Three deep breathes. His chest rose and dropped slowly and calmly as he got a whiff of the chilly winter air, his cheeks burned from the snowfall as he walked home. Reaching his hand out, he opened the door and walked into his foyer. Within seconds, he heard the footsteps from upstairs, and then saw the boy shuffling downstairs.
“Jeez, you’re soaking wet, Logan,” Joseph yelled as he came down swiftly Logan hadn’t realized how wet and cold he actually was until his younger brother stated the obvious.
“Yeah, the snow was coming down hard towards the end of my walk home,” Logan answered. He hung his jacket up on the wall hook to dry and ran his hand through his shaggy brown hair, darkened by the snow. His blue eyes glanced into the den.
“They haven’t moved since you left,” Joseph said, as if answering Logan’s thoughts. “Only she fell asleep and he can’t stop watching is the home videos.”
Logan sighed, went to the kitchen to pour a cold glass of water, while simultaneously looking at the clock above the sink. Only three pm. Awesome. He brought the glass of water into the den to where his mother lay, he could smell her from den entrance, the Grey Goose bottle sat empty on the coffee table to her side. Logan, being the older of the two boys, knew it was his job to take initiative. Also, he had not been home for the past two hours, so he was sure Joseph got his fair share of the drunken mess that their mother was when she was conscious. Her long brown hair fell over her face, and would move up and down as she breathed slowly with her mouth open. If only she was this peaceful when she was awake.
“It only took her five hours this time,” Joseph said quietly. “She wasn’t that bad,” automatically answering Logan’s thoughts again, “she only cried for an hour, then passed out.” Creepy how he did that, Logan thought.
Joseph walked back out and Logan was left to this fifty-year-old mess on his own. Ignoring his father for the time being, Logan carefully nudged his mother and whispered in her ear. “Come on Mom, let’s get you in bed,” Groans. That’s all he got now. Just groans from that sad mouth.
* * *
“Unreal, guys!” Elliot high-fived his little brother, as the Stricker family walked to their black suburban from the soccer field to drive home. Their parents, Max and Krissy, got in the front seat and the three boys squished in the back. “Joseph, you blocked every ball that came at you, mad talent.”
Joseph was beaming. Of course he was, it was the first soccer game he started in. As a freshman in high school. And he did not let one ball pass him.
Logan patted his brother on the back as he jokingly said, “And if it wasn’t for me, you would have had to block a lot more.”
Elliot nudged Logan, knowing Logan loved playing defense and was just giving their youngest brother a hard time. Max and Krissy smiled to themselves, having a conversation telepathically as they always do: how did we get so lucky to have three amazing boys?
They were on their way home from the game. Not far, just a thirty-minute drive, but the minutes seemed to expand, the smell of two sweaty boys and one with fresh cologne on in the back, mixing into an aroma that was more than nauseating. The boys were used to it, but Krissy never seemed to become accustomed to how her boys could become so smelly in just seventy-five minutes. The rain. Why was October so rainy recently? At least they got to finish their game before it started to come down hard. Max finally put on the windshield wipers; the drizzle was quickly transforming into a full-blown storm.
Elliot distracted the family, as always, by getting the conversation going again. “I knew you would rock the game, Joey.” Joseph smiled.
“Shot first shower,” Logan interrupted their brotherly love fest.
The rain. The road was invisible, a blur through the windshield, everything blending together, everything wet, everything uncertain…
* * *
Logan was massaging his right shoulder with his left hand and he started his way downstairs. He finally got his mother tucked in, although it did not take that long due to the fact that she was way thinner than she should be, so carrying her was easy. Walking back into the kitchen, he saw Joseph making a peanut butter sandwich; only as Logan looked closer, he saw Joseph was making two. Standing in the entryway of the kitchen, Logan observed his younger brother. He has seen this going on for the past few weeks, but thought nothing of it. Logan was feeling a little strange too, recently, so he felt it unfair to badger Joseph about his actions. Joseph took the peanut butter sandwiches, which were on two different plates, and he placed them on the table—one in front of him and one at an empty place at the kitchen table. Interesting, Logan silently thought to himself. Logan wanted to talk to Joseph so badly, his thoughts burning through his brain, but he had more pressing matters to deal with. Like his father, that was still in the den with his eyes constantly glued to his three boys surfing in their backyard pool.
Two months ago, if someone would have told Logan that he would be taking care of his family, he would have laughed in their face. Captain of the high school soccer team, good-looking boy, as the girls would say, Logan had a plan. College in a year on a soccer scholarship, just like his older brother. Somewhere small. Liberal arts. He did not need the party scene. Maybe just a close group of friends, good classes, and a social life on the weekends to the extent that Logan would get that “college experience” that his parents were once so fond of. Elliot went on to play for all four years of soccer at UVA, gaining that “college experience.” He stayed on top of his studies and started in each game all four years, with Joseph following in his footsteps, starting this year as a freshman. Logan was not bothered or jealous by this. In fact, he was just the proud middle brother that everyone saw him as.
Living in a small suburban town in Pennsylvania, it was easy for the family to travel to UVA on the weekends to catch all of Elliot’s games. They were “that family.” Decked out in UVA clothing, Joseph always wearing the Cavalier hat, just like the mascot. They would cheer loudly for Elliot, who played forward and assisted more times than he scored, always setting his teammates up for the perfect goals.
Logan regrouped himself, thinking of the past hurt too much. He made his way for the basement. This room smelled better than the den, no alcohol was in sight. The boys’ father was sitting in the big blue chair, cushions now formed to the man’s frame. It was as if he hadn’t moved in days. Which, Logan thought, could be entirely possible. His stubble was fresh and his hair was matted. As Logan moved closer to his father, he saw that he had been crying rather recently.
“Hungry?” Logan asked.
Better than groans.
“Let’s go put the game on, it’s Eagles vs. Giants.” Logan desperately wanted his father out of this chair, away from the home vides.
Luckily for him, his father did not put up a fight. Slowly but surely, Max got out of the big blue chair, and made his way for the stairs. If anyone was watching other than Logan, they would think this fifty-two year old man was walking to the electric chair. His body slumped and his strides were shadowy, taking one stair at a time, painfully slow.
Finally back upstairs, Logan watched his father resume position in a different chair. The remote was on the couch opposite the chair and Logan grabbed it. He put on the football game and tossed the remote in his father’s lap. The smack of the remote onto his right thigh did not faze this sorrowful man. Frustrated as always, Logan took those three breaths and made his way upstairs to his room. He had been home for an hour and had had no time for himself. Before reaching his room, he passed Joseph’s. He was on his bed playing Xbox. Joseph held on to a controller and weirdly, another controller was right next to him. Logan could not remember the last time he played games with his brother; he had no time for it. Logan stopped mid step as he saw Joseph talking to air. No one was there, yet Joseph was whispering. Did Logan just hear him say Elliot? No. Definitely not. He was probably just tired from his hour of moving his parents into more appropriate places.
Logan continued down the hall and paused at Elliot’s room. The door was closed and his Manchester soccer poster was still taped perfectly to the center of his door. Logan put his hand on Elliot’s doorknob, as he always did, and then paused, as he always did, and then quickly pulled his hand away, the knob suddenly feeling like fire in his hand. The eighteen year old moved on passed his brother’s room and finally reached his own. He immediately got that feeling of relief. He was alone. Sprawling on his bed, he let his mind wander absently before he got to his schoolwork. An hour of rest was all he wanted anyway.
* * *
Ten minutes into the car ride and Joseph was asleep. The entire Stricker family was shocked at how Joseph could fall asleep so fast in any condition. Lucky boy. Max looked in the rearview mirror at Logan and winked. Knowing Elliot was raving so much about Joseph’s first soccer game, Max wanted to show Logan he appreciated Logan’s fantastic defensive playing as well. The boys’ parents came to every game, no matter the location or weather.
Thunder ripped through the car, giving it a slight vibration as the got on the highway. Had it ever rained this hard before? The boys began to get nervous. Logan knew nothing would happen though; his dad could handle driving in any weather. And they were in a suburban. Everything would be fine. Just fine. Krissy saw the worry in Logan’s eyes and tried to get his eyes off the road.
“Logan and Joseph,” she said, waking Joseph up, “Hop in the shower quickly when we get home. Elliot told us he wants to take the family out for a celebratory dinner if you guys won,” Krissy craned her neck to the back seat to face her children. “Italian, of course.” She looked at Elliot and smiled. But Elliot looked frightened.
Suddenly Max swerved. Too hard, Logan knew, that no, they would not be fine…
* * *
Logan woke up to faint whispers coming from Joseph’s room. He sat up in his bed, rubbed his eyes, and opened them to a tall, dark figure. Frightened and confused, he closed his eyes and opened them again. Just his window, he saw. Logan shook of his chills and ventured to his locked door. Unlocking it, he knew he was again exposing himself to the depressing feel this house constantly burdened people with. Before he went to Joseph’s, Logan knew he should check on his parents first. As Logan peaked into the master bedroom, he realized how much the two adult figures just looked like statues, both asleep, and wondered where those parents were that used to cheer him and his siblings on the sidelines at every chance they got.
Walking back towards his younger brother’s room, Logan reminisced. As the soccer team captain, Logan could not be more ecstatic that his little brother made varsity soccer as a freshman. The only freshman that got to start. Logan played defense, Joseph in the goal. Even on the field they would have each other’s backs. When they were younger they played together, with Elliot’s advice constantly in their head. Never let anyone get past you, Logan, Elliot would say enthusiastically, you are a brick wall. Joseph would pat Logan’s back and say something like “or else I’m screwed,” and laugh it off. His sarcasm was what made Joseph shine—it was never too harsh that he would bother people.
Logan’s mind came back to him, back to his brother’s door. He paused, slowly leaning onto the white frame, hearing those hushed whispers from Joseph. He placed his ear up against Joseph’s door and listened intently on a one sided conversation.
“Elliot, it’s your turn! I just lost!” Logan felt his heart beating so hard in his chest, he was sure it was going to pop out. His curiosity got the best of him and he slammed his body into Joseph’s door, breaking the knob and lock all together.
“Ell—” Logan started, lost in himself for a split second, but no one was there. Just Joseph, who turned red, words were lost on him.
Logan was confused and furious, but mostly nervous. He began to uncontrollably yell
at his brother. “Joseph, I’ve noticed this for weeks! Elliot is dead! Do you not understand?” Logan was breathing loud, panting almost, and his chest hurt from his heart beating so hard. Thump thump. Thump thump. Joseph just stared. Logan knew Joseph looked up to Elliot more than him and it hurt. He never thought to mention it, though, because there was never any conflict. All three of them used to do things together, not one brother ever left behind. But for two months now, Joseph had a weird habit of thinking Elliot was still around. But even worse, could Logan be seeing the same thing? Did he want to help Joseph with results of hopefully helping himself? Joseph’s actions were not normal.
But neither were the figures that Logan was seeing as well. Something had to be done.
Logan left Joseph’s room and returned back to his parents’. He sat on their bed with a large thumb, waking them both up simultaneously. With a streak of tears running down his rosy cheeks, Logan slowly spoke.
“Mom, Dad, I know these two months have sucked. There is no other way to put it. But Joseph…Joseph is not okay. You need to open your eyes. Your youngest son is suffering. He needs to speak to a doctor, to a therapist, to anyone that will listen because…because you guys just won’t.” Logan took a deep breath and stared at his parents who both stared back.
“Okay,” Max said, “Okay, tomorrow.”
Multiple therapy and psych sessions later, it was decided that Joseph had to be put in a ward. A psychiatric ward for mentally disturbed children. Not a creepy one, just one that would get Joseph back on his feet. He needed a break from the house, the weirdness, the confusion.
Throughout this weekly process, Logan continued to talk to his parents about this situation, and they slowly began to respond. They had two sons who needed them. They seemed like they agreed with Logan’s choice, and after they both spoke to the doctors, it felt like the best decision. After all, they had not been functioning parents normally for two months, so they knew arguing with Logan would not do much.
Logan, however, began to feel this decision weigh on him. Hard. He was a mess. His eyes bulged out, his cheekbones were sharper than ever, and his leg muscle from soccer had just about disappeared. He knew Joseph needed help, but at what cost? Logan never thought it could get to be this bad. Had he been too blind to his own brother’s issues? Was Logan so focused on not letting his mother drink herself into oblivion, or so focused on his father watching too many childhood videos, his eyes watering from staring at a television screen too long, that he dismissed Joseph all together? Had he gone on too many walks to constantly clear his mind, that he actually became self-involved? He got in bed to think to himself a little. If only he helped Elliot out of that car. Logan should have been stronger, he should have been the hero. Regret filled his body. Bed was not helping, so Logan made his way to the bathroom to wash his face. Looking up from the sink and to the mirror he paused and tripped over himself. That tall, dark figure again. No, it couldn’t be. He opened the mirror cabinet and closed it again—the figure was gone.
Stop imagining things, he is not there.
A few days later, it was time to take Joseph to the hospital. Joseph, more of a mess than Logan if that was even possible, begged and begged his brother to let him stay. He said he was okay, that he would stop talking to his dead brother, that he was joking the whole time. Still, Logan could not let it go. Mostly because he knew everything Joseph said was currently a lie. He could not allow himself to believe what his brother wanted him to believe. Logan saw it with his own eyes. The two sandwiches, the video games, the having conversations with pure air. That figure. Joseph looked crazy, even if he pleaded that he was not.
Logan brought himself back to reality, a reality he wished was not his, as he and Joseph walked to the car, but then Joseph stopped. He was now desolate. He ignored Logan at every chance he got. He did not look like him self, Logan observed. That was not his fifteen-year-old bother. His star soccer team goalie. His best friend. That was a silhouette that just looked like his brother. But there was nothing concrete about the person standing in front of him. Logan paused and waited, thinking Joseph was going to speak. He didn’t. Joseph’s pleas would not work now though, and Logan knew Joseph would not fight him anymore. They were both so exhausted; the care of their parents had been around their daily clock for too long now.
Logan opened the door to get into the driver’s seat, his hand touching the cool metal of the door handle. He looked back at the house where his parents were, too weak to be able to bring their youngest son to a mental hospital. It would be too hard, they exclaimed to Logan, please do it for us. You are the strongest son we have.
Logan stopped suddenly at his brother’s voice, as if hearing Joseph finally speak to him was a miracle.
“One day,” Joseph started, as he opened his own door and got in swiftly, “one day, you will see what I see. But for now, I understand why you are doing this. I love you, too.” Logan stood speechless, frozen in his own skin, not moving for fear that he would cry. I already do see, Logan thought to himself. Finally, Logan collected himself to get into the car and started the engine. He could not be in a silent car with his little brother, taking him somewhere that may make or break him. So, Logan did the one thing his body let him do, urged him to do: he turned the radio on to the soccer station.
Joseph looked out the passenger window, but Logan could see his brother’s smile through the reflection, listening to his favorite radio station. Joseph was broken now, but with that smile, Logan could not help but feel like he was going to be okay. His little brother was going to be okay.
The drive was a short, twenty-five minutes from their dark, depressing, once-a-lovely-house home. They did not talk much as they got closer, and arrived right when the doctor wanted them to. The two brothers sat together in silence in the parking lot of the hospital.
“In a few months, Joey, you will be you. We will be a family again.” Logan hugged his brother and could feel his quiet sobs as he collapsed into his shoulder. After their embrace, the boys collected themselves, and walked to the building.
Walking into this building was surreal. What was Logan going to do when he left his brother in this place? Surrounded by white walls, doctors in pale green scrubs, and children walking around who were clearly in far worse conditions than Joseph. He was going to have to deal with two parents who were not functioning, all alone, no help. Max and Krissy had to get their lives straightened out and Logan had to enforce this. He would dump every last bit of alcohol down the drain. He would hide every childhood video he could find. Logan wanted to go to college. Logan wanted to play soccer. He still deserved a chance to be a kid. He knew when he went home, things were going to change. He would make it happen. If not for himself, for Joseph when he returns home. Joseph deserved to come home in a few months to a functioning group of adults.
Coming back from his thoughts, he walked out of the hospital. Joseph was all checked in and Logan would come back the following week to visit and see if his little brother was recuperating. The hospital doors slid open automatically and the cool air hit Logan like a soccer ball coming straight at his chest. He breathed deep and kept telling himself he was doing the right thing. He was.
Pausing for a minute, Logan turned around. He stared back at the doors he just exited. Immediately, he looked down for a minute, and then mustered the courage to look up. He sighed, his shoulders raising and then slowly lowering. There he was. Elliot. Standing at the entrance of the ward in his old soccer uniform, smiling and waving at Logan.
Logan nodded back and whispered a promise more to himself than to Elliot, “We’ll get through this. Joseph will get through this.”