Home > Ask Him Why(8)

Ask Him Why(8)
Catherine Ryan Hyde

We both sat for a moment, not saying anything. Over and behind my brother’s head, I could see my miniature patch of the universe. It looked like a view of actual space travel in the dark. Which was the point. I tried to look at it the way I usually did. Like I was an astronaut flying out into infinity. Feeling tiny in comparison to the cosmos around me. I thought it would make the problem in front of me seem fleeting and small.

It didn’t.

“Why didn’t you go out on the raid?”

“Because I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. Going into people’s homes in the middle of the night. Hauling families out into their front yards at gunpoint. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but if you can imagine a bunch of soldiers breaking through our door right now and doing the same to us . . . Let’s just say it was a very bad experience for everybody.”

“But they did something wrong, right? What did the people do?”

“Sometimes nothing. We were looking for insurgents.”

“Insurgents?”

“Rebels. People who wanted to fight us back. But part of the time, nobody in the house had done anything wrong at all. Anyway, it was a lot more complicated than just that. And I’m not going to dump it all on you, because I want you to get back to sleep. But I wanted you to know that I did what I did for a reason. I did what I thought was right. I don’t want you to be ashamed of me.”

“I’m not,” I said.

He sat a minute. Maybe taking that in. Then he rose to his feet.

“I’m glad,” he said. And moved toward my bedroom door. “I know you look up to me.” Then he seemed to scramble to verbally walk back a statement that hadn’t come out right the first time. “I’m not saying you should or anything. I know I’m no hero. But me being ten years older and everything. I guess it’s kind of inevitable.”

“You’re only nine years older.”

“Aren’t you twelve?”

“No. I’m thirteen.”

“Oh. I missed a birthday while I was gone, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry. I should have called.”

“It’s okay,” I said. Which was, at least on an emotional level, a lie. “You were busy.”

“Even if I’d remembered, I still would have thought it was your twelfth.”

I had no idea what to say to that. So I said nothing.

He moved toward the door again. Put his hand on the knob.

“Joseph,” I said. And he turned back. Waiting for it. “If you thought it was wrong, what they asked you to do, then I think it was wrong, too.”

“You don’t know the whole story yet.”

“I know you, though.”

He paused for a time with his hand on the knob.

Then he said, “Thanks. Now go back to sleep.”

And with that he was gone.

I didn’t go back to sleep. At least, not until nearly morning.

At school the next day, I got an early glimpse of what would follow. What our lives would be like in the foreseeable future. It was small. It wasn’t dramatic. But if I had been looking for clues, it would have been a good one.

I walked into the principal’s office to explain why I hadn’t given my parents the note.

She looked up from her desk. From a sheaf of papers she was scribbling on—writing in the margins, in blue pencil. Her eyes changed when she saw me. I can’t describe exactly how.

I held up the note.

“I didn’t show them this,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said.

I thought I must have heard her wrong.

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t worry about it. I heard about . . . what your family’s dealing with. It’s a hard time over at your house. So I’ll overlook the acting out. This time. And this time only.”

With a tipping of her head she indicated the wastepaper basket beside her desk.

I put the note in it. Gently. As though it were fragile.

Then I walked out.

Of course, I hadn’t known anything about Joseph coming home when I “acted out.”

But what kind of fool would bring that up when he could just walk out of trouble? Just walk away.

Chapter Three: Ruth

The day after Joseph came home, I walked through our gate to find a stranger sitting in the sun on our blindingly white porch swing. He was wearing khaki pants and a khaki bag—like a messenger bag—slung across his chest. He was staring at an electronic device in his hands, some kind of Blackberry, I think.

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