Don’t Worry, Little Sis
by Ellen Tremiti
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
We parked in Pope Julius’ parking lot, and the brick structure loomed over me as we got closer to the entrance. I felt like a criminal when we entered the school, as if I was his accomplice. We shared the same parents, the same house, the same clothes. I wanted to be like him once. But look who he had become.
Sitting in Father Dan’s office reminded me of a hunting trip, even though I’d never been hunting. There were mallards, oak, hunter green, navy blue, brown leather chairs, and practically a zoo of taxidermied animals. Their glass eyes stared at us, as did Father Dan, but it was clear wild game wasn’t what he was after today. I heard a clock tick, tick, tick. My brother was sitting in a corner, his handcuffs removed. The door was shut. My mom was sitting in another leather chair and, I, in a third. My dad was stuck at work. The police were in the hall. My brother had been roughed up a little. Perhaps he had tripped when all of the commotion broke out. Yet another town scandal. He had a small cut on his hand and a bruise on his face.
Father Dan was probably in his sixties. He had a pleasant enough face, but there was a sternness to it. His plump frame suited him, as did his thin, wire glasses.
“We love Michael,” he began. “We think he has a bright future. His homework and attendance are not stellar, but his overall test scores are high, above average. Michael is” — Father Dan paused — “a good kid, and he’ll continue to do well in school.” He coughed. “Just not here.”
That was the second time a grownup told me who my brother was.
“We have statements that he is responsible for writing a threat against our school on a desk in art class,” Father Dan continued. “The police photographed the desk and searched his locker. It contained notebooks, one of which had inappropriate drawings and statements in it. I have retained that notebook as evidence of our ruling.”
I looked up at that. Under some papers on Father Dan’s desk, I saw the corner of Michael’s red notebook.
“Please understand, it is with a heavy heart that I have made this decision,” he paused. “Michael is hereby expelled from Pope Julius.”
My brother said nothing the entire time. On the way home he held his spiral notebooks limply. The red one was missing. It had been almost completely full when I paged through it. It wasn’t really a notebook, it was a sketchbook. And it didn’t depict school violence, nor were there threats in it.
It was entirely filled with sketches of monsters.
I began to believe my brother was acting out against the faux-normalcy of suburbia. He was banging on painted backdrops and two-way mirrors, screaming at the bystanders who gawked at him from beyond the enclosure, begging them to actually talk about things that mattered, about life and death. He was drowning in placation. At the same time, he just wanted to know he was safe. I knew he wanted to believe only good existed, but just couldn’t. He was the kind of child who would have noticed the strings during a puppet show but who never would have wanted to point them out.
But Michael had a secret. He knew something that day in Father Dan’s office that I wouldn’t learn until much later. Michael knew he shouldn’t have been expelled because he wasn’t the one who wrote the threat on the desk in art class, but he knew who did.
His friend Jimmy had written the threat. And later that week, Jimmy shot himself in the stomach.
Jimmy’s death didn’t make sense. My parents weren’t surprised, though. To them, all of my brother’s friends had as many problems as he did: troubled kids with troubled minds. Anyone who worshipped the kind of music my brother did, outsiders, agitators, weirdos, had inner demons, not to mention the drugs and underage drinking. They huffed, snorted, injected, and swallowed whatever substances they could get their hands on. These tragedies happened to kids like that. But I knew Jimmy laughed at the kids he sold pills and pot to. He laughed at suburbia, and he was going to get out. I wondered why someone like that would give up.
I overheard my brother on the phone with a friend. He said he couldn’t stop seeing it even though he wasn’t there. He couldn’t stop seeing the image of Jimmy’s last moments, lying in his room in a pool of his own blood, waiting for his mother to walk in and find him. He, too, couldn’t believe this had happened.
After that, the nightly 1:00 a.m. trips started up again. I lay awake under my bed covers, in my bedroom above the garage. I heard my brother bound lightly down the stairs, as he always did, his manic energy driving his steps. I heard our parents’ van start up. The garage door opened and closed. Sometimes I watched the van drive away, peeking out my window as the headlights disappeared into blackness.
On certain days my brother would run down the driveway, usually after dinner, and meet friends by our mailbox. It was always dark out. He’d take a few minutes down there, and then they would drive off. My parents were watching their nightly television shows and didn’t seem to care or notice. Once again, I was the one peeking out the window, and I had so many questions.
* * *
After classes let out, I walked from the middle school over to Pope Julius and looked for Michael’s friends, Marx and Blake, but both were absent for a while following Jimmy’s death. One Friday, I was about to give up and go home when I saw a group of kids whispering to each other. I looked past them and noticed Blake. He was with Marx at the edge of the football field, kicking at the ground with his toe. The kids stared at them for another moment before getting on their bus. I walked towards them, across the parking lot, towards the football field.
“Hey, Marx! Blake!”
They said hi with a touch of sadness. The buses evacuated in a loud line behind us.
“What’s wrong with Michael?” I said.
They exchanged a glance. Marx said, “Well...”
“I’m worried about him,” I said. “What’s going on?”
Blake sighed. “Same thing happened to Jimmy.”
“You know,” Blake said. “Same thing that happens to all of us in this crappy town. There’s a lot of bad stuff here, and no one wants to talk about it.”
“Is it, you know, drugs or something?” I said, voicing my suspicion.
They exchanged another glance.
“Jimmy had a lot of problems,” Blake said. “It’s not hard to get whatever you want. Newark’s only an hour away, not even.”
“We didn’t do enough for him,” Marx said.
“We tried. We thought we knew how. If we coulda just gotten him out before they—”
Marx nudged Blake, and Blake stopped himself and looked away.
“I’m sorry, but we gotta go,” Marx said. “Take care of yourself.”
Blake nodded in agreement and they walked off, towards the wooded area behind the school.
From then on, my brother only got worse, spiraling downward. He stole my lunch money more than once. I didn’t want to tell my parents, because they already fought often over everything my brother did: what he wore, who he hung out with, when he was supposed to be grounded.
He found the key to my mom’s jewelry dresser and stole her hidden migraine pain pills. He became more and more jittery and spoke in quick, loud, manic speech. He vomited and didn’t clean up the bathroom. I cleaned it up for him, some part of me still wanting to protect him from my parents, from more fights, from groundings and punishment.
When he stole my dad’s keys and was halfway backed down the driveway in our parents’ van, I ran out the front door, cutting him off. He hit the brakes as I walked around the side of the car, to the driver’s side. His window was already rolled down and his music played, heavy and loud, in the background.
“Why are you doing this?” I said.
“I can’t be here.” He was expressionless, barely looking at me from behind black sunglasses.
“What are you talking about? Where are you going?”
“I don’t... want... to talk about it.”
“That’s just great, Michael.” My voice, tinny and small again, had the strength of an autumn leaf hanging onto a dead branch, but Michael’s voice shook too with some emotion I couldn’t pin down.
“Don’t you think I know that you and Mom and Dad would be better off if I wasn’t here?” he said. “You’re the good kid.”
I paused, listening to his music and the drone of the car idling. “All I ever wanted was to be like you,” I said.
At that, he didn’t move, but the car did. It shuddered and went still. He swung the door open, and I had to jump back to get out of his way. He grabbed a gas can from the trunk and took off down the driveway. It wasn’t until he was completely out of sight that I realized my hands were balled into tight fists.
I was going about this the wrong way. I couldn’t get through to my brother. There was a schism between us that we couldn’t reach across. I was beginning to think there was something else going on in our town. The way everyone acted like things were fine when they weren’t, the kids who constantly pulled through the bottom of our driveway, Father Dan stealing my brother’s red sketchbook. My brother may have been bipolar, but that didn’t explain all of this. If I couldn’t talk to my brother, I had to find out some other way.
* * *
I snuck into his room, but something felt different. It was the middle of a Saturday, and sunlight was streaming through the small dual windows. Dust floated down towards his bed. His room had gotten messier. Heaps of black clothes sat next to his band equipment, CDs, DVDs, books, crumpled posters, a few new dents punctured his walls and ceiling.
I looked in his blue pencil pouch. This time, it was empty. I put it back in his desk drawer and knelt down next to the bed. I reached underneath and pulled out his serial killer DVD, his Weird NJ book, and his notes. I flattened myself against the ground and peered under the bed skirt. I reached back as far as I could and felt my hands graze something that crinkled under my fingertips. I reached a little further, grabbed it, and pulled out a light brown paper bag. It had pen scribbled on it.
The crinkled bag distorted the scrawled drawing, and I smoothed it out with my fingers. It was a pentagram drawn in dark ink, just like the one on Jimmy’s favorite shirt. I felt the familiar pounding in my temples. I felt the heaviness in my chest, like someone was watching me or about to walk in. I pulled open the bag and dumped out its contents, sucking in a breath as I did.
There on the carpeted floor by the burn mark were needle-tipped syringes and small, wax paper envelopes with pentagrams stamped on them. I didn’t know exactly what they meant, but I knew it was bad. I touched a syringe and wondered if I should go right to my parents or to Michael. I so very badly didn’t want to start the fight that I knew would happen. I didn’t want the family explosion, but I left the items on the floor and got up anyway.
I walked down the hall and into my parents’ bedroom. To my surprise, I found my brother in a crumpled heap on the floor. My mom was standing over him and just looked at me. “Michael’s addicted to heroin,” she said.
When I first heard the words, all the air left my lungs and I felt like the floor had fallen away below me, but my outward reaction was to nod and walk away, leaving my poker-faced mother with my brother lying on the floor. My brother’s behavior finally made sense. It slowly sunk in as I walked out, down my stairs, through the front door, and down the driveway. I just walked for a while, around my neighborhood, surrounded by woods on either side of me.
* * *
I joined a cheerleading team for the winter basketball season and stopped wearing my brother’s clothes. I threw away his chain necklace and told him I didn’t know where it was. My brother completed a stint in rehab and started taking suboxone, a drug that helps heroin addicts fight withdrawal symptoms.
I pretended I didn’t care what he did anymore, and I had grown up that year. My round face thinned, and I was starting to look like an all-American teenager. I even made a few new friends and started to create my own style, separate and apart from my brother. I felt myself grow a little bit louder, thanks in part to the cheerleading squad. But it didn’t change the fact that the person I looked up to the most had betrayed me and I didn’t know how to heal. Deep down, I still saw my brother as my hero, the bright, unique boy with his own point of view and his artistic and musical talents, but now, it felt more like a visceral feeling I couldn’t shake, like I felt this way simply because of our familial bond, instead of something real or concrete.
Sometimes, after brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed, I stopped and stood in my doorway, looking at my brother’s closed door, directly across from mine. The door handle had broken off one of the times he slammed his door and Michael had covered the hole with duct tape. He also weighted the door shut with items from his room. I could tell when my brother’s windows were open because his door would flap wildly back and forth between the door jam and whatever he had holding it shut, causing an unsettling, fluttering, pounding noise. When it was quiet and he wasn’t around, I tried to open his door, but found it jammed from the inside. He had completely shut me out.
Michael’s nightly one-o’clock trips stopped, and I convinced myself that maybe, finally, he was getting better, that the treatments did their job, and the nightmare of the past year was just that. We all could breathe and wake up, and for a little while, that was true. But a few weeks later, in the middle of the night, the shudder of the garage woke me.
I lay awake and heard the routine: the soft footsteps, the door sliding open, my parents’ minivan rolling down the driveway and into the night to places unknown. It continued after that, but I couldn’t sleep in the interim anymore. I stayed awake until three or four in the morning rolled around and the garage creaked, signaling my brother’s return. I was always too afraid to crawl out from the safety of my covers and confront him. The sleeplessness wore on me, dragging me down, until I felt furious, crazed even. I really wanted to know, no, I needed to know, what my brother saw at night. I needed to know for sure he’d relapsed. I refused to sleep anymore and wait for the sounds to wake me. I had a plan.
Copyright © 2019 by Ellen Tremiti