Jeremiah’s aim was good; though he had to duck his head to fit under the apartment complex, the beam of his flashlight hit Teddy right in the face, who flinched against the sudden light but otherwise didn’t move. He might’ve looked heroic standing with his hands raised above his head, holding up a building like this was his normal workout routine, save for the panicked indignation on his face.
Jeremiah took him in as he approached, running the flashlight over his limbs and across his torso, looking for what was wrong. He circled his little brother (feeling rather than seeing the building half an inch above his bowed head) who refused to look at him, like he didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. He was filthy, up to his ankles in mud with his hair and poncho glistening from the water dripping off the earth clinging to the foundation overhead, but in all other ways the same whole and healthy fourteen-year-old he’d been six hours before, when he’d insisted that Jeremiah let him help.
The high school senior finished his orbit. “What is the matter with you?” he finally demanded.
“I didn’t say anything was the matter with me!” Teddy retorted, still half dismay, half outrage.
That…was actually true. Also not the point. Jeremiah up and downed him one more time with the flashlight, and then brought it up into his face, feeling just vindictive enough about Teddy making him worry for no reason that he made sure the beam was high enough to hit his eyes. “If nothing’s wrong, then why are you acting so…off?”
“Point that thing somewhere else,” Teddy snapped.
Jeremiah complied (in hindsight, that had been a little childish), dropping it low enough to bathe Teddy’s poncho in light, which glowed a luminescent green against the darkness around him. “Sorry.”
“A-anyways,” Teddy answered, thrown by the sincere apology, “There’s nothing—it’s dangerous! You should leave.”
Jeremiah actually paused at that, the claustrophobic weight of Sunnyside suddenly heavier. “Is it?”
“Well…not yet,” Teddy admitted, as Jeremiah knew that he would. His brother was not simply a terrible liar, he really just wasn’t one at all. “I should be standing a little more to the left if I wanted to evenly balance—but I didn’t have a lot of time and I was a little more focused on gaining traction—anyways,” he cut himself off, “the point is that it’s fine for now but still not really safe. This is a lot of mass sitting on one point.”
“Is that something else you can ‘see’?” Jeremiah asked, thinking about Teddy “seeing” the building shift. Was it an actual visual cue? An angle calculation that his brain reinterpreted as coming from his eyes? Or something else entirely?
Teddy’s answer sounded irritated. “Mrs. Carlson’s doing a unit on physics.”
Jeremiah actually snorted. Or it could be his homeroom teacher. “For such a smart kid, why is it…” He trailed off. He’d promised himself he’d never ask. But he gave in, because he had to know. “Explain to me why you’re failing Algebra.”
It was hard to tell in the lighting, but Jeremiah thought Teddy might’ve actually blushed. At the very least he turned his head to the side and licked his lips, which was a good indication.
He cleared his throat. “Shannon Taylor.”
Jeremiah gave him a look that his little brother missed, still not looking him in the eyes. “Shannon Taylor?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, face getting darker. Definitely blushing then. “She sits in front of me in math. And history. And back and a little to the side in art, but that’s actually worse because she sits right in front of the vent and every time it kicks on I get hit by her perfume.” He cleared his throat again, then tried the strongest simile he had. “And I mean: like a Mack Truck.”
Huh. So Teddy was finally at that age, was he? With herculean effort, Jeremiah kept the smile off his face, because he remembered what it was like to have people make fun of your crushes when you were young enough to be embarrassed by them. Insensitive people. Like his brother.
On second thought: “Are you telling me that you’re failing half your classes because of a girl?”
Teddy, like Jeremiah had been, wasn’t allowed to date until he was sixteen. But that made the image of him mooning over a girl – unattainable even if she did like him back – all the more entertaining. Jeremiah grinned at him. Turnabout was fair play.
“I can’t help it!” Teddy cried, finally looking at his older brother, definitely noticing his amused air. “I’m sitting in class, minding my own business, when all of a sudden I get stuck on her hair, or her smell, or her—” he blushed harder, and went with “—shape, and suddenly class is over and it turns out I’ve been staring at her – and definitely in a creepy way – for the last forty-five minutes. Dr. Murphy says it’s normal for guys going through puberty to…you know, have trouble focusing. She thinks it’s sort of just…exaggerated in my case.”
That wasn’t as funny. Teddy had always had problems concentrating (or more like hyper-concentrating, where, without warning, he’d home in on a blade of grass, or the sound of a bird, or whatever had caught his attention) and now, just as he’d started to grow out of it (or so Jeremiah had thought), his body had thrown a bunch of synthetic hormones at him. It was a wonder he was passing any of his classes.
“Have you thought about getting one of your friends to get you out of it? If the bell breaks your concentration, then it probably wouldn’t be that hard to have one of them…”
But Teddy was grimacing. Right. First he’d have to tell his friends what the problem was, then he’d have to trust them to actually help him with it. They were the types to point and laugh.
“Or what about your teachers?” Jeremiah tried. “If you want me to, I could explain—”
“No,” he cut in immediately, then, as if the first one wasn’t enough, “NO.”
Yeah. Imagine having to explain that one to your fifty-year-old math teacher. “You don’t have to tell them what you’re getting stuck on,” he pointed out, because Teddy still needed to find a way to deal with it. “Ted, if this is puberty for you, then it’s going to last for years. I’m sure Dr. Murphy already went over this with you.”
Teddy said nothing, not looking at him again, and Jeremiah added, “You can’t afford to keep mentally checking out of your classes.”
When he remained silent, the eighteen-year-old took the flashlight off him to sweep their confines once more, suspecting that water was still silently working away at the foundation. He was assuming that the adults out in the parking lot were discussing how to get Teddy out of here and keep the building standing (some sort of construction jack was the only solution coming to his own mind), but it was never safe to assume. He was considering whether he ought to call out to Bill – legs visible from where he was sitting on the lip of the gulch that fed into the retirement home’s new cave/mud hole (and, now that he thought about it, probably listening to every word) – when Teddy spoke.
“I can’t have kids.”
The confession threw Jeremiah completely. He turned the flashlight on him, reflexively needing to see his face. “What?”
“I can’t have kids,” Teddy repeated. He was looking up at Sunnyside’s underbelly, like he was studying the contours of the foundation for weaknesses, and because of that Jeremiah had an unobstructed view of his throat as he swallowed. “I just found out. At my doctor’s appointment. Dr. Murphy said…well, I guess she uh…she’s suspected for a while, but she…finally confirmed it at this appointment.”
For the first time in a long time, Jeremiah couldn’t find the words.
Teddy’s focus shifted downwards, eyes scanning the walls. “All the…” he struggled with the word for a moment, then finally went with “…equipment is there, and it—it works, but there’s…there’s nothing there. Nothing for, um, making kids, that is.”
He looked up again, blinking hard, eyes on his hands like he needed to make sure they were still placed correctly. He shifted slightly and the retirement complex, for a terrifying moment, almost appeared to wobble. But that was more feeling than fact, and Teddy was again standing with the solid permanence of a statue, as though he had always been here, an integral and eternal part of Sunnyside’s foundation. “I always imagined…I always thought…”
He looked suddenly at his older brother, arms still locked above his head, and managed to imply a shrug. He smiled. “I guess it doesn’t matter what I thought.”
Jeremiah had never been big on physical contact. Didn’t crave it, didn’t require it. A hug a year and he was taken care of, but Teddy had always been his brother’s opposite. Teddy couldn’t get physically hurt but sometimes, when they were kids, he’d pretend he was injured just to get a hug and a “there there” out of his brother, who’d always known when Teddy needed him to play along.
Automatically he started to lift his hands, but Teddy was still standing with the weight of an entire building on him and there was no way to grab a hold without making it super awkward. Besides, he didn’t dare mess with his balance. Jeremiah dropped his arms, feeling truly helpless. He couldn’t even hug his brother.
Chest full of wires, he thought. Why oh why had he thought to throw that in Teddy’s face, of all things, last night?
Teddy shifted his focus over Jeremiah’s shoulder, pupils clicking and whirring like cogs in a clock. Jeremiah glanced behind him, but Bill’s legs had disappeared and he thanked God – quickly and silently – that his friend knew how to be discreet. A few seconds later Teddy’s eyes clicked back again, meeting his brother’s.
“Am I human?” he asked.
Jeremiah knew what he was looking for, and from the depths of his soul he wanted to give him that yes he was so clearly, and desperately, hoping for. It could be both an apology and atonement for last night. A way to begin making amends.
But Jeremiah had never been able to lie. Not to Teddy.
Impulsively, like they were eight and four again and pretending that Teddy had skinned his knee and needed the Power Ranger Band-Aids Dad kept stocked in the cabinet above the sink, Jeremiah reached over and kissed the top of his head. For a second he rested his forehead against his brother’s, eyes closed, feeling the heat of whatever power source kept Teddy alive.
“No,” he said, his hand on Teddy’s head, feeling the hard slickness of his hair. It grew and had to be cut just like everyone else’s, but it had always felt wrong, almost like broom bristles. Abruptly, he opened his eyes and pulled away, breaking the contact. “I’m so sorry, Ted, but no.”
Teddy closed his eyes and huffed out a laugh. The sound was amused, but the line between his eyes said that he was trying not to cry. It had been years since Jeremiah had seen that furrow.
“I can tell you other things,” Jeremiah offered, knowing it wasn’t enough. Wishing it was in him to sugarcoat the truth when someone needed him to. But to lie even for compassionate reasons was wrong. “I’ll tell you anything that’s true. You’re my brother. You think and you feel and you have likes and dislikes, and sometimes you make me so mad that I want to strangle you, but you also—”
Teddy’s shoulders shook and Jeremiah cut himself off, almost gripping him again on that spot between his shoulder and his bowed neck because there wasn’t anything else he could do. He felt powerless, and pathetic, and useless, and—
And, he realized, his little brother was laughing.
“You don’t pull your punches, do you?” Teddy demanded, snickers tapering off as he looked up. “Has anyone ever told you that you don’t have to be brutal to be honest?” he asked, but that was genuine amusement in the question. “Dr. Murphy said that I was as human as anyone she knew, Dad said I’m as human as I feel, but the great Jeremiah Dunn just pulls out the straight ‘nope, sorry you freak.’”
“Hey, I never—”
“‘As human as I feel’,” he repeated, ignoring his brother, who dropped it, knowing Teddy had only said that to get a rise out of him. Heck if he knew why the obvious ploy always worked. “I mean, what does that even mean?” He simultaneously laughed and surreptitiously scrubbed his face on the shoulder farthest away from Jeremiah, who had the decency to pretend he thought that was runoff that Teddy had just wiped away. With all the water still dripping from the ceiling, it even might’ve been. When Teddy looked at him again he was grinning. “I count on you for these little pep talks, you know.”
Jeremiah picked his next words carefully, for the moment not ready to let Teddy start making jokes about it. Instead he turned the conversation back to Dad, who normally eschewed platitudes with the mockery he reserved for the PTA. It said mountains about how powerless he’d felt. “You know that’s just Dad’s way of telling you that he sees you as human.”
Teddy’s grin slid away. He sighed. “I know.” He did something with his arms that seemed to straighten them a little more, then repeated, “I know, I just…yeah.”
Jeremiah studied the freshman’s posture, wondering if his arms were higher than they had been when he’d first circled him with the flashlight. “Are you…pushing upwards?”
“I’m sinking,” he explained. Jeremiah flashed the light down at his feet, though it was honestly hard to remember how high the mud had been after only looking at them once. “Barely,” he assured his brother. “Centimeters. An inch, maybe.”
Very reassuring. “Are you compensating automatically?” he asked, letting the interest out in his voice rather than the worry; the sooner they got him out of here, the better. Actually, the sooner they both got out of here, the better. He’d hate to have a retirement home come down on his head. “Or guessing how much you need to lift to counterbalance the shifting weight?”
“Both?” Teddy hazarded. “I’m choosing to move my arms, but I don’t know how I know how high to push them. I just do it. Though,” he added, “I can feel people walking above me. That doesn’t really help. I kind of wish they’d stop.”
Instantly recognizing a chance for him to do something (and wanting to tell the adults to hurry up anyways), Jeremiah offered, “I’ll go—”
“Nah, nah,” Teddy said, verbally waving him off. “They need to get your decrepit girlfriends—” involuntarily, Jeremiah snorted “—out somehow. Anyways, I just need to—” he shifted a little and this time Sunnyside definitely dipped. Teddy shot an arm backwards, sliding to catch and rebalance the weight, simultaneously hissing in through his teeth. “Ooh,” he said. For a second Jeremiah actually saw the effort of holding the apartment complex on his face. “That didn’t feel right.”
Jeremiah swept the flashlight up his arms, then down to his feet, trying to find what didn’t feel right. Teddy still only looked filthy, black mud glistening in a solid track up his leg and under his poncho—
He knelt at once, feeling the “mud” with his hands, rubbing the tacky material together with his fingers before getting a quick whiff. It smelled all wrong – partially Jersey mud but also something sharp and definitely sweeter – and in the flashlight beam it actually gleamed a wine red color where he’d spread it thin on the pads of his fingers. He stood and began rolling Teddy’s poncho up and out of the way with firm precision, ignoring his earlier decision to stay as hands-off as possible as he tracked the trail up to his shoulder.
Fortunately, Teddy always ran hot, and was wearing just a T-shirt under the raingear. Jeremiah pushed his sleeve out of the way, sliding the cloth up and over his shoulder, and his hand slipped right into his little brother’s arm.
Jeremiah actually gasped in surprise at the sudden feeling of his fingers inside Ted’s supposedly indestructible skin, jerking his hand out and away like he’d been burned. The clean slit ran right along the outside of his arm, following the line of his bicep. “Teddy, you’re bleeding.”
“Whoa,” his little brother said, trying to get a look. “So that’s what that feeling was.”
Using one hand to keep Teddy’s clothing clear of the wound (and thinking better of the sarcastic rejoinder he almost snapped at the younger boy), Jeremiah shrugged out of his own poncho with the hand still holding the flashlight. He bunched it into an unwieldy ball, then shoved it up against Teddy’s arm, flashlight pointing randomly upwards. “When were you going to tell me about this ‘feeling’?”
“It’s not like it hurts or anything,” he explained. “After I ran in here and pushed the building back up into place, I could…feel something sort of…pop, and I knew I should stop using this arm. Only I couldn’t stop using it, so I didn’t.”
Jeremiah huffed out a breath at Teddy’s interested if ultimately unconcerned tone, wanting to get a closer look at the cut but guessing that it was more important to keep his brother from losing any more blood. Or whatever this stuff was. “I think the torsion split your skin.”
“Those are some very big words, could you—”
“Don’t joke about this,” he said, knowing that Teddy knew exactly what torsion was. “This isn’t good. Bill!” he called loudly, ignoring a sudden protest from Sunnyside’s newest foundation block. “Bill!”
But Bill had already reappeared, clicking on his flashlight to find them in the dark. He stayed where he was, staring at Teddy only a hair longer than Jeremiah, like he was doing his best not to notice anything out of the ordinary. “What’s up?”
Jeremiah kept both hands on Teddy’s arm, pushing harder now that he could feel how solidly the fourteen-year-old had planted himself. “Tell them to hurry up and get a jack out here as soon as possible. Teddy’s—”
“Fine. Still fine, please don’t send anybody.”
Jeremiah shot him a look but kept going, “—hurt. That and we’re still losing pieces of the foundation. This ship is going down, probably sooner rather than later.”
Bill stared, having missed the second half of the explanation. “He’s what?”
“Tore his skin when—”
“Leave it alone,” Teddy snapped, expression rigid. “Don’t tell everybody that—it’s not that big of deal, nobody needs to see—I don’t look right standing—I mean…”
The last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Teddy didn’t want anyone to see how inhuman he was. That’s why he’d been acting so weird. The kid that showed off for his friends at the drop of a hat had just discovered exactly how robotic he looked doing it.
But neither of them had time for Jeremiah to be gentle. “You’re going to have to learn to deal with…it,” he finished lamely, unsure how to put it.
Teddy understood anyways. “I know, but—!” His dismay turned to anger. “Could you give me more than five minutes?”
“Not today,” he said. “Tomorrow you can take all the time you want, but today we have to get out of here right now.” He sighed at the hurt on his brother’s face and added, to Bill, “Be discreet. Let Dr. Murphy know he tore a gash down his arm. Don’t tell anyone else.”
Bill nodded as he left, though he up and downed them both one more time (looking not-as-surreptitiously as he probably thought for the injury in question) before he left. Shadows swallowed them, Jeremiah’s flashlight still pointed at the ceiling.
“Thank you,” went Teddy’s voice in the dark.
“It’s not going to matter,” Jeremiah pointed out. “Everyone’s going to see—” he cut himself off, realizing that there was nothing to be gained by it. Mind you, he didn’t know if there was anything to be gained by Dr. Murphy coming either. Could Teddy’s skin be healed? Or just repaired? Was there any possible medical recourse for him?
Still, the sight of a doctor would probably inject some urgency into the situation. At the very least it might get people moving faster with that jack. Or whatever they’d decided to do. Jeremiah adjusted the poncho, wondering if he ought to start over and wrap it around Ted’s arm. “The sooner we get out of here, the better. No offense, but I don’t actually want to die with you.”
Teddy was silent for a moment, hissing a little as Jeremiah pushed harder into the wound. He wondered if his little brother was feeling pain for the first time.
“Can I?” he finally asked.
“Can you what?” Jeremiah answered absently, only partially paying attention as his focus shifted to an irritating prickling in his palms. Typical. As soon as you couldn’t use your hands, you get an itch.
“Die,” he clarified. “Can I die?”
Jeremiah felt blood – or whatever was Teddy’s equivalent – trickling down his wrist and towards his elbow. “Can we not have this discussion right now?”
“What if I live on and on forever?” he postulated, ignoring Jeremiah’s request, as per usual. “Watching everyone I know around me die while I just stay the same, year after year after year, losing more and more people. I’ll spend all my free time going to funerals while—”
“Or,” Jeremiah cut in, realizing that the description of his waning years wasn’t going to end anytime soon, “you bleed out right here and we plant your corpse in the garden because, if we’re being honest, we’re never going to get around to planting vegetables in it like Dad’s been threatening to make us do for the past five years. Don’t do that. You don’t know the future.”
“Neither do you,” Teddy pointed out.
“That’s what I’m saying!” he agreed, exasperated. He scratched his wrist against the material on his brother’s shoulder. “No one does! So say we both get out of this, but then six months from now your joints wear out, your power source fails and your organs shut down, and that’s it. Theodore Dunn bites the big one.”
“Yeah, but that still doesn’t mean I technically die—”
Teddy’s petulance was annoying under any circumstances. Holding a poncho to his weeping shoulder, feeling blood well out of the crevasses of the bunched material and over his knuckles, made Jeremiah less in the mood than ever before. He found the words easy to dredge up in his irritation. “In every practical way, that still leaves us crying over the dead body of—”
Teddy cut him off. “Do you think I’ll go to heaven?”
Jeremiah’s thoughts came to a screeching halt. Forget the construction jack, forget Dr. Murphy and her woefully underequipped family clinic; he needed their pastor ASAP. He had no idea how to answer that. They’d gone to church every Sunday for as long as Jeremiah could remember but he wasn’t theologically trained, how could he possibly know what to—
The words found him, this time. “’For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.’”
Teddy seemed to be waiting for more, but Jeremiah didn’t have any for him. His little brother, after another few seconds of watching him, finally cottoned on to that fact. “Really?” he said. He sounded legitimately disappointed. “John 3:16? That’s it?”
“Look,” Jeremiah answered, annoyed. The poncho was bothering his arms so he shifted, trying to get it away from his skin. “I don’t know exactly what you are but God does, and He had the decency to make faith the determining factor in your salvation. Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins?”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“Great,” he cut him off. “Then the Holy Spirit’s got you covered. The Bible didn’t make it any more complicated than that. The hell if I’m going to.”
He twisted his arms again, trying to scratch them against each other, and finally became aware of the fact that his skin itched from the top ridges of his knuckles down to where fluid dripped off the sharp bones of his elbows.
Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no, was Teddy’s blood actually toxic to people?
Jeremiah brushed away the thought. It didn’t matter. He’d keep his hands away from his face and call it good, because he did not have the luxury to deal with it at the moment. Officially fed up with everything, Jeremiah started un-bunching the poncho pressed up against Teddy’s wound, the material sticky with whatever it was his brother was bleeding out. He stuffed the flashlight in his back pocket, beam still on and pointing straight upwards at the ceiling, and started winding the tacky poncho around Teddy’s arm.
“Did you just swear in a discussion about God?” his brother asked suddenly, putting way too much pointed emphasis on God.
“Yeah, well, He died for my sins too,” Jeremiah answered seriously, ignoring the mockery in Teddy’s voice. “I happen to have a lot of them.”
He could tell that the freshman was about to start making fun of him again and, as relieved as he was that the doofus had his sense of humor back, it was still good timing when Bill chose that moment to return, adult in tow. Jeremiah didn’t like leaving Teddy by himself, poncho loosely draped over his arm and dripping blood onto the tacky puddle around his feet, but you do what you have to. Just because he could, he gave his little brother an order he had to follow (“Stay here”), and ignored the answering raspberry.
When he came back from the confab (they were apparently having trouble hunting down a jack, though Mr. Grady thought they had a bead on one over in Stanton; as to Dr. Murphy, she was taping up another injury from some kid who’d jumped into a downed fence post, but she’d be by as soon as she was done), he retightened the poncho around Teddy’s arm without bothering to relay the information. He knew he’d been listening.
Jeremiah set the flashlight on the ground when he was done, splashing water from a nearby puddle up his arms. He ignored Teddy’s enquiring look. The inside of his arms stung, Teddy’s blood coating the hundreds of tiny abrasions he’d collected hauling sandbags all afternoon.
As he stood, Teddy spoke. “I’ve always known, you know.”
Jeremiah was focusing hard on not tearing into his skin, which burned worse the more he tried not to think about it. “Known what?”
“That I’m going to be the one that stays here and takes over the shop,” he explained, “since you’re obviously not going to do it.”
Jeremiah actually forgot his arms for a moment. “What? What do you mean?”
Teddy seemed almost annoyed that he had to clarify. “Well, you’re going places. I honestly don’t mind. I’ll stay here and take over the family business. Someone’s got to.”
He realized that his little brother was admitting that he wanted to take over, which shouldn’t have surprised him. Where Jeremiah could change a tire or replace oil with the practiced apathy of someone who’d been raised around them, Teddy had a real love for it. His face would also fall whenever someone said, oh of course you’re good at mechanics, as though the fact that he spent every Saturday morning helping Dad around the shop didn’t matter. As if anyone would ever go to a doctor and say, oh of course you’re good at medical treatment, you’re a human being.
“It doesn’t seem all that obvious to someone from the outside,” Teddy went on when Jeremiah stayed silent, feeling his wrists itch so insistently that they actually hurt. “I mean sure, I’ve got the super powers and you’re the ‘normal’ guy – but I don’t think it’ll be that much of a surprise to anyone who knows us.”
Jeremiah wasn’t sure what to say. “Maybe.”
Teddy shook his head. “Do you remember that time with Frank Hill?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “We’d been at the park, I think, and he started following us, yelling at us. I can’t remember now what he was shouting – something about me being adopted, or something like that – but you turned around like it was nothing and made him stop. ‘I’m not going to ask again, Mr. Hill,’” he recited in middle school-aged-Jer voice (a voice Jeremiah hadn’t realized was a part of his repertoire), then laughed. Teddy went on. “And then you lectured me all the way home. ‘Don’t ever let anyone talk to you like that,’” he mock-quoted, “’You need to learn how to defend yourself, don’t just roll over and take it or people will stomp on you your entire life.’” He laughed again.
Jeremiah hadn’t actually remembered that part. He wasn’t sure how he felt about finding out that he’d yelled at his brother after one of the most frightening moments in their young lives.
“I knew it. I knew right then. I was terrified and you weren’t scared at all. He couldn’t even have done anything to me. I mean, c’mon, I’m the one with the super strength but you…you made a guy three hundred pounds heavier than you—” Jeremiah suspected a bit of exaggeration in this description “—stop. Just because you said so.” He snorted, the sound both amused and wonderingly proud. “Shoot, Jer, that has to count as a super power.
“And now today,” he continued, total admiration in the words. “Ah man, you should’ve seen yourself. ‘LISTEN UP PEOPLE’,” he quoted in his usual fake Jeremiah voice. “’You: go there. You: over there.’” He dropped the overly manly tone. “And they did. Even the adults did.”
Jeremiah found a hole in his argument. “That was just because we’d already established a routine and—”
Teddy scoffed, cutting him off. “Yeah. Go ahead and tell yourself that. But everybody else knows better. They listen to you. People have always listened to you. Because they know.” He grinned then, holding a retirement complex above his head with not a jot of self-awareness in his tone. “You’re going to save the world someday, bro.”
It was the second time that day that his little brother had floored him. Jeremiah looked at Teddy, at the blind faith in his expression and the lives of the many residents of Sunnyside in his hands, and he knew that his brother absolutely believed that he could and would do anything that he put his mind to. Jeremiah was suddenly ten again, dividing his friends into bad guys and good guys while a six-year-old strong enough to smash the entire lot of them into the ground obeyed his every order.
You want to subdue super villains for a living, Jer? You’re just a big fish in a little pond. You really think you can go toe-to-toe with people who could cave in your skull with just a flick of their index finger? And win?
Well, duh. Teddy always knew you would.
It was a strange thing, to know that his brother was absolutely wrong and to love him for it.
A moment later, Jeremiah figured out what he wanted to say. “Domo.”
Teddy faltered, confused. “What?”
“Domo,” he repeated.
He got it. “Oh, no, don’t—”
Jeremiah ignored him, because it bothered him that Teddy could hate something he’d formerly loved. “Do-mo ari-GA-to, MIS-ter Ro-BOT-o.”
“I hate you,” he said.
“You-fall-in-love-with-girls—” he continued, words mechanically syncopated.
Teddy gave him a suspicious look.
Teddy choked off a snort. “That isn’t funny.”
“Do-mo ari-GA-to, please-don’t-stare-o.”
“Seriously, you’re not—” but he was grinning and trying not to.
“—funny, you stupid—”
“No DOMO, domo, DOMO, domo—”
Teddy couldn’t finish the insult. He laughed over the round of semi-Japanese “no THANK you”s, like he couldn’t believe his older brother had just gone there. Pleased, Jeremiah kept the chorus going, knowing that he’d won. There wasn’t a person in this world who would describe him as funny. Except, sometimes, Teddy.
“Don’t make me laugh,” the fourteen-year-old finally managed. “This is heavier than it looks.”
Since it looked like a (however many ton) building, Jeremiah stopped making him laugh. “You know they sometimes call me Mr. Roboto, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “When I don’t get mad when I get fouled, or I don’t laugh at a joke because we’re supposed to be focusing in practice. It used to be ‘the Iceman cometh’ but then Eli started the Domo Arigato thing and now when they don’t call you Mr. Roboto, they call me that.”
Teddy looked like he wasn’t sure whether to be gratified or annoyed. “I didn’t know that.”
“It’s because I have no soul,” he explained. It was one of the recurring jokes around the locker room. Privately, it had always made him laugh.
“You are not soulless,” Teddy objected adamantly. “You’re—”
He didn’t finish the thought so Jeremiah “ehhed” in the back of his throat. He noticed that he was trying to scratch his palm on the material in his hand and stopped. “I’m a little soulless.”
When Teddy neither laughed nor protested – didn’t, in fact, move at all – Jeremiah leaned forward, amusement gone. He waved a hand in front of his face, flashlight pointed upwards. “Teddy?”
Teddy broke pose. “—the most—whoa,” he interrupted himself, startling. “How’d you do that?”
“Do what?” Jeremiah asked, uneasy.
“You just jumped like a foot forward.”
Apprehension punched his gut and thrust upwards. “No, Ted, I didn’t.”
When he didn’t answer Jeremiah let go of the poncho and grabbed him by the chin – which didn’t so much as budge – trying to get a look at his eyes. He could see puffy red streaks running down his own forearm, but Jeremiah really didn’t give a crap at the moment. Teddy’s eyes shifted back into focus a second later and he flinched, surprised at his brother’s even closer proximity. “You did it again.”
Jeremiah became conscious of how hot it was in the confined space. When he’d first taken off the poncho to use as a bandage he’d been shivering in the clammy cold, but the temperature had climbed so slowly that his awareness hadn’t caught up until now. He was actually sweating.
The eighteen-year-old’s mouth was dry, but he knew perfectly well that it had nothing to do with the temperature. “I think you’re overheating.”
In response to these words, Teddy jerked his head over to look at his arm. “Oh shoot, Jer, what if—”
“Teddy?” he tried when his little brother didn’t finish. “Teddy,” he repeated, tapping him on the cheek.
Just like that, he was back again. “—this is actually some kind of—stop that—coolant I’m leaking?”
Jeremiah kept his calm, as he always did when things went wrong. Was that Teddy’s heart making that loud whumming noise? “Don’t freak out,” he ordered. “I’m sure this is just some kind of defensive measure against a total shutdown.”
Teddy gave him a look. “I’m not freaking out. Even though you just used the phrase ‘total shutdown’.”
“Well good,” he answered, his own heart thumping hard against his rib cage. “Because we don’t have time to deal with any panic. You can feel it later.”
But Teddy had missed most of it. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I got you congratulating me for not doing what I already wasn’t doing, but—”
By the time he came back, Jeremiah had peeled off his shirt and was dunking it into a puddle just a few feet away, having already called Bill for help; finally – finally – passing on that urgency they should’ve been feeling twenty minutes ago. He wrung it out over the back of Teddy’s neck, trying to get his brother’s entire torso wet and feeling his hands burn all the way down to his elbows.
“Oh c’mon, Captain Kirk,” Teddy said, craning his neck to look at him, eyebrows raised at his bare chest. “Everybody already knows you’re in good shape.”
Jeremiah answered seriously, explaining what he was doing, which would’ve been more effective if Teddy had heard it all the way through. The freshman, at first amused by the image of his brother jumping from spot to spot, gathered worry slowly. I’ll be fine, right Jer? This isn’t as bad as it seems, is it bro?
For Jeremiah, every freeze deepened his calm. Seconds turned to minutes. Minutes stacked themselves into half an hour, then another fifteen minutes, and by the time an hour rolled around Jer was years older than the boy who had gotten up that morning and suggested they do something about the flooding.
By the time they got Teddy out, he was shutting down for minutes at a time. Jeremiah’s cool – almost cold – composure kept his explanations short but effective. Sunnyside’s still sinking. You should probably distribute the weight in several places. Traction’s bad, but floor mats might help. He’s overheating, yes. He’ll be fine, of course. Watch that arm, I’m not sure that fluid is entirely safe for people. I’d recommend washing your hands if you touch it.
(He was sorry about having to admit that one. Teddy, fortunately, missed it, so at least Jeremiah didn’t have to deal with any you-have-betrayed-me looks from that quarter.)
Teddy begged them, just once, not to look as they were moving him to a car. Only Jeremiah tracked the disjointed request, and he did not bother translating.
“You want in? I can move this stuff,” Devin offered, jacking a thumb to the containers of cat litter stacked in the front passenger side seat of the Crown Vic he’d apparently commandeered after losing his own car. In the backseat Dr. Murphy, wearing gloves and a mask but nothing else doctorly (she was in jeans and a sweatshirt, likely thrown on that morning), had peeled away the sticky sleeve of Teddy’s T-shirt and was inspecting the cut. She pulled the skin apart to take a look inside.
“No,” Jeremiah said. Teddy looked up at him, holding a bucket of ice to his chest (the ice either donated or straight stolen from the freezer that stood outside the gas station; Jeremiah neither knew nor cared), but he was abruptly gone, frozen with his eyes turned upwards. Jeremiah met Devin’s gaze instead. “You go on. I’ll catch up. I’ve got…some things to do first.”
Devin gave him a look, but Dr. Murphy was occupied with cleaning the long split in Teddy’s arm and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. “Okay,” the linebacker said a moment later, like he didn’t really believe that could be his captain’s genuine answer, but that he’d do as he was told anyways. “We’ll be at the clinic.”
Jeremiah didn’t wave as they left, overly aware of his arms howling to be scratched or rubbed or something to relieve the burning itch in them. Still covered in muddy gore, the swollen skin on his hands hadn’t raised any eyebrows. He knew that he ought to find the poncho covered in Teddy’s blood, make sure no one else touched the thing, but for the moment he couldn’t remember exactly where it was as the back of Teddy’s abnormally still head got farther and farther away.
Mr. Grady came up beside him, folding his arms as he too watched the car turn a corner and disappear. “Good thing his joints lock during the shutdowns,” he remarked. “Otherwise we could’ve been in serious trouble.”
Jeremiah did turn away then, saying nothing, and finally noticed Bill standing silently behind him, sopping shirt in his hand. The eighteen-year-old wondered when he’d picked it up.
Didn’t matter. He took it, intending to pull it over his head, but reconsidered, realizing that both he and the shirt were a mess. Splattered with mud, and rainwater, and something deeply, blackly red.
Jeremiah stared at the shirt for a moment, noticing that his hands were shaking. Probably from the inflamed rash bubbling out from his hands. He definitely should have told Dr. Murphy about that. Wasn’t sure why he hadn’t. “I should go clean up.”
“Sure,” Bill answered.
They found a hose still hooked up to a house across the street from Sunnyside. It seemed wrong for the water to still be working, but he was fortunate that it was; Jeremiah started to uncoil the line until Bill took over. He nodded his head in thanks, held out his hands palms up, and thought about watching his mother die from leukemia.
He could barely remember the funeral. He’d turned eight a month later, sometime after people stopped talking to him in hushed whispers but before they pulled the last condolence casserole from the freezer, and his dad hadn’t remembered to ask Jeremiah if he wanted a party because that was Mom’s job. Jeremiah hadn’t, so he didn’t bring it up. Dad had lit eight candles on a Zip Mart cake and sung “Happy Birthday” to him alone, voice echoing in their empty kitchen. They’d eaten the cake in silence, and by unvoiced agreement decided to wait to open presents until Jeremiah’s grandparents came into town that Saturday.
Two months later, Teddy was theirs. Mom had exited stage left and Teddy had entered stage right, and Jeremiah knew that the coward in him couldn’t watch it happen again. He couldn’t. Back again to that awful two. Just Jeremiah and Dad, sitting by themselves in a kitchen.
Bill said nothing, holding the stream of achingly cold water steady as Jeremiah scrubbed an unidentified toxin off his skin and gasped so hard that he could barely breathe.