Authors: Jennifer Brown
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Family, #Siblings, #Social Themes, #Adolescence, #Depression & Mental Illness, #Social Issues, #General, #Juvenile Fiction / Family - Siblings, #Juvenile Fiction / Juvenile Fiction - Social Issues - Adolescence, #Juvenile Fiction / Social Issues - Depression & Mental Illness
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I was six the first time we found Grayson at the quarry. Dad and I had just gotten back from my peewee soccer game, and Mom had met us at the front door, car keys dangling from one hand.
“We won!” I crowed, hopping past her. “And Ashley’s mom brought fish crackers!”
But Mom didn’t answer. Instead, she muttered something to Dad, whose eyebrows knit together. He turned and peered out the front door into the rapidly approaching night, then stepped outside, cupped his mouth with his hands, and started yelling my brother’s name—“Grayson! Graaayson!”—while Mom shrugged into her coat, not even acknowledging that I had gone on to tell her all about the goal I’d scored and the goalie with the freckles who’d gotten a bloody nose when Imogene Sparks accidentally fell on top of her.
Nobody told me what was going on. All I knew was our next-door neighbor Tammy came over and fixed me a cheese sandwich for dinner. We played checkers over and over, and she stroked my braids out with her fingers and didn’t make me take a bath so I could go to school with braid-waves the next day.
“Where did Mom and Dad go, anyway?” I asked. “King me.”
She shrugged. “To get Grayson. Your move.”
“Where is he?” I jumped one of her checkers and picked it up, tucking it into the lap bowl created by my nightgown.
Tammy hesitated the tiniest bit. Her eyes flicked toward the front door, and for a second I thought I might have seen the same worried crease between her eyebrows that I’d seen between Dad’s. But she smiled and slid her checker across the board. “They didn’t say,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll be back soon. Your turn.”
It wasn’t until the next morning when Mom was brushing my hair for school—using the smoothing brush, which destroyed my waves—that I asked again.
. Mom, where did you guys go last night?
Unlike Tammy, Mom didn’t hesitate one bit—just kept pulling the brush through my hair, all business. “Newman Quarry,” she said, as if this were something they did every evening. “The place off the highway, with all the rocks.” She pulled particularly hard on a knot at the base of my neck, and I sucked my breath in through my teeth. Staticky strands of my hair were floating outward, following the
brush; the whole thing was a fuzz-mess. “I really wish Tammy’d given you a bath last night,” she muttered. “You’re frizzed.”
I frowned. “Why did you go there?” I asked.
She set the brush on the counter, wet her hands in the sink, and smoothed them over my hair, meeting my eyes in the mirror. She sighed, then moved her palms down to my shoulders and patted them lightly. “Your brother is having some difficulties, Kendra. Go get your backpack now. The bus will be coming.”
I left the room, my scalp feeling heat-pricked and pulsating, wondering what Mom had meant by “having difficulties” and what that had to do with my parents’ going to Newman Quarry the night before in the dark.
But that was eleven years ago. Grayson had been to the quarry hundreds of times since then. Sometimes several times a day, walking three miles down the highway in that precise way of his, muttering under his breath, his fingers hooked like claws while he calculated whatever it was he was calculating.
And we’d all had to go fetch him at one time or another. Stand at the top of the pit and call his name out, knowing he wouldn’t answer. Stumble down the rock beds, trying not to lose our footing, trying not to get too many pebbles in our shoes, trying not to get angry. Still calling his name, stupidly. “Grayson! Come on! Mom and Dad are going to be mad if you miss therapy again. Grayson! Graaayson! I know you hear me!”
And we’d all had to try to make him leave the quarry before he was “finished.” Which always meant tears for someone. Usually everyone.
I’d been to the bottom of that quarry hundreds of times, starting when I was seven and my parents began sending me over the fence to fetch him, always framing it as “an adventure.”
But it didn’t feel like an adventure. It felt like a chore. He never wanted to leave. I’d end up doing just about anything to get him out of there. Push him. Pull him. Yell at him. Make promises to him.
I’m not finished, Kendra. I have to count them.
But you have therapy. And there are billions. Come on, just go with me, okay, Gray?
No! I can’t! Uh-uh-uh!
Okay, Grayson, okay, okay. Here. I’ll help you. I’ll count the ones in this pile, okay? Don’t cry. We’ll count them together….
We all knew what Grayson’s “difficulties” were. Grayson’s difficulties dominated his life. And Mom’s and Dad’s.
Sometimes, like when Zoe left, it felt like
Nobody warned me he’d be coming home today.
I got home from school, dropped my backpack on the floor, and read a text from Shani as I walked into the kitchen.
Then screamed when I bumped face-first into a bony chest. Before my brain could catch up with my reflexes, my phone-wielding hand reached out and punched at the chest with a hollow thump.
“Ouch! Nice to see you, too.” My brother, whom I hadn’t seen in months, was rubbing the spot where I’d just hit him. He was impossibly skinny, his hair greasy and flopping in his extremely pale face. He always looked like this when he got home from treatment. Probably I should’ve been used to it, but it’s hard to get accustomed to living with someone who looks like an extra in a zombie movie.
“You scared the crap out of me, Grayson. Jeez!”
“I gathered that much when you hit me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, pushing past him and heading for the refrigerator, my breath still coming in quick bursts. “Automatic reaction when I think I’m going to be murdered in my kitchen. It is good to see you. I just…” The phone vibrated in my hand, and I glanced at it. Another text from Shani. Major boyfriend issues. “I didn’t know you were getting released today. Where’s Mom?” I grabbed a slice of cheese out of the refrigerator and unwrapped it, closing the fridge door with my hip, my heartbeat beginning to slow.
“Neither did I. They told me this morning. And the store. She’ll be right back.”
I tossed the cellophane into the trash, thinking it would have been nice to have gotten some warning, and began folding the cheese slice into little squares, peeling the top square off and shoving it into my mouth. Grayson stood awkwardly in the doorway, staring intently at my hands, his lips moving.
I knew what he was thinking. With Grayson, everything had to be so perfectly lined up. Even if it wasn’t his. He was bothered by how I was folding that cheese slice into uneven squares, and I knew by looking at him that he wanted to take a ruler to it before I ate it. I chewed self-consciously, wishing he would stop looking at me like that. Didn’t Mom send him to these treatment places to make him stop looking at people like that? “So why the sudden release? Are you better?” I asked, pulling out a chair and
sitting. “I mean, is the OCD, you know…?” I trailed off. I didn’t know how to finish the question.
I opened Shani’s text, pretending that seeing Grayson back in our kitchen was no big deal and that this was a question people asked each other all the time. Pretending he hadn’t been in that resident facility Mom had found—the one that was supposed to cure him of his obsessive-compulsive disorder, his depression, the billion anxiety disorders he had, and God knows what else.
Pretending that things hadn’t been weird between us ever since his quirks had slowly evolved into full-blown mental illness. Pretending that I could once again overlook his rituals and worries as I had done when we were kids. I wished I could. But the older we got—the worse he got—the harder it was to pretend that he was normal, like the rest of us. People noticed. I noticed. It was impossible not to notice.
How do you not notice someone’s mental illness when the whole family constantly revolves around it?
“Yeah, I think so. I guess. Whatever” was his answer. He was probably thinking the same thing I was thinking:
What exactly is better?
“That’s good,” I said, and I really meant it, though I wasn’t sure if I meant that it was good for him or good for me. Probably a little of both.
There was an awkward silence between us, during which he shifted from foot to foot, mumbling numbers under his breath and knocking the wood frame of the door softly
with one knuckle while I stared intently at my phone, as though Shani had written me an engrossing novel.
This was the way it’d been for the past three years.
We couldn’t move. We were both trapped by whatever ritual he was struggling with at the moment. Prisoners of the great Obsessive-Compulsive Oppressor.
Who was I kidding? This was the way it’d been for our whole lives.
This is what it’s like living with a mentally ill person: everyone afraid to move. Everyone afraid to speak. You don’t say certain words like
, and you do everything in your power to keep the good milliseconds lasting as long as they possibly can. And you don’t rush into anything at all, because rushing feels like courting disaster, and you don’t even know what that disaster is, because it’s never the same disaster twice. A ruined birthday? A scene at a restaurant? Police cars in the driveway in the middle of the night? All of the above?
And you don’t ask for attention.
And you get used to it when you don’t get any.
And you try really, really hard to forget that not getting attention hurts and that this person—this muttering, shadow-eyed, scabbed patient—was once your hero and best friend in the world. Back when he was just a “weird kid.”
And you try to remember that you still love him, even if some days you can’t exactly pinpoint why.
After what seemed like forever, he finally moved out of
the doorway, and I could hear his steps, slow and rhythmic, on the floorboards leading to his bedroom. He made it in one try, which meant he must have been feeling better.
Before Mom sent him out to Camp Cure Me, or whatever this one was called, it could sometimes take him two hours to walk from the kitchen to his bedroom, his cries of frustration piercing the hallway. Mom’s voice trying to soothe whatever broken part of him told him he couldn’t put his foot down until he’d counted every grain in the wood beneath it. Her sobs creeping through the bedroom walls at night. That feeling of fullness behind my eyes all the damn time. And the feeling of resentment that I tried to stuff away because when someone can’t even walk through his home normally, resenting him somehow feels mean. Not to mention pointless. Resenting Grayson wasn’t going to cure him.