Even from outside of his room, I can smell the jasmine. There really isn’t any scent quite like it.
I’ve already gotten ready for school. I’m just standing here, for no purpose whatsoever, my backpack squished against the walls of our modest home and my lunch bag swaying carelessly from my fingertips just inches from my younger brother Rael’s door.
I guess most every member of our family has done this. Jasmine is soothing, and he has a whole bush locked up in there. Rael caught his fondness for plants at a shockingly young age, and that fondness has only grown and grown like the giant magnolia he planted in the backyard when he was only two-and-a-half years old and could hardly speak coherent sentences.
I don’t move until Rael emerges from his quarters, his dilapidated backpack only looped around one shoulder. His black hair is a feral jungle of twirly black curls--not unlike those cucumber vines that cling to our fence. I suppose I could spend a couple hours comparing Rael to plants, though. He’s around so many of them, it’s a wonder he doesn’t just dig his feet into a pile of mulch and sprout roots.
The jasmine odor thickens the air, but I just suck in another nose-full.
“You are allowed in my room, Liliana,” Rael says.
I smile. It’s a forced one. I have a good deal of work ahead of me at school; my last few exams take place today. But my thankfulness is genuine. I really just need prayers to pass these tests, but a little jasmine wouldn’t hurt. When Rael leaves, I slide into his room and look for a pair of pruning scissors. I find a small pair on his desk and use it to snip off a small twig. I stuff it into my lunchbag.
The school day passes in one enormous, unimportant blurr. I don’t know how my exams went. You can’t ever know with these things. As I drive home from school, I can still smell jasmine. Rael always said that it helped relieve stress, and I’m obliged to believe my thirteen-year-old horticulturist.
I’m struck again and again with how odd my adopted brother is. Yes, he’s adopted. If you ever took a split-second glance at our family Christmas cards, you’d know. Me and my parents are flour-white and my mother even has platinum-blonde locks. On the other hand, Rael’s skin is the color of almonds and his eyes and hair are no other shade but nighttime-black. He was adopted as an abandoned infant from a local shelter when I was only three. His parents were Yemeni and without trustworthy extended family, and by some improbable catastrophe, his birth mother died during childbirth, and his father died in a car accident mere hours later. Adoption will always be messy somehow, but long story short, he is ours, and we are his.
I pull up to our driveway, right next to a perfect row of azaleas. I’ve had an early dismissal, so Rael isn’t among them. He will be soon, however. I step out of my dad’s old pickup and hear the unmistakable rumble of an ancient school bus in the distance. Gathering my stuff, I wait for him.
The gaudy yellow school bus comes to a screeching halt right in front of our ivy-choked mailbox. The doors open with a sigh.
Rael thumps down the steps. A sudden, mocking call from the recesses of vehicle reaches my ears.
“Run home, nature boy!”
A small twig with leaves still attached sails out of the bus, but only grazes Rael’s ear.
The bus leaves, and my brother plucks the twig from off our lawn.
“Rael!” I yelp, and run up to him. “What happened?” I embraced his lanky, unmoving form.
He talks clearly when I finally release him. “The guys on my bus always seemed hyperactive. I brought some valerian flowers to them to help.” He cuts me off before I could interject. “I haven’t done anything with valerian plants yet, so I guess my hypothesis was incorrect.” Everything about my brother was so calm, indifferent and innocent, I wondered if he even realized he’d been yelled at.
“Rael, middle schoolers are always hyperactive.” I say.
He looks at me, his beautiful black eyes absorbing my every word, like always. He smiles a little, shrugs, then walks back to our house. I speed towards him.
“Is there anything you need to tell me?” I prod, grasping his shoulder. That was a lame question. I should’ve just shaken answers out of him.
“No,” he says in his slow, deliberate way. “I’m doing fine, if that’s what you want to know. I have friends in my classes, Liliana.” As if that meant anything. I know friends in public school are just about as constant as morning glories, blooming one day and gone the next.
I exhale as we approach the door. “At least you have good friends in church. If they rode your bus, I know they’d stand up for you.”
Rael smiles and nods. Sometimes I wonder if he gets sick of his overprotective sister. He’d better not. He’s stuck with me.
Saturday is refreshing, as always. I savor the birth of summer break, and set to work on my blog.
I’ve had it for at least a year, now. I like to read frequently, so I’ve dedicated a little website to my books, but mostly just my life. Frequents at my blog seem to like details on Rael’s gardening, so I spend the afternoon outside with my camera snapping magazine-worthy pictures of lavender, tomatoes, marigolds and all nature of unripe vegetables for my newest post. I sneak up on Rael reading a weighty book with the words Herbalist’s Manual printed on the front. He jumps when the camera clicks, and I capture his expression of fear.
On Sunday I wake up at eight-o’clock with a grin, because Sundays are going to be the only days for two months where I’ll even need to set an alarm. I get dressed for Sunday school slowly and methodically, and walk down the stairs at the precise moment my mother sets the cereal on the table. She does that even though she knows her two children can reach the top shelf just fine--it’s an old habit of hers. She also still buys all of our yearbook photos, and our dad finds pleasure in taking us out to a small park nearby to ride bikes and throw frisbees, even though the only people that ever go to that park are young couples with three-year-old children riding tricycles. Sometimes, compared to other households I’ve known, ours seems to have frozen in place.
An hour and a half later, I’m sitting next to some of my best friends in the middle of a set of pews assigned to high schoolers. When our pastor starts to talk, I have to elbow my friend to free her attention from her phone. She hastily clicks the power button and shoves the device into a little pocket in her designer Bible-case that was probably made by a charitable missions company in Africa. She won’t open that case once during the sermon. She’ll just be staring into the space between her and Pastor Jones, or at the cursive inscription of John 3:16 sewed into that cover.
I take diligent notes. I think that the sermon touched on humility. Not that this is important, because when I write, the words Dr. Jones says whirl through my head like dandelion seeds caught in a breeze. Nothing sticks. All I can think about is Rael sitting a few pews in front of me. Alone.
When the main service is over, I can tell he doesn’t want me to walk him to his classroom. He gives me this flashing glance that says something like thanks, but no thanks. I nod respectively and head down towards my own classroom, and link my arm with my other friend Ashley’s. I don’t ever get to know what really happens to Rael, but somehow I am able to loosen up and enjoy myself with my small group.
It’s twelve o’clock when we are released. I take the stairs down to the main hall where Rael should be waiting for me with my parents. The stairwell is concrete, unpainted and echo-y. My class is on the third floor, and as I walk down the first set, I find myself stuck behind a large group of eighth-grade boys who’ve emerged from the second-floor entrance. Their conversation is obnoxious and easily audible from many feet away in the loud stairwell.
“Has he always been that weird?” One boy says, his baritone forced. The last word bounces off the walls and hits me in the face. I soften my footsteps, and eavesdrop.
“Dude, he’s been doing crap like that ever since second grade.”
“God, he likes roses more than my dead grandma.”
They’re laughing so hard that they have to stop walking for a few breaths. Well, not all of them are laughing. One boy wearing an orange and white-striped polo shirt actually seems rather distraught, but he doesn’t do anything. He just lags behind the group, two others in a similar position descending the stairs beside him casting helpless looks at one another.
One boy in the front of the herd pauses, his leather-clad foot hovering between the last step and the first floor. I know his name. Not that I care. He turns around to the group and smirks evilly.
“Do you think he’s gay?”
It’s all I can do to keep myself from jumping over the rails and landing my right foot squarely on his pudgy jawline.
The boy continues. “I mean, he looks at us really weird all the time.”
I hate middle schoolers so much. I hate them.
The majority of the boy’s audience nods and snickers their ascension. There is a small chorus of “yeah’s.”
“He creeps me out,” another says, not very humorous anymore. I’m leaning over the rail now, but they’re all too enthralled in their own business to notice. “He doesn’t talk like a normal guy. He doesn’t know anything, either--besides flowers, I guess.”
“I don’t think he’s ever touched a video game before,” someone else pipes up. “Once I asked him if he watched any football. He doesn’t watch anything.”
“He’s from the Middle East, isn’t he? Maybe…”
At this point, I’m sure they aren’t serious anymore. Surely. I can tell what they mean to say, though. I’m shaking with anger at this point, and I’ve dug little crescents into my palms.
“Rael’s a terrorist.”
Once the name slips out, I can’t handle it anymore.
I don’t want to get in trouble, so I run loudly back up the stairs, my sandals making loud thwap noises. I’m sure that I’ve startled the stupid boys, and I sure hope I have.
The car ride from church is quiet, excluding my parents’ small talk about plans later in the day. Rael is quiet, but that is normal. It just doesn’t seem normal now that I know what’s probably been going on with him. Is he always quiet nowadays because people are mean to him? Does he ever get wind of the things said behind his back? If I tell him, will I make everything worse? Our car lurches over a pothole.
These questions pick away at me slowly like a torturer’s scalpels. I boil in the stew of my own doubt and I’m still piping hot when we stop at Burger King for lunch.
“Are you ok, Liliana?”
Funny. This comes from my brother. His arms are glued to his sides and he leans intently over the sticky booth table.
I probably have one of my moody faces on. I mask it. “Yes,” I say. I let a little giggle follow. I’m not sure if it was too sharp. It might have been. Rael still looks confused.
“If you’re not feeling well, you can have my jasmine plant.”
Oh, man. I feel sad and angry all at once. Rael’s practically an angel. Even if it was a joke, someone has called him… a terrorist. A terrorist. How on earth? The worst thing was that, yes, I know these kids. I know some of their sisters. I thought they were… Forget it. I don’t dare to think their names either. Any more rage and I’ll pop. I think of some verses. They help, if only enough to keep my face from flushing poppy-red.
“You did not answer.”
“Oh, sorry.” I stutter. “I was just thinking about exams, again.”
Rael looks painfully sympathetic. “I’ll relocate the jasmine as soon as we get home.” A small smile slides into his face. I don’t object quick enough. I’m not sure I want to, and I feel selfish.
I wasn’t any more decided that night than I was in the car ride. I hop into bed at eight p.m., but my thoughts are still bouncing around for hours. It’s midnight when I hear a sound that makes up my mind. A small thump in the direction of Rael’s room. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but it reminds me that Rael has the right to know. Or rather, we both do.
I creep out of my room in my t-shirt and athletic shorts. The hallway floorboard creaks its complaints. I walk, and pause at my brother’s door. After a breath, I knock.
Then I knock again.
I press my ear up to the white wood, and I can hear nothing but the electronic hum of the ultraviolet lights that belong to Rael’s small indoor herb garden. No shadows flicker under the door when I check.
I knock one last time, and when I get no answer, I open it myself. I step inside his room, which is lit by that eerie purple glow from the heat lamps. The garden sits on the ground next to Rael’s bed, which is empty.
I freak out. I’m compelled to search around his room, rummaging through blankets and books on gardening, but it’s all in vain. He’s gone.
And the window is cracked open an inch. Just an inch. I rush to it. No way. No freaking way. I look down--only a few feet, our house is one floor--and see footprints practically glowing in the artificial light pouring from his window. He’s escaped into the night.
I do what any sane sister would do, and leap out of the window, barefoot. I land in the garden soil next to the other absent set of feet, soundlessly. I notice that I’ve left the window almost all the way open, but I couldn’t care less.
I stalk around the backyard. I tread as carefully as I can behind a row of tomato plants, and then by our magnolia. I freeze solid when I catch traces of murmuring. It has to be him--thank the Lord--he hasn’t actually escaped.
I find him crouched to the ground by his newest addition to his garden. Chili peppers, if I remember right. Shadows should be enveloping him, but they don’t, because he has a glowing golden light. Something in his hands--I can’t make out what it is.
He murmurs some more, the gold light making his cheeks shine boyishly, somehow. It looks like he’s cradling the little sprout in his hands.
Then the light grows stronger. It almost hurts to look at it.
I witness a miracle, then. The plant he’s touching grows, if just an inch. The golden light is trapped in his palms. He does this again with another plant, and continues down the whole row.
I want to break out from behind the branches of the magnolia, but I can’t move, much less speak. How? What is happening?
Rael then walks back to his window. I follow far behind.
Rael looks up at the opening that I’ve left ajar. He closes it quietly, and moves away from the house. I gape, but I still follow.
Rael proceeds to roam the neighborhood. I’m trembling as we pass house after house. I need to know what he’s up to, but I don’t have the guts to reveal myself anymore. Rael stops at several houses to grow whatever he chooses. Trees. Sunflowers. Grass. He helps out every house on the block, running this way and that on the street like a stray cat, sticking to the shadowed corners. He gives one of my friends a bigger tulip. He lays his hands--they both glow--on a gnarled, sick tree in an old couple’s yard. It bears a few leaves.
I track him up to one particular person’s yard, and now every part of me is watching as he treads through the grass. This house--these plants--belong to one of the stairwell boys. My previous fury returns as I watch Rael bend down and cup the bloom of a daisy. Its petals unfurl delicately. He repeats this with a dozen more flowers.
Then he turns his head around. His face sort of wilts. I thought I was hidden well behind a pine tree in the yard opposite, but apparently not.
“So you were following me,” he says softly, though I probably could have heard him miles away.
I push away from the tree and open my mouth to speak. My words are trapped in cages of cucumber vines.
Rael stands up from his crouch and comes closer to me. “I’m sorry,” he begins to say, suddenly swiping his fading hand under his eye. I think he is going to elaborate, but he doesn’t.
“Have you always been able to do that?” I ask, and it almost sounds like a snap. The words had to be sharp if they were going to ever break free, I guess.
“Yes,” Rael whispers.
Another cage bursts, ignoring the impossible answer I got from the last.
“Why are you doing anything nice to that guy?”
Rael looks to the yard I’m pointing at. The bully’s yard. It’s nearly perfect; all its flowers are in their prime, the grass is vibrant, there is not one dead plant to be found. Rael doesn’t respond, his adolescent face only wrinkles a little bit.
“He’s terrible, isn’t he? He’s spread lies about you.”
Rael only nods.
“Why didn’t you tell me? You have to tell me these things!” I cry. “You’ve had this… superpower… forever! And you’re bullied everywhere you go. If you’re hurting, you have to tell me! See, you’re crying…” I’m cut off as I register his face. He’s much closer, now, so I jog over to embrace him, in the middle of the road. He’s quivering, and tears stain my shirt as I hold him to me like a baby. “I’m sorry, Liliana,” he babbles over and over.
Gradually, he calms down, and slowly disentangles himself from me. I catch him by the shoulders before he can go.
“Why did you do that?” I ask, motioning to the daisies again. It’s just curiosity now. I wipe my own tears from my face. The hard parts are over with.
He heaves in a breath of the fresh air, then speaks in a whisper full of sweet life. “Everything and everyone grows, Liliana.”