This story is by Krista Timeus Cerezo and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dad is making smiley face pancakes for breakfast, from scratch. Two blueberries to make eyes and a raspberry for the nose and then a bunch of chocolate chips to make the smile. That’s the best part. It’s Monday, not usually a pancake day, so they must think today’s a super special day. I’m going to fourth grade and Andy is going to second grade. It’s his first day of school. Ever. Mom was teaching him all the stuff at home until now because of his surgeries. They’ve helped him breathe and see better and look more normal. This year they say he’s ready for school. You wouldn’t know it from looking at him but Andy is pretty smart. Even I have to admit that. He can read almost as well as I can.
Andy almost always looks like a sad puppy on account of his droopy eyes. When he giggles they brighten up but most of the time they look sad. He was born without cheekbones, my parents explained, and cheekbones are supposed to hold up your eyes, so they had to make him new ones. Still, they don’t keep his eyes from looking like they’re about to slide off his face. Is that also why they’re so far apart? I asked back then. That’s right, they said. And his ears, they’re so small they don’t really work; he wears headphones all the time, not the music-playing kind but the kind that help him hear.
“Nicky?” says Mom as she’s dropping us off at school, “will you please keep an eye on your brother today?”
I give her a quick nod. “I really have to go Mom.”
She hugs me and then Andy, and when she finally lets go of him, I notice her wide set green eyes looking more tired than usual, getting shinier by the second.
“Mom, I’ll be okay,” says Andy putting his small hand on her shoulder.
It’s doesn’t surprise me that she’s crying; it happens all the time. Some weeks ago, she started crying in the parking lot of my school as soon as we got in the car. “What’s wrong?” I asked her then.
She wiped her tears and said she was fine but she clutched my hand with her wet fingers while she took three deep breaths. She had seemed okay until she started talking to Chris’ mom after my basketball practice.
“And how’s your other son? The one that’s sick?” I heard Chris’ mom ask while I finished packing my things.
“Oh, he’s fine, thank you, he’s not sick, he has—”
“You were so brave for having him,” Chris’ mom continued, “I don’t think I could have done it, you know? You did get all the tests, right? It just seems so cruel to me, the poor boy—” she said, “oh, there’s Chris. Okay, see you around!”
Mom stood there for like a minute, stiller than the basketball pole. “Mom?… Mom?” I repeated louder; sometimes she doesn’t hear me. When she finally looked at me it was as if she’d forgotten I was there.
Today though, it would not be good for me if my friends saw her crying so I give her a quick kiss and break away from them leaving Andy to follow behind. I spot Jake by the entrance steps, with some of our other friends, Luke, Danny and Simon. They’re all cool, but Jake’s my best friend. Before they can see us I turn to Andy, “hey, you’re on your own, okay? You have to make your own friends now.”
“Are you joking?” says Andy glaring at me but then I hear him mumble a “whatever” behind me.
It’s not like I don’t know how it is. I had my first day of school exactly a year ago. My parents homeschooled me for first and second grade until they realized I was falling behind. That was when Andy had to go to the hospital all the time and Mom had to go with Andy. I never had a friend until I met Jake.
“’Sup dogs,” I say walking up the steps to where my friends are but I’m not sure they hear me. They’re already staring at Andy as he walks past us through the entrance. “Who’s the freako?” asks Jake and I think I see Andy look up from the ground for a second as he walks by.
The playground is real muddy from last night’s rain when we all come out for recess. Andy is already sitting on a bench, playing with his dinosaurs. Andy knows everything about dinosaurs, like all their names and which ones are carnivores and which are herbivores. Mom said he could bring them to school, “but don’t lose any, okay?” A blond and very round boy is sitting with him, smiling, making his T-rex fight Andy’s Velociraptor. Good, I think. Andy is funny. Once you get past it all, he’s actually really funny. He’ll be fine.
“What a freak, huh?” I hear somebody say next to me. It’s Jake. He must have seen me looking in Andy’s direction. I haven’t told him he’s my brother, haven’t told him I have a brother at all. “Let’s go introduce ourselves,” he says.
“Hey, I’m Jake,” he says towering over Andy, who looks up surprised. “You know, I’ve been wondering who you remind me of all morning. I think I know—Quasimodo. You two related? And is this your pet pig?”
The other boys snigger behind him. “Really?” says Simon, “I was thinking he’s more like one of the gargoyles, don’t you guys think?”
Andy gets up without a word, picks up his dinosaurs from the bench. Just walk away, is what Dad always tells him. He holds Andy’s whole head between his huge hands and tells him, “whenever somebody is unkind to you, just walk away—they’re not you’re problem, you hear me?” He doesn’t let go until Andy repeats, “they’re not my problem.” But Jake’s not done. Before Andy can take two steps, Jake shoves him back onto the bench and bends over him to snatch the rubber Velociraptor from his hands.
“Hey, give that back!” cries Andy getting back up as Jake tosses the toy to Simon like it’s the hot potato.
“Ew, gargoyle germs,” says Simon and he tosses the toy to Danny. The gargoyle germs go around the group until they land in my hands.
“Come on Nicky,” pleads Andy, his face twisting to hold back tears.
“Nicky?” says Jake turning towards me with exaggerated curiosity, “don’t tell me you and Quasimodo here already know each other?”
I feel myself fossilize. I stare at Andy, give him the faintest shake of the head.
“Okay,” I say as I swing my right arm behind me and over my head, throwing the Velociraptor way across the playground. “Go fetch.” It lands with a plop in the mud, just beyond the swing set. Andy takes off after it but not before Mrs. Murphy has turned her beady eyes towards us just in time to see my athletic feat.
Mom is shaking when she picks us up in the afternoon. She takes Andy in her arms, asks him if he’s okay. He nods but her eyes are already on me, cutting into me with laser beams. She doesn’t say a word to me for hours, not until we’re all sitting at the table.
“I cannot believe you Nick,” she says shaking her head, stabbing at her plateful of spaghetti. “You are grounded for a month, no TV, no Xbox, zilch.”
“What?” I screech looking at Dad, who shakes his head at me. “It’s not fair! It’s not my fault they’re scared of him, it’s not my fault—”
“Brothers look after each other. You should have—”
“But it is your fault you threw my dinosaur,” intervenes Andy. “Whatever, just tell your friends to leave me alone.”
“Yeah? Or what?”
“I’ll tell everyone you have it too, they’re so stupid they think it’s contagious.”
“They’ll know you’re lying,” I snort but in that moment I catch Mom and Dad exchange a quick look.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing,” says Dad looking again at Mom, sending invisible signals in the secret language of parents.
“Well Nick, maybe it’s time you should know,” says Mom putting down her fork, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a napkin, “and anyway, you’ll want to know someday before you have your own kids.”
“This is not the moment,” whispers Dad shaking his head.
“What are you guys talking about?”
Mom takes a deep breath. “You and I are just lucky that it’s not very marked, Nicky. Andy was unlucky. But we all have it, sweetie, the three of us.”
“Sweetie, it’s genetic.”
Silence spreads between us. For the second time that day, I look into my mother’s tearful green eyes and notice, maybe for the first time, how sad they always look, how much like Andy’s they are. How much like my own.