Friday, August 28, 2015

Brother's Keeper

Brother's Keeper
by Rob Cottignies

            …I wearily arrive at Logan Autism Center early, as usual, because I want to get the ride over with quickly, as usual. Jeffrey is waiting behind the door, as usual.
            “How was your day?” I ask.
            “Okay,” he says, every day, to every question.
            I wrestle a pen away from Marc and put my name on the sign-in sheet. Marc is monstrous yet speaks like a young girl and has the same mental capacity.
            One of the teachers comes over to me. I don’t know her name, nor most of the other teachers at the center. Oh wait, they’re called growth assistants. I call this one Buckeye, due to her buck teeth and slightly lazy eye.
            “Can I talk to you before you drive the guys home?”
            Her sister wants to join the conversation as well. She wears tight shirts so I remember her name.
            “Sure.”
            Buckeye tells me that Eric’s mother would like me to follow him into the backyard when I drop him off to make sure he gets into the house. She forgot to put the key in the empty coffee pot yesterday morning and Eric stood out in the rain for two hours before she got home.
            “Why didn’t he call her with his cell phone?”
            She gives me a look. She hates when I make fun of the patients. Sorry, learners. I do this mostly to get a rise out of Mickey, whom I believe is faking his Autism. He’s built like a football player and has that thousand-yard stare I’ve only heard about in movies. He comes up and looks me in the face for a few moments, as if I’m onto him, then looks at Buckeye and stutters, “Chaaa-cooo,” which apparently translates to, 'May I please have a chocolate chip cookie?' She says yes and Mickey goes to the kitchen.
            I go back to the door, by Jeffrey. “What do you want to listen to on the way home?”
            “Okay.”
            My favorite.
            Eventually, we all line up behind Marc and head to the van. Mickey gently helps Jeffrey into the vehicle, then SLAMS the door shut and gets into the passenger seat. “Humma-hee-hee-mummy?” he sort-of asks.
            I tell him we’re going to the circus and to fasten his seat belt. He quiets and obliges. Does he even know what a circus is? I start the car and The Beatles are on the radio. Eric knows more lyrics than I do. I’m mildly impressed. He may know the words but certainly not that happiness truly is a warm gun. I snicker and make a right out of the parking lot.
            Eric’s house is only two miles away and about halfway there I get an idea. A wonderful, awful idea.
            I park in the driveway and let him out of the back seat. I follow him into the backyard and join him going inside instead of watching him from the gate.
            The house is small and cluttered, just how I'd pictured. I snoop around then walk into the kitchen to see Eric shoveling potato chips into his mouth. He looks at me, slightly confused but eating non-stop. I return to the back room to grab the hammer I saw laying on the floor. I lunge toward Eric with it but he doesn’t flinch. I wonder if he would take his hand off of a burning stove… Nah, I'd better not. I don’t want there to be marks on him, so I just smash a picture hanging on the wall, put the hammer in the bowl of chips, and walk out.
            Jeffrey and Mickey are sitting quietly in the van, as expected.
            I drive to Mickey’s house with little occurrence. I pull up and, before unlocking the doors, tell Jeffrey to smack Mickey in the back of the head. He’s puzzled for a bit, then punches Mickey in the ear. Mickey seems to be more confused about his door not opening. Jeffrey gives it another shot and now Mickey’s ear is bright red. Maybe a few more days of that will get him to stop faking it. I unlock the door and Mickey hops out, then continues to hop to the house. His father waves to me as I drive away.
            Turning right onto Cotton Road, I notice the red car in the driveway. “Mom’s home,” I say. Jeffrey says nothing.
            We walk into the house and she’s crying on the couch, again.
            “What’s wrong?” I ask, again.
            She shows us a picture of our father, again.
            “Mom, it’s been twelve years.”
            “I know, but it’s still so hard. Why did he have to leave us like that?”
            “To quote his note, ‘I can no longer deal with the moron.’”
            “Jeffrey’s not a moron!!! Isn’t that right, dear?”
            “Okay.”
            She’s weeping. “Well, at least he has his big brother to guide him.”
            He sure does…

            Between Mom’s sobbing, Jeffrey’s raspy breathing, and my wondering if Eric or Mickey somehow told on me, I barely sleep. I wait to hear Mom take Jeffrey to Logan before I get up.
            After a long day of nothing and a trip to the paintball store, I anxiously arrive at the center. Buckeye runs to me before the door closes.
            “I need to speak with you.”
            Here we go. There's no way Mickey gave it up so quickly. I must have underestimated Eric. I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do.
            “Did Eric seem alright yesterday when you dropped him off?”
            “Of course he did. Why?” I ask, suddenly confident that I am safe.
            “Well, his mother said he broke a picture with a hammer and flipped the kitchen table upside-down.”
            That second part is a pleasant surprise.
            “Oh my,” I feign. “Is he alright? Did he say anything?”
            “He was physically fine and only stood there when his mom asked what had happened. Keep an extra-special eye on him today, would you?”

            My extra-special eye is glued to Eric on the way to his house. I ask him several times in many different ways about yesterday and none of his answers makes the slightest bit of sense. What a relief.
            As I return to the van from Eric’s backyard, I see Mickey looking very uncomfortable. Jeffrey had been smacking him in the head since I got out a few minutes ago. Interesting. And hilarious. His ear looks fine when we get to his house and he skips to the front door as I drive away.
            “Jeffrey, I’m going to teach you paintball when we get home, okay?”
            “Okay.” Of course.
            The red car is not in the driveway, which means I have to prepare a snack for Jeffrey. What’s nice is he never argues about what I give him. I won't soon forget the image of him trying to force down a horseradish and sour candy sandwich. To his credit, he ate it all.
            We go to the backyard where I show Jeffrey my makeshift target range. I hand him the new gun I bought and tell him to aim at the purple target. He stares at the gun, then at the fence. I know he’s not faking like Mickey but sometimes I give my brother too much credit. I grab the gun from him, say, “Shoot the purple,” and blast the purple target with paint. I repeat the process until I give him the gun and he copies correctly.
            "Shoot the blue." "Shoot the red." "Shoot the purple again."
            He’s getting it…

            A week of practice later, it’s time for the true test. I don’t know what, if anything, will be proven, but at the very least it’ll be fun.
            I eagerly arrive at Logan Autism Center just in time to witness one of Marc’s infamous temper tantrums. On his back, he’s pounding the floor, rattling everything in the room. The growth assistants are in a semi-circle around him, some shouting, most silent. How do you control a 350-pound infant? By screaming louder and stomping the ground harder- that’s how.
            Sometimes violence is the answer.
            After Buckeye and the girls shower me with thanks, I lead the boys downstairs and outside. Getting into the van, the three of them are quite chatty in their own ways. Eric sings along with some song I’ve never heard. Mickey lets out a “Cho-ca hummee-hum DAH-MAH.” Today, I tell him we’re going to a pretzel factory. He looks confused but eventually shuts up. I ask Jeffrey how his day was.
            “Okay.”
            My day is about to get a vicious shove to remarkable.
            I can’t get the singing Eric and prancing Mickey home fast enough. A little too fast, if you ask Officer Johnson. Thankfully, the van has a ‘PERMANENT HANDICAPPED’ tag so my sympathy card works perfectly.
            On a natural high from the Marc incident and getting pulled over, I’m already fifteen minutes ahead of schedule when I leave Mickey’s house. Halfway down Fleet Street, I pull over. I tell Jeffrey to get into the passenger seat, where I hand him my loaded 9mm pistol and open his window. He stares at the gun while we continue our ride.
            It’s getting dark and the van is black, so I'm not worried.
            “Aim the gun out the window.”
            He looks at me for a moment, then points the pistol out his window. Making sure he holds it steadily, I continue to drive. In the distance, I see a jogger wearing a green sweat suit. ‘Who better?’ I think to myself. I cut my speed by half and approach the jogger. His back is facing us. Some would call this cowardice. Others would probably have stronger words for it.
            About a thousand feet away, I ask Jeffrey if he sees the jogger in green. He makes a motion that works as a nod for me.
            Closer and closer and closer- here we go.
            “Shoot the green!” I scream.
            The jogger falls down and does not move as I watch in the rearview mirror.
            It worked! His aim is great!! And we’re getting away!!!
            I had never shot that gun with the silencer on. I wanted every aspect of this to be a surprise. It went quite well.
            Drunk off of fantasy-turned-reality, I swerve into the next lane and almost hit a school bus. I compose myself. Jeffrey is still composed. It’s amazing how little he understands of what just happened. Of what he made happen. He looks mildly confused and starts to make his clicking noise, so I give him a candy bar from the glove compartment. He shows the most amount of joy he can. My brother, the murderer.

            We need another. Jeffrey has no idea what’s going on so I’ll have to be enthusiastic for the both of us. After a few random turns, I find us driving on Wilkes Boulevard- a long, windy road that overlooks the river. There’s even a small lane on the right side for pedestrians. The problem is that the Wilkes Trail attracts groups. I’m not going to have my brother shoot five or six people at once. I’m not a lunatic.
            One full trip down the stretch and there are no solitary people. After the U-turn, I spot an old guy wearing brown pants and a multi-colored jacket.
            “Shoot the checkered one!”
            Nothing happens. I guess I should’ve painted a plaid target in the backyard.
            Grandpa gets off easy and we get off Wilkes Boulevard. Oh well.

            Not fully satisfied but heading home anyway, I turn left onto Main Street. I guess they call it Main Street for a reason; it's packed with people and I am packed with Jeffrey's trigger finger. This could be fun.
            I guess some hot new movie comes out today because there's a huge line in front of the theater. Line, shooting gallery, whatever. Some people would not shoot teenagers. I am some people but today Jeffrey is not.
            "Shoot the blue." "Shoot the orange." "Shoot the green and black."
            I think the girl in purple is Buckeye's sister. "Shoot the purple." Jeffrey obeys, but hits another girl in purple. The casualties of war. Another purple order, another purple casualty, another one that missed my mark. Third time's a charm? It sure is. So long, Tiffany.
            At this point, I'm not even looking at specific people; just shouting out colors. They're dropping so quickly it's poetic. And with the silencer still on, people are really confused. Alright, screaming in horror, but still confused. I'd better drive away.
            We can't make a clean getaway because there is construction on the road. A guy in a reflective orange jumpsuit holds a stop sign. I begin to mutter, "Shoot---", but stop when I notice a guy at the top of a utility pole wearing bright yellow. How obnoxious. What's funny is wearing that color is supposed to prevent him from getting killed. Unlucky sap. I bet he's got a family too.
            I watch his body fall right onto a police car. (How did I not notice that there???) Unsurprisingly, many pairs of eyes and pointing fingers are focused on my van. That idiot in orange had just flipped around his little sign so I speed off.
            As the number of flashing lights behind me increases, I weave onto the highway, off the highway, down back roads, down main streets, down Main Street. This is so exciting. I wonder if Officer Johnson is in the chase. I also have a half-tank of gas and absolutely no plan so this will only get better.
            And what would happen if we get stopped? I wiped my fingerprints off the gun. It's not in my name. I didn't kill anyone! Would they shoot someone with Autism? I could get out peacefully and say Jeffrey kidnapped me, that he's been faking it all along. Or maybe I'd tell him to wait for me to leave the van then start shooting the flashing lights. My father would be so proud.
            I'll go as far as the van will take me and figure it out then. But first…
            Apparently there was a shooting in front of the movie theater. An EMT is trying to revive one of the victims. An EMT wearing a red windbreaker.
            "Shoot the red!!!"

            Oh shit, I'm wearing my lucky red shirt today.