June 2022 Feature Writer

Skyler McCullough

Skyler is a north Georgia-based Sequential Art major and Creative Writing minor. They like to create down-to-earth stories that focus on the mundane and interpersonal relationships of everyday life.

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Plastic Tricycle

I love my brother. When I was four, I had a big plastic tricycle. It was cheap, and its seat would stick to my thighs in the ninety-degree weather of summer. It was red like my scraped knees when I took a hill too fast and flipped over. It was red like my aunt’s face every time I came home from school. It was red like my brother’s knuckles when he pulled his fist away from the dent in the hallway wall.

– – –

I love my brother, but he never called me by my name. He always called me “kid.” He is six years older than me. My aunt never used my name either. “Hi, sweetie.” “Have a nice day, honey.” It was sweet like the bubblegum she used to mask the alcohol on her breath. She tried to be motherly. My brother told me she drank the same wine as my mom.

– – –

On my first day of preschool, my teacher thought my aunt was my mother.

“Oh, no,” she denied, “I’m the aunt.”

Then the conversation became hushed and my teacher looked at me in a sad way. I scuffed my red shoes on the floor.

“My apologies. You look so much alike.”

My aunt squeezed my hand tighter.

– – –

I love my brother. When I was six, I asked him to push me on my tricycle. He called it baby stuff and locked himself in his room. He was right, so I dragged the tricycle to the lot down the road and left it there. While I was coloring the next day, my aunt asked what happened to the tricycle. I told her it was for babies. She nodded. A week later, I had a red bike without training wheels.

– – –

I love my brother, and when he turned thirteen, he got a letter from our dad. I asked if that meant he was coming home finally. I recently started struggling to remember him in any way aside from the framed pictures on the wall. My brother told me no, that was impossible. He said the post office held onto the letter until his birthday, then sent it to him because that’s what Dad asked them to do. I asked if it was a birthday card. Again, my brother told me no. Though this time he didn’t explain further.

I snuck into his room later that evening. A friend of his came over with a new video game for them to play. While they sat in the living room, cursing each other and bumping shoulders, I tip-toed toward my brother’s dresser. In the bottom drawer, under his rolled up pants, not folded– he’s still specific about that– was a special box. The trick was that it didn’t look special, just an old Fed-Ex box, but inside were my brother’s most valuable things. 

A Valentine’s card. His favorite candle. An old hand puppet. A few CDs. A picture of Mom. The letter from Dad. I snatched it up and hurried out of the room. I made my way casually to my bedroom, hoping I didn’t run into my aunt on the way there. Safe, I closed the door and locked it. The soft click made me smile and I hopped onto my bed, landed with a small bounce, and eagerly unfolded the letter. 

There weren’t any words, or that’s what I thought at first. The page had a jumble of letters. I muttered under my breath as I counted them: nineteen letters. I grabbed my notepad and a red pen from my nightstand and wrote out the jumble. 

F-G-N-L-B-H-G-B-S-Z-L-F-G-H-S-S-X-V-Q

I stared at the jumble. I stared at it so long my eyes crossed and my head began to hurt, but I couldn’t give up, I had to know what Dad said to my brother. Staring at the paper clearly wasn’t working though, so I rose from my bed and wandered over to my small bookshelf. It was full of various genre books with covers I found interesting– a collecting habit I never broke. My aunt told me not to judge books based on their covers, but my brother told me first impressions are important. How could I not trust my big brother? 

I pulled one of the books from the shelf. It was a little heavy and a small piece of the flimsy cover was torn off at the corner. The picture on the cover was of some kind of soup. I flipped to the table of contents where recipes were listed. I skimmed over the list, considering turning to the chocolate cake page, but stopped just before doing so.

Simple Caesar Salad … 22

My mind was stuck on the word Caesar. Caesar salad. Caesar dressing. Caesar cipher. It made sense to me. My brother was taking a computer science class that he talked about every now and then. His bookshelves were filled with textbooks about electronics. Even though Dad hadn’t been around since my brother started middle school, I figured he still received copies of our report cards, so he would know what classes we were taking. 

I dropped the book and rushed back to my bed. Maybe the letter was a caesar cipher. From what my brother had told me at that point was that a caesar cipher involved shifting letters. I tried shifting the letters one place both backward and forward but came up with more gibberish. I tried using my brother’s birthday as the key. That didn’t work either. Then I tried my brother’s age and got:

S-T-A-Y-O-U-T-O-F-M-Y-S-T-U-F-F-K-I-D

As I wrote that last letter, I felt disappointed that I was duped. Someone cleared their voice from my doorway and I turned to find my brother standing there. He had picked the lock without me noticing. His arms were crossed, but aside from that, everything else about his expression and stance was neutral. Then he held out his hand. 

“Hand it over,” he said.

I stopped snooping around in his room after that.

– – –

I love my brother. I love my aunt. Love doesn’t stop people from lying. My aunt wouldn’t call it lying, she would call it “omitting the truth.” She had her reasons, protection, peace of mind, me being too young, and I can understand that, my brother did too, but through the ever-shrinking walls of my home I heard him yell, “It breaks my heart to lie to him.” 

Omitting the truth was just as bad as lying.

They both came to my room after my aunt gave in. Their eyes were red and puffy. My brother said we all needed to talk and my aunt’s lip wobbled. My brother is more grownup than my aunt, I thought. He explained to me, through a shattered voice, that Mom and Dad were never coming home. They had died when I was three.

I knew the concept of death at that point, I was just as bad at taking care of goldfish as any other kindergartener. The concept of a living person being dead didn’t exist to me though. I asked them, to my aunt’s distress, if that meant I would never see my parents again. She broke into a sob and nodded her head. She apologized for keeping it from me; she said she didn’t know how to explain it. I told her it was okay. I was sad, but I didn’t know them very well anyway. She sobbed harder.

It didn’t hurt then, and it doesn’t hurt now. My brother looked like there was more that needed to be said, but he didn’t speak up. That stung a little.

– – –

I love my brother. When I started sixth grade, he was a senior. He started driving my aunt’s car after all her drinking caught up to her and she couldn’t bring forth the effort to be motherly anymore. My brother was insistent on driving me to and from school every day. It was nice spending time with him like that, even if we hardly talked during the ride. That isn’t to say it never happened, we had short conversations. I noticed that whenever it rained, my brother would fidget. His mood had always been contagious, he just had that aura that affected everyone else, and being twelve came with enough nerves.

“How was school?” I asked him while riding home one day, the windshield wipers working hard to keep the view of the road clear.

He startled, “It was fine.”

“Well, did you learn anything?”

My brother cracked a grin, “Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that, kid?” 

“Maybe,” I said, and his grin faltered, “But I want to hear about your day.”

I think he appreciated the distraction, even if he never said it.

– – –

I love my brother. After he graduated, he started working at the grocery store a few miles from our house. He wore a red apron with a plain-looking nametag and I called him a dork the first time I saw him in uniform. Then he asked why I wasn’t at school. We had gotten better at talking when it wasn’t raining. So he took an early break and sat me outside on the curb and brought me a sandwich from the deli. He sat next to me while I ate. Once I finished, he asked me again, why was I not at school.

“It was closing in on my eighth-grade finals,” I said. 

He raised an eyebrow at me. “Sure,” he said, “So, why aren’t you at school studying?” 

I folded and unfolded and refolded the sandwich wrapper. He waited. He waited some more. He would wait forever because no matter how distant he could be sometimes, no matter the fact he called my tricycle a thing for babies, no matter any truths he ever omitted or letters he hid, my brother had always been a good brother.

“I think I’m scared,” I told him, “I don’t think I want to grow up.” 

“That’s okay, that’s normal,” he assured me. He said I could skip the rest of the day but he’d like it if I hung around the grocery store. It was on a strip, a Rite-Aid on one side, a pizza place on the other. Both stores and the grocery had red on their logos. My brother made me promise to stay between the three. I spent most of the afternoon in the pizza place playing the arcade machine in the back corner. It didn’t make me feel any better.

My brother collected me after his shift. I asked him about his day on the car ride home. His shoulders relaxed. He said the best part was when I showed up. While him saying that didn’t make me feel any better either, the fact that he was trying to lift my spirits did lighten my mood. I smiled, and he smiled back.

– – –

I love my brother. I think I love him more than I ever loved my aunt. They fought more often as her health declined. The sounds of yelling became a common occurrence in our home. She was the only person I can ever recall him raising his voice toward. It was over my summer break before high school when it got the worse I’d ever seen it get. I was in my room, just like every time, browsing through my book collection. I think I was reading a cryptology book I borrowed from my brother.

He had gotten me a job at the grocery store– mopping, stocking shelves, bagging groceries. I enjoyed it. Not only was I helping put a little more food on the table than before with just EBT, but I was also spending more time with my brother. The idea of going back to school lurked in the back of my mind, so I was trying to learn more about my brother’s hobbies so that we wouldn’t lose this better connection we formed as we got older.

What snapped me out of the lines of ciphers and keys was a loud BANG on the wall. I threw my bedroom door open to see my brother’s knuckles driven into the wall, his shoulders strung high, and his face caught somewhere between desperation, exhaustion, and red hot fury. My aunt’s back was toward me and she turned slowly as if she were afraid. I expected the same tears she always cried when they fought, but all that was there was a defeated blankness.

Maybe the fact that she looked so much like me right there should have clued me in. Maybe when my teacher mistook her for my mom should have clued me in. Maybe the way it always felt like she was keeping something from me should have made me suspicious. Nephews look like their aunts all the time. Genetics can work like that. 

I was too shaken in the moment to think about that. My aunt was always the overly emotional one– that’s what I had become accustomed to and accepted. It broke my heart to see her so empty, and it broke my soul to see my brother so hurt. 

Either he noticed my pain, or his own became too much for him because he called me by my name, “Kit, let’s go for a drive.”

It was silent in the car aside from the rain hitting the roof and windshield. My brother drove with one hand, the other bleeding a little from the knuckles and laying across his lap. I wanted to wipe the red away and tell him it would be okay. Whatever it was, we could get through it. I wanted to be the big brother for once. I told him to pull over. He listened. 

I grabbed some napkins out of the glove box and took his hand. I dabbed at the blood and wiped little pieces of plaster away. He muttered a quiet thanks when I was finished. 

“What are brothers for?” I asked. He laughed in a way someone laughs when they’re feeling extraordinarily pathetic about their situation. Then his laugh turned hysterical and he broke into a stuttering cry.

I began apologizing, I don’t know for what, but it felt like it was my fault. He shook his head at me, he said he should be the one who’s sorry. 

“We’re only half brothers,” he said, “I should have told you that.”

I stared at him the same way I stared at the caesar cipher all those years ago.

He explained that the woman I’d been calling my aunt was really my mother. Our father had an affair with his wife’s sister. It made things easier to pretend I wasn’t her son, that I wasn’t an illegitimate child. It was less messy. All of this was explained in the letter he got when he was thirteen. It was a failsafe in case something happened to our dad because he knew my mother wouldn’t want to tell me the truth, he could hardly face it himself. My brother took out his wallet and pulled the letter out. The ink was faded but still legible. I keep it in my wallet now, behind a picture of my brother and me.

– – –

I love my brother. He loves me too. He tells me so right now as I’m lost in thought, reminiscing on moments in my life. He squeezes me tight as he says this, crying just as hard as he had the night he told me the truth about the woman lying in the hospital bed across from us. We all knew it was coming, but the heart rate monitor’s flatline buzzing sounds so close to my alarm clock that I might wake up from all this and be four again and ride my tricycle around the block.

I close my eyes and start the flashbacks again.


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