Warning: this story deals with emotional abuse, trauma and death.
Brother is different.
As a baby, he rarely cried. When he did, it was at most a whimper, a subdued plea for a bit of attention when he needed a bottle or had a wet diaper. We thought he couldn’t talk until he was five and he began talking in full sentences one Christmas morning.
I was only a couple of years older than him, but I still remember my mother’s joy and my father’s relief when he told them “I don’t need any of those toys.” I had run down the hall and dove into the pile of presents under the tree. Brother looked confused on Christmas mornings, birthdays too. He asked me once why people did it—give stuff away. I explained that it was a way of showing love. I don’t know if he understood. I don’t think Brother loves anyone. If he does love anyone, it is me, his sister. I am the only person he speaks to with any regularity.
Brother told the truth about the toys. He didn’t need any of them. It never mattered what my parents got him, blocks, toy cars, action figures, he had no interest. What didn’t end up in my room is on a shelf in the back of his closet.
Brother liked to sit in the center of his bedroom floor in the afternoon, when a shaft of sunlight entered through the picture window and stretched itself across the carpet. Brother called it his ‘sweet sunny spot’. He liked sitting there more than most kids liked a theme park. He just closed his eyes and tilted his face up, soaking up the heat like a flower, his books beside him and his world perfect.
Brother likes books. I don’t remember when or how he learned to read, but I do remember when they tested him in kindergarten and told my parents that he could already read as good as any college student. We had an old set of encyclopedias that he was always looking at. My parents had always just assumed he was looking at the pictures, but he had been reading them. The kindergarten teacher said that he could talk at length about numerous subjects, from the pyramids to cancer. He got all that from the encyclopedias.
That was all before mommy died just after Brother’s seventh birthday. She had gone with her friend Glenna to shop at some big outlet store. Mommy was in the passenger’s side of the car and a truck ran into her. Glenna said the truck ran a red light and mommy died instantly and didn’t suffer, but Glenna was okay. She was just banged up a bit and had her arm in a sling at mommy’s funeral.
After we got home from the funeral, papa was tired. He stayed tired for a long time after mommy died. Brother and I started going outside for walks and that was when I found the first feather. It stuck out of the grass, a brilliant blue. I picked it up and gave it to Brother. He stared at it, as if it were a bit of a miracle that we had found. A small token of magic, of flight, of escape. He moved his fingers up and down ruffling the feather and then straightening it again. I took it and brushed it against the tip of his nose. Brother smiled then. He almost never smiled but this feather made him smile. He took the feather home and put it in his nightstand drawer.
That was all before Glenna moved in with us. I don’t know exactly when that happened. I just know she was here one day when we got home from school. She had a little white dog. It wore a rhinestone collar and was always jumping around and barking. Brother hated the sound, he put his hands over his ears when the dog barked, which was frequent. Sometime later, Brother and I sat and watched a judge at the court house make papa and Glenna married.
Glenna started acting different when she and papa returned from their ‘honeymoon’, as grandma called it.
Before they got married, Glenna was nice to me and Brother. After they got married, she was only nice if papa was present. When he was at work or outside, she just glared at us and didn’t speak to us, even when I tried to be nice. Glenna cleaned all the time and if we touch anything she yelled at us and said she didn’t want our filthy little fingerprints all over everything. She cooked food that Brother didn't like at dinner and then complained to papa that Brother was not grateful to her. She told papa that Brother was spoiled. Glenna didn’t like me, but it seemed that she positively hated Brother. Once when papa was gone, she caught Brother sitting in his sweet sunny spot, his eyes closed, head tilted up. She stopped at his bedroom door and said “You need to quit sitting like that; it makes you look like a dummy.”
Brother’s eyes opened and he looked at Glenna. As always, Brother’s face registered no emotion. I told papa later what Glenna said. She denied it, she said I didn’t hear her correctly. Papa believed Glenna, not me. But I know what I heard.
Glenna got pregnant. Papa was so happy. but a cold feeling settled inside of me. I realized that Glenna would be more powerful with a baby. Her hold on papa would get stronger. I was afraid she would get meaner, especially to Brother.
Brother took a bath every night. He didn’t like showers, hated the feeling of water beating down on his skin. One night, we were sitting in the living room floor in our pajamas. Papa, as usual, was working late. The fire was lit in the fireplace, the dog was quiet for once and everything seemed normal and cozy. I was combing my doll’s hair; Brother was reading one of his encyclopedias. Glenna was still pregnant. She walked out of the kitchen, stomped down the hall and went into the bathroom. “Come in here, dummy!” She knew papa didn’t believe me when I told him that she called Brother this word, so she had started using the word more frequently when she yelled at him. Brother, obedient, got up from the floor and walked into the bathroom. I got up and followed him. She screamed at Brother. She said she was sick and tired of cleaning up the ring of dirt he left in the tub. “No more baths!” Glenna declared, “You’re getting older, it’s time you took showers like an adult.” She said. From then on, Brother took showers. Afterward, he would go into his room and sometimes I would catch him rubbing his arms and shoulders. “Are you okay?” I asked him one night. “The water hurts my skin, I can handle the baths, but the showers, the water beating down on me, the sound, I hate it,” he replied. “I’m sorry,” I told him. The no bath rule was cruel. I tried to discuss it with papa. He didn’t want to talk about it. He was picking up double-shifts to make extra money for the baby. He didn’t have the time or energy to deal with some kind of drama over a simple bath.
About two months before Glenna had the baby, Glenna’s little, horrid dog chewed up a couple of Brother’s encyclopedias. He picked up the dog and put it in the hallway. Glenna saw this and flew into a rage--“Don’t you ever touch my little dog again! He lives in this house the same as you and he can go any damn place he wants!” She screamed. Brother was calm as always, “He was chewing up my books,” he told Glenna. “Well maybe your books don’t need to be in there where he can get to them,” Glenna yelled. Brother hesitated then replied, “This is my room, I can put my books wherever I want.” Glenna smirked then. “We will see about that,” she said. That was another night my father wasn’t home because he was working. Looking back, I wished I had recorded some of this on my phone. Glenna was never this mean when papa was around and papa never seemed to believe me when I told him things I had seen and heard. Maybe papa just didn’t want to believe. I thought of a phrase my grandma used once, ‘wrapped around her little finger.’ I didn’t really understand it but I thought that was what was happening with papa and Glenna. He was wrapped around Glenna’s little finger.
It was a couple of days later that papa called me and Brother into the living room. Glenna was sitting next to him; she is stick thin except for the globe of a belly under the tight blue fabric of her maternity top. Papa explained to us that with the baby will come changes. “What kind of changes?” I asked. Papa explained that the baby will need a room of its own to sleep in. Brother and I look at each other. We had both assumed that the baby would be in papa and Glenna’s room at first and that they would later convert the den into a bedroom. Then I remembered the fight Glenna and Brother had about the chewed books and how Brother said it was his room. Dread begins to build in the pit of my stomach. Poor papa probably thinks this was his idea, but I can see Glenna’s eyes filled with contempt, staring at Brother.
Papa looks at Brother and tells him their plan. “The baby should be in your room. That is the room closest to us.” Glenna nods in agreement, as if she didn’t put this right into papa’s head. Brother didn’t say anything but I did. “How about Brother take my room? I could move to the den,” I offered. Glenna frowns, “No one is sleeping in the den,” she said. She points to Brother. “He will be going down to the basement.” It’s an order, not a discussion and not a question. Brother hated the basement. It is damp with a concrete floor, practically a dungeon. It was never very warm in the summer but it was freezing in the winter. I felt a fierce protectiveness for Brother then. “No, I can go to the basement,” I insist. Glenna said no. Papa said no. I was to stay upstairs because “Glenna might need my help with the baby,” was what papa said. By that time, he was just her puppet. Brother shrugged, as if he didn’t care. I knew he did care. I knew he hated the basement. I knew that she was just doing it to hurt him. Brother knew too, but he didn’t say anything to anyone. I never saw the least bit of anger.
The next day, papa and Brother moved his bed down to the basement. Papa looked around and I could tell that he realized how unsuitable it might be for anyone, let alone Brother, to sleep down there. However, he had already cast his lot with Glenna and there was no going back. When Brother and I returned upstairs to get his nightstand, we found Glenna had opened it and found his most prized possession.
Brother had kept the feather I had given him when mommy had died and had added more until he had quite a collection. Glenna now clutched the feathers in her hands, like a predator with protracted claws digging into a small vulnerable animal. She was looking with disgust at the feathers of all colors. Besides the blue feather that I had gotten him, Brother had gathered an impressive combination of glossy black feathers from crows, large brown feathers from a golden eagle’s nest he had found and white feathers that were from snowy egrets. I saw at lease two iridescent blue magpie tail feathers and one feather that was brownish grey except for a teal spot along one side. There were striped feathers but they all belonged to different birds. Brother had carefully taped labels of the bird species that each feather had come from around the bottom of each feather shaft. Brother stepped toward her, reaching out. “That is my feather collection, I can take them downstairs.” Glenna smiled then. “You, young man, are not keeping a bunch of feathers in my house. Feathers are filthy.” We both moved out of her way when she walked past us into the living room and threw them all into the fire.
Brother stared as the flames took hold of the feathers and devoured them along with the little paper slips attached to them. I stood with him to watch them burn. It was the least I could do.
Glenna brought the baby home almost a year ago. Papa was so excited. Glenna was joyous. My grandma came over and cooked a bunch of food for us.
No one noticed for a couple of days that the dog was missing.
Glenna was sore after having the baby and I was basically her lady-in-waiting. Fetching bottles, blankets, plates of food, cups of coffee and anything else she told me to get. Brother stayed out of site in his basement cell. She told me to feed the dog and that was when I realized that the food bowl hadn’t been touched in a few days. I searched and searched. Brother helped me. Then papa took us out in the car, driving slowly to see if we saw the little white barking ball of fur bounding down the back roads or across fields.
We didn’t find him.
Before the baby, Glenna would have been furious, but the arrival of the baby had pushed the dog down on the totem pole of her concerns and affections.
Besides, dogs are restless. They run away all the time.
A missing baby, that is a truly terrible thing.
Babies aren’t restless. Babies don’t run away.
That was what the detective said. His name was Detective Spears. He was tall and grey-haired and seemed a bit weary.
We all went to bed as usual one night, the baby secure in her crib, night light shining in the corner.
Around eight in the morning I became aware of a sound like an animal screaming. It was Glenna. My father was holding her tight, holding her together. He tried to dial the phone with one hand while holding her with his other arm. He dropped the phone. Then Brother was there. Helping. Brother who never so much as raised an eyebrow was animated. He picked up the phone when papa dropped it. He dialed 911. He told the operator what had happened. The baby was missing. Crib empty except for a bundle of blankets.
The police came, then the detectives. They searched the house, the woods, the town. They contacted the media, they put out pictures although most infants look alike. Glenna started carrying the baby’s blanket with her. Then she got into an argument with Detective Spears during a routine questioning. I liked Detective Spears. I could tell from the beginning he didn’t like Glenna. He thought the blanket thing was just for show.
Then they found the baby. Not alive and in the trunk of Glenna’s car. She was arrested. She was charged. She pled not guilty. No one believed her. I don’t even think papa believed her but he did feel sorry for her, maybe still loved her.
Today, Brother, papa and I visited Glenna in prison. It is two-hundred miles away, but papa felt that someone as sick as Glenna shouldn’t be abandoned no matter what. Brother brought a shoebox. The guards inspected the contents and deemed them harmless.
We sat around a table, Glenna in her orange jumpsuit, her eyes full of trauma. She tried to focus on papa but is distracted as Brother opens his shoebox and begins to pull out the feathers from his new collection. Blue ones, black ones, white ones, striped and spotted ones. He arranges them on the table in a row. Then he scoots the box closer to her so she can see inside. Glenna exploded out of the chair and jumped across the table to attack Brother. The guards were faster. She was dragged out of prison visitation.
Back home, Brother put the box in his room, that was the baby’s room but is his again. He went into the bathroom for his nightly bath. He took his last shower the night before Glenna was arrested. I snuck into his room and flipped up the shoe box lid. I stroked the feathers until I felt something buried under them. I dug under the vanes, quills and shafts only feel my finger hook on something unfamiliar. It was the dog’s rhinestone collar. The dog would have had it on when it disappeared, but here it was in Brothers little box.
I returned the collar to Brother’s feather collection and replaced the lid of the box. Going into the kitchen I saw my father sitting at the kitchen table, looking troubled, his brow furrowed.
“What’s wrong papa?” I asked.
Papa looks at me to answer, “I worry about your brother,” he says.
I glance at the bathroom door where I can hear the muffled sound of the bathtub filling with water.
“Don’t.” I say.
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