The worst part about recovering from a week in the psychiatric hospital was the acne. The nurses hadn’t let me keep my facial cleanser because I didn’t have a prescription for it. They didn’t seem to realize it was the kind you bought over the counter at Wal-Mart—three dollars for a four-ounce tube of grainy white cream. I hadn’t had the energy to fight them for it.
Like, Jesus, what had they thought I was going to do with it? Try to kill myself by squeezing what little was left of it down my throat?
The nurse who was leading me from the locked part of the ward to the waiting room waved her ID in front of a scanner, unlocking the door with a loud, jarring pop. I shifted my backpack from my left to my right arm.
“Who’s picking you up?” the nurse asked.
I ran my thumb along a bump on the side of my chin. I probably wouldn’t look at myself directly in the mirror for a few days. “My brother.”
“You did get all your release papers, didn’t you? Your prescriptions?”
I nodded. They were in the backpack I’d been gripping by one strap for half an hour as I waited for the techs to file my paperwork, count the twenty-three dollars and sixteen cents I’d brought with me to the hospital, and make sure I’d stripped my bed. The backpack’s strap had cut off the circulation in my hand, and I couldn’t feel my index and middle fingers anymore.
The nurse held the door open for me. Joel was sitting on the other side of the otherwise empty waiting room with a set of ear buds in—cheap ones, probably, because I could hear tinny hints of Sara Bareilles from here. He handled a half-empty container of orange Tic Tacs, flipping the lid open and closed with his thumb. When he saw me, he stood, took the ear buds out and put them in his pocket.
The door slammed behind me. A moment later, adrenaline fizzled out in the tips of my fingers.
Joel dragged a hand through his hair, looking me over. I didn’t think he meant the gesture to be quite as judgmental as it felt, but the guy was a foot taller than me and twice as buff. He didn’t have to try to make me feel small and out of shape.
“You look like shit,” he finally said.
I pressed my lips together and held my backpack out to him. Joel smirked, took the backpack, and slung it over his shoulder. He glanced at the receptionist, his smile slipping fast, then back at me.
He drew his eyebrows together a little and lowered his voice. “Feeling any better?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Cool, cool.” He put his hand on my shoulder. His thumb dug into my shoulder blade. “S’go.”
He didn’t let my shoulder go until we were out of the building and nearing his truck. He swung my backpack over the side of the truck, and it hit the bed with a metallic rattle.
“Could have put it in the cab,” I said.
“Smells like BO, dude. Wouldn’t have killed you to do laundry.”
“Tech in charge of laundry had this giant Confederate flag tattoo.”
“In Massachusetts? That’s borderline impressive.”
I tried the rusty passenger door handle twice before the door opened. The all-too-familiar smell of Joel’s sweat smacked my face, and I reeled back. Joel’s large black gym bag sprawled across both passenger seats.
Joel wrestled with the driver’s door handle, met my eyes through the window. The glass muffled his voice. “Forgot about the bag. Toss it in the back.”
Holding my breath, I picked up the bag and tossed it with my backpack.
“Hey!” Joel called. “Gentle.”
“You said to toss—”
“Gently. Toss it gently.” He yanked the door open, finally. The truck rocked as Joel climbed in. “Expensive stuff in there.”
I got in and slammed the door. Now that Joel’s bag was gone, I smelled something else. Alcohol. Had it smelled like this a week ago, before the hospital? I couldn’t keep up with where Joel did his drinking. “My backpack has expensive stuff, too.”
Joel’s eyebrow quirked.
“You know,” I said. His eyebrow thing always threw me off. Way too dad-ish for a twenty-six-year-old. Guess he’d picked up a few things after being my legal guardian for seven years. “Limited edition t-shirts.”
“Mother-Teresa-with-a-mustache t-shirts, Ancel.”
“Amelia Earhart and Gandhi,” I corrected. “I don’t have Mother Teresa.”
“Didn’t Gandhi get canceled?” Joel cranked the engine, and the truck growled to a halfhearted start. He pulled out of the parking lot. “Something about burning schools.”
It was Martin Luther with the burning schools. Gandhi had had his own issues. But I shrugged instead of speaking, focused instead on watching the hospital get smaller in the side mirror. The knot that had been lodged in my chest for the last week unraveled a little.
I’d started to dream I’d never leave that place. That Joel would go to his job at the university lab and work out at the gym and watch Adult Swim with his girlfriend and drink cheap wine before bed, repeat the cycle a few more times, that it’d slip his mind to break it on Tuesday at four p.m. to pick up his younger brother from the mental hosp—fuck; Inpatient facility.
He’d never actually forget. I didn’t think he would, anyway. He kept my work schedule pinned to the cork board in his room. Set reminders on his phone for when he needed to pick me up from somewhere, since we shared this shitty truck between the two of us. But I had dreams like that a lot.
“I made curry at home,” said Joel.
“Nice,” I said. “You know I hate Indian food, right?”
Joel sped up to make it through a yellow light. “Yeah, well, you’re half Indian, so that doesn’t even make sense. Branch out. Explore your culture.”
“You’re sixty percent water,” I said. “Branch out. Evaporate.”
“There are powdered donuts, too, you uncultured swine.”
Powdered donuts were Joel’s hangover food. Lucky I liked them, because Joel was hungover a lot. “Do I get access to your beer, too?”
Rude. “Can I at least have a Tic Tac?”
Joel angled his head toward me without taking his eyes off the road, lips parted.
“What?” I said. “Wait—no, let me guess. You missed me so much this week that you transformed into a discarded villain concept from Arrow, and the Tic Tacs are actually dangerous experimental drugs that you’re planning on selling to the mayor’s vulnerable teenage daughter.”
Joel reached in his pocket and tossed the half-empty Tic Tac container into my lap. The mints rattled against the plastic. “Just eat the fucking Tic Tacs.”
I held the container up. “Look, if you’re serious about this burgeoning villain career, I won’t hold you back. Fuck the mayor’s vulnerable teenage daughter. She probably runs an underground kittenfighting ring, anyway.”
“Ancel, I will turn this goddamn car around.”
Grinning, I shook three mints into my palm and popped them in my mouth. I let them dissolve under my tongue as I leaned my head against the sun-warmed window. Outside, a mud-colored dog sniffed along the brick wall of a gated community—one of those neighborhoods that you knew was ninety percent white just by the conical roofs with squinty windows, looming high above the wall like bloated sandcastles.
Wonder how that mutt had gotten lost around here?
“Do we need to stop by the pharmacy?” Joel asked.
“Nope,” I said.
“Sure? Didn’t your endocrinologist call your hormones in last week?”
Joel raised his eyebrows. “Did you get new prescriptions at the hospital?”
“So we need to stop by the pharmacy.”
I followed the dog in the mirror. Could’ve sworn I’d just seen it look up at me. But then a gray minivan pulled between us, and I couldn’t see the dog anymore. “No,” I said.
“If we don’t do it now, we’ll just have to do it later.”
“So we’ll do it later.”
Joel stopped a little too abruptly at a stop sign. Something rattled in the cupholder at the base of the driver’s door, and I glanced over in time to see an empty can of PBR roll into the floorboard. Joel nudged it under his seat with his heel. We drove in silence for a while.
Finally, Joel spoke. “I locked up your meds.”
Bile burned my throat.
He continued. “You’re only allowed to have a week’s worth at any given time. I bought one of those seven-day pill organizers.”
“Nifty,” I said. “What color? Did you get the rainbow gradient? I bet you did.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched. “Ancel, I’m not ready to joke about this yet.”
I leaned back in my seat.
We’d been in this position several times before. Him in the driver’s seat, me in the passengers. It felt weirder each time, because each time he said it I was older than the previous time. And I should’ve learned how to handle my problems years ago.
But here we were.
“I know the bill’s gonna be expensive,” I said.
Joel’s voice sharpened. “I don’t care about that.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Okay,” he said, like the word was the period at the end of a sentence. He turned the radio on, waited a few seconds with his hand hovering over the dial, then turned it off again. “Okay, you—fuck. Look, I know we’re, uh…we’re different. And I get that. I’m not gonna be finishing your sentences anytime soon.”
Not this again. “Joel.”
“But you… you know, if you need something, you gotta—”
“Joel,” I said. “I know.”
His voice was deadpan. “Do you?”
“You’re not acting like it. I think we need to talk.”
“We’re talking,” I said. “Who’s not talking? You’re talking. I’m talking. Everything’s fine. Let’s just get home so you can eat your fucking curry.”
Joel exhaled. He readjusted his hands on the wheel.
I pressed my temple against the window again. It felt uncomfortably warm, almost burning, but I didn’t pull away.
Where would Joel be right now if I hadn’t gotten dumped on him when he was nineteen and I was twelve? A better job in a lab across the country? Vacationing in Costa Rica to study the weird biodiversity shit he was always obsessing over? I didn’t think he’d ever seen a mountain in real life. It would’ve been easy enough for Joel to let the half-brother he barely knew slip into the foster system.
“You wanna eat out?” Joel asked.
I could smell my breath against the window—a discordant mix of orange Tic Tacs and the under-salted green beans I’d had for lunch. “No, I’m good.”
“I can stop at Shaw’s. You like their onion rings, right? I’ll get you some.”
“You don’t have to.”
Joel was silent.
Then he said— “Why are you mad at me?”
Jesus fuck. Was he not going to let this go? “I’m not,” I said.
“What’d I do? Did I say something?”
“No,” I told him. “I said I’m not mad. It’s not your fault.”
“What’s not my fault?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing’s your fault.”
We’d been in this position before. Him in the driver’s seat, me in the passengers, neither of us in control.
I stayed up longer than I should’ve that night, responding to way-overdue emails from my internship and checking social media. There’d been some shooting outside of DC while I was in the hospital—the usual. The world had moved on fine without me.
I lay awake in bed for an hour before I gave up on sleep and started surfing the deep web, calculating whether selling my internal organs to the black market would pay enough to get me through my first year of college. Found a bit of weird trivia—the brain ranked as one of the most monetarily worthless parts of the body, apparently.
I got out of bed and pulled on a t-shirt with sleeves I’d cut off in my high school years, back when I thought drawing attention to my deltoids would make them look bigger, then walked out into the den. Joel was sitting on the couch. He had his phone in one hand, texting, and was running his thumb of his other hand along the lip of a wine bottle. The light from our television turned his pale legs into two hairy ghosts.
He looked at me when I walked in. His eyebrows shot up. “Hey.”
“Hey,” I said.
“I’m just walking around,” I said.
Joel gave a dry smile and looked back down at his phone.
I went into the kitchen and got a glass of water from the refrigerator. I tasted it and it wasn’t cold enough, so I poured some of it into the sink and put a few ice cubes in it.
It wasn’t unusual for us to catch each other awake at strange hours. It’d been happening for as long as I could remember. My mom stayed, Joel’s didn’t, and sometimes he’d leave our shitty dad’s apartment to sleep at mine and Mom’s. Well—sleep wasn’t an accurate descriptor. I rarely ever saw him sleep. Sometimes he hunched over his biology textbook at the kitchen table, sometimes he scrubbed away entire colored pencils into adult coloring books, sometimes he played on my near-obsolete gaming system in complete silence for hours on end.
And sometimes I wouldn’t even know he was there until I went to the kitchen at four a.m. and saw him sitting sideways on the living room couch, perfectly still, watching a moth bump against the lamp. He would look at me, and nothing in his face would say that he saw me, and I wouldn’t ask questions. I’d thought he might break somehow if I did.
I took a long drink, waited for the frigidity to clear my mind.
I went back into the den and propped my shoulder against the wall. “What do you think about brains?”
Joel looked up. “Mm?”
“Like… if I sold my brain, it wouldn’t pay enough to replace the TV.”
Joel took a sip of wine from the bottle. “Prob’ly could buy another crappy TV. We get brains at the university for a couple hundred a pop. Not much you can do with ’em except slice ’em up for th—for those—the medical students. They look at the brain slices.”
“The brain slices?”
“Like bologna. Just—” He made a slurred drumroll noise, rapidly bouncing his hand in one left-to-right swipe like a cartoon chef chopping a carrot. I thought he was going to accidentally sling his phone across the room. “—and they stick ’em all between glass slides, put ’em in this sorta file cabinet thing so you can take out whichever slice you wanna look at.”
I wiped the crusts from my eyes with the knuckle of my thumb. Whatever sleepiness I had when I’d gotten out of bed had dissolved. “I’m gonna take a drive.”
I expected him to tell me no, but he just grunted and returned his attention to his phone.
My sneakers were by the back door. I stepped over a few dead moths on the concrete garage floor, got in the truck, and drove.
I didn’t really pay attention to where I was going. Ten minutes later, I was driving along the wall outside that gated sandcastle community, looking for that fucking dog.
I found it. Lying beside a collection of garbage bins.
The road wasn’t busy, so I parked along the shoulder and got out of the truck through the passenger side. I approached the dog.
“Hey, bro,” I said.
The dog lifted its head.
I stopped walking. This felt ridiculous. “…or ma’am? I mean, I guess it doesn’t really matter. ’Cause you’re, like…a dog. Do you wanna hang out?”
It stared at me.
“I feel like shit,” I explained.
The dog got up and started walking away.
“I see how it is,” I called after it. “Is it because I’m trans? It’s because I’m trans, isn’t it?”
The dog kept walking. I started laughing, too hard, and I kept my hand over my mouth as I got back in my car.
No sense in waking anybody up.
In the morning, I tried to scrub off at least some of my newly-bloomed acne in the shower. The water was lukewarm. We really need to replace the hot water heater—it had been on and off for a month now, and neither of us knew exactly what was wrong with it.
When I finished and started down the hall, the smell of alcohol hit me hard. I retreated into the bathroom, found a rust-laced bottle of lilac air-freshening spray in the bathroom, and sprayed the hall, den, and kitchen with it.
Joel caught me when I was in the kitchen. “Can you smell it?” he asked. “I think I’m more or less immune.”
I sprayed on the other side of the refrigerator.
He walked over to the stammering coffeemaker. “Thanks for making coffee. This that expensive shit I bought a few months ago?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh. Well, we need to use that before it goes bad. I mean, I don’t know if coffee beans go bad, but I feel pitiful every time I see it in the cabinet. Spent thirty bucks on that tiny pack and it’s just sitting there being useless.”
“Most things do,” I said.
“Do what? Sit there?”
I shook the bottle to listen for how much was left. Not much. I tried to spray it again, but the nozzle only gave an indignant sputter. “Go bad.”
Joel poured steaming coffee into a mug and stirred a generous amount of cream into it, the spoon clinking lazily against the sides of the mug. He was barefoot, his toes curled on the scuffed linoleum, and wearing the same wrinkled university t-shirt from yesterday with faded plaid pajama pants.
I set the spray on the counter. “I’m going out.”
Joel took a sip of his coffee as he turned to me, steam curling up under his chin. He lowered the mug and blinked. “Didn’t you go out last night? Did I dream that?” Joel patted the side of his leg where his pocket would have been if he hadn’t been wearing pajamas. “I’m not sure where my keys are.”
“I have them.”
“So you did go out?”
I wasn’t going to tell him about the dog. “I just have them.”
“Where’d you go last night?”
“Nowhere. I didn’t go anywhere.”
Joel dropped his hand to his side, and it slapped his thigh. The way he looked at me tugged hard at a memory I thought I’d forgotten, when Joel was around fifteen and spending the night at my place instead of our dad’s for some reason neither he nor Mom would tell me. His unwashed hair shining greasy at the roots, the circles under his pale eyes grown into dark oceans, his lips pressed into a tight, uncomfortable grimace. He had been shorter and skinnier then, and definitely hadn’t had his biceps, but I knew that look. He’d had it a lot in the months before a neighbor finally called CPS.
Joel had memories of our dad that I would never share, not because I’d forgotten them, but because they’d never been made with me in the first place. For the bad memories I did have, my brain had done the heavy lifting and locked them away. Guess you could make an argument that my brain worked better than Joel’s in that department.
It put a twist in my stomach and made me feel bad about being an asshole to him. He’d known me long enough to be able to tell I was lying.
“I was… I just drove around,” I said.
“Because I was drunk?”
The adrenaline sitting at the base of spine shot up suddenly, flooding my head, clenching my diaphragm. “What do you want me to tell you?” I said. “That you’re still a responsible older brother? That a couple Tic Tacs is gonna keep me from—Jesus, Joel. Do you really have to be drunk to make yourself pick me up from the hospital?”
Joel’s mouth worked for a second before he got out, “S’not that I don’t—just—I don’t like thinking about you being like that. Being there. Y’know.”
“Because I w—I want you to be okay.”
“Not because you don’t like remembering you’re a couple blackouts from being there yourself?”
He stared at me.
I plucked the keys from the counter, where I’d left them last night. “I’m leaving now.”
Joel walked after me a few steps as if drawn by a leash, then stopped. “Where are you going?”
I shoved on my sneakers so haphazardly that they cannibalized their tongues, jamming them up where my toes should’ve been. I didn’t bother fixing them. “I don’t fucking know.”
“Sure,” he said. The emotion had drained from his voice, leaving behind the residue of vague confusion. He took a sip of his coffee. “Okay.”
Outside, I opened the truck door, and the smell of cheap beer wafted out. I’d meant to throw that PBR can out when I got home last night, but I’d forgotten, and the smell had fermented overnight. I tossed the can in the garbage bin before I got in the truck and started driving.
I wasn’t very hungry, but couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, so I stopped at Shaw’s and bought some onion rings. Sat in the truck in the parking lot and ate. The onion rings weren’t as good as I remembered. Tasted like all their individual ingredients—flour, pepper, limp onions—rather than anything complete.
Probably wasn’t helping that I kept thinking about brain slices. About how strange it would be to see my own brain displayed in a book of glass slides, how I wouldn’t have a chance at recognizing my own brain in a lineup.
My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I took it out. Joel’s name hummed above the answer call icon. I put my phone back in my pocket.
Fuck. I needed something to do. The people at the hospital were always saying that doing community service made you feel better about yourself, right? Maybe I could take that stray dog to the shelter.
I drove back to the gated community and circled around it a couple times until I saw the dog nosing at what looked like three-fourths of a squirrel plastered on the road’s shoulder. I pulled over. The dog’s head jerked up. It stood still until I got out, and then it ran off to the garbage bins.
I retrieved a half-eaten onion ring from the truck and approached the dog. “I brought food,” I said.
The dog’s ears twitched toward me. I took a step forward, and it took a couple steps backward.
I crouched, waving the onion ring at the dog. “Look, fuckstick, I can’t help you if you’re gonna be like that.”
The dog’s upper lip twitched, showing a glint of white teeth. A growl rumbled low in its throat.
I dropped my hands between my knees. “You know this is gonna take both of us, right? Here—” I broke off a piece of the onion ring and tossed it.
My phone buzzed in my pocket a couple times, making my thigh itch. The dog came forward. Ate the small piece of food, looked at me.
I waved the onion ring, raised my eyebrows.
The dog closed the distance between us. Then its head snapped forward.
It bit me.
“Shit,” I hissed, yanking my hand back. The dog snatched the onion ring off the grass and retreated toward the garbage bins.
I exhaled, shaky. The bite had barely broken skin—just a small stinging scrape across my knuckles, a thin line of blood.
My onion ring plan wasn’t gonna work.
I got back in the truck. My phone buzzed in my pocket again, and I finally pulled it out. Joel’s texts cluttered my phone screen.
We can order food in if you don’t want the curry.
Or I can Venmo you some $ to pick something up while you’re out.
Hey can you pls text me back? Literally just a period or something, we don’t gotta talk now if you don’t want to. Just need to know you’re still alive.
Joel deserved more than just a period. But I didn’t have any words ready for him right now. So I snapped a blurry photo of the dog lounging beside the trash and sent it.
Joel texted: That’s a mood. What’re you up to?
I started to type out an explanation. That I’d seen the dog on the way home yesterday, that I hadn’t been able to approach it last night, etcetera. When the text grew too long, I erased it. Then I tried to write an apology, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to apologize for.
Like: sorry I went off on you.
Or sorry I didn’t put the truck keys back on their hook last night when I got home.
Or sorry I said I don’t like your curry.
Or sorry I tried to kill myself last week.
Or sorry I didn’t finish.
Or sorry we got stuck in this cycle of not telling each other when we feel shitty because we don’t want to stress each other out, and sorry I can’t figure out how to fix anything for either of us, and sorry I don’t know how to tell you I’m sorry.
I must’ve taken too long composing a text because Joel sent one of his own.
Need help catching that dog?
I gave a breathy laugh. Of course he’d know what I was trying to do—we’d been around each other long enough. I’d been there when he missed his Art History exam his sophomore year of college because he was vomiting the three energy drinks he’d consumed while cramming for it. He’d been there after my top surgery when I was fifteen, counting breaths with me when I started hyperventilating because I thought I’d accidentally ripped my nipple off while changing the bandages.
I texted: Might take a while. I’m having trouble getting close. Joel: I’m patient. You’re patient. Me: I guess. Joel: So we’ll figure it out.
I put my phone in the cupholder and rolled down the passenger window. Called, “Hey. Bitch.”
The dog raised its head.
“I’ll be back with my brother in like an hour.” I buckled my seatbelt, shifted the car into drive. “Don’t go too far. We’ll get you some more onion rings or something, all right?”
“You’ll be okay,” I said.
I pulled back onto the road, started driving toward home. I forgot that I’d left the passenger window down until I was on the highway, when the wind began to pop so loud it hurt my ears. Still, I didn’t roll the window up. The fresh air wouldn’t get rid of the PBR smell completely, but it might help a little, and that was really all I could do.