“How’s basketball going?” he asked, well aware that I hadn’t been to practice in weeks. He knew because he was the only one who dared enter the garage to leave the house.
“Fine, I guess,” I responded, hoping it would make the conversation stop. That’s how Dad has always been, you knew that. That’s why you guys talked about sports, and sometimes tv shows, but not much else. Occasionally one of you would bring up something you had heard on the news, until he spewed some outdated nonsense that sparked a substantial enough argument to silence us all for a few days.
“Did you hear abo-” his voice trailed when my uninterested eyes drifted back to the wall they had been staring at for who knows how long. “You’re going to have to go back sometime you know. There’s nothing you can do about it now, Livi.”
Livi. He never called me that. You were the only one who called me that, Damon. I remember the day I came home during elementary school and decided I wanted everyone to call me by my full name, Livia. Livi was just too feminine and juvenile, two things I had always tried to run away from. You gave me one long look, up and down, before responding with a plain-faced “nah.” We never talked about it again.
Dad realized his mistake before I even had the chance to point it out. He backed out of my room, returning the door to its former position. It closed to reveal those stupid graffiti letters you were obsessed with making when we were in junior high. L-I-V-I-A spelled out in bold, crooked font, lime green contrasting against a navy blue to make a 3D effect. You were never good at art, but for some reason those letters came easily to you, prompting you to make a sign for every friend and family member we came into contact with. It made me mad, you being able to do something so much better than me. I tried to no avail time after time, but I always hid the failed attempts, afraid you would discover my unbounded jealousy. Regardless, I never removed the poster you personally taped to my door, even years after you took down your own, telling myself it was for your sake, but really just because I liked looking at it.
Do you remember in first grade when you learned to jump off the swing? You were the only one in our class that could do it, and you didn’t even realize, content in your own mind.
Every day when they opened those doors to signal the start of recess, you and I took off for those two swings, paired together off to the right of the small playground. They were Livia and Damon’s swings, everyone knew it. The twins had paired swings; it seemed fitting to more than just us I guess, since no one else ever went for them. Nonetheless, we hurled our undersized bodies in their direction, not stopping for an instant until our butts reached the curved black rubber. Legs pumping, eyes closed, you would always conjure up some elaborate fictitious plot that separated us from the rest of the world. Sometimes our rocket emerged from the ground, bursting into the deep depths of space, other times we rode up the steep slope of a roller coaster ready for the ride of our lives. Every day, without fail, we spent the entire 25 minute recess on those swings. We didn’t need anyone else, which was good since we had no other friends anyway. We had your imagination and those two swings, and that was enough.
I can’t seem to remember what it was that day, what wild adventure we sought to find, because the moment your body left that seat, my mind went blank. We were seven, Damon, and most of our class struggled to even get themselves into the air. I don’t even think you thought twice about it. The moment your erratic little mind conjured it up, it was happening. Your Scooby Doo branded gym shoes scattered the woodchips below them, and your knees bent ever-so-slightly to help you find your balance. Your eyes were still closed. Mine shot open when I heard the air whir past me. I looked from side to side, everyone was staring at you. You didn’t notice. That familiar little smirk you never grew out of looked back at me, flashing your missing front tooth.
“Let go, Livi!” you demanded of me when you saw my lips part in utter shock. “Let go, come on, it’s fun!” You kept saying it, those two words. My hands gripped the metal chains even harder, with no intention of letting go. Your eyes pleaded with me, mouth continuously forming the motions to say the words again and again until they were interrupted by the shrill whistle calling us back inside. I dug my heels into the heavily treaded spot below, my body following suit by jerking forward to a sudden stop. By the time my hands released from their position, you were already five steps ahead of me, dashing toward the door where our adventures always abruptly ended.
In high school, we shared the same car. Sophomore year, both new drivers, mom and dad bought us that silver 2005 Toyota Camry. The one with the rusted door handles that would always stick. Far too cool to take the bus, you waited for my basketball practices to end for me to take you home if you couldn’t find a friend to drive you.
The court where I practiced was positioned on the lower level of the school, with the only windows looking in located on the level above, looking down on the gym. During practice you’d sit under those windows, mostly staring at your phone. Sometimes I would catch you though, Damon, watching me. That familiar smirk would find your face if I made a good play, but quickly fade away when the next time I got the ball I made a mistake. I could tell that even a jeer would escape your mouth from time to time. But this window that you watched me through, it was a world away from my practice, with my teammates. There was this divide, where I caught air launching the ball for a three-pointer, and you were in my periphery, just tapping on the glass.
We shared the same genetic composition, the same last name, the same womb, but we were never the same person. Me, with my basketball uniform and room full of trophies; you, sometimes picking up the guitar, or banging on some piano keys, but never really finding the drive to make anything of it. That was the difference. The drive. You were always smarter than me, Damon. Always. Politics, celebrities, Harry Potter trivia, everything. I compensated in grades and application boosters, but I always paled in comparison to your vast wealth of information. My trophies meant - mean - nothing, but I’m afraid you didn’t see that.
The first time it happened, you went missing for hours. Hours that Mom spent breathing deeply, not peeling her eyes away from your last text conversation, as Dad sat in the kitchen seemingly unaffected by the situation. You said you were going to return that library book that I went with you to pick up two weeks before. It was a comedy-style encyclopedia about basketball, remember? I always thought it seemed like an odd choice, but I didn’t question it because we got ice cream after and that seemed more important at the time. Cookies and cream mixed with hot fudge and caramel, the same thing we always got. We usually did prefer the same foods; it’s funny some of the similarities we shared. Now I wonder if you intended to do it then, but my insistence on getting ice cream served as a deterrent.
An empty parking lot in the forest preserve, Dad’s loaded rifle untouched in the backseat. When Mom found you, you wouldn’t say anything for over ten minutes, filling our dated car with deafening silence. I left before you got home, too disgusted to look at you, Damon. Not at you I guess, but at the shell of my brother, rotted by something that lived inside of you.
You spent the next nine days in the hospital. During this time I learned that when you tell people your brother is in the hospital, they don’t really know how to respond when you clarify that it’s a mental hospital. I also learned that you were allowed to have some of your own clothes from home, comfortable things like pajama pants and t shirts. But also, make sure they have no strings on them, or any loose threads. No zippers or pockets, too. I figured they might as well give you a jumpsuit to match your lack of freedom.
On the second day, Mom, Dad, and I made the hour drive to come visit you. Except you and I wouldn’t turn 18 for a few more months, so I wasn’t allowed in. We were born four minutes apart from one another, but you were confined to a space filled with others struggling to find their grips on reality, and I sat in the hot car.
The only time we ever talked about it, you told me they treated you like you did something wrong. As if you were being scolded, somewhere between a child and a prisoner. I’m sorry Damon. I’m sorry that you spent a week of your life having your lowest moment thrown in your face time after time. I’m sorry that you struggled to feel meaning, and to see a future for yourself. But mostly I’m sorry that I was born with the chemicals in my brain fully intact, and you, born four minutes after me, weren’t.
I twisted the doorknob just slightly enough to open my door, but not enough to make a substantial noise. Creeping alongside Mom’s room I heard the unending sniffling that hadn’t stopped for three weeks. I walked past without looking inside and made my way down the staircase. Just around the corner, Shadow laid with his head gently placed on his two front paws, waiting. He was between those two support poles that ran from ceiling to floor where he always rested when someone wasn’t home yet.
Shadow was old now, and only two things really excited him anymore: the thought of people food and when someone came home. I wished you would just walk through those doors, if for no other reason than to see his big, black body clumsily launch in your direction, tail wagging, tongue meeting your hands. That youthful half-smile would accompany your shaking head when his tail would hit the wall and make that absurd thumping noise.
Shadow was always your dog, Damon. He loved everyone like a dog does, but your room, with his head on your lap was his happy place. You being the only one with dark hair in the house, I used to tease you and say he saw you as one of his own. To which you would always respond by pulling loose one of your matted curls in front of your eyes to compare to his jet-black fur, pointing out that your hair was dark brown, which was clearly not the same as his. Everytime, without fail.
I made my way toward his leash, picking it up and swinging it through the air. He knew this cue and found himself by me immediately, tail gently wagging. Shadow walked toward the garage, where he usually exited for walks, and my hesitation didn’t stop him. I didn’t know if I could do it, but Dad was right, I guess I needed to try at some point.
Two cars rested side by side, the room was silenced by the concrete walls and floor. The garage door opened, illuminating the spot where Dad found you motionless behind the wheel of Mom’s sedan. You looked like you had just fallen asleep. He was just trying to leave for work, Damon. Three police cars and an ambulance later, work wasn’t really an option anymore despite Dad’s desire to run from what you had done. Somewhere in the mix of tears and regret, I found myself on a train trying to get back home to you. Only it wasn’t you, but instead a ghostly emptiness where you should have been. I haven’t gotten back on the train, or talked to any of my professors, or my basketball coach, or even gone anywhere but your service since.
I locked my eyes on Shadow’s feet, continuously moving forward. He knew where to go, even if I didn’t. I looked up only to check for passing cars, hoping that maybe your face would be in one of them.
Following Shadow’s path, my eyes caught the familiar gleam of a green curvy slide before I realized where we were. To my right, two swings swayed in the breeze, all alone on the small playground. I tied Shadow’s leash to a pole by the monkey bars and took my place on the black rubber seat. My palms felt the cold of the familiar metal chains that had since succumbed to rust. You should be to my left, already ten feet into the air, ready to jump. I started pumping my legs, slowly lifting further from the ground. I struggled to keep my feet from colliding with the surface below between each movement. The seat seemed lower than I remembered. I got my hands to loosen their grip on the chains, eyes closed as always. Damon, at that moment I could see you flying above me, trying to persuade me with those same two words.
“Let go!” your youthful voice pleaded, sure it would finally work this time. “You can do it, just let go!” I could see that toothless smirk turn toward me. Heart fluttering, and eyes still closed, I forced my legs backward one last time, ready to swing them forward and release when I reached the peak of my arc. Miscalculating the timing, instead my toes collided with the ground beneath them, causing dirt to sputter up on either side of me. The unexpected jarring motion sent me out of my seat, planting the palms of my hands into the splintery wood chips below. My exasperated groan took the place of your assertive shouting. Suddenly, you were gone, and I was forced to let go.