The Good Brother

by Vaiju Joshi

My mother caught me staring at Chloe today. I swear to God that I wasn't doing anything objectionable but she made a big fuss of it again. I mean Chloe was the one prancing around in her balcony, singing out aloud and generally trying to get my attention. But you try telling my mother that. She ranted about how she had not brought me up to leer at girls and how I should have stopped to think about a sister of mine being treated this way. For one, I do not have a sister, I have a brother. And two, why in the name of reason would I stare at my own sister?

Chloe, now, she doesn't have a sister or a brother. She has like an entire room to herself. Her mother is never around much because she is too busy with her Bridge parties. Chloe's dad owns a business of some kind, I think. She has, what I call, the good life.

I told my mother that I wasn't leering. I had just happened to open my window when Chloe was around. I could have mentioned about Chloe's singing but a boy doesn't talk about a decent girl in that manner. I watched while my mother glared at Chloe from our apartment across the road and slammed the window shut. Pretty rude, if you ask me, but I mostly don't talk back to my mother no matter how annoying she can be on some days. She has a lot on her plate and the last thing I want is to upset her more.

My mother looks after my brother all the time. She is like the 24 hour petrol station around the corner – always ready with provisions. Jason is a top guy – never you mind what the snotty kids around the apartment block tell you. When Jason was a baby, he got some awful fever and it ended up affecting his brain. He is not 'mentally challenged' like we said on all those forms for his special school. His speech is thick and slurred but my parents and I understand him perfectly. I mean, what is the big deal, right?  You have the American accent and the BBC one and the thick one from Germany – and you have all these crazy tourists saying stupid stuff like 'Aww, that sounds soo exotic' when they go backpacking and get drunk. My brother's garbled speech sounds nice to me too. We don't need to travel the world, my parents and I. We have different accents and different worlds right under one roof.

My mother may complain about her lack of social life at times but I know that she loves Jason fiercely – she always has. When I was a child, I was always getting into trouble. I had grazed knees and torn shirts and I got into skirmishes with friends nearly every day. Then there were those summer holidays when I played too much cricket and swung the ball too high and cracked the neighbours' window panes. I used to pretend I was Brian Lara or Tendulkar or Steve Waugh even. The neighbours would complain to my mother incessantly.  Most days she apologized and said she would deal with me later but there was one particular day when she finally snapped.

She had smacked me bloody hard and asked "Why can you not be more like Jason? You could try and be the good brother for a change, couldn't you?"

I had opened my mouth to explain that if Jason could play cricket he would have played the same shots and ended up getting into the same kind of trouble. But I didn't. For one she had smacked me really hard and my back was stinging. And two, she was crying as she said this.  Perhaps Jason and I both let my mother down in various ways.

Anyway, I am going to talk to Chloe tomorrow. She walks back home in the afternoons the same time as when I leave for my Chemistry catch-up classes. I figure I will just walk up to her and say "Hey, how is it going?!" or something totally cool like that. Show her I care but not too much, if you know what I mean. I am going to pretend that I haven't noticed that she sings loudly in the balcony. To accept that kind of stuff is embarrassing for girls. I am just going to try and be friends first. I suppose the next step will be that Chloe will kind of open up and let me know she sings for me every evening.

Chloe is gorgeous. She has like the shiniest hair I have ever seen and I bet she washes her hair with some fancy shampoo. She wears these pearl earrings that sometimes catch in her hair when she is rushing around at school. My breath catches too but I am not going to say that during my first conversation with her. I haven't really chatted to her before but we have smiled at each other twice and I have noticed her like a million times. The guys in my class slapped me on the back when I told them that the latest school sensation lived across the road from me and that I could actually see her every day.

Ron from the other division wanted to know if she drew the curtains when she changed. He needs to talk about Chloe with some respect. I wanted to smash his nose at that question. Instead, I just walked away. Ron persisted and followed me around the school repeating his sick question. He actually cracked up every time he said this. You don't get your glee from talking about girls that way. But I needed to shut him up, so I said that I had seen enough to want to see more. I have heard some of the Year 11 guys talk this way – I am not really sure what it means but I said it anyway and that meathead of a Ron cackled and said I was a shocker. Like he is all class!

I pick my nicest shirt and put on some of my father's aftershave and say "Hey, how is it going?" into the bathroom mirror a few times. Then my mother starts knocking on the door and wants to know if I am talking to myself and if I could hurry up. She needs to shower and take Jason to the doctors because he has been slurring his speech more than ever these-a- days. Jason doesn't like the doctor – the doctor always treats him like a baby. My mother doesn't like the doctor because of the same reason. So no surprise then that my mother is in a fairly irate mood at the thought of this impending visit. When I tell her that I am heading off to my Chemistry classes, my mother nearly bites my head off again. She asks why I am in such a rush and why I cannot understand that she needs help with getting Jason down the stairs and into a taxi. She could just ask, but the woman has a lot on her plate.

I hang around till she is ready and then we both help Jason down the stairs. He knows this is a doctor's visit so he digs his heels in. Like literally. He makes this very painful yelping sound when my mother grasps his hand a bit too tightly. We coax and cajole and my mother promises him a jam-roll at his favourite bakery afterwards. It takes us a good 20 minutes to get to the taxi stand. The taxi drivers know us and are very nice to Jason – they let him pick whichever taxi he wants to get into because he is very temperamental like that and sometimes refuses to get into some particular cab. Jason doesn't want to get into any taxi today and frankly I get a little impatient. I need to get to my Chemistry class– and I need to talk to Chloe. You don't need to be a genius to figure out that I cannot converse with Chloe if my mother, Jason and half a dozen taxi drivers are hanging around.

I have all but abandoned my plans of seeing Chloe today when all of a sudden I see her walking up the street.  She is wearing those pearl earrings again and her hair is fluttering around her face. I swear my heart does somersaults because I am almost dizzy at seeing her again. I walk faster and faster in her direction till I am nearly face to face with her.  She stops then and notices me for the first time.

Her face shows a hint of recognition but she doesn't smile. "Hey," I start and then I am suddenly tongue tied. Behind me the loud discussions and incessant cajoling for Jason to get into a taxi have suddenly stopped. The air seems to have gone heavy and I am acutely aware that everyone is now staring at us. Chloe doesn't say anything, she just walks past. This is my one chance to talk to her and say something totally cool. If I stuff this up, she is not going to give me the time of the day again.  I need a comeback and fast.

 "I heard you singing for me last night," I say.  The minute these words leave my mouth, I feel a bitter dullness settling around my shoulders. Chloe stops then and turns around to face me. Her face is red and her eyes are blazing.

"What did you say?" she asks in a strange, high-pitched voice. 

"Nothing," I say. Then because everyone is staring at us, I feel compelled to finish the sentence. "I heard you singing in the balcony last night when you were combing your hair". A couple of the taxi drivers laugh out loud at this. One of them wolf-whistles. Chloe is trembling now and her face is an angry white.  I want to go over and hug her. Hold her hand. Beg for forgiveness. Kick myself in the guts. Kiss her on the lips real hard. Bash up the taxi driver who whistled at her. Instead I stand like a stone. Like Jason. I understand my brother more than ever in that moment.

"Who the hell told you I sing for you?" Chloe asks in the same high-pitched voice. And as an afterthought, adds "Loser".

I am about to apologise when out of nowhere her mother turns up. Chloe bursts into angry tears and tells her mother she is being harassed. Her mother promptly lets loose a volley of abuse at me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my mother striding up to us.

"You mind your language," my mother starts, "That is my son you are talking about". Neither my mother nor I notice Jason walk up to the scene. Chloe's mother is still going on about how I am a lecher and how she will call the police if I as much as look at her daughter again.

"What did he say to you? Did he touch you?" she asks the very distressed Chloe, shaking her by the shoulder repeatedly. Chloe mumbles a no and keeps crying. Jason makes a guttural sound and tries to hold my hand. This is when Chloe's mother sees him. Her face wrinkles up in distaste and she turns to Chloe again.

"Did this retard ogle at you too? You can't trust these types around women!"

Chloe notices Jason then and for a moment, she stops crying. Her nose is red, her hair is messy. Jason gives her a lopsided smile. He tries to say something but instead just makes another low sound. My brother is asking her to smile, to stop crying. But no one else comprehends him. There are only so many languages that people understand.

Chloe's mother looks at him with disgust. "Yeah, that's right! Pretend to be child-like to get closer to young women!" she tells everyone within ear shot.

Then she starts to lead Chloe back home, all the while muttering about calling the police on us. Jason who is very distressed starts howling. My mother has her mouth set in a thin line and says nothing. I walk with them to the taxi and watch them drive away. I know that my mother is crying on the inside. You can say stuff to me - cruel, spiteful stuff, and I will put up with it or I will fight you. But Jason, he couldn't hurt a fly. And not just because he doesn't know how easy it is to hurt a fly.  Who the heck are these people to call him a retard anyway? I bet Chloe's fat mother couldn't identify one measly car entering the car-park. One. She is the bloody retard if you ask me.

A cloud of steely white starts to circle around my head, swathing everything around me. I walk back towards Chloe's building and stare at her balcony for the longest time. Then I pick up a stone and hurl it with all my strength against her window. There is the sound of glass shattering all around followed by a piercing scream. I hear doors being opened and people flinging open their windows to see what the chaos is all about. Chloe and her mother come rushing to the balcony and I hear more screams and abuses. I stand triumphant as I take in the whole scene. It feels like I have hit a six again.

And if they go to my mother with the complaints, I know she won't ask me to be like Jason anymore. We both know that this time around, I have been the good brother.

BIO: Vaiju Joshi’s fiction has previously been commended/published in the Adelaide Review, Global Short Story competition (UK), Sentinel Champions, Six Sentences, Five Stop Story Project and Cool Dog magazine amongst others. Her fiction was also previously short-listed for the Best Australian Short Stories 2010 and 2011 anthologies. She is an engineer by profession and is currently working on her first novel.  She lives in Adelaide, Australia.