“Get that fucking candle out of your mouth. Jesus Christ, Scott.” Josh instantly feels bad for yelling at his younger brother, pulls a miniature candy bar out of his pocket, tosses it to him. Scott eats the whole thing, including the wrapper. Josh can only offer a crooked smile. He knows his brother has something wrong with his brain. He will eat anything in sight. He’s caught him eating firewood, mulch, plants, socks, cigarettes, coffee filters, plastic bottles, and so many other things. Josh can’t afford insurance to get him properly diagnosed. Hell, he can barely afford food and rent. He faked a back injury to get on disability after his dad took off for Vegas to chase a royal flush, while his mom hooked up with a truck driver named Chuck. They travel the country and she sends postcards from each city they visit. They’re in Miami right now. Josh tears every postcard up and throws them in the trash mostly out of hate but also to keep Scott from eating them. Scott developed his weird eating habits after his parents left.
Josh steps into his bedroom to call Jennifer, his high school sweetheart who broke it off with him when his responsibility for his brother became too much for her.
“I’m not your baby anymore.”
He already knew this. She had a new man, a slick-talking car salesman who used that slippery tongue to get into her pants.
“I need a favor.”
He lit a cigarette, blew smoke rings at ghosts. “We need some food. I don’t get my check until the third.”
“What kind of food?”
He remembered that time in the backseat of his parents Malibu, Radiohead blaring, as they discovered each other’s bodies for the first time. The only time he ever felt truly happy was with her. Every memory of her was another form of drowning. “Just some basic shit. Bread and bologna, chips, maybe some chicken.”
“Sure. Can you wait until tomorrow? I have to work a double later.”
“No problem. Thanks, baby.”
He noticed that she didn’t even ask about Scott. Nobody cares. He slides back into the living room and catches him eating a John Grisham book. “Come on, man. Enough of that.” Scott just gave him his usual thousand-yard stare.
“Let’s go outside and build a snowman.”
The snow was two feet deep outside and it was still coming down. They rolled huge balls of snow together and built the biggest snowman on the block. They used sticks for arms and coffee beans for the eyes. A carrot for the nose. Josh knew the carrot was safe because his brother hated vegetables.
Scott drifts over to the bushes, starts digging.
“Don’t you dare eat that mulch again.” His brother stops with a handful halfway to his face. “Let’s sit on the porch and enjoy the peace.” They sit next to one another in dollar store chairs.
Scott taps his brother on the knee. “When are mom and dad coming back?”
Josh put his arm around him. He could never tell him the truth. They were just on a long vacation. He couldn’t say they were never coming back. That the bright lights of Vegas and the comfort of never staying in one place too long were too much to overcome. They were gone forever. “Soon,” he said. “They’ll be back soon.”
“I miss them.”
“Me too.” Josh had to lie again. He would never forgive them for fucking up his life. Everything and everyone disappeared: Jennifer, his friends, his freedom, his future. But his brother needed him. And he needed his brother. Their love was the truest thing left in his life.
They watch the snow fall from the sky like God was punishing the whole town for its sins. One was thinking about eating tree bark, the other was thinking about lost things.
Chris Milam lives in Middletown, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, JMWW, Lost Balloon, X-R-A-Y, FlashBack Fiction, Molotov Cocktail, Dream Journal, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.