Home > When You Were Older(8)

When You Were Older(8)
Catherine Ryan Hyde

‘Send him out, then.’

‘Oh, he’s not here.’

‘He’s not? Mr Jespers said—’

‘We tried, honey, God knows we tried. But you know how your brother is. Everything’s got to be familiar. Got to be his own little routine. So we’ve been putting him to bed in his own bed, and then the last few nights Phil slept on the couch over there, case he needed something in the night, or got scared. But tonight we figured, from when you called and all, that you’d be in soon enough. Ben goes to bed at eight. Every night. Eight. Not a minute sooner. Not a minute later. Wait, let me get you the key.’

She disappeared from the doorway, and I stood, shivering slightly. I looked up into the yellowish, bug-repellent porch light and squinted. I was so tired that just for an instant I lost track of my surroundings. Things whited out, the way they do in that split second just before you lose consciousness.

Part of me was wishing she wouldn’t come back. Because I didn’t have the energy for her. But that was stupid, of course. I needed the key.

A second later she reappeared, and pressed it into my hand.

‘You’ll have to take him to work in the morning. He goes in early.’

‘Ben has a job?’

‘Oh, yeah. Sure, honey. You didn’t know? Ben’s been bagging groceries for near on to two and a half years. It’s working out real good. Everybody likes him. Somebody has to drive him there and pick him up, though. He can’t ride the bus. Your mom tried to teach him to ride the bus, but he got lost every time. Every damn time. One time it took her half the day to find him again, even though the whole damn town was on alert to be looking out for him.’

Mom’s older son got a job bagging groceries right around the time ‘her baby’ got a job with one of the best ad firms in New York. Much as I was accustomed to Ben’s condition, this seemed weird.

I needed to get out of this conversation. I needed sleep.

‘I don’t have a car, though.’

‘Take your mom’s car.’

‘Oh. Right. Do you know where she keeps her keys?’

‘No. I don’t. Sorry. But maybe Ben does.’

Sure. Cling to that, let’s.

‘Well, goodnight,’ I said. ‘Thanks for looking after him.’

‘It was an emergency, honey, but thank God you got home. That’s all I can say. Phil and I are just too old for the whole Ben thing. Maybe you’ll do better, cause you’re young. Good luck.’

‘Thanks,’ I said.

‘You’re gonna need some luck.’

I didn’t answer that one. I just cut across the lawn to my childhood home, thinking, Don’t you really figure that last comment would have been better left unsaid?

All the lights were off in the house, but when I opened the front door with my key and stepped into the living room, I could see everything clearly. Too clearly. The room was suffused with a sort of ghostly glow. In my altered state of exhaustion, it seemed nearly supernatural. But it didn’t take long to figure out there was a night light in every room.

I wandered over to the mantel first, because the photos drew me.

My mom and dad at their wedding. My mom and dad with Ben and me, ages maybe four and ten. I looked at the sharp focus in Ben’s eyes, the slight glint of defiance and mischief. I’d known Ben that way for the first eight years of my life. Then I’d lived with the changed Ben for ten. I wondered if I was really sure who I expected to meet again in the morning, though my rational mind certainly knew what was what in that situation.

Then there was the photo of me winning statewide track in high school, and Ben at age twelve, holding a twenty-inch trout in a tippy canoe (the tippiness didn’t show in the photo, but I remembered) on Council Grove Lake.

I looked again at the photo of my parents, and was hit with a strange and disturbing thought.

I’m an orphan.

Then I shook it away again. Orphans were little waifs, dependant minors. I was a grown man whose parents were both dead. Lots of adults fell into that category. Granted, most were older than me.

Oddly, that chain of thought did not bring me dangerously close to tears. The next one did.

I looked at the mantel itself, and got a sudden flash of our family’s Christmas village.

Every year my mom would take down all the photos and knick-knacks and construct the village with decorations that spent the rest of the year hiding, boxed, in the attic, just waiting for their season to shine.

She used stacks of books for hills, then covered them with chicken wire and cotton batting. The little houses had holes in the back for the bulb of a Christmas light to be inserted, so the houses on the hills glowed with light, as though occupied. A little horse-drawn sled spent the whole season headed down a cotton hill toward a mirror lake it would never reach. On the lake, a tiny porcelain skunk ice-skated, and a family of inch-high deer drank from the silver water.

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