My 10-year-old brother is drawing cartoons at the round, wooden kitchen table. I smile at his frowning concentration, the deft way he outlines and shades—summoning a snout, a tail, a raised eyebrow, from the tips of his pencils. Our mom is at work and being twenty-two I’m the designated adult in the room—the room that smells of sour feet and the slightly burned mac and cheese he made for his third snack since lunch. I know he should get out of the house into the cut-grass-fragrant air of summer, and I could use some alone time. I open the fridge, see that he’s drunk all but a splash of the milk—no doubt straight from the carton.
“Hey li’l bro, what about a walk to the store?” I say, tousling his mess of blonde hair, the tangles catching between my fingers.
He shrugs, still frowning. “I’m busy.”
I palm him a five-dollar bill, tell him he can get a doughnut. He looks up, surprised. A grin materializes. He grips the money and saunters out the door, hands in his pockets. I call out, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” and he gives me a thumbs up over his shoulder.
We live three blocks from a cut-through street and sirens blast their way from highway to main drag morning and night, but this time there’s urgency in the rising whine and abrupt stop. My brain calibrates the distance and time my brother’s been gone, then telegraphs run like hell to my nervous system. I hurtle down the driveway, across two streets and down a third to where an ambulance flashes red, police cars angled to provide cover. There’s a smallish form on the ground. Head on the curb. EMTs hovering. Blood in the gutter. Not a river but enough to make my stomach lurch. Nearing the scene, I hear the sing-song of his child’s voice spiked with a man’s salty language. My brother is kicking at the air, at the EMTs. Keening a stream of swears. He’s in shock, I think. I hurl the words, “I can help!”
“Are you a doctor?”
They step back, offering no resistance as I drop to the sidewalk and tell my brother, “I’m here now. It’s gonna be OK. But you gotta cool it so I can ride in the ambulance with you.”
The kicking and cursing stop and just like that he’s limp, resigned. They stretcher him. Load him. Bandage and monitor him. Inside the ambulance, the dome light throws bleak shadows. I hold my brother’s hand, hoping to hold him together. Once we’re moving, the EMTs tell me he was walking on the edge of the curb and slipped off just as a small pickup truck approached. The driver unable to stop in time.
In the ER, bleeping machines sow fresh panic. Smells of alcohol, antiseptic, rubber. Voices drifting through blue surgical masks and eyes peering out beneath clownish shower caps. The doctors allow me to stay long enough to calm him, so they can get a line in his arm. He drifts, eyes droop. They slide a tube into his nose, tell me to leave. Promise to keep me updated.
I slump to the waiting room. Collapsing into an orange leatherette chair I pull my thin jacket across my chest against the chill pulsing from the ceiling vent. The room throbs with artificial light and I stare at the too-loud TV on the wall. The blonde newscaster is cheerful, eyes flashing as she announces death tolls, earthquakes, air raids, tsunamis. I’m overcome by nausea, try to slow my breathing. Sitting nearby is a mother with her hand on a stroller, her little boy fluttering the baby’s lips with his finger. I wonder who they’re waiting for. I lower my head so they won’t see the tears that gush unexpectedly.
After an eon, the tired-eyed doctor—with his barely-more-than peach-fuzz face—approaches. He taps my shoulder with latexed fingertips like I might infect him. Announces that my brother will live. He’s going for x-rays, CAT scan, blood work and cast. Later I can visit him in the ICU where he’ll stay for quite some time. The doctor leaves in a cloud of green scrubs and rubber gloves. Matching clown cap and slippers.
In a minute I’ll go out to the courtyard where people in wheelchairs eat turkey and cheese sandwiches and dodge pollen-laden bees. I’ll call Mom but not say, I should never have let him walk alone on a busy street. Not say, you should’ve been home. Not say, how did everything get so messed up? Instead I’ll tell her There was an accident, Mom. But it’s gonna be OK.
It might have happened like that.
But maybe I smile at my brother who’s drawing cartoons, his brow tight with concentration and when I tousle his mess of blonde hair, the tangles catch between my fingers. Maybe when I say, “Hey bro, take a break. Let’s go get some milk and doughnuts,” he looks up surprised, a grin materializing and we drive to the store in my rust-pocked gray VW Bug—five-dollar bill damp in my pocket, the cut-grass fragrance of summer fluttering into the car, my brother’s hand trailing a little too far out the window.
Kathryn Silver-Hajo’s work appears, or is forthcoming, in Atticus Review, Ruby Literary, Fictive Dream, New York Times-Tiny Love Stories, New World Writing, Flash Boulevard, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Bending Genres, Cleaver Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, and others. You can read Kathryn’s work at: https://www.kathrynsilverhajo.com/