GUYS GUYS GUYS GUYS GUYS!!! My university’s literary journal was finally printed and my story was published. Now that it’s published I’m free to post it where I like. So here it is!
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Seven Little Words
It was almost midnight when I got the text from my little brother. Hey, you awake?
I frowned at the screen. Texts like that rarely preceded something good. Hoping that I was just seeing through jade-colored glasses, I texted back, Of course. What’s up?
His response back was almost immediate. Can I come over?
The warning bells jangled in my head. It wasn’t the first time Aaron had been to my apartment, but never so late. Aaron was two and a half years younger than I was and still lived with our mother and step-father. He had just finished his first year of college and had only been home for a few days. We had lunch plans on Saturday, so whatever this was couldn’t wait until then. Sure, I replied. You remember how to get here?
Yes, be there in ten, came the answer.
Eight minutes later there was a soft knock at my door. I opened it, revealing Aaron. Right away I could tell that something was wrong. Aaron looked wrung out: thin, wan, tired. He was slumped forward, as if an invisible weight kept him from standing upright. There were black shadows under his eyes and his mouth was set in a grim line. He was dressed in ratty basketball shorts and a tank top that read, ‘Sun’s Out, Guns Out.’ Despite my growing worry, I couldn’t help but laugh on seeing it.
“You’re a dork,” I told him, pointing at his shirt.
“Good to see you, too, Sis,” he shot back. “Let’s go for a walk.” I shrugged and grabbed my keys and a hoodie to throw over my pajama top. We headed out of my apartment complex and down the street toward the neighborhood park. It was the beginning of summer. The air was warm and the sky was clear. I looped my arm through Aaron’s and walked while looking up at the night sky, letting him keep me from stumbling.
“How were finals?” I asked.
“Fine,” he answered.
“How’s living with Mom again?” I wanted to know.
“Fine,” he replied. “Mom’s Mom, y’know? I haven’t really seen Terry, yet, since he works all day.” Terry was our step-father. He and our mother had married when Aaron and I were young. To me, Terry was simply ‘Dad’ because my biological father hadn’t been in the picture before the marriage. Aaron’s father, Frank, had broken up with our mother shortly after Aaron was born. The breakup had been very messy. Despite that, Frank had wanted to be part of Aaron’s life, so Aaron had gone from one house to the other twice a month. He never quite took to calling Terry ‘Dad.’
“You okay?” I asked a few minutes later. Aaron shrugged and pulled his phone out of his pocket. He didn’t provide any other answer, but I wasn’t too worried. Years of living with him had taught me that pushing him to talk, the way our mother did with us as teenagers, would not end well. Pushing me led to tears and me shutting down as hard as I could. Pushing Aaron led to screaming fights and slammed doors. Aaron would talk about whatever was bothering him when he was ready and not a moment before. All I had to do was wait.
So I watched as his thumb flicked lazily over the touchscreen. He was playing a game. At the top of the screen was a list of hints. Below that were boxes with letters in them in combinations of two, three, and four.
“What are you playing?” I asked, leaning over to get a better look.
“Seven Little Words,” he answered. “It’s a word game. You gotta make a word with the letter combinations there. There’s prompts. Like…” he read the list of prompts. “‘Haptophobic’s fear.’” He made a face. “What the hell is haptophobia?”
“The fear of touch,” I informed him.
Aaron looked at the boxes. Sure enough, there was a box with ‘TOU’ and one with ‘CH’. He poked the screen, typing in the answer. The game dinged. “Damn, it worked,” he muttered. He turned so he could give me an incredulous look. “How do you know this shit?”
“I’m an English major,” I scoffed. “I read, I write, and because I write, I research. Do you know how weird my Google search history looks? The NSA probably thinks I’m a serial killer.” Aaron snorted and looked back at the screen. He went quiet again. I watched him play two levels of his game. Most of the hints were easy things like ‘roller skating waitress,’ the answer being ‘carhop.’ Aaron picked them out quickly, getting stuck only occasionally. I, too, looked at the hints and the available combinations.
“‘Makes a choice,” I stated, nuding him with my elbow. “Try ‘decides.’” Ding! I did a wiggle dance of victory.
“My dad’s getting divorced,” Aaron blurted.
I stopped my victory wiggle in surprise. Aaron didn’t talk about that side of his family often. Residual feelings of resentment from the breakup meant Mom didn’t want to hear about Frank or Aaron’s step-mother Colette. Sometimes, Aaron would talk to me about them, though, so I knew a little bit. They had been married for something like twenty years. They had two elementary school-aged children named Evelyn and Marcus. Their family had always sounded like something out of Leave It To Beaver: idyllic, stable, and normal.
“I’m sorry to hear that…” I said carefully. “Did they say why?”
“Colette’s had enough,” Aaron explained. “Of him. Of him… not trying. Or of not getting ‘what she needs.’ I guess she’s sick of pushing him to, like, be more or something. She’s been cheating on him for years.” He poked his phone, attention back on the game. A couple more dings and a longer chime marked him finishing another level. He frowned when the next list of hints came up. “‘Tippy boat.’ Five letters.”
“A kayak?” I guessed. Aaron squinted at the screen and shook his head.
“Letters don’t match,” he said. His thumb worked over the screen and I heard another ding. “Canoe.”
“Damn,” I muttered. “Anyway… That sucks. How’s Frank taking it?”
“Not great,” Aaron sighed. “He just… stopped everything. He’s not working or keeping up the house or cooking, even. He orders take-out and drinks all the time.” He jabbed a finger at his phone, again, pulling up another hint. “‘Covered in spider silk.’ What’s spider silk?”
“Cobwebs,” I replied.
Aaron shook his head. “Needs nine letters.”
“Uh, try past tense? Cobwebbed?” Ding!
“They were always a normal couple, y’know?” Aaron went on. “Like, super boring normal parents you see on sitcoms or some shit. Nobody lost their shit at the drop of a hat, and nobody got blindsided by someone losing their shit. Everything’s done all calm and rational, and feelings are actually okay. Like, you’re expected to feel and you’re allowed to express it.” He paused, chewing on his lower lip. “You know how Mom makes you feel like you’re the one going crazy? And how you’re just… awful? The worst person in the world?”
I did know what he meant. Growing up, being at home had been like navigating a minefield. One wrong move or word and everything blew up in spectacular fashion. There had been days when I moved as quietly as possible and didn’t speak so as not to draw attention to myself. Any emotional reaction from us was treated like it was irrational or wrong. If you tried to fight back you were attacked, spun in endless circles until you didn’t know which way was up. Somewhere along that line, you had been convinced that your response was indeed wrong and that you were scum for feeling it. How dare you be upset when you had no reason to be?
The confrontations had never been physical, but more than once I had curled up in the fetal position in my room, trying to cry quietly so I wouldn’t be heard.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“My dad and Colette don’t do that,” Aaron said.
Aaron’s father’s house had been a sanctuary for him; a place to hide and recuperate. He grew up being able to fight, if only a little, because he had someone in his corner backing him up. I hadn’t ever had a place like that and instead developed a kind of hypervigilance and heavy emotional armor. Looking over my shoulder all the time was exhausting and the armor was so thick it kept me cut off from everything, good and bad.
“And it was like, the bad was not the norm,” Aaron continued. “Mom’s… off, yeah, and it’s bad sometimes, but it’s not normal shit. It can’t be normal, right?”
“That shit is the normal,” I told him quietly. “In this day and age, the functional families are the weird ones.”
“‘Piratical disease,’” Aaron murmured.
“But everything seemed just fine,” Aaron insisted. “It came out of nowhere! They haven’t been fighting or anything. It was business as usual. And she just left us.” Left me, I heard. I remembered, when we were younger, Aaron would wax poetic about Colette. She was a good woman, and provided a kind of stability that Aaron needed in his life. When most kids said that they wanted to help people, their elders patted them on the head and said, “Okay, you do that, then.” When Aaron said he wanted to go into Psychology to maybe be a therapist and help people, Colette hadn’t balked or given him a dismissive answer. She had offered him any assistance or support he needed without hesitation or expectation of repayment.
That, to me, was the strangest part, that the assistance was offered with no strings attached and no catch. There were always strings attached and there was always a catch. Even random “gifts” had a catch. I learned early not to ask for help unless I had no other choice because there would be a price to pay. Sometimes no price was stated, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. With those, the price would be collected later and it would hang over my head like the Sword of Damocles. Sometimes, the price was one I wouldn’t have agreed to had I known beforehand.
That wasn’t a thing in Frank and Colette’s household, apparently. That place, for Aaron, was tangible, visible proof that maybe, just maybe, we weren’t wrong to think that something wasn’t quite right at home. It was a stable foundation for him to build on, but the foundation was crumbling and so Aaron crumbled with it.
I stepped in close and shoved myself under his arm, wrapping myself around his too-skinny body. I didn’t have words to offer him to make anything better, but a hug could be a momentary comfort. Aaron enveloped me with an exhausted noise. Even his hug felt tired.
“What happens to Evelyn and Marcus?” I wanted to know.
“Shared custody, I think,” Aaron replied. “Just like with me. They’re still working out the details, there. Colette’s moved out and taken them with her. School’s ended, so no reason to stick around, I guess.” He paused and I heard him clicking about on his phone. “‘Causing harm.’ Eight letters.”
I looked at the screen and the letter combinations available. My mind went through the synonyms I knew for harm: abuse, ruin, hurt, damage–
“Damaging,” I said. Ding!
We stood still for another moment. I had one more question that I didn’t want to ask. I already knew the answer. I could feel it in Aaron’s bony fingers. I could see it in his down-turned mouth and dulled eyes. Aaron’s eyes had never been dull before. In the end, I needed to hear it and I could tell that Aaron needed to say it. “And you?”
The pause that followed was painful. I could hear Aaron’s heartbeat in my ear. It was normal, steady, lacking anything out of the ordinary. Both of us already knew the answer. “I don’t… think I know how to help anyone, anymore,” he eventually admitted. “I’m just… sad. And I kind of want the world to be sad with me.”
I shut my eyes and sighed. My arms tightened around Aaron’s waist as if I could somehow protect him by keeping him close. Aaron’s bright optimism had been like color in a world gone gray. In that instant I knew that he would settle into tired acceptance and the grim continuation that infected the young and disillusioned. I knew that he would grow to be strong and stubborn, but the hope he had once radiated would be gone.
“I love you,” I murmured. “And I’m here.”
“I know,” he said.. “Thanks.” He let out a weak chuckle. “‘To split in two.’ Six letters.”
“Divide,” I answered.