Many years ago, when I was twelve and my brother seven, I developed tonsillitis and told no one. It was my third time having it, so I knew the symptoms: the sore throat, the swelling, the painful fever. I also remembered the doctor’s words, that a third infection would mean it was time to remove the tonsils entirely. I had seen a classmate return from that surgery, and she had lost her voice for nearly a week, gesturing to her throat and making pained expressions whenever the teacher called her name. I simply could not risk such a period of silence. I was not just my own voice but my brother’s.
He was what we now call a stutterer, though back then my parents called him something worse. I don’t know how it felt to be him, but when he opened his mouth to speak, I pictured a heavy rain, a tumid ocean—I pictured too much of something, and the wrackful nature of too much. The week of my fever, the question in the house was whether my brother would be taken from school and sent to a special place for challenging children. There was a visit scheduled for him there that weekend. I knew the place. It was a square, brick, windowless building at the end of a cul-de-sac, as impenetrable as a mood.
That Saturday, I woke to the sound of shouting from the living room. In the bathroom, I took my temperature: one hundred and four degrees. I rinsed the sweat from my face and hair with water from the tap, and then I descended the stairs quickly, fever-drunk, clutching the railing. My brother was standing on the sofa, which he did when he was defending himself. My parents stood on either end. My father worked as a bridge operator on the Casco Bay Bridge, and that’s how he saw himself: as a man who had to watch from the middle as a lot of people moved from one side of the water to the other. Yes, he was violent. My mother was a heavy drinker who had come from the kind of poverty you see in films, and I’m not sure she had known a happy day in her life.
“If you don’t want to go,” my father was saying, “all you have to do is say it.”
My brother opened his mouth, and I could almost see the words piling up at the back of his throat, as swollen as my tonsils. “I—,” he began.
“No,” my mother told him. “Say it clean. If you don’t want to go, you have to say it clean.”
“He doesn’t want to go,” I said, my throat burning.
My brother leapt over the back of the couch and positioned himself behind me. He was wearing his pajamas, which had once been mine—jungle animals, their colors faded. My mother held the clothes he was meant to change into: corduroy pants, a white collared shirt.
“Are you gonna teach him?” my father asked. “Be responsible for him? Because we’re done with it.”
“And so are his teachers,” my mother added.
“He’s smart,” I said, which was true. His outbursts came from the way he was treated. I wished my parents could remember being young, how many questions about the world you have forming inside you. Then, maybe, they could imagine what it would be like if every time you tried to voice those questions, it cost you something.
“Move, Benny,” my father said to me, his tone a dark promise.
“No,” I answered, but my eyes had started to play tricks on me. The white shirt in my mother’s hand had turned purple. The whole world was made of little purple squares.
Seeing my face, my mother said, “What’s wrong with you?” at the same time that my father grabbed my arm, hard, pulling me away.
I tried to say something cruel, something that would further tug the chain of my father’s anger. But the words didn’t come out right; there was a thick, wet quality to them, like walking through mud. I’m dying, I thought as my vision tunneled to black, and I also remember thinking that it isn’t possible to say a word clean, any more than it’s possible to bleed clean.
Before I lost consciousness, I heard my brother trying to shout my name. And a kind of relief washed over me, not because I’d saved him—I hadn’t—but because I realized that whether he went to that brick, windowless place or stayed in our regular school was not the question that would govern the rest of his life or mine.
When I returned from the hospital, two tonsils lighter, I had realized something else: I did not want to die.
For as long as I could remember I had been trying to protect my brother from my parents. But the darkness of those two sad people had filled the house like oxygen, and how could you protect someone from the air they breathe? We’d been holding our breath, starving ourselves, the slow death of survival. But there was no use in it. We had to live. My brother must have sensed it, too, because from that day forward we opened our lungs and gulped greedily, letting that bad air in.
Sure enough, it polluted us. It filled us like a fever, and we had some dark days ahead—ugly days, even worse than I imagined. But at least now we knew the question: either that fever would kill us—one after the other—or maybe some day, if we were lucky, it would break.