Playing Favorites

I follow Mom out to our car.  When we're both in and buckled, she glances at me in the rearview mirror.

          “We’re not going to stay long,” she says. “Maybe five minutes. He’s bound to be exhausted.”

           I nod, blow on the window, and draw a smiley face in the condensation. Then I sit back and consider how the five minute visit might play out.

            I want to show him how much I love him. How much I miss him, even though it’s only been a week. A void happens when seven days pass without someone you're used to seeing every day. Feels like there’s an empty bucket in my belly. And it’s blue.
            My plan is to show him my fingernails. How I stopped biting them. Just for him. I haven’t nibbled all week. They don’t yet touch the tips of my fingers, but I painted them anyway. Borrowed Mom’s Avon polish—Peppy Poppy—without asking her. The color reminds me of the cherry hardshell coating you can get on your twisty cone at the Dairy King on Route 60. I lick them. To see if maybe they taste like-- Naw. They're bitter. Chemically. Shiny though.
            Hopefully, Mom'll leave us alone. In the hospital room. So I can hiss to John, “I hate them.” The boys who did this. Because of them, I’ll never sit behind him on his motorbike again. My arms strapped around his midsection. My cheek flush with his shoulder blade. I never really felt safe there and where I hadn’t had a tangible excuse before (besides I’m chicken), now I do.
~~~
A week ago, a whole car, a Lincoln Continental, had slammed into John and his Honda. Tossed them both into the air—him left, the bike right. When I picture it in my mind’s eye, I imagine he bounces, then falls back to earth. The black top receives him none too gently.
            The Lincoln was stolen. The driver ignored the red light. All the guys in the car were drunk. High too.
~~~
I change my mind. I'm not going to hiss. I intend to yell.
            “I hate those boys!” Maybe even, “I wish they were dead!”
            My mad words'll ricochet off the almost pistachio green walls (or will they be make-you-squint-bright-white?) and he’ll be satisfied. John will. That I'm on his side. When ninety per cent of the time, I'm nothing but a pain in his butt. That’s how he always introduces me. Never, “This is my little sister.” Instead, he usually says, "Her? She's just a pain in my butt. That’s all.”
            After “I hate them,” I 'll say, “It’s too bad.” That he won’t get to do his Steve Martin imitation at the senior high talent show. Not too long ago I’d stood outside his bedroom door, my face smooshed to the wall just out of sight, while he practiced in the mirror. I peeked in and saw him flop a pillow case on his head. He watched himself sing. “King Tut, Tut. Funky Tut, Tut.” I stole another look. Giggled into my hand as he shimmied and crowed. “I’m just one wild and crazy guy.”
            When he finished, I pounced through the doorway with a grin. “You’re the funniest guy ever! For real! They’re gonna love you.”
            That earned me a beating. For being a spy.
            Maybe I’ll apologize too. For the whipping he’d taken that night, on account of me. And for all the other times. More than once I’d lied. To my dad. I told the truth that night, but I didn’t always. Sometimes I squealed. Just because. Truth or no, it didn’t matter. Daddy believed me without fail. For no other reason than I was the only daughter, the youngest child.
            Dad’s face would get super red, especially his nose, and his eyes would go all squinty.
             “How could you do that? She’s just a little girl for crying out loud.”
            John would glare at me. Mouth two words. “Spoiled brat.” That was his favorite thing to throw at me. Besides a fist.
            Whenever I tattled, Dad would grab John in a Vulcan nerve pinch and steer him to another room. In the minute before I heard the siss of Dad’s belt speeding out of its constraints, I’d grin. Snicker. Enjoy a certain satisfaction. But when the thwack sounded--cow skin on boy butt--I winced. Regretted. Power didn’t seem so cool then.
~~~
John isn't my only brother, but for some reason, I like him best. I have no idea why. He did, after all, try to kill me once. On the chocolate milk-colored sofa in the basement. After I told him no way he was going to my ninth grade prom. He was too old (two years and three months my senior) and besides, it was my school dance, not his. And did he not know what Tammy Carter did with Joey Howard behind the Convenient Mart? Did he really want to go out with a girl like that?
            He launched at me, hands all T-rex clawed, his metal mouth gleaming through a froth. Crammed my head into the arm of the couch. Choked me until I saw stars, then nothing.
            “Mom,” I yelled after I came to. “John tried to murder me. I blacked out. I’m serious.”
            She didn’t answer. Turned out, she was out back picking zinnias and tomatoes.
~~~
I think maybe John and I are like Dad and our cat, Ginger. Dad's forever grouching about what a nuisance she is. All the time honking into the handkerchief he keeps handy.
            “That blankety blank cat is single-handedly making Benadryl rich.”
            Whenever Ginger perches on the sill outside the living room window, I take the screen off and let her in. Not Dad. He talks to her real nice so she thinks maybe—Then schwing! He cranks the window open super fast and she goes flying into the yard with a yowl.
            And when she sits by the front door, daintily grooming her pumpkin paws, Dad'll stroll up to her and point to his Hush Puppy oxford.
            “Let me introduce you to the number nine shoe. I don’t believe you all have met.”
            Once again, she goes flying. With a yowl.
            Ginger loves Daddy anyway. She arches her back under his hand whenever he falls asleep in his Ethan Allen wing chair during the nightly news. When he's awake though, she holes up under his chair, her twitching tail the only evidence of her presence.
            Ginger's just like me. Wants to be around the person who likes her least. Is okay with getting one pat on the back for every hundred times she goes flying with a yowl. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, but she doesn’t care and neither do I.
            I pull out the picture I brought of Ginger. To show John. In case he misses her.
~~~
On the elevator Mom tells me John's right arm will be in a sling and his left leg will be casted and in a pulley gizmo over his bed. I roll my eyes. I know, Mom. You’ve said that  a hundred times this week.
            “He may be out of it,” she says. “What with the pain meds and all.”
            My lower lip pushes forward. “I sure hope not.” I glance at my hands. “I want him to see my manicure.” Want him to hear me say, I hate them. And, I’m sorry. And maybe if Mom leaves the room, I’ll hold on to the side rail of his bed and lean close. "Don't tell anybody," I'll whisper. “But you’re my favorite brother.”

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