Michael & His Brother

Joshua R. Helms



Michael and his brother are in the backseat of their grandmother's car and they're telling each other stories with their action figures. Their grandmother slows to a stop at a traffic light, the highway teeming. It's summer and Michael and his brother are sweaty, their backs sticking to their shirts, their shirts sticking to the leather seats in their grandmother's car. Michael is three and his brother is six and they're going to their grandparents' house for the weekend. The brothers' parents are fighting again, but Michael's brother keeps telling Michael it means nothing. Michael's brother makes an explosion sound and his action figures fly in every direction. Michael's action figures come to the rescue. We need more bandages, Michael says. I think this one's dying, Michael says. Then the sound of metal against metal and their grandmother's car jolts forward slightly. Shit, their grandmother says. It is the only time that Michael and his brother have heard their grandmother swear. Everything echoes in Michael's ear and he starts to cry. Michael's brother reaches for Michael's hand. Everything's going to be okay, their grandmother says, but Michael doesn't believe her.



Bus Stop

Michael and his brother wait together. Michael's brother holds Michael's hand and Michael's other hand holds a plastic blue lunch box. An older kid named William calls Michael's brother a faggot and Michael doesn't understand what that means. Michael is only seven years old. Michael's brother is only ten years old. William is fourteen years old and wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off. Michael's brother whispers to Michael, Just ignore him, the bus is almost here. William punches Michael's brother in the back of the head and Michael screams and his brother hits the sidewalk. Michael's brother's face is bleeding. Michael's hand is white around the lunch box handle. William laughs as he boards the bus. Neighborhood kids point their tiny fingers out of windows at Michael and his brother. Michael helps his brother off of the ground and takes his hand. Let's go home, Michael says. Michael's brother leans down and picks up a few rocks. He throws them in the open windows as the bus rolls away.




Michael and his brother at their father's funeral. Mourners huddle around their father but neither brother approaches. Neither brother lingers, their fingers tracing the casket or settling for a moment on their father's joined hands. Michael and his brother sit next to their mother. Michael doesn't recognize most of the men who shake his hand and Michael's brother nods when a group of women says he looks so much like his father. Their mother dabs at her eyes with their father's handkerchief. Michael doesn't look like his father or his mother, but somehow he manages to look like a smaller version of his brother. Michael puts his hands on either side of the wood bench beneath him just to see how small they are against it. He traces one hand with the finger of another. His hands are so much smaller than his father's and his brother's and his mother's. Michael traces and traces and traces. Michael's brother puts his hand on Michael's shoulder. Michael traces his hand one more time. Michael's brother says, It's time, Michael. Michael can't stop looking at his hands.



School Night

Michael and his brother in the kitchen after dinner. One bare-chested and the other in a stained and sleeveless D.A.R.E. t-shirt. Each full of pizza and beer, their parents nowhere to be found. Michael stands and his brother stands and the refrigerator is open, cool air prickling skin. A knife passes between them. A hand slips and a stomach is punctured. One brother falls to the floor and the other follows. Deep breaths and trembling fingers and the knife is carefully removed. Michael and his brother put their hands to the wound. Michael's brother calls 9-1-1 and Michael says, Someone's been stabbed. The paramedics arrive. One looks like Michael and the other looks like his brother. Michael and his brother say, He's in here. Michael and his brother say, We couldn't stop the bleeding.




Michael sets his brother's license on the bar and the bartender slides a gin and tonic in Michael's direction. Michael's brother used to drink gin straight from the bottle and chain smoke until the darkness in their yard began to fill with sunlight. Michael's throat burns and he remembers the last time he hugged his brother, summer and sweaty and the sound of a Carpenters record playing through the open window. Michael's brother said, Sometimes I think I see Dad at the grocery store or crossing the street or staring back at me in the mirror. Michael said, Sometimes I think we never had parents at all. Michael finishes his drink and his eyes water. He thinks the bartender is handsome. The bartender slides another drink and Michael reaches out and their fingers touch briefly. Michael smiles and the bartender smiles. In another life, Michael thinks. His phone rings and he answers, putting a finger in his other ear to muffle the noise around him. They're missing, Natalie says. Your brother and MJ are missing. Michael steps outside and onto the street. Every passerby looks like his brother and each has a dark-haired child on their back. What do you mean, they're missing? Michael asks. They're gone, Natalie says. They're not here.