Back to Issue Twenty-One.

he never failed me yet

BY AIDAN FORSTER

 

Runner-Up for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Prose
South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts & Humanities, '18
Selected by Allegra Hyde
 

            My brother is born the day after Valentine’s in 2003. At school, Ms. Douglas helps me make my mother a card from pink and red construction paper. I forget to give it to her on the 14th so offer it the next day. She knows the baby is coming, packed her red suitcase the week before, but I am too young to understand. She tells me to put the card on the table, that she’ll read it after her labor. I leave it open-faced: two boys drawn in blue crayon, solid and strong under kitchen light, I love you strung like a cord from our mouths.

*

            A risk gene is a rare genetic glitch or mutation. Coupled with environmental factors such as maternal age at conception, risk genes yield autistic children. My brother is older than his risk genes—discovered only five years ago—they plague him before they even have names.

*

            We visit doctors. They perform tests, bring my brother into paper-white rooms and come out grim-faced. They’re always sorry, and my brother always has autism. My parents scour the Internet for experimental studies, alternative medicine, clickbait cure-alls my pharmacist mother thinks are hazardous but bookmarks anyways. My brother starts a therapy regimen, two appointments a week for eight years, home visits every day for five. Doctors draw our blood into syringes. My mother says they’re testing our genome. I don’t know what this means. I watch my blood trickle backwards into the needle, and the nice nurse calls my veins easy.

*

            Mr. Brandon is my favorite of my brother’s therapists. Tall and young, an ex-gymnast, muscles taut against his bones. I lionize him in the way younger boys do older ones. I love for him to sling me onto his back, stampede through the backyard’s crabgrass and under the Bradford pear tree. So high, I feel kingly. Regardless of the season, we play this game over and over, and over and over I wonder at the blooms of acne on his tanned neck, what my adult body will look like.

*

            My brother doesn’t speak for two years. No mas, bas, or das, he doesn’t reach for language, but he knows how to yell. My mother keeps a white crib against the wall in her bedroom—he can’t sleep without being close to her, something she says I am too old for by the time my brother is eighteen months and still silent. Over breakfast, my parents point and repeat: clock, door, finch, mom, dad, brother, but he is firm. The only sound he makes is a wet suckling, his fist held in his mouth against the promise of words.

*

            My mother prays, my father prays, so I pray. I think my requests modest, lie in bed at night and whisper them to the white ceiling. Dear God: no more dumbstruck brother. No more crying at my touch. No more tantrums. No more broken cereal bowls. No more theft. My brother owns my mother and father, their tears and their graying hair and their kisses.

*

            He watches Shark Boy and Lava Girl twice a day for half a year, memorizes each line and recites them when my mother asks him about his day at school. For three years he obsesses over geography, spits out names of obscure towns and the proper network of highways to reach them in the shortest amount of time. My mother buys him National Geographic atlases. My father and I pin a foldout map of the world to his wall. As we pass signs on the highway, he reads them out loud, a tic I find unnerving. He repeats what people say back to them. In this way, he acquires sassy phrases from television shows and YouTube videos, “Bitch, please,” he says to my aunt Scotty over pulled pork.

*

            I have no concept of autism until the year I turn eleven. That isn’t exactly true: I know autism, know therapy, know acquired behavior, but I don’t care about any of it. When I am young, things are simple: my brother misbehaves because he wants to or because he hates our family. The Full House family is normal—we aren’t. My friend’s brothers are normal—mine isn’t. Sometimes I wish one of us dead, my brother or me, then quickly unwish, afraid of the imagined power of my rage. I can never explain it: built like a blister over my youth, a hot red liquid trapped under my skin, an imagined boyhood that I crave. 

*

            In fifth grade, incidents pile up: Aaron smashes a box of Lucky Charms in the Publix checkout line, cries for Froot Loops. Aaron pulls his trunks down at the ocean’s edge, pees onto foamy sand for all of North Myrtle to see. Aaron asks three boys at my sleepover if they have penises or vaginas, the words thick and new in his mouth like saltwater taffy. As the boys leave the next morning, they give Aaron smug side-eye, and I feel hot, wet shame bubble in my stomach. I sulk on the green couch and watch reruns of Kim Possible all day, and when my mother asks what’s wrong, all I can say is that I’m embarrassed. Ashamed.

*

            Twice a week for eight years, we drive to the Center for Developmental Services in downtown Greenville. CDS is a brick building with white details across the street from the largest Presbyterian church in the city. Therapy is after school—I sit in the lobby, a long, narrow room full of sick-smelling chairs and vibrant fish tanks, fiddle my way through math or cursive homework. My mother sits with the mothers of the other children in my brother’s occupational therapy group. They talk about church potlucks, soccer games, local elections, couponing. Every time I look up from my worksheets, my mother is smiling. It’s almost possible to forget why we’re here—even among other people’s children drooling or peeing themselves or screaming. In truth, they terrify me, my fear giving way, eventually, to shame. I don’t know then, but shame is the law of the land, has taken root in my mother and me, holds us fast.

*

            I am Brother Bitch, purveyor of childish torment. I hide Aaron’s Philips Sonicare toothbrush until he cries for it, play off his newfound fear of house fires by leaving half-empty water glasses near electrical outlets, cup my hand around his ear and tell him he’ll die if he breathes in cigarette smoke. If he takes something from my desk, disrupting the order of pencils, books, and other boyish ephemera I curate, I lash out, hide under his bed and claw at his ankle as he falls asleep. The neighborhood boys say this is bitchery, a new word they explain as something like your sister turning your clothes pink by throwing a bra in the wash. I don’t have a sister, but I understand: the limited currency of our language, near-obsolete, cordons me at the nerve center of my world. I threaten to punch the boys when they call me a bitch, but a part of me knows it to be true.

*

            When Aaron’s therapy ends, it leaves a turbulent wake: Aaron’s cries of boredom sound through the house, disrupt games of Super Smash Bros. I play against computer-programmed enemies in the living room. He clings to my mother—exhausted from long shifts at Walgreens, she ushers him to me, says, “Give him a turn,” and I am willing. At times, I regret my bitchery. Guilt bruises in my stomach—purple, uncomfortable, not something I want to linger on for very long. I hook up a controller for him, slip the thin white remote into his hand, explain the controls, and start a round. I set our characters to random, thinking it might be easier for him if I play as a character I’m not comfortable with. But when he loses all three of his lives in the first minute, I wonder if it is possible for anyone to be worse at anything, quickly disconnect his remote.

            “I’m sorry, Aaron, but I don’t want to play anymore.” I place his controller in the wicker box beneath the television and start another round, again fighting computerized enemies.

            His face seems to soften into a frown—he’s a little chubby, doesn’t fit in my Old Navy hand-me-downs. “Then why are you still playing?”

            I see that he doesn’t understand what I mean, that I don’t want him to play anymore. I explain that the game is over, a lie I know he will swallow whole as he retreats to the kitchen, rifles through the drawers in search of something sweet.

*

            This is not about anyone but my brother. This is not about my father’s knuckles on the steering wheel, moon-white on the way to a doctor’s appointment or therapy session. This is not about my mother leaving work to take care of my brother and going back again when money got slim. This is not about me tending a wound I am just as quick to inflame. My first urge is to point to myself. But it’s just that old mantra of shame—as if baring and baring the self will make it cleaner, or as if there is anyone to blame, because I’ve learned that there isn’t—that we hang like the flag staked in our yard, a fat black S waving in the wind.

*

            We get in fights. Five and three, I scratch my brother up the back, long from the years I’d bite my nails to the quick, and blame it on our finicky cat Sam. The summer after sixth-grade, my brother slings a rubber dog toy at my face and hits me in the eye. My pupil oblongs briefly, covers my slow-greening iris—I think I’m going to die, tear my brother’s calendar off the wall in frustration. We speak in horseplay, count our bruises. My brother is the type to poke a bruise, but I just watch them shift: first purple, then sick-yellow, then gone.

*

            It’s not always physical. My brother vomits in his bed one night, stays up crying. I ask him why the next morning, and he says he worried Michael Jackson was in the bunk above his, waiting to collar him like Bubbles the monkey. I don’t let it die for weeks.

*

            But there are good times, too. Thirty minutes outside of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, my brother and I swirl through the county fair, a menagerie of rented rides, horse shit, and grease. A sweaty man with a unibrow scoops cotton candy seemingly from thin air, blue for me and pink for Aaron. The night is cool—clouds cover and uncover the moon. We beg our mother for two dollars for the haunted house, which is really a trailer spook-dressed in neon paint and scary movie posters. Through strobe lights, fake chainsaws, and werewolf masks, we laugh and scream, holding each other by the arms. We ride the Caterpillar forwards and backwards seven times, flash our prepaid red wristbands at the fazed-out teenager taking tickets. Aaron screams when the ride hitches, grabs on to my shirt, and I feel a quick bubble of love in my chest. I think we’re far gone, carnival lights spinning across my vision. I think this is a brotherhood we’ve wanted for a long time, to be able to hold each other in something other than hurt.

*

            November of my sixth grade year, my parents sign me up for therapy with a woman named Amanda Bell. Ms. Bell is what my parents call a counselor, meant to help me work through my problems with Aaron. Therapy takes place in a small two-story house in a line of similar houses repurposed for medical use. My first appointment, Ms. Bell guides me through the small kitchen and upstairs to her office, a white-carpeted room with a bay window. Two black bookshelves hug the walls, family-fun board games like Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land wedged between books on occupational therapy and the autistic brain. Ms. Bell explains what we’ll be doing: talking through what happens between my brother and me, then working to find a solution. The first day, I sulk, finger the pearlescent buttons of the shirt my mother bought me the day before. For many appointments, my attitude is the same: I don’t understand why I have to be there, why we can’t let things work out on their own. But through photocopied passages from Ms. Bell's autism books, joint therapy sessions with Aaron, and what Ms. Bell calls constructive writing and discussion, I reach an understanding: Aaron is at the mercy of his risk genes, guided by impulses I can never access.

*

            In Hebrew, my brother’s name means lofty, exalted, or high mountain. We learn about the biblical Aaron in church. Brother of Moses, first high priest of the Israelites, he, too, is famous for cleavage: plagues and miracles sprung from his staff.

*

            My mother keeps a leaflet of our ultrasound pictures in a photo album beneath her bed. I discover them one day in January, my grandfather’s seventieth birthday. Rummaging under the box spring for a shoot of navy ribbon, my fingers brush the album’s worn cover. The book is heavy in my hands, bound in cracked maroon leather. In a sort of frame set in the cover is a picture of the four of us on the Myrtle Beach pier, my head barely touching my father’s knee and Aaron held against my mother’s breast. I flip to a random page. My grandfather’s ribbon is the ghost of a thought—I leaf through pages and pages of baby photos. Baby Aidan with two fingers in his mouth, baby Aaron lying on his back in thick summer grass, the two of us naked in front of the fridge, our mouths open in shocked Os. I wonder when I stopped thinking of my brother as an accomplice. I flip the page, and a rubber-band-bound stack of photos slips out. Snapping off the band, I stare at their dark surfaces, murky as black velvet and shot through with impressions of white. On the backs are our names and the years before our birth: Aidan 99, Aaron 02. I cannot make out definite shapes, or understand how we came from these unnameable masses. For once, Aaron and I are the same kind of ugly, two replicas drawn in similar light.

*

            My brother and I share a love for Katy Perry. Each summer, we wait for her big hits: “California Gurls,” “Last Friday Night,” “Part of Me.” We download Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection onto our shared iTunes account, play through the album in our separate rooms. We convince our mother to take us to the Katy Perry documentary, giggle back and forth through the previews. We sing, sometimes, the same song: able to hear a few stray words connect through the house, two boy sopranos in harmony.

*

            Aaron and I trek down Branchester to the pool with two boys from our street. Someone suggests venturing into the woods, so we do, careful to step over rusted barbed wire. A breeze rattles through the forest—almost no light penetrates the leaves above. There is no overgrowth. Still, Aaron manages to snag a thorn in his shorts, cries as blood trickles down his leg, and I tell the boys to go on ahead as I bend down and pluck it from his skin. I grumble as I rub his leg with a leaf, smudge the blood, then pinch his calf and tell him to get a move on.

            On the heels of the other boys, we burst into a clearing a few hundred feet from the highway. The boys are frantic—they point and shout, and Aaron and I follow their gaze to a ring of steel fence. At first, I don’t see what excites them, then suddenly I do: two goats chew shoots of tall grass, their glossy block pupils boring into us. Astounded, we act as if we’ve never seen animals before. Aaron and I pick a few purple flowers, thrust them through chinks in the fence, and the goats come closer, tease them out of our palms. I watch the goat slip the flowers from Aaron’s hand. Boys aren’t allowed to be beautiful yet, but here’s Aaron feeding flowers to a goat, excitement crackling across his face, an animal nearly in his hand. In a rare moment of kindness, I ask what he would name the goats if we owned them. He pauses to think, the pink goat tongue licking his palm, then answers, “Nina and Rose.”

*

            My brother is born in the year of the goat. This is thought to be a sign of good fortune and joy. Synonym: a baby boy, a quick and easy labor, gifts of teething rings and monogrammed bibs and an endless supply of pacifiers. But there is also a saying: 十羊九不全, “Only one out of ten people born in the year of the goat finds happiness.” Is speech after two years of silence happiness? Reading this, I hope against the omen: may my brother find joy.

*

            My brother studies at Einstein Academy, a school for children with special needs (autism, ADHD, Asperger’s). First Baptist, the largest Baptist church in the county, ceded one of their recreational buildings and a wing of the religious teaching center to the school. Aaron loves going to school in a church—he is intensely pious, participates in youth group twice a week and goes to early sermon on Sundays. Due to the school’s small size, Aaron is friends with all of the children, ages eight to fourteen. He excels at algebra and English. He invites his teachers to our spring voice recital, and they hug him afterwards, crying. One day, he comes home and tells me he wants to be a geography teacher, or a singer, or a weatherman. I tell you this for no reason other than to show Aaron as he is now: a boy in the world, searching for his tether.

*

            My sophomore year of high school, a woman with an autistic son speaks at a pep rally. She is willowy, her warbly voice echoing through the gym as she presents slides on the autistic brain and the importance of therapy. She insists that therapy is the key to a full life, that early intervention can lead to a near disappearance of symptoms by the time your child reaches eighteen. I start in my seat on the bleachers. How close are we to that asymptote?

*

            My brother has a beautiful voice. Once a soprano, now a rich tenor, he belts Italian ballads in the front room, takes voice lessons from my former teacher, a jubilant woman named Victoria. When I am sixteen and he is thirteen, he gets a solo part in the cantata at our church. That morning, I sit in the center of the church with my mother and father, the pew hard against my back, and mumble my way through the Lord’s Prayer, the words rusty in my mouth from lack of use. I flip through the bulletin, see my brother’s name in bold beside his song: “He Never Failed Me Yet.” The choir begins to sing—my mother sets her phone to record, zooms in on my brother as he approaches the microphone. I can’t even remember the words, too focused on the sound of him. His voice billows, he ululates. I could make this about God—I could render an evangelical scene, a spiritual awakening between my brother and me—but it’s much simpler than that. My brother is strikingly beautiful, and I’m crying in the pews, ugly and shameless.     

 

 

Forster 21

Aidan Forster is a junior at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the blog editor of The Adroit Journal, and his work has been recognized by the Poetry Society of America, the National YoungArts Foundation, the Anthony Quinn Foundation, and the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, among others. He has work in or forthcoming from The Adroit JournalBOAAT, Indiana Review, Muzzle Magazine, Pleiades, and Verse, among others. His debut chapbook of poems, Exit Pastoral, is forthcoming from YesYes Books.

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