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By Lauren Lynn Matheny

My brother slept with his backpack on.

Every night, before he got in bed, he would follow my orders like a grunt at boot camp: pajamas on, teeth brushed, hair combed, face washed. I’d call him away from whatever he was reading (that year, it was always something about bugs; huge encyclopedic collections with pictures of larvae and proboscises and needle-tipped wasps). His little scrunched-up face would scowl all through the ministrations of the washcloth, his eyes would roll when I combed out his hair, but when it was truly time for bed, he smiled wide. There was no asking to check the closet, no looking under the bed, no begging for extra reading time: just the smile, the turn to the wall, so I couldn’t see much besides backpack and wild blond hair. It creeped me out, sometimes, if I’m being honest. That smile.

PAinting: Scarab by Karen Eve Friedland

“Scarab,” painting by Karen Eve Friedland

When he’d first started with the backpack thing, we’d gone through the whole rigmarole of protest-punishment: I told him no, he told me yes; I ripped it off his back, I came in the next morning to find him sleeping on his stomach, backpack firmly positioned between his shoulder blades. Finally, I just willed myself to stop caring. There was only so much you could enforce with your kid brother, after all. In the back of my head, I knew there was a point where the balance would tip, and he would realize how little control I actually had. If the backpack was the concession to keep from reaching that cliff’s edge, I was fine with it. I rationalized it by thinking about what I was obsessed with in fifth grade: I’d had a phase of dressing like a character from Little House on the Prairie, all pinafores and pigtails. I’d slept with the books in my bed for months. For Benji, it was checking out dozens of books on bugs from the library, and the backpack. Maybe kids will just always have their “thing,” backpack or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Everything else is fine, I’d whisper in my head, watching the tumor-like mass of canvas bulge up and down in the shadows of his nightlight. He eats his vegetables, he’d rather read than watch TV. He only knows like three curse words. He’ll be fine. Backpacks, I can handle. The bugs gave me the creeps, the way he always talked about the most extreme ones, the ones with venom-tipped spines and horror-show nests, but I figured that he was ten. Ten-year-old boys like strange things — I assumed. Better bugs than slasher films. Better grubs than girls.

My mom told me once that only the shittiest things, the least lucid patients, the most disgusting accidents, occurred at two a.m.

I mentioned it to my friends. Mom worked nights at the hospital and I was left for hours, alone, with Benji. It hadn’t made me nervous before; we’d had our routine in place for two years, at least, and we’d always done fine. It seemed odd, now, when Mom stayed home sick or something — like there was an invader in the hive, like our perfect symmetry had been messed up, tilted on its axis, a new side added where we hadn’t needed one before.

He’d only been doing the backpack thing for a few weeks, but I worried about it constantly, despite my rationalizations: that he was too old for this, that he’d be bullied as the “weird kid”; bullied more than he already was, I mean. That I was somehow screwing him up by letting it happen.

I didn’t reveal any of this to Jess, though. I kept it light, jokey, like painting our nails on her front porch was what made me think of the hilarious story in the first place. “My kid brother,” I began, swiping her bottle of Kick-Ass Crimson, “wears his backpack to sleep.”

Jess laughed in the right places. She had known Benji since he was born. We’d lived on the same street for ten years. “What a little freak,” she’d said, and added shit when a drop of Mango Tango dripped onto her foot.

“No kidding,” I agreed. Covertly, shading my eyes with my hands and looking out at the street, I continued, “Do you think it’s bad for him, though?”

“What, the backpack?” She licked her thumb and wiped at the polish. The orange smeared across her skin until it looked like she’d squashed a ladybug on her feet and tried to hide the evidence. “I don’t think so. I mean maybe his back’ll be screwed up, I guess. He’ll have to go to a . . .what’s the one with the back?”

“The chiropractor.” I stopped painting, the red leaching out into the cracked skin of my toes. I wished I’d picked a different color. “I don’t know. He sleeps on his stomach, anyway.”

“Kids are supposed to spend time on their stomachs, right?”

“That’s babies, idiot.” I flicked a dot of polish her way, and she squealed. “But he’s so quiet, you know? All he does is come home and read and watch PBS or whatever. And now the backpack thing.” She gave a sort of grunt-shrug in reply, her tanned shoulders lifting, redistributing drops of sweat.

The day was hot, humid, and utterly quiet; I couldn’t summon the urgency that I felt about Benji during the night. If Jess thought he was fine, he was probably was fine. Friends are good for that — reminding you when you when you’re being overdramatic, overbearing; reminding you that you’re sixteen. And, of course, that little brothers were a strange species, as anyone who had one would tell you. Jess had three of them, and she wasn’t complaining.

“Does that pay a lot?” Jess asked, rolling onto her stomach to let her back catch the sun.

“What?”

“Keero-practing.”

“Chiropracting. Which isn’t even a word.” I flicked grass onto her back, watching it flutter down. “I’ve got no idea. It’s probably like being a dentist or something. Tons of school.”

“Fuck that,” Jess murmured, and rolled over.

I’d rather eat snails than do anything in the medical world; I’d decided at least two years ago, when Mom started telling me horror stories about guys who’d played with nail guns and women with shattered pelvises. Something with reading, maybe. Or writing. Something you could curl into and crawl away. Jess talked about college in Minnesota, or Iowa, or New York, even; I had calculated it out that Cal State Chico was the farthest I could go and still be able to visit Ben on the weekends.

“It’s too hot to think,” Jess said. She let her nail polish brush drip sticky drops of red onto the porch. I knew I’d be cleaning them up later.

As I said, Mom worked nights, twelve hour shifts, in the emergency rooms, dealing with the nastiest cases. She’d told me once that only the shittiest things, the least lucid patients, the most disgusting accidents, the least lucid people, occurred at two a.m. “Nothing good happens after midnight, baby girl, and I can tell you from experience.” I think I asked her, once, when she’d started nightshifts and our days shifted from normal-nuclear-Brady-Bunch to me playing Mother for the darkest part of the night, why she didn’t just ask them to switch her back.

She’d grinned at me in that gross, yellowish grin adults have when they think their children are idiots, but they know they can’t say that out loud. “Money, kiddo. Nights pay better money. Everyone else is always leaving, so they’ll pay me to stay.”

We couldn’t pay her to stay, I knew that much. All I had to offer was geometry homework and a palatable spaghetti that I could make in thirty minutes flat. Benji was still a baby in our minds, and not a very interesting one at that, always closeted away with his books or his educational television, always curling away from Mom’s hugs or kisses. Sometimes, he’d be excited enough about something to tell her, gushing about some bug or other. I watched her eyes glaze over one evening as he told her about termites, his words spilling out of his mouth: “They’ve got colonies, just like ants, Mom, or bees, I guess, but those are hives. Is it a bee colony, Mom? Do you know? I’ll look it up. But the termites, they have a queen, and everything. They’ve barely got brains, but they’re so — Sis, what’s the word? Where it’s all set up right?”

“Organized,” I muttered, watching her give his shoulder a pat and toss her dirty bowl into the sink.

When she got home, she’d raid the fridge for the leftovers I’d tupperwared, scarfing down cold pasta or chicken nuggets with a beer on the side. And then she’d pass out, on the couch or in her bed, scrubs still on. When I asked her why she didn’t walk the four extra steps to her pajama drawer, she told me to work twelve hours in a row and see if I felt like pulling on a pair of PJs.

Everyone’s unpopular for at least one year of their life. But I’d never had to do any of it alone.

I didn’t tell Mom about it — the bugs and backpack thing — then, or later. And she never asked. It’s possible she didn’t notice: in the morning, she was too tired to look in on Ben, and she was gone before I got him to sleep. The backpack had become a part of our routine, like vitamins and bathroom breaks. Benji’d been sleeping with it for about three months straight. The thing was starting to stretch out around the edges, get rips in the corners. One of the straps had already come loose from the bag, and I’d had to stitch it up with twine from the kitchen drawer. It looked demented, Frankenstein’s backpack, but Benji had nodded happily, no complaints. I’d peered inside when I fixed it, then, and it was light, just a few pencils and a notebook and a couple of bug books. I missed that — the days when homework was barely a blip on the radar, when the next big thing you had to look forward to in school was elementary graduation.

It made me feel angry, that long summer, when I saw her do Mom things — give his hair a ruffle, help him with a homework answer, pour extra salt on his broccoli. What do you know about it? I wanted to ask her. What do you know about how he likes his hamburger or how he does on his spelling tests? But I said nothing, swallowing hateful comments, rolling my eyes. It hadn’t bugged me before; I shouldn’t let it bug me now. Let her ruffle away, I thought privately. Benji’s confidential hugs, the grateful looks he gave me when I closed his door and wished him goodnight, I tallied up in my brain and called them points in my favor.

Benji wasn’t popular. Or, more articulately, Benji wasn’t liked. There is a difference, in the careful hierarchy of elementary school: the unpopular kids were the ones who had to sit off in their own little groups, stay home and have sleepovers when the other kids are beginning to go to the school-sponsored dances, the ones who sat near the front of the bus and endure spitballs from the kids in the back.

But the unliked kids, they were the groupless ones. The ones who sat right behind the driver on the bus, the ones who ate lunch in the library, the ones who walked next to the teacher on field trips. I’d been unpopular, of course, especially in middle school — seated at the front of the bus with Jess, Anton Fischer shooting gum into our hair and calling us lesbians. Everyone’s unpopular for at least one year of their life. But I’d never had to do any of it alone. Jess had always been there to comb out the gum with peanut butter and remind me Anton Fischer was going to die alone after peaking in the ninth grade. Benji had no Jess. He just had Benji.

There’s only so much an older sister can do. I could ask him, at night, how the day went. I could give suggestions (“Ben, why don’t you invite someone over this weekend? If you’re quiet, Mom won’t mind.” “Benji, you should take some of these brownies at lunch, to share with people.” “Benji, leave your books at home today. You should play ball during recess, get some exercise.”) He’d always look at me, stoic-faced behind his glasses, and nodded along with whatever I was saying before he did his own thing. We took separate busses to and from school; he got home earlier than I did each day, and was sitting on the couch eating chips by the time I arrived.

One Tuesday, early in the school year, I went home at lunch. I felt like I was coming down with a cold or something, and facing the rest of the day just seemed like too much of a hassle, so I checked out with the nurse (with a promise that Mom would call to confirm I’d arrived home and hadn’t been abducted or murdered along the way), and walked the two miles or so back to our house. I was exhausted, probably; the days were long, and I stayed up late after Benji went to bed, doing homework and procrastinating, looking up colleges I couldn’t afford and study abroad programs I’d never go on.

Mom was asleep when I got home, so I sat on the couch and watched old Nickelodeon reruns until three, when I heard the elementary school bus chugging down the street. I peeked out the window, craning my neck to watch the bus stop far up the block at the southern corner. Five or six kids piled out of the bus, one right on top of the other; two of the littlest ones were met by their mothers, but the others made their way down the street alone — Benji, a few steps ahead of two boys and a girl who were huddled close in a pack. Something twinged at the back of my neck. My brain sent an impulse down to my feet, get up, move; I could meet Benji halfway down the block if I got up now. I could surprise him, smiling, joking, put an arm around his shoulder and remind those other kids that he belonged to someone. But I stayed there, on the couch, cocooned in a blanket with John Stamos laughing on the television behind me. I don’t know why. It was like a switch in the back of my brain, an angry switch, had been flipped; somewhere close to that fight-for-him response I usually got (always got) when it came to Benji. You’re not his mother, the switch made something whisper. He’ll be fine. It’s just kids being kids. You can’t always save him.

It’s not your job.

It didn’t take the kids long to act. One of the boys hurtled forward, grabbing Benji’s shoulder with a practiced hand and pulling back, hard. Benji was gawky in that special way of ten-year-old boys, like his feet were too big for the rest of him. He fell backwards, landing hard on his ass in the middle of the sidewalk. The other boy and the girl had converged on Benji now, and the kid raised a foot, like he was getting ready to kick my brother square in the stomach, which laid open, innocent, bare. I hissed air through my teeth and put a hand up on the window glass, like I could will him safe, like that motion could erase the previous seconds of doing nothing.

Benji moved quickly, like he knew the kick was coming — like this had happened before. I watched him curl up tight, chin tucked to knees, curling over onto the ground in a fetal position, like a pill bug someone’s poked at. The kick landed, lightly enough, on Benji’s kneecaps, pushing him back across the sidewalk. The girl gave a half-hearted kick, too, positioning it so it landed a little farther down his leg. It was boring, I guess, to kick someone who was already down, not being able to access any of the soft, squishy, vulnerable bits. Benji didn’t look like he was crying out, or protesting, or even moving much. The kids gave a few more depressed taps, laughed at the tiny, weird fifth grader balled up on the pavement, and then moved on.

Benji waited thirty seconds or so, long enough to ensure the danger had passed. Then he uncurled and stood up, reached around and swept awkward hands over the backpack, trying to clean off the worst of the dust. He straightened up his shirt, pulling it back down over the bone-pale skin of his stomach, and continued on home. He looked up quickly, across that long distance, and I know it’s impossible — but I worried that our eyes met, that he saw me gazing out the window, hand impotent on the glass.

When he came through the front door, I was in the kitchen, pouring chips into a bowl and milk into a glass.

“Hey, kid,” I said, carefully masking my expression.

Benji came in slowly, quietly, laying his backpack down in the corner by the door. “Why are you home early?” he asked, his voice clear and cold.

“Not feeling great.” I took a few tentative steps towards him, holding the bowl of chips between us, half-offering, half-shield. “Want to make me feel better, and come hang out with me for a bit? Homework can wait, right?”

Benji looked at me through the glass, eyes placid, considering. I wished I could be a brother-sister-telepath act, then, that I could simply let all my reasons for not standing up, for not rushing out the door, for not murdering some fifth grade assholes could become obvious, without any words on my part. The bowl started to feel heavier in my hand. My brother smiled, suddenly; smiled wide, and popped a chip into his mouth, chewing open-lipped. “Only if I get to pick what we watch.”

After he’d gone to the living room, I stalled in the kitchen, grabbing a soda from the fridge. I peered out across the room, over the fridge door, at the blue backpack, tossed into a corner, near where we kept our winter boots. The twine I’d stitched into the handle was coming loose. I went towards it, walking on tip-toes, leaning down towards the canvas, kicking it lightly with a socked toe. It felt like nothing. My brother’s armor against the world, such as it was, was a few feet of dirty indigo canvas and some zippers. It felt like my responsibility to give him something else. Something more.

Little things started going missing from the house in October. Or, more accurately, I noticed them in October; I assume they must have been piling up before that, and no one had noticed a thing. Both Mom and I lacked the energy to dust off the top of the television, let alone wash the scum out of the bathroom sink or polish up the tile in the kitchen. I didn’t notice anything strange until I was searching for toilet bowl cleaner, after I’d grown too disgusted by the brown rings around the porcelain and Mom’s utter lack of concern.

“It’s required!” he stuttered. “You’re required to have an escort!”

The cleaning cabinet, tucked in the farthest corner of the kitchen, was nearly empty. There were a few rags, some old bottles of Pine Sol, a huge jug of industrial cleaning solution Mom must’ve brought home from the hospital one time. We used to have toilet cleaner in there, I knew, but then again we used to have family dinners and rides to school and someone to go the grocery store for us, too. Two years ago, Mom might’ve been home to clean the toilets and make the spaghetti and deal with Benji’s bullies. Now she was barely cognizant enough to give me a check every week to buy food at the ShopRite. I closed the cabinet, woke Mom up by slamming the door, and reminded her when she emerged from her room looking groggy and harassed that general parental responsibilities usually required some level of keeping house.

“You work at a hospital, for Christ’s sake,” I said, leaning against the doorframe as she poured a bowl of cereal. “Isn’t hygiene supposed to be your thing?”

“Language,” she sighed.

“I have a life, you know. I have homework and stuff to do. I’m not your maid.” I’m not the mother. I clamped my lips around the phrase, held it against my cheek, like I was storing it up for later.

She sighed heavily, but still promised to pick up some cleanser on the way home, and a pack of sponges. I knew I’d end up cleaning it anyway, if she even remembered, but it was something.

The day that it happened, I was eating lunch in the middle of the cafeteria, which was unusual. Jess and I would usually run to the QuickStop across the street for muffins and cheap coffee, and sit outside on the bench to eat it, getting out of the toxic, closed-in air of the high school for a precious forty-five minutes. But we were inside that day, sequestered in a corner of the lunch room, close enough to the speakers that I could hear it clearly when the PA system coughed to life and muttered, “Zooey Green to the Front Office. Miss Green, Front Office.”

Jess stared at me with widened eyes, like she’d seen a ghost. We never got called to the principal’s. The front office was the home of the guidance counselors, of suicidal freshman and seniors panicking about their late applications.

You forget, sometimes, that your heart is a muscle, that all of the blood pumping and ba-dum-duming is just a secondary factor of the constricting. I remembered, in that moment. My heart seized up like it had a Charlie horse, hard enough to make me lean over onto the table. They don’t call you to the front office for nothing. In the movies, they call you up there for tragedy, for car accidents or random shootings, for the “I’m so sorry to tell you . . .” moment before you collapse on the ugly institutional carpet and cry for the life you’ve just lost.

“Probably dropped something,” Jess said, in a quiet voice. “Probably lost it, and they’ve picked it up. No big deal.”

“No big deal,” I repeated, heart feeling like it was just dumping blood down into my ankles, stomach sitting somewhere around my knees. “I’m sure. No big deal.”

They sent me to the elementary school; the guidance counselors did, I mean, when I walked into the front office. They were all pale, gray, middle-aged, thick around the middle; like God got bored designing people and issued our high school a matching set. When they told me to go, I stopped, paused in the doorway, and muttered, “He’s okay.” It wasn’t a question. I couldn’t make my mind form doubt around that fact, that Benji was fine and well and answering all the questions in his science class.

“He’s fine,” they said, a chorus of angels in ugly Kmart sweaters, but I needed to get over there right away. Right away, they said. So I peeled out of the office, out the front entrance, one of the counselors struggling to follow me (“It’s required!” he stuttered, tripping in his penny loafers. “You’re required to have an escort!”) down the block to where the elementary school stood sentinel on the corner, huge and old and red-brick, falsely cheerful with a mural painted on the outside and decades-old play equipment leaching lead paint into the sand on the playground.

I saw Benji before he saw me, a little crumpled-up mass huddled in a grown-up’s chair, feet dangling into the air. Someone had given him a ratty old stuffed animal, and he’d buried his face in it. Germs, I thought, wanting to rip it out of his hands. Benji looked up at me with red eyes, snot running from his nose to his mouth. His glasses were missing.

I stood there, just looking at him, watching the way his face blotched up and his eyes scrunched tighter. The guidance counselor, duty fulfilled, slipped from the room, and the wide-eyed elementary secretary, clearly unused to seventeen year olds invading her office, knocked hard on the principal’s door.

The principal came out from his office, wearing a too-small-for-his-gut suit and a serious expression. “Miss Green, come in, please. You too, Benji.” He ushered us into the office, and I pulled Benji in front of me, like we were going into a firing squad and I needed protection. He seemed to sense my selfishness, resisted hard against my hands. I noticed in that second, that moment of bare shoulder to bare palm, what had seemed so wrong, so off, about my brother and the whole scene.

His backpack was gone; his shoulders were bare, only a ratty T-shirt standing between my hands and his naked back.

He sat us down like we were on trial, in two uncomfortable chairs that were unnervingly close to his huge desk. The principal nodded to me, once, like I was an old golf buddy, and then folded his hands on his desk, in the universal gesture of Serious Business.

“Miss Green. We’ve called you in because we couldn’t get ahold of your mother. Is there any other way you might know of to contact her? I’d prefer to speak to a parent, in this situation.”

“She’ll be sleeping. She works nights, at the hospital,” I said dully. Mom had a habit of silencing her cell and stuffing it in a kitchen drawer when she was home. “No one needs me that badly,” she would say. No one except Benji. No one except me.

“Right. Well, we’ll get started, then.” He looked at me, hard, as if he could trap my eyes in a laser beam, like clear and constant eye contact would transmit whatever he said straight into my brain. “Your little brother is in some trouble, Miss Green.”

A laugh squeaked out of the corner of my mouth, like the sound of a dog toy when it gets stepped on, wheezy, absurd. I tried to cover it with a cough, a little shoulder shrug, but the corners of my lips were threatening to tug into a totally inappropriate smile. “Trouble? That doesn’t sound like Benji.” What had he done? Been caught reading in the lunch line? Catching spiders in milk cartons? Shuttling Amazonian ants into the music room?

“He threatened several other children this morning, Miss Green. We take that sort of thing very seriously here. Very seriously.”

I pictured Benji with a knife, Benji inside a menacing circle of kindergartners, Benji as criminal mastermind from a Bond film with an eye patch and a big red button for nuclear Armageddon. It made me laugh again, an awkward, constricted squeak that the principal obviously found insulting — one laugh might be nerves, but two were obvious signs of willful avoidance of the issue.

“Miss Green, this is serious. It could result in expulsion,” he said, trying to shut me up quick. It did. I had pulled more shit than Benji had in his entire life by the age of four, and even I hadn’t been expelled. Expulsion was for the fucked-up juniors who got caught with kill lists in their lockers and weed stuffed in their backpacks. It wasn’t for fifth graders, not my fifth grader. I didn’t even know that you could be expelled from elementary.

“There’s been a mistake.” There had to be, obviously. Benji looked just like eighteen other kids in his grade — tiny body, floppy blond hair, squinting behind his glasses.

The principal looked as though he wished he’d stayed home this morning, his gray temples strained, his glasses pinching at the bridge of his nose. “I assure you, Miss Green, I’ve looked into everything myself. There’s no mistake. Benji will . . .well, Benji is going to need some kind of help. And possibly an alternate educational plan.” Now he was talking like they’d just diagnosed my brother with some mysterious degenerative disease, like he was one of the kids in the special classrooms, a little boy with his own aide and a wheelchair, drooling out the side of his mouth. He’s fine, he’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with him.

“Benji’s never been in trouble in his life,” I replied, curtly. I wished I could tell him to not discuss my brother like he was a piece of meat, or at least excuse Benji out into the hallway, let us get down to business adult-to-adult. Mom and her fucking phone.

The principal’s face was harder, lips pulled tight. “Well, he’s in trouble now. Miss Green, your brother was at the center of an altercation in one of the hallways, just before lunch. Another student apparently said something hurtful, and Benji responded by throwing his backpack to the ground.”

It was one of the bullies from the neighborhood, of course. And I could picture it, the boy calling him a dweeb or a fag, Benji’s little face scowling, him hurtling his backpack towards the floor in a rage. He was a good kid, but he had his tantrums. Still, it was a backpack, a couple of pounds. Maybe an explosion of paper, extra work for the janitor. A few bumped-up library books.

“So where’s the other kid?” I asked, trying to hold the tone Mom would have kept, if she’d been here — disgust, a bit of concern, a bit of distaste.

“He’s at the nurse’s office. He’ll be going home shortly,” the principal shot back. He leaned over behind his desk and picked up Benji’s backpack, from which he started hoisting bottles out and placing them on the desk top: Two liters of vinegar. Toilet bowl cleaner. Drain cleanser. And one small container of what “they had discovered to be battery acid.”

“That’s wrong,” Benji had said, when the principal pointed and named each thing he’d laid out in an orderly kick line across the desk. He touched each of the bottles in turn, one stubby little finger laid lovingly across their labels. “Ascetic acid. Hydrochloric acid. Hydrochloric acid and lye. Sulfuric acid, that’s the biggie.” He sat back in his chair, glanced at me with a shy little smile. That smile hit me harder than a kick to the stomach. It was his bedtime smile, an I-know-something-you-don’t-know kind of smile.

“They’re all highly corrosive, Miss Green. Toxic, too.” The principal pinched his nose again. “I don’t even have half this crap in my house, to be honest with you.”

Benji leaned over, whispered in her ear: “He said a bad word. Did you hear him?”

“I heard,” I whispered back. I reached over and grabbed his hand, held it tight.

Battery acid. Christ. I pictured the other boy, the bus stop bully, his face melted into a Halloween mask, his eyes liquid and caustic, his lips pulled back in a howl.

“We didn’t have it in our house, the sulfuric stuff. Dan left it in the garage, but I found it,” Benji said proudly.

Dan was one of Mom’s exes, when she’d still had the energy to date; he’d been from three or four years ago, obsessed with cars, turning our garage into a makeshift mechanic shop. He’d probably left all kinds of stuff in there, antifreeze and wiper fluid and battery acid, apparently, who knew what else.

“We’re assuming he just grabbed the other stuff from a cleaning cabinet, something unsecured,” the principal continued, voice thick with judgement.

Benji scoffed, pulled back a bit. “Vinegar is lame. It’s only fifteen percent acid.” He puffed up his chest a bit, pulled his hand out of my sweaty grip. “I bet you didn’t know that, sis. I bet you didn’t, did you?”

My heart felt heavy, like someone had placed a rock in its place. That kid would be taken to Mom’s hospital, maybe. What did they do for acid burns? Would they have to peel the skin off a ten-year-old, layer by layer, anesthetizing him while his mom tried to hold one of his ruined hands? Did you just run water on the skin and it all melted off, like sheets, like slurry? I eyed the battery acid bottle, trying to see how full it was, trying to see how much Benji’d manage to pour on the kid. I could hardly envision that part, though — only when I thought hard, pasted that horrible little smile onto my sweet brother’s face, could I picture it: the power of the moment, how sure he was in his knowledge.

My little brother, Benji the Terrorist. He’d get put into some online list, now, “Elementary School Killers,” number eight on a chart listing the most deranged children, a photo from his ninth birthday gracing the headline — Benji and I, leaning over a cake. People would comment that they could see the malice already forming in his candle-lit eyes.

You always wonder, when you hear those stories on the news, the ones about people turning dead bodies into lampshades or keeping girls locked in their basement or hijacking a plane: you wonder, how did no one know? How did someone not realize?

I got it, now. How something could sneak up till it was right under your nose, and then proceed to blow your world apart.

I turned to Benji and pulled him across the gap and out of his chair, till he was up and on my lap, his long hair tickling my neck, his shorts rough on my knees. We hadn’t done this for years; he was far too old, and too big, but I needed his weight in my arms, needed the reassuring laundry-soap smell of his shirt.

I did it to show myself I could, that I could still touch him, still feel his heart beating against mine, despite the bile of disgust and terror that was rising in my throat. If I couldn’t touch him, if I couldn’t hold him, who could?

“Stop, Sis. This is for babies,” he protested. “You’re all bony.”

He wriggled a bit, then settled, smushing himself smaller to fit. I ran a hand over his head, fluffing up his hair. “Ben, why did you bring all that stuff? You know it’s dangerous, right?” I said it without thinking, the words slipping from my mouth like drool.

He nodded, abruptly, like I was an idiot.

“So why bring it?” I spoke cajolingly, like when he was three and wouldn’t eat his broccoli. I annoyed myself. “If you tell them, we can go home and just get all this over with, yeah? Don’t you want to go home?”

Benji weighed this, his eyes squinting further, lines working their way across his brow. The principal opened his mouth, probably to say that going home was out of the question, that the police would need to be involved, that my mother would have to pick us up, but before he could become coherent, Benji spoke.

“It was for neocapritermes taracua,” he said, so quietly I had to bend my ear to his mouth. “It’s their backpack.” His breath smelled like Goldfish crackers and fruit punch. I brushed his hair again.

“It’s for what, Ben? I don’t know what that is.”

Neocapritermes taracua,” he quoted, the consonants and vowels spilling from his mouth. He said it all together, neocapritTERMestaracuAH, so it sounded like a Hawaiian fish or an infectious disease.

The principal and I looked at each other, both wide-eyed, both nervous. He coughed, leaned across his desk. Benji dug a shoulder into my sternum, leaned away from the man, his face buried in my neck.

“Is that . . .well, what is that, Benji? Your sister and I don’t understand.”

Neocapritermes taracua,” my brother said again, stubbornly. I pulled his shoulder, turned him so his upper half was facing me on the chair, holding his arm too tight, making sure his face was turned towards mine. Something in my heart frizzled up, and my voice dropped deep into my chest, till I sounded just like Mom on a bad day.

“Ben, tell me what it means, or I am leaving you here.” I grasped him, too hard, too hard, and he muttered a protest.

His blue eyes, darker than mine, welled up with tears. Without their glasses, they had to struggle to focus.

“It’s a bug, you idiot,” he muttered, and shoved himself off my lap and back to his chair.

“It’s a bug,” I repeated to the principal, who looked at me like I was making his day progressively worse.

“Do you think we should try your mother again?” he asked, wiping some sweat off his forehead.

I ignored him, turned to Benji again, grabbed his hand. “So what?” I asked, my voice hardening.

“So what what?” he replied, eyes spitting venom his voice a sing-song copy of my own. I refused to give in.

“Why the bug?”

“Termite.”

“Termite, then. Why the termite?”

Benji was crying full out by that point, snot flowing down his face, blue eyes getting red. “You don’t even know! You’re too stupid to get it!”

I tightened my grip on his hand. “Tell me.”

Neocapritermes taracua (termite) Species of termite found in the rainforests of French Guiana. The insects spend their lives developing sacs of toxic blue acid on their back (colloquially known by scientists as “blue backpacks”). Upon attack from invading species, the aged workers will let themselves be bitten by the invaders, thereby causing the blue sacs to explode and kill both the neocapritermes taracua and its invader foe. This process of autothysis is of the most advanced practiced within the termite order.

“I kept the stuff in my closet, you know. ‘Cause I thought Mom might be mad. Like I was making a mess,” he said. The words were clear, full, and I struggled to look behind them, to see if he was mocking me, to check the other reasons he’d hid all the acids and bases in the house. “I only started bringing them this week.”

“This week,” the principal whispered. “Christ.” He leaned back in his chair.

Premeditated, I thought. Planned. Evil. The attorney’s words from every episode of Law and Order I’d ever watched bounced around in my head.

“And he — Ben, what, did he hit you? Did he say something to you?” I said it all fast, hopeful, too hopeful. Benji frowned up at me.

“Robbie always picks on me. He’s a jerk.” The sides of his mouth turned down in confusion. “I can say ‘jerk,’ right?” he asked the principal, who was staring down at his desk. I imagined he was wishing he’d chosen another profession, or maybe just another school, somewhere that little boys didn’t haul chemicals into the building inside their elementary-school-sized backpacks.

“And so, today —” the words got stopped up in my throat, like I was choking on them. “Suicide termites.” The realization fried up in my brain like I’d been shocked, and I grabbed Benji’s hands in my own, turning them this way and that, like there might be some microscopic indication of acid burn I’d missed. “Jesus, Benji, oh God,” I muttered, and looked over his face, felt his neck. My little brother pulled away, just like he did if I tried to wash his face or fuss with his hair.

The principal glared at me over the desk; I could see him tying Benji and I together in his brain, the weird kid and his weird sister. He cleared his throat, put his adult voice back on. “Miss Green, we’ve checked Benji already. He’s not burned. Robbie isn’t, either; just shaken up, I think. The bottles leaked, that’s all. Leaked out of the backpack. Someone told a teacher and they reported it. Had to lock down the hallway, have the janitor get out Hazmat supplies,” he finished, just in case I should consider Benji’s crime any less severe.

“I left the lids on too tight,” Benji mumbled, his voice thick with something close to disappointment. The tears started to fall, then, Benji and the principal disappearing into a grey, watery mass.

The only sound was the ticking of the clock on the wall.

They’d confiscated the blue backpack in the end, when they told Mom they’d have to see about further disciplinary action. Benji had put up a God-awful fight, the biggest tantrum he’d had in years, kicking and screaming. I’d hushed him up by promising the ice cream and a newer, bigger blue backpack later in the week. The ice cream was doable; anything with sprinkles quieted Benji right up. As he slurped it up, covering his face in chocolate-colored whorls, I vowed that we’d never see a blue backpack in the house again until Benji was eighteen and could fuck up his life without any assistance from me.

The principal had told Mom she might need a lawyer, then handed her the number of a childhood psychologist; “excellent with this sort of thing,” he said, like he took pity on her. I wondered how much precedence schools had for this sort of thing. I wondered how often they’d had kids threaten to maim and murder. When we left, Mom shoved the paper into a trash can without looking at it, but I fished it out again.

As soon as we got in the front door, Mom went straight to her room, slamming doors and drawers, pulling out scrubs. I scooped Benji out his ice cream, knowing it would ruin his dinner, settling him at the table before I went into her room and shut the door behind me.

“Are you gonna say something to him?” I asked, cold and hard.

Mom sighed; her eyes were red and watery, with deep pools of purple underneath them. “Tomorrow, Zooey. I’ll do it when I’m home from work. Tomorrow.”

I had a thousand things to say: You’re his mother; what am I supposed to tell him? You’re going to pretend like it just didn’t happen? That must be nice.

You’re leaving me alone with him?

I nodded, swallowed, shut the door behind me.

Even though the backpack was gone, probably locked in some secret cabinet in the school police officer’s office along with the BB guns and pea shooters, the materials were scattered everywhere: drain cleaner under the kitchen sink. A two gallon jug of apple cider vinegar in the pantry. After I’d put Benji to bed, I spent the night walking through the house, opening up every cabinet, climbing to the top of every pantry. I went around the house with a laundry hamper and loaded all of it up, a pile of caustic agents, adding in anything that looked remotely dangerous — Comet cleanser, evil-smelling dish soap, pet-stain remover from the days we had a cat. In the garage, on the top of a shelf which stored our old knick-knacks, jump ropes from my elementary school days and action figures from Benji’s preschool, I found the stuff left over from Dan, a whole crate of it: ratty old cloths covered in grease, bottles of wiper fluid and oil. The battery acid container was large, gallon-sized, white plastic covered in warning labels. I realized that Benji must have taken it and siphoned some of it out into the smaller container he had with him. I could picture it: Benji hauling the thing down from the top of the shelves to the floor, carefully, carefully transferring the stuff from the big container to the small. Benji getting it back up there again. He was good about cleaning up his messes; I’d taught him that.

I added the acid to the top of the hamper and went back to the house, to the bathroom, and ran the tap, splashing cold water on my face, taking deep, chemical-tinged breaths.

I stuck the hamper behind the door and went down the hall, feet moving blindly, my head as fuzzy as if I’d had a drink. Benji’s room was at the end of the hall; I pushed the door open softly. He was sleeping, curled up tight, blanket pulled to his mouth. He had fallen asleep sucking on the edge of it, like he did when he was tiny, one little corner of the blanket worn down from constant use, worn-out, ten years older than the rest of the fabric. I wondered how often he’d slept on his side. I wondered if he always would, now that he didn’t have the backpack weighing his shoulders down. A nightlight we’d put in the corner fanned stars out onto the ceiling in a gentle glow.

I’d bought it for him the year before, when he’d finally confessed that he was scared of the dark. “Not the dark,” he’d elaborated, as I sat with him at bed time, holding his hand, smoothing his hair. “The stuff that moves in the dark. When you’re alone. You know.” He’d had a nightmare, was crying still, tears staining the top of his dinosaur pajamas.

“I know,” I’d said, and held him tightly, half of me wishing he’d stay this small, this needful of me, forever; the other half wondering what he meant, alone.

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About Lauren Lynn Matheny

Lauren Lynn Matheny is currently an MFA candidate at Colorado State University. Her work has previously received Honorable Mention in Third Coast Magazine’s 2017 Fiction Contest, judged by Desiree Cooper. She is an associate editor at the Colorado Review, and co-hosts the Colorado Review Podcast. She is at work on her first novel.

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