It was a bright sunny afternoon. Junior, my older brother, picked me up and swung me round and round until I begged to be let down. We laughed so hard that we fell into the grass, clutching our sides. Junior sat up, his tinny ringtone sounding from his pocket.
“Yo, girl, what you calling me for?” he said, winking at me. I watched the happiness drain from his face as he turned his attention to the person on the phone. “No … I’ll take care of it … I said I’d handle it. Later.”
At seven years old, I didn’t understand this side of my brother. He may have been twelve years older than me, but he was always kind. More a father figure than a brother. Daddy was old when he and Mommy brought Junior into the world. He was almost seventy when I came along: the accident. Junior never hesitated to step in. He taught me how to throw a baseball. And how not to be afraid to catch one too. He was ready with Bactine for a scrapped knee, or a kiss on the forehead when I had a fever.
Junior stood up and shoved the phone into his front pocket. Gravity pulled his shoulders down to the ground. He kicked at the grass a little. I got to my feet immediately, grabbed his hand.
“I’ll go with you, Junior,” I said.
“Not this time,” he squeezed my fingers and then released them.
“But …. .”
“You’ll always be my Roll Dawg, Ash. I’ve got your back,” he said, and the smile came back into his eyes. “I’ve got to finish a job. I’ll be back after dinner to read you a story.”
Junior never came home.
I remember waking up to the sound of Mommy wailing. Daddy quietly opened my door and turned on the light. Everything was wrong. The silence punctuated by Mommy’s screams. The wind whipping through the branches outside, causing them to scratch against my window.
“Get your coat, Ashley,” he said, his eyes rimmed in red. “We’ve got to get to the hospital.”
I did as he said, pulling one of Junior’s old sweatshirts over my head. Daddy smoothed my hair a little and took my hand. We walked down the hallway toward the sound of Mommy’s sobs.
Daddy put me in the car. He returned to the house to get Mommy. She fell against him and then into the car, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. Tears clouded my vision. The streets were glistening with a recent rain. Halos of light circled the streetlights we sped under. I never remembered driving this far into the city before.
The hospital towered dark and ominous when Daddy stopped out front to let Mommy and I out. He drove off to park the car. Mommy clutched my hand, leaving half-moons in the thin flesh of my wrist. Never once did I cry out she was hurting me.
We were ushered into a small waiting room until Daddy joined us. A man in blue pajamas stepped out of a room with yellow stripes across the door. He shook my parents’ hands. They whispered for a minute, again my Mommy succumbing to hiccups and sobs.
“I’ll take you back to him now,” the man said.
The moment I saw Junior, attached to so many cords and tubes it was hard to find his face, I ran to his bed. Grabbed his hand. Mommy followed, leaning hard against his bed. Daddy stood on the other side. He hesitated to touch his only son. Tears splashed against Junior’s hand, fingers entwined with mine. The monitors began to beep long and harsh.
Looking at Junior, I saw him take one last breath, exhale and not breathe in again. I gripped his hand, my shouts and Mommy’s echoing against the room’s constricting walls. And then I saw a silvery smoke issue from Junior’s mouth. I did the only thing I could think of, I swallowed my brother’s soul.
For ten years, I’ve carried Junior’s soul with me, close to my heart, woven with my own. Sometimes I forget if it’s my own desire or his that makes me run a little bit faster on the way home from school, throw a little harder during softball, or smile a little brighter in the halls of Montbello High School.
Daddy never got over Junior’s death. He blamed himself for not seeing the signs that Junior had joined a gang. He passed away a few years after that night. Mom’s so protective of me now, when she’s not passed out from the alcohol. I’m her only living child. She doesn’t work any more because she’s on disability. I love her, but she’s smothering me.
Junior made me promise that I wouldn’t tell anyone what I did that night. I wonder if Daddy knew that Junior lived on if he would have lived a bit longer. I wonder if Mom would have started drinking. How would our lives have turned out differently if his beautiful smile had remained with us?
“Hey, Ash!” a familiar voice rings out behind me.
I turn to find Gee, my polar opposite and best friend. Gee’s six months pregnant. Her mother kicked her out, so she’s staying with me. Mom won’t let her have Junior’s room. Sometimes we sneak in there after Mom’s left to find another bottle. Gee’s madly in love with Junior. She idolizes him almost as much as I do. Junior finds this endlessly amusing and fills me up with so much happy energy.
Gee walks as fast as she’s able and slings an arm around my shoulders. “Slow down, girl.”
Junior stirs inside me. I hear his thoughts. He’s thinking the same thing that’s passed my mind once or twice. Is it possible to transfer him into Gee’s womb? What would happen to the baby that’s already growing there? I shush him silently.
“I’ve got something to tell you, and I want your opinion.” She’s so serious. “You’re the only person I trust right now.”
I pull her braid with a small tug. “Tell me.”
“What do you think about adoption?”
The question freezes me to the spot. Adoption would take Junior far away from me. Something that I simply cannot fathom. Junior rallies inside me. We’re both scared, but did we actually think hijacking a baby’s body was the answer? I use all my willpower to shut out his constant stream of ideas. This isn’t the time for him to have a second chance. We’ll find another way. Somehow.
My heart slows back to normal. “Gee, you should do whatever you think will make you happy.”
Gee nods. “I knew you’d say that. You always say that.”
“What are your other options?” I ask. I begin to tick them off my fingers for her. “It’s too late to terminate. Even though she kicked you out, your mother would kill you if you did that anyway. I guess we could raise the baby, but I want to go to college. I can’t stay here forever.”
“Ash, I can’t raise a baby at seventeen. Trevor’s already moved on to the next girl.”
I don’t know if it’s hormones, or the fact that she actually misses that asshole, but her eyes start to fill with tears.
“I don’t know what to do. Just tell me what I should do.”
I breathe heavily. Every option weighs on my mind. This isn’t my decision. I can’t be responsible for anyone else. I’ve got Junior, Mom, and myself. I love Gee, but she’s got to make this choice.
“If it were me, I’d probably look into adoption.” Gee smiles like she’s made up her mind. “However”–her face falls–“this isn’t me. This is you, and you’ve got three more months to make a final decision.”
She leans her head against my shoulder. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
Junior’s afraid too. He’s been waiting for ten years for an opportunity like this to present itself. Deep inside, I promise there’s another way we haven’t figured out yet. This doesn’t soothe him like it should, and although he tries to tamp it down, a storm of rage fills in the cracks of my body that aren’t mine any more.
“I gotta get to third period,” I tell her, pulling away and racing down the hall. I blow her a kiss. “We’ll talk at home!”
I make it into the bathroom and close the stall door. Someone turns out the lights. I fall hard against the concrete tile. When I wake, I’m trapped inside a body fully controlled by Junior.
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