Tesia’s eyes were like a fly, bold and alert from the expression on my face. I had never heard my mom cry before. She was a strong woman, sometimes scary, and she commanded the house without question. So, as I sat across from Tesia silent with the phone to my ear, I was more in shock from my mother’s gurgled words than what she actually told me. I got up, phone still to my ear, and shoved my notebooks from the table into my bag.
Andrew hurry. The click of the phone was frantic.
“What’s going on?” Tesia asked, the stick of her DumDum swirling across her lips.
“I gotta go,” I said, adjusting my jacket. I wondered if the guilt I felt was plastered on my face. Either way, her embrace was comforting, and while I waited for my older brother Chris to leave his class, I had never felt more in need of consolation. His door slammed, and the frustration on his face was obvious. His soft hazel eyes juxtaposed the deep canyon crease in his forehead, arms tightly crossed.
“Dude, what the fuck? I just failed my quiz.” Chris and I were always taught failure is not an option; A’s are not a choice. Maybe he’ll understand.
“Ryan’s been in an accident,” I say.
“What kind of accident?” he said, arms uncomfortably dropping to his sides.
“The kind that ends at the hospital.”
When our Ford Focus whipped out of the Chaffey College parking lot, Chris’s eyes only left the road to check the clock on the dashboard. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it too. Is mom timing us? It’s already been twenty minutes since I hung up the phone, and we are only passing the 15. “It’ll be at least another thirty before we reach Loma Linda. Tell her that.” The red taillights in front of us paced themselves, and while Chris’ grip on the steering wheel grew tighter from nervousness, my seatbelt reminded me of Tesia’s hug, her hands patting my back as if to say it’s ok, you didn’t know.
“Dude, she was crying,” I said. His eyes widened from surprise. I suspected his reaction was the face I made when I heard mom stumble over her words for the first time.
“And she didn’t tell you what happened?”
“ No. Just…” I couldn’t wrap my head around anything she told me. “Just to come to the ER at Loma Linda.” I felt irresponsible for not remembering. I knew keeping quiet was easier; he couldn’t judge me for my apathy. Chris was always hard to gauge. He was as distant to Ryan as I was, but if he received the call first, Chris, the rebel, worldly and relatable, would have turned into Superman and drifted across the sky like a lens flare to meet my parents in the lobby.
Ryan was always in his own world. When Chris and I would be up late studying for finals to top off another 4.0 semester, he was watching reruns of SpongeBob. While we were seventeen and twenty touring overseas under a record deal, he was fourteen, flooding the front yard watching the intricacies of the flowing water stream down the sidewalk. Everyday, he waited by the mailbox for hours to talk to neighbors about whose Christmas decorations were still up in April or how late the mail women was today.
It was never his fault. He was born that way, but I chose to accept it rather than understand it. As the car jolted with every acceleration of traffic, the shame in my stomach that usually dissolved in the acid only cut deeper on the long drive to the hospital.
The ER smelled like dry blood and rubber. People lined up cramped along the walls in wheel chairs and on gurneys. They all looked dazed, glossed over eyes never meeting mine. We ran up to the women behind the desk, idly typing away. She didn’t have any fucks left to give.
“Hi, we are here for Ryan Eames,” Chris said. “He been admitted to the ER.”
She skimmed her computer screen and looked up at us, her screen glaring across her glasses. “Down the hall, make a left.” She handed us stickers with the words guest on it. “Here.” The tone of her voice was deep, unmoved by the chaos around her. She was used to the rubber and blood. No matter how we left, she wouldn’t remember us, and I’d never felt so insignificant.
“Thanks.” Chris grabbed them, handed me one, and rushed down the hall. I followed behind, eying a drugged teenager on a gurney with his leg in a cast. He breathed so quietly, drowning out the cries and screams around the corner. When I passed him, he stared blankly at the wall. It didn’t matter if his eyes were open, everything was a jungle he turned his back to, and I was just another strange tree.
“Andrew, you made it.” My grandma’s crackled voice grabbed my attention, and as I collided into her one-armed embrace, I could tell she had been crying. “Your mom called, and oh God, Ryan…he just didn’t pay attention.”
“Did you see him, Gram Cracker?” I asked.
“No, but they’re all in there; Papa too,” she replied while pointing her good arm to the wall behind her. “I saw Chris came too. That’s good. He needs you both.”
I told her I’d be back to keep her company once I let everyone know I arrived. I was unclear if I said that to keep her company as Papa, the veteran, stood knee-deep in the action, or if I just couldn’t handle what was on the other side of that wall.
When I let go of her hand, I rounded the corner and saw my mom, grandfather, and Chris on one side of a room separated by a curtain. I stepped in.
“You’ll be ok Ryan,” Papa said to the back side of the curtain.
As I stepped further in the room, I saw Ryan’s weathered down Vans sticking off the edge of a gurney. They twitched incessantly. As my mom turned her head as a gut reaction to Ryan’s scream, she saw me and wiped her tears.
“Ryan, Andrew’s here too.” She motioned me to come closer, and I cautiously obliged. With each of my steps, I saw more of Ryan. He was unmistakable. His tanned legs squirmed, covered in hair and dirt from the showers he never took, and his ratted brown shorts he wore all summer were torn, as if a velociraptor has chased him down.
“Un-dwoo.” My named slurred from his mouth. I took my last step and looked up at his face the surgeon was sewing together.
His face was split down the middle horizontally. His top lip laid limp like a torn flag, separated into two halves beneath the base of his nose. The bridge of his nose, once round like a parrot beak, was flat as if the earth grated it down like it was nothing. He extended his bloody hand to me, shaking from the weight of his arm.
I grabbed his hand in mine, as my father held his other. I never touched his hand before. It was so coarse, from the sprinklers he dug out of the ground and weeds he pulled. And when he gripped my hand harder, still shaking, I wondered if my father noticed the same things.
“Yuh hewa Un-dwoo,” he said. His brown eyes were splattered red from his river tears, and as I stood in the ER, holding his nubby fingers in my palm, I was Simon of Cyrene, helping Ryan carry his cross. The mountain he faced felt so large, and all I could do was ease the burden of his climb. And beneath his blood-soaked hair, he didn’t remember all the times I wasn’t there; he only lived in the moment. This was the first time I saw my little brother, an extension of me, my blood across his disfigured face.
“Yes, I’m here Ryan,” I choked.
“Big brothers always come to rescue their little brothers,” the surgeon said beneath his mask. “Now, I’m going to give you another dose of anesthesia before I put your lips together, ok big man?
“Nuh shouts. Nuh. Nuh.” Ryan tried to shake his head, but all he could was clamp down on my hand.
“I have to give you a shot, big man. It’ll make you feel better.”
It wasn’t the surgeon’s fault. He couldn’t have known. The autism wasn’t as obvious as his lips. Shot was a bad word. Like fuck. To him, the surgical needle was less scary than the injection needle because when the doctor said stitch, Ryan thought of Disney Channel.
The surgeon turned to my father who stood unwavering in Ryan’s grip with a worried look in his eyes. “Sir, he’s eighteen. I don’t need parental consent to not prescribe the anesthesia, but, I’m asking if you’d like me to continue.”
My father nodded.
As the surgeon looped the needle through Ryan’s flesh, his body flailed like a drunken seagull. I never saw him react to pain before. When my mom noticed Ryan had sliced his hand as a child, he hid it in his pocket until his entire pant leg was bloodied and stained. He was afraid he would get in trouble. Like always. He stomached pain like an alcoholic. But here, beneath the white lights and his terrified audience, Ryan made it very apparent ever prick of the pinpoint hurt.
“I’m here,” my father responded. “Daddy’s here.”
Every time the needle entered his lip, he screamed like clockwork.
And like clockwork, my father responded, “I’m here.” Even he, the man of men, patriarch of my life, let his tears puddle on the floor.
We stood in a semi-circle around the operation, trying to soothe his pain, his aches, the hurt he finally felt comfortable showing, because everyone in the room remembered that his body was eighteen, but his mind was seven. This was a child covered in the body of a man.
For the first time, I wanted to hug him. To love him. The love that I never gave him. I wanted to go back in time and jump between his face and the pavement he slammed into at forty miles a hour on his bike. I wanted to be his helmet. But I couldn’t. I was just a brother’s hand.
Jac Manfield is a published poet and fiction writer based in Southern California. In addition to being an internationally published songwriter, he is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Jac’s latest project is a collection of short fiction titled “Anguish: A Collection of Short Stories.