Jace just never gets along with Troy, does he? His little brother wets the bed, doesn't know how to play games properly, and just gets in the way in general. It takes a fight, some tears, and Jace's cousin Spencer to mend the wounds between the two. Jace needs to learn how to apologize—and what it means to be a brother.
Written by Enoch Leung
This story is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Original story is available at Wattpad.com.
The sheets felt nice, cozy, and warm. The pillow was of the right softness, and for once the blanket was still on the bed instead of being strewn all over the floor. Sunlight was starting to enter the bedroom, but the lowered blinds kept the room comfortably dark. And the room was all but quiet, with only the passive sound of the occupant's steady, calm breathing.
Except for the noisy rustling of sheets and blankets.
Jace rolled over in his bed, rubbing his eyes, trying to get that cloudy mist out of his vision so he could see properly. His mother was in the room, changing the blankets and the bedsheets of his little brother's bed on the other side of the room. Jace was nine—a big kid now. He was old enough to have his own room. And yet he still had to share his room with someone else.
"Mom?" he said. It was a Saturday and he wasn't getting out of bed early for anything, so his voice came out as a low-pitched mumble. "Did he do it again?"
She didn't respond immediately. She unfolded a clean fitted sheet and started placing it around the mattress. "Troy's only four, Jace," she replied. "You need to understand."
Jace just rolled his eyes, although his eyelids were barely slits and his mother had her back turned to him, so no one saw it anyways. He rolled over again, facing the wall, and closed his eyes once more.
His hair looked like a tornado had whirled through it; he clearly was not well versed in combing. He was still in his pajamas, barefoot and half-asleep. The stairs creaked noisily as he put his weight on every step, almost thumping down onto the wood with his heel. The curtains in the dining room were drawn, the windows ajar. The June sun and air filled the dining room, almost making it part of the outdoors. Seated at the dining table were Jace's younger brother and sister: Troy and Kristal. They were sitting next to each other, eating from their cereal bowls. Well, Kristal was. Troy was busy building islands and sailing boats made of Cheerios in the milk, and he would never start eating until his mother told him to, or until he felt hungry enough to dig in on his own. In the high chair was Tessa, their two year old toddler. Mom was busy trying to feed her, but she found more excitement in making a mess all over her face instead.
"Who's going to feed Goldie?" Kristal was saying, referring to their pet goldfish.
"I will!" Troy said excitedly, dropping his spoon.
"No you won't," Kristal replied. "You're not tall enough to reach the top of the aquarium!"
"How about you do it, sweetie?" their mother suggested. "Just be careful not to dump all of the fish food into the tank at once."
"I'll do it once I'm finished breakfast," Kristal declared. She was older than Troy but younger than Jace, and yet mom and dad seemed to find her "more responsible" than their eldest child. Such a nerd, too! She was like Mom 2.0 in the making.
Jace walked over to the island where his breakfast was waiting: a bowl of cereal, identical to the ones his two younger siblings were eating, soggy and mushy from being left in the milk for too long. He shrugged. I can pour my own cereal. Don't need mom to do it for me. But his mother could see him from the corner of her hawk-like eyes, and so he obediently picked up the bowl and carried it to his usual spot at the table. One bite. Actually, it hardly required a bite; it was so soft he could just swallow it without chewing. Like baby food. Ick.
"Kids, Aunt Florence and her kids will be coming over to visit later this afternoon. I need you all to be on your best behaviour, okay? Be nice to her; she hasn't seen you since moving back from California. Same with your cousins."
"Okay mom!" Kristal said enthusiastically.
"We'll be on our best behaviour, mom!" Troy cried out. He had finally stopped playing with his Cheerios and had begun slurping them up one by one from his spoon after a prolonged "spa bath" in the milk. He was always the last one to finish eating, and he usually had too much fun with his food to even care.
"Whatever," came his tight-lipped response. End of discussion. Well, at least that one. After listening to his younger siblings converse with each other for a few minutes, Jace interrupted with a "Did you wet the bed this morning?"
Troy was silent.
"Guess that means you did, huh?" He snorted. "What a baby!"
"That's none of your business, Jace!" Kristal shot back.
"Yes it is," he insisted. "He sleeps in my room so that's my business!"
"That's not your room!" Troy shouted. "That's our room!"
"Babies can't have their own rooms!" Jace got up. "Babies wet their beds. Like you!"
"That's enough!" Now Kristal was on her feet. "Leave him alone!"
"Baby!!" Jace jeered. "Baby!!!" He started circling the table to where his brother sat. Kristal tried to block him, but Jace, being the bigger, older, and stronger brother, intimidated everyone at the table. Failing a physical intervention, Kristal tried to use her words: "Mom! Get him to stop!"
"Jace!" she hissed. She was still dealing with young Tessa, wiping up after her messy morning meal. "Sit down and stop tormenting your siblings!"
"Baby!!" he sneered, ignoring everybody. "You sick baby!! You sick, disgusting, bed-wetting baby!!!"
"Leave me alone!!!" Troy wailed. The tears were already coming out of him.
"Stop it!!" Kristal shouted.
"Baby!" Jace said, ruffling his brother's hair roughly. He was enjoying this; Troy was not. "Baby! Baby! Baby! Oooooh!"
"Bay-bee!" Tessa shrieked with glee, banging on her bowl with her spoon. "Bay-bee! Bay-bee!"
"Stop it Tessa!" Kristal snapped. To Jace: "Enough is enough! Mom's right here and she'll punish you if you don't stop!"
"Baby!!" Jace kept right at it. "Baby!!!!"
The room was silent, save for the clock's steady ticking. One tick, one second. Sixty seconds, one minute. Sixty minutes...
Tick, tock, tick, tock.
The stool was tall, tough, and uncomfortable. There was no backrest, and it wasn't anywhere near the wall, so Jace had to sit up straight the whole time. He would've gotten out of that stupid chair if his dad wouldn't beat the living daylights out of him if he got caught. There was nothing to do except to look around the boring study that he sat in right now. Apparently this was his grandfather's study. The shelves were filled with books, all of them with plain-coloured, ugly covers. The desk was made of mahogany, clearly exposed and visible with all of its contents neatly tucked away into a tidy pile. There was a fountain pen on the desk, probably older than everyone in the family, which Jace and his siblings were forbidden to touch. A non-functional grandfather clock stood near the unlit fireplace, which had never seen a fire since his father was born. Such an old, old, boring room. No computers. No TV. Not even an exercise book that wasn't printed thirty years ago. The only piece of seemingly modern technology was a quartz clock on the wall, the source of that ticking noise.
Tick, tock, tick, tock.
Jace heard the sliding door to the backyard opening. The sounds of his siblings playing outside flowed through the open door, cut off abruptly when it was snapped shut. Footsteps, not necessarily fuming mad, but also not the pleasant kind either. Then his dad, a middle-aged man with hair that was starting to bald and skin that was starting to wrinkle, entered the study in earnest. He looked old for his age. And stern. Very stern.
Jace didn't look at him as he marched into the room. He retrieved the leather rolling chair behind the desk and wheeled it over to the stool where his son was sitting. He sat down very, very slowly, not leaning against the backrest, but leaning forward towards the boy. For several minutes, not a word was spoken. The clock continued to count away the minutes of the day. The minutes Jace was losing from his Saturday.
Tick, tock, tick, tock.
"Jace," his father said. His voice felt foreign and unnatural compared to the quaint ambience of the room. "Do you know why you are here?"
Jace didn't respond. His eyes were fixated on a spot on the floor: a dark, blackish spot on the wooden floor that looked almost like a stain. The little lines between the floorboards looked like roads, and the little dark spot was like a black hole, sucking up any cars that drove too close to it. Jace wondered what it was like to be inside a black hole. Were you safe, snug, and warm inside one or was it a fiery hell where death would come quickly?
"Jace," his father repeated. "Answer me."
No answer. No answer except for the silence that was already present in the room. Let the clock do the talking. Er, ticking. Tick, tock, tick—
"Jace," his father said, his voice beginning to rise. "Troy and Kristal told me that you were calling him a 'baby' today at breakfast. Is that what happened?"
Jace remained silent.
"If you say 'No', I know you're lying. Your mother was there and she backed your siblings up." He leaned in close. "Don't you ever lie to me about what happened. Understood?"
I didn't lie, Jace said in his mind. I didn't even say anything!
Dad brought the chair around so he could sit in front of Jace. The view of the little black hole on the ground was blocked. Jace turned his head to look at the floor on the other side of his father's body. Little lines, wooden floor. No black hole this time, but the wood had its own interestingly mesmerizing patterns to look at.
"Jace!" his father wasn't yelling at him yet, but he was getting there. "Answer this question: Who is Troy?"
Jace swallowed, but nothing came up and out of his throat.
"Troy is your brother," dad said, answering his own question. "Now you tell me: Should you be picking on your brother like that?"
"He wet the bed..." Jace began.
"That's not an excuse," he said sternly. He was all serious today; not the tiniest amount of him right now was amused. "You wet the bed before when you were younger, remember? Your brother's going through the same thing. Mom and dad didn't call you a 'baby' when you wet the bed as a tot. What makes you think you can do it to your brother?"
Silence. Well, except for the ticking of the clock, which hardly marked the cadence of his father's talking.
"Jace, look at me." When his son did not respond, he snapped: "Jace! Look at me and listen to me!"
Now his anger was talking. Jace reluctantly looked up. His father's eyes were practically burning holes into him. "Jace, Troy is your brother."
"He's a baby," Jace said, his voice barely above an audible whisper.
That's when his father slapped him. He heard the sound, and two seconds later felt the impact. His cheeks burned. "If you keep this up, you'll be grounded next week," he warned. "When Aunt Florence and your cousins come over later today, I better not hear any name-calling from you. Especially not towards your brother. And when we ask you to do something, you better do it. Got it?"
Yeah, that was fine. Actually, the first part of it was. He was good friends with Spencer and Trevor, his two cousins. He certainly wouldn't have any problems with them. "Fine," he muttered tersely.
"I mean it," his father added. "I mean everything I say to you." He got out of the chair, parked it back behind the desk, and started to exit the room. "You may get up now," he said.
Without another word, Jace stiffly stood up, left the study, stormed up the stairs, entered his bedroom, and slammed the door. He retreated to his bed and lay there, staring at the popcorn ceiling above him.
"Hey Jace," Spencer said, greeting his cousin.
"You look kinda glum today," Trevor added.
"What? No, I'm alright." Jace had been chilling quietly on the swingset in their backyard. His siblings had been playing outside when Aunt Florence rang the doorbell. Now they were inside the house, being showered with the kisses and hugs that Jace never enjoyed receiving a moment of. Spencer took the swing to his right, while Trevor took the one on his left.
"So, um, how was California?" Jace asked, hoping to break the silence. He wasn't exactly in the mood for socializing today, but he didn't want to look bad in front of his cousins.
"Hot. And dry." Spencer pointed to some bright red splotches on his arms. "What you get for not putting sunscreen on."
"You should've seen us, Jace," Trevor piped in. "After school we were playing basketball in the schoolyard with a bunch of other boys. We weren't used to that kind of heat! We drank everything in our water bottles after like, ten minutes, and then we had to sit out because we were getting dizzy and nauseated. The heat there can be pretty brutal. Nothing like the summers up here."
"You guys have anything new for us to do around here?" Spencer asked. "Been a while since we came to your place. Still have that basketball net?"
Jace shook his head. "It broke. I hung on the rim and it snapped right off. Dad wouldn't buy another one."
"What about the pool table in your basement?" Trevor inquired. "Still have that?"
"Ha, nope. My little brother scratched and ruined the felt so badly we had to throw it out." He straightened up. "Speaking of my little brother: he wet the bed this morning."
"How old is he?" Trevor asked.
"Pretty typical for his age," Spencer said. "I mean, Trevor wet the bed when he was six. Just ask him."
"Hey, let's not talk about that!" his brother protested.
"You got anything?" Spencer seemed restless. "A board game? Something?"
Jace thought for a bit. "Clue?" he suggested.
"Been a while since we've played that." Trevor got up. "I'm in."
"Alright." Jace got up and started walking back towards the house.
"Jace!" mom's voice called out.
"What?" he replied in an annoyed voice.
"Troy's bored. Let him play with you guys."
Oh no he won't. "Go play with the girls!" Jace called out.
"But I don't want to play with them!" Troy's shrill voice responded. "You always tell me to play with them! I don't want to have my nails done!"
"Jace!" mom said. Oh great; now she was backing him up! "Be nice to your brother, alright? Be a good role model for him."
No, I don't want him to play! Jace thought. He doesn't even know how to play the game, and he'll just chew on all the—
"Maybe there's another game here we can play that a four-year-old will understand," Spencer suggested. He scanned the shelves. "Hey, Snakes and Ladders! That's easy enough for him to learn!"
"Sounds good to me," Trevor said. The door to the basement opened, and Jace could hear his little brother coming down the stairs. "Hey Troy," Trevor called out to him, "you wanna play Snakes and Ladders?"
"I don't know how to play!" came the response.
"That's okay; we'll teach you!"
Jace's heart wilted. He was not having any of this! He mostly sat out and watched as his two cousins taught his little brother how to play the game, helping him to roll the dice and move his pieces forward. Whenever someone went up the ladder Trevor made a climbing noise. Whenever someone went down a snake Spencer would go "Swish!". And when Troy won the game—by some obscure stroke of luck—he paraded around the basement shrieking "I won! I won! Mom, I won!!"
You guys are cheesy as heck!
"Hey Jace," Spencer said, seeing his cousin being left out. "Wanna join us?"
"No, I'm fine." He reclined on the couch, completely disinterested in what was going on. "You guys can play on without me."
"Hey c'mon, it's not that bad." Troy was sitting on Trevor's lap, something Jace would never allow done on him. Trevor was helping him roll the dice and move the pieces, but Troy insisted that he do it himself. "Your little brother's kinda cute. Spencer said that of me when I was a bit younger. Right?"
"Right," his older brother agreed. "Even when you annoyed me."
Troy pushed his piece up the ladder. "Your turn!" he said, pointing to Spencer.
It wasn't potluck, but Aunt Florence had brought some party platters in two white plastic bags. Now they were being unpacked and readied for the evening meal. All the adults were in the kitchen, preparing the food and setting the table.
"Oh, I almost forgot to ask," Aunt Florence said. "You guys had an older son. How old is he... eight? How's he doing?"
"He's nine. And a bit on the rough side," dad responded.
"'Rough' side? Tell me about it."
Dad transferred the cooked pasta into the colander and drained out the water. "Guess he's just going through a phase in childhood. Constantly antisocial and apathetic sometimes."
"You don't sound very thrilled about him," Aunt Florence said.
"Who could honestly be excited around him? Last week he threw a basketball into a kid's face and spent his recesses in the principal's office for a few days. This morning he was calling Troy a baby for wetting the bed. And I certainly heard the bouts of verbal fireworks today as he didn't want his little brother anywhere near him."
"Boris," Aunt Florence said soothingly. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "You just gotta learn to be patient. Spencer and Trevor used to hate each other, and they still fight pretty often these days. It takes kids time to learn how to interact with others. Especially with their siblings."
Dad was silent for a few minutes. He scooped the pasta neatly into eight plates—plus a small plastic bowl for Tessa—before placing the rest into a large serving bowl. "I'm just tired of dealing with his mischief sometimes," he said quietly.
"It's not easy raising kids," Aunt Florence agreed. "After Herb died I was left to raise my two boys all alone. When they fought with each other, it felt like the walls around me were closing in. I thought the world was going to end."
They began to carry the plates to the dining table. Mom had already set the places, so all that was needed was the food. "How did your boys become so close and comfortable with each other, then?" he asked.
"Sometimes, it takes a really, really bad event to happen." She looked at mom. "I'm surprised Roxanne didn't tell you anything about what happened between us when we were kids. One day, something similar happened to my boys..."
As this was going on, the kids were outside, soaking up the final hours of evening sunlight. Kristal was helping Tessa build a sandcastle in the little sandbox near the swings, patiently showing and teaching her how to use the bucket and the shovel, scolding her whenever she stuffed handfuls of sand into her mouth. On the driveway, the three boys were idly passing a basketball around, trying to kill the remaining few minutes they had before they were called in to eat.
"It kinda sucks that we don't have a net," Spencer said glumly. He passed the ball to Jace. "Did you try to fix it?"
"What do you think the first thing I tried to do was?" Jace responded, catching the ball. He passed it to Trevor next. "Glue didn't work. Duct tape? It kinda worked, at least until after a couple of shots."
Trevor caught it. "You know, we should get a net," he said to Spencer. "We could just hang it over the garage door and play there instead of going to the park."
"Yeah," Spencer agreed. "And then we could have you over instead of us coming to your place."
"Not a bad idea. What's your new house like?" Jace asked.
"Small," Spencer said tight-lipped. "Me and Trevor have to share a bedroom again."
"The basement's pretty decent though," Trevor added. "We set up a soccer net and you can actually play down there. It's pretty spacious, at least until mom decides to finish the basement."
Troy bounded over. He had been in the sandbox with his sisters, but had now gotten bored with sandcastle building and wanted to do something else. "Can I play with you guys?" he asked.
"No," Jace said quickly. His two cousins gave him a funny look.
"Why not?" Troy inquired. "Spencer and Trevor let me play with them. Why won't you let me play with you?"
"I'm not playing with you. 'Nuff said."
"Hey Jace, let him play, alright?" Trevor was still holding onto the ball. "He's just a little kid. Go easy on him. Just so long as he's having fun—"
"Where's the net?" Troy asked.
"We don't have one," Spencer responded. "We're just passing the ball around."
"Here, I'll pass it to you. Get ready!" Trevor bent down so he was closer to Troy's height and gently passed the ball towards Troy's direction. Before the boy could catch it, however, Jace rushed forward and snatched the ball. "Leave us alone, Troy," Jace said. "Go play with Kristal or something."
"I already did!" Troy protested.
"Then go inside and help mom and dad!"
Spencer and Trevor opened their mouths to speak, but they quickly realized that no amount of reasoning with Jace would get him to change his mind about not letting his little brother play with them. The two had spiralled into a flurry of verbal artillery, launching volatile shells at each other. Troy stood on his toes and tried to get his hands on the ball. "Let me play, Jace!" he whined. "You never let me play! Just give me a chance!"
"You can't even shoot properly!" Jace fired back. He was bigger and taller than Troy, so getting the ball away from him was no trouble. Troy clawed frustratedly at his older brother's legs. "I don't want you here! Go away and leave me alone!!"
"You never play with me, Jace!!!"
"That's because I don't want to play with you!!!"
"This isn't fair!! You never let me play with you at all, even when mom and dad tell you too!!" Tears were coming out of Troy's eyes like a monsoon. "I hate you, Jace!!"
"I hate you too!!!"
"I wish you were never my brother!!"
"I wish you weren't my brother too!!!"
"I WISH YOU HADN'T BEEN BORN!!!" Troy spat.
"I WISH YOU WERE DEAD!!!"
Spencer and Trevor had no time to react. Jace reached out and shoved his brother roughly to the ground. As he fell, Troy's head banged roughly against the bumper of Aunt Florence's parked car in the driveway, and he hit the asphalt with a dull thud. First, shock completely paralyzed him. He was unable to comprehend what was going on. Then the pain came, slowly increasing in strength and capacity. He scrunched up his face and began to cry: a loud, shrill wail that all the neighbours could hear. It was unsettling and distressful. And as it went on, the calm, peaceful atmosphere of the June evening quickly evapourated.
Spencer was the first to recover. "Go get the adults!" he instructed his brother. Nobody had to go anywhere, though; the three adults could hear the crying and rushed outside immediately to investigate. "Troy! Troy!" they cried out when they saw the young boy lying wounded on the driveway. "What on earth happened?"
Kristal and Tessa were next. They came running around from the backyard when they heard Troy's distress calls. "Is Troy alright? Is he okay? What happened?"
Mom knelt down to tend to her son. "Troy! Troy... sweetie, don't cry. What happened? Did you fall?"
"Bo! Rox!" Their neighbour from a few houses down came running down the street. "I hear a child crying! What happened?"
"Trevin!" dad said, breathing a small sigh of relief. "So glad you're here. We need your first aid skills handy!"
"Something about Troy? What happened to him?"
"He fell back and hit his head on the bumper of the car!" Spencer exclaimed.
"I'll have a look." The little crowd parted ways to grant him access to his young patient. "Don't be scared, Troy; it's just Trevin here. I just need to take a look at what happened, okay?"
"I'll go in and grab the first aid kit," Aunt Florence offered.
Dad took Spencer and Trevor aside. "Can you tell me what exactly happened here?" he asked them.
"Jace wasn't letting Troy play, so the two started arguing and saying how they hated each other, and then Jace pushed him and he hit the car!" Trevor spluttered.
Dad's face darkened. Spencer and Trevor knew where this was leading up to, and they felt afraid, even though it wasn't their fault. "I need to speak with Jace," dad said, straightening up. He looked around. "Where's Jace?"
Pit pat pit pat pit pat pit pat.
He looked around, but did not stop running, checking to see if anyone was following him. He didn't see anybody, and the footsteps he heard were in sync with the movement of his feet.
Pit pat pit pat pit pat pit pat.
Houses. More houses. Parked cars. Streets. On and on, Jace kept pushing forward, running along the sidewalk, trying to get away from it all. The evening sun was beginning to dip below the horizon, and the world around him was starting to give way into night. Most of the houses on the street had their lights turned on. The dimly lit street lamps cast faint haloes here and there, barely lighting up his face as he passed them.
Pit pat pit pat pit pat pit pat.
He was starting to feel tired. He had gone a long ways from his house now. Hopefully they wouldn't find him here. As soon as the commotion picked up and all the attention was directed at his little brother, Jace made a break for it. No one saw him. No one noticed him. Troy's distressing cries of pain ensured he would get priority over the criminal. The one who was responsible for it all.
Pit pat pit pat pit pat pit pat.
At last, he could run no longer. Breathing heavily, he began to slow down. Ahead of him was a bridge over the river, which was surrounded on both sides by a green, undeveloped slope—not too steep but still noticeable—forming a break in the seemingly endless hodgepodge of houses. Humanity, mighty as it was, still kneeled before the river, which cut through the town man had built.
Jace walked over onto the bridge. When he got to the middle, he leaned wearily against the railing and looked out over the water. The river seemed calm today, passing by with relative tranquility and peacefulness that almost matched the summer atmosphere. Here he was far away enough from the incident, that rift in the universe; it was still unbroken here, that lovely June evening. He took in a deep breath, a breath of the evening air. The temperature was starting to drop, and he shivered in his shorts and T-shirt, but at the same time it felt kinda nice. Refreshing, almost, like a cold soda.
At the sound of his name, Jace turned around and fled towards the other side of the bridge. He scrambled over the guardrail, skidded down to the riverbank, and started to run alongside the current.
"Jace!! Jace, hold up!"
He started running even faster. He didn't want to see his dad. What was he going to do? Whip his butt to China, that's what. Come to think of it, he didn't want to see anybody at all. He needed some alone time. Badly.
The voice was no longer calling out to him. He couldn't hear the footsteps pursuing him anymore. He was tired, shaken, and hungry. He needed to stop and rest. And clear his thoughts. Jace retreated a little ways up the slope and sat down facing the river. He stared very intently at the water, watching how the ripples were bumping along, going casually around every rock that got in their way before carrying on. Jace wanted to be a droplet of water in that river. No worries, no problems, no hard decisions to make. Just flow along with your fellow drops and let the current take you for a ride...
"Hey... Hey Jace!"
Jace got up and started to run again.
"Jace! I'm not your dad!"
Jace stopped. That certainly didn't sound like his dad. That sounded like—
"Jace..." Spencer limped the final few metres between him and his cousin. He was panting, out of breath. "Jace... gosh, you run so fast!"
Jace looked down the riverbank. He couldn't see anybody else coming after him. "I don't wanna go back..." he said.
Spencer didn't reply. Jace sat back down on the slope of the riverbank again. After a few seconds, Spencer joined him. The two sat quietly together, not really moving or saying anything. They could hear a few birds in the tree above them. In the distance, another household was having a barbeque on their patio. The smell of meat being grilled. The sound of conversation and laughter. The ambience of the river never waned, always steady, always constant, showing no signs of yielding. The riverbank had no lights, so as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky the boys were bathed in darkness. Finally, when the knots inside his stomach began to unravel, Jace whispered, "I didn't mean to hurt him like that..."
"I'm sure you didn't," Spencer said.
More silence. Spencer could hear some faint sniffling, and he didn't have to ask to know what was going on. "You really can't get along with your younger brother, can you?" he asked softly. He could see the outline of Jace shaking his head.
"I know Trevor and I seem like old buddies, and we are. Weren't always like that, though. We used to be sworn enemies, always at each other's throats for every little thing."
"Like... laughing too loudly when playing a game. Intruding into one's territory at the dining table. Getting too close to one another on the couch. Even looking at each other 'incorrectly' was considered a declaration of war. I absolutely hated Trevor and wished that I was an only child again. He thought the same of me."
Jace remained silent, though he was listening. He hadn't been that rough on Troy, had he? He wasn't at least ticked off with Troy looking at him, although he hated it when Troy got anywhere near his personal space sometimes. "Did you guys... hit each other?"
"Always. Mostly a ton of slapping, shoving, and rough wrestling. One time it got really bad, though."
Spencer seemed uncomfortable. "One time we were fighting over the remote for the TV, and we were at each other's throats for it. During the frenzy, the remote flew out of our hands and hit the wall pretty hard, and broke. Now the fight became about whose fault it was, and in my rage I grabbed a chair and smacked my brother in the head with it."
Jace's jaw dropped. He had never heard this story before, even after all these years of knowing his cousins, and he would never have guessed that Spencer and Trevor could get this violent towards each other. He had always seen the two getting along for the most part. Well, better than him and his own brother, at least. "What... What happened next?" he whispered.
"Well, mom was home, and we argued so often that it seemed pretty normal around the house, but when Trevor started crying really loudly—like, about as loud as your brother just now—she came running down. He was bleeding, and that scared me. When he had recovered a little, he—in a final fit of rage—grabbed that chair and whipped it at my nose. Boy, was he strong. Broke my nose and gave me a ton of bruises."
"Jeez..." was all Jace could manage.
"I remember how we both wound up at the doctor's to get stitches. My mother made us both apologize to each other once we were done. I was completely horrified when I saw the stitches on my brother. I couldn't believe that I could actually hit someone that badly. And when my mom made us spill the beans, I felt really bad about it, because in the end we were fighting over a stupid remote control. A remote wasn't worth the both of us getting a trip to the doctor's." He shuffled uncomfortably. "When I saw the two of you going at it, I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen. I don't think you not wanting your brother to play with you was worth seeing your brother getting hit in the head."
Jace didn't respond. He was still trying to picture young Spencer and Trevor, sitting in the doctor's office, faces covered with stitches after their battle with each other. "Is... Is Troy okay...?" he asked, somewhat timidly.
"He seemed to be okay. Amazingly, he wasn't bleeding. You have to be thankful for that. But I didn't get to see what happened next because I ran after you."
"Is my dad looking for me?"
Spencer nodded. "Yeah... he is."
Jace buried his face into his hands. "I know he's going to cane me pretty hard for this one."
"That's the hardest part," Spencer agreed, "having to take your punishment like medicine. But that's not the most important bit."
"Then what is?"
"How do you think your brother feels?"
Jace didn't respond to that question.
"Mom made us apologize to each other; not just him to me, but me to him as well. It wasn't right of me to hit him, nor was it right for him to hit me. I was so ashamed of myself, I didn't want everyone else in the office to hear, so I just threw my arms around him and whispered 'I'm sorry' into his ear. He whispered those same words back to me. It was one of those rare times back then that we actually hugged and liked each other. My mom remembers the story better than I do, and she'll tell you more if you ask her. After that, though, we both learned that we had to learn how to get along with each other. You're going to get into disagreements, you're going to get into fights, you're going to get mad at each other. But that doesn't mean you can hit each other or anything like that. Sometimes you have to just calm down and use your head before you do something you'll regret doing later. And when you do calm down, you have to make that jump and apologize. A sincere apology can go a long way."
Jace swallowed nervously. "Do you and Trevor still fight sometimes?"
"Oh yeah," Spencer said, relaxing slightly. "We still argue and bicker all the time. Brothers just naturally do that, you know? But we don't hit each other like that, and we know when to apologize and how to solve our problems. We still box and wrestle with each other... but not in that sense. Mom knows when we're rolling around for fun or for vengeance." He picked up a rock and began to absentmindedly roll it around in his hands. "Though I go hard on my brother sometimes, I go ten times harder on anyone who dares to pick on him."
"People used to pick on Trevor because his ears were a bit big." Spencer was almost smiling now, though Jace couldn't see it in the darkness. "I used to pick on him for his ears too, but after that whole incident... Anyways, so there was a kid at recess who was pulling at his ears, calling him names and all that. I grabbed him by the neck, dragged him down to the ground, climbed on top of him, and punched him in the face. Gave him a massive nosebleed right there on the spot. As the teachers were dragging me away to the office, I yelled out, 'Nobody picks on my brother without facing me!'"
"What happened after that?" Jace asked.
"I was suspended for a few days, and mom yelled at me for it. But at the end of it all, she sat down with me and told me that even though she was mad that I had hit someone, she was proud that I was doing it to protect my little brother."
Jace was surprised. "She was proud of you for doing that?"
"Hey, at least I wasn't hitting my brother anymore. Sure, maybe punching the bully wasn't the best thing I could've done, but at least I showed him that I was there for my brother, and he'd have to face me if he wanted to mess with him. I look out for him, and he looks out for me."
"Even when you fight?"
"Yep. Fighting's not an excuse for not sticking up for each other." Spencer looked over at Jace, and although he couldn't see his face, he could tell that he was beginning to relax a little. "Ever heard the phrase 'I am my brother's keeper'?"
"No," Jace replied.
"Well, that's who I am." He put his hand on his cousin's shoulder, which he accepted. "Remember that you and your siblings are siblings for life. You might not always get along, but you may as well make the most out of it. I mean, your friends can leave you. They can move to another town and not come back. But your sibs can't do that. Better to be good friends with them."
The two were silent for several minutes. The sun had gone down, though the splotches of orange were still visible in the sky. The birds had all gone up into their nests and were quiet. The household having the barbeque had settled down, though the sounds of cutlery clinking could still be heard. The background noise of the river remained unchanged. But the feeling of dread inside Jace's stomach was beginning to build up once more. Soon he would have to go back. And that meant...
"I'll go with you," Spencer said, reading his thoughts. "C'mon."
The sheets felt nice, cozy, and warm. The pillow was of the right softness, and the blanket was still on the bed instead of being strewn all over the floor. The blinds were lowered, permitting only a faint amount of light from the night to enter the room. And the room was all but quiet, with only the passive sound of its occupants's steady, calm breathing.
Except for the sobbing. The quiet, solemn, but still audible sobbing.
Jace rolled over in his bed, rubbing his eyes, trying to get that cloudy mist out of his vision so he could see properly. The room was dark, but he knew where the sound was coming from. He reached up and turned the lamp on his nightstand on. His brother was curled up in his bed, sobbing into his blankets. Trevin had given him some ice, and after a few hours felt okay enough to have some dinner. At least he didn't need any stitches, Jace thought.
"Troy?" he whispered, his voice cracking slightly. Dad had warmed his backside with his grandfather's walking cane when he got home, but Spencer managed to talk him out of grounding him. Now, more than ever, he was grateful that he had a cousin that cared so much about him. "Can I tell you something?"
Troy looked over. His eyes were still red from crying.
Troy sniffled, but he didn't say anything in response to that.
"I'm sorry for calling you a baby this morning. I'm sorry for not letting you play with me. I'm sorry for pushing you into Aunt Florence's car."
Troy nodded his head very gingerly. "That's okay," he said simply.
"I really shouldn't have done any of that, Troy. That's not what brothers are supposed to do." He was about to turn the lamp off when one final thought came to his mind. "I'm your keeper, Troy."
Troy's puzzled look on his face was the last thing Jace saw before he turned the lamp off, once again bathing the room in darkness. Jace snuggled back down onto his pillow. The uncomfortable weight on his chest was gone; the feeling of guilt removed. "I'm your keeper," he murmured, "and I will always look out for you."