People die from things other than cancer all the time. Three people a year get crushed by vending machines. Two people in shark attacks. Hundreds in plane crashes, thousands more in cars.
You made that vending machine one up, I told him. There’s no way that’s true.
Look it up, he replied. Three people a year. Vending machines.
Later that night, after he was in bed and my parents were downstairs watching television, I Googled it. How many people a year die from vending machines. Results were inconclusive, but some sites said the number was actually in the ten to thirteen range.
Could you imagine being that angry? Frothing rage, screaming slurs, shaking and shaking that machine until you toppled it. Your last image, that bag of Lays you needed so desperately you were willing to die for it.
The next morning at breakfast, I said, there’s no candy in the world worth dying for.
My brother chewed his Cheerios, swallowed. Kit-Kats, he said. I’ve always loved Kit-Kats.
Last summer, at Disney World, my brother went missing. The kind of missing a seven-year-old shouldn’t be– my mother bowed over on the steps leading up to Splash Mountain, my father pacing, repeating the story to the DisneyCops. He got mad at his sister and stormed off. We thought he was right over there. We don’t know which direction. I don’t know. I don’t know. Me eating my black and white Mickey Mouse ice cream bar, silent and anxious. Chip and Dale walked by me and waved.
He wasn’t one to storm off, my brother, that was the thing. He usually yelled and hit when he got mad, but running away wasn’t really his style, which is why my mom was in tatters. He just wouldn’t do this, she kept saying to my dad, the DisneyCops, anyone who would listen. This is so unlike him. Something must have happened.
The DisneyCops heard this, and they thought: kidnapped. But no, my dad explained, that wasn’t the problem.
No one in their right mind would kidnap my brother. Not even the worst kidnapper wants that on their conscience.
When we moved into the new house, they hadn’t finished the extension yet, and my brother and I had to share a room, even though he was five and I was eight. It’s just temporary, my father assured us, as days stretched into months. Loud, heavy men clomped through our house each day, pounding away at walls and floors.
At night my brother and I would play this game: if you could go anywhere in the world right then, where would you go? Italy, I would say. France. The North Pole.
My brother picked his favorite places around town. Friendly’s. The toy store. The old diner by the hospital where we sometimes went in the afternoons.
You’re playing the game wrong, I would say.
He didn’t answer, and I fell asleep to the whirs and beeps, the sinister song of our third roommate.
He was diagnosed at four, in and out of the hospital for a few years, went into remission at six, relapsed at seven, etc. etc. We listed the details robotically, changed the subject. These things no one wanted to hear, we didn’t want to tell.
That’s boring, my brother would announce loudly. Wanna see a magic trick?
Pick a card, any card. He’d push the Queen of Spades slightly forward, they always picked that.
Is your card… the Queen of Spades? he would ask, and the person would exclaim and clap.
You’re cheating, I said, and my mother said, Olivia, why don’t you go check on your father.
At Friendly’s, my brother always ordered the Monster Mash sundae, but he liked it with cookie dough, not with mint chocolate chip.
The whole point of the sundae is that the monster is supposed to be green, I told him.
Yeah, but I don’t like mint, he said.
I stirred my drink with my straw. When you took a sip, the straw changed colors. It blew my mind when I was younger, but then I started asking for the regular ones.
Then get another sundae, I said.
I like the Monster Mash, he replied, and my mom sighed at me.
It happened like this: He got out of the bathtub at age four, and my mom dried him off with his dinosaur towel, him roaring, listing off dinosaur facts.
The stegosaurus was a plant-eater. The t-rex’s arms were too small for its body. No one knows what killed the dinosaurs; I bet it was a meteor.
Look, Mom, he said, and flexed his right biceps. Look how strong I’m getting.
The lump in his arm, too big for his age.
I sat with him at the hospital sometimes, read from Highlights.
This week on Ask Arizona, I said, someone is writing to Arizona about their birthday party. They want to know, should they invite everyone in their class, or just the people they like?
My brother, he liked to answer the questions before Arizona did.
Everyone, he decided. That way no one will feel left out. Plus, there will be more people for games and stuff.
When he turned six, he had a pirate party, and he invited everyone in his class, even the kids who made fun of him. Everyone got to decorate an eye patch, and at the end, they all walked the plank off of our back porch, which was mostly finished, looking like the wreckage of a ship. My brother got to be captain, waved his sword around, awkward in his left hand.
He was really into pirates for a while. But he changes his mind a lot, switches it up. After pirates it was Greek Myths; last fall we got into those together. Our parents bought us the big yellow anthology from the bookstore in town, and afterwards we got fudge cookies from the general store.
I used to read the stories aloud after dinner. Daedalus and Icarus, Helen and Paris, Artemis and Apollo. We liked the twin archers best, so much that that year for Christmas my parents got us kittens named after them.
We thought it was nice, said my dad. You guys both being into those myths, and all.
Plus, added my mother, there just aren’t that many siblings in Greek mythology that don’t want to kill each other.
I never should have gotten into a fight with my brother that day, so everything that happened was my fault. He wanted to go on It’s A Small World again, even though we had been on it twice already, and I got mad.
That ride is for babies, I shouted. I wanna go on Space Mountain.
Space Mountain is too scary, my brother yelled back. Mom promised we wouldn’t go on anything scary.
You don’t wanna go on any good rides, I said. You won’t even go on Haunted Mansion.
Haunted Mansion is scary! he cried.
You only think that because you won’t even go on it. It’s not scary at all, it’s for babies.
My parents jumped in then. If he doesn’t want to go on Haunted Mansion, he doesn’t have to. This is his trip. He gets to pick what we do.
We’re not even supposed to be here, I shouted, finally. They’re only letting you go because you’re so sick.
That’s when he stormed off.
I didn’t even want to go on Space Mountain. It’s indoors and in the dark; you have no idea where you are and then you’re falling through the abyss.
My mom used to take us to the toy store afterwards, let us pick out whatever we wanted.
Nothing happened to me, I told her. How come I get a toy?
She puffed out her cheeks, blew out her bangs. Don’t you want a toy, Olivia?
Then stop complaining.
My brother picked out a different Pokémon toy each time. They came in little Pokéballs, and you snapped them open with your thumb. I’m gonna collect them all, my brother said.
They don’t even make all 150, I said. My mother shook her head at me, all angry eyes and mouth.
There’s 151 Pokémon, Olivia, he replied.
Whatever, I said. They’re all dumb.
In the mornings we watched Pokémon before I went to school. My mother reminded me of this before purchasing my brother’s toy.
In the car on the way home, everyone was quiet. We pulled into our driveway. My brother said, we don’t have to watch Pokémon in the mornings.
I said nothing.
If you want, we can watch Arthur instead. I don’t mind.
One of the good summers we went to the beach. My brother was six, and would be starting school in the fall if all went well. My mother bought us boogie boards and toys; my father brought along a history novel and spent the entire trip squinting into it from the shore. My brother and I ran whooping into the ocean. Neither of us had ever touched it before, and it was colder than we thought, and rougher. The first time we tried out the boogie boards I got slammed into the surf and came up coughing.
You’re never going to make the Olympic team like that, my brother told me.
I wanted to go build a sandcastle. There are no sharks on the sand, I told him.
I’m going to learn how to be a surfer, he said. Just like that Bethany girl.
He meant the girl like him, the one without an arm. You don’t have to be a surfer just because of her, I said to him. You can do a lot of things. You could be a scientist. A teacher.
I have years to do all that, he said. First, I’m gonna be a champion surfer.
By the end of the day he could stand up on his boogie board in the wake. My parents and I cheered and clapped for him, my mom hugging me to her side, an anchor in the wake.
I was supposed to go in to say goodbye once, but I didn’t do it. Instead I ran around the cul-de-sac as fast as I could, blowing air out of my lungs. In my head I named all the Pokémon I could remember. Bulbasaur, Ivysaur, Venusaur, Charmander. Afterwards my dad said, you got lucky this time kiddo, but never pull that shit again. It was the only time he ever swore at me.
After they took his arm, my mother spent a week scissoring off all the right sleeves of my brother’s shirts. He and I collected the scraps and made a rope out of them, tying the ends together into a giant worm.
It can be our pet, he suggested. At age five, all he really wanted was a dog, but my dad was allergic, and you could tell how that killed him, wishing he could do that for his son.
Okay, I agreed. What should we call it?
Teezy, he said, and it will be our guard dragon. It can sleep outside our room and protect us from evil.
He meant vampires. He had seen them in an episode of a show my parents were watching, and kept waking up at night screaming about them.
Teezy’s not a real name, I said, and my mother, who I hadn’t thought was paying attention but apparently was, called out, I think that’s very creative.
Well, okay. I guess we can call it Teezy. It was his dragon, after all. They had been his shirts.
In fourth grade I got into the school spelling bee, and my mom helped me practice all week. Column, concern, frantic, flexible, shallow, survive. I spelled them out loud at the dinner table, my brother stirring moodily at his peas.
The day of the bee, they called me to the front office. My dad was on the phone.
We can’t get him to come, he said. He’s just refusing, Olivia, I’m sorry. I don’t know if we can make it.
Put him on the phone, Dad.
His breathing, frantic and shallow. I don’t wanna come to your dumb spelling bee. I don’t wanna go anywhere.
I practiced, I said. I want you to come see me.
No! he shouted, and then there was a clattering, and empty space.
Once, few months after the big surgery, we got to go to the circus. It was a special day for sick kids and their families; we all got seats super close to the ring, and during the break, all the parents steered their kids over to some old actor who had apparently paid for the whole thing, thanking him over and over. When it was our turn he smiled at my brother, pointed at his baseball cap.
I like your hat, kid, he’d said, and my brother had beamed.
You can borrow it sometime.
He fell asleep before the show was over, and I got to finish his cotton candy, leaning on my mother’s shoulder and picking at the sticky treat.
I always liked the elephants best, she whispered to me as they paraded around the ring, glittering and enormous.
They were my favorite, too, but I said nothing, offered her some of my cotton candy.
My dad carried my brother back to the car, and when he woke up halfway home, his hand shot to his bare head.
My hat, he cried. Where is it?
Oh, no, my dad muttered quietly. My mother swiveled around from the front.
Are you sure it’s not under you, sweetie? Check behind you.
It isn’t! my brother shouted, upset. It’s not anywhere, it’s gone! You lost it!
Pull over, my mother said, and my dad said, I can’t stop this car, we’re on the highway.
I tried to duck my head under the seat, but it was too hard with my stupid seatbelt, so I unbuttoned it and crawled to the ground. My brother was kicking his feet against the bottom, screaming.
He told me he liked my hat! He told me!
Sweetie, I know, my mother said. She wasn’t looking back at us anymore, it was too hard for her to turn all the way around. I reached my arm underneath the seat, but all I felt was empty space.
We’ll get you a new hat, my dad promised.
I crawled back up into my seat, then got on my knees and checked behind us.
Olivia, what are you doing! my father exclaimed. Get back in your seat!
I see it, I called back. I see the hat.
It had fallen behind the seat, into the back part of the car.
Oh, thank god, my dad said.
My brother had stopped screaming. Now he looked at me. His head glinted from the moonlight coming in through the windows. Thanks, he said quietly.
I can’t reach it right now, but it’s there, I said to him. I promise.
Olivia, you’re a hero, said my mother.
Put your seatbelt back on, though, said my dad.
They had put us up in one of the fancy Disney hotels on site. My parents were touching everything and saying, wow, can you believe this? Can you believe this?
My mother settled into one of the beds—the one next to my brother’s ventilator— with the two of us and spread the guidebook out on the covers. Where do you want to go first? she asked.
My brother pointed to Epcot. I waited a second, then put my finger next to his.
The DisneyCops knelt down to my level. Did you see where your brother went? they asked.
Do you know where he might have gone?
It’s A Small World, I said, but they shook their heads at me. They had already checked.
My mother, crying in the background.
It’s not your fault, the DisneyCops said, but they were lying, I could see it in their eyes.
At Disney World we had gone to Epcot and Animal Kingdom first. We ate lunch in Pretend France; they wheeled over a cart that had a dancing animatronic Remy from Ratatouille on it. My parents bought us berets, which my brother traded his old Red Sox cap for.
That wasn’t the real Remy, my brother told me as we walked into Japan.
I know, I said.
He shook my sleeve. The real Remy is in France, at Gusteau’s, right?
If I hadn’t yelled at him, he wouldn’t have run off. That was all that mattered. I let my Mickey Mouse popsicle slip out of my fingers, fall to the ground. The Thunder Mountain roller coaster clattered past us on the right, all shouts and screams from the kids on board. I craned my neck over the heads of the other kids, siblings intertwined, running around and past me, holding tight to one another. Matching sets, like Chip and Dale. I bet Chip had never let go of Dale, not even when he was really mad at him. Chip probably went on It’s A Small World ten times in a row, just because his brother wanted him to. Anything to keep him by his side, if only for a moment longer.
The DisneyCops were on their radios, whispering and muttering, glancing at my family. My dad was sitting next to my mom now, his arm around her. They were both crying. The three of us there, broken, waiting for news.
The DisneyCop held his radio to his chest, turned to my father. They’ve found him, he said.
He hadn’t gone to It’s A Small World after all. He had gone off to TomorrowLand, all the way across Magic Kingdom. My whole body froze up when they brought him back to us, looking guilty but strangely proud of himself. I waved to him, shyly, and he smiled back at me, forgiving. He had never been missing, not really. He was just somewhere I couldn’t see him.
What were you thinking! my mother cried, hugging him to her.
I don’t know, he replied. I just wanted to see how far I could get, before you noticed I was gone.