James Morgan McGill, age five and one quarter, gives a presentation at his kindergarten about how he's going to be a SpaceWarrior Cowboy just like Buck Rogers in his brother's comic books, and he's going to save Space Princesses and fight octopusseses which are calamari before it's cooked.
That afternoon Chuck, age thirteen almost fourteen, picks Jimmy up from school by walking the twenty minutes down the road from his own Junior High, tells him that SpaceWarrior Cowboys are stupid.
Jimmy takes this as a truth-- Chuck knows everything, it's so great-- and focuses on being a Prehistoric Truck Driver instead.
# # #
That one time they go to a family reunion with Mom-- Dad stayed home, citing Irreconcilable Differences, which made her laugh-- an Aunt or something says loudly, "McGill men always did take to flights of fancy," while looking right at Jimmy and Chuck.
Jimmy grins and laughs because he told Mom on their way over that he was gonna be the one to Patent Oxygen like Mister Wizard and pay all their bills, and she had said "That's so fancy!"
Chuck's lips press so thin that they go bloodless, and when Jimmy sees he shuts up.
# # #
Jimmy is eight and Chuck is sixteen and Chuck stops him from following him out to the yard to see Mom off to work with a hand on his shirt and a concerned look on his face. Jimmy remembers that face when Grandma Ethel died, saw Chuck show it to Mom, so he stops cold and waits.
"Maybe you should try to be someone else sometimes and see how that goes," Chuck says.
Jimmy bites his lip and looks at his shoes. Mom yelled this morning because Jimmy had last week introduced himself to one of her new friends as "Jimmy McGill, Time Travelling Fire Fighter," and she'd only just found out about it. The lady had said it was okay, but she hasn't come around since and now Mom's sad.
Chuck nods and leaves him in the hallway, goes outside himself to say bye to Mom and to drive safe. Dad left hours before, before dawn, and no one ever says bye when he leaves anyway.
That night when a couple of Chuck's football friends come over to cram for a test, Jimmy introduces himself as "Bob".
# # #
Chuck has to make dinner a couple times a week, so he does. Jimmy plays in the living room with the television on low so the neighbours don't call the cops again. He talks to his toy soldiers about the Knights of the Round Table he learnt about in class today, and how the Uncanny X-Men are better than old guys wrapped in foil like Mom wraps turkeys for the guy she does secretory stuff for sometimes.
Jimmy's homework is spread out on the kitchen table half-done and disinterested. Chuck is finishing his pages of proofs for the advanced class he's in-- college material that Charles McGill-- and poking at the soup on the stove whenever it bubbles a little too much.
"Come get washed up," Chuck calls in on Jimmy, so he turns off the television and uses the kitchen sink to scrub his wrists, splash his face, get half a gallon of tap water down his shirt.
Chuck isn't laughing at him. He's got a crumpled piece of paper, is holding it over the open stove flame where the pot of soup used to be, and watches Jimmy slow.
"I don't want to take a bath," Jimmy explains.
The paper that Chuck is burning sparks and curls at his fingers; he drops with a curse. Some grease is on the stovetop or something because the fire spreads and covers the stove, catches on the curtains, creeps up to the ceiling faster than Jimmy can breath in and out once each.
Chuck runs out of the room for the phone and calls 911. The operator tells him to get out of the house, so he grabs Jimmy by the arm and drags him out.
"If you hadn't distracted me!" Chuck shouts at him on the lawn. Jimmy's crying now, snot drips from his nose and his wrist hurts where Chuck is twisting it too hard. "Damnit!"
The kitchen is ruined but the house is saved, the firemen say. New kind of paint kept the fire contained or something. Mom hugs them both fiercely and says "Thank the Lord" a lot.
Dad takes one look at them and says, "So whose fault is this?" and Jimmy squeaks out "I'm sorry Dad" before Chuck says a word.
Chuck's lips thin out and Jimmy hunches his shoulders as Dad starts to yell.
# # #
On the day Chuck graduates high school Jimmy is ten years old and down with strep throat. He wants to go anyway, cheer on the Valedictorian and tell everyone that his brother is super smart, is their brother super smart, but Chuck himself tells him to stay in bed.
"You'll be bored," Chuck says as he stands in the open door to Jimmy's room, keeps his body in the hallway and only lets his head peek in. Mom's keeping Jimmy in quarantine to keep the contagions down, it's a big deal that Chuck's doing this much. "I'll be home before you know it."
Jimmy pouts, but Chuck leaves anyway. A girl who lives down the street is staying in the living room to call 911 if Jimmy needs it, otherwise he's on his own.
He Crawls out of bed and watches Chuck and Mom and Dad get in the car to drive off. Mom is smiling and laughing, Dad smacks Chuck on the shoulder with a proud grin.
Chuck is the only one who waves at Jimmy as they drive off; Jimmy waves back long after the car is out of sight.
# # #
Jimmy and his three friends are arrested by irritated police officers on a warm Tuesday night in the middle of May. The hobos they were hosting a dance-off for in the arcade flee at the first sound of sirens, so there's no one around to help diminish the damage.
They had brought their own prizes, were just borrowing the dancefloor Tiny Tim's Arcade Gallery uses for a discotheque on Saturday nights. They weren't causing property damage or anything. It's all blown out of proportion.
Chuck calls home two days after Dad pays Jimmy's bail. He asks to speak to him, opens with, "I saw a Buck Rogers book in the library and wondered how you were doing."
Jimmy grins wide, sees Mom give him a stern look and glance over his shoulder at the living room where Dad is silently watching the game. Jimmy stops smiling, hunches his shoulders.
"I got in trouble with Dad again," Jimmy says, and Chuck sighs.
# # #
"Firemen again?" Chuck asks. He sounds upset, even the static on the line doesn't hide the tone.
Jimmy doesn't look out the window at the blackened lawn. His friend Tom had a firecracker, they weren't paying attention, the grass had been watered that morning so it wasn't supposed to be dry enough to catch on fire.
Tom and Andrew are in the hospital. Dad talked to Mom on the phone and refused to come home after she told him what had happened. Mom had called Chuck and Jimmy overheard her say, "What do you mean, you're not surprised he did that?"
"You need to be more careful," Chuck says when Jimmy doesn't answer. "Join some clubs. Make better friends."
"There's a magicians club at school," Jimmy offers, "I could learn some card tricks."
"No eating fire."
"No, okay. I won't."
# # #
Mom gets Jimmy to change Chuck's sheets in his room the day before Chuck comes home. They're dusty because he hasn't been here in over a year, and her allergies would go ballistic if she inhaled it. He does the chore with minimal of grumbling, he might be fourteen but he still loves his mother.
Chuck drives in the next afternoon just before lunch, has a polo shirt and slacks on, a slick part to his hair that wasn't there before.
"I'm waiting for my applications for Law School to go through," he explains at dinner, and Mom's ecstatic, Jimmy less so.
"Lawyers are boring," he whines, later.
Chuck's lips press thin, he takes a careful sip of the tea Mom made before she left for bed.
"You have to stop getting in trouble," he says, and, "You're the man of the house, you have to provide for mom and stop making her worry."
Jimmy is confused. "What about Dad?"
Chuck answers, "Dad's a figurehead. It's on you now."
He still doesn't get it, but Chuck's always been smarter than him, so he doesn't argue.
# # #
Jimmy doesn't go to college. He barely finishes High School. Mom gets some money from him every month to buy Dad's pills and get something for herself once in a while, and it's okay, everything's good.
Chuck's in New Mexico and calls once a week to talk to him, ask after Mom even though he's already talked to her himself for the week.
"I got some things going," Jimmy tells him the night after he and Marco do their first successful Rolex scam. "If it works I can give Mom more each month."
"That's good, Jimmy. I'm proud of you."
Chuck's voice is distant. He's at work, probably doing something important with that firm of his as he checks on his family. He's driven, but he still cares, it's so great.
Jimmy chews on a fingernail and looks around his barebones apartment. Marco has the bedroom, Jimmy sleeps on the couch, they make it work.
"Thanks, man," he says, and Chuck hums on the line.