Part Three: Psuedo-Siblings
Asher sucked at the whole concept of brothers. He just didn’t know how to relate to them. It was kind of weird, since he had two of them himself, but Howard and Kyle had been born less than a year apart, practically twins for all the likenesses between them. They had always been happy keeping to each other, and Asher, three years younger and not nearly interesting enough to bother with, grew up mostly alone, rather than running around in their shadows. It wasn’t until Cassie came along that he actually felt like he had something to contribute. He didn’t care that Cassie cried, or needed so much of his attention. At least she wanted it. His mother appreciated the help with the baby and his dad never said anything at all, which was good as far as Asher was concerned. Cassie belonged to him, and his older brothers belonged to each other, and the pairs very rarely mixed.
He had been worried at first, getting to know Ty. Not because he didn’t think Ty was worthwhile; fuck, you just had to look at the kid to see that, but because Asher was so bad with other guys. Honestly it was amazing he identified as gay, for all the shit he gave his own gender. He had been thinking at first that he’d just hang out with Ty for a few weeks before the kid went on his own way, but then he found the part of Ty that made everything else about him fade away. It was the need. He needed help, he needed Asher’s help, and that outweighed every awkward moment and miscommunication. Because Ty didn’t have a fucking clue of how to live on his own, and his ignorance was dangerous.
“I could get a job,” he insisted late one night as they stood on a street corner, watching taxis trawl slowly down the four-lane road. “I could be a busboy or something.”
“You’re too young without your parent’s approval, and they ask for that shit around here,” Asher replied, exhaling a mouthful of smoke. He didn’t smoke often, but that night he needed something to do with his hands other than put them all over Ty. Ty wasn’t ready for that yet.
“Couldn’t I just forge it?”
“Can you also forge a cell number and a permanent address for your imaginary parents? Maybe in a couple of months you could, but that costs money and right now you don’t have any money. Vicious cycle, man.”
“Isn’t there something other than…than…” Ty flapped his big awkward hands, even then too big for him, a sign of how tall he was going to get.
“Sure, there’re other ways,” Asher said easily. “You could get into drugs, start selling them. Hard not to start using them too, but whatever. You could steal things, there are plenty of guys around here who can teach you how to boost a car. Fuck, there’s even a lot of money to be made stealing bikes, so if you got in with the right people they could show you that. Not exactly safe, and you’d probably end up someone’s bitch anyway, but you could try. Or you could get a normal job and hope they never looked into your background and try to live on minimum wage, which is pretty fucking hard in San Francisco.” Asher paused for a second, blew another puff of smoke. “It’s your choice, man. I’m not gonna make you do anything you don’t want to. I’ve got enough to get by for now, but I can’t carry both of us for too long by myself.”
“I know,” Ty said, everything about him screaming discomfort and guilt as his shoulders hunched up and his arms crossed in front of his chest.
A car slowed down at their corner, not a taxi but a private car. The passenger side window rolled down. Asher flicked his cigarette onto the ground and stepped it out, then patted Ty once on the shoulder. “I’ve got this. I’ll be back soon.” He turned and felt the double heat of the shadowy man’s eyes on him from inside the car and Ty’s boring into his back as he walked over to tomorrow’s groceries.
“Hey, man.” Asher leaned forward against the hood, stretching out his body. “You lookin’ for someone?”
Asher is a quick study, he always has been. He was programming the VCR before either of his older brothers could, he learned the times tables before anyone else in his third grade class, and he fucked his gag reflex right out of his throat in under a month. He picks things up fast. So he figures out very quickly that the best way to get along on this strange new world is to be quiet, to do as he’s told and, above all, to observe and learn everything that he can about this place. He learns very quickly that there are three stories to this enormous house, and that he’s supposed to use the dark, cramped stairs at the very end of the building instead of the wide, beautiful set off the main hall. He learns that there are no toilets, but there are chamber pots, and those need to be emptied twice a day. His gag reflex kind of comes back when he sees those, but Asher has a strong stomach. He avoids seeing the ladies of the house for most of the day, entering their rooms after they’ve already left them to clean out the grates and lay in wood for a new fire in the evening.
He comes to understand, from the few comments these painting-people address to him, that they think he’s related to the women who run this joint. His “father” is spoken of in hushed tones, often wistfully, and Asher gathers that the man is dead, and has been for some time. His stepmother is apparently of the evil kind, and his stepsisters are beautiful and correspondingly cruel. None of them seem to like to acknowledge his existence, and the only time that Asher is supposed exposed to them is when he serves them at dinner, which is kind of a shocker to him. He hasn’t seen them all day; why start now? But the cook is insistent, and so he mentally shrugs and brings them their damn bread, which smells fucking amazing and which he hasn’t had a chance to eat.
“There he is at last,” one of the younger women drawls from where she lounges in her chair. Asher has no idea how you can lounge in a high-backed wooden chair; it must be a learned skill. “And filthy as ever. Honestly, you’re nothing but soot and cinders, you dirty little pig.”
“Piglet,” the other girl corrects with a giggle. “The runt of the litter.” Both of the young women are bright against the dark wood furniture of the room, their dresses pink and green respectively. Their skin is unnaturally luminous, their features have the kind of doll-like perfection that Cassie aspired to, and their hair is huge and fluffy and piled on top of their heads. Asher kind of expects a bird to poke its head out of there at any moment. He sets down the bread and turns to leave.
“Just a moment, child,” the women at the head of the table says. Asher turns to face her. She’s skinny, almost bony, and her features have that sharp attractiveness to them that you see in movie stars, hollow but still lovely. Her hair is gray, her nose is slightly hooked and her eyes are hawkish. If she had been a man beckoning Asher into his car on a street corner, he would have walked the other way, fast. She motions him closer with one hand. Asher goes, reluctantly.
When he’s close enough she grabs him, pulling him towards her with one overly-strong claw of a hand. Her skin feels cool and waxy, like a new apple. He pulls away reflexively, but she has him tight. “You are looking rather pitiful,” she observes in a voice as dry as dust. “Where are your new shoes?”
“I…I lost one of them,” Asher says after a moment.
“What did I tell you, Mother?” one of the girls exclaims, slamming her slender hand down on the wooden tabletop. “You cannot give this ungrateful little pig anything, he ruins everything he touches. All your kind gestures accomplish nothing except throwing your money away when it comes to him.”
“Don’t be so harsh, sister,” the other girl, the one in pink, declares languidly. “The piglet is simple-minded, we’ve always known that. Idiots can hardly be held responsible for all their actions, or their possessions. In the future his things must be given into the care of the cook, and she can guard them for him.” She purses her lips and clucks at Asher like a hen. “That way you won’t go naked in the middle of winter for wondering where you left your jacket, poor simpleton.”
“He’d deserve to freeze, if he was that stupid,” the green girl says dismissively. The stepmother has let go of him at this point, and Asher has had more than enough. When his temper gains the upper hand there’s no gainsaying it, and so he doesn’t even think twice about grabbing up the silver pitcher of water on the table and dumping it over the head of the green girl. Her shrieks are like music to his ears.
The direct consequences of Asher’s actions become no dinner, no sandals and no shirt until the next morning, and he is to sleep outside in the open air until morning. It might be spring but there’s still a significant chill in the air, and Asher is shivering violently in his body’s bid to stay warm. The house is closed off to him, as is the granary, so in the end he huddles on the back door’s stoop, where at least there’s no mud and the depth of the doorway protects him from the wind. He holds himself tightly and squeezes his eyes shut, utterly exhausted but unable to sleep. Fucking bitches. But, he admits, fucking bitches who really mean it when they say they’ll make him pay.
Now would be a really, really great time to snap out of this whatever-it-is, he thinks hopefully, but nothing happens. Asher rolls his eyes and stares out through slitted eyelids into the darkness. It’s so dark here, even with the moonlight, so much more so than in the city. Asher’s never been surrounded by so much nothing before, and it’s disconcerting to be alone in it.
There’s a tiny shuffle out in the backyard. Asher focuses his eyes and sees a dark shadow creep across the ground, pounce on something, then sit and wait for a moment before lunging forward again. He looks a little closer. The shadow seems to be a cat, as black as the shadow it resembles, and it’s playing with something small, maybe a mouse. It’s drawing out the torment, being cruel, and Asher moves before he really knows why. He runs at a shuffle-step towards the cat, the best he can do as cold as he is, and the cat bolts when he’s within five feet of it. Asher bends down awkwardly, looking to see if whatever the cat was toying with is dead.
It turns out to be a mouse, and it isn’t dead, just sitting there like a quivering little ball of fluff. Asher reaches out and picks it up, and the mouse doesn’t struggle or bite him or anything, just sits there shaking. Asher can relate. He retreats to the stoop, holds the little critter close to his chest and strokes its tiny head until the shivers die down. Strangely, his own shivers die a little at the same time, and he feels, if not warm, at least not so miserably cold anymore.
“You wanna hang with me tonight?” Asher asks the mouse. A thought strikes him and, suddenly horrified, he quickly adds, “Jesus, don’t actually answer that, okay? I don’t think I can deal with talking rodents right now on top of everything else.” The mouse’s ears twitch. “Good, I’ll take that as a yes.”
The rest of the night passes. Not quickly, but it does eventually pass.