My name is Mary Kerrigan. I've been an only child for all but six weeks of my life. A lot of people talk about one person, one meeting, one conversation that changed them forever. It was kind of like that for me when I got an adopted big brother. That's why I chose him for this essay.
Mom and Dad never talked about having more kids. They always said I was enough of a handful. That I was their special one. Sometimes I wondered if that meant they really loved me, or really couldn't stand me.
So when Dad came home from the base one night and took me aside, I was sure I was about to get busted for skipping homework to go to a friend's party. I never expected him to say, "Mary, in a couple of days you're going to have a big brother."
I blinked. Dad's an Air Force general, so he's practical and usually likes it when you ask questions. I tried to think of a smart one. "An older brother? How's that going to happen?"
"Well...." Dad rubbed a hand across his forehead. "A friend of mine from the service just died, and he asked me to take care of his son. So Jack's going to be part of our family, at least until he comes of age. He's fifteen now."
It wasn't fair. New siblings were supposed to be small and cute and interesting. Not a boy a year older than me. "What does Mom think about this?" I asked.
Clearly that wasn't going to work this time. Dad smiled. "She told me she always thought it would be nice to have a boy as well as a girl."
"I guess I don't get a say?"
"Nope." My Dad can be scary when he wants to, but he's always pretty good about giving me straight answers. He put a hand under my chin and tipped my head up so I'd look at him. "He'll be here Sunday night, and I expect you to make him welcome. Is that understood?"
"Is he creepy?" I'd heard stories from girls at school, about stepbrothers doing...bad things...to them.
Dad looked like he'd bitten into something sour. "Not as far as I know. If he acts creepy, I expect you to tell me. Do you hear me, Mary?"
"Yes, sir." I put on my Air Force face for Dad, and he told me to go finish my homework.
I went upstairs, and made sure the locks on my bedroom door and windows worked. The ones in the bathroom, too. When I came out, Mom had the door to the guest bedroom open, and was putting knick-knacks into boxes. I wandered in and sat on the double bed's bare mattress. "This is where he's going to stay?"
Mom pushed her hair--blonde, like mine--behind her ears, sat down next to me, and put her arm around my shoulders. "We're not using it for anything else."
I leaned my head against her shoulder. "I like everything the way it is. This is going to be weird."
She laughed a little. "Yeah, I know. But this boy's father once saved your dad's life. I don't think it's too much to ask for us to help take care of his family."
"It's always what Dad wants." I jumped up and started looking through the box she'd been filling. "Why can't we get our way, just once?"
Mom shook her head at me, and then picked up a folded sheet and shook it out over the mattress. "Mary, give him a chance. You might like him."
"Ew." I made a face. She laughed and threw a pillow at me.
Two nights later, I heard the front door open, and Mom talking to someone in the downstairs hall. I wandered out to the top of the stairs. The kid standing next to my dad didn't look creepy. I'm not sure what I expected--maybe that he'd be tall, or really buff, or have long greasy hair like the stoners. Instead, he had blond, crew-cut hair, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and new sneakers, and he looked, I don't know, 15. Skinny, and not too tall.
Kind of cute, actually.
Dad noticed me first. "Mary, Jack's here."
I waved. "Hi."
Jack looked up and frowned at me. "Hi," he said, not sounding like he meant it.
"Dinner is in twenty minutes," Mom called up. She turned towards the kitchen, and then impulsively turned back and hugged the kid. He kind of patted her shoulders, in return, like he didn't quite know what to do.
Dad steered him toward the stairs. Toward me. "Help him get settled in."
I threw my hands into the air. "I have homework!"
"Do it after dinner," he said, not missing a step as he turned to follow Mom.
Jack had three bags with him, all Air Force blue. He lugged them up to the top of the stairs, and we stared at each other for a minute. His eyes were dark brown, and tired. "Sorry," he said, sticking out a hand. "I'm Jack O'Neill. You must be the one I have to thank for the cut in my allowance."
I shook his hand. He didn't sound too mad. "Come on, sixty dollars a week is pretty good, right?"
"I suppose it is, when you're actually fourteen." Jack slung the duffel bag over his shoulder, and hefted one suitcase in each hand.
I followed him into the spare room. "What do you mean, 'actually'?"
"Uh--" He nearly tripped on the carpet. "I mean--it was just, um, me and my dad, so I got pretty good at handling money. They could've just let me have his estate."
I stared at him, as he dumped his luggage and started walking around the room, checking out the closet, the dresser, the view from the window. "But you're fifteen."
Jack sighed, and scrubbed a hand through his short hair. "So they keep telling me."
By the time dinner was over, I'd decided that while Jack was friendly, and could be funny when he wanted to, he was also going to be a pain in the butt. "Yes, sir," to everything my dad said to him, and "Yes, ma'am," to my mom. He answered questions, so she asked him a lot of them, and I barely got a word in edgewise.
He even helped my mom clear the table and do the dishes, without whining at all. Such a suck-up.
Dad has a whole bunch of Air Force minions, at work. I'd gone to a lot of trouble to make sure he didn't think of me as just another minion...and then he brings home a little airman in training.
Seriously, that's what he was. Jack unpacked while I finished my homework, and when I headed downstairs to get a drink before bed, he had the ironing board set up in his room. I paused. The row of neatly pressed shirts was impressive. "Those aren't even button-downs. What are you doing?"
He shrugged, and kept ironing. "Old habits."
"All right." I left him alone. Who knows? Maybe his dad had taught him to be that neat. I might do weird things, too (like wash dishes every night, or dust things) if Mom died.
Maybe his dad taught him to be an early riser, too. Jack was already out of his room when I popped into the bathroom, did my hair, and ran downstairs to grab something quick for breakfast. Nothing sounded good, so I found a granola bar in the cupboard.
I didn't intentionally eavesdrop. Really. It wasn't like they were keeping their voices down.
"Sir, if sixteen is old enough for a license, then let me fudge the date on my birth certificate. It's a medical estimate, anyway. You know that." Jack was pushing it. Most people couldn't get away with talking like that to my Dad.
And Dad wasn't having it. "You wanted this life, you have to live with my rules. Get a bike, if you're so determined to keep some independence."
A pause, and then, "Yes, sir."
Jack stalked into the kitchen. He had his jaw clenched, like he was trying not to show how upset he was, but his ears were turning pink. He yanked the fridge open and stared inside.
"Pick something you can eat fast," I advised him, though a mouthful of granola. "Bus gets here in five minutes."
Jack let his forehead thump against the door of the fridge. "I'm going to hate it here," he said, as if he had just figured that out.
"Welcome to my life," I told him.
He raised an eyebrow at me, and then grabbed a banana off the counter.
I picked up my backpack. "Shouldn't you have gone earlier, to sign in for your first day and stuff?" I asked him, as we headed for the door.
"I was there Friday," Jack said. He peeled the banana with his teeth, since his hands were full. "Took care of everything then."
I hadn't seen Jack on Friday, but since he was coming in as a sophomore, and I was a freshman, it made sense. We didn't share any classes. Once we got to school, I didn't see him at all until lunch.
I was eating with my two best friends, Anne and Jessalyn, when stupid Lindley Garner leaned over my shoulder. She was a really pretty girl a year ahead of me, who wanted to be a model, and all the guys paid way too much attention to her. "Who's the cutie you brought with you this morning?" she demanded.
I'd called Anne as soon as Dad told me, and Jess had made me tell her everything this morning, but I had no idea what to say to anyone else. "Um . . . he's my big brother."
Jess started giggling. It did sound funny. Lindley stared at me, then across the room to where Jack was sitting with a few girls and some of the nerdier guys. "Really? As in, what, your long-lost brother?"
"No, doofus." I glared at her. "My life's not a soap opera. As in adopted big brother."
Lindley tossed her hair. "Well, anyway, he's cute. Weird, but cute."
Something inside me got all bristly, like when a cat's fur stands on end. "Weird?"
"He doesn't know any good music." Lindley shrugged. "Says he listens to opera. Do you think he's gay?"
I almost choked on my soda. "Um, no. Why?"
Lindley gazed forlornly at Jack, who was excusing himself from the group he'd been eating with. "He won't even talk to me."
"Maybe he just has good taste," Anne whispered to me, and I covered my mouth to hide a grin.
A hand ruffled my hair. "Heya, sis." Jack walked on past, not glancing once at Lindley. He waved to Anna and Jess, though. "Afternoon, ladies."
Jess, daring, blew a kiss towards the back of his head. I don't know how he knew, but he reached back with his free hand and "caught" it. Jess fanned herself with a napkin. "Since he's your brother, can I go out with him?" she asked me.
Once I got used to the idea, it was kind of fun having a big brother. Jack refused to help me with my homework--he said that would be weird, him helping anyone with math or science or a language. He ate all the good snacks before I could get to them, and he didn't just listen to opera, but a lot of different stuff, classical, jazz.
But he was civil, most of the time. He always said hi to me in the halls, and mussed my hair, but he didn't follow me around or ask me if I was behaving myself. And he did help me do the house chores. In fact, Jack volunteered to do them all one Saturday, when I wanted to finish quickly enough to go to Anne's birthday party.
People at school asked me about Jack a lot, but that stopped after a week or so, and he wasn't anything special once the whole adopted thing blew over. At least, not that I could tell.
Things didn't get out of hand until the fourth Tuesday after Jack moved in. I saw the whole thing.
I was at my locker, getting out my books for math class, when a couple of guys started tossing a pair of glasses back and forth across the hall. Both of them were wearing baggy jeans and green T-shirts--they were part of the Mara Salvatrucha. We didn't have a lot of gangbangers at Springs High, but these were the ones nobody messed with. Nobody got in their way now, either, even though we could all see who they were after: Dewey Johnson, one of the sophomore geeks.
"Want these back?" one of the MS boys asked him, waving the glasses. "Give us that watch, and what's in your wallet, and maybe we think about it." He tossed the glasses toward his partner.
I was half-watching, wondering how long it would take before a teacher noticed this time. I saw Jack turn from his own locker and jump up to grab the glasses out of midair. "Grow up," he said. He sounded like my dad, snapping orders.
The older Mara Salvatrucha guy (one of their leaders, Juan something) walked up to Jack. "Play or get away," Juan told him.
"You're the one acting like a five-year-old." Jack tucked the glasses into his shirt pocket, and Juan shoved him.
It happened really fast. One second, Juan was towering over Jack; the next, Jack had Juan's arm bent up behind his back so far Juan almost screamed. Mr. Grifford (honors history teacher) heard that, and came running. "Hey! Break it up!"
Jack pushed Juan away from him, and handed the glasses back to Dewey. "There you go."
Everyone started moving, scrambling to get away from the scene of a fight. "Principal's office, Mr. Valdez, Mr. O'Neill," Mr. Grifford snapped. "You'll be lucky if you just get detention."
I was still standing there, clutching my books. "Mr. Grifford, Juan started it."
Jack shook his head at me. I'll take care of this, he mouthed.
I shut up. Mr. Grifford nodded at me, letting me know he'd heard. "Go to class, Mary."
Jack had gotten a bike, like my Dad told him to, so I didn't see him until later that afternoon. When I peeked into his room, he was sprawled out on his bed with one arm across his eyes.
"Are you okay?"
"Sure. Peachy." He didn't move.
I snuck in and sat on the floor next to the bed. "That was really dumb. What you did. You know that, right?"
Jack rolled over and looked at me like I was the idiot. "I've tangled with worse, trust me. I'll be fine. You know who should be worried? Juan and his little band of baby gangbangers."
Someone cleared his throat. Dad was standing in the doorway. "Mr. O'Neill," he said, in the quiet voice he only uses when he's really upset. "I need a word with you."
"Yes, sir." Jack jumped up and followed him downstairs.
This time, I eavesdropped on purpose. I stood outside the study door and held my breath, and listened.
"You do know what it means to 'keep a low profile'?" Dad sounded really frustrated.
"They could have hurt that kid," Jack said.
"It's high school. Unless someone pulls a gun or a knife, let it happen." I could hear Dad pull out a chair, and the springs squeak as he sat down. "You're drawing too much attention to yourself. First your teacher wants to put you in Advanced History--"
"What's wrong with that? Sir."
"--and now you get detention for fighting." Dad sighed. "This may have been a bad idea."
Jack sounded a lot more subdued than he had talking to me. "It won't happen again. If I can help it."
I snuck back up to my room, and spent the next hour or so trying to figure out why Jack would need to "keep a low profile." I couldn't come up with anything that didn't sound like a spy movie. But 15-year-old boys couldn't be spies. Could they?
The week after the fight was pretty quiet. The Mara Salvatruchas laid low. People got together, broke up, cut class, and had dogs (or guinea pigs, according to Jack) eat their homework.
I was late getting to the bus Thursday afternoon, and took a short cut behind the gym. Just before I turned the corner, I heard voices. I froze against the wall; it was Juan and his thugs. I didn't want to pass them, but going the long way around now would make me miss the bus for sure.
I suck at Spanish, but even just one year is enough to let you recognize muerte, "dead." And "Jack O'Neill" sounds pretty much the same no matter what language it's in.
If I didn't make the bus, I had no way home, so I gathered up my courage and walked around the corner. Maybe they'd ignore me.
A hand grabbed my arm, swinging me around. "You spying on us, chica?" Juan asked.
"Could you let me go? I'm gonna miss the bus." I put on my Air Force face, daring him to read anything but truth in it.
Juan shook me, once, and then pulled me in close. "If you say anything to anyone, we kill you. If we find out someone knows something, you told him, same." He put a finger to his lips. "Silenciosa."
He let go, and I ran. I flagged the bus down, huddled into a corner seat, and shook all the way home.
Everybody tells you that the best thing to do when someone threatens you is tell an adult you trust. When you actually have to figure out how to do that, it's way harder than it sounds. If I told Dad, he'd go crazy. And what exactly would I tell him? "I heard Juan say Jack's name and something-something-muerte?" That would be real convincing.
I didn't even have any real information. I couldn't tell Jack a location, or time, or date, or even what they planned to do.
I wasn't scared of what they might do to me. I wasn't. I just didn't know what use it would be to tell anyone.
Jack poked his head into my room, later that night. "Hey, squirt. You're awfully quiet."
"I'm fine," I said, not looking up from Huckleberry Finn. "Just tired. And I have to finish this for class tomorrow."
He stood in my doorway so long, I thought he knew. "Okay. If you say so." And he left me alone.
It was another four days before anything happened.
I didn't think they'd try anything on school grounds. Too many teachers, security, witnesses . . . . I figured they'd ambush Jack as he biked home from school. That a car would smash into him, or maybe they would just surround him and pull him off. The worst hour of every day was between three and four p.m.
Jack would come in, see me sitting on the stairs where I could watch the front door, and grin. "Miss me?"
"No way, loser," I'd tell him, and pretend that I wasn't completely relieved.
Monday afternoon, I was headed for English class when I saw Juan round up his two biggest pals. Maybe it meant nothing, but then again. . . . I cut over to the hall where the sophomores keep their lockers. Jack was standing there with his bookbag open when I ran towards him. He didn't look at me, just said, "Mary, move. Now," in a tone that made me stumble backwards. Someone pushed past me, and suddenly there was a gap in the crowded hall, with Jack in the middle, and three green-shirted thugs around him.
One of them was Juan. He stepped into Jack's space. "You need manners, O'Neill. Let us teach you some." He spat a phrase in Spanish, and the kid behind Jack brought up the shiny blade of a knife. A girl screamed, and Jack spun around, one foot kicking out high and accurate. The knife went flying, and the owner cursed in pain and lunged for him bare-handed.
Jack ducked and caught him in the stomach with one shoulder, flipping him over to land with a breathless thump. A kick to the jaw left him limp. Juan grabbed Jack from behind, and my stomach flipped over. Jack tried to pull away and couldn't, so he pushed backwards, slamming his head into Juan's face.
It was like watching a fight in a movie. The pain made Juan loosen his grip, and Jack pulled free on one side and pivoted, slamming his foot hard into the side of Juan's knee, once, twice. I heard something crack, like breaking wood, and suddenly it seemed a lot more real than any movie. Juan howled and collapsed to the floor, curling up in pain.
"Jack!" I shouted. The last of the trio had another knife, and Jack barely turned into time to grab that wrist and hold the blade away from himself. I could tell that wouldn't last long--this guy, Alec, was almost six feet tall and tough. It was all Jack could do to hold his ground. "Somebody get security!" I shouted, but nobody moved. Jack and Alec struggled against each other, breathing hard.
Desperate, knowing that if something happened to Jack, it would be my fault, I threw my history book in Alec's general direction. It thudded on the floor, not even close, but Alec looked over to see what it was.
Jack kicked him in the privates, and when he doubled over, kicked him again in the jaw.
For a long few seconds, nobody moved at all. Jack stood there, between the three Mara Salvatrucha gangbangers, the only one still in a fighting stance. Heck, the only one still standing. There was blood on his face, and a dark trickle of red running down his upper arm. The only sound was Juan crying, a mixed up and miserable string of Spanish.
I waited for Jack to look in my direction. He blinked at me, then shrugged, and relaxed into an easier stance. Someone started clapping, and a few others joined in. I thought for a second that Jack was going to throw a punch at one of those kids. Instead, he glanced over the heads of the crowd, and then laced both hands behind his head. He'd seen the security guards and a couple male teachers pushing through the crowd, and didn't say anything even when the guard shoved him against the lockers face first, to search him.
The teachers made everyone go back to their classrooms, even me. I said I wanted to wait with Jack, till the police and amublance came, but apparently that was a bad idea. I had to sit and listen to everyone talk about how bad-ass Jack was, and gloat about Juan's comeuppance, and all I could think about was the color of blood and the sound of snapping bone. I wanted to go home.
Anne came with me once school let out. We didn't study much while we waited for my parents to bring Jack back from the police station. We just sat around, and didn't even talk. When it was almost midnight, and they still weren't home, Anna called her mom to come get her, and hugged me, and left.
It was one in the morning before the front door creaked open. I'd almost fallen asleep, curled up in the chair in the hallway. Mom shook my shoulder. "Mary, go on up to bed. Everything's fine."
By the time I unfolded myself from the chair, she was trying to convince Jack to let her have a look at the bruise on his cheek. "I just want to have a shower and crash," he told her.
"Good idea." Wow, Dad sounded grumpy. "You've caused enough trouble for today."
Jack didn't bother answering that, not even with a "yes sir."
"Don't get your stitches wet." Mom gave him a light, one-armed hug, and let him head upstairs.
The bathroom door was open when I passed it, so I knocked on the doorframe. Jack had his shirt off. His left wrist was bruised, worse than his cheek, and he had gauze wrapped around his upper arm. "Did you really need stitches?"
He grinned. "Thirteen of them. That's nothing. I told you I'd be fine."
I hadn't cried at all that day. Not at school, and not waiting at home. Not till right then. I tried not to, but I once I started it seemed like I couldn't stop. Jack stared at me. "Whoa. Are you okay?"
"I'm sorry." I couldn't even manage to say what I was sorry for. But he got it.
He put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my face. "Did you know? Did they do something to make sure you wouldn't tell?"
"No." I covered my face with both hands. "I didn't know when or how or anything like that. And they didn't do anything except talk. Make threats."
"Those bastards. You should've told me." He mussed my hair.
I sniffed, and wiped my eyes. "I will next time, I promise."
"Oh, there's not gonna be a next time." Even though guys say stuff like that all the time, Jack's voice was cool and final. And I'd seen him break Juan's leg. I believed him.
Jack was suspended for the rest of the week. Dad said we should all be grateful he wasn't sitting in juvenile detention, and he and Jack spent a lot of time in the study, talking. Juan and his two buddies were out, too--Juan was in the hospital, we were told, and Alec and the other guy got expelled for carrying weapons on school property. Nobody talked about anything else. Some people thought Jack was a karate wizard, or a ninja; others talked about him like he was a secret agent. Or maybe a robot kid.
Rumors said the Mara Salvatruchas were plotting revenge. I didn't believe it for a second. Nobody would be stupid enough to start anything after the disaster they'd just gone through, and after losing their leaders.
I tried to do my homework, and spent a lot of time coming to my own conclusions about where Jack had learned to fight like that. To hurt people so badly, so quickly. I knew his father had been Air Force. Maybe he'd been Special Ops, and had taught Jack how to fight in their style. Maybe Jack was in something like the military version of Witness Protection now, to keep the bad guys from getting to him.
Dad took Jack to the base with him on Saturday. At least, I'm pretty sure that's where they were going--Dad was in full uniform.
When they got back, Dad left again, and Jack went straight to his room and started folding clothes into his suitcase. When he hauled all three pieces of his luggage out onto the landing, I got right in his way and stood there. "Where are you going?"
He sighed, and put his bags down. "Away."
"Why? You're not in that much trouble." I tried to read Jack's face, find out more. "Everyone at school's waiting for you to come back. You're a legend."
He snorted. "The great Jack O'Neill, huh?"
"Yeah." I'd made my point.
But he only shrugged. "That's one reason why. I made too big a stir. That gang's still after me, and as long as that's true, they'll have you in their sights as well. That's the other 'why'."
"I can handle it!" If he could, I could. "You could teach me how."
"No." The word was final. "Look, you shouldn't have to do that. Not yet. Okay? Enjoy being fourteen. You only get to do it once."
I frowned at him. "You sound like a grown-up."
Jack shook his head, and grinned. "You want to know how old I really am? I'm fifty-two." I shoved him, and he reached over and yanked the scrunchie out of my hair. "To remember you by, sis."
My dad drove Jack away that afternoon, five years ago. I haven't seen him, or heard anything about him, since. Sometimes I still think that maybe Jack O'Neill wasn't quite real--a fake name, a fake ID, something to protect himself with. Maybe he really had been in Witness Protection. Maybe there was some other reason he left. Maybe his father turned out to be alive after all. I like to think he has a family somewhere.
I'll never know. What I do know is that I'm glad I got to have him around, even for just a few weeks. The whole school talked about him like he was a hero for beating up those guys. But if Jack taught me anything, it was that heroes are just regular people who get stuck in a tight spot and figure a way out of it.
In that sense, I guess he was one. Jack O'Neill, my heroic big brother. Maybe, someday, I'll be that sort of hero, too.