“Change the station,” he gripes, tap tap tapping on the dashboard like he has for the past ten miles. Your gloved hands tighten around the steering wheel, leather squeaking against leather, but you say nothing. He continues tapping, thirteen years old without any ability to self-contain energy yet, his best attempts a thin straight line of lips to mimic your own perfected poker face.
The music blasting from the old speakers of your clunky chevy is shallow rap, interspersed with overdone vibrato of the background singers. You don’t really like it, but it’s exactly the type of music someone like you wouldn’t like, and you like that contrast. You like being unexpected, because life is short enough as it is to just stay colored within the expected lines.
Which is part of the reason you’re out here, flying down I-20 for no reason other than because you could, calling Dave in sick for the day so you’d have a right hand man on the drive across Texas’ scrubby landscape. There’s nothing quite like brotherly bonding while staring at the open road sweltering with heat waves.
Dave reaches over, fiddles with the knob, and the car gags forth the autotune of a preteen pop star, voice on crutches to hide the obvious lack of talent. You snort, mentally wincing at the sound that’s assaulting your eardrums, but you leave the radio be for nostalgic reasons.
You’re dressed in your pinkest shirt, digging through miscellaneous vinyls and discarded jeans on the floor of your closet. Somewhere in here, the sparkly nonsense accessories from when you used to be the bartender at the Nightstick gay club are hiding, finally given purpose again. Dave waits in the living room, blond hair plastered with glitter, saccharine diva music already booming through the floorboards.
With hair brushes as your microphones, you sing your hearts out, stereo blasting loud as you jump on the futon together, feeling 16 years younger with your little brother. The neighbors knock impatiently at the wall, but neither of you care enough to quiet down.
At the next rest stop, there’s a statue of a dinosaur, a stately brontosaurus resigned to its fate of being climbed all over by small children. Dave swings a leg over its back and sits at the base of its neck, fist raised high in imagined triumph.
You chuckle, small smile quirking your ordinarily impassive face, and Dave looks pleased with himself for amusing you.
It’s Dave’s tenth birthday, but if not for the jiggling of his leg under the table, you wouldn’t have thought he was all that excited. His arm is broken this year, and the money mom and dad left in their trust fund ran out a couple months ago. Your job hardly covers ¬the rent and other necessaries, much less the things he really wanted. You’ve had to be creative this year.
As he unwraps the large gift sitting on the kitchen table, his eyebrows fly up into his hair, and he can’t hide the doofy grin that tugs at his mouth as he realizes what’s in the box.
He pulls it out: a conjoined-twin cow fetus, suspended in formaldehyde in a fancy glass sugar jar you found at a thrift store. The fetus comes from a farmer down the way, more than happy to get rid of one of the failures of his already lacking breeding year.
“Neat,” Dave says, pressing his face against the glass, and you can tell he really means it.
You rub your eyes and stare countless times, but what you’re looking at never changes, never stops being the only thing you have ever had nightmares over and shivered about in the cover of darkness. The last remaining spark of optimism shatters in your chest, splintering into your abdominal cavity like white fire.
The police came to retrieve you at work this morning. They were vague, telling you they needed you just to verify what they already knew, and their faces were sympathetic, pitying, the kind of sadness you have for someone who’s falling apart. Something prickled at the base of your neck but you wrote it off.
You are falling apart. You’re nothing but a stone cold façade on the outside, but inside is a blizzard, ripping you apart.
Dave’s body lay in the grimy street, half covered by sheet, broken and bloody. They’ve taken his sunglasses, leaving his sensitive eyes stark and honest to the rest of the world. They’re wide, just like his mouth. You swallow down a sob, realizing in his last moments, he must have been terrified.
It was a drunk driver, careening around the corner as Dave walked home from school. Alcoholic, drinking far too early in the day, and you vow you’ll never touch another drop of alcohol again.
You were supposed to keep him safe. You were supposed to make his life better than all odds, to make him feel just as strong and capable in the world despite having no parents, despite being raised by a deadbeat older brother who dropped out of school when your parents died. You’ve screwed it up, just like you’ve screwed up everything else.
Kneeling, you brush a blood-sticky strand of hair out of his face. Your hand trembles as you realize this is the first time in months you’ve actually touched him. You’ve never been good at physical affection, but what if he needed that? What if he didn’t realize how much you loved him? And now you’ll never get to tell him.
This is what finally breaks you, unsightly sob ripping from your throat as the hot tears start to make your vision swim. You don’t care that he’s cold, covered in blood and gore, you don’t care that there are people watching – you pull him up, cradle him to your chest, and hold him, tears running clear tracks over his red-stained skin.
You sleep in the bed of your truck the first night, staring up at the stars together in amiable silence. Out here, far from the city, every constellation is clear and bright. You point some out to Dave, tell him the stories behind them, and he listens raptly.
“You remember that thing from the Lion King?” he asks suddenly.
“That dead people go up to live in the stars.”
You shrug. It’s been years since you’ve seen that movie.
“When I die, I want to be the brightest star. Make all the other stars jealous.”
You snort to show your amusement, but something in you pinches at the thought. You write it off as sentimental garbage and show him Cassiopeia instead.