right down till we didn’t know where they were anymore.
“I dunno,” I told him honestly. “Probably here. Well -- not here. Over by that log, probably, if I had
to guess.” Bel wanted to laugh, I could tell, but he didn’t. I didn’t either. For a moment, there in the swamp, we existed, and I didn’t want to put that in jeopardy.
“This van was gonna be ours, you know, when you came up to college with me. We were gonna
share it.” “We’re sharing it now, aren’t we?” I asked, splitting my hair in six pieces and beginning to braid.
He looked down at me from above like he used to, and smiled. “We sure are squirt,” he said
quietly. I looked up at him; his nose grew red like a reindeer’s. When he realized I was looking, he turned away. I stared at the back of his head. There were tufts of hair missing from its base, and warm scratches on his neck that plunged under his neckline. He was skinnier than ever. You could see his bones.
bill e. fabrikant (she/hers): writer, philosopher, sculptor, & new yorker upon the wild frontier of the south-southwest