I did not grow up in my brother’s shadow. I grew up in his light. I have been John’s sister since the very beginning. He was not yet four when I was born, but he claims to remember the event. He remembers naming me. He tells the story of my naming as if that morning still shimmers, a perfect mirage, in his memory. Our father dropped John off at an elderly neighbor’s house on the afternoon before I was born. John says it was terrible to have been left behind, that the woman was strange and her house dusty, that he feared our parents would not return for him. He says he thought about me a great deal, that he imagined me just as I turned out to be.
Everyone agrees that on the morning my parents brought me home from the hospital and my father crossed the street to collect John, he found John waiting with his face pressed against the bay window of the neighbor lady’s living room. Our father carried John home. Once Dad set him down in the living room, John didn’t run to our mother who was reclining on the couch. He ran to the bassinette where I lay sleeping through the massive trauma of having arrived so recently in the world. He reached out his chubby hand and touched me.
“Finally,” John said. “Finally, finally, finally.”
“What do you think, Johnny?” our mother asked. “What do you think of your little sister?”
“I’ve been lonely for her for so long,” John said.
There is little to do when you come into a family like that other than cleave to the brother who claims you.
“What should we call her?” Dad asked. My birth certificate read only Baby Girl Fields. Our parents, for all the lack of imagination our names seem to reveal, waited days to name us.
“We didn’t know you yet,” our mother used to say. “How could we name someone we’d never met?”
“I think she’s Jane,” John said, looking down at the sleeping me. He has spoken of that moment so often, and with such mystical wonder, that I feel as if I have my own memory of that bright winter morning, the sun sparkling off the snow on the spruce tree, the heat in the house turned up too warm for everyone but me.
Years later, after his first break, after dropping out of college and being locked down in a psychiatric hospital, after one terrible round of medications after another, after stabilizing briefly and then secretly flushing his meds, after our mother and father started saying things like, “Well, what do we do? I’m honestly asking, what are our options here? For god’s sake, what do you think we should do?” at night, when they thought they were alone, when they thought I was in bed, I thought about how John used to spread his wings for me. I was out of high school, taking classes at a community college, working at a coffee shop, waiting for John to get well so I could figure out what to do with myself, when John started talking about the two of us making a break for it.
… He’d begun setting little traps around the house, complicated rubber band slingshots hooked up to the bathroom doors, spring-loaded mousetraps in our father’s shoes. He dumped a jar of rubber cement in the flour canister and drowned goldfish in a tub of yogurt. I think our father and I would have gone on forever like that—it’s amazing what you can get used to—but our mother was being driven to her own breaking point. When I tried to talk John out of his mind games and convince him to give our poor mother a rest, he looked me in the eye and swore he had no idea what I was talking about.
“It’s like living with a monster in the basement,” she said one night. She and our father had been fighting. She was livid. She was crying. “It’s insane, Richard. Literally. I’m frightened to even be in the kitchen with him down there. I really am. I’m terrified of my own son.”
“I can hear you,” John called from the bottom of the basement steps.
“John,” our father said sternly, as if John were a boy he could discipline.
“Fucking hamster-face,” John said.
Our mother stormed out the back door, and our father followed her. I crept down the basement stairs to see about John. When it was just the two of us, he was rarely angry. He would grow meek with contrition and anxiety. His eyes would dart, wounded and frightened, refusing to light on anything. I found him at the bottom of the basement steps, chewing on a lock of his hair, reading a biography of Syd Barrett, his foot twitching to “The Scarecrow,” as if he hadn’t just been shouting at our father.
“John,” I said.
“What are we going to do, Janie?” he asked. His eyes were red-rimmed. “Don’t let them throw me out. Don’t let them get rid of me.”
“No one’s trying to get rid of you,” I said. I sat on the steps. He leaned his unwell, unwashed head against my knee. I stroked his hair and he banged his temple gently and rhythmically against me.
“She’s making things up, Janie,” he whispered. I tried to still his head. “She imagines things. She has these wild ideas and then she blames them on me.”
“John,” I said softly. “I saw the goldfish in the yogurt.”
“I won’t blame you, Janie, if you stop loving me.”
“Shut up, John,” I said. “Don’t be stupid. I’m not going to stop loving you.”
John stopped banging his head against my knee and began to hum.
“Do you have a comb?” I asked. “I could work on these rats nests.”
John found a comb on our dad’s workbench and then sat again at my feet. I worked the comb through tiny sections of snarled curls.
“Could you talk to Dr. Margolis?” John asked. “Could you get her to talk to me? I feel like she might be able to get through to Mom and Dad. She sees everything. She’s the kind of person who can look straight into your head.”
“She’s your psychiatrist,” I said. “She prescribes meds. She said she isn’t going to see you until you agree to start taking them again.”
“You’re the only one who hasn’t abandoned me in my hour of need,” John said. “If it were just the two of us, Janie. Don’t you think? Don’t you think, maybe, I just need time to breathe?”
I didn’t answer him.
“Tip your head down,” I said. “Your hair is one huge tangle here at the base of your neck.”
Within a week, John and I had rented a van. We told the U-Haul people that John would be the only one driving it, but John hadn’t driven in months. He gripped the steering wheel and the color drained from his face. He couldn’t seem to focus his eyes on the road. We made it two blocks before John slammed the van into park and we changed spots. …
I parked the van at the foot of the hill in front of our house. I killed the engine, and John and I sat quietly. I don’t know what he was thinking about, but I was thinking about the slope of our front yard, the way our parents’ house sits atop a hill, its siding painted blue to match the towering Colorado blue spruce whose boughs shade the French windows in the living room. … Sometimes our mother would open the windows and play the piano while we chased fireflies at dusk.
“Have you ever thought about how streetlamps show people where to find us?” John asked.
My eyes fell on my brother, his puffy, sweaty face and tangled hair, his roaming, nervous hands pawing at his ears. His lean beauty obliterated by mania and years of psychotropic meds.
“Like from way up, not space or anything, just way up in an airplane. If you fly at night you can see where everyone’s at. We put up lights, lights, lights, like all this light is going to keep us safe, but it’s really just a pattern, all these tiny pinpoints revealing where we huddle at night.”
I couldn’t fathom how to answer him.
“We’re so vulnerable, Jane. That’s the thing I like about you. You never seem to think about it. You’re belly-up all the time. That’s why I like you.”
He began to drum his fingers against the dashboard. He hummed something from Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
“Let’s get this over with, John,” I said.
“Ay-ay, captain,” he said. “T-minus forever and counting.”
We climbed the flagstone steps up the hill to our front porch. John gave me a hand gesture I didn’t understand, and then led the way up the porch steps to the front door. We’d said nothing to our parents ahead of time. When we got inside, John went straight to the basement to break down the drum kit, and I tried to say reasonable things to our parents.
“Don’t worry,” I kept saying. “Don’t be afraid. I’m going to help John get well. I’ll take care of everything.”
We loaded our clothes and the drum kit into the back of the van. Our father left briefly, and when he returned he gave me a thousand dollars in cash, the bills rolled and wrapped with a rubber band. He gave me the money once John was already buckled into the van.
“Tell us what we can do to help, Janie,” Dad said, taking my head in his hands. “Don’t be afraid to call us. Your mother and me—whatever you need. Whatever we can do for John, okay?”
“We’ll be fine, Dad,” I said. “Give us six months. I know that seems awful, but just give us six months to get organized. We’ll get on our feet. Once we’re set I’ll let you know how to get a hold of us, but give us six months, at least. John just needs a little space to breathe.”
“Okay,” Dad said. Our mother had long since left the house, claiming she refused to be party to such madness.
It was evening before John and I were speeding north on the interstate. As the sun bled into the horizon to the west, John grew anxious about the promise we’d made to the U-Haul people. He adjusted the rearview mirror so he could watch fretfully for a police car lighting up behind us.
“Drive slower, Janie,” he instructed, and then, with the traffic whizzing past us on the left, “Faster, faster! Keep up with everyone. You just have to blend in.”
His fear mounted until he decided we should pull off at a rest stop. I parked the van under the yellow glare of a sodium security light and killed the engine.
“Okay, John,” I said. I was tired and hungry and we were in the middle of nowhere. “You win. What now?”
I wasn’t looking at my brother. I watched half a dozen kids and a fat couple pile out of a Suburban two parking spaces down from ours. One of the smallest children, a girl, stopped in the middle of the parking lot for some reason and burst into tears. Her father hoisted her into his arms, and the girl draped like a rag doll over his shoulder. One pink arm swung loosely against his back. She cried bitterly, her wet eyes closed and her wet mouth open wide.
“I’m going to have to drive,” John said.
I looked at him. John had one leg wedged between his chest and the glove compartment so he could retie his sneaker.
“That’s nuts,” I said. “You can’t drive, John. You nearly blew a gasket after two blocks of a side street. You’re going to drive on the interstate?”
“Wouldn’t you agree it’s preferable to all this sneaking around? What if they catch us? What if this is all a set up to send you to jail? Isn’t me driving preferable to us trying to pull one over on our fellow citizens?”
“No!” I said. “It’s not. It’s lunacy.”
John whacked a meaty palm against his forehead. He closed his eyes and massaged his temples and then stuck his fingers in his ears. I watched the mother of all the children feeding quarters into a vending machine for Cokes.
“Janie-Jane,” he said after a moment, “I have an idea.”
“Does it get us out of here?”
“Yes indeed. You could be me.”
I glanced over at my brother. He looked yellow in the glow of the security lights.
“We said John Fields would drive,” John said. “That doesn’t mean John Fields has to be me.”
“What are you talking about?”
John scrambled in his pockets for his driver’s license. The picture on his valid license—taken when he was twenty-one, during a two-month stretch of relative sanity—didn’t look at all like me, but John had managed to hold onto his expired license from high school. He switched on the interior lights and held the expired license up to his face.
“You could use this license, Janie,” he said. “I don’t even look like this, but it’s got my name. This isn’t me. Who is that guy?” he asked, considering the reflection of himself and his old license in the rearview mirror. “It might as well be you, Janie-John.” A smile crept across his face. “This is wrong,” he said, tugging at my t-shirt. “And this is wrong. All of this is wrong.” He waved a hand indicating my clothes in general. “And your stupid, puffy girl-lips, but other than that, I think it could work.”
John held his driver’s license out to me. I took it from him, turning the plastic card over in my fingers, trying to figure out if it was just exhaustion that had me thinking my brother was making sense. I’d kept my hair short and boyish since my freshman year of high school. John and I had always looked remarkably alike. Half the clothes in the duffel I’d brought from home were his clothes from high school—concert t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, a pair of jeans that almost fit me if I cinched them with a belt. When John started to swell on psychotropic medications, he said I could have any of his old clothes that I wanted. I kept most of them.
“Do you have John clothes in your bag?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What should we do about your breasts?”
“I know you’re my brother and everything,” I said, “and I’m glad you haven’t noticed, I guess, but if I put on a sports bra, the question’s more like, what breasts?”
“Perfect,” John said. He waved toward the bathrooms. “Do your best.”
I rummaged in my bag for a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and John’s old jeans. I left the keys in the ignition, and the van dinged when I opened my door. I paused to watch the family loading back into the Suburban on my way to the women’s room. The father still had the little girl slung over his shoulder, his thick left arm bulging under her weight. When he turned his back to me, I could see she’d fallen dead asleep. Her long blond hair stuck to one sweaty cheek. When I emerged from the restroom properly dressed, I could see that John was pleased.
“Not bad, little sister,” he said. “Not bad. It’s a good thing it’s dark, but still, you look a hell of a lot like me.”
“Back in high school, people used to mistake me for a boy all the time,” I said. I buckled my seatbelt and started the van.
“You know, at band contests. Drum line events. That sort of thing.”
“Well, yeah, sure,” John said. “That was point. You played in a drum line. What were people supposed to think?”
“Are we ready?” I asked.
I stepped on the brake and put the van into reverse. John handed me his wallet and I twisted in my seat to stuff it in my back pocket. Soon we were back out on the highway speeding north, and there was no one to even know or care to be deceived. John leaned his head against the dark window and slept. A river of headlights swept past us on the other side of the meridian. I clicked off the Black Sabbath album John had loaded into the CD player and drove in peace. I sped us through the night. I drove without music and more or less without thinking. I didn’t know how our lives would unfold once we reached the city. It was enough just to drive, just to let my brother sleep.
LAURA KRUGHOFF is a fiction writer whose work has been appearing in literary magazines and journals over the past decade. Her stories have been published in prestigious American venues such as Threepenny Review, The Seattle Review, Washington Square Review, and Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, and internationally in the feminist Canadian magazine Room of One’s Own (now known as Room Magazine). She is a recipient of the Washington Square Prize for Fiction for her story “This Is One Way,” a Pushcart Prize for her story “Halley’s Comet,” and a runner-up for a Nelson Algren Award from Chicago Tribune for her story “The Beekeeper’s Son.” In 2011, she was a finalist for the University of Georgia Press Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She also writes and performs non-fiction with the story-telling performance collaborative Second Story. Laura is a writer, scholar, and teacher, living in Chicago, Illinois.
Adapted from My Brother’s Name, by Laura Krughoff, Copyright © 2013 by Laura Krughoff. With the permission of the publisher, Scarletta Press.