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Brothers Forever

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Wilted-sunflower

"Chrissy, why is it called candy if it doesn't come in cans?" A small child in the seat next to me fixed his eyes on the cherry Starburst between his fingers, struggling with the wrapping.

The car bumped busily down the road, rattling us. The outside air coming in from the open windows smelled of rain.

"I don't know. What would you call it?" I glanced down at him and held a hand on my hip.

He leaned into me, resting his head on my arm as he continued to solve his puzzle. "I would call it wrapperdy, because it comes in a wrapper." He shoved the treat up to his maw and bit hard on the wrapping, pulling vigorously at it.

I plucked it from his grip. He reached pleadingly before tilting his head and setting his arm down. We could hear the chauffeur in the driver's seat sighing, and saw his hand reach for another cigarette.

I carefully unfolded the wrapper with one hand, holding the child snug against my rib with my other arm. "I like 'wrapperdy' better." I handed the unwrapped Starburst down to him, and he gripped it with great enthusiasm before popping it into his mouth and chewing blissfully. I held him closer. He was warm.

That was six years ago.

The child—my little brother, Mikey—had just turned seven when the hurricane struck. As the whole family—he, Dad, and myself—gathered around the cake and sang and cheered, the house began to rattle and creak. It was an old wooden cabin, and it rattled and creaked quite often, so it was no one's concern, but about a half an hour later, as the three of us sat and stuffed ourselves silly with cake, a window burst.

The wind blasted in like seawater into a sinking submarine, and shards of glass began to soar through the air at the speed of hummingbirds. We got down on the floor and I grabbed Mikey and forced his head between his knees so he wasn't exposed and rubbed his back and he was crying so much.

Dad stood in front of us and tried to reach for something to cover the window with but it was useless because everything he found was blown away. I couldn't duck and cover because I had to help Mikey so a bunch of glass flew in front of my face and I think I got a little bit cut but I was okay.

We stayed that way for a few hours, with the house rattling and thunder rumbling outside and the wind threatening to pluck the house right off the ground. It was only after the hurricane died down and the broken glass and flying paper and wood chips and rocks dropped to the floor that I saw something red soaking into my shorts. I paid no attention to it.

"Dad, is it okay?" I called. Dad shuddered and collapsed. My eyes widened and I started to get up but kneeled back down again.

"Hey, are you okay?" I whispered. "Little buddy? You can get up now. It's over." Mikey wasn't moving.

I reached under his chest and tugged, and to my surprise he gave way. I lifted him up by his shoulders. It seemed he had fallen asleep.

My gaze traveled down to his belly, soaked in fresh blood. Embedded deep into his gut and chest were several long, thick shards of broken glass.

I don't know where they buried Dad but I still visit Mikey's grave every day. Every day at seven o'clock in the morning to say good morning, and at eight o'clock at night to say goodnight. It's a very normal grave, made of concrete, slapped with some stupid platitude. There are some wilted sunflowers in a baby-blue vase I put there once. Sunflowers were his favorite.

One day as I was leaving the graveyard I heard footsteps behind me. I stopped in my tracks, and the footsteps stopped too. I turned around just in time to see a panicked teenage boy rushing behind the hedges so fast he could barely keep his fancy headset on. He looked to be about thirteen or fourteen years old, but I couldn't quite tell because I only caught sight of his back. I shrugged it off and continued on my way to the school bus.

I sat down on the weird rubber seat and the bus started to whir and move. I thought I was the last one to board. "Wait, wait!" I heard someone calling outside. The bus paused to let the someone on before continuing.

The teenage boy from the graveyard wiped sweat from his forehead and strode down the middle aisle—whistling Happy Birthday to himself and occasionally adjusting his headphones—until he arrived at my row. "Can I sit here?" I nodded. He sat next to me and smiled. I said nothing.

The bus continued, bumping along toward the school, up and down hills, past trees. The boy began to lean against me. I withdrew somewhat and fidgeted.

I sat through a few boring classes and ate my peanut butter sandwich for lunch. At break, I tossed a basketball against the wall by myself. It bounced and bounced between the painted side of the building and the gravel. I missed a shot and I thought I saw the shadow of someone else ready to bounce the ball back to me but it just rolled away.

I saw the boy again, staring at me from up on the track field. He waved. I blinked a few times.

"Hey!" He leaped down from the field and skipped toward me, picking up the ball on his way. With a graceful spin, he served the ball at full speed toward the wall. It bounced toward me. I caught it and idly dribbled, dumbfounded.

"Hey, c'mon." The boy stood rattling with energy in ready position. "Toss the ball."

I dribbled a bit longer before serving the ball. It struck the wall and bounced back toward the boy, who slapped it back. I kicked. He headbutted. We kept it up for at least five minutes and it got to the point where the ball didn't even touch the ground.

"I've got you now!" I turned my head toward my opponent to flaunt my conceit. When I turned, there was no one there. My serve bounced off the wall and rolled aimlessly along the gravel.

He sat next to me again on the ride home. I had never seen him in the neighborhood before, but if he was headed there he probably lived there, because it was not the kind of neighborhood one would simply visit. Perhaps he had just recently moved in. He began to lean on me again. His skin was cold and clammy but for some reason it felt kind of nice.

"Hey." He tugged at my sleeve. I looked down at him, puzzled, and said nothing.

He slipped his headphones down around his neck and stared up into my face pleadingly. "I'm hungry." I raised an eyebrow. If he was hungry, perhaps he should have brought a snack. It was by no means my problem.

As the bus continued down the road, he tugged at my sleeve again. I looked down.

"Do you have any food?"

I stared in disbelief before flusteredly rummaging through my backpack. I found a cheese stick that had been sitting between two of my books and offered it to him. He recoiled slightly, but took it and sort of nibbled at it.

That night, as I returned to Mikey's grave to say goodnight, I saw that the sunflower in the vase was somehow no longer wilted.

I looked down at the dirt beneath my feet, where my brother had been buried, and saw a discarded, unplugged headset. I could hear faint music emanating from it. I picked up the headset and listened closely.

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday, dear Mikey.

Beside the headset in the dirt were two teenage-sized hand prints. I sank to my knees.

"I never forgot you." I couldn't talk straight. "Not once."

A warm wind wrapped around me, carrying a soft whisper.

"I know, Chrissy."

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