When he was three years old, Jacko Chant had almost died. No doctor had ever worked out why, and occasionally there was a doctor who asked about it, looking at his charts. It didn't seem to signify much, other than being an annoyance when all he wanted was to get the antibiotic which would stop the wheezing in his chest. Lolly, though, she'd thin her lips and get a tight look that would disappear as soon as she noticed Jacko looking.
It kept happening, even through the brief period when his name was Jack-no, sorry, Jonathan, through the time when Sorry was gone but Laura would still talk to him and tell him hello from Jacko and pass on something Sorry had said in return, words and phrases that she would never think to put together in that order if it was just something out of her own head. And Sorry would know about them, would talk to Jacko sometimes on the phone and ask about things Jacko had said to Laura to tell Sorry in between the times when a telephone was available, whether because of the bill being paid late or because Sorry was too far from civilization.
(The last was a word always said with a scoff and a sneer, because Laura and Sorry didn't think people were very civilized. Jacko himself tended to be more lenient; certainly he liked going for walks out in the woods, but he also very much enjoyed the color television they'd acquired and having an actual toilet, since he felt there was a clear demarcation of responsibilities. Bears could handle having a shit in the woods, and he would trot along to the shops if he ever felt the urge towards gathering nuts and berries. It seemed equitable to him although, granted, he'd never asked a bear. One day he should probably mention it to Sorry, who would laugh but then there was a good chance he'd actually ask a bear even if he had to travel to Canada to do, following the trail of an expression Chris had introduced to their lives back to its source.)
Jacko was fairly sure that, if asked, Sorry would have said that whole time that he only indulged Jacko because it made Laura happy. Even after Jacko was old enough to properly hold his own conversations about subjects entirely unrelated to tigers or pink alligators, Sorry would laugh and look at Laura before saying something about winning the heart of the girl by currying favor with her family. It had made Jacko feel inadequate once, when he'd made the mistake of listening to the words instead of the feeling and believed it. He'd been ten, and feeling very unsure about his place in a world where both his mum and his dad had new families, and it seemed very likely that Lolly would be concluding her experience at uni by marrying Sorry and leaving Jacko behind to start another new family that he wouldn't be needed to complete.
No one noticed, or at least he thought no one had. Sorry was usually the one to mind him when both Mum and Lolly were busy, but it was easy enough to go to a friend's house instead. He'd even spent one afternoon with Sorry's mum and grandmother, listening to stories about witchcraft and growing up in a wild countryside that seemed entirely unrelated to the paving and shops and neatly trimmed gardens that Jacko had grown up with. They were nice enough, even if sometimes they would look at him sideways, their eyes seeming silver and as cool as the waters they had swam in, before the city came.
"Sorry misses you," Laura had said one day, her eyes turned away and her back tensed as she tried to seem casual. "He thinks you don't like him anymore."
Jacko had given a half-shrug in response. "It's fine."
"The brothers he had, before... They were sporty types, nothing like him at all." It should have seemed like a random statement, but Jacko knew how Laura's mind worked.
"I'm not like you," Jacko said, because if she could talk about subjects that hit close to the bone, things that were known but never spoken of, then he could as well. "I'm not like anybody."
She reached for him but he shouldered his way past her, slamming the door to his room to relieve some of the hot anger and shame that shot through him at having sounded like such a baby. He didn't want concerned looks or soothing words; he just wanted to fit into his own skin without feeling like a stranger to himself. He didn't want reassurances that would just be lies, even if they were lies that Lolly believed to be true.
It was a relief to be left alone, except it wasn't. He occupied himself in his room, picking up all of his normal entertainments and then tossing them aside until he was finally keeping himself busy by tidying up. He'd managed to pull himself together by dinnertime, and things were normal again until the next time Mum and Laura went out and Sorry was already there before Jacko could make himself scarce. Jacko rolled his eyes as Laura gave him a squeeze and whispered, "Pay attention! And remember he's terrible at talking about what matters."
Jacko didn't bother to respond, just retreated to his room and flopped on his bed, pretending to read a book. It was long enough that the pretense had become a reality before there was a tap on his door, startling him even as the door opened. "What?"
"I'm stupid," Sorry said. "Laura told me so - has said so before, but I never believed her before. Or maybe I did, but s-she loves me anyway, so I never c-cared."
Flicking his eyes up, Jacko couldn't think of anything to say, so he stayed silent. The quiet stretched and pulled, but he kept looking at his book until finally Sorry said, "My b-books…" He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I don't know how to be a brother."
"I don't need you to be my brother!" Jacko threw his book across the room, sitting up with his eyes blazing. "You don't need to put up with me or do things with me! I'm fine on my own, so just go away. Take Lolly and just... just leave. It's what you want to do anyway."
"She'd sooner leave me than you." Sorry clasped his hands together, hunched over in Jacko's computer chair and completely failing to look cynical or carefree. "You're p-pretty aces, for a kid."
The anger started to drain out of Jacko as he looked at Sorry, really looked. "You're really horrible at talking. And no, I don't mean the stammer."
"Deprived of my best response." This time Sorry spoke smoothly, with the mocking lightness that was typical of his conversation back in full force. "It's almost like you don't want me to respond at all."
Maybe he should, should make Sorry talk about it and apologize. Instead Jacko grunted and stood, kicking at Sorry's feet as he went by. It wasn't until they were downstairs, some advert for a used car dealer blaring from the telly, that Jacko said, "Don't do it again."
"Won't," Sorry said, and he didn't. They'd joke about all sorts of thing, sarcasm flying thick and heavy between them until even Laura would shake her head and take herself off, but then sometimes she'd get a soft look in her eyes when she saw them laughing together. The end of uni did bring a wedding, with Jacko walking Laura up the aisle before taking the spot beside Sorry as the best man. It changed things, but Jacko himself changed as well, and he never felt left behind or alone.
When he was seventeen, Jacko Chant sat down with a girl that was desperately ill and told her to hold on, as he could distantly remember being told to hold on when blackness surrounded him. The doctors couldn't work out why she was ill, but one of them had noticed the symptoms listed on Jacko's chart when he came into the same surgery for a gash on his knee. In desperation, the doctor asked if anyone had ever found anything out that wasn't noted on the record, anything that might help the girl that was withering away before their eyes.
"I'm not sure," Jacko said, feeling for a moment like he could smell decay in the middle of the antiseptic hospital room. "I… I think maybe my brother could help."