It’s weird how one’s perspective changes with the passage of time. When I was six I thought it was cool to wear rain boots 24-7 and prance around the neighbourhood dressed in a toga made from a bed sheet. Needless to say, my opinion has changed since then. Back then I also regarded my older brother James with intense dislike, bordering on something more dangerous. To be sure, I still can’t make up my mind about him, and some days I still wish he was never born, but mostly I just love him in that half grudging, relentless way that sisters do.
We used to hang out a lot in those early days. I didn’t have any one else, and he was big and bold, braving the creepy basement with his flashlight and plastic water gun. So I followed him around, trailing my teddy bear and pretending I didn’t feel the scrapes on my knees as we army crawled through the woods. We would jump out of our bedroom window when Mom and Dad weren’t home, and James would laugh at me as I stood with my nose pressed against the window of Carmen’s Hardware Store, staring at the miniature sailboat on display. James was the bane of my existence. He would hold me under in the creek to see if he could hear me screaming from above the surface and dare me to lie in the middle of the road with my eyes closed and count to a hundred. He would rip worms apart to make me mad, stick raw eggs in the toes of my sneakers, and tell farting jokes just to watch me cover my ears. But I faced such unpleasant pranks with Spartan endurance. Maybe it was because I was lonely, or maybe because it was because I didn’t want him to think I was a coward.
We lived in a pretty rough neighbourhood; a dirty maze of barbed wire, broken down houses and rusty cars that leaked gasoline everywhere. But there was a forest behind our house – big and green and alive. There were no girls my age close by, and all the boys were afraid of James, so the two of us played alone. I watched him throw rocks at the neighbour kids whenever they tried to use our tree fort, and bully the children in the schoolyard whenever they came near me. And I kicked the dirt with my toe and said nothing as they shuffled past me, wiping the blood off their faces. I knew that if I protested he’d punch me too; so I stood there silently, vowing that when I was old enough, I’d be different.
But there are certainly worse older brothers. And in fact, I really did love James, although it took me until I was eleven to realize it. He drove everyone else away, but he pulled me close in a brusque, domineering way that both infuriated me and made me feel inexplicably secure. James was invincible. He never lost a single fight, and yet he could turn on his sweet charm the instant a teacher appeared, his blue eyes wide and impossibly guileless. He was never flustered and always seemed to be in control. Always – until that night. A night that’s been instilled in my mind like a some strange, unfathomable dream.
I was eleven years old again, lying on my thin mattress staring at the distant ceiling. The metal fan in the corner squeaked annoyingly, failing to stir the thick air. I shifted on the sticky sheets, waiting for James to come home. He was two years older, equipped with the extensive wisdom and know-it-all that every thirteen-year-old inevitably possesses. But he said he’d be home at midnight, and the glowing clock now read 12:32 a.m. All his cocky assurance couldn’t stop me from worrying. Part of me argued that James could take care of himself – that if something had happened it would serve him right. At the time, the raw egg incident was still fresh, and it rankled.
But by 1:00 he still wasn’t home, and I was beginning to panic. Slipping into t-shirt and shorts I tiptoed past my parent’s bedroom and eased the screen door open, hoping they couldn’t hear its irritated protest.
It was a humid July night. Bullfrogs croaked and hiccupped, and a whip-poor-will called shrilly above me. I had no idea where to look, so I started by searching the cracked alleys and graffiti-covered bridges, whispering my brother’s name at intervals. My voice sounded harsh and terrified, and my throat was so dry it hurt. With each empty shadow my fear bit deeper.
I started for the forest, crashing incautiously through the underbrush and ignoring the mosquitoes that attacked my skin. I had barely gone ten feet into the woods when I became aware of a shadowy commotion ahead. Stopping, I lowered myself onto my stomach and slid forward, exactly how James had always taught me. Somehow, over the roaring in my ears, I could hear the dissonant sound of a man’s voice, combined with scuffling and the breaking of branches. Creeping forward, I reached a thick tangle of buckthorn and stopped. There was just enough light for me to see a wiry man holding my brother by the throat and beating him mercilessly with his fist. My mouth hung open and my chest felt cold. For the first time in my life I saw James utterly helpless. It would have been a good feeling if the crunch of the man’s knuckles meeting my brother’s jaw didn’t make me feel sick to my stomach.
“Listen up, you filthy little vagrant! If I ever catch you in my store again, you’ll have the police to deal with, you hear?” the man snarled, holding James so tightly his breath was beginning to come in squeaks as he fought for air. Now I could see the attacker’s sparse grey sideburns and sharp cheekbones. I knew him.
Every rational thought fled from my brain. Before I knew it I had leapt on the man’s back like a white-blond tiger cat, clawing and hitting him with all my might and yelling furiously, “Let my brother go! Let my brother go!”
I may be small for my age, but I had the element of surprise on my side. At least for a moment. The man dropped James and turned on me savagely. Then his eyes widened in astonishment.
“Aw you’re just a girl!”
I kicked him in the shins so hard he staggered back and I almost fell over. Grabbing James by the hand, I screamed, “RUN!”
I pulled him over the bank, dodging the man’s grasp and plunging into the creek. The water was cool and inky black. I submerged completely, yanking James after me. We swam down the stream until our lungs turned to fire, and then came up silently on the opposite side, shivering and trembling all over. In the bluish light I stared at my brother’s ashen face and watched in fascination as a trickle of blood traced it’s way slowly down his cheek. His mouth was cut open, and one eye was badly swollen. He looked pitiful and shockingly afraid.
“You okay?” James grunted roughly.
I shook my head, fighting back the tears. He patted my arm awkwardly. “We’d better get home.”
We walked in silence for a minute, and then I asked, “James, why were you in Mr. Carmen’s store?”
He looked sheepish. “Just forget about it, okay?”
After that we didn’t talk all the way home. James never thanked me, and I didn’t prompt him. When we got home he curled up in a ball on his bed and was asleep even before I could say goodnight. I lay back and felt something wet on my pillow. Looking down I saw the remains of a sodden paper bag. Reaching in, I pulled out a pointy object. Even before I could see it I knew what it was; my dream sailboat lay in my palm, waterlogged but miraculously intact. Stunned, I sat up in the watery morning light and stared at my brother’s damp, motionless form.
My whole world turned upside down that night. It was a small thing he’d done, but to me it was utterly staggering. My brother had been an idiot. A brave, selfless, dishonest idiot. But at least now I knew. I’d never fully understand him, but that didn’t matter any more. Because after that night I knew he needed me too.
~ Ilana Reimer