Andrew Valencia

Posted on November 28, 2011



I was afraid that he could hear me in the other room. Looking back, I realize that Luke had more on his plate than he was prepared to handle at his age, and that the last thing he needed was a little brother who made strange noises with his hands and mouth for no discernible reason every time he was left alone. But I couldn’t help myself. The world inside my head was alive and active and determined entirely by me, and I liked it so much better than the stale, inflexible worlds doled out by TV and reality.

“What are you doing?” All at once my world dissolved away and I threw my hands down to my sides like a soldier at attention. Luke was in the doorway looking down at me with the same mocking grin with which he greeted most things he couldn’t understand. A daytime cartoon was playing on the old wood-panel TV against the wall. I had been circling the floor about five feet away and had no idea how long he had been watching me. Still, I wouldn’t be dragged into a confession.


“It wasn’t nothing. What do you think about when you make those sounds?”

“Nothing,” I repeated, brattier this time. Luke raised his enormous fist suggestively. At seventeen he was built like a linebacker: huge hands and feet, broad face, oafish chest and back. My body was the same way, but with ten years between us we were like two of those collapsible Russian dolls set at opposite ends of the spectrum. The biggest difference between us was our eyes, his oak brown and mine light blue with a wreath of hazel around the pupil. We had been told that we both got our eyes from our fathers.

We stared each other down for a while before Luke lowered his arm. Any other day he would have gladly wrestled me into submission, but his face said that today he was too stressed to do anything but take me for what I was.

“Come watch TV in the front room,” he said. “Mom should be here soon.” Mom had been up north for almost a year. I wasn’t sure why she had gone. No one ever gave me a straight answer no matter how much of a fuss I made. All I remember is Luke driving me half-asleep to Grandpa’s house in the middle of the night with Mom curled up across the backseats trying to scratch her skin through the socks over her hands. I don’t remember a time when Luke wasn’t living at Grandpa’s.

Grandpa was asleep in his recliner with a potato chip bag stuffed between the cushions. I sat Indian-style in front of the TV with Luke in the chair behind me drawing in his sketchbook. A while back one of counselors at the high school had suggested that he find a “creative outlet” for his energy. Since then he had filled almost an entire book with detailed pencil drawings of people, animals, buildings, and anything else he could observe. He glanced up from his drawing every now and then. A Looney Toons cartoon was on and I was trying hard to keep my sounds and movements in check.

“Who’s your favorite Looney Toon?” he asked me.

“Wile E. Coyote.”

“You like him better than the Road Runner?”


“How come?”

“Because he’s smart and because he builds inventions and…um…”

“And because he has no friends?”

“Shut up!”

“Shut up!” Luke could match my high-pitched squeal exactly; he was good at impressions too. He flipped the page over and began outlining a drawing of Wile E. Coyote that he would give to me as a present later on. All of my brother’s talents could be easily shared with others. He had no patience for the abstract and would have rather fixed a car engine or painted a full portrait than solve an equation or write an essay. His teachers all said that he was smart but lazy. Even this made me jealous. Grandma and Grandpa could understand laziness, but every letter my teachers sent home was filled with phrases like “complex motor tics” and “self-isolation tendencies” that invariably launched them into fretful arguments about what was to be done with me. I think that they saw something familiar in me that they were afraid to admit was there.

When Mom came through the door, I ran into her arms and she kissed and tickled me until I collapsed on the floor. I was so happy to have her back, but it came as a shock to see how much she had changed. So much of her seemed different to me: her smell, her face, her body. From the old photos on Grandpa’s shelf, I knew that Mom had once been large like everyone in the family, but I had only ever known her as bone thin. I remembered how her cheeks seemed to sink into her face like she was sucking them into her mouth. Now she was somewhere in the middle with fresh folds of fat bulging out above her waistband and around her arms and under her chin.

“Sweetie, sweetie, sweetie,” she said with her lips pressed against my ear. “Do you know how much I’ve missed you?”

She picked her head up and smiled at me with a shining new set of porcelain incisors.

“You have new teeth, Mom,” I said. I was very pleased with this. She had been missing three of them in the front before she left.

“I saw a good dentist while I was up north. He fixed my teeth right up!”

Luke stood in the living room doorway with his hands on the boards as if bracing for an earthquake. He had only given her a light hug when she arrived.

“They have a lot of good doctors up north?”

He and Mom exchanged expressions that made me look back and forth between them to try to understand. “Some of the best,” she said, pulling me closer to her chest. She laughed and began rocking me back and forth on her knee. “Mom’s all healthy now, baby!”

Grandma and Grandpa left to go pick up dinner at KFC. Once they were gone, Mom went to her car and came back up the driveway carrying a load of presents wrapped in red and silver Christmas paper that shined like a mirage in the heavy August sun.

“Christmas has come early,” she said, dropping a present onto my lap. I tore through the paper to uncover a new remote-controlled race car. The other packages yielded several Transformers action figures and a Game Boy with Tetris and Super Mario Bros. Luke got a Super Nintendo system with controllers for four players.

“This is a better system than the one you had before,” Mom said. “It’s brand new.”

“I haven’t been playing video games much lately,” Luke said. “But thanks. Really, this is awesome.”

Luke used to have a NES that he and his friends liked to play, but then one afternoon while he was in school Mom and I came by and she took it away to sell. She had been selling a lot of things before she went up north.

“When I get enough saved together,” she said, “I’m going to pay back Grandma and Grandpa for all that I still owe them, but I thought this was more important now.”

After present time was over, Mom leaned forward in Grandpa’s chair with her new teeth bared in full. I sat up on my knees with my chin on the armrest. Luke stood behind me with his back against the drywall.

“I have some big news, boys,” Mom said. She held one side of my face in her palm. “I’ve got a new boyfriend named Rob. He’s asked me to move in with him, and he wants you all to come and live with us.”

She looked from me to Luke and her face changed as a result of what she saw.

“Rob’s a very good man. He works for a delivery company and goes to church a few nights a week. That’s where we met. In church.”

“You and him run in the same circles?” Luke asked, scratching at the dark hairs running along his arms.

“We’re both healthy,” Mom answered. “We both go to church now.” Her blue eyes met with mine and she leaned in close to my face the way she used to during story time.

“When we move up north, we’re going to have a brand new house where we can all live together. Rob has a son your age and you’ll be able to go to school with him. I even talked to him about getting some pets for the place. Which do you like better, baby? Cats or dogs?”

“Dogs!” I cheered before I felt Luke’s enormous hand on my shoulder.

“Play with your new toys,” he said. “I need to talk to Mom alone for a minute.”

They went into the kitchen and Luke shut the sliding door. I played around with my Transformers for a while, but as with most of the toys I received they failed to hold my interest for very long. I moved over to Grandpa’s recliner and listened for voices from the kitchen. I could hear my mother stirring coffee on the other side of the wall.

“I wish I could remember when he started doing it,” I heard her say. “Have the doctors at school had any luck figuring it out?”

“It’s not Tourette’s,” Luke said. “They say he has complete control over what he’s doing. He just won’t say why.”

“How is he doing in class?”

There was a pause where I imagine Luke either shrugged or shook his head. “Some days the teachers want to put him in the advanced class. Other days they say he can’t concentrate and we should talk to the doctors about putting him on medication.”

“Well, maybe the teachers up north will have better luck with him.”

I heard a chair move across the linoleum and when I looked up Luke’s head was sticking out of the door.

“Go play outside,” he said.

I wandered around the lawn in small spirals with the images of my world sharp before my eyes. I could be left alone for hours, on someone’s couch or in the backseat of a car, and never feel bored. So many times I had waited alone for the world to return Mom to me, but it never did. I learned that the world didn’t respond to my tears. It didn’t respond to me at all. But my world was different; there were no boundaries that wouldn’t break down at my command. In my mind Batman and the Power Rangers fought side by side to stop Pinky and the Brain from taking over the world. I saw Bugs Bunny and Eek the Cat as bendable playthings just as much as the Transformers lying on the floor of the living room.

But in that moment the world in my head was beginning to take on a new purpose. I was seeing ahead to the future when we were all living together in our new house up north. I imagined playing outside with my new stepbrother and making friends at my new school where no one would know me. I saw myself losing weight to become an athlete, cutting my hair and wearing all new clothes to become one of the cool kids. I was sure that eventually I would stop making the noises altogether. I could see the day approaching when I wouldn’t need imaginary worlds anymore.

The door swung open and Mom came towards me with outstretched arms. I ran to her and felt something heavy against my back as she hugged me. Her purse was hanging off her arm.

“Are we going now?” I asked. I already had a name picked out for the dog we would get.

Mom brushed her cracked fingers through my hair and pierced her lips together. “I’ve got to go back up north for a while longer, baby,” she said. “I’m going to need you to stay here with Grandma and Grandpa for a little while longer.”

“When…when am I going to come with you?”

“Soon, soon. Rob and I need to get some more money together first, and then of course there’s still the money I owe Grandma and Grandpa and other costs to consider…”

Luke moved in closer to me. Mom’s mouth began to form the shapes of other words before she finally filled it with a cigarette from her purse. Dead blood vessels ran crookedly from the outer edges of her eyes to the dark blue centers.

“We’re going to be together soon,” she said, and left me with a kiss on the forehead.

I stood watching as she backed the car out, holding the cigarette out the window with the stream of bluish smoke circling through the air above her hand. Luke’s voice sounded in my ears as she took off down the street. “It’s better this way. I know you don’t think so now, but it really is.” I watched from the driveway as her taillights disappeared around the block, the image burning into the most intimate part of my memory, with no way of knowing what gift my brother had given me or how much I would need my dream world from then on.


Andrew Valencia was born in Fresno, California and graduated from Stanford with a degree in English. His short stories have appeared in Leland Quarterly, Switchback, and Mixed Fruit. He currently lives in northern Taiwan where he teaches English to EFL students.

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