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Thicker than Water

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You are intimately familiar with Houston’s streets.

You are six years old and spend an inordinate amount of time staring at pavement. Grey and crumbling, sun bleached white, new and slick and black. You walk your chubby child fingers across the cracks that spread out like a nervous system before you, watch a procession of Solenopsis invicta march the curb, laden with hot dog bun crumbs and the crushed carcass of a cicada. If Dave remembers to bring them, you draw with sticks of chalk that cover you in a fine dusting of primary colors. If he doesn't, you try to guess the flavor of gum spots on the concrete or look for paw pad shaped depressions made before it was dry.

You are equally acquainted with the sound of your brother’s voice, how his fingers dance across the frets of his guitar, the lazy way he strums and hits a beat into its scratched, sticker covered body.

Dave is excellent at what he does, has an inherent talent for music and people both. He’s been gifted with good looks, albinism lending a twist of the exotic that makes people stop to stare. He carries himself with an ease that belies the measure of each movement, plays up his silver tongued southern accent and effortlessly wraps people around his little finger. It’s no surprise that by the end of the day, when he’s not working or dodging calls from CPS, the ratty guitar case Dave sets out is filled up with whatever spare change people had to give, collectively paying for more of your bills than any of the minimum wage jobs he manages to land.

You both hate it.

You hate it because you have to slather yourself with Coppertone every thirty minutes so you won't burn alive under the Texas sun, and drink stupid amounts of water so you don’t get heat stroke. You don’t like the way people coo at you and the pointy sunglasses you wear to keep from going blind. It insights a spark of childish indignation when people talk to your brother and hear him play, because when they walk away, it’s like they’ve taken a little piece of Dave with them.

They don’t deserve it.

Your sullenness doesn’t go unnoticed. Dave does what he can to make it better, uses a few of his dollars to buy you an orange cream popsicle at the ampm across the street and helps rub sunscreen into your skin when your clumsy hands come up short. The smell of that specific brand pervades the annals of your childhood memory like circuitry on a motherboard; clinging to your clothes, opaque pink bottles in the drug cabinet, oily fingerprints on every surface.

His attention alone is all that’s needed.

Back in the sanctity of your unkempt apartment, your brother plays and it’s a different kind of effortless. He stops to tune a string, lets his singing trail off into a wordless murmur, is just as likely to play Ballad of a Thin Man as he is to discard the instrument and start the Pok-e-Rap, trying to get you to smile.

Dave hates asking people for money out of necessity and hates having you there with him as an extra incentive for people to drop a few bucks. But if there’s one thing he’s able to swallow his pride for, it’s you.

***

“Ohla Dirk,” your babysitter says, as you’re handed off.

“Ohla,” you reply, sulky like you always are when Dave leaves.

“See ya’ later little dude,” he leans down to your level and holds up a fist, “I’m late for my date with the secondary education system.” You reluctantly bunp it, petulance hidden behind dark plastic and a tight lipped mouth. Letting your disappointment show would only make it harder on him, therefore inexcusable. “Thanks Nep,” Dave says, straightening up and kissing her on the cheek. He flirts relentlessly and indiscriminately, one of many carefully constructed defense mechanisms that oxymoronically keeps people at arm’s reach.

Dave goes with his characteristic stride, backpack zippers swinging.

“¿Quieres ir al taller?” Nepeta asks. “Usted puede ver a Equius trabajo hoy.”

“Si,” you nod, pleased because the garage is somewhere you’re comfortable, somewhere you’re able to keep your mind occupied with things besides money and the looming specter of foster care. That and the other option is Nepeta’s apartment, which makes your allergies act up.

Nepeta is a latina girl with choppy, chin length hair, piercings up and down the shell of her ears, big wet eyes and a pretty cupid’s bow. She wears big t-shirts and cargo pants and lives in The Barrio with Equius (who might be her boyfriend, but you’re not sure) and three cats. She speaks almost exclusively in rapid fire Spanish, which you’re being taught because 'it’s important to learn more than one language'. You don’t know how she got to be your sitter, other than a history of shared classes with your brother. He pays her whatever he can, which in the grand scheme of things, isn’t a lot.

It’s a short walk to the garage. Equius is under a car when you get there, thick legs sticking out from beneath its bumper. He has a habit of wearing garishly striped socks that you find funny.

“Haai!” Nepeta calls.

“‘N oomblik asseblief,” he grunts.

Equius rolls himself out, face smudged with grease, spanner in hand. He smiles when he sees you, the gap where a tooth used to be winking at you crookedly.

Equius strikes an imposing figure when he stands, 6’6” and built like a gym rat. His face is flat, dark and broad, with a nose that looks like it’s been broken more than once and set correctly less than that. He wears his thick dreads pulled back into a ponytail and speaks with the formality of someone who’s learned English as a second language - his first being Afrikaans.

Equius sweats a lot and talks too much about horsepower, but he’s polite and entertains your fascination with machinery. The two of you seem to have reached a nonverbal understanding of each other, both preferring to focus more on mechanics than small talk.

Today he lets you watch him work on the underside of a Chevette. It’s dim and gritty and smells like gasoline, but you like seeing the metal twisting around the car’s belly, holding everything together.

Nepeta reads The Rose of Versailles while you’re preoccupied, going through four volumes in one sitting. Eventually she pulls you away and gives you a quarter for a can of Fanta from the vending machine - this makes you complacent enough that when she wipes dirt off your face, you don’t protest, even though you don’t like when people touch you without asking.

You consider your words, moving them around in your mouth before asking, “¿Podemos conocer a mi hermano cuándo él está terminado con la escuela?” - ‘Can we meet my brother when he’s finished with school?’

“Do you mean, ‘¿podemos encontraremos a mi hermano cuándo él está terminado con la escuela?'” Nepeta suggests gently.

You flush, turning your eyes away to glare at deep gashes in the seat’s vinyl shell. Discolored foam froths out of the open wound. You hardly ever get things wrong. “¿podemos encontraremos a mi hermano cuándo él está terminado con la escuela?”

“¡Claro!”

***

Nepeta greets the people that remember her enthusiastically. You’re content to sit on top of the school sign and wait, hot stone stinging the backs of your knees where your shorts cut off. Your brother emerges from the crowd, spots you and waves a few of his classmates off. You ignore the looks they send you.

“Hey, Little D. Couldn’t wait to see me?”

You could have but didn’t want to, but you’re not about to tell him that. You shrug.

He lets you hold his hand as you walk. It’s more for your comfort than his; Dave assumes you’ve the same ability to take care of yourself at six that he does at eighteen.

Nepeta leaves you as you pass Equius’s garage. Your brother and you walk home together in silence. The sun hangs in the sky like an overripe fruit, swollen, languidly making its way down the horizon. Telephone poles stand stark against the burnt sky, shadows elongated with the evening, grackles peering at you from where they congregate on the lines. Dave calls them ‘rats with wings', but you’re fond of the birds, like their harsh call and the blue black sheen of their feathers.

“Hey, Bro?” You start.

“Sup?” He glances down at you.

“Do you think mom and dad are home yet?”

He looks forward again, lips pinched ever so slightly. “Doubt it, kiddo.”

***

The lights flicker and the fridge carburetor gives a guttural heave as your power switches off, plunging the apartment into darkness. You pause with a spoonful of Fruit Loops halfway to your mouth.

“Guess the check must not have hit on time,” Dave muses, tone deceptively light. “Know what that means?”

You’re not stupid. The money your parents left is running out. This, however, isn’t what he’s talking about. There’s a tradition between you two when the electrical goes, and it’s infinitely better than dwelling on what sad shape your finances are in.

“Blanket fort,” you whisper.

“You bet your ass we’re gunna make a blanket fort.”

The billboard across the street peeks through your window, providing a weak light to work by. You tack a sheet high up on the wall, using a fan and cinder block (one of many - they make up the majority of your furniture) to secure the far corners. Gradually, a sagging tent takes shape.

Inside, Dave flicks on the flashlight and it illuminates everything in a soft yellow glow. You fill the sloping space with as many pillows and blankets as you can find. He protests when you crawl in with Lil’ Cal under your arm, and you frown at him until he begrudgingly accedes. You’ve grown accustomed to object impermanence - nothing is safe from the pawn shop when you’re short on dough - but Cal is an exception, your one precious thing.

You feel secure inside the fort, cradled by its white cotton walls. Dave reads to you from books assigned by 12th grade teachers, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Lord of the Flies, Oedipus Rex. Warped shadows prowl across the bedclothes with a pair of passing headlights, like beasts in some primordial jungle. You drift off to awkward fingers carding through your fine hair and the lilting waver of your brother’s voice.

Years later you register what he was singing as Daisy; Dave’s errant humor reaching into the far horizons of your recollection, conditioning you for the years to come.