Your first word was “Ryan.”
Your first memory is of Ryan picking you up from the dirt in front of the swing-set when you fell and scraped both your knees red and bleeding: Ryan smacked the dirt and the little pebbles off you and told you not to be a baby and when you kept crying he kissed his hands and put them on your knees, still pudgy little boy knees like his, and said that would make them better, and then he stole cookies out of the jar even though it was before dinner and you both sat outside, dirty and bloodied, eating strawberry and chocolate wafers that tasted like sweetened cardboard.
Ryan put first his mouth—“Leave him the fuck alone”—and then the rest of him between you and your dad’s fists. For every bloody nose that you had, every flattened boxer’s cheekbone or cracked rib, Ryan had two, all the way until you hit puberty and you thickened out into the fighter that Ryan, skinny and sharp as a razor, would never be, and then you took pleasure in taking a swing at the old man the next time he tried to crack a bottle over Ryan’s head.
And now Ryan is lying in a hospital bed with a monitor light that blinks steadily and moronically, his head beat to shit, and it’s because you weren’t there. Shannon keeps crying and you keep buying boxes of strawberry wafers and letting them melt on your tongue like you’re taking communion.
When Ryan wakes up, he sees you and Shannon both, but the first thing he says is your name. It comes out “Cywil.”
“Yeah,” you say, stroking his hand. “Yeah, Ryan. I’m right here.”
Only then you’re not. Ryan sits around wearing sweatpants and worn T-shirts, watching cartoons and eating cereal, and he hugs a couch cushion until he spends an hour digging around in the attic and worrying Shannon to fucking death looking for Mr. Bear, that worn brown scrap-teddy from when you were kids, with the quilted ass and the black button eyes, and then he hugs it instead. You can only stand to watch him for so long.
So you go out and you find the man who broke your brother and you break him, too: first his knees and then his jaw and you would go on and do the rest of him, piece by piece, except you get interrupted.
And now you’re in Oz.
“I was bad,” you tell Ryan when you go. He cries and sniffles and clings to you. It still makes something stick in your throat to see him like this, when he was always the strong one, but you hold on as tight as you can. “So you can’t be bad anymore, okay?”
“When you come back?”
“A long time from now, buddy,” you say, and he curls his fingers around the back of your neck. Tears make your vision blurry and you hear Ryan, long ago and far away now, telling you not to be a baby, a pussy, and you bite down hard on your lip until you can be brave for him. He’s still your big brother. You run your hand down the back of his head. He needs a haircut. He’s starting to look like you.
It doesn’t take you long to get moved into Emerald City. You boxed with Healy on the outside and on the inside you trade handshakes that are padded with the drugs that you can’t get used to calling tits: Healy tells you that McManus is a pantywaist who’s vulnerable to big eyes and claims of repentance, so you can give him that, and then he asks you about your brother. You smile and your mouth feels rigid and hard as a rock. You say that Ryan’s fine when probably Ryan is sitting on the floor with his head leaned back onto Shannon’s leg and his eyes sort of blank and far away. Shannon’s going to leave him and that’s not the sort of thing you can blame her for: she’s stayed longer, already, than any other woman would have. You know damn well that Ryan’s not the man she married anymore. Still, you’re an asshole when it comes to Ryan, especially now, so on the phone you remind her that he stayed with her, even though he’d wanted kids and she couldn’t have them, and she says fuck you and hangs up so loud it rings in your head all the rest of the day.
“Yeah,” you say. “Ryan’s fine. He’s good.”
The first thing you do in Em City is kill Dino Ortolani.
You do this because killing Ortolani is the only thing that can blot out the image of the thick black stitches running up Ryan’s side and the way you had had to stand in the waiting room, fucking useless, while Shannon cried and filled out endless forms authorizing surgeries that you couldn’t afford, not without insurance, except you paid for them yourself in crumpled wads of cash. You have too many memories of Ryan in the hospital and just because he got better after Ortolani is no reason to let Ortolani off the hook. You corner him in the supply closet.
“Ryan O’Reily,” he says.
You put a hand on your chest, just at your heart, and say, introducing yourself because it’s only polite, “Cyril O’Reily.”
He closes his eyes. And out of mercy, you make it easy on him and just snap his neck. There has to be some reward for not bothering to struggle, for seeing you and saying your brother’s name and just realizing that there’s no sense in putting up a fight. Ryan was never much for mercy. You think that you can be who you are because Ryan was who he was: you could cry when you fell and scraped your knees because Ryan would pick you up again, but who the fuck was there to pick up Ryan? Now that you’re the one who will have to do the picking up, you realize that maybe you should have done more to Ortolani, because you only had the one chance, but he’s already gone, so you just get the fuck out of the supply closet as fast as you can.
Ryan comes to visit. He hangs on your neck. Someone off to your right snickers at him and you make a note to beat the living shit out of them.
It still hurts you to look at him. Ryan used to be all sharp angles and closed doors that only you could get through. Nothing touched him but you. Now, he’s soft—there’s no cut to him at all, no potential for meanness—and wide open. It’s still you, though, you can see that. Always and forever, you are Ryan O’Reily’s little brother, and he loves you first and best. He was your dad and your mom and all your family, fuck Aunt Brenda and the rest of them who never did one fucking thing to lift the two of you out of that house. It was you and it was Ryan. It’s always going to be that way.
He says, “I miss you. I should be here.”
“No,” you say, adamant. “No, you fucking shouldn’t. Look at me, Ryan, okay?”
You say, “I can take care of myself,” and his lower lips tugs in between his teeth and you know that you’ve just said the one thing utterly guaranteed to piss him off, because if there’s one thing Ryan has always hated, it’s the idea that you don’t need him.
You can’t think of a gentle way to say that you need the old Ryan, not the new Ryan. The new Ryan, in here? Wouldn’t last a day. There was some puppy-faced guy in Em City who was apparently getting ass-fucked every other hour by the Aryans who finally got torn apart when that bald Nazi fuck dressed him in a Confederate flag and sent him walking out. Ryan? Probably doesn’t even know what a Confederate flag is, now. Would probably be happy to have a present.
He’s not coming in here. You’re not letting him.
It’s your goddamned turn to take care.