The next morning, I woke to Mitch jumping on my bed. “J-J-ake,” he said excitedly, shaking me. “Th-There’s some-one at the door f-for you.” His stutter had been going away recently, but whenever he got excited it always came back full force. I stared at my little brother and couldn’t help but grin. He was the happiest kid I’d ever met. How could Amy Shepherd think I’d do something to hurt someone like him? “What’s going on?” I mumbled, still exhausted even though I was happy to see him. After leaving Amy’s house I’d gone over to hang out with Sean and ended up staying out too late. You could say Sean wasn’t the best influence. “Y-Y-You ha-v-ve a v-visitor!” Mitch shouted, suddenly stopping his jumping and widening his eyes. I heard him say, “Jacob has a visitor!” over and over under his breath as he hurried out of my room and back downstairs nervously. We thought he was getting better with people outside of our family, starting to talk to them, but he was still painfully shy. The only person outside of our family he would talk to was Shannon, the girl that used to babysit him. She was pretty hot. I definitely would’ve tapped that before she got married and had twins. I sat up groggily and pulled on a shirt and some long pants. I’d been sleeping in my boxers lately because my room was the hottest room in the house, but I always regretted it in the morning because the house was usually freezing when I woke up. As I walked down the stairs, I recognized the back of Melissa – my psycho ex-girlfriend that accused me of using her for sex even though we’d never even done it – ’s head sitting on a chair across from my mom in our living room. I groaned. Why did she have to stalk me all the time? “Hey, Melissa,” I said, being blatantly obvious of the fact that I was bored and unexcited by her presence. Yeah, I was being a d**k to her. But I never said I was a nice guy, did I? “Jake,” Mom began, but I stopped listening because Melissa turned around and I saw her face. It wasn’t Melissa. It was Amy Shepherd. “Shepherd?” I asked, even more annoyed that she was here instead of my crazy ex-girlfriend. “What the hell do you want?” “Jacob!” Mom shouted, staring daggers into me. I was about to defend my reaction when Amy shrugged and told her, “It’s okay, Mrs. Benson. I kind of deserve that.” Mom narrowed her eyes, giving me one of her signature if-you-do-anything-rude-I’ll-kill-you looks, and quietly walked out of the living room. “So?” I asked, still pissed off at her. “Why are you here?” I stayed on the stairs, not coming down completely because I was afraid she was going to hit someone in the face. She looked bitter and tired. What happened to the sweet, innocent girl that had just talked to my mother? “Your little brother’s cute,” she said unexpectedly, looking around the room tiredly. “He was very sweet when he asked me if I wanted anything to drink.” I felt most of the anger abruptly fade away as she finished her sentence. “He talked to you?” Amy smiled slightly, not opening her lips. “Your mom answered the door and she told him to introduce himself. So he told me his name and asked if I wanted something to drink. Does he not usually do that?” I breathed in and out for a few seconds, wondering why Mitch had chosen Amy Shepherd, of all people, to talk to. He didn’t talk to my best friend but he talked to the girl who thought I was a complete ass. “Yeah, he talks to everyone,” I mumbled quickly. I didn’t want her to feel special because Mitch had talked to her and not anyone else. It was stupid, but she didn’t deserve someone like my brother being nice to her – not because he was retarded, but because he was the most innocent and ignorant person I’d ever met. I didn’t want someone like her showing him what hatred was. Amy looked around for a few more moments, taking in my house with her eyes. She looked exhausted. “I came to apologize,” she said, groaning quietly. I could tell it killed her to have to apologize to me, and I reveled in that fact. I wasn’t going to accept her apology. I was going to make it as difficult as possible for her. “I didn’t know about your brother. I thought you were like everyone else. I’m sorry.” I stared at her expectantly, wordlessly waiting for her to say more. Like I said, I wasn’t the most mature person when I was mad at someone. “Oh, come on, Jacob!” she said, frustrated with my silence. “You can’t honestly say you’ve never been afraid that someone you knew would make fun of your brother because of who he is.” “I actually never have,” I lied defensively. “Don’t feed me that sh**!” My eyes widened in response and I took a small step backward. I had never heard Amy Shepherd say a four letter word. I didn’t think she knew what they meant. We stood there quietly for a few seconds until she broke the silence softly. “Do you know what people say about my dad, Jacob?” she asked quietly. “They ask how someone as smart as I am could come from a retard like him. They put signs on our yard with SPEDS DON’T BELONG HERE written in big, red letters. He reads them but doesn’t understand, so they watch as he carries them inside every day and shows them to me. They laugh because he thinks that they’re signs for me. He thinks the signs are people telling him that they love us.” I swallowed. People were cruel. I was cruel for not doing anything to stop the kids with the signs, even though I knew they were doing it to someone. I didn’t know who the signs were for at the time, but I was still cruel for not doing anything to help whoever it was. I was cruel for letting all the torture be inflicted on whoever that person was to keep Mitch safe. But that was life. Amy had to learn to accept the fact that people were always going to make fun of her dad. She had to learn to stop caring, like I did. Actually, I guess that was a lie. I did care, more than anyone ever knew. Whenever one of my friends would make a retard joke and they weren’t looking at me, I would glare at them hatefully, plotting ways to kill them in their sleep. Every time someone I knew said something even remotely offensive when it came to that kind of thing, I was always ready to shoot them on the spot. Amy was straight-faced when she said, “That’s why I didn’t want you to see him. I thought you were one of the guys that made those signs. I thought you’d laugh at him.” My mouth twitched, like it did every time I was angry. I took in a few breaths, trying to calm myself down. “That’s why I don’t tell people about Mitch,” I said. “I don’t want him to have to live like that.” “Does anyone know about him?” she asked quietly after a few seconds, looking me up and down like she was disgusted with me. “Sean does. So does Melissa.” I shuddered as I thought of her, but quickly shrugged it off. “No one else has ever needed to know.” “So you hide him from everyone,” she continued, like she was explaining to me what I did. “I don’t hide him!” I exploded, immediately softening my voice because I didn’t want Mitch to hear. “I protect him. There’s a difference.” “I tried to protect my dad. I hid him from everyone, even my friends. But eventually I told them about him. And none of them stuck around.” She stared at the floor, her mouth locked in a straight line. “They all left when they realized it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be friends with me anymore. Is that why you hide your brother?” “I don’t hide my brother!” I repeated, exasperated. She didn’t understand how it felt to have a younger sibling you had to protect all the time. She didn’t know what it was like to always worry about your younger brother getting bullied at school or getting stared at at the grocery store. She didn’t know what it was like. “Why don’t you tell your friends about him, then? Is it because you’re worried that you’ll end up like me?” I registered the pain in her voice but chose to ignore it, instead mumbling a quiet, “Yes.” How was I supposed to lie? I cared what people thought about me. I didn’t want to be an outcast because of him. But the main reason I didn’t tell people about him wasn’t because I was worried about not having any friends. I didn’t tell them because I didn’t want Mitch to have to live like Amy’s dad did. “What?” she asked softly, forcing me to repeat my words. “I said yes. I don’t tell my friends about him because I don’t want to have to live like you do. I don’t want him to have to deal with the crap your dad deals with.” “You’re a selfish ass, Jacob Benson.” She turned away to leave, but something inside me forced myself to stop her. “You wouldn’t do the same thing to protect your dad?” I asked, stepping in front of her so she couldn’t leave. “You’re saying that if you had the choice to make the things that happen to your dad happen to my brother instead, you wouldn’t do it?” I put my hands on her shoulders securely when she tried to move around me and she glared hatefully back at me. She opened her mouth but quickly closed it again, her eyes as cold as stone. “The truth is… I would give anything for that. But I know that I’d feel guilty all the time because I forced that kind of pain upon you and your family. I’d feel heartless for subjecting someone as beautiful as your brother to that kind of hurting. But I’d do it anyways. Because I love my dad.” She paused and continued to glare. “Is that what you wanted to hear? Do you like making people admit that they would rather see someone else in pain instead of someone they loved?” “Of course I don’t. Don’t be stupid, Shepherd.” I shook my head, unsure of what to say next. All this time, I wanted to hate her. I wanted to kick her out of my house and never see her face again. But there was still a voice in the back of my head saying, “You’re just like her.” And it was impossible to ignore. “I really wish you’d call me by my first name,” she mumbled, still glaring. Her glare had lost its piercing daggers, though, so it was a lot less effective. It was actually kind of funny, seeing someone so little trying to scare someone twice their size. She reminded me of my mom’s old dog – a toy poodle – that would always try to act tougher than it was. It was hilarious, actually. I started to laugh to myself, but then I realized that Amy’s life had always been about putting on a brave face. It didn’t really set in, before, how much she had to deal with. It didn’t click in my head how hard it must’ve been for her, to watch her dad bring in those signs every day and not be able to do anything about it. To be honest, I’d probably be in prison right now if they had ever done something like that to Mitch. I’d be in for life for murder. My hatred for her began to fade, because I was only just starting to understand what her life must’ve been like. Though I still didn’t like her as a person, I didn’t hate her. That was a start. “I’ll try to call you Amy from now on.” I sighed, attempting to compromise. “But you have to call me Jake. The only person that calls me by my full name is my mom, and even then it’s only when I’m in trouble.” “Fine,” she mumbled reluctantly, her glare weakening. “You call me Amy, I’ll call you Jake.” I nodded slightly, trying to look at her from an unbiased standpoint. She still had dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail, and brown eyes. She looked like she’d always looked, ever since I’d first met her. But now I noticed the freckles that ran across her nose, the scar on her cheek. I noticed that her eyes had small flecks of gold in them that only showed when she looked at the light. There were so many things that I’d never seen, even though I’d been looking at her directly in the face for the past twenty minutes. Though, as much as I’d recently noticed about her, I didn’t like Amy Shepherd as a person. We were two polar opposites, and the only thing we had in common was a disabled family member. We were never meant to be friends. That’s why, when she said she had to leave, I let her.