by Molly Johnson
The kitten we kept in the corner of our garage as children was a secret. My brother, Aaron, and I had found him by his voice, a pitiful meowing drifting into our summer forest walk. Aaron heard him first, his ears deftly attuned to mournful noises. I was too distracted, trying to collect as many of the fallen, bright yellow ginkgo leaves as I could, clutching them tightly in my six year old fists like handfuls of sunshine.
The kitten was caught in the tangles of a branch that was still attached to a fallen tree trunk, stretching across the river, it’s limbs dipping into the rushing water. The tangled arrangement of branches allowed the small creature to be both held up and held down at the same time – unable to fully drown and equally unable to escape. Aaron crawled across the fallen tree, stretching his young body boldly over the swirling current to reach into the bramble. The kitten dug its claws into my brother’s skin, desperate for freedom.
He was a pitiful little creature with patches of fur missing and his left ear had a chunk gouged out of it. We named him Max and brought him warm milk and leftover pieces of chicken. When winter came, we dragged a little space heater into the garage and made a nest for our kitten out of old ripped quilts with exposed batting and pillows that were clumpy and stained.
Aaron said our father would never find out, because the garage those days was only used to store old, crumpled moving boxes and a maze of rusted bicycles.
We visited Max every day after school during the in-between hours before our father came home. We pet his patchy fur and told him about our days. We tied colorful strips of fabric to sticks and delightedly watched as our kitten played.
Max lived in our garage until the following spring, after his fur had evened out and he had grown into a full-sized cat. His left ear was still gouged and deformed and he had grown restless within the confines of the garage. When the snow disappeared, Max did too, leaving behind the mottled blankets, empty bowl, my brother, and me.
Growing up, Aaron let me tag along with his friends. Whether they were adventuring into the woods, making swords out of sticks and climbing high into trees, or sitting in the basement playing board games on a card table, I was a constant, quiet presence. I never knew what Aaron thought about having his little sister tag along nearly everywhere he and his friends went, but he never complained or told me to stay behind. I never interjected or did anything really. I just wanted to be near to my older brother and whether or not he simply tolerated my presence, it seemed like we had a unspoken agreement of companionship.
Over the years I was the one who chose to stop following along behind him and his friends, as if some switch had been flipped and we were no longer children.
Some mornings the yelling woke me up. Usually Saturday mornings when there was no school or work to push my father and brother away from each other. My bedroom in the basement was directly beneath the kitchen – the arena for their battles. I’d lay, paralyzed beneath blankets, listening to the predictable escalation above my head, punctured by stomping footsteps. My anxious fingers would find a thin, painted over crack in the wall beside my bed. I’d repetitively trace it over and over as if the act alone could help me withstand the pressure building up above my head. Back and forth, back and forth.
I hated everything about the arguments that surrounded, but were never directed at me. I was quiet. Perhaps that was my most important asset, what set me apart from my brother. It wasn’t that my father treated me differently. It was that I was better at rolling over, better at holding in my frustration, better at not reacting. I used to try to pass along my young wisdom to Aaron, telling him not to lash out, not to get angry.
“He just makes me so mad,” my brother had said. “I can’t help it.”
When I was younger, hearing the fighting made me cry out of helplessness, alone in my room. I would whisper repetitively to no one, with my small hands covering my ears, “Just make it stop. Just make it stop. Just make it stop.”
As I grew older and they became increasingly frequent, I would analyze the arguments, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, fingers agitatedly picking at the carpet. I began to be able to sense the altercations before they even began. The preamble – always an incredibly simplistic disagreement and most times what they were arguing about didn’t even seem to matter. It was more like a competition over who could rile up the other without detonating. Critical mass increasing until the reaction, the explosion. I sat in my room, the only witness to the decay.
My father was eloquent, his words thought out, his arguments air tight and so it was always my brother who broke first, with no words left to combat, his voice turning harsh and loud. No ammunition left in his words, just shrapnel destroying whatever stood in its path.
Aaron’s raw yells filled my bedroom until he would storm out of the house, the front door slamming so hard the loose tile on the steps fell over, a smaller echo of the greater thunder clap.
Once I stood at the shore of a frozen lake on a warm pre-spring day. A moment of thawed stillness. One abrupt crack of thunderous ice. The noise echoing for several seconds and then heartbeats of frozen silence.
Some days I found Aaron, sitting in our basement, a hood pulled over his head, locked inside dark recesses of his mind. His eyes were hard, cold, and distant, his eyebrows tugged together, his shoulders tensed. Once I tried to reach out to his unspoken distress, stretching my hand out to his shoulder, but he jerked away as if burned.
“Don’t touch me.” The words weren’t angry, like when he spoke to our dad. They were a warning.
“Why won’t you let me be here for you? I know you’re upset,” I retorted.
“Why do you even care?” Aaron asked. The words had turned harsh, but he watched me, waiting for the answer.
I stared back at him, confused. “Because you’re my brother. Because you matter to me.”
He let a derisive huff of air out of his nose before standing up, the click of his bedroom door sounded his departure.
I never noticed that my brother wore long sleeve shirts year round until I knew to notice it. I never noticed how he rolled up only his right sleeve or how he’d unconsciously slide his left arm behind his back. I only realized what had happened when it was far from the beginning.
One evening, during Aaron’s senior year at high school, we sat at our kitchen counter after my father had gone to bed. Aaron tiredly sat on a wooden stool and we ate a dinner of toast and peanut butter side by side. Aaron’s left fist supported his head and his sleeve descended several inches past his wrist. The marks were thin and red; streaky, straight lines that were so unfamiliar I didn’t fully understand what I was looking at.
“What happened?” I asked, grabbing for his left arm. Suddenly alert, Aaron moved faster, jerking his arm away, pulling his sleeve down in an instant and putting his right arm protectively over it.
Silence. We stared at each other. I dropped my gaze, unable to meet his eyes. The person staring back felt unfamiliar.
“I’m not always okay,” he finally said, the words slow and deliberate. Another beat of silence. “We don’t have to talk about it.”
I felt suddenly unmoored, the consistencies of the world turned uncertain. I think I will always hate the silence that overtook me, the complete lack of words. The absence of everything except a pounding in my head and a burning behind my eyes.
Once I had seen the scars, Aaron stopped trying to altogether hide them from me. He still kept the sleeve rolled down, but on hot summer days when our dad was gone, he wore a short-sleeved t-shirt and only occasionally hid the arm behind his back. Sometimes I felt like it was a test. Would I stare? Would I get upset? I tried to ignore them completely when we interacted, but when he turned away from me, I studied his arm as though it were a sacred text. I took in the thickness of the lines, which varied consistently up and down his forearm. The redness or whiteness told me the age. I ached over the dark, thick scars that never cleared to white. I wanted to run my fingers across them, as if the mere act could heal them. I wanted to ask my brother why he did it, I wanted to ask him if they still hurt, but the words always felt too strong in my head, too confrontational, too much like the beginnings of the yelled arguments that I had memorized the structure of so perfectly throughout my childhood. I couldn’t say the words that needed to be said. So I did the only thing I could do. The one thing I had always done. I stayed near my brother, a constant shadow, a companion.
But I couldn’t be with him always. I couldn’t protect him from himself. I watched the scars multiply across his forearm, as helpless as I had been as a child, lying in bed, listening to vocal turmoil that didn’t involve me.
The spring before my brother moved out of our house and into an apartment in the city, it rained more than it had in years. It seemed like every evening, the sky released its energy, catapulting us with sweet, warm rain, saturating the earth and thawing away the icy grip of winter. I walked everywhere under an umbrella, my rubber boots keeping my feet dry.
One late afternoon when I came home from school, hurrying inside out of the downpour, I found Aaron standing outside in our back yard, barefoot. I watched him for a moment, dripping umbrella at my side. He stood, without even a rain coat on, wet dark hair clinging to his pale skin, arms hanging limp at his sides, his face turned upwards to greet the plunging raindrops.
I opened the back door. “What are you doing?” I had to shout a bit to be heard over the rainfall.
He turned towards me, a boyish, unfamiliar grin on his face. “Let’s run through it,” he said.
“What? We’ll get soaked!”
“I know,” he laughed. Then without even glancing at me again he took off, sprinting towards the trail that ran into the woods at the back of our yard. I clutched my umbrella briefly before tossing it to the side and dashing after him. I followed his carefree laughter, a sound I hadn’t heard in weeks, maybe even months. I was soaked in seconds, my rubber boots filling with water, the thick, wet strands of my hair clung to my neck and face. Wet leaves stuck to our arms and hair as we tore through bushes and undergrowth. I realized I was laughing too as I stomped through muddy puddles after my brother, the slapping raindrops briefly easing pain.
The winter after Aaron moved out, on a Sunday night in January, I spun out on an icy highway during a blizzard. Alone inside a machine that I no longer had any semblance of control over, I hissed words that could have been prayers, desperately turning the wheel, stomping on the brakes. I saw in blurs the flashes of headlights that avoided me almost miraculously. The car – my father’s car – slid slowly into a cement median before finally coming to a halt. My legs shook painfully, surging with adrenaline and fear. I wrenched open the door and half stumbled out. Cars zoomed by, either uncaring, or too afraid of the same thing happening to them. I walked on quaking legs to inspect the damage. I knelt down. The entire left bumper was a smear of white scratches torn through the black paint.
I crouched between the car and the median, my icy fingers touching the gouges, the uneven surface biting at my skin. Every frozen breath felt like salvation.
“Dad’s gonna kill me,” I whispered to no one, the words escaping my lips in a cloud.
I drove slowly, my legs still aching from the release of adrenaline, my chest tight. I had been driving home, but I turned around at the nearest exit, heading into the city. On my phone, I pulled up Aaron’s address and followed the thin blue line to his apartment.
We bought a can of black spray paint at the Menards three blocks away from his apartment. Kneeling side by side on a curb, my brother covered the white scratches with black, and I rubbed the paint in with a corner of an old t-shirt. As the white disappeared, I felt calmed, the reversal completed.
“You know he wouldn’t have cared if you’d told him. Dad, I mean,” Aaron said, as he capped the spray paint, setting it on the asphalt between us. “He would have just been happy that you’re okay.”
I blinked and kept my eyes downcast, not trusting myself to be able to meet my brother’s gaze and not release the tears that threatened to escape. I rubbed at a smudge of black on my thumb. I looked at Aaron’s arm, scars covered by layers of clothing, but I knew they were there. I rested a hand on his forearm, half expecting him to flinch away, but he just looked at me. My hand moved back and forth across his arm and I imagined that I could bring healing.
“I know,” Aaron said, his voice calm.
My eyes felt hot as I wished for the right words that would never come. “I wish I knew what to say,” I breathed air shakily into my lungs, “I wish I knew what to say to make you okay.”
Then we just sat in silence, language betraying us both. Finally I wrapped my arms around my brother, squeezing tight, imagining that I could heal all our shattered pieces. Aaron hugged me back and if either of us had wanted to cry, it was far too cold.
Molly Johnson lives and writes in the Twin Cities. She is a senior at Hamline University, working towards a BFA in Creative Writing.