Home > Ask Him Why(10)

Ask Him Why(10)
Catherine Ryan Hyde

“But when he does it himself, that’s different.”

“Used to be my room, don’t forget. So he talked to you, too.”

“Dad?”

“You know what I mean.”

I hadn’t, but I caught up fast.

“Oh. That reporter. Yeah. I have his card. You know. In case you change your mind and want to talk to him.”

“I don’t.”

“But if you change your mind.”

“I won’t.”

“He says he’s going to run the story one way or the other, and that it’s better for you to tell your side. He says you have to get in front of a thing like this or it gets really ugly really fast. But he didn’t say what kind of a thing it is. He just said, ‘Your brother knows.’”

A long enough silence that I thought the conversation might be over, that I might just have to slink out and leave him alone. Which, come to think, he’d asked of me the minute I walked into the room.

Then he said, “Let’s hope he’s bluffing.”

“What story?” I asked, even though part of me knew better, knew he didn’t want me to.

“Please, Duck. I’m begging you here.”

I quietly let myself out of the room.

That was the beginning, right in that moment, of the chronic heartburn and other digestive problems that would plague me for years. It felt unfamiliar at the time. Within days it would feel like my most steadfast companion.

Not two minutes later, I heard the front door softly open and close. I’m not sure how I knew it was something out of the ordinary, but I did. Maybe just because everything was, everything had been, since Joseph came home.

I went downstairs to see who was around. No one. So it must not have been anyone coming in—it must have been Joseph going out.

It would be the last I saw of my brother for longer than I could possibly have imagined at the time.

In the morning, after my mom dropped me at school, I waited until she drove away and then walked to the corner and bought a morning paper, a Register, out of one of those automated racks. I plowed through it on the way back to school, then spread it out on the concrete steps and kept plowing.

The bell rang, making me late, but I explored every page, even the sports section and the movie listings. There was no story about my brother.

I threw the newspaper in the trash on my way inside, with a deep conviction that the threat had passed, that there was no story, only a bluff, that Joseph had dodged a bullet, though it felt more like I’d dodged one myself.

There’s an art to not taking these things personally. I still haven’t perfected it. I hadn’t even scratched the surface at age fifteen.

Waiting outside that conviction was the sure knowledge that not every story makes it into the paper the very next day after the reporter stands on your porch. I knew it was there but I refused to acknowledge its existence.

I think I was peripherally aware of exactly what I was doing.

I was buying myself one more day.

The following morning I showed up in homeroom, the fourth or fifth person to arrive. Mrs. Blankenship looked up immediately and met my eyes with a look I couldn’t possibly understand. I can only say that nobody had ever looked at me with that exact set of emotions showing in their eyes before. I can only describe it by saying she seemed to view me as an unstable nuclear weapon, but one she felt deeply sorry for.

She silently called me up to the front of the room with the motion of one bent index finger.

My blood froze, and I almost couldn’t feel myself making the walk. The desks on either side of me registered in my peripheral vision as I moved by them, but they looked blurred. My whole life suddenly suffered from too much depth of field.

I stood in front of her desk with my textbooks held in front of my gut like a shield.

“You okay today?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

I watched through her eyes as she backed out of the whole moment in her brain, like watching one of those big construction trucks try to take all that bulk into reverse gear. All that was missing was the irritating beeping noise.

“No reason,” she said. “No reason at all.”

“Okay then,” I said.

I walked back to my desk again, feeling numb. Everything tingled slightly. You know how your foot feels when you cut off the circulation to it by sitting the wrong way? Numb and dead but tingling at the same time? Like that. My whole body—my whole self—had gone to sleep.

I sat at my desk for a minute, or it might have been a second, or it might have been ten minutes. I wasn’t looking at the clock and it was hard to tell.

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