When he was a boy, Michael used to look out the window of the bedroom he shared with Lincoln. Down below was the street, its loose garbage and broken sidewalks dotted by rusty fire hydrants and a couple of dying trees. The building across the way was as rundown as his, and in scattered windows other people were stranded, watching the world from the prison of lives that never had any real hope of being better or different.
Michael's family had moved in years ago, not long after he'd been born. His father had left them—gone before Michael had even drawn his first breath—and that apartment was where they'd landed when the money grew tight. They'd never managed to leave.
It hadn't always felt so boxed-in, not at first. There were neighbors to help look after him and Lincoln when their mother was at work, and they had some toys and a small television and mostly enough to eat. Other kids might have had it better, but not many that Michael personally knew.
When their mother became sick, all of that changed. Some days she stayed home, but Lincoln and Michael still had to leave because her head hurt or she was too tired to have them around. Other times she needed Lincoln right by her bedside for hours on end, almost as if she was afraid to be alone (but it wasn't that, she assured Michael, it really wasn't and he didn't need to worry so much). On those days, Michael spent a lot of time in his room keeping quiet and looking out the window. The rest of the world drifted along, unseeing and unreachable, and Michael itched with wanting to break free of his small part of it.
A few months later his mother died, and Michael regretted everything. He was sorry he'd ever wanted more than to stay in the close cocoon of his family, where everything suddenly seemed so safe and perfect compared to being taken to live at the Childrens' Home with Lincoln.
They were driven there by a man who smelled like mothballs and cigarettes. The sky was gray and heavy overhead, and they parked on the street and walked up to the front door with the man right there behind them, like he was waiting to catch them if they tried to run. On the sidewalk leading to the building, Michael caught sight of something imprinted in the concrete: "Fuck Yuo." That was all it said, no reasons or restrictions, just "Fuck Yuo."
All the anger and hopelessness Michael felt were in those words, and the spelling spoke of failure—the world's failure—because was this where all of it was headed for him now? Were there no other options than this life, these unwanted choices, and that ultimate powerless failure just waiting?
Michael stopped on that square, his feet frozen in place on either side of the words as if moving forward would make the next bad thing come true.
The man finally pushed him onward and up the stairs, and Michael and Lincoln walked side-by-side toward the future that would surely destroy them both.
Years later, Michael had found his place in the world in spite of everything.
The Childrens' Home had been like one of those nightmares that were so bad they would wake Michael up. It had been the law of the jungle in there, kids stealing just to show they could and beating each other up out of boredom or wanting to show who was boss. Michael had had Lincoln, but for Lincoln there'd been no-one but himself.
That meant their paths had diverged almost immediately.
After a very bad first home placement, Michael had gone to a decent family. They might not have understood his thirst for knowledge any more than Lincoln had, but they'd let him carry it as far as he'd wanted to. In turn, Michael had learned all the rules— explicit or otherwise—at home and at school that would keep him from getting sent somewhere else he couldn't control. He'd embraced the boundaries of that life, knowing what the alternatives were.
The only placement Lincoln had ever gotten was in Juvie. He'd been released back to the Home after his first stint there, and left to fend for himself after the second. Caught between his sense of responsibility and his own destructive impulses, Lincoln would keep to the rules right up until the moment that he exploded all of them with a single misguided action. After that, he'd spiral down through a succession of bad choices until he finally got caught.
Moving in opposite orbits around the same beginning, Michael wound up employed at a well-paying professional job while Lincoln made a career out of being in prison. Michael had stopped trying to understand what drove his brother to self-destruction by then—a high-profile murder and a death sentence stole the last of Michael's ability to think he could stop it.
What changed him was not immediate; it was the slow erosion of his refusal to believe Lincoln's claims of innocence. Once the possibility seeped into his thoughts it formed a fissure that kept on growing, until Michael was left with the question of how he could let this happen if Lincoln hadn't done any of the things he was slated to die for.
Later he would wonder if the reason he'd resisted believing for so long was purely selfish—because once he realized what he had to do, he knew it would cost him everything.
Everything but Lincoln.
The Michael who followed the rules would have to bend and misuse the rules to save his brother from certain death. He would sacrifice his success, his reputation—his sense of himself—to become someone else entirely. Once begun, there could be no going back.
But in leaving behind the safe confines of everything he'd built, he felt an odd exhilaration at making that choice.
He'd escaped his own thinking—his own expectations—and he was doing it for all the right reasons.
He would go inside the box that waited to kill his brother, and he would break it and the world surrounding it wide open.
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