“Let me get this straight, we have another brother?” Xavier, the man I now know as Eli, and Mom each nod as I try to wrap my head around this entire situation. As I look at our secret brother, my thoughts of not being the oldest brother anymore hitting me. Xavier and I thought there was a chance that there could be others out there, but never once did I think I’d find a secret brother in front of us. “Who found out about you first?”
“How do you know her?” I ask while sitting a bit straighter. “You aren’t a Panther, are you?” Eli’s face contorts before he moves a bit closer to my bed and I just stare at him, being absorbed with a curiosity different than the one that Aaron bestows on me.
“I would never become a Panther,” he grounds out tightly. “Let me ask you a question. Have you ever thought someone loved you but that’s not what it was? They just hurt you even though they continuously make you believe that they care?” Possibly, but it’s not like I’d remember any of it. I’m missing a whole four and a half years of memory at least.
“I- I don’t know.”
“Alright, well since you don’t know, how about I tell you my story.” The thought of knowing where this secret brother of mine was intrigues me, and maybe I’ll get to know who he is, or if not that, I’ll know something about who he is.
“If you’re willing to speak about it,” I yawn out.
They said I was in a coma for twenty days, how the hell wasn’t that enough sleep?
“My mom and I used to live in this cozy apartment in San Diego, she didn’t have many relationships, I think only four or so total, but there were two things that never failed at chasing them away. The first thing was Mom’s medical conditions, which were tremendously going downhill, and then the second one came when they would meet me.” His eyes glass over, and for a moment, I’m scared he’s about to cry. I’ve seen enough tears to last me the next couple of days, not to mention that I can’t get Aaron’s teary eyes out of my head.
“There was one boyfriend, Rocky, he would come and go, but he offered to help pay bills since she couldn’t exactly work all the time.” Eli clears his eyes, forcing himself to look away from me. “When Mom was awake he’d pretend to be this nice guy that would playfully ruffle up my hair, but when she fell asleep… he became a different man. He’d slap me if something angered him, it didn’t even have to be anything big.
“There were so many messed up things that he did to me, some that I’m never going to recover from, but I didn’t say anything. I let him hurt me. Over and over.” His eyes land down on his left arm, but I can’t see what he’s staring at, maybe it’s an old wound mark. “I didn’t say anything because I could see the light returning in her face, so for a few months I suffered, but eventually, he and Mom broke up. It was bad too.”
“What happened?” Xavier asks with his light blue eyes watching Eli precariously.
“I was in my room, trying to force myself to go to sleep like I had begun to do since Rocky started to hit me, but he and Mom were keeping me awake. They were yelling at each other, and then there was crashing. When I went into the living room, a lamp was broken and Mom was crying. That night we both cried ourselves to sleep, because even if she didn’t think I realized, I could see the handprints on her.” I feel myself hold my breath before I’m caught thinking about if I was him. Coming out of his room as a scared kid to see his mom in such a vulnerable state, knowing that she had just been hurt while he was in the room next door.
“I could’ve stopped it.”
“You were a kid,” Mom tells him as she places a hand on his shoulder, trying to console him in any way she finds possible. “That doesn’t land on you.” Why is it that every time I come into contact with people that have problems with realizing that things don’t have to fall on themselves? Why am I apparently one of those people too?
“She was sick, it would’ve been better for me to get hurt instead.”
“As a mother, I know she would prefer things the way they happened instead of watching you get hurt.”
“None of it actually matters because we lost the person that kept us afloat. I worked on the farm, went dumpster diving and other things. When I wanted to quit, I forced myself to keep going. I knew that what I was doing continued to save the only person I cared about from dying.”
“That’s a huge weight to have on your shoulders,” I whisper out before he gives me a simple “mhm” in agreement to the statement.
“Soon I came to a point in life where I full heartedly knew that I couldn’t save us. The price of Mom’s meds were steep, I couldn’t afford the apartment on my own along with other essentials which led to my phone call to my so-called father. That’s when he told me Mom could die and take me with for all he cared.” A grimace is all I see on both his, Mom, and Xavier’s face at the words when I feel my stomach drop.
“D- Dad said that?” I speak through the lump in my throat.
“Yeah, he did. I never knew that warm side, my first confrontation with him, over the phone was him saying all these harsh things to me.”
“And I was the one that gave you the phone.”
“You remember that?”
“I remember how scared you sounded, and I could tell you were in need of help, so I went to Dad since Mom wasn’t there.” Mom and Eli look into each other’s eyes for a moment and I can tell it’s for a silent apology.
“Uh- getting back on track here, two weeks after that conversation on April 24, 2011, I came home to find her dead on the floor in the kitchen.” I notice Eli start to shake before Mom’s arms wrap around him. “I couldn’t afford a funeral for her, and even if I could, I’d be the only person to show.”
“What about your grandparents?”
“When I was old enough, Mom told me they were really catholic and the moment they found out she was going to have me through pre-marital sex they threw her out on her own. She never had anyone to help raise me so we stuck together through the struggle, closer than anybody could imagine.” He holds on to Mom as if she makes some of his pain go away and maybe she does even if they are just meeting, Mom’s good at making you forget how bad something really hurts.
“It didn’t take long after she died for me to end up on the streets, but it ended when I met a man named PJ Burling who brought me home with him and until I was 16, I lived with him, his wife, and their two adoptive daughters. Part of me thought we were destined to meet, he was my saving grace, well, more specifically, Piper and Willow Burling were that for me.
“Mr. Burling was a man of power. He told me about how he would host these fights to help out the family, so of course I went along with it, because for the first time in forever, I had more than my mom who cared about me.
“He told me he saw potential in me and that I was really good at fighting so he started to place me in fight after fight. The worst part, a major part of me loved it.” His lip begins to tremble as he leans a bit more into Mom. “Fighting was one of the only situations in life that I could control. It helped me to forget that Mom was dead. That my dad who hadn’t even met me seemed to hate me. It also would make me forget that I had been such a broken kid. I didn’t feel powerless anymore.”
“I’m sorry for everything you had to be forced through,” Mom mutters out.
I think of saying something, but I don’t. I don’t know the right words to say when I watch people break, at least not anymore. Maybe in my missing years I was someone people could lean on when they felt they had no one else, I hope I was, at least for a single person.
“If I knew-”
“Ms. Jourdyn, there is no need for you to apologize for any of this. Nothing can change the past. If you were to find out about me back then, I think you would’ve been the right person for me to be around, you remind me of her.” I would’ve liked to meet his mom. “When I think about my past it gets me so pissed off that I allowed myself to be manipulated.” I get that too.
“We each have our moments of weakness,” Xavier contributes as he moves a bit closer to my bed. “We can’t let our weak moments define who we are, or the decisions we make in the future.”
“Is there a chance that any of you have my phone on you.”
“No, it’s back at the house along with Amaya most likely.” In one fluid motion I sit up before a wave of dizziness hits me like a truck. “Can you stop doing things you aren’t supposed to do after being awake for three hours?” Xavier scolds, acting more like a parent than a younger brother.
“I’ve got to speak to Amaya?”
“Okay, and? Ever heard of a phone? It’s this magical device where you can stay exactly where you are and still speak to the person you desire to speak to.” Eli lets out a small chuckle as I glance over to him, his arms still wrapped around Mom. “You can ask to borrow one of those instead of endangering yourself.
“And how is it that you not only just woke up from a coma but you develop amnesia and she’s still the first one on your mind?”
"Because I'm so damn anxious and part of me feels like I'm missing so much information. She can help me with that, so that means we need to talk. Soon." They each exchange a look amongst themselves, leaving me out of whatever silent conversation they're having. "Great, now I'm back to being a kid in the room."
"It's not like that," Xavier quickly supplies.
"Oh really, then what is it? It seems like all of you are doing some type of telepathic mind reading thing when you look into each other's eyes." They look away from each other to instead look around.
"Three questions," Xavier grants me like a genie.
"Okay, how did Amaya and I end up together? Why did we break up? 4-1-1 on my relationship with Aaron." Xavier blows out a breath before coming to my side and taking a seat next to me on the bed.
"Well, we were in the eighth grade and you decided it was about time for you to tell her, so we came up with a plan. You waited until the day we got out of school for summer vacation that you would invite her and the guys over, or so she believed." Xavier smiles gently, his eyes shining with a sudden light.
"We told Dylan, Cody, and Jonah what your plans were so we made ourselves scarce." He folds his hands in front of him. "Before she even came over you were speaking about chickening out of the whole thing, but I didn't let you. With each excuse you would try to make up I'd give you three reasons why you should.
"It wasn't a hard choice to make either, I already knew she liked you back. It was kind of obvious."
"And neither of us ever saw it even with the signs we'd always give out."
"No, just that and our first kiss, which all happened on the same day, so I don't see how much that helps." Xavier nudges me, making my body fall to the side a bit.
"Progress is still progress, and things aren't going to just fall back into place right away. Things take a while to go back to the way they originally were, sometimes they never go back." Well that makes me feel much better about this whole situation. "Only time will tell.
"The most important part, even if things don't return to how they were, I'm here. Everyone that was in your corner before everything happened is still here. We're each here for the long haul, and we're here if you need us.
"At this time, it might be more than you'd like to admit. Now repeat the second question."
"Why did we break up?"
"The first time you guys were young and it seemed like all odds were stacked against your relationship, so she broke up with you.
"Then two months ago you got back together, but this time, she broke up with you because she thought she was protecting you," Xavier explains as he places a hand over my own.
"If it helps, she regrets making that decision." Suddenly my hands become the most interesting thing in the world.
"It's easier to show you," he replies while reaching into his pocket for his phone. Xavier taps at the screen before placing it in my hand. "Press play."
When I start the video I'm met with the sight of a toddler who looks similar to the little boy with the big green eyes. Aaron. The boy that looked to have a sweet heart.
His hair is as golden as the sun, but is in a mess of wavy curls that fall in his face every time he moves his head.
"Say hi, Aar," a younger, less raspy version of my voice meets my ears, but I don't see my face.
"Eye Sha," a higher pitched voice speaks through the phone and all I can think about is how cute he is. "Play car?" Aaron lifts a Lightning McQueen car over his head towards the camera.
"Okay, bud," I chuckle out before pushing some of his hair out of his eyes. He hands me a four-toothed smile as he forces himself into crawling position to come onto his feet.
"She's not here," the me in the video sighs out.
"No Momma?" His lip begins to tremble.
"Even though she's not here, I am. I'm always going to be here, but if you want, we can say hi." His head falls on my shoulder.
"Say hi to Momma," he says excitedly. I smile at the video and that bright line that is clear even through a young version of the boy I met.
"Okay, we can call her, but we've got to be fast."
That's the end of the video and I swear I have a few more questions.
"You've always had this connection with each other, an understanding that nobody could change."
"Am I right to assume he didn't know I was his dad at the time?"
"Nobody knew at this time, though there was a day we went out together and you told me you thought there was a chance. But you didn't want to tell anyone, I don't really know why, but-"
"I didn't want to be let down," I whisper out before a hit of shock slaps me in the face at the words that left me.
It's crazy that I was just fourteen wanting to be a father.
"I- I was scared of telling Amaya that I thought Aaron was mine…" The more I speak the less I'm capable of remembering and to say that realization isn't pissing me off would be a blatant lie. "Uh, I- I remember wanting him to be mine because I already knew I loved him. I also knew I'd be willing to do whatever it took to keep him safe."
"You remember that?"
"Vaguely. I wish I remembered it all, but now I'm in this situation where I had to watch this innocent kid break in front of me," I huff out as I slam my fist into the space on the bed between Xavier and I; he stares at me heartbroken, but it's different than the way Aaron looked to me. "I needlessly broke his heart and I wish I could take it all back.
"I haven't even been awake for a full day and I've already started problems." That's when a free fall of tears begin to pour from my eyes.
Xavier throws his arms around me in a tight hold that I allow myself to melt into.
"I messed up, Ave."
"You'll find a way to fix it like you always do, and even though Aaron and Amaya aren't here for the moment, I am. I'm always going to be here," he whispers out, and for a bit, I believe things are going to be okay.