There once was a black creature, like a lamb, like a cosmos, Jack-Jack. He couldn’t speak, but carried the soul of a sick boy, keeping watch over it.
This is how all my stories begin.
Jack-Jack had not become the boy incarnate, but qualities erupting from the boy’s soul touched Jack-Jack like heated hands. He was the boy, and he was not the boy. He was a woman, and not a woman.
Jack-Jack hailed from two gladsome caretakers who sat like fuzzy-haired teacups in a ramshackle cupboard-like house upon a hill, and five of his aunts and uncles came and went in the furnished basement of the house as they pleased, while his mom and siblings lived in the house and slept in one large reverberating snore— but illness fell upon one of Jack-Jack’s caretakers, and so from his family Jack-Jack was taken, to his new caretaker’s small RV, to an outdoor bed, blanched dirt, loud machine voices.
Jack-Jack waited three months in the squalor, past the point of any claim on a refund, and then chewed through his rope and ran away.
Where would he go to call home? There was no map. The flare in his chest kept him dreaming of home.
“Good story. Your dog’s barking again,” my brother says.
I don’t have a dog. “Go to sleep, Andrew. Jack-Jack is sleeping.” I don’t have to care about the dog. No one does.
The Sunday summer afternoon my brother collapsed in the foyer, he was sixteen and already over six feet tall, as if two strides from an Abercrombie and Fitch store window display. I was standing in the front hall bathroom brushing my braces and assuring myself I’d have a lovely smile for college in only a year. Longing to be prettier or worrying about the future were habits I would’ve grown out of or carried with relative normality into adulthood if it hadn’t been for what happened next: keys in the front door, and my father’s voice echoing, “Jiggedy-jigg!” before the unmistakable thud of a body falling on the hardwood floor.
If I were around when Andrew came home with Mom or Dad, he occasionally indulged me (and peeved them) by greeting our imaginary dog, Jack-Jack, with a growly, “Yeahhhhh—who’s there?” I invented Jack-Jack in second grade for a homework assignment describing a favorite animal, but he was so palpable that in high school he was recalled and revived as Andrew’s clever ploy to remind Mom and Dad that I deserved the dog I’d always wanted. If we were all in the den and we heard a loud or suspicious noise, Andrew quipped, “Jack-Jack: attack!” Then everyone started blaming Jack-Jack for spilled drinks or broken dishes, the klutz. He became a stand-in auditor for passive-aggressive comments or sideways apologies directed at him but intended for someone else: “I guess we’re in the doghouse tonight, Jack-Jack.”
Mom and Dad always said I couldn’t have a dog with college so near, and Andrew always told them, “She’ll take it with her. She’ll take care of it.” He almost convinced them before that day.
I’d heard Andrew fall, but when I ran into the hallway, I half-expected him to bow and blame Jack-Jack. Andrew shook on his side, his legs bent awkwardly. Oranges and yogurt containers, some of them split open, rolled on the wood around him. He turned onto his back, mumbling with dry lips, staring past the chandelier to the tall ceiling. I became the ceiling.
My mother crouched down and then laid herself next to him, holding him. Because she did that, I thought he was dying.
My father became high-pitched and urgent. “Becky? He was fine in the car. What’s wrong? Should I call an ambulance? Becky?”
Mom looked up, from Dad to me. She always knew what no one else knew. “Don’t call an ambulance.”
Her hair escaped from behind her ear, the same sandy blonde as my brother’s, and I saw her as if she’d just appeared, taking a strange woman’s place. I hadn’t been able to place her, on the floor, cradling my brother like a baby.
“Leave him here,” she said. “Pray.”
That’s when I really thought Andrew was dying, and in a way, he was.
Am I allowed to go on without my brother?
We put our pet in the car, Mom, Dad, Andrew, and I. This is how all my stories should begin. We put him there safe with cool breezes whispering through the cracked windows. He snuggled in the plaid blanket of imaginary happy families, and we walked to the church grounds, cathedrals, stone buildings of artifice. In my dream I recognized the back of Tom’s head and his corkscrew cowlicks immediately; he wore a plaid shirt I knew had a tiny hole under the armpit. We took our seats in the pews behind him. People around us leaned over to touch my shoulder and whisper me well-wishes. A break came in the service and the teenagers including Tom walked out into the grounds, typical teenagers, excited with possibility or disappointed. We entered an ancient building and I walked ahead with one of my girlfriends into a room filled with blue-black security lighting. “Tell Tom to meet me here,” I almost said. But I wanted him to come after me. Break time felt limited — we all crowded into a room with stone seating, and Tom climbed over to me. Our knees touched. He began telling me the sins he might’ve told the priest if he could’ve done it without blame, confessing his most devastating problems, and though I couldn’t understand how the words fit together, I understood his longing. The church bells rang for us, and we knew we would have to go back to the cathedral, back to church and to the forces guiding our lives without our say. When we returned to the hallway, we levitated, because gravity had disappeared. Tom, every molecule of him, floated nearby, and he took my hand. And as if his touch split me into arms touching everyone else in the world, I thought I finally belonged to a world bigger than my family. But I couldn’t tell if I’d gained perspective, or if I was creating a new home, a new world, with only two. Was this how anyone created a world?
How do you say, “I love you”? How?
Being only a year apart created a kind of current between Andrew and me that always made hide-and-seek futile — we always knew where the other was. In the entrance way the morning after his collapse, Andrew almost looked as if he were hiding as he crouched with his back against the front door. His white socks, normally dingy from padding around on hardwood floors, were so darkly filthy that they looked as if he’d worn them a week. His leg darted out to sweep the space around him.
“Where’s Jack-Jack?” I tried.
He didn’t answer, but his leg pushed out and circled the floor again.
“How are you feeling?” I stayed back.
He leaned forward. “I have to be careful.”
“No, there are men waiting to hurt me.”
That small exchange began a series of betrayals between us. For the first time in my memory, I’d completely mistaken his meaning. “What? What happened?”
He looked over my shoulder. “They’re evil. I didn’t do anything, but they have knives and they’re waiting to cut me.”
His stilted description didn’t sound like a real threat; it sounded like bad movie dialogue. “We’ll be careful,” I mumbled. As if following stage directions, I turned and headed into the kitchen. I probably had a normal breakfast that day, one of my last normal meals for a year and a half, but I don’t remember tasting anything. I ate when I was hungry; I stopped when I was full. Simple functions then.
After breakfast, Andrew wasn’t in the entrance way, and as we began our morning routines, from kitchen, to bedroom, to bathroom, the air changed from invisible to red. Andrew emerged from his room, and I hurried into the bathroom. When I came out, he was standing almost right up against the door, facing me, and I excused myself and ducked away.
“My tiny creature, my dearest pet, has escaped.”
This is how all stories should begin.
The father who sat upon his throne addressed his youngest son, whose round eyes and long nose gave him a look of eagerness. They stood facing each other in the vast castle, two points of desperation in a large stone space. The father pointed to the spacious aquarium sitting atop carpets piled by the throne, an aquarium in which a portly black pet no bigger than a hamster had run through mazes. The tiny dog, or boot, or comet, had run in and out of his father’s pockets and sat on his father’s shoulder or on top of his white hair at all times, even while the father slept. In fact, the father had given the creature a human soul, though whose soul no one knew. The son, from his Adam’s apple to his big toe, felt that the father had always loved the pet most of all, though the son had never admitted that to himself. Gazing at his weepy father who beseeched him now to check all the rooms and all the grounds, the son felt himself growing in importance. If he could find his father’s pet, if only he could find it, and watch his father pledge eternal gratitude! With this mission he glimpsed his life on a grander scale, the myth of living as a treasured son, all heroes in one handbag, all holy quests knotted into one incredible elixir of opportunity!
The father turned the aquarium upside-down, emptying its contents, and placed it like an astronaut’s helmet over the son’s head. The son blinked in surprise through the clear glass. It was then the son realized the beloved animal might’ve died and the servants removed it so as not to upset the father. This mission might be impossible.
“Go find my pet!” the father cried. “Go find Jack-Jack!”
Still, the son would do it.
“Very cool. You have to come down here for something.” Andrew always speaks as if his jowls are clenched, which makes him sound like a surfer-dude at a black-tie event. Then again, something blankets his voice, thickness, maybe lethargy. Maybe that’s in his DNA now.
“I wasn’t finished. He escaped. He’s going to try—”
“But he can’t please his family. I get it,” he says.
When Andrew is lucid, he always understands. It can be just as scary. “What happened?”
“No, I’m glad you called, actually. Can you come home for Halloween?”
He called me; he always called me, but it doesn’t matter. Halloween is the one holiday our family hasn’t celebrated since Andrew’s diagnosis. But it’s not like we’ve gone two years without Halloween.
Outside my dorm room, fizzing bubbles of conversation float from the bathroom across the hall: “Where did it go?”
“Sweetheart, I don’t know. Where did you have it?”
“It’s in here!” I call, and they shut up. Most of the other sophomores on my floor wear rhinestone-studded Victoria’s Secret pajamas, watch Twilight together, and talk about how they’ll help in their husband’s work or volunteer in their church where all their kids can play together, and, I assume, watch the next wave of sentiment-porn.
“When is the 31st?” I run my fingers over the fraying scraps of quilt on my narrow bed. I like that I can see everything in the room at once, or walk to it in only a few steps, that the window is as big as my bed, which is just barely smaller than the wall. We have to be inside the dorm by ten every night, no boys allowed at any time. Partying is off-limits; students are expelled for drinking. Required chapel is every weekday at eight a.m. and one Bible class is required every semester. And of course, we have to have parental permission for weekends away.
I like the rules.
Hunching into a comma, I reach over to my desk calendar and flip past two months to October. Please let Halloween fall on a weekday.
“If you come Friday, you can be here for Saturday morning.”
Halloween isn’t until Sunday. “Do Mom and Dad know you want to do something for Halloween?”
“That’s really proper, Panda. I’m nineteen. You should make this difficult. You should really try hard to reject me and fuck with my head. I’ll see you Halloween weekend, right?” He hangs up.
I stare at my box of a room locked tight, and call him back. “You can’t talk to me like that anymore,” I say, and exhale.
“Sorry, no, I know. I really want you to come. I want you to see me.”
“Go to sleep, Andrew.” I say it anyway, even though the line is dead; for the first time in four months, he doesn’t let me say it.
The mother craved rock candy, light-blue bubblegum-flavored, color of the water in candy factories by the tropical sea. Rock candy, long as the hand, craggy and clinging to a stick. The mother gnawed the rock candy with her incisors and sat on the couch watching Survivor. She filled a basket in the middle of the dining room table with sticks of blue rock candy, and father took two at a time, one in each hand. He ate one stick and hit his back pocket with the other. Son ate the most rock candy and hit mother with it. Sister ate it and threw it up. Son took the rock candy in his fists and scratched his face with it. The tiny pet person they kept to store secrets licked the rocky crumbles from the floor.
The afternoon following Andrew’s collapse, we all entered the hushed and empty waiting room, but only my mother went in with Andrew to talk with the psychiatrist, and the door closed tight. I sat under the dim lighting of lamps with tasseled shades. Stacks of The New Yorker framed the ends of plush furniture, mahogany trimmed. The waiting rooms at my dentist’s and pediatrician’s offices were bright, pastel, sterile, holding only a few crumpled parenting or financial magazines. This waiting room seemed like an appropriate place for secrets, and Dad closed his eyes against conversation. I collected several New Yorker magazines and read all of the cartoons. Then I read the poetry. The words turned into objects piled on top of each other, and I didn’t understand what they meant.
As I leaned over to read, I could see my hair out of the corner of my eye. It was the color of beige grout, but I’d convinced myself it would be pretty if I grew it long. Instead it trailed like bilge past my shoulders, begging to be cut. In the sun, I told myself, it would gleam. The lie seemed harmless and I didn’t lie to myself a lot then.
Mom emerged, and with her the official diagnosis. She had a brother with it, and now I did, too: paranoid schizophrenia.
No one had to care about a dog. Jack-Jack left that summer for a Camp of Sinkholes. His family took him out of the rock candy bowl where he slept. Some of the neighborhood dogs and all of the dogs from the pound would be at the Camp of Sinkholes. The camp was one I’ve seen on TV since I’ve never been to camp.
“What about that Disney camp where they’re all singing around the fire?” asks Andrew, and puts on a twang: “‘Country road, take me home, to the place I belong!’”
“What the hell?” This is one of those phrases I never thought I’d be able to say to Andrew again. The first night Andrew called my dorm — the summer before this year, when I’d elected summer classes rather than any time at home — he called late, around midnight, clearly agitated, mixing up words, and he asked about Jack-Jack. How was Jack-Jack? Was he being good? Was it a trouble to walk him? I stumbled into answers, embellishing more to fill the silence when he wouldn’t talk and wouldn’t hang up, and now he calls at least once a week. When he calls, I am his big sister again, the one who used to set up a tent in the backyard when I was ten and he was nine and dandelion fireflies drifted outside as we crawled into our sleeping bags and I held the flashlight in my cupped hand. Back then I told little-girl tales, blatantly lifted from books or the winsome playground noise of our lives, but Andrew loved them. Our connection to invisibilities sustained the connection we had to each other, that is, before my senior year of high school, before I did everything possible to avoid him, and we never talked unless he was screaming at me.
“You don’t remember that Disney video?” Andrew asks. “We only watched it a million times. A bunch of kids go sing around a campfire, take a hayride or whatever.”
“What, when we were three?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Yeah, new meds—I’m remembering more now.”
Some said the spiritual aspect of the campgrounds prevented the sinkholes, pocking the surrounding land for miles, from reaching the camp’s center. Some said the risk was too great, and that’s why only dogs attended the camp now. But Jack-Jack wasn’t afraid. If there was a spiritual center, he would find it.
The first evening at sunset, when all the families left and the dogs howled, sick for home, the counselors rounded up all the campers and led them down a dirt road, across a creek, along a narrow dirt path, where the panoply of trees faded into sky and dissolved to night. After miles of trotting, fifty-odd dogs in a line, all came into an enormous field, vivid green grass grown tall in some places, low in others. The green smell swirled around them in the wind.
A rumble came from beneath their paws. The trees quivered. In the distance of melted sunset, a cloud of dirt bloomed into the air with a thud. Another rumble shook the Chihuahuas until they hopped onto the backs of larger dogs. The crashing booms doubled into legions of sound in the echo. Some of the dogs leaned forward to sniff. Others scattered.
Jack-Jack scrambled out of the field and onto higher ground. He climbed alone, away from the forest and camp, until he reached an overlook. From there he could see sinkholes, some like the absence of kiddie-pools, some as big as buses, taking the trees and grounds from far off in large gulps. On the edge of the field, landscape began dropping away. The sinkholes were closing in on the camp counselors and other dogs maybe waiting for the rapture, maybe mesmerized by the smell of the earth so far down. Jack-Jack didn’t have time to run down to the field again. Nothing would be left soon but sinkholes. He barked an SOS, stood his ground, and barked over and over, until some of the dogs, looking up at him, followed his voice. He barked until his bark came hoarse and dry.
The sinkholes took the field. The sinkholes took the manager, the counselors, and the ones who stayed behind. Jack-Jack and the others shivered on the bluff. The sinkholes took the forest as an invisible giant stomped hard with his invisible great foot, and then the sinkholes took the camp.
“When are you coming home?” Andrew asks me now, after, “Good story,” every time he calls.
Fall of my senior year, jokes about Jack-Jack vanished, and the tiny sense of humor we’d sheltered vanished along with it. After school, I went straight up to my room to avoid hearing him shout at the television and make multiple trips from the den to the kitchen. Sometimes I’d come home from school to a strong smell of pizza snacks and a person I no longer recognized moaning and drugged on the couch.
Andrew stopped chewing with his mouth closed. He would stare at the wall as he ate, or else he would eye what everyone put onto their plate and scrutinize how much was left for him. I couldn’t eat around him; I could barely swallow. After meals, he began following me around the house, room to room. Once I woke up at night to see him standing in my bedroom doorway. I put a lock in my door and carried the key in my backpack.
He’d begun breaking small furniture, throwing silverware and plates, knocking the computer monitor and anything else within his reach to the floor. “Quit hiding the food!”
At the end of the fourth month, my mother stormed into the kitchen and screamed at Andrew, waving her credit card bill. He’d been charging pizzas to her credit card.
Andrew gained 60 pounds by Christmas, completely transforming his formerly athletic body. Even his face changed. His nose broadened, his cheeks puffed, his chin expanded. His feet grew and widened. One day Mom came home from JC Penney and I snuck a look at his new school clothes. He wore a size 40 waist. Nobody noticed that I went to the bathroom after every meal, and even so, I gained ten pounds. Mom and Dad assumed Andrew ate all the food. The dentist complained about my teeth, but no one listened. We stopped going to church or anywhere public.
He was a feather, a black feather drifting, and feathers surrounded him as if the streets had become pillows and the pillows burst. Meanwhile, on the horizon, dust devils and forces of the wind circled, drawing all the feathers up into the clouds. I was a feather, and everyone was a feather. The gusts blew one feather closer and spun it so hard that it tore and spun the other feathers as it whirled, and they drifted away.
In January, Andrew screamed so loud he ruptured his voice box. The doctors gave him new medication, and then switched it again. His bizarre behavior became more aggressive — he threw a rod that bounced and broke through a window; he punched two holes in the wall. He followed Mom out to the car with a kitchen knife. I obsessed over calories, over every little thing I ate, losing control, trying to get it back. As if I could control anything.
I broke up with Tom, the best friend I had in high school and my boyfriend for three years. He cried in front of me.
After the sinkholes, the dogs dispersed. Some were so distraught, they leapt into the sinkholes. Jack-Jack sneezed and his eyes were rheumy with gunk. He licked his itching paws. He needed an allergy tablet, and no one but his teacup parents had ever given him one. He thought of them as more dogs leapt into the sinkholes, giving up. Maybe they didn’t want to go back home. Maybe they didn’t want to wait all week in fear of other sinkholes.
Jack-Jack ran and rested, ran and rested until he made it back to what was left of camp. In black garbage bags he found half-eaten burgers from lunch, and he ate until his bulging belly hardened. He walked slowly down the dirt road and onto the highway outside the camp grounds. Shadows on the highway mimed trees blowing in the wind. The dust was dry on the ground and the sky was alone.
Home, what do you look like? What do you smell like? Do you have a smell just for me? Will I know you when I see you, or will I be too scared? Will I hurt you? Will you come back to me? Will I bore you? Will I ever find you again?
The cars passing frightened Jack-Jack with their kaleidoscope zooming and the dirt blew at him in their wakes. He sneezed. In the distance, a shape on the road.
A snout-nosed red truck loomed on the two-lane highway, grinding its way to a slow stop just behind Jack-Jack. A woman got out in boots, black leggings, and an oversized t-shirt. This was to be the uniform she wore all the days Jack-Jack knew her.
She scooped him up. Jack-Jack quivered, wiggling in excitement, and he stretched his flat face out as far as it would go to kiss her arm.
They sat in the red truck and regarded each other. Sunlight warmed their ears. The woman put a finger on the window, concentrating hard, and then she began to cry. She shook her head gently as if urging herself to stop. She petted Jack-Jack and covered her eyes with the other hand. He lay on his belly and contemplated her, and then climbed, testing, halfway into her lap. She hugged him there, and he sneezed, which made her smile.
As the woman’s tiny ranch house tick-ticked in the breeze, Jack-Jack snoozed throughout the day on her loveseat. Once when he woke, she was plunging her hands in the sink. Once when he woke, a man was walking around the living room, drinking a beer. He didn’t see Jack-Jack. The next time Jack-Jack woke, the woman was talking with the man at the dinner table, not arguing as much as absorbing his loud voice. She responded quietly, and he grew louder. She responded louder and he grew louder. She quieted again and he grew louder. She pulled his belt loop, and he grew louder. Finally she walked around the kitchen briskly, placing quick fingers around a cup of water, and then hurried into the bedroom. The man slammed his dishes into the sink, breaking a plate, and Jack-Jack flinched. Then the man went outside, and while he was out, the woman hurried into the living room, bundled Jack-Jack in her arms, and carried him back to the bedroom. She arranged towels in the closet and turned the bathroom vent on, and Jack-Jack snored peacefully for the rest of the night.
The belt loop was the loop that the man and woman stood inside. The sink—
“I get it,” Andrew said.
“Jack-Jack had to run away again.”
“These are better than movies.”
“No way,” I said.
“I hate violent people. I hate that I used to be that way.”
“Andrew, most of us are violent in some way.”
Safe is only a space with four sticks, like home, like hurt, like love and hate and fear. When you come home to violence, you don’t have space to wonder how you can cope. You just cope. Your head is crowded with coping, and you can’t fit anything else in. Every minute becomes a minute to avoid violence. Every second becomes a second of coping with any violence happening in the house. When will it come? How will I escape? But the thoughts of escape are merely thoughts of temporary escape. This is your family. You don’t think of leaving your family. You spend another sleepless night not planning for it to stop, but planning for more violence.
The dashboard clock looks unreal at two in the morning. You find a relatively dark area, pull into an empty parking space near a nearly-empty office building, lean the seat back, and you try to sleep, until a man from inside the building walks out with a flashlight, takes something from his car, and walks back. You drive to another area, lean the seat back so no one can see you, and try to sleep. You might cry then. You might be too terrified. No head in the world is big enough to hold a long-term plan. The future collapses into the present.
Mom and Dad asked me what kind of dog I wanted for my birthday. I had only two months left of my senior year, and they’d offered to pay the rent on an apartment near the state university I was contemplating. Since I wasn’t staying in a dorm, they said, they’d decided I could get a puppy. They knew I would take good care of it. I told them I’d changed my mind.
In the stone kitchen, Mother stood at the stove making loaves for the family’s dinner: a meat loaf, a cinnamon nutmeg loaf, a thick roll of sourdough.
Son came inside from fighting shadows in the yard. He gazed upon the stone hearth, which had been there before he was born, and would be there long after his death. The stone could not see. “Take my head and make it a stone,” he told Mother.
Mother sat beside the hearth and Son rested his head on her lap. “Cut my hair,” he said, “for it has grown into my eyes and I cannot see. Cut my hair and take my head.”
She told him to fetch her the ax, and he brought it to her. When she had positioned his head on her lap, she drew the ax high, and brought it down swiftly, chopping off his head and cutting her thigh. Mother chopped Son’s body into pieces and baked him in meatloaf and in the loaves of bread. She cut the loaves in half and tossed the halves into the fire, where they burnt up and the ashes mingled with the stones. Out of the stones came a white dove and the dove was a god. The white dove lived in the chimney and became black.
In the evening, Father came home, and the dog followed him into the house. The dog ran to hide in Sister’s room.
The family sat around the table. No one missed Son but thought he was in the yard, fighting shadows.
Father exclaimed, “This is the best meatloaf you have ever made!”
Sister found the wrist bone of her brother inside the meatloaf, and she wept.
After dinner, Sister took her plate of remaining meatloaf and buried it under a stone in the yard. From the stone grew a tree, and in the tree branches lived a white dove. The white dove was not a god.
The black dove in the chimney heard the white dove singing, “My mother she slew me, my father he ate me,” and attacked the white dove. Both died in the fight.
“Where’s Jack-Jack in that story? He’s usually in the stories.”
“He was in it.”
“Yeah? I want you to come home.”
I started a website for teens with schizophrenic relatives. I put it on my college applications: This is how I’m coping. Boy, I looked brave. It was selfish. No one would forget my admission essays. I understood the poetry in The New Yorker. I had that quality I’d always wanted. And I hated it. I hated those weird families chatting on my site. No one slung my jacket around his shoulders and kissed it to tell me he’d missed me. No one made me feel the reason for my eyes. I missed Tom.
We ran to the field where the grass was bright with the sun. We ran into a forest where the trees had trunks of mirrors. That’s how we knew they belonged to us. Whether we’d wandered to the forest and hung the mirrors in a forgetful dream, or whether the seeds we’d planted bade the mirrors to spring from the bark—we didn’t know. Maybe our minds were mirrors themselves.
In their reflections Jack-Jack saw: his teacup parents, the king and his teacup pet, a bowl of rock candy, bowls of sinkholes, bowls of stew, the bowl of a towel bed in a closet, feathers, a dream in a cathedral. Jack-Jack’s round eye was a bowl for his thoughts. The wood was thick, and Jack-Jack was tired. He wanted someone outside of the mirrors.
“There’s black fur all over everything,” I say. “I keep coughing up hairballs. That’s why I’m so hoarse.”
“Jack-Jack stayed here last week,” Andrew replies. “He’s gotten so nervous he keeps me awake howling all night. He barks at nothing.”
When he pauses, I can almost hear a clipped bark.
“I just want to sleep, Panda.”
I want to speak.
The sun sets below me and the moon rises by my side, over streets, walls, gates, sky, all intensely bright, the white of brilliant paper in the sun, and radiant voices singing. In the snowy river air I walk, until I hear a voice that isn’t the same bright note. A young man’s voice stretched thin is sobbing. And as if the white of the page has turned to the black words printed on it, the sky goes black, the road goes black, the gates, black, the walls, black, but along the walls, people sit, nursing other people who aren’t quite people, whose heads are oddly shaped and whose faces are black. Sounds rise like a blacker sun. All sounds gain voices and cry out: My sister. People along the wall breathe sound as air, color, smell and thought. I don’t pass through the gates, but take my place beside Andrew. As people pass us by, I say, You will crawl on your belly and eat dust. I say, Cursed is the ground because of you. I am hoping God will pass through these streets. These are the words God said to his newborn children the first time they made a mistake. Andrew hasn’t made mistakes, so I say these words to God. And as if the letters have been rearranged to give scope and grandeur to our hopes and dreams — to our nightmares — God becomes a dog, and no one has to care about a dog.
I wanted loyalty, the kind that carried no before and no after. I thought I could have this in Tom, the proximity so right like home should be. Rushing fast from danger at home, I ran without paying attention, and I ran into him. I knocked him over. It happens again, and again. I see him fall, and I lean over, clutching my stomach. The heart that breaks me over — breaks me, over and over.
Outside of my dorm window, the wind passes through golden trees.
“I know Jack-Jack’s not real. You know that, right?” Andrew doesn’t wait for my reply. “The new meds make me tired, but I can see myself, compared to other people, I guess. I drink lots of coffee.”
He laughs at his own joke over my faint reply. “That’s good.” So I say it louder. “That’s great.”
“Do people ever feel sorry for you when you tell them you have a crazy brother?”
I think about Tom, kissing me in my old car while the emergency brake poked us. “I don’t really talk about it now. But listen, I can tell you’re better.”
“Sometimes I feel bad when I think about the things I did.”
Sometimes I think remorse will drive us both crazy. “You don’t have to feel bad, I’ve told you. It wasn’t your fault,” I say. He said it in the van all the way home from the diagnosis — I’m sorry, I’m sorry — and he never stopped apologizing, not because he actually believes it’s his fault, but because who else will apologize?
Andrew, I have tried to find all the apologies ever created and give them to you. I have tried to find apologies that haven’t been created.
“You’re coming home?” he asks.
“I’m coming. Tomorrow.”
“I hope Jack-Jack found a happy home,” Andrew says.
This is how all my stories begin.