Fiction by Gabrielle McAree
After swallowing half a bottle of cough syrup, Alex asks if I want to shave my head. I shrug my shoulders in indifference so he can make the decision for me. Our mother used to say my hair was the one “pretty” thing about me.
I shove a handful of cold fish sticks into my mouth and suck the leftover crumbs off my fingertips. My feet have blackened since I’ve stopped wearing shoes. Alex sits in his chair and watches me with owl eyes. “You’re barbaric,” he says. He throws his head back and claps his hands together as if I’m a trick pony. I wish I were a trick pony. “When I’m gone, promise me you’ll still do barbaric shit, ok?”
I swallow. “Yeah. No. Ok.”
Alex has started saying cryptic things like “when I’m gone” and “promise me” and “remember to feed the cat.” This is Death Row talk. He doesn’t have a cat. He has cystic fibrosis. Dormant until last year. Alex is dying in front of me which is much worse than him dying a couple states away. I wish I could leave so I could romanticize his death, but I’m his only family, so I have to do paternal shit, like rub circles on his back when he pukes up acid and clean his nebulizer and listen to him talk about being robbed by God. Alex won’t get to impregnate someone on accident or run into oncoming traffic or take ecstasy. He won’t legally marry a flamingo, or cure rabies or pink eye. He’s a better person than me. He should be the one to survive, to live, while I eat dirt.
I watch 12 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in preparation for this, hoping maybe I’d learn something or get better at watching sick people die. I don’t. I just have trouble separating fiction from reality. I brand myself with tattoos I can’t afford. That way, Alex and I are both experiencing pain. Different kinds, but still pain. The nurses have all but given up on him. They ask what his favorite ice cream is and send him home with a giant tub of cookies n’ cream. It doesn’t matter that he’s lactose intolerant.
Alex wants to throw glitter off the water tower, like we did when we were kids, but I am completely uninterested in heights. In scaling things. He was the daredevil between the two of us. He climbed buildings and cannonballed off rooftops. He broke bones and got stitches, bloody noses, concussions, while I stood on the sidelines with band-aids. I think the hardest part about Alex not existing anymore is that he’ll be past tense. Stuck at 25. I’ve spent my entire life wanting to be left alone and now that it’s going to happen, I don’t want it.
When I’m not on Alex duty, I drink cheap beer at the dive bar by his apartment. They know me there. They pour vodka in my glass when I tell them I’m only here to help my brother die. It’s morbid, but I’m not helping him live. The bartender has a tattoo of a beetle on his forearm, a centipede on his hand, and a dragon fly spread across his chest. I want to ask him what his deal is with bugs. He wears bowling shirts with the name “Dave” written in script. I pretend he’s a younger version of Charlie Sheen.
“Hey,” he says, topping me off. His hair is a thick black. He probably rides a motorcycle and has nothing in his refrigerator.
I stare at bullet holes in the wall. “Hey.”
“What are you doing in three hours?”
“I don’t know.”
I’ve stopped telling people I want to sleep with about my terminal brother because they either give me puppy dog eyes or tell me about their dead brother-father-daughter-grandpa in some fucked-up attempt to make me feel better. 150,000 people die every day. My situation is not unique. I’m not special. I wear black tank tops and baggy jeans and Alex’s old sneakers. He gives them to me because he won’t need them wherever he’s going. He asks to be buried in his Pokémon slippers. I can’t say no.
The bartender wants to distract me for a couple hours. I let him. When I wake up, my brother still has cystic fibrosis. He’s still going to die. I’m shocked that I’m actually surprised by this. That I thought sleeping with a younger version of Charlie Sheen could cure my brother.
Back at Alex’s apartment, he has me put all of his shit in boxes. I vow to keep everything as a memorial to him, but he wants to sell it, so I have money when he leaves. He says “leaves” like he’s going on a quick trip to the grocery store or the mall. I convince myself that death is just waiting for someone you love to come back from the store.
“Unemployment will run out. I’ll be gone,” Alex says as if I don’t already know this. I imagine this is how he’d talk if he got the chance to be a dad. “We need to sell my shit.”
I spend the next three days stealing cardboard boxes from the bar and making friends with Gail, the grandma-lady who works at the post office. She calls me “Young Thing” and wants to buy me a cheeseburger. I let her. She doesn’t ask when she touches my hair.
“My, you have such pretty hair,” says Gail.
Alex lays out his hair clippers on the kitchen table. “Just in case,” he says. He shaved his head before his medicine stole his chestnut hair. People think he has cancer, but he doesn’t. His lungs are just broken. Our mom was an alcoholic. Still cancer, I suppose, just a different kind. I don’t know what kind of cancer I have. It hasn’t shown up yet.
The day Alex dies, I shave my head and silent cry as my hair falls to the ground. I kill the one “pretty” thing about me, so when I talk about myself, I can use past tense too.