The Way It Hurts

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Elijah

A crash followed by a scream sent a shiver of worry down my spine — a sharp high C that totally fractured the new melody stuck in my head, scattering the chord progression I was just about to lay down. I was on my feet out of pure instinct, laptop sliding to my bed, guitar following with a thunk. The screen shifted to my band’s listing on The Beat, a website that did nothing but taunt me with its pathetic statistics.

New Fans: 2

Yay. Now we had 862.

I flew down the stairs where I found Anna wrestling with Dad over the splintered remains of the cookie jar.

“No!” She cried and kept trying to break free, hands grabbing for the cookies scattered among the shards of pottery. Dad’s face was red from the effort, his graying hair stood out on end. Anna was strong when she was in a mood like this.

I grabbed an ice pop from the freezer and held it near her face. “Anna, Anna, chill out — look. Look what I have for you.” I pitched my voice higher than her wails but kept up a sing-song cadence to calm her down. Anna adored music.

Like me.

“Want this?”

“Want!”

“Okay, be calm and you can have it, okay?” I met Dad’s blue eyes over Anna’s head. She’d inherited the same eyes. Mine were brown, like Mom’s. He jerked his head toward the family room and I nodded. I walked backwards, dangling the ice pop at her. Dad didn’t let go until she was safely in the middle of the room, well away from the broken jar. I let Anna have the treat and he blew out a loud sigh, stretching his arms up over his head until things cracked and popped.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” he said on a grunt. “Just a cramp. She’s so damn strong.”

I nodded. I still had a bruise from a similar tantrum last week. I left him in charge of Anna and her ice pop and returned to the scene of the crime, picking up the largest pieces of pottery, tossing them into a bag. Where was Linda? She was supposed to be here until four-thirty and that wasn’t for twenty more minutes.

“Oh no!”

I lifted my head, found Mom in the door from the garage, clutching a pair of grocery sacks, hair half-falling out of the clip on top of her head. She had sunglasses on but I could see the frown lines behind them. She loved that stupid pig cookie jar. She’d had it as long as I could remember.

“Where is she?”

“Family room with Dad. I gave her an ice pop.”

“Oh, God. I just cleaned in that room!”

“Mom, I didn’t know how else to distract her. She was standing in the middle of the broken pieces.”

The lines around Mom’s lips deepened but she nodded and tried to smile. “It’s okay. I’ll get her into the tub.”

I studied her face for clues into what she was really thinking because she didn’t sound like it was okay at all. Mom did stuff like that a lot… said one thing, but meant something else. She put the groceries on the counter and just stared at the scene of the crime, sighing loudly. She took off her sunglasses, folded them, put them inside their case and zippered them into her pocketbook, then hung that on a hook inside the broom closet. You had to do things like that to Anna-proof stuff.

Mom looked…old. The lines on her face were etched deep and she wore no make-up to hide them. Her hair was grayer than Dad’s now, even though she was three years younger than he was. With a start, I realized I didn’t know how old that was. I was seventeen. I think she was twenty-eight when I was born. So Mom was forty-five and dad was forty-eight.

That wasn’t that old, was it?

and disappeared into the family room. Ten seconds later, the arguing started and I fell back against a cabinet with a sigh.

“What the hell do you want me to do?” Dad said.

“Watch her, Nathan. I want you to watch her, like I do.”

“I was watching her, Steph.”

“Not very well or she wouldn’t have broken the damn cookie jar!”

I clenched my jaw and grabbed the broom and dustpan, swept up the rest of the mess and scooped it into the trash bag. I was going over the floor with a damp cloth, hoping to pick up whatever small shards still remained, when Dad stalked back into the kitchen.

“I got this. Go.”

“But I–“

“Elijah! I said I got it.”

Fine. I hoped he was planning to deal with the groceries, too, because that was what I was about to tell him. The family room was empty, except for the bright red stain on the coffee table. Guess Mom was already stripping Anna out of her clothes and getting her cleaned up. I headed back to my room, where the tablet on my bed called to me.

Music was peace to me — sanity in all the chaos Anna caused. Aw, hell, that wasn’t fair. Anna couldn’t help it and I knew that. I tried so damn hard not to hold it against her but with Mom and Dad fighting so much, it wasn’t easy. Whenever I had the chance, I escaped with a guitar and a computer or my headphones.

I tapped my email program, hoping to find a few replies to the messages I’d sent trying to secure some gigs for the band. Any gigs would work but paying ones even better. Dad kept pushing and nagging me to visit colleges and what-not but I figured if Ride Out hit big, I wouldn’t need college and then I’d be around to help my parents with Anna.

I scrolled through my Inbox. Not a single reply.

Damn.

With a sigh, I raked both hands through my hair. I clicked over to our website and checked stats. Views were up today — that was good news. The YouTube channel also had some traffic. The latest cover we’d posted was generating some awareness – always a good thing. I logged into The Beat, a network for musicians like me, and crawled through the comments.

Ride Out was hard rock, not pop. So, yeah, we didn’t attract mainstream fans, but the fans we did have were vocal and loyal. I grinned when I saw the latest comment from some chick calling herself BroadwayBaby17. She hated our stuff. Said our sound was just noise and what words she could make out in our lyrics were misogynistic and disrespectful. Like we gave a fuck. I didn’t know why she bothered to click any of it, but she did and then tried to give us shit about it that she claimed was feedback. I had to admit, she knew technique but if her scene was Broadway, there was no way she’d ever get what Nick, Sam, and I were trying to do with Ride Out. I mean, anyone who went to a Metallica show expecting Michael Buble is bound to be disappointed, right?

And vice versa.

Sure enough, BroadwayBaby17 wiped the floor with our latest cover.

BroadwayBaby17: Someone explain to me why growling into a microphone is considered talent ’cause I’m just not seeing it. (Can’t hear anything right now either LOL.)

BroadwayBaby17: OMG, these lyrics are so incredibly sexist! Someone tell these guys girls aren’t really impressed by your “pogo sticks” *barfs*

BroadwayBaby17: Boom, boom, boom. That’s all this band does is play percussion like it’s sex. *sighs* Sex and drums, drums and sex. BORING.

Another user named RideOn747 crawled up BroadwayBaby17’s ass: Bitch, go back to drama club and leave metal to the boyz! These guys rock!

 

Thank you, RideOn747! He was a huge fan of ours. Neither user had a photograph in their profile, so I didn’t know if they were male or female. It was kind of obvious that BroadwayBaby was a girl because of the way she always harped on us. Our lyrics were sexist, our beat was too primal, our sound was too noisy.

Whatever.

But RideOn was always there to take BroadwayBaby down a peg. I grinned and sent the brother a mental high-five. Don’t like us, don’t listen. Easy.

I logged in using my personal account FretGuy99. This was mine; I didn’t post band stuff from that account. The band’s account was Ride_Out. I liked keeping them separate. We all had the password but it was usually me or Sam doing most of the band’s posting.

Looked like he’d just posted.

Ride_Out: Hey, BB! You ever shredded a guitar? You ever cut loose with a metal scream? You ever play any original stuff at all? Until you can say yes to any of those questions, you got no right telling us we suck so _|_.

Oh, crap! He’d given her the internet version of the middle finger.

BroadwayBaby17: OMG, so mature. If you can’t take criticism, get off the forums. This is a place for serious artists.

Okay, time for me to make an appearance.

FretGuy99: BroadwayBaby17, you only think people like you are artists. You’re elitist. You can’t respect anyone who takes a different view.

BroadwayBaby17: Not elitist. Just telling it like it is. Dude, don’t suck up to Ride_Out. Take my advice and study classical guitar before you ruin your chances of being original.

My phone buzzed. Dude, I am going to rip this chick a new one for the trash she’s talking about us.

I texted back. Relax. Let her dig her own grave.

FretGuy99: I have studied classical guitar. I can play lead or rhythm. I can strum chords and I’m hella good at fingerpicking. I can play it all, baby. Just because I want to play metal doesn’t mean I have no talent. So shut up about shit you don’t know anything about and go shopping or something.

BroadwayBaby17: And there’s the sexism! I didn’t say anything about you having no talent. I just don’t like Ride Out.

FretGuy99: Then why the hell are you here on a heavy metal forum? Go back to the show tunes forum!

My phone buzzed. The shopping bit was clutch, dude. LMAO!

I shrugged. She had it coming.

Sam changed the subject. Nick wants us 2C North’s play tonight. Said we’d B there. 7 PM.

 

Hell. I raked my hair off my face. Sitting through some boring school play for a school I didn’t even attend was just about the worst way to spend a Friday night. But it was for Nick, so yeah — I’d go. Nick and Sam were more than just guys in the band. They were my brothers. Not a lot I wouldn’t do for either of them.

I used to believe it was only a matter of time before our band took off. But years had gone by and we were still begging for birthday parties and sidewalk fair gigs. It hadn’t happened — despite YouTube and The Beat and our website, despite our outrageous sound, we still hadn’t broken out. We needed something provocative, something that could put us on the map today. The knot swelled, rose up in my throat while I swiped through screens, trying to think of that something —

What the hell was this? I clicked a link in my news feed and found an ad for the county summer festival. I skimmed the text and my heart took off like a snare drum when I saw the sponsors: Island Sound and WLIS FM radio. Looking for musical acts with style, substance, and that certain unique X factor.

I frowned, thought it over for a couple minutes. Festivals like this wanted feel-good music and that’s not what Ride Out was about. We’re not pop-rock. We’re head-banging heavy metal hard rock and people didn’t want to take their pre-schoolers to hear bands like us. Then again…Yeah. There were songs we could cover that would get festival goers of all ages clapping along. It just wouldn’t be our stuff. Seeger. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Mellencamp. Maybe some classic Zeppelin.

But if it worked, if it got us this gig and that led to another, maybe then, record labels like Island Sound would call us.

 

A splash and a shout from the bathroom pulled me away from my texts. I put my gadgets down and headed across the hall. Anna loved water. For some reason, water play soothed her and made her laugh. Ms. Meyer, my guidance counselor, said that some children with my sister’s sort of issues are terrified by their surroundings because they don’t have the capacity to understand them. Water play, she says, allows Anna to relax her often tense body, plus it helps teach her about the world. We didn’t have a pool, but there was a huge sunken bathtub in my parent’s bathroom. Mom let Anna sit in it until she pruned.

Some days, it was the only way to get her to stop screaming.

I opened the door, peeked around it, found my sister already in her favorite red bathing suit, up to her armpits in water.

“Eli.” She held out both arms and let them drop, all but drowning Mom in the process.

Anna’s verbal skills were pretty low, but she could say my nickname clear as a bell. I grinned. “Hey, Anna Banana. Hey, Mom.”

“Elijah. Can you take over? I’ve got to get dinner going.”

“Sure.” I sat on the marble edge of the huge tub built into the corner of the room. Mom smiled, ran a towel over her face and left before Anna could notice. “Are you better now?”

Anna smiled up at me but didn’t answer. She didn’t like talking to people but when I talked to her, she seemed to like it. It was hard to tell how much she actually understood though, because she didn’t usually respond, except to smile. So I kept talking. “I hope so.”

She splashed me and smiled again.

I grabbed two cups from the sink and showed her how to pour water from one to the other. This always fascinated her. She tried to grab the water and giggled when it poured through her fingers. From experience I knew this could just as easily piss her off but for now, she was happy, her huge brown eyes soft and wide with wonder. She handed me a cup of water. Slowly, I tipped it over, let it spill over her hand. She laughed and splashed me and then held out her arms.

“Eli.”

“Do you want to get out and dry off?”

Her forehead puckered. “Eli.” She grabbed the cup out of my hand and threw it into the water. “Eli.”

Crap. She wanted me in the tub with her. Mom hated this. Said it wasn’t right for teenage siblings to take baths together. Since Anna was wearing a bathing suit, I didn’t consider it taking a bath. I glanced at the door. Fuck it. I emptied my pockets onto the sink, kicked off my shoes and peeled off my shirt. When I lifted one leg over the edge of the tub, Anna clapped.

The water was warm and the bubbles off. I sat opposite Anna in the enormous tub and grabbed the cup she’d tossed. She found the other and tried to drink from it.

“No, Anna. Look at me.” I poured the water over my hand, tried to catch the stream. Then I poured water from my cup into hers, watching her dark eyes follow every drop. I swallowed hard. It was tough watching her try to process simple physics like this. It was like part of her wanted to learn, was desperate to know what was happening in the world around her but another part of her jealously guarded the first part, growling and barking at everything that tried to get by. The two sides of her mind were at war. I always thought that was why she sometimes exploded.

I wasn’t a doctor, though. I only knew what she liked. And the frown between her eyebrows said she was tired of cups of water. I took one of the cups, flipped it upside down and put against my leg. I started tapping out a beat on the bottom of the cup, amplified by my wet jeans. Anna watched the movement. This was something she could do — something she liked to do. I waited until she copied me with the other cup.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Ever since my first guitar lesson when I was about seven years old, I’ve been hearing how special I was, how much talent I had. I think it must be in our genes because I sure as hell wasn’t the only musician in the family. Anna not only had impeccable timing, she had an ear for the musical scale. She couldn’t always manage the words, but she could hit the notes. She tapped out a strong steady rhythm, I added in the downbeat, and then I started to sing Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. Anna watched my lips, smiling when I got to her favorite part. I hoped she’d sing with me. It was a good song for her because it was in her range. So I sang it to her every day.

It was our thing.

“La la la.”

I grinned. There it was. Perfect pitch, baby. “High five, Anna.” I held up a palm and she hit it with a happy shriek.

The bathroom door opened. “Elijah! What have I told you about bathing with your sister? People think it’s weird.”

“Mom, she’s dressed. I’m dressed. What’s the big deal?” I rolled my eyes. “People won’t know if we don’t tell them. Besides, it calms her.” I subtly pulled the tub’s plug so Anna wouldn’t notice and stood up.

“Oh, Eli, those jeans are going to take forever to dry.” Mom took a towel off the rack and handed it to me. Anna noticed the water draining and started her protest.

I ran the towel over my body and kept singing our song. Anna stopped her complaints and obediently stood up when I held out my arms to her. I wrapped her in a towel and dried her fast. She liked when I did that.

“Okay, okay, out you go. Say bye to Eli, Anna. Time to put clothes on.”

“Bye.”

I laughed, grabbed my stuff, and headed to my room, anxious to peel off the wet denim, grab some dinner, and then my guitar. Nick and Sam were counting on me to come up with a new arrangement for our next post and so far, I had nothing.

“Yes…uh huh…that’s right. She’s thirteen.”

Dad was on the phone.

“No. No, there hasn’t been any improvement and that’s one of the reasons I called you. Definitely… a big problem.”

The door to my parents’ room was open. I hovered in the hall, listening to him talk to some faceless person on the phone about my sister…about his daughter…as a problem. Who the hell was it? One of Anna’s doctors?

“Oh. Yes. That would be good… from a list of referrals. Yes, that’s right…Well, we’re looking at several facilities, but yours was the most highly recommended. Great…let’s set that up as soon as possible…I honestly don’t think we can take care of her much longer.”

A shiver ran up my back and even though I’d made a puddle on the thick carpet in the hallway, I stayed rooted exactly where I was…Dad’s words repeating in my head.

Facility.

A problem.

Take care of her.

The bathroom doorknob twisted, startling me out of my daze. I bolted to my room and locked the door, shivering in my wet clothes while Anna sang La, la, la in her room across the hall.

“Goddamn it, Eli! You’ve left a puddle out here!” Mom pounded on my door.

I opened my mouth but couldn’t squeeze any words out. I just slid down to the floor on my side of the door, pressing the soaking wet towel to my mouth to hide the sobs.