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my brother from the south side

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Ian Gallagher is not much older than 10 when he hears the word ‘hypocrite’. He sees someone shouting it in the TV blaring downstairs, it sounds mean and dirty. It reminds him of his father.

 

 

Ian shuts the door behind him, another note tucked in his bag that said his father had to come to meet his teacher because he missed the last one. He sees Frank search for his beer, scratching his stomach when he should be meeting his teacher. He lets the anger inside him burst, throwing in the insult he recently heard with the usual. A spike of pleasure shoots inside him when he sees Frank narrow his eyes.

“I would have you know that I’m all of the things you said.” Frank says.

Ian seethes, “And because of that I am not as you said, a hypocrite.” his eyes flash, and he puts a hand on his chest as he tries to steady himself, “When have I ever claimed that I am a good parent? I have never lied to you once. Today’s generation gets coddled by parents and teachers alike. I pay the school, I don’t need to be there for them to get it right.”

Ian looks at the floor, clenching his fist.

“You were not taken by social services, you have a roof on your head. Would a hypocrite do that? I am doing as I promised, I am doing enough. In fact, I’m the one who needs looking after. Ungrateful, the whole lot of you.” he sneers.

Ian kicks his beer bottle and rushes up the stairs, Frank’s voice bellowing after him.

“Hypocrisy isn’t lying exactly.” he hears Lip saying from his bed as he slams the door, “It’s about not doing what you believe in.” Ian crosses his arms, “So that’s still lying.” Lip’s shoulders shake, “Yeah, kind of like that.”

 

 

Lip puts paper plates around a baked tray of half burnt toasties. There’s a minuscule amount of boiled carrots and peas enough for one, Ian wrinkles his nose. “Dinner’s served.” he says when he sees him.

Lip squints and bends to scrape some bits from the oven, “Fiona has a late shift, don’t wait up.” he pats Debbie who tries to push away the spoon. Yesterday she had successfully hurled it away, today Lip waited, watching her movements and slipped in a bite when she seemed distracted.

Lip wipes his hands on his blackened apron, pats her back and lifts her off the high chair. He takes a look at the baby solution powder, whistles. “At least it has all the nutrients and stuff for such a price huh.”

“That’s one plate less.” Ian observes.

Lip looks at his watch and without answering grabs a toasty.

“You.” Lip points at him with a spatula, “Eat healthy, I don’t want to miss shifts while you cough a storm and miss school. I shouldn’t see those” he points at the vegetables, “when I come back.”

“Ugh, why don’t you eat these?” Ian looks at the boiled vegetables.

“No need to make a face, Fiona made those.”

“Did she magically change its flavour too?”

Lip ruffles his hair, “I’ll eat when I come back, you need it more little carrot.” Ian knows he won’t, there wasn’t enough left, he swats his hand half-heartedly.

Lip takes a bite of his toasty, ruffles his hair. “Hey.” he says after him but Lip’s already gone for his shift. Ian looks at Debbie and airplanes a carrot towards her, she smacks it away.

“Now that’s wasted.” he says to no one.

 

 

Ian finds Fiona and Lip smoking outside talking in low whispers “I know the baby powder’s on sale and we can get a month’s supply if we save-”. She looks at Ian who announces, “I’m taking a shift at the convenience store.”

“That’s not necessary, we’ve got it covered.”

“Yeah, right.”

Lip’s about to say something when Fiona shakes her head, he sighs.

Ian bounces the keys, reclined on his bed. “Guess what Lip the supplies get restocked every morning and look who has access.” he looks at Lip with a hint of pride daring him to counter. Lip’s eyes tighten, he sighs again.

“School’s nearby, so I won’t get late and-”

Kash’s smile flashes in his head. He stops bouncing the keys and tries to recall if he’s put his mags in place. Sometimes he’d forget to switch the covers. Lip’s knees bump against the mattress making him flinch, he says “I think I made a good impression on the owner.”

Lip’s silent and Ian really thinks he forgot to switch them this time, “You shouldn’t have to think of shifts.”

“Why?” he says. Lip did, all the time.

“It’s going to take time away from doing your assignments for starters.” Ian rolls his eyes, like that matters.

“School’s pointless.”

“You’re the only Gallagher whose teacher hasn’t called Frank apart from parent teacher meetings.”

“Maybe they’ve given up.” he says.

“Huh.” Lip remarks. But Ian learned early that if you kept your head down, school wasn’t too bothersome. You get called names, but if you ignore it, they find someone who squeals.

Gallaghers don’t squeal.

As for the times when school became unbearable and he longed to live his truth. Shelves crammed with breakfast cereals under a fluorescent glare masked how hot hands felt on his hips.

The school part was all Lip, at least that’s what Mandy said. The intelligent Gallagher who scored straight As. The reckless Gallagher who didn’t bother to attend classes a week before the test. Or that’s how the rumors went round the corridors.

Ian heard these with one ear open, for now if Mandy turned up by his locker with a bright smile on her face. He knew he was safe.

“School’s not for me, just because I don’t make it obvious like others doesn’t mean I like it. I tolerate it.”

“Tolerance is one giant step in this house.”

“You know, now that I’m working, I can cover my expenses and maybe some more.”

When he took up the job, a part of him hoped for Lip to able to focus on grades, what everyone thought he had in the bag.

Lip takes out his jacket from the cupboard, one with more holes but a thicker material. Ian didn’t get how it was better.

“Keep the money, save it.” he says like it isn’t a foreign concept in this household. “Dreams need money and maybe one day you’ll have one of your own.”

Over the years Lip didn’t cut a single shift. And when Ian bought a set of weights for his exercise regimen, it didn’t affect the monthly food budget.

 

 

The white picket fence. Ian gags. He turns back expecting Lip to agree, but he looks at the house with interest. Finger scratching his neck Lip says “You good?”

“Yeah, I still feel it’s unnecessary.”

Lip stares at him like he’s a kid or behaving like one both of which annoy him like nothing else, “Yeah but let’s check it out.”

Ian steels himself, with Frank as the baseline, a scarecrow on the field would be better. It’s not something he needs to see for himself.

They enter the living room where candles are lit in each corner. After exchanging pleasantries, Ian sits on the sofa and keeps adjusting his cushion. The smell of freshly baked muffins wafts from the kitchen.

Talking to his father, Ian feels Lip’s eyes on him. He tries concentrating on the man’s face but he fails. Every time Lip laughs at something he says, Ian follows with a weak chuckle. When he feels dried up, Lip asks more questions. When he hears the mild pleading in his father’s voice, Lip interrupts his annoyance.

They’re walking to the bus station, Ian says “Told you it wasn’t worth it.”

“Was it that bad?”

“It wasn’t.” He’d thought he would feel anger, at Monica, at Frank, at the fences with their fresh paint, at the house that looked closest to a decent home he had ever come across.

“Do you think anything can beat Frank?”

“No, but you heard him.”

“Yeah, I heard him so what?”

Lip catches his arm, “So what? Are you telling me you’re not even thinking about it?”

“About what?” he says louder, “Why are you so excited about this?”

It’s wrong, all wrong. He feels out of sorts, unmoored. It’s not like when he heard about the DNA test results. When they looked at him with food stuck in their mouths with bated breath but now, this. Lip saying he could stay here instead of going home.

“You want to me to move here or something? I’m not interested Lip. I couldn’t care less.”

“It’s out. It’s a way out.” Lip says quietly.

“A way out of my home. Away from all of you, it isn’t even a choice.”

Lip hugs him. Ian realizes he’s shaking all over, he keeps his arms around him till he quietens, stroking his hair and murmuring. Those muffins had nothing over good old Pillsbury mix and I’ve hardly seen anyone waste so much money on candles and geez I thought I’d ask him for your college money, for fun. You know, to see him sweat. Ian laughs.

Lip goes into a grocery store and comes out drinking beer. He holds out his arm, Ian puts it to his mouth as a habit and chokes. Purple, smelling like lavender, definitely not a beer and now with his teeth marks.

Lip chuckles, “Have a bubble bath at home.” Ian thinks of Frank most likely passed out in the bathtub and smiles, “Yeah, hand me the beer will you.”

Snug in his bed later in the night while Lip reads under the lamp, Ian places the candle on his bedside table. Ian says, “Thanks. I still don’t care but I know. It’s good to know.”

 

 

“Oh it’s you again.” Ian notes, dishing out strips of bacon and clanking his plate, “Breakfast’s ready!” he grins.

Lip grunts in response and covers his ears, “Do you have to be so loud?”

“Wake up sunshine!”

“Do I look like I’m sleeping?” Ian stares at him from head to toe, “Could’ve fooled me.”

The rest of the clan come, roll their eyes and pluck a piece of bacon from the collective pile. Ian shouts, “Ingrates! Hope you enjoy.” as they leave while Lip pours a large cup of coffee and swallows in one go.

“Aren’t you leaving for college?”

Lip looks around absentmindedly, “Where’s Liam?”

“I think Fiona-” Lip huffs and climbs up the stairs, “was giving him a bath.” he watches him go, shrugs his shoulders and serves himself a greasy plate.  Licking the tips of his fingers, he hears noises of a scuffle upstairs.

“You should stack up on calories with all that running around.” Ian says when Lip’s back, Liam tucked under his arm.

Lip sighs, “Are you sure you should be giving advice?” his forehead’s pinched and his eyes are bloodshot.

“You should chill, Lip. It’s always been a circus around here.” he shrugs his shoulders. “Go back to college, it’s no fun here.”

Lip says something like Someone’s got to hold this together, can’t leave it like that. It hurts till he notices that his waffles are burning and breakfast is definitely ruined and why won’t anything go right. Isn’t he feeding people here, doing his bit? He puts the next batch of waffle to tower over twenty others.

“Listen, Ian.” Lip puts hands on his cheeks, holding his gaze. “Forget what I said, just take care of yourself.” Lip looks at him, his forehead relaxing as Ian breathes out and nods.

Lip takes a piece of waffle and feeds it to Liam, who reaches out, “Huh, looks like someone likes it.” he takes it in his hand and eats it in small bites. “You don’t even need me, right.” Lip smiles down at him and Liam laughs, rubbing a finger on his ear.

Ian suffocates like he’s under an impenetrable bubble, distant from the scene playing out. Hold it together, got to hold it. Lip glances at him, he breathes shakily. “Go rest.” he motions upstairs and Ian nods.

“I didn’t know you were a lavender person Gallagher.” Mickey grins sprawled on his side of the bed. Ian nudges him and he shifts towards the wall.

“What? Planning to woo me with a candlelight dinner.” he says.

Mickey, the absolute shit says, “Yeah.” a smile slowly spreading on his face like he’s really considering it and Ian hates the way his heart skips.

Ian takes the candle from Mickey’s hand and his stomach drops, he thinks of Lip running around here instead of being at college and the world contracts. Ian thinks of Mickey kissing his neck with his back towards him, his head spins.

A tiny part of him wants to crawl from his room, to be that someone who looks after others, so that Lip stops being stubborn. To be that someone who can appreciate Mickey and his words and his goddamn sincerity.

Ian lies down on his bed, kicking out the blanket from under him.

That day is not today.  

 

 

“You don’t have to stare at me like that. I won’t kidnap anybody.” Lip winces.

He sits across him, eyes wide with unconcealed concern. For a while it was always like this, people staring at him like he’ll break something. Like he’ll break.

Lip stretches and looks away at the swing set, the kids scream, shoving each other for a chance. Ian closes his eyes, clenches his fist to let the shaking subside.

“I’ll take my meds, Lip. Like I’ve been told a thousand times.

pause

She’s not contacted me since then. Do you think we were too harsh on her, like before.

pause

This is not a depressive mood, I’m really mad at you.”

Lip’s silent and it weighs on him harder than Mickey’s long glances or Debbie’s worried pauses or Fiona’s winding instructions.

Finally he says, “Things can go back to the way they were before.”

“Is that a joke?”

“There are options, Ian.”

“It’s a lifelong diagnosis, Lip.” he says and his eyes harden, he doesn’t sigh or stomp his foot, the worst thing about Lip is he doesn’t know when to give up.

Right now, Ian really wants to give up.

“I know what I did.” he says and there’s no going back now, I’m scared Lip. But I can’t do anything about it. When you look at me like that, it makes me want to try but I know it won’t end well. It never does.

“You know sometimes I feel like knocking myself out with alcohol. Really forgetting how fucked up things are.”

“Like you don’t do that already.” Ian says. Lip smiles, and it hurts less, just for a bit.

“Yeah but then I have to get up to my problems plus a headache to deal with.”

Ian rolls his eyes, “That’s rich, that doesn’t stop you from drinking your weight. At least it wears out. Now imagine getting dictated by something you can’t control. Yeah there are times Lip when I feel alive and not like I’m a puppet to the whims of whatever the fuck’s inside my head. I feel like myself but apparently that’s just another condition. Another thing to be cured.”

I feel like I’ve lost myself.

“You’re right, things may have changed.” Lip says, “And sometimes I feel I’m parroting what the doctors tell me, for a second it makes me feel like I’m doing my role. This thing, it could have happened to any of us. You’re one of us who has a fighting chance because I know you. You’re my little brother.” he reaches across the table, leaning on his elbows and ruffles his hair.

Ian liked Did you have your medicine? from his supervisors rather than the stares and reluctant Are you okay? Lip did neither, he’d call every Friday and tell him what he’s studying and how it’s all rubbish till it’s applied.

“I’m so glad I didn’t go to college.” he’d respond.

Ian takes his medicine and calls Lip, a habit by now. He hears the cacophony second to a zoo, a loud slamming noise follows and silence.

“How do you even study there?” he wonders.

“In bits and pieces.” Lip says, “They might party all night but they go to sleep, some or the other time.” Ian snorts.

“It’s going good?”

There’s a beat and Lip replies, “Good, it’s going good.” He sounds distracted, “Hey you don’t have a test right, I’m on a break but it looks like a slow day.” Ian lifts a cup to his mouth.

“No, no, no.” Lip sounds fainter with every word.

“Hello?” there’s a light snore from the other side. “Night, Lip.” Ian smiles, yeah he’ll definitely skip out on college.

 

 

Ian wipes the sweat off his palms as they rise and he tries gauging an answer from their faces. They don’t give anything away.

“What do you think?” Ian says outside, Lip runs a hand on his face. He looks haggard, like college ate him and spat him out. A part of him wants Lip to get as far as possible. Another part, the one that sat in front of those unmoving robots wants him to realize his potential.

And this world, it had its rules. So he’ll play them, to get Lip on the other side. Lip deserved it, he was the one who qualified, belonged. He was the one who could change them.

Even if the same rules grated against him, left marks on his skin destroyed the faculty’s vehicles, what of the damage you all did to him he wants to shout.

The dates stand out in his head, all of them did. He was always a call ahead or before it and he never saw it.

He thinks of how he would have fared in such an inquisition. A toss between a behaviour, a disease. The image of Frank comes to his mind, unbidden, he shoves it back, far back.

“I don’t know.” Lip says, “I won’t blame them if they don’t take me back.” They led a life where second chances were unheard of, but Lip had always fought for every inch.

“It doesn’t sound bad.” he ventures, he couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of another.

Lip laughs, an angry self-defeating noise that makes his skin crawl. “Common for a station down in Chicago but not here. I’ve disappointed way too many people, Ian.” Softer, “I’m sorry.” It starts like the beginning of several apologies.

“Half of the people here can’t even begin to imagine what you’ve gone through to get here, Lip.” he says steadily, “they won’t able to even survive let alone get here.”

“This isn’t you. And when they decide to give you a chance you can prove that.” he says softer.

“You’re getting late for your shift.” Lip’s gaze is vacant and Ian reels, he squeezes Lip’s shoulder and says “You’ve got this.” trying to grasp on the right thing to say to follow through, to make him look a little less lifeless.

Inside he told them about his brother’s endless ingenious exploits. The wonder caught in his acts, his childhood.

And now as Lip stood limp in front him, the feeling drains out of him till he wants to shake him and snap him out of his daze. His fingers hold him tighter, but Lip merely nods.

After he returns from work Ian takes his medicine without a thought. Earlier when the recoil was really bad, Ian sometimes sat staring at the wall with tablets in his hand. You’re one of us who has a fighting chance because I know you. You’re my little brother. He’d resist the urge to throw them in the trash.

The words he was searching for inside the cold white walls come rushing Lip, you’ve got this. You’ve come so far already. You’ve fought for it so hard. Fuck them. Fuck this. They don’t know, they’ll never know. They might make the decision for now but they don’t get to decide your life.

Lip messages him the verdict, Ian tries putting his thoughts in a text but they all come out lousy. He dials him but it goes to voicemail.

 

 

If Ian was a poet he’d say his love story with Mickey was one of broken bones and boners. The day he got his heart broken was hazy, yet clear. It’s memory was hazy like the number of drinks he downed, it was clear like the white of Svetlana’s wedding gown.

It masked the good parts, stripped them from his memory and repeated the bad parts over and over again.

Now that he’s older, the image of Mickey running away with his newly found lover on a scooter is almost laughable. Till the second it’s not.

When he hobbles down the stairs, Lip looks up from the counter and says “Is he coming back?”

Ian says, “He’ll be back.”

A second later he says, “I’m not sure.”

Later Ian settles down, let’s the past few days stop swirling in his head. He eats food, checks his phone and sees a few photos of Mickey and his new item, slips in the shower and sits there for an hour.

In elementary school he made a model of the solar system, Lip helped. He’d tell him about the universe, how if even a part of it had changed, who knows if life would have been possible.

The universe didn’t make mistakes, it made miracles. Each time Mickey left, he also returned. Ian isn’t sure if the universe will keep giving him miracles.

The sun casts a white glare over his bed. He winces trying to put on his pants. The space beside him is an empty dark spot which after close inspection turns out to be Mickey’s underwear. Ian thinks I’m gonna marry that asshole and make him do laundry all his life.

He wonders why he backed out in the first place.

With renewed determination he sets off to find Mickey, he announces his intention to Lip who’s fixing a car I love him which he feels would prompt Lip to say Go get him.

Instead he hears I think you should marry him, someday. Ian rolls the words inside his head, as if the chaos inside isn’t loud enough.

When Ian was a kid he’d see Lip receive Valentines all the time. He’d stuff the cards in his locker and half ass what the teacher told the class to make one in return as thank you and can you believe she’s grading me on greeting cards Ian, still everyone who received it would blush and talk loudly in the corridors.

Lip would snore through the romantic movies Debbie got into growing up after making her a bowl of popcorn. He’d tell Carl that it isn’t possible to fall in love every day that yes he was just horny and no he was not interested in his wank schedule. He’d hold Liam in his arms and ignore Lip you’ll be such a good dad, I think I’m falling in love with you.

“But I love him.” he repeats to him.

“So” Lip squints, “Forget it.” Ian says.

“I just…” Lip shifts the wrench from his right hand to his left, “Think you should be ready for it. Know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Ian nods taking measured steps on the pavement as he walks away.

 

 

Lips has blood on his hands, he stares at the white walls as Ian sits next to him pressing his shoulder.

“I can take care of them.”

Ian says, “He’s…” he bites his lip, “I don’t think you can.” He’s not yours.

Ian’s insides rattle. For weeks he’d seen Lip preparing for this moment. He got screamed at, called names and had doors shut on his face more than he could count. He didn’t back down.

Ian wondered if it was love, if it was duty or if Lip was running away from Frank’s ghost. There’s no way he’s ready for what follows it.

Lip’s fists clench in his lap, tears unchecked fall down his cheeks. When Ian sees Lip hold the baby, his hands soaked in blood, he sees it all melt away.

After the nurse’s call, the Gallaghers leave knocking Lip’s shoulders, a hand on his waist, a hug, a pat. Ian stays, he watches Lip bounce the baby, coo at him and say, “I’m going to protect you.”

“The point is that you don’t have to.” Karen says, exasperated.

“You don’t have to worry, I’ll take care of you, Karen. I’ll love you both.” Ian feels like he’s intruding.

Karen says. “Nurse, he isn’t related. Tell him to leave.” They leave together.

Seeing Lip gutted, for the first time Ian whispers a silent prayer in his head. Thank god this isn’t Lip’s kid, he can’t imagine what lengths he’d go to if that were true. Lip will get over it, he’ll have to.

Ian sees him about to argue with Karen, he grips his shoulder, shaking his head. He always wanted to see Lip in love, little did he know that it’ll reduce him to this zombie like state.

 

 

“It’s your uncle.”

Ian nods at Tami, sits on the sofa with extra slow movements. Large eyes open, blink and a yawn follows. “Got a good grip this one.” he says as a small fist wraps around his little finger.

“Yeah, tell that to Lip. He’s always coddling him.” Tami smiles, “Okay, I’m leaving. Bye.” she looks around with worry in her eyes and Ian can hardly blame her. She kisses Freddie’s head, “If you want more milk it’s in the caravan.”

“Got it.” he nods.

It’s quiet like never before in the Gallagher house. Carl’s group is finally out, Debbie’s at her job like Mickey and Lip. Liam’s at school.

“All alone.” Ian whispers as he bounces Freddie, “You don’t know how rare this is. Better nap all you want to right now.” he chuckles. Freddie doesn’t blink.

He looks around, the house’s holding up as much as it can but Ian isn’t sure if it can raise another kid.

“Your dad grew up here.” Ian says. The fist tightens. “You’re a smart kid.” he pauses,

“I’m glad your dad has you, you know.”

“But your dad he’s kind of weird, I mean you’ll know when you grow up. He’ll tell you to do things he never does.” Ian sighs, “He’ll tell you to stick to school and forget that he’s the one who’s any good at it. He’ll tell you to eat well and smoke away on an empty stomach. He’ll work extra shifts so that you can get things that you want.

He’ll tell you to take chances but he’ll turn down opportunities if it comes to his dreams or his family. He’ll tell you it’s okay to leave, but he’ll stay. He’ll tell you to believe in yourself but forget his own value. He’ll tell you to choose who to love but he’ll take the love he thinks he deserves.”

Ian blinks, “Frank’s hopeless but he never lied to us. Lip will lie to you, he’ll tell you good things about this world but it’s not because it is a good place. He’ll try to make it good for you. He’s a special kind of liar after all.”

Freddie blubbers and reaches for his face, opening and closing his fist. Ian wipes away a tear with the back of his hand, as Freddie’s fingers latch on his hair.