Friday Fiction #2
“R.J.” I shake the lump under the covers. “Hey. R.J., get up.”
“No. Get up.”
I yank the blankets back and R.J. turns over, pulling the pillow against his face to block out the light.
“Mellie, I said no.”
“So did I.”
R.J. rolls onto his back and regards me with a scowl. “If I promise to get up for school tomorrow, can I have my blanket back?”
"Tell you what -- you can get up and go to school today, and then you can get up and go again tomorrow.”
My brother finally relents, kicks his sheet aside and sits up. His hair, a few shades more fair than mine, is sticking up at odd angles all over his head. He’s wearing grimy jeans and just one sock, with a hole that lets his big toe poke out. He stinks of cigarettes and stale sex. I pretend not to notice as I pull him to his feet.
“Where were you last night?” I ask, trying to keep the edge out of my voice.
R.J. shrugs, rubs his eyes with his fists. “Out.”
He blows out a sigh, irritated. “Just...out.”
I grab some clothes from his dresser--they’re probably clean--and shove them into his arms. “I’ll make you some coffee while you’re in the shower.”
He shuffles down the hall, and I chew my thumbnail as I watch him go, all angles and bones these days, his ribs and the knobs of his spine standing out in relief against his pale skin.
I go back to the kitchen, sidestepping boxes of winter clothes that we haven’t bothered to unpack yet. When we left our last place, my mom forgot to grab her coffeemaker from the kitchen, so I have to use a saucepan and guess how much coffee I need. I put the water on to boil and go back to my room to finish getting ready for school. This is the first place we’ve had in years that has three bedrooms. R.J. and I used to take turns using the living room couch for a bed. We’d switch each time we moved. But ever since the whole thing with Bill, R.J. hasn’t let me take my turn on the couch. I think he’s afraid Bill’s coming back and wants to put himself between Bill and the part of the house where Mom and I sleep.
It’s nice to know R.J.’s got a bed now, instead of keeping watch in the front room, but the three bedrooms are probably the only redeeming quality of this house. The hot water runs out in 10 minutes, the carpets are gross, the wallpaper is peeling, and the kitchen is the only room that doesn’t smell kind of like cats and mothballs. That’s probably the only reason we could afford this place--no one else wanted it, so our sleazy landlord cut Mom a deal.
I finish packing up my books and get back to the kitchen just in time to save the coffee from boiling over. It smells pretty harsh, so I add a generous helping of milk to R.J.’s cup. He wanders in, hair uncombed and shoes untied.
“Do you want some toast?”
He groans and makes a face as he slumps into a chair and pulls his cup across the table.
I roll my eyes. “Okay. No toast.” I slather extra strawberry jelly on my two slices, but it doesn’t really make me feel any better.
R.J. drinks his coffee with his eyes closed, looking tired and much older than seventeen. He’s wearing the ratty Pearl Jam T-shirt I gave him for Christmas a few years ago. The sleeves are a little short on him now, and his tattoo shows. I used to be fascinated by the intricate knotted design that winds around his right arm. We lived in Cincinnati back then. R.J. was 14 but looked older, and he’d gone down to Kentucky with his friends and lied to the tattoo artist about his age. I turned 11 that summer, and I’d watch him, trying to trace the interlacing lines with my eyes until he'd eventually move and I’d lose my place.
My eyes don’t untangle the knots today. Instead, they take in the fresh bruise inside R.J.'s elbow, the faint track marks that radiate out from it like the legs of a pale spider. I sigh and refill R.J.’s cup. He drinks it straight and doesn’t say anything about the taste.
Two cups down, R.J. is as close to awake as he ever gets. “Thanks, Mellie.”
Mornings have always been my favorite time of day. Mom has always worked early-shift waitressing jobs, and usually has to leave before we're awake. When we were kids, R.J. would make pancakes for me in the morning, or cut my toast into the shape of a rabbit or a butterfly. He’d braid my hair and then tickle my nose with the end of the plait. I thought he knew everything. Now I make breakfast, which R.J. can hardly ever choke down, and I braid my own hair.
Mornings are still the best time of day, though. That’s when R.J.’s hangover is still hitting hard enough to keep that calculating look out of his eyes, the one that means he’s looking for a way out, as fast as he can get it. Sure, he’s sick as a dog most of the time, but at least he’s R.J. By the time I get home from school, he’s hollow. Every time a door slams, he jumps. If you startle him, he’ll flinch like you slapped him in the face. I try to stay away from the house until I’m sure he’s gone off to work, just so I don’t have to watch him fall apart.
Mom met Bill right before I started seventh grade, and he’d moved in with us by Halloween. He was really cool at first, almost like a dad. He took us to the movies and helped Mom with the housework. I don’t think R.J. ever liked him much, but I always figured that was just because R.J. remembered our real dad, who died when I was only 2 years old. R.J. and Bill tolerated each other, and once R.J. got his license and a job, he wasn’t home much.
Maybe I was too young to know better, but I didn’t notice that Bill was changing until the night I got up around midnight for a drink of water and saw R.J. standing at the kitchen window, his forehead resting against the glass, eyes shut tight. There was a broken whiskey bottle in the sink, and the next day Bill kept rummaging through the cabinets when he thought no one was looking. A week later, the four of us were sitting at the supper table when Bill suddenly pounded his fist on the table. We all jumped, and R.J.’s eyes went hard and angry. Bill said R.J. was stealing from him. He said it had been going on for months, and he was tired of it. He said that Mom had better do something about it, or he’d have to do it himself. Mom seemed nervous. She asked R.J. if he’d been drinking lately. R.J. said no.
“See, he didn’t take it,” Mom had said.
Bill called R.J. a liar, told R.J. he’d be sorry if he didn’t keep out of other people’s things. R.J. shot him a cold look and got up. Bill told R.J. to sit back down, but R.J. walked out the back door. I didn’t see him again for two days, and after that night I stopped finding broken bottles in the trash can outside the back door.
“Are you working today?” I ask R.J. as he leans back in his chair and lights a cigarette.
He nods, taking a deep pull. “Nathan and me are going to go out to St. Louis this weekend. You want to go?”
I raise my hand to my mouth, nibble absently at my fingernails. I do want to go, but I don’t want to have to come face to face with the parts of R.J. that he keeps locked away. I went to the garage once with R.J. on a Saturday, and before I knew what was happening, his friend Nathan was telling me stories about R.J. How he’d drink until he could barely walk. How he’d get all quiet sometimes and then you didn’t touch him unless you wanted him to take a swing at you. How he’d tripped out on ecstasy and pounded his fists against a wall until his knuckles bled. I managed to get away from Nathan by telling him I needed to pee and then I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. I’ve never told R.J. that I know these things about him. I won’t ever repeat those stories out loud.
“I better not,” I tell him.
“Don’t you ever feel like having fun?”
I want to tell R.J. that I do, that sometimes I think I’m going to go nuts if I can’t spend some time doing normal kid stuff. He doesn’t know that I’ve never been to a school dance, that I’ve missed all of the football games this year. I would tell him, but then I’d have to tell him the reason why I don’t go. I don’t go because I’m afraid something will happen while I’m gone, and no one will be around to take care of R.J. I feel bad enough avoiding him after school, but I can’t handle being here for that.
The night Bill almost killed R.J., I had been planning to go to the movies with some friends from school. We changed our minds at the last minute, but what if we hadn’t? If I hadn't been there and he'd died…I can't even think about it without feeling like I'm going to throw up.
“Come on, Melanie. Come with us this time. It’ll be fun...I promise.”
“I’ve got a lot of homework.”
R.J. frowns. “You work too hard.”
“And you smoke too much.”
“I know,” R.J. sighs. “I’ll quit soon.” But he doesn’t put out the cigarette.
The first time Bill hit R.J., Mom made R.J. promise he wouldn’t hit back. I had almost hated her in that moment, watching her wipe the blood off of R.J.’s face as she begged him not to fight Bill.
“He’ll change,” she had said. “Give him some time.”
R.J. said nothing. He sat on the edge of the bathtub, his lower lip split, his cheekbone bearing an angry dark bruise and a shallow cut from Bill’s big class ring.
“Promise me, R.J. Promise you won't hit him back.”
R.J. had promised, and he had kept his word. It took six months for Bill to kill the defiant spark in R.J.'s eyes. R.J. never retaliated. When school let out, R.J. stayed away from the house as much as he could. When he did come home, things were worse than ever. Bill didn’t need reasons anymore. He’d slap R.J. and say, Boy, you’d better look at me when I’m talking to you. An hour later R.J. would get punched for looking at Bill wrong.
When Mom told me she was going to leave Bill, I was so happy I cried. I really believed that once he was gone, everything would be okay again. But it didn’t happen like that. At first, Bill called every night, crying and begging Mom to take him back. He’d say he was sorry and swear he’d change, and when I could see Mom was about to believe him, I’d purposely distract her so she forgot her train of thought. When she got back to Bill, she’d be pissed off again. After a while, he got scary again. He would call all the time--threatening Mom, threatening to kill himself in her car while she was at work, crazy stuff.
Even that last horrible night, when Bill came to our house drunk, R.J. never hit him. Mom had opened the door, and Bill had pushed his way past her. Mom was red in the face, telling him to get out and never come back. Bill was yelling at Mom, saying how she had no right to treat him that way. He raised his hand to hit her, and I screamed. And then suddenly R.J. was there, catching Bill’s arm, forcing him back against the wall. For the first time in months, R.J. had come home from work sober. As he pinned Bill against the door frame, his expression cold and hard, he suddenly hadn’t looked like R.J. at all.
But then Mom had caught him around the waist, tried to pull him back. She said Don’t, R.J., and she was crying, and R.J. let go. And the next thing I knew, Bill had R.J. by the throat. He spun around and slammed R.J.’s back against the wall. I looked at Mom, and I knew that she was going to let it happen again, and I must’ve just snapped. I remember running at Bill, hitting him with my fists, screaming at him to stop. I should’ve just gone for the phone and called the police. Bill caught me with the back of his hand, and by the time I could see straight again, Bill had R.J. on the floor, pounding him senseless.
The neighbors must’ve heard the noise. Two cops showed up, burly young guys with serious faces. They kicked our door in and came in yelling. They had to drag Bill away from R.J. As soon as the cops pulled Bill off, R.J. tried to get up. The cops were hollering at him to stay still, so I ran to him. I almost wished I hadn’t. R.J. was half crazed, his face a mess of bruises. I started to back away, but R.J. caught my wrist and pulled me to the floor, so I held him until the ambulance came. I understood for the first time that night why R.J. wanted so desperately to get away from himself, why he’d do almost anything just so he didn’t have to sit quietly for a while and start thinking about stuff.
“Melanie?” R.J.’s voice brings me back. “You okay?”
I take a shaky breath and force a smile. “Yeah. I’m fine.” I check my watch. “We’re going to be late.”
R.J. follows me to the front door, taking his jacket down from the hook as he passes. He puts it on while we stand on the porch.
“Keys,” I say.
He puts them into my hand without argument. I’m only a freshman, but R.J. taught me to drive when I was 12.
We drive to school with the windows down, R.J. blowing streams of smoke into the cool morning air. We get to school two minutes before the bell. I take R.J. to his locker and unearth his physics book, then walk with him to his class. “Try, R.J., okay? Try.”
He manages a weak half-smile and opens the door.
As I walk towards my class, I fight back tears. I’m starting to realize that one morning I’m not going to be able to shake R.J. back to life.