Michael by Isabella Valdez
My brother died in a field. He was ten years old and alone, wandering somewhere between my grandma’s and aunt’s houses in Bronson, Southern Michigan. My parents used to drive us there every summer. We’d wake up early and be lulled back to sleep by the hum of the car. My older sister hated Bronson. It was small and familiar, unlike the distant city she grew up in. But my brother and I loved it. There was room to stretch; houses were separated by miles of forest rather than feet of fence. We’d run through the weeds, uprooting sticks and searching for snakes. The summer was hotter there. The lack of people and houses created more space for heat. The grasses absorbed moisture and traced it on our ankles as we passed through them.
It was my mom who found my brother. His lips were blue and there was a pool of blood between his collarbone and neck. He was stiff. He was cold. His dark blond hair swirled in patterns of sweat on his forehead and his mouth was slightly agape. We would be told that his throat had closed up on him. The pollen of the field and the fur of the dog that had jumped on him, catching his shoulder on the way down, were too much for his child lungs to bear. No one had heard his whimpers. He wasn’t carrying his inhaler or his EpiPen; they told us he never had a chance.
It’s been five years and sometimes I forget he’s gone. I swear I can hear him some days. He’s down the hall, crossed legged and playing video games at two in the morning. He’s in the backyard, swinging. He’s kicking a soccer ball against the side of the house, hitting a door here or a window there, my mom scolding him from inside. But if I ever get up to check, he’s never there. My brother exists only in the sounds he used to make. I remember one night, we were sleeping at my grandma’s house, when he started coughing violently, waking my parents. My mom gave him his inhaler, but it wasn’t strong enough to soothe. So she plugged in a machine that promised to breathe for him. His oxygen mask fogged and cleared in the moonlight. I watched him, hunched over, my mom rubbing his back rhythmically. I fell asleep before I knew he was okay.
If people ever ask, I talk about him in the present tense. I make him up. I synthesize him. My Michael doesn’t have asthma anymore. He had a couple of close calls but eventually grew out of it, as people often do. My older sister was even able to get a cat. Some nights, the cat sleeps on my brother’s bed, curled at his feet. My Michael is fifteen now, he’ll be sixteen in a month and a half. He has stacks of biographies in his room and is taking AP European History this year. I’m certain he’ll get a five on the test. I’ll print out practice exams and help him study the night before because he’s always waiting ‘till the last minute. When it’s the weekend and I’m binge watching television shows in the living room, he’s in the kitchen, washing down his salami sandwich with milk straight from the carton. My brother and I are best friends. Every day after school he tells me about his engineering classes and about how he’s failing Algebra 1. I always offer help, but he always says he doesn’t need it. We dare each other to do stupid things, like eat my dad’s hot peppers. It’s dark outside and we’re crying in the kitchen because the peppers produce pain. I try eating a banana; he tries shoving ice cubes in his mouth. Snot starts dripping from our noses and we keep spitting up in the trashcan. We try pouring ketchup in each other’s mouths because we saw it in a movie once. When the burn finally dulls, our younger sister comes downstairs and we dare her to eat one too. The night folds in on itself and the kitchen goes black.
I try not to think about my brother dying. In my head, he’s still alive. He still has pale skin and blue eyes. Though, he’s taller, more athletic, since he plays soccer on the high school team. I pretend that he’s out with friends or that he’s in another state for Model UN. That there’s a soccer game or a knife show. He’s not here right now, but he’ll be back soon. He doesn’t have to be dead, he can just be somewhere else. I’ve made a brother who’s easy to love, but that only makes him harder to let go. He’s comprised of clichés and tropes. In my head, my brother is perfect. He is like the angel he was named after: ethereal and immortal by common consensus. He was a good person even though he was just a kid. I try not to think about him alone in that field, like some fucking Stephen King story, stories I’m sure my brother would have loved if he had lived long enough to complete fifth grade. I try not to think of my brother bleeding and struggling to breathe. I try not to think of his numbed screams. I try and forget him by making him someone else. Because if I remember the boy who used to get bloody noses when he was sleeping, who used to go to speech therapy every Wednesday morning, who used to have a stuffed bunny named Pat, I might start to miss him.