Bro always worries about how easily you burn. You’re an albino, it’s inevitable, but every time he catches you curled up on the ratty couch, all knobby knees pulled up to your protruding clavicle and rubbing viciously at the latest layer of skin peeling off of you, like you’re some great pale onion, his face gets soft and mournful, and he leaves to fetch the bottle of aloe he always keeps in the cabinets, one of the only constants in your two lives.
You used to be somewhere else, but dad swung everything: swung his hips in his drunken swagger and swung his head with those accusing eyes and swung his fists, too uncoordinated to really hurt anywhere that wasn’t emotional.
(Because those were real hurts, too. You and Bro knew that, know that, no matter what anybody else says.)
Mom was a mouse, who never did anything, who came out and snatched her cheese off of life’s kitchen table and hid again, from her mouse-husband and her ugly, beautiful crow children.
Then Bro got big. Big big, as big as your father and then bigger, and began swinging back, with his fists and with his legal papers—and then suddenly he and you were alone, and things were quiet and calm and seeped in a melancholy that leaves the sort of stain that no detergent but foreign, unexpected love can wash out, and love hasn’t lived with you for a very long time.
You’ve always been very thin. You only get thinner.
Bro tries, tries so hard to be good, but people say he needs to be a father, and he doesn’t want to be that, never that, not after your shared biological sperm donor.
So he’s not your dad, he’s your Bro, and that’s fine until it’s not. There’s not really a threshold for when you really plummeted—just the one day Bro went to wake you up for school (that’s all you ever did, went to school and came home, that’s all you ever wanted to do,) throwing the covers off of you and looking at the emaciated seeming cut of your hips.
You tell him you’re okay. That you’re happy like this. You’re happy dreaming these days away.
Your eyesight is bad, bad bad horribad, because of the albinism, and little scorpions scuttle in your gut when Bro brings you in to get glasses, because you two can’t afford this, you really can’t afford this.
You love him, and it makes you want to scream and yell, to break and re-create things. You can’t tell him this, not really, so you hush and nod and take the diminutive frames and get a proper gander at a precision clear life you’d give anything not to be living, here, like this.
In your best dreams, those of lava and steel and utter devotion, of checkered skies and a world that wants you, needs you, there is a boy named John.
John loves you. It’s in the proud height of the bucktoothed kid’s spine when you offhandedly compliment him, and the smile of his mouth whenever you are near. He’s a surprisingly big kid, John is—all broad, broad shoulders and a jaw that will grow to be impressively square, softened by the knowledge that John’s hands are soft, and his words are kind.
Most of the kids at his school who look like John are assholes the likes of which the world has never seen. When it gets to be too much, and the Neanderthal pretenders close in on you with loud, guffawing brays of laughter that spray saliva like a cobra spitting venom all over your face to freckle your eyelashes, you think of John, friend–leader John, who despite all of his pacifistic blustering would kick their asses for you, would coddle and cajole and adore you until you didn’t have a care in the world.
You sleep a lot, to be with John. The other kids, too; there’s Rose, who pretends to be completely underwhelmed by your inherent coolness, but is secretly amused and a little bit impressed, and Jade, who laughs at all your jokes.
This story doesn’t fold out chronologically in your head—the first time you remember a night of fantastic adventure replacing the nightmares, you were being blown up by a huge bomb, but that was alright, because you were going to be reborn better, stronger.
John comes later. First you remember a conversation about hypothetical dates with gray aliens, and the angry one with the caps text is swearing at you for it; the next is those damn Con Air aviators, which he gave you and you never take off.
When Bro asks you what you want for your fourteenth birthday, he sounds defeated—you haven’t actually wanted anything for years, and it saddens him in ways that you wish you could undo. Bro is so damn good to you, as good as he can be, with the hand life has dealt the two of you.
He hugs you so tightly you feel like your shoulders will crack when you ask him for big gold rimmed aviators, with your prescription built in, and a pack of apple juice.
You love the glasses, when you get them. It’s the first time you’ve felt something profound in a very long time. Bro looks choked up, watching you run your hands over them, a smile just barely quirking the corners of your mouth in a gesture you’ve long since forgotten.
You put them on, and avoid taking them off at all costs. Sometimes, though, at night, you slip them down the bridge of your nose just before you drift off, and thumb gently at the lenses pretending that they once sat on the bridge of Ben Stiller’s nose, and that a boy in Washington with god, the most beautiful smile, sent them to you because you were one of the most wonderful things he’d ever been graced with.
And then you fall asleep, and it’s all true, if only for a few hours.
A few hours that becomes more and more, because the less you stop to eat and surf the web and be miserable in your own snow white skin, the more John is there to reference stupid movies, and laugh at Rose chastising you both, and think you’re so cool and so strong.
You dream a lot, these days. Bro thinks it’s too much. He leaves trays of food in your room, in the hope that you’ll wake up and find them and suddenly feel like eating. He leaves food, and gets as many DJ gigs as he can, and desperately wishes he had enough money to send you to a therapist.
You don’t really think you need a therapist. You think you need John, and if not that, then melanin in your skin and eyes to at least put you on the scale of potential normal.
You’re thinking about sleeping less, though. You still dream, you always dream, but now, it’s not always about SBURB and your friends and sick fires and happiness, god, you’re so fucking happy there, horrors and tragedies and all, because you can feel everything in the emotional equivalent of Technicolor: brassy, rude and unapologetic.
Last night was one of the non-SBURB dreams.
You were tired, so tired, and your shoes were filling with your own damn blood. And people were pleading with you, just tell us what you want, anything, you have to want something you’ve givensomuch—
But you kept saying you didn’t and every time you told them no, your shoes saturated more and more with crimson hemoglobin, until they were puffy like sponges and the same color as your eyes.
They asked you why, why didn’t you want, want anything, everything, and you were going to say you didn’t know, but that’s not what came out. Your lips, previously held shut by little words such as ‘noisome’ and ‘coquette’ that squirmed and lit up like fireflies, flew open, and your teeth were velvet and your tongue was feathers, and it made your words soft and kind, almost as soft and kind as John’s.
“Because everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”
And then John is there, and you try to reach out to him, even though this isn’t SBURB and you’re not cool and the red pooling in your shoes had begun to leak into the foundations of your school, turning every chair in every classroom into stringy tendons, but you can’t. You’re in a coffin, surrounded by sunflowers made out of cut up apple juice bottle wrappers, and he’s telling you how selfish you are, and crying—
”—didn’t wait for me Dave, you should have waited!”
When you wake up, you turn to your bedside table and grab one of the hot pockets off of it, cramming the gooey bits into your mouth with voracious efficiency.
You want to wait long enough for John.
Quiet quiet, tick-tick-tock, you’re always a mouse at school, and yes you do get attention but it’s the silent kind, the kind you garner because of your albinism, and you’re fine with that. They don’t talk to you, you never talk back.
The sky is dark and pregnant with a Texas flash flood, and you beckon it forth mentally. You’re fond of the rain and the shadow. It reminds you of John’s world, in that wonderful place where you matter, the land of wind and shade.
You’re in English, and the clock above your head doesn’t work: scrawled across the long arm are the words ‘It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen’, and a doll head with wires coming out of one eye is at the top of the face. It’s been placed forever at two-nineteen in the afternoon, one minute before school gets out, in homage to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
As an obsessive clock-watcher, it should bother you. It doesn’t.
You like that book, and the idea of the Combine, because it gives you an excuse to call your dreaming ‘evading its clutches’ without seeming like a basket case.
Nobody else sees your logic here. You wish you could say you don’t particularly mind.
People run their shoulders roughly into you in the hall every day, and it shows up black and blue on your complexion. You wish you didn’t mind that, either.
You’re fourteen and a half, and every day walking to school the wind tries to play with you. You think you’re projecting again, at first, because that’s John, the wind is John, but then it starts flapping the openings of your backpack and pressing against your cheek in sensations too much like the chaste, forceful press of lips to be misinterpreted.
Unless you’re going crazy.
You don’t particularly mind, if that’s the case. You take to spending your dream-time awake on the roof, sitting with legs dangling over the abyss of thirty stories and letting the wind care about you like nobody but Bro ever has.
One day it blows you a flyer for an impossibly shitty looking Nic Cage movie, flapping the paper in circles around your spaced out face until you look up and grab it out of the air.
You only have to glance at the terribly printed picture for a fraction of a second before you start bawling and hugging it to you chest, and now you do care if you’re crazy, because everything else can be written off as your twisted loneliness, but this, this…
The breeze starts howling around your face, as if asking what’s wrong, but not hurting you, never hurting you. You stagger to your feet.
You have an idea, and it’s stupid, so stupid, and Bro will never recover if you’re wrong and Dave you’re so selfish why would you do this but you have to know.
Standing on the very edge of the roof, you lean forward and let gravity sway you down, down—
The wind buffers you so hard you end up flat on your back ten feet away from where you nearly fell to your death, gale force zephyrs pelting you in the face belligerently now, Dave you asshole, Dave you careless asshole—
You’re sobbing, still sobbing, sobbing like a babe, but it’s joy that turns your tear ducts to faucets.
You bellow John’s name into the worried winds. They slow, and ever so carefully, with gusts of air that feel like they were propelled by hummingbird wings, whisk the tears from your face.
You gain twenty pounds in the next three weeks, bringing you up from emaciated to skinny and elongated, and leave your bedroom window open at all times.
Bro looks proud, prouder than you have ever seen, fit to burst at the seams, and you’re really, genuinely happy about that, for the first time in ages.
The wind doesn’t play with you anymore, but that’s alright. You don’t remember your dreams anymore either, but that’s alright too.
You’re fifteen, and walking to school alone, again, again, this routine of monotony, but now it’s alright, because you have something to wait for, something to hope for.
On the corner a block from your house, a man with a pristine white shirt and hat stands side by side with a boy your age, all messy black hair and thick rimmed glasses and beautiful, so beautiful.
Once more, like clockwork, you bawl, and bawl, and bawl.
That’s alright now too, because John is hugging you tighter, and tighter, and bawling, bawling, balwing with you.
(When you two finally pull back, a warble-voiced John tells you how cool you look. You say you know; and you really mean it.)