The Ninja

by Delancey Stewart

My mother stood at the window watching the rusty Camaro pull up the driveway. Black and low, it was filmed with twenty years of grime. The car lent an aura of trash to any house it visited. Mom let out a low exhausted sigh as the driver's door opened and my brother Christopher emerged. Unfolding long limbs to stand next to the car, he stared up at the house through dark aviator glasses. Dressed in black, with a long cape fastened across his shoulders, Christopher took several tentative steps toward the door before spinning around, retreating to the back yard through the side gate.

"At least he didn't bring the unicycle," Mom said as she turned from the window to busy her hands with the assorted casseroles and cakes that were taking over the dining room table.

"God only knows what kind of crazy he did bring," added my sister Sharon, as she helped my mother rearrange the food, shaking her head. To me, even the unicycle was better than the cold vacancy Christopher had brought in the past, when he seemed to leave even himself somewhere else.

I crossed the dim sadness of the living room, stepping around family members I hadn't seen in years. I nodded and smiled as they reached out to pat my shoulders and utter quiet words. I was tired of nodding and smiling. I walked into the brightness of the kitchen and peered through the diamond paned glass of the back door.

This was the first time I'd seen my brother in six years.

Christopher stood in the center of the yard, almost still. His posture reminded me of a sundial, one arm stretched toward the house, the other straight up in the air. His legs were spread and he was moving slowly like a beetle struggling in hardening amber. Steeling myself, I opened the door and walked across the lawn.

"Chris!" I said, coaxing cheer into my voice, pushing it to sound fraternal. My hand extended to clap his shoulder, but I let it drop as I reached him. "Hey buddy," I tried again.

He continued the slow movements, one arm now arcing across the space before his chest.

"Hey," I pushed his shoulder.

Christopher's eyes popped open. He dropped his arms and stood facing me. "Stephen," there was no emotion in his voice, not a flicker of recognition in his eyes. "Tai chi."

"Tai chi." I turned the words over in my mouth. Saying them didn't help. "Okay, well, let's go inside. Mom is waiting and we need to head over pretty soon." We walked across the lawn together in no real hurry. "Glad you could make it, Chris," I looked into his face. Not much there had changed. He was older, so was I. The innocence of his expression remained; the startling green of the eyes that seemed always to be looking anywhere but where I wanted them to be.

"You should really have just come inside." I pulled open the back door.

Christopher dodged to one side of the door, peering around the corner, crouching low.

"What the hell, dude?" I said, with too much irritation.

"Shh." He glared at me. Christopher lived in an alternate universe full of things that the rest of us couldn't see, feel or understand. As a child, his socks caused him hours of distress; the seams across the toes were tiny lengths of barbed wire to him, digging into his feet unbearably. He could only eat certain foods, wear certain colors. He sometimes spoke to people that the rest of us could not see. Eventually, medication helped alleviate some of the symptoms. But who knew if he took his meds now?

I walked into the house, stopping to ensure that he was behind me. After casing the kitchen from his crouch, he stepped in, pulling the door shut behind him and darting glances around the yard before facing me.

"Someone following you or something?"

Ignoring me, Christopher walked to the refrigerator and pulled the door open. He sifted through the covered Tupperware dishes, pushing bottles around on the top shelf. He pulled a beer from the very back, where I imagined it had been for a while. Dad's beer. Christopher opened it, dropping the top on the tiled counter and slid to the door between the kitchen and dining room, peering around the fading doorframe.

Mom spotted Christopher's looming form and swallowed, lifting her head and smoothing the heavy black skirt of her dress as she crossed the room to embrace him. Christopher stood stiff and still as Mom's arms went around him. She held him, waiting for the tension to melt from his frame, and then released him, rebuffed, and backed a few steps away.

"I'm glad you came, honey." Her eyes searched his face as he looked past her. I watched as she looked over the aging form of her youngest child, taking in the overlong hair, the rumpled clothes. I watched resignation replace concern as she said, "We'll go in a few minutes. You can ride with Stephen."

I leaned against the door as Christopher sulked through the family-filled living room. Aunt Hilda took his arm and demanded a hug, asked what he was up to these days. I heard the word "ninja" filter through the oppressive atmosphere.

The drive to the church was short, and the ceremony was brief, well executed. Dad's old colleagues spoke about his dedication to the job, his loyalty and sense of duty. We'd heard the same speeches at his retirement party, but they didn't sound depressing that day. Mom and Sharon cried quietly. I offered a few words about how much I respected my father, how I tried to fashion my life after his quiet solidity and grace.

Christopher stared out the window most of the time. My mother took his hand while I spoke and he stared at his own hand lying in hers as if trying to understand how this appendage had become detached from the rest of his body.

At the cemetery, Christopher stood apart, turning in slow circles and moving his arms about him. Tai chi.

"Oh. My. God." Sharon had a very low tolerance for all things Christopher.

Back at Mom's house, I cornered him over macaroni salad.

"I don't think ninjas do Tai Chi, by the way."

"Wrong." Christopher had never been one to elaborate.

"I thought ninjas were generally Japanese."

"No." Christopher gathered four tiny sandwiches onto a small plate and then positioned himself in the corner.

"They eat cucumber sandwiches though, huh?" I couldn't stop; I wanted to push him, needed some kind of reaction.

"Leave me alone, Stephen." He looked directly at me then, and the eyes that beheld me were shattering. I realized that I hadn't looked into them in at least a decade. My stomach twisted and lurched. I wanted to reach to him, but knew he wouldn't allow it. In that moment, I saw the little brother I'd never really had.

Granting his request, I walked away, poured a healthy glass of bourbon and settled myself. My corner was well-defended by an ottoman with several plates balanced on top of it and the hulking form of Aunt Hattie, who was nattering in a shrill voice over her gin and swaying slightly. I drank and watched my little brother gaze around him, always on alert.

Despite the obstacles I'd arranged, Sharon found a way to reach me. She collected plates into her lap and sat on the ottoman, her hips threatening to force their way out of the tight fabric of her dress. I watched as she crossed her ankles, the flesh bulging on either side of tight black straps over the tops of her feet. I couldn't help looking up into her face to see if it hurt, being that constrained.

"He's still a complete waste of carbon," Sharon shoved a brownie between her lips after uttering her denouncement. I watched her chew and took a long swallow of bourbon, feeling it burn and seethe down my throat. A crumb of brownie flew from her lips, landing on the white shag beneath us. She wanted me to conspire, to gang up on him like we'd done when we were little. Dad would separate us, pull us aside and speak to us individually. We'd compare speeches, and they always followed the same line of thought: Protect your little brother, you don't have to understand him, but you do have to love him.

"I don't know why he even bothered to come. He was such a burden to Dad. He made him buy that shop for him. And for what? So he could continue being a complete loser well into his forties?" She scooped up a pile of corn chips and then ate them like a dainty sow, picking them one at a time from her pudgy manicured hand with her teeth.

Dad had bought the comic book shop where Christopher worked when the owner was going to shut it down. It had been the only job that Christopher ever kept. Dad put the title in Christopher's name, and he'd owned it for more than ten years now. Once I'd gone into the chest at the foot of Mom and Dad's bed to find a blanket and had stumbled into a hoard of hundreds of Spider Man comic books. Evidently Dad had supported the store in more ways than he admitted to any of us.

Christopher's eyes crossed the spot where we sat. He paused in his sweep of the room, a flicker of emotion passing across his face. He continued looking around. I felt a pang of guilt.

"Sharon… I think…" I looked into my empty glass, jangled the cubes against the heavy glass. "Never mind. Good to see you, Sis." I went to refill my glass, feeling woozy and warm. I turned back to the corner where Christopher had been, but he was gone.

After three huge glasses and too many apologies and condolences from strangers and distant relatives, I excused myself to the front yard, surprised to see Christopher's car still hulking in the driveway. I walked around it, whistling to myself. What a piece of crap. I remembered when he'd told our parents that he'd bought a racecar. I remembered the pride and the painful hope on his face when he'd admitted that it didn't have an engine. Or doors. Dad had helped him pull it together, driving to Santa Rosa each weekend with parts he'd found in the salvage yard.

My friends and I had laughed at his folly from our shiny Acuras and Hondas, busy enjoying the fruits of our first "real" jobs out of college. I was surprised it was still running.

"Stephen." Christopher's soft voice came from the side of the yard. I turned. He was crouched next to the house, squatting on his heels, leaning into the stucco next to the coiled yellow hose.

"Hey," my voice was quieter than usual. I was glad. I squatted next to him.

Christopher didn't say anything then. But he did look at me – right at me. I returned the gaze and tried to say with my eyes the things that I knew he needed to hear. I wished I could talk to him like Dad had. I was sure he wished for that too.

After a few minutes of looking at each other, a sad smile crept across his lips.

"I'm not really a ninja."

"I know, Christopher. It's okay."

He stood up and looked hard at me for another minute or two. Then he removed his keys from his pocket and walked to the Camaro. He didn't look at me again or say goodbye as he slid into the car, backed out, and drove away. )

BIO: Delancey Stewart has published a variety of non-fiction pieces in her work as a freelance journalist. Her first collection of short stories was published in November 2012: Through a Dusty Window: New York City Stories 1910-2001. Stewart has lived on both coasts, in big cities and small towns. She's been a pharmaceutical rep, a personal trainer and a direct sales representative for a French wine importer. The common thread in Stewart's life has been writing. Despite a variety of major career shifts, caused in some part by her status as a military spouse who moves frequently, she has maintained a freelance writing and editing business and written fiction in her spare time. When she's not writing, Stewart works for a government contractor as a technical writer and chases two very small boys around her home in Southern Maryland.