Brother ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is an expanded version of a short story I posted earlier with a different title.)
Patricia Crippen, age three, stood beside the bed and looked down at her three-week-old brother. He waved his arms and legs like a bug upside down on its back. He was all pink and already beautiful, with abundant blond hair and full, rosy cheeks. He made little gurgling sounds with his mouth; his eyes were roving but expressionless.
His name was Benjamin; they would call him Ben for short. Mother chose the name out of a book. Patricia hoped to be able to persuade mother to give him back to the hospital where he came from. What did they need him for? They had her, after all, and wasn’t that enough? She absolutely did not want or need a brother, or a sister for that matter, but it’s funny how nobody asked her.
She had seen people killing other people on TV. She didn’t exactly want to kill Ben or even hurt him, but she did want him to go away, to disappear, to no longer exist. Maybe they could find a family that would take him and pretend he belonged to them from the start. Nobody would ever know. It would be as if he had never happened. Everybody would be happy, including him.
But Ben didn’t go anywhere. He stayed and stayed. By his first birthday, he was walking and even running. He spoke in complete sentences. He sang songs and recited poems. He could change channels on the TV and bathe himself. He could get the cookies out of the upper kitchen cabinet without help from anybody. He put himself to bed at night and got himself up in the morning.
And he was blond-haired, blue-eyed perfection. His body and head were perfectly proportioned. People would stop mother in the grocery store and tell her, “That is the most beautiful boy I have ever seen.” “You can have him if you want him,” mother would say, and they’d all laugh.
When he started to school, he was teacher’s favorite. He was smart and bright and no trouble at all. He took to reading and writing almost faster than anybody else and when he was in second grade he was reading at fifth-grade level. At the end of third grade, the school recommended that he skip the fourth grade and go on to fifth. He was the school’s champion speller and got his picture in the paper. He started learning the trumpet and could sight-read almost any piece of music that was put in front of him. When it came to athletics, he could score more baskets, run faster and jump higher than anybody else. And, on top of everything else, people liked him. He was polite, considerate, humble, helpful, kind, the righter of wrongs. Even the most vicious bully in school was diminished in his presence.
You might say that everybody loved Ben except his sister Patricia. She didn’t hate him but she didn’t love him, either. More than anything else she was jealous of him. He was always the favored one, always the one people noticed and admired, while she was the little brown mouse over in the corner that nobody cared about or looked at, except maybe to throw a shoe at when it suited them.
And when the gifts of beauty and intelligence were being distributed, she clearly had been left far behind Ben. Her hair, no matter what beauty treatment was applied, always managed to look lusterless and chewed-off. Pimples took up residence on her long nose and sad face when she was eleven years old and seemed reluctant to leave, despite all the most up-to-date pimple treatments.
In first and second grade, she had trouble learning to read and had to spend a whole hour several evenings a week with a tutor, a retired schoolteacher with bad breath and a wooden leg named Miss Eye. Patricia was sure that Miss Eye was a bonafide witch but was never able to prove it. Miss Eye would pinch Patricia on the arm for being lazy and not trying hard enough.
Instead of being able to skip fourth grade and move on to fifth as Ben did, Patricia failed fourth grade and had to do it all over again. So, when people always asked the inevitable question, “What grade are you in?”, she was forced to admit, two years running, that she was in the fourth grade. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” they’d asked. “I’m going to be a garbage collector,” she’d answer.
At Christmastime, half the presents under the tree were for Ben. Patricia was sure the most elaborate packages, the ones with the prettiest bows, were for Ben. His presents were taking up the space where her presents should be. If he had never been born at all, all the presents under the tree would be hers. Why did life have to be so unfair?
Patricia took Ben’s little white underpants out of the dryer and folded them with the rest of the laundry, the way mother showed her, and when she was finished and had a neat little stack of ten or twelve pairs, she took them up to Ben’s perfectly ordered bedroom and put them in his neat-as-a-pin underwear drawer. Before she left the room, she always had the impulse to mess up the books on his desk or take a few shirts out of the closet and scatter them on the floor. The only trouble with that was there was no one else she would be able to blame it on.
When Patricia’s girlfriends gushed about how gorgeous Ben was and what an interesting older boy he was sure to be, Patricia always wanted to slap them in the face and twist their arms out of their sockets. It was a sign of incivility and disloyalty for anybody to praise Ben in front of her. After all, hadn’t she been hearing it all her life and wasn’t she awfully tired of it?
So, in the fall, Ben was ten and in the sixth grade, the youngest and most precocious person of either gender in his class. Leslie was thirteen and in the seventh grade, only one grade ahead of Ben. If she wasn’t careful, she might fail another grade, and if that happened she and Ben would be in the same grade, even though she was three years older. She was sure she would never survive the humiliation if that came to pass.
On a crisp Saturday morning in October, Patricia wanted to go downtown on the bus to do some shopping. She still had some birthday money and wanted to spend it. Mother would only allow Patricia to go if Ben went along, too; it was no longer safe for children to ride the bus alone, she said. Ben was looking for new shoes and readily agreed to go along with Patricia. After breakfast the two of them set out to catch the fifteen-minute downtown bus.
Ben and Patricia had different ideas about how to have fun downtown. After Ben bought his new shoes, they couldn’t agree on where to go next, so Patricia said they should split up and meet later in a designated spot. Then they’d have a hamburger and a milkshake and go back home on the bus.
They parted on a busy street corner and agreed to meet at the same spot in an hour and a half or so. Whoever got there first would wait for the other. Ben went off to do his boy things and Patricia to do her girl things.
Fur collars were all the rage that fall. Patricia went to three different stores but wasn’t able to find one she liked. She bought herself a romance magazine (which she’d have to keep hidden), a pair of shoelaces, a half-pound of English toffee, a pair of toenail scissors, some stretchy gloves and paperback novel that she had to read for English class.
When she went back to the corner an hour-and-a half later to meet Ben, there were people everywhere. It was the busiest time of the day. She saw Ben standing near the stoplight, surrounded by other people, and then she saw he was with someone, or, rather, someone was with him. It was a grown man who had his hand on Ben’s shoulder. Patricia didn’t know who the man was but thought he might be one of one of Ben’s teachers or maybe the swimming coach from school.
She was about thirty feet away, walking toward Ben, when she saw another man. He had hold of Ben’s other arm, lightly, not forcefully, by the elbow as if he were leading him. A green car stopped at the corner and the back door opened. The first man got into the back seat of the car, followed by Ben and then by the second man. The door closed and the car sped away. It all happened in just a few seconds.
Patricia stood on the corner for a few minutes, wondering what to do. Maybe the green car just went around the block for a spin and would be back in a minute or two. Should she wait?
Wait a minute, she thought. Why should I worry about Ben? Isn’t he the smart one? Isn’t he the resourceful one? Isn’t he the problem solver? He’s gone, isn’t he? Isn’t that what I’ve wanted every day and night of my life from the moment he was born?
She waited on the corner for about fifteen more minutes but still saw no sign of Ben or the green car. She was getting cold. All she could think to do was take the bus back home, tell mother what happened, and be absolved of all responsibility. Mother would yell at her, of course, but really, how was she to be blamed if Ben wanted to leave with somebody else? She wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it.
While she was waiting for the bus, she happened to run into two friends from school, Janey Jones and Helen Whitney. They asked Patricia if she was in any hurry to get home and when she said she wasn’t, they suggested they do a little shopping and find some high school boys to stare at and giggle over.
They walked around in the stores for a while, pretending to be grownup women out on the town. They tried on some lipsticks at the cosmetics counter in Pascale’s Department Store until the woman behind the counter came and stared at them and made them feel uncomfortable, so they left. They went to the dress department, where Helen Whitney tried on clothes while Janey Jones and Patricia waited impatiently for her.
After they split a pizza three ways and after many rounds of Coca-Colas, Patricia told her friends she’d better get home, as it was getting late and mother would begin to wonder what had happened to her. The whole time she was with Janey Jones and Helen Whitney, she never once mentioned Ben’s name.
When she got home, it was nearly five o’clock. Mother was waiting at the door.
“Where’s Ben?” mother said.
“Isn’t he here?” Patricia asked.
“No, he isn’t here. Why isn’t he with you?”
“We got separated. He wanted to do some shopping on his own. I figured he came back by himself.”
“Well, he didn’t.”
“Well, isn’t that funny?”
“Yes, it’s hilarious. When did you last see him?”
“I told you we were together and then decided to split up. He went his way and I went mine. I met some friends and then I guess I just forgot about him.”
“You don’t know them.”
“I think we’d better get in the car and go downtown and try to find him,” father said.
“I’m not going to bother with that,” mother said. “I’m calling the police. Do you think he could have got lost somehow?”
It was so typical of them, Patricia thought. They only thought of Ben. It was just further proof, if she needed it, that they preferred Ben over her. After they found out what they wanted to know about Ben, they left her standing in the middle of the room as if she no longer existed.
She went up to her room and locked herself in, sat down on the bed and looked at herself in the dresser mirror, not failing to notice how ugly and sad she looked, with a new pimple right on the end of her nose. It had been a good day, until she came home and there was this big uproar over Ben. His highness Ben. Everything was always about Ben.
Her feelings were terribly wounded. She could work herself up into a good cry if she let herself go. And wouldn’t it be just like them not to notice, when she sat down at the dinner table, how red her eyes were?
They were sure to find silly old Ben, with or without her help. He was probably on his way home now. Nothing bad would ever happen to precious Ben.
She had seen this awfully cute coat in Patterson’s window downtown with a real fur collar and fur trim. She had already given up on the coat because mother would say it was too expensive. And it was expensive, a hundred and forty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents, but what difference does money make when you find the coat of your dreams?
If they took her downtown and bought her that coat, right now, it might go a long way toward refreshing her memory. If they threw in the hat and gloves that went with the coat, she might even be able to remember the license number of the green car. Wouldn’t it just be too fabulous if she ended up with all three—the coat, the hat and the gloves? She’d look like a movie star. Her friends at school would simply die with jealousy!
After dawdling in her room for what seemed like an hour or so, she went back downstairs to see if there was any news of Ben. Two men from the police department were sitting with mother and father in the living room. They all turned and looked at her as she walked into the room.
“Did they find Ben?” she asked mother.
“Sit down, Patricia,” mother said.
She sat down and folded her hands in her lap.
“We were just telling these two gentlemen everything we could think of about Ben,” mother said. “I wasn’t sure if I remembered right, but I thought he was wearing his green corduroy pants and his brown coat with the hood.”
“That’s right, mother,” Patricia said.
“You were with him?” the older policeman in the suit asked.
“I had been with him, but we didn’t stay together. We had different stores we wanted to go to.”
“Did you see anything out of the ordinary?”
“Did you see anybody talking to him? Did you see anybody trying to force him to do anything he didn’t want to do?”
“There were lots of people around. I can’t be sure of anything. I did see…”
They were all looking intently at her, the two policemen and mother and father. They hoped she would say something that would help them know what happened to Ben, but she developed a bad case of shyness and couldn’t go on.
She was about to make a blunder. The beautiful coat with the fur collar hung in the balance. If she said the wrong thing, they’d be mad at her and she could kiss the coat goodbye.
“I want you to tell me everything you saw,” the policeman said.
“In Patterson’s window I saw the coat I’ve always wanted. It was light brown with a fur collar and fur trim. I’m not sure what the fur was made out of it; it wasn’t mink or anything like that, but I don’t think it was dog or monkey.”
The policeman wrote down every word. When she stopped talking, they all looked at her, waiting for her to continue. The policeman held the pen in his hand, poised over the paper. She blushed to the roots of her hair and thought she was going to cry. They would think, of course, that she was crying over Ben.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp