“Tapeworm. The boy must have tapeworm. Is only way for child that size to eat so much.” the grizzled grandfather announced. He nodded to himself in agreement as he leaned back against the brick wall of the alley. The brick pattern visible through his hazy form. His particles were strong and held tight to keep his shape. But in the sunlight his ghost body was nearly always somewhat transparent. “Maybe we should get a doctor for him.” the other man, the nervous man shyly offered from his nearby hiding spot behind the dumpster. In the shadows his form appeared more solid than his fellow ghost. But he was just as dead. “He don’t need a doctor. And he ain’t got a tapeworm. He’s just a growing boy.” came the always fiery but still protective voice of the woman perched on the plastic recycling bin where she knitted. The yarn was all an illusion, there was nothing physical about her needles or skein. Still she fussed when she missed a loop and had to blend it in carefully to her pattern though she simply could have willed it into perfection. The scarf she was making was part of her own projection after all. But in life and in death she believed in fixing her mistakes with hard work. The grandfather went on as if he hadn’t heard the woman. “In old country we do not use doctors for tapeworms. You have to squat down and push like moving your bowels. When you feel the worm slide out and slap between your cheeks you shout. Then your papa reach down and grabs the monster and rips him out of you.” the old man explained with a shrug as he scratched his chest hair, the silver patch that crept up over the top of his white undershirt. The man behind the dumpster blanched like he might be sick. The woman paused, incredulous in her knitting. The grandfather liked having a captive audience. “If that does not work then you starve yourself for weeks. Then you open your mouth and hold a cracker in front of it. You wait for the worm to smell it. Then he come up your throat and come out your mouth to get the food. Now right then someone who is quick has to grab him and pull him out. But them monsters are fast and slick. So best to have someone good with a knife just cut off its head when it comes out of your mouth. This is dangerous too. This how my brother lost his nose.” The other two ghosts were silent, one in disbelief and one in disgust. They were brought out of their shock by a sugary sweet young male voice. “Pops, your brother lost his nose in a grease fire when he was my age. When he flipped burgers at his first job. And you’ve never been to an old country. You lived here your whole life and afterlife. I think you only traveled out of Oklahoma when you were in the Army. You’re just bored and making up stories. Your parents came to Oklahoma from Hungary.” Mitchie chirped as he swung the garbage bag up into the dumpster behind the diner. He wiped his delicate hands on his apron front and tried to give his best reproachful look to the grandfatherly ghost who glared over his translucent pipe. The old man softened instantly because Mitchie trying to look reproachful was not successful. When the boy did anything but smile his features instantly seemed a little confused.
The boy was beautiful and at fourteen he was still willowy enough to often be mistaken for a girl. He was just over five feet in height, though the men in his family were tall. He hadn’t come into their lofty height yet. His soft and shiny hair was deep brown, nearly black and was a constant mess of loose curls that passed his ears but didn’t touch his shoulders yet. His ears had the slightest point to them. He was thin with just enough padding to be easy on the eyes and easy to embrace. His eyes were amber and they sparkled in any light, sometimes even in the dark. His skin was fair, a smattering of freckles on his shoulders and his nose and upper cheek bones. His mother had called those his fairy kisses. He had a pink mouth with curved bow lips that would someday be ripe for kissing. Right now though all his ghost friends ever saw him do with that sweet mouth was to eat.
The old man chuckled. “Still, you eat too much.” he lightly scolded. “You just think that because you only ever see me here and I eat here.” Mitchie pointed out amicably. His mother had been a lawyer. He was good at counter arguments in his sweet way. He glanced around for back-up. His huge amber eyes, which made him almost cartoonish in his cuteness, landing on the lady ghost on the recycling bin. “I mean I work at a diner.” he begged her and nodded towards the back door he had just come from with the trash. “It’s normal I’d get something to eat here right?” he implored to her, his young voice giving a tiny squeak on some points.She smiled warmly, as warmly as a projection can, and put down her needles. “You have to forgive us Mitchie. We only get to see you here, so we only see you eating and working. We just worry ’bout what you’re up to when you’re not here.” She fixed him with her trained motherly eye to make him understand.Mitchie sighed. “I wish you guys could come see me at school. You are nicer than most the ghosts there.” “Wish we could too.” the man behind the dumpster wheezed and stepped into the light. The sun glinted off his bald head for a moment as he moved, then the light passed completely through him, making him nearly invisible. “But we died here in this alley. So this is where we stay.” he was apologetic as he said it. Mitchie nodded. He knew the rules. “Still sucks though.” he said with a sad little smile before shouldering open the door to get back into the diner’s kitchen. “What is this ‘sucks’?” he heard Pops asking behind him. The diner was busy as per usual Sunday. Mitchie was always working on something at his bus-boy position. The patrons, all of them very much alive like he was, didn’t think he ate too much. But they only saw him for one meal, once a day. The ghosts outside had all day to watch him. Being a lovable scamp Mitchie made himself a guest at many tables, eating their leftovers while he chatted with them. It made his job of cleaning tables easier and kept him well fed. He refused tips, saying those were for the waitresses, plus the food was gratuity enough for him. Mitchie didn’t like to eat at home. He didn’t want to put more strain on Greg. Greg, his big brother, already did too much for him. Even though he wished things could have been different, that mom was still alive and all, Mitchie knew he had lucked out in the whole older sibling thing. If he didn’t have Greg to look out for him he knew he’d be on his own. Dad wasn’t exactly up to the task of parenthood. And even at fourteen Mitchie knew he still needed to be parented. He was easily confused by bus routes and transfers and just as easily distracted by bright billboards and friendly stray dogs. He liked to just sit and think. Think about candy or clouds or comic books he’d read. Or about physics or biology. He could sit on the porch and not hear the ringing phone for an hour because he was daydreaming. He was interested in numbers and patterns and would follow them to the point of obsession. Greg had gotten him three cell phones. The current one was not lost yet. But Greg knew it was only a matter of time before this one was gone on a bus or dropped in a gutter. He lost other things too. His house key, they now left the backdoor unlocked for him to get in. His asthma inhaler. Greg made sure the high school and the diner had an extra two or three for him at all times. His pet goldfish. Though he didn’t really lose him, he liberated him into the local duck pond. He’s certain his goldfish is the size of a dolphin by now. Greg never had the heart to tell him how polluted that pond was, how most the ducklings born there were deformed with no feathers or beaks with skin grown over them. That the normal ducks they fed there were mostly just passing through on migration. There’s no way his fish survived.Greg was hard but he wasn’t cruel. He didn’t tell Mitchie the truth about a lot of things. Besides Mitchie probably wouldn’t have believed him. The boy had an amazing capacity to believe in the unlikely or the impossible. Such as the dead souls he saw and conversed with regularly. Greg never believed him and would get irritated with him for talking about it. For letting his imagination get the best of him. Eventually Mitchie stopped mentioning them to his brother. Even though the dead assured him that Greg could see them too. That he was denying the truth. Mitchie reckoned Greg had his reasons. He trusted his big brother with his whole heart. Mitchie’s shift ended at the diner and Mr. Waters paid him for his shift in cash. Mitchie had just turned fourteen and couldn’t have a work permit yet though he had worked for the diner for nearly a year now. Mr. Waters ignored the legality of hiring an underage kid because he had greatly respected Trish Hooper, Mitchie’s late mother. She had been his lawyer and helped him avoid bankruptcy when his attempt to build and open a vegan café on this sleepy side of town had failed. He felt he still owed her so he employed her youngest son, under the table. He sent Mitchie home with a burger dinner for his dad. Mr. Waters thought it was a crying shame what had become of Tom. Tom Hooper, had in his time been a great musician. He was never famous. But it was a pleasure to have him stop by the diner and play a few songs on his guitar. He had been on the board of the arts and music council for the city. His departure from public life had been evident in the Spring and Summer concert series these past two years since Trish’s death. Once a highly visible member of the community, always on the front lines for recycling and music enrichment in the schools, now only rarely seen. Usually going to and from the liquor store a few blocks from his house. It was like he had died with his wife. As Tom sunk deeper into his alcoholism and depression, the care and keeping of Mitchie passed to Greg. Greg was strong and smart and so like his mother. Dreamers like Tom and Mitchie depend on pillars like Trish and Greg. The tax of having a child-like ward never seemed to show on Greg. Though he was a little more serious these days, his step a little heavier. At home with his father passed out on the couch, empty bottle in his hand, Greg was a little quicker to anger. He might shout at Mitchie for tracking mud into the house of for leading home another stray animal. Neighborhood cats and dogs were often treated to Mitchie’s table scraps. Greg might seethe and hiss through his teeth that he just needed a goddamned moment of silence so he could pay the bills and balance the banking accounts online. He had long ago memorized all of his father’s information to be able to electronically sign for the family’s expenses. Greg had a lot on his plate for a seventeen year old high school junior. He kept his hardships to himself. The only person who ever saw the mask slip was Mitchie. But because Greg wanted him to, Mitchie pretended he couldn’t see the cracks in the façade. The places the ants and ivy got in. For everyone else, Greg was perfect. The perfect class president. The perfect goalie on the soccer team. The perfect big brother, even if his little brother seemed weird to Greg’s friends. The perfect employee where he worked part time at the mall. The perfect student, honor roll. The perfect boyfriend.
He had inherited his father’s height early, he was already six feet tall when he had been Mitchie’s age. He was 6”2 now. He had the same dark, nearly black hair that he shared with Mitchie and their mother, Trisha. His skin was baked honey colored though. He absorbed the sunlight where Mitchie seemed to repel it. His tanned body was a study of perfectly lean and strong muscles. Part of it was genetics and part was from swim team and soccer. His eyes were such a dark brown that they appeared black in low lights. They had a depth that caught people off guard, framed in his thick lashes. His smile was wide and perfectly blinding when he issued it. Which was rare anymore. Usually his kissable mouth was drawn to the side in a waiting to smirk. A quality that people who liked to kiss boys would see like the best challenge. To kiss that smirk off of him. Jaime Ayers could attest to that. She and Greg had been going out for eight months and fourteen days now. And she knew that they would last the summer unlike most couples in their circle of friends. She knew this because she loved Greg with her whole soul and heart. They loved each other like Romeo and Juliet without the dying part. That’s why she went down on him during their lunch break most days, in his truck with his jeans undone and boxers pushed down with them and her with her knees on the seat and head bobbing just enough to not be seen by passers by in the school parking lot. Because she truly deeply loved him. Loved him more than any sixteen year old girl had ever loved a boy ever. Those were her feelings. And he loved her too, she thought. Well he loved her in his way. And that was good enough for her. She just wished he wasn’t always so distant. That’s why Haley, his last girlfriend had broken up with him. Jaime and, like, everybody had been so shocked when Greg and Haley broke up. They had been together since ninth grade. Everyone thought they were some kind of fairytale, everyone including Haley. When Jaime, her best friend, had asked her about it and alternately for permission to pursue Greg, Haley had said it all changed when Greg’s mom had died. He had gotten all different or something. And Haley tried to be there for him. Trying to get him to have sex with her whenever they were alone. She thought that would make him happy. And then out of nowhere he told her he didn’t feel like part of this world anymore. Haley took that as an insult to herself and broke up with him. Said he had changed. And he told her she was right. He had to focus now. That it wasn’t her, it was him. Haley snorted when she told that part of the story to Jaime. So sure, have at him. He was depressing now anyway. Like for real, his mom died a year ago, at that point, so get over it already. Greg evaded Jaime’s flirtation for a while. But he surprised her by finally showing favor for her at the beginning of this school year. They were officially together in time for the Fall Formal dance. Which delighted Jaime. She had asked him that night, as they swayed on the dance floor under the crate paper streams, why it had taken him so long to come around to asking her out. She teased him that he was shy or something. It sounded like a funny thing to say about the class president who was also one of the anchors on the school’s closed circuit student run news channel. To her Greg was the opposite of shy. She was just hoping she could get him to smile his irresistible smile for her. His answer had surprised her. Maybe Haley had been right about him being all weird now. He had sighed and averted his dark brown eyes from hers. He had looked over her head towards one of the sets of double doors that lead into the school gym they were dancing in. He seemed to focus on something in the shadows there. “I had to make the conscious effort to be normal.” he said more to himself than to her. Then he snarled at something near the door that she couldn’t see. He kissed the top of her head. “I’ll be back like that, my baby-cat.” he winked at her as she pouted and watched him pick his way through the crowd of juniors and seniors towards the doors. Sure he was odd sometimes like now but Jaime forgave it because she loved the hungry way the other girls looked at him, at her boyfriend. She glanced at the door again, she couldn’t see any reason for Greg to go. She couldn’t see them. Greg saw them. The both of them. “Outside. Now.” he growled, barely moving his lips and not breaking stride as he walked through one of them to shove the door open to get outside behind the gym. He let the door slam closed behind him, he knew they didn’t need it open to follow him. Spirits, as they claimed to be, or figments of his imagination as he called them, could not unfortunately be stopped by solid barriers. If they could Greg would have locked himself in the house with his father a long time ago. The only dead, or delusion as Greg called it, that hung around the house was the echo of his mother, the impression of her but never a fully formed projection of her. Not her spirit proper because she hadn’t died there. Greg reached into the pocket of his crisp white blazer, with his black dress shirt and white tie he matched Jaime’s black and white striped dress, he pulled out a bottle of extra strength maximum energy diet pills. He swallowed two straight without a drink or barely to pause to work up some spit to ease the bulky capsules down his throat. Greg was accustomed to swallowing pills fast. He wasn’t on a diet. He was lean and cut and had never been out of shape. He took the pills for energy. He was convinced that his hallucinations, or ghosts as Mitchie would call them, were a product of his exhaustion. So he tried to never let himself get tired because when he was tired his visions seemed to be able to distract him more. When he was wide eyed and wired he could more easily tell them from reality and promptly ignore them. When he was tired it might take him a moment to notice another student talking to him in a crowded school hall or a customer walking into the clothing store he worked at on a busy Friday night was not visible to other people around him. The people he saw tried to convince him that they were dead, and some of them did appear that way with bullet wounds or dripping red wrists, but Greg knew better. He knew he was losing his mind. He also knew he had to hold it together for his father, his mother taught him to be strong. And he had to hold it together for Mitchie. Someone had to watch out for Mitchie. Sometimes Greg had to wonder if they were actually related. As children Greg had liked to play soccer and climb trees, Mitchie had liked to finger paint and play dress up with household objects: bowls on his head, bed sheets as togas. Greg had lots of friends his own age. Though Mitchie did have a huge posse of followers at the school in his own grade, he never seemed close to them. He seemed to get along best with adults or the elderly. He loved to ask them endless questions, and he never seemed to annoy them because he was sincere and genuinely curious about everything. Also, he was adorable. It was how similar they looked, a perfect combination each of mother and father, that had Greg convinced they must be kin. They both had the dark hair and the slightly pointed ears. Mama’s little Vulcan ears, their father had called them when the boys were younger. Greg’s ears and eyes were trained on the two spirits who had followed him silently out of the gym. He glared at them. “I told you not to come around me anymore.” he spat at them in a low whisper. He didn’t want anyone, living, to hear him and come see him talking to himself out here. “We try to, jeez. Chill out.” the boy of the two groaned. “Told you this was a mistake.” he muttered to the woman next to him. The boy and the woman. The student and the teacher. Mark Tullson had been a junior when Greg was a freshman. Mrs. Pails had taught biology. They had been having an illustrious and illegal affair. When they were exposed they had put themselves out of the picture rather than be parted by scandal and possible jail time. Mark had a bullet hole in his forehead, Mrs. Pails had one under her chin from where she’d shot herself after shooting him. They’d staged their final scene in her classroom, where they’d shared so many happy hours of life together. They were happy to be together in death even if their only other company was Greg and Mitchie Hooper and the five boys that had all killed each other in a gang shoot out in the parking lot a few months ago. They still had each other and that’s all Mark and Mrs. Pails had ever wanted. Greg was disgusted with them. He understood that passion was passion and love was love, but something between an adult a child, even a seventeen year old child like Mark, was illegal and unethical. It broke the rules and Greg didn’t like that. He had to have rules to make things make sense. Adults don’t fuck child. And ghosts don’t exist. These rules were broken in spades here. Greg hated that. Mrs. Pails sighed and patted Mark’s arm. “We always try to respect your wishes Greg, but it’s Mitchie. He’s in trouble.” she said and pursed her pretty lips. Greg smirked.
“You’re lying. You can’t know what Mitch is up to. He’s not at the school tonight, underclassmen aren’t allowed at this dance.” He felt he had them there. His delusions, or spirits, or whatever all seemed tied to places. He had never seen these two outside the school. “Call it the Dead Grapevine.” Mrs. Pails wryly smiled. “There’s a girl who died in the neighborhood next to the football field. She stood at the edge of her lawn. The farthest point she could wander from and yelled until we answered her. She heard from the ghost in the alley, who heard from the ghost in the park, who heard from the ghost in the library who had just seen Mitchie that he had missed his bus.” Greg snorted. “Let him walk home from work. It might make him more responsible if he learns that lesson.”
“There’s more.” the teacher went on in an urgent tone. “When he was cutting through the library parking lot a car stopped, it was a group of drunk college guys. They thought he was a pretty girl. They offered him a ride but when he said no thanks they realized he was a boy.” Greg blinked here and popped another two diet pills thinking he must be really tired to be this imaginative. Usually he didn’t let his visions talk to him this much. He huffed, not really listening because he knew this was all in his head. A delusion based on how he wished his little brother would cut his hair and stop sharing clothes with his female best friend, Anna. He was always afraid of something like this happening. His hallucination was just picking a weak spot for him. Mrs. Pails was still talking and he was just nodding like she was still a living teacher he was tuning out during a lecture on a boring subject. “That’s when he dropped his inhaler. So he’s up in the tree and they are trying to pull him down. You have to go help him Greg.” she begged. Greg rolled his eyes, he couldn’t let his imagination win. “Well nice talking with you two. I’m going back to my real girlfriend to dance with the real people in the gym.”
He started to walk through Mark again. “Come on man. He’s your little brother. You can’t just leave him like that.” Mark whined. “Yes. I can. Wherever Mitch is, he’s fine. He’s probably already home watching the cartoon channel and doing his homework. Or he’s at his friend Anna’s house. It’s not like he would actually go and do anything really fun on a Friday night.” Greg sneered. He wished Mitchie did something besides read comics and paint his fingernails with his best gal-pal. But the kid was so different. Greg didn’t care that his little brother might be gay, like Mitch was often accused of, he cared that his little brother spent too much time with delusions he called ghosts. “No, he’s not having fun tonight Greg.” Mrs. Pails interjected. “And we will pester you until you go help him. Imagine how bad you’d feel if he were hurt and you had ignored our warnings.” It was the part about pestering him that gave Greg pause. He didn’t want to be dancing with Jaime, pretending he couldn’t see or hear the dead hovering around them. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket. “Alright, let’s make a deal. I’ll call him and you can hear him tell me where he is, probably at home, and what he’s doing, probably his homework and that he’s fine. After you get his confirmation that everything is good I want you two to vanish and leave me alone.” he touched Mitchie’s name on the screen. The ghosts and Greg waited as it rang. Greg was cringing the whole time hoping Mitchie hadn’t lost another phone. Finally his little brother picked up. He was wheezing but Greg could hear the smile shape his mouth as he sang in his little golden voice, “Hey big brother.”
“Where’s your inhaler?” Greg asked at once, he could tell from Mitchie’s breathing that he was having an asthma attack. “I dropped it some where in the park. I’m sorry.” Mitchie pouted. Greg could hear gruff voices around him.
“Where are you? Who’s with you?”
“I’m in a tree.” Mitchie chirped like it was a simple as saying he was at home or in a car. “And there’s some guys on the ground who are mad at me cause I’m not a girl and have to be a little f-a-g-g-o-t.” he spelled the word because he never said dirty or mean words. “They are trying to get me but I’m at the very top of the tree and you have to be little like me up here ’cause these branches don’t hold much.” he casually explained between wheezes. “How are you? How’s the dance going? Did Jaime like her corsage?” Mitchie had made it for Greg to give to her. It was a red rose on black silk with a white ribbon.
“The park near the library?” Greg asked his little brother through clenched teeth.“Yuppers.”“Mitchell you stay in that tree. Don’t let those guys pull you down. Kick them if they try to grab you. I’ll be right there.”“No Greg, don’t leave the dance ’cause of-”Greg had turned off his phone and was putting it back in his pocket when the gym door suddenly flew open behind him. Jaime was standing there glaring. She had actually expected to see Greg out here in the arms of one of the many girls who coveted him. Her face softened when she saw he was on his own and then turned to a look of worry when she saw the stress on his face. “Baby, what’s wrong?”He tapped his phone to show her what was bothering him. News he got from it. Not news he got from the dead. “Mitch is in trouble. I have to go.”She nodded. “Where are we going?” Greg groaned internally. It would waste too much time trying to convince her to stay here. But he did need a moment alone with Mark and Mrs. Pails, as always invisible to Jaime. “The park.” he told her. “Go get our jackets. I’ll pull up out front of the gym.” She nodded and was gone. Greg jerked his head for the ghosts to follow him as he jogged towards the parking lot to get his truck. “Send word through all the ghosts to get the one in the park to stay with Mitchie just in case those guys get him out of the tree, I’ll need to know where they take him.”“I’m on it.” Mark said as he raced off with preternatural speed to the edge of the football field where the ghost in the nearby neighborhood could hear him. Greg was unlocking the driver side door as Mrs. Pails touched his cheek.“Do you believe in us now? Now that we helped save your brother. Or are we still not spirits, just figments of your imagination?” she asked kindly.“Figments.” he shrugged as he wrenched open the door and hopped in the cab. “Mitchie is my brother. He and I are connected. So I felt something bad was happening to him. But I’m too smart and grounded to believe in anything cosmic so rather than accept the fact that he and I share an almost otherworldly bond, I imagined you here to enlighten me, even though it was my magical big brother sense all along.” he smirked more than usual, it was nearly a grimace, and started the engine.
“You really believe that?” she asked with a frown.
“Not a word of it.” he laughed. “Figments. Helpful figments.” He nodded at her and rocketed out of his parking space to circle the gym and pick up Jaime. They came barreling up to the park. Greg’s truck was a Ford relic from two decades back but it could still get him from point A to B with plenty of power. Jaime squealed on the seat next to him as he hopped the curb and drove directly across the multi-purpose sports field on the south end of the quaint town park. He pointed his head lights towards the thick growth of trees at the end of the field. He could see a car parked there. He wondered briefly how Mitchie had made it to the trees without being overtaken by the car. Mitchie wasn’t exactly athletic. He wasn’t fat or anything, the kid was skinny as a rail. But he had the coordination of a blind gazelle in a lion’s den. He ran into walls and tripped over his own shadow. Greg laid on his horn, letting it blare as he sped up to the scene. “Stay here.” he barked at Jaime as he rolled to a halting stop, throwing up dirt and gravel from his spinning wheels. Jaime mutely nodded. She had no intention of getting out of the truck. She watched in horror as Greg walked out into the glare of his headlights. “What’s going on y’all?” he asked the three older guys who stood under the tree, Mitchie was about fifteen feet up. Mitchie waved at his brother.“What’s it to you?” one of them sneered at Greg.“He’s it to me.” Greg nodded up the tree.“What, are you his boyfriend? You a fag too?” another one roughly joked.“Yeah, I’m a queer. And I suck his dick every night. Now y’all get out of here before this fag kicks all your asses.”This gave the three a brief pause. Finally the first one chuckled, “You’re full of shit man.”“Try me.” Greg said quietly.After another pause the men laughed. One of them, the biggest one shrugged out of his jacket. “Alright junior. If you can get past me and put your hand on the tree we’ll leave and you can get your boyfriend down. But you won’t get past me ’cause I’m gonna bust all the teeth out of your mouth, make you the best cocksucker in town.”Greg chortled softly. “But I would hate to take your mother’s well earned title.” The big one lunged at him with a ripping growl. Greg was ready. He dipped his shoulder as he turned profile to the other male. He absorbed the power of the would be tackle and slipped out of the clumsy hold. He twisted up from his crouch. His fist came up with a swift and fierce upper cut under the man’s chin. The big man’s jaw popped with an uncomfortable sound. The man lumbered back, briefly stunned and blinking furiously. Greg smiled before he stepped forward to bridge the new gap between them. His fist right crossed, backed up with the force of his muscular frame. “Who’s the cocksucker now bitch?” he laughed as the man fell back with a loud thud on the ground. Greg rolled his shoulder, cracking it. He licked his bottom lip as he nodded at the other two. “Come to Daddy.” he made a kissy face at them. The one who had yet to speak raised his fist and charged at Greg. Unlike his fallen lumbering companion this one depended on speed. In this he and Greg were evenly matched. They weaved back and forth, dancing in and out of one another’s radius, trying to land a hit. Greg took one bruising across his left cheek. Jaime cried out in the truck cab. She gasped when the headlights bounced off of Greg’s eyes and made them look like fireballs. She had never seen anything like it, like Greg fighting after he took that hit. She had watched enough boyfriends over the years play enough video games to equate this to Greg leveling up or something. Like Mario eating the mushroom that makes him bigger. Greg was suddenly moving faster with more precision and hitting with more force. He was passionate. Jaime could see it on his face. She wished he looked that dedicated and alive when they had sex. He was so sexy as he snarled and threw the other male against the tree. Two down.Greg stepped over the bodies and pressed both hands against the tree, trapping the last man between his arms. Greg’s hands on either side of his face. “I’m gonna fuck you up the ass for wasting my time this evening.” Greg hissed. Something in his face scared the other so bad that he started to shake. Slowly a damp stream began to darken the front of his jeans. He had pissed himself. Something in Greg’s face scared him enough that he peed his pants. After that, Greg let him go, let him run away towards the library. Greg took a deep breath and looked up into the tree. In the moonlight he could see Mitchie’s huge smile like that of a Cheshire cat. Greg snapped his fingers and pointed down, silently ordering his little brother from the height of the tree. Mitchie started to swing down, tumbling and fumbling but eventually hitting the ground unharmed. “Wow. Hey Greg, thanks so much. You are so awesome, beating up those guys like it was nothing. I’m sorry you left the dance. Was Jaime mad? Oh there’s Jaime. Hi Jaime. I’m sorry I dropped another inhaler. But look, I kept the phone this time, see.” Mitchie said in one high pitched breath. He took another gulp of air so he could launch into another fit of run on thought but suddenly the air was crushed out of his tiny frame. The breath was pushed out when Greg pulled him forward into a nearly bone breaking hug. He squeezed Mitchie tight to him for a few moments. Then he let go and gave him one sharp open palmed smack to the cheek. Barely hard enough to bruise but serious enough to let Mitchie know he was displeased. Mitchie gulped and nodded as his wide blue eyes watered slightly from the sting of the slap. “I know.” He whispered, and “I’m sorry.” Greg nodded and finally smiled. “Get in the back, kid.” He jerked a thumb towards the truck. Mitchie squealed and hugged Greg again, flinging his small arms around his brother’s waist. Getting to ride in the back of the truck, in the bed, was one of his favorite treats. He waved at Jaime as he passed her window to go climb in. He laid down then on the cold metal of the back of the truck after hauling himself up over the tailgate. He had to stay down since it was illegal to ride in the bed of a moving pick up. That’s why Greg only rarely let him do it. Greg circled the cab and got in on the driver side. He threw it into reverse. “Why doesn’t Mitchie ride up here with us? I wouldn’t mind it.” Jaime quickly hedged, trying to sound concerned. Greg shrugged, “No, he likes the bed. He says it’s like riding a flying carpet.” “Weird.” Jaime whispered playfully. Greg didn’t answer her. He seemed to her to be a million miles away in his iced over silence. He headed the truck, once out of the park, towards the side of town Jaime lived on. She nervously fiddled with the hem of her dress. “Hey.” She softly started, unsure how to begin. “Hey. So something. One thing about tonight bothered me.” “Just one thing?” he sarcastically asked more to himself than her. She ignored this and went on. “Well ‘bothered’ isn’t even the right word. Guess it just made me curious. Cause it’s fine if you are. I still love you and will sleep with you. And I won’t tell anyone. But I didn’t know you were gay. That’s cool and all. I made out with some girls this summer at some parties. But I think maybe you shouldn’t give your brother head. Not because of incest or anything. But because it’s Mitchie and he’s too like innocent for that.” She looked down at her knees, afraid of his reaction. Greg pulled to a stop sign on the empty neighborhood street. He turned a little and just stared at Jaime for a long moment. “I won’t even comment on how many wrong things just came out of your mouth.” He looked ahead again and rolled back into drive, passing through the intersection. “But in a weird, confused way, you are trying to protect Mitchie. I do appreciate that.” Jaime swallowed that down . Greg was harder on her than any boy normally was. He was like that to everyone though. She did wish she got a free pass for being his girlfriend. It was almost like he didn’t know how people talked to each other really and just made up his own version sometimes. She finally quietly prodded with, “So you’re not gay?” Greg sighed. Her obliviousness could be weighing on him. “No. Straight as an arrow. I just wanted those assholes to think they got beat up by a gay guy. Might make them think twice before calling names in the future.” He half smiled to himself. “Oh.” Jaime said with a growing grin as she finally cottoned on. “Well since you’re not gay and I’m not gay, those girls this summer were just you know, for entertainment or something. But since we’re a sexy young hetronormative couple, you wanna swing back by later? I’ll sneak out and you can pick me up.” She put her hand with her black and white painted nails on his thigh and gave him a teasing squeeze. He patted her hand in a gentle but dismissive manner. “I think I’ll turn in early tonight.” She saw his eyes on his rearview mirror, looking at Mitchie back there. He pulled to the curb outside her house. She fought back a pout and nodded. Greg leaned over and caught her chin in his strong hand, he smiled just before he kissed her. Jaime got out of the truck on wobbly knees. Greg always left the girls slightly dazed. Like he had just breathed new fresher air into their suffocating lungs. He hummed an amused note to himself as he watched her smooth her hair and dress before walking up to her front door. She and her mother both waved to him before he drove off. Jaime sighed as she watched her perfect boyfriend and his weird, but sweet, little brother go off into the night. This wasn’t the last time she would see Greg fight. Greg was a good kid, he didn’t look for trouble. But trouble had a way of finding him. During away matches for his soccer team there would always be one or two members of the defeated other team that would have something more to try and prove. Same thing as debate matches or statewide student council retreats. Jaime mostly saw the fights at school though. The few kids who had always been around, they knew and respected Greg. But there were only a handful of them, just enough to fill one classroom, who had always gone to school together here, always lived in town. They were the Lawton kids. The rest were the Fort Sill kids. Lawton is the city that Fort Sill, the world’s largest artillery base, is part of. So there were the locals, kids of business owners and business workers. And there were the army brats. Jaime didn’t like that term. She didn’t think of herself as a brat. But this was her fourth school, by ninth grade, and wouldn’t be her last. She just kept hoping they wouldn’t need her dad anywhere else. She had adjusted so well here. Unlike a lot of kids on the move like her. It was the ones that didn’t adjust that usually had the fights with Greg. Boys who never had time in one place long enough to make actual friends. So some of them came in as bullies instead. They always wanted to make a name for themselves quickly. Making a name generally involved making life hell for some smaller and younger kids. For some reason Mitchie always seemed like a good target for up and coming would be schoolyard menaces. Mitchie was highly visible on the chess team and involved with the science fairs. People liked him, even if he was shy at first and didn’t relate easily to his peers. He was still beautiful and infectious in his giggles. He was generally surrounded by a swarm of girls who did his eyeliner and painted his nails for him. And there were the boys he built engines with out of bottles and rubber bands. He was always chattering on about snow on Mars or hydrozoans that could live forever. He was like a walking Discovery Channel. Often providing his own commercial breaks, interrupting himself to talk about a new song on the radio or a pair of jeans he wanted at the mall. Then he’d launch into an epic retelling of the comic book he’d read most recently. He talked without breathing, fast and silvery. People listened to him, even if they didn’t know what he was talking about, because his animation kept them ensnared. People liked to follow him, just to be in the circle of his radiance, even if they would be late for their next class after walking Mitchie to his own destination. Having tested out of most math and science courses for his age at an earlier grade, Mitchie as a freshman, actually had classes with people from every grade. He was highly visible. Too visible if you asked Greg. Maybe if he didn’t get so much attention he wouldn’t wind up taped to the urinal or shoved inside lockers. Mitchie never fought back. He would try to run sometimes. But he never fought and he never called for help. He didn’t want to be a bother. Greg was usually the first to find him, thanks to the ghosts. But sometimes he would let other students see what had happened to Mitchie, trapped in a tuba case or locked in a dumpster. Greg knew no one would find any humor in what had befallen his little brother. Not like some other members of the chess team. People could laugh that off. But bad things happening to Mitchie were like watching a puppy get kicked. It didn’t set well with most people. Sure it embarrassed Greg to let people know how easy it was to hurt Mitchie, so for the most part he kept what he could under wraps. Though Mitchie’s mile a minute mouth sometimes told the whole school in his sweet carefree way before lunch. Then Greg would have to make the fight public. Greg actually preferred to keep them private, no witnesses. He didn’t want to fight, so sometimes, with the lesser punks, the scorn they suffered from hurting little Mitchie Hooper was enough to keep them in line until they were shipped out again. It was the bigger, better practiced bullies that Greg liked to keep things as private as possible with. He had seen plenty of that type before. But they had never seen anything like Greg. He knew when they got their pride handed to them in public, they would come back for a rematch. Greg hated redundancy, he only liked to teach the lesson once. Greg’s style was almost too refined for high school. He knew too much about moving and he was too fast. He had an almost feline way of crouching and springing. Without an audience, he didn’t speak. He was silent and calm. Though delight was always a glint in his eyes when he fought. He did love it. He loved the sense of purpose he felt while delivering a driving hit into someone’s face, breaking a nose. He might laugh a little when he heard things like bone crack. He would eventually speak while slamming a punk’s head in a car door or grinding his face into the parking lot gravel. “Mitchell Hooper is my little brother. If you even look at him again, I will end your life.” He would emphasize this point with more pain, a knee to the groin, or a large gravel rock slowly shoved up a nostril, splitting the skin till it needed stitches to heal right. “I protect this place. So don’t do anything you don’t want to answer to me for.” He’d drop the body, wallowing on the ground between cars in the parking lot. He’d jog to the gym to grab a shower before finding Jaime for lunch and a well deserved blow job. She always seemed to believe him when he said his good mood was just because he was getting to be around her, his favorite girl. That suited Greg just fine. No one knew about these private fights. No one knew about his battle glee. Unfortunately everyone and their mother knew about the public ones. These were the ones Jaime saw, even if Greg would always call to her in the crowd and say, “Sugar, you can cover your eyes. I don’t want you having nightmares about the blood.” She never covered her eyes. There was no way to stop watching him when he moved. Like people had to listen to Mitchie when he talked, they had to watch Greg attack. Spinning and pivoting around his opponent to the drums no one else could hear. People talked about these fights for weeks. It was never surprising if these publicly shamed bullies stopped showing up at school all together. Especially the ones that were stupid enough to want a rematch. Jaime thought it was pretty hot to be with the toughest guy in school. Especially when that guy was so cute and smart too. He was something special, she knew that. So she did her best to keep him satisfied. She started sneaking out and walking over to his house on the nights he claimed he had too much homework to pick her up or had to work late at the mall. She would pop off the screen to his window and climb in then. She would crawl into his bed and wait, usually naked or in sexy bed dress. Sometimes she would have to wait a long time. Once or twice she fell asleep. It turned out that Greg did his homework at the dining room table with Mitchie. Then he would do some household chores while Mitchie took a bath. Then he would see Mitchie off to bed. He refused to call it tucking him in, even if Mitchie called it that. Then he would come to bed himself and make almost obligatory love to Jaime before falling into a deep sleep. Jaime used to tease Greg about being so dutiful, maybe skipping homework some nights. They had a lot of classes together so she knew he couldn’t have as much homework as he seemed to do. He confessed that some nights he was just studying. She tried to get him to hang out with her then. But he always pointed out that he wanted out of this city. And even if the fighting appealed to him, he wasn’t going to take the military route like so many of their peers did. His only shot, he said, to see the world was through college. He had to get a full scholarship. Sure mom had left a lot of money but Mitchie would need it. So to get the kind of scholarship he wanted he needed a perfect transcript. So he studied. Because, he said, he didn’t belong here. Jaime always agreed with him on that. That he didn’t belong here. But she didn’t always agree on the places he thought he should be. To her, Greg was magic, so she could see him going to magic places like Oklahoma City or even Tulsa or maybe into the wilds of Texas. Greg always passed his Spanish class exams, he could handle Texas. She didn’t like it when he talked about New York or California. He was going to be a lawyer like his mom, they still needed lawyers here in Oklahoma. When she’d get fussy about future plans he would distract her with a kiss. She was easy to distract, when it came to the future. Very unlike Mitchie. Greg couldn’t distract him with kisses, but stories sometimes did the trick. Once, fussy from waiting for him as she lay in bed wearing nothing but body glitter because Greg always seemed to think the glitter was sexy, he never said so but she could tell in the heated way he handled her, Jaime got curious. She put on her jacket and jeans and cautiously, quietly left Greg’s bedroom. The hall outside of it was dark, lit only by the blue cast off glow from the TV in the living room where Tom Hooper, their father, was most likely passed out on the couch. There was a little light coming from the soft glow of the bedside lamp in Mitchie’s room. Jaime had passed Mitchie’s open door enough times to know that it looked like it had once been a toy store in there that a small but turbulent tornado had touched down in. It had blue walls with wispy white clouds painted on them. But over the original design hung countless pictures torn out of comic books or pages from textbooks or various math equations written on napkins, all things Mitchie fancied and liked to think about. Posters of bands, illustrations from cereal boxes, little keepsakes like an x-ray of his tiny teeth from his last dentist visit, army men glued in formation marching up his window sill, the periodic table glued to his wall made out of bottle caps with the element coding written within each cap. The hardwood floor was completely littered with toys. Most of them second hand. Though she couldn’t rightly tell who the first hand had been. Mitchie loved to go to thrift stores and donation centers to recover abandoned toys. Things that had been loved and now lost. Things he saved. Teddy bears with one missing button eye, baby dolls with purple marker scribbled on their once pretty faces, action figures with disenfranchised limbs. Mitchie never bothered to repair the toys, he simply gave them a place to live, to be loved again. There were two path ways carved through the clutter on the war zone floor. One from the bed to the door and one from the bed to his window. His bed and the cut out bench seat at the window were the only places not covered in toys and books. His room was the polar opposite of Greg’s. Mitchie’s room was a cacophony of color. Greg’s was black, gray, tan and white. His furniture, bed, desk, bureau, was black. All from a stream lined catalog interested in making the most of a space. His walls were tan with white accents. His bedding was charcoal gray satins with black seams. His room was neat. Precise. Strategic. The books on his shelf above the desk were ordered in ergonomic importance based on his reach from his seat there. On his headboard sat his alarm clock. There was a drawer in the headboard that served as a nightstand. The drawer only contained condoms and lubricant. Mitchie’s nightstand had a slinky, a flashlight, a little jar of pennies, some marbles, a bone he found in the park which probably belonged to a squirrel, a collar to a dog he’d never owned, a few empty and a few full asthma inhalers all mixed together for a messy search in a time of need, and a button that was shiny and he thought would look nice on someone’s coat. Mitchie collected. Greg kept only what was necessary. He seemed almost out of place in Mitchie’s room.
Jaime could see them through the cracked open door. Greg was still in his school clothes, tee shirt and jeans, but looking like an advertisement for the latest sexy thing in casual fashion. Mitchie was in his Marvel super hero themed boxers. Jamie kicked herself inside for noticing that Mitchie was just as cute as his brother in a miniature kind of way. She didn’t think she should be scoping out Mitchie on the principle that he was too innocent to be seen that way and he was her boyfriend’s little brother. But there was no denying that the boy had an appeal. She shook the thought and watched on as Greg was tucking Mitchie in under his patched over green and blue quilt. He playfully had Mitchie pinned under the quilt, Greg’s hands trapping it to the bed, planted next to his brother’s small shoulders. As though he was trying to make sure the boy stayed just there for the night. And while he had him pinned he softly rushed through an obligatory story.
“Once there were fairies but humans suck. So the fairies left. And some heroes did some good things. And they all turned out alright in the end. G’night, sport.” he kissed his little brother’s forehead. He straightened up to leave.
Mitchie sat up and pushed away his covers indignantly. He groaned. He pouted up at Greg. “Tell it better.” he whispered his childish demand. “Tell me a good one, please Greg.” the older boy rolled his eyes and then sat down on the side of Mitchie’s bed, next to the boys legs still under the quilt. “In the beginning…” Mitchie prodded and prompted him in his sing song voice.
Greg nodded in defeat and started his story. “In the beginning there was the land and the water around it. There were plants and there were animals. One day some of the monkeys came down from the trees, called by a new notion. A new truth. And they became the first men. Then sometime later the same magic that turned the monkeys into the first men turned some of the men into the first fairies. The new truth was that the magic would always be changing. And it would manifest in whatever manner it liked. Then plants and animals, man and fae all lived in harmony. But eventually some, most of the humans became jealous of the fairies magic. They wanted it for themselves. They learned that if they killed a fairy just right they could take his power into themselves. But that power wouldn’t be as strong as it had been in one living fairy. So a man would have to kill and take the powers of many fairies to be as strong as one of them.” Greg paused here as Mitchie lay back and allowed his big brother to cover him again.
“And fairies tried to reason with the humans. But in an effort to save themselves, some human lives were lost. There was a war. So the fae, for their own safety invoked their deeply powerful magic and made the land divide. The great land became three parts. A small one for just men. A small one for just fairies. And the greatest piece for those who wanted to try and live together. But wars continued with invasion and bloodshed. Even in the land for just fairies, since there was evil now in the world. And some evils not even the fae are immune to. More divisions happened until there were seven lands, seven kingdoms with water between them all.” Greg paused and sat quietly for a moment. Mitchie’s eyes were closed. Greg started to get up. But Mitchie’s whisper stayed him.
“And then what happened?” he sweetly though sleepily peeped.
“Mitchell, you know what happened next. You’ve heard this story a million times.”
“Have not. Even if I heard it every night of my life since I was born that would only be like 5,475 times. But I’m actually sixty four days passed my birthday, so it would be 5,539. But then there’s leap year in there so-”
Greg grunted in defeat and cut him off to go on with the story. “Still the land divides were not enough. So in one last act of salvation the fae performed their greatest separation yet. They put a glamour over the whole world. So that everything magical was now invisible to human eyes. And because they wanted to forget the sorrow of war with their brothers, everything human became invisible and intangible to the fairies as well. Both worlds exist right on top of one another but completely unaware of the other. The elders in both worlds passed down the tales of fairies and humans but the young grew up not seeing these creatures and the stories eventually became folklore.” Greg went quiet. Mitchie’s breathing seemed to be deep and even. Greg sat very still, waiting to see if Mitchie was actually asleep this time. He had started to rise when Mitchie spoke again.
“Great beginning, tell me about a hero.”
Greg didn’t even bother to grumble this time. He knew Mitchie wasn’t going down easy tonight. He needed a longer story. “Now just because the realms had been sliced away from one another and men and fairies lived separately, it didn’t mean that the magic completely stopped. The magic was still appearing in the human world in the forms it wanted to appear as for whatever reason. And this meant sometimes fairy babies would be born to human parents. But humans had forgotten the truth of the fae. So these special children became heroes, wizards, legends and gods. Whatever the men needed to call them to make their powers make sense. Most times these heroes never knew what they truly were, they just accepted the stories the humans made up around them. Somethings they would find others like themselves and start communities. This is another place our stories of fairies come from. The small pockets of them this realm has seen since the great divide.
You know the names of some of the fairies here. Hercules, Merlin, John Lennon, Michelle Obama. One you might not have heard of though is Prince Mitchick. Prince Mitchick is the kindest fairy with the biggest heart…” Greg was once again quiet. He listened to his little brother’s breathing and inspected his slack mouth, a trail of drool just starting out from the corner. Greg smiled and silently got up. Prince Mitchick, a character his father had made up for these stories, was sleeping soundly now.
Outside the bedroom door Jaime scrambled to get up from her knees where she had rested to hear the story. She wasn’t fast enough though. Greg caught her standing up. His dark eyes flashed with fury when he saw her. She gulped and jogged to his room. He walked behind her. Once in his bedroom she kept her back to the door to try and think of her excuse. She’d never seen him so mad at her before. She heard the door shut with a muffled snap. She spun around to face him. They both started talking at once.
“I’m sorry. I was just curious to see-” she said.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea-” he said at the same time.
They both laughed and gave each other permission to speak again. Which they both did. Continuing to talk over one another.
“It’s just you take so long, tucking, I mean putting him to bed-”
“He’s not weird. It’s just without a story he sleep walks and-”
They paused again. Jaime was beginning to realize that Greg was not furious about her spying. He was furiously protecting his little brother. She took off her jacket and sat down on his bed. “What happens when he sleep walks?” she asked gently and patted the spot next to her for him to join her on the bed.
Greg sighed. He pulled off his shirt and jeans and sat down next to her. “He climbs out of his window and starts walking down the street. It’s so hard to wake him up then. He’ll try and fight me. And he just keeps saying ‘I have to find them. I have to help them.’ I wish he could fight that same was when he’s awake. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to beat up so many douche bags for messing with him. He is actually really strong then. I’ve had to tackle him in the neighbor’s yards and just sit on him until he wakes up.” as he told her he looked away, honestly embarrassed.
“Who is he looking for?” she softly prodded.
“I’ve asked him. I tried a couple of times to talk him into waking up. I thought maybe if I could trigger his logic brain, his thinking brain, that he would wake up. He’s so freaking smart when he’s awake, you know. But when I ask him who they are he gets angry at me. He tells me to not be so stupid because I know who they are. ‘The others.’ he will say or ‘the ones like us.’ But I asked him about it the next morning and he had no idea. He never remembers sleep walking. At first he didn’t believe me about the walking at all, let alone the conversations. The only proof he finally believed in was his own dirty feet from walking over lawns barefoot in the night. Still he came up with reasons for that. One night I just filmed him on my phone to show him before I threw him over my shoulder to carry home. He finally believed that.”
“So if you tell him a story he doesn’t sleep walk?” Jaime asked as she peeled out of her jeans and panties.
“Yeah.” Greg nodded and pulled off his black boxer briefs. “But it has to be the story you heard tonight. I have tried reading to him from books or making up other stories. The only thing that works is the fairy stories our dad used to tell us when we were little.” he reached over and picked up Jaime by her hips so she was straddling his lap. Her back was to his chest with her hands between her spread thighs on his knees.
“That’s weird.” she said. “He’s weird.”
“He’s not weird.” Greg growled and shoved inside of her with a little more force than necessary. “It’s more like he’s just not from around here.” he fit his hand around her throat. “Shh, babygirl, no more talk about my family. Let’s talk about what a bad girl you were spying on me.” he lifted her hips and dropped her back down. She stifled a moan. Mitchie slept on.