Lip doesn't remember a time before Ian existed. He knows logically that there was time—eleven months—between Lip's entrance into the world and Ian's, but not a second of it remains in his conscience. Ian has always existed. Lip has always been his older brother.
If Lip tries to recall his earliest memory of his brother, the image that comes to mind is the back seat of that rusted out Cavalier where he, Ian, and Fiona slept, piled up like puppies. Sometimes Ian got to sleep in Monica's lap 'cause he was still the baby then, but most of the time he preferred to be with his brother and sister in the back. Most of the time, Frank and Monica weren't there anyway.
Fiona had showed the boys how you could make patterns in the velour upholstery, running your finger one way, pulling a line of fibers the opposite direction from the rest. Lip and Ian spent a lot of time drawing pictures for each other in the moonlight, circles and cars and monsters all carved out in the nap then immediately brushed away to start again.
Nights when Frank and Monica had said to wait for them and to be good, Fiona would sit up in the front, watchful like a hawk for their parents' return. In the back, Lip and Ian played with the upholstery, knees on the floorboards, breath always hot and moist against each other's faces since quarters were so tight. They made up stories about what they drew—Lip's stories were always better, Ian's were usually just copies of Lip's—until Fiona would announce it was time to go to the White Hen. Then it was Lip and Ian's job to hold each other's hands while Fiona led the way down the side of 43rd under the yellow streetlights.
And they didn't let go of each other's hands until it was time to take turns using the bathroom at the White Hen while Fiona pretended to shop. But their hands locked again once it was their turn to pretend while Fiona used the bathroom, and their hands stayed locked as she led the caravan back. Sometimes Lip and Ian still continued to hold hands even after they had returned to the car and built up their nest in the back seat for the night, holding onto each other as they ventured into dreams because what else was there to hold onto?
Then at some point they started letting go more often and for longer and longer intervals, until the idea of them holding hands at all came to seem absurd. In the same way, they moved from their puppy pile in the back seat of the Cavalier to the shared bed at Aunt Ginger's to separate bunks on opposite sides of the room to different rooms with the hall between them, then to different neighborhoods and entirely unconnected worlds.
Now when Lip runs into Ian at the house on the rare occasions when they are both there, his brother might as well be a stranger. The freckles that used to map out Ian's face are mostly gone, replaced by an implacable white that Lip doesn't know how to navigate.
Lip used to know the sound of his brother's breathing at night better than he knew the sound of anything else. He used to know what it was like to mistake Ian's heartbeat for Lip's own when they were wedged up tight together. He used to know exactly what to say to get Ian to laugh, used to take great satisfaction in making that happen, even though it was an easy enough trick.
These days, Lip fears that he has no idea where the brother he knew has gone to or, worse, that Ian was never that person to begin with. It's a disconcerting thought. No longer knowing Ian is like no longer knowing the world. And if he never knew Ian, that would mean that Lip never knew anything at all.
Lip's been having the same sort of dream over and over again the last few months. In it, Ian seems to have run off again, and Lip is the only one concerned that they need to find him. Then someone (usually Fiona, but sometimes it's Debbie and one time it was fucking Kev) casually mentions that Ian died, and everyone's apparently forgotten to tell Lip.
Lip doesn't put stock in dreams—that's some fortune-telling bullshit for the same kind of idiots who need to find meaning in Hallmark cards and fairy tales about Jesus—but he can't help but be unnerved every time he wakes up from one of these. There's always a few seconds during which he believes the loss to be real, and his grief and outrage are fully felt; tonight his face is wet when he awakes.
He lays there in the dark (why do these dreams always happen deep in the night?) and contemplates texting Ian something innocuous—even an annoyed reply would be enough confirmation to make Lip feel better. But he talks himself out of it. No use waking Ian up because Lip's suddenly morphed into a pussy moron who falls to pieces the second his perfectly understandable concern about his brother's health issues manifests itself in some woefully cliché recurring dreams.
A cigarette—what Lip wants second to some tangible assurance of Ian's continued existence—would wake him up, and one of Lip's reluctant responsibilities now is getting enough sleep so that he can function at as high a level as he needs to the next day. So he's taken to sipping from a bottle of whiskey after having one of these dreams, numbing himself back to calmness like a teething baby. He knows this probably isn't the wisest solution and is fully aware that he's started to get a little dependent on it in order to get back to sleep, but it's the best idea he's got right now. And it's the quickest way to shake off the terrible rattle these dreams leave in his spine.
So he takes swigs of whiskey until he is warm and drowsy again. He promises himself as he starts drifting off that he will call Ian first thing in the morning, 'cause that's something he should probably do anyway. In the morning, the dreams (and the rattle) seem far off and abstract, though, and so he never makes that call.
It's been three months now since Lip stepped in to help Ian when he was a wreck up on the roof of their house. It's been three months since Lip used all of his persuasive abilities, flexed his bullying muscles, and finally wrung out every last drop of big brother clout he had in him to get Ian to the doctor. It's been three months since Lip sat in that exam room beside his broken brother and asked all the questions Ian didn't seem capable of asking, or of caring about asking anyway. It's been three months since that long drive home when Lip talked his throat raw just repeating all the things the doctor had said because Lip needed facts to hold onto just then and really needed Ian to stop looking like a barely reanimated corpse. It's been three months since Lip drank himself stupid that night and went to bed horrified that it was all in Ian's hands now.
It's been three months, and in that time Ian's maybe said two-dozen words to Lip.
It's not like Lip expected Ian to thank him, or something. But maybe he had expected, or maybe he had just foolishly hoped, that it might be the start of a thaw in the cold war that Ian seems convinced they're waging. Instead, not a goddamned thing has changed.
The worst part is that Lip doesn't know how to fix it either. He doesn't know how to go back in time and figure out where things started to go wrong and then stop the pistons of that engine from rising and falling once more. All the textbooks in the world have not revealed the solution or offered up any kind of formula for repair.
So Lip keeps waiting for the answer to come to him, for the one of the million sparkling little eurekas that have turned up all his life to show up now. But it doesn't come.
Lip looks at Ian and hardly recognizes that kid who, eleven months of technicality aside, has always been his twin. His stupider, sweeter, and stronger twin—for better and for ill, Ian has always been a reminder of everything Lip is and is not. If Ian goes, a part of Lip goes too. And, increasingly, Lip is starting to realize that this part just might be a vital organ. Who the fuck is Lip if he doesn't have Ian beside him?
For Christ's sake, Lip was only ever 'Lip' because tiny Ian in the back seat, with half his baby teeth coming in slightly crooked on one side, couldn't say 'Phillip.' He could only say, with much difficulty, 'Ffff-lip.' So his brother re-Christened himself 'Lip' to make it easier for Ian…
Make it easier for Ian. That's all Lip has ever tried to do. Mostly. Sometimes Lip deliberately picked on him or pushed him around—they were brothers, they were gonna get on each other's nerves—but from the minute Lip first realized that Ian didn't understand things as quickly as Lip did, didn't seem to have nearly so easy a time, Lip saw himself as Ian's protector. When it was just the three of them that was Lip's job. And then when it was the four, five, six of them, Lip's job duties expanded. But Ian was the first and the closest, and that responsibility was nearest to Lip's heart. He never took it lightly.
Lip couldn't take it lightly because, for a long time, Ian didn't seem to have any sense of self-preservation. Ian was the kind of kid who would've held hands and walked off with anybody in that Park 'n Ride lot where they camped out in the Cavalier that better part of a year. It was a source of constant anxiety for Lip and Fiona, making sure that didn't ever happen. They couldn't seem to make Ian understand that people weren't to be trusted.
That changed a little, though, when Monica first left. She'd been in an irritable mood for days, then she slapped Ian for being fussy about something and it was the first time the baby of the family had ever been hit. Ian seemed more surprised than upset, though, as if he didn't understand what it was supposed to mean. Then Monica had gotten into a terrible fight with Frank. They'd screamed and hit each other, made up and took some pills, then screamed and fought some more. Fiona had kept the boys crouched down on the other side of the Cavalier, her hands over Lips ears, his hands over Ian's ears. Monica stormed off, and when she didn't return after several days and Frank just got drunker and drunker, it became a real possibility that she might not be coming back.
Ian was inconsolable the day Fiona explained this to him. Ian cried and wailed until he made himself sick, and then he kept it up some more. Frank had been gone most of the day, and when he stumbled home to find Ian still screeching, Frank shut him up. Hard. At last, Ian seemed to understand; people weren't to be trusted.
Lip had been relieved, almost, to have a little sense and pessimism knocked into his brother's head, even if Lip wished it didn't have to transpire quite so literally. But it was a lesson to Lip too: Shit was gonna happen to Ian, whether he deserved it or not. Lip was gonna have to be ready.
Lip pushes his chair back from library cubicle desk and leans back, staring up at the brand-new LED lights recently installed as part of the school's Poly Goes Green initiative. They look ridiculous, and he's skeptical they'll really bring back the ROI the school has been crowing about. He's pretty sure they spent a gross amount of money on the lights just to appear cutting edge. It doesn't do much, in his opinion, to hip up the dated 1970s library, built when Brutalism was all the rage. But not much would, short of a wrecking ball.
His textbook has been sitting in front of him for twenty minutes now and Lip has yet to actually open it. It's one of those afternoons where he just can't get his mind to focus on what he's supposed to.
He cranes his neck so he can spy the little sliver of window over by the stacks. From the looks of it, the gray clouds have let up a bit. With a grunt of finality, he throws his book and his notes into his bag and gives up. He might as well try to see the sun for at least a few minutes today.
Outside he walks for a bit and ends up at some ugly stone bench, a gift from the Class of 1964, according to the plaque. Lip takes a seat on the gift from the Class of 1964, lights up and finds himself, before he's even fully conscious that he's doing it, dialing Fiona's cell.
"Hey, College Boy!" Fiona greets him, and Lip is now smiling despite it having been a shitty, frustrating day.
"Can you talk?" he asks, hoping he doesn't sounds as desperate as he's feeling right now. The worse the day, the more lonely it gets up here.
"Sure," she says, "Just walkin' to the El."
"How's everything? How's the kids?"
"Okay, I guess. They sent a notice home that Carl's failing Pre-Algebra. Ian's havin' a conniption. I don't know what he thinks I can do about it."
"You heard from Ian?"
"Ah. What's he give a shit if Carl's flunking Algebra?"
"Pre-Algebra. I think it means Carl's off the football team if he can't bring his grades up."
"Even the bench-warmers gotta have a 2.0, huh?"
"I guess. Anyway, Ian's pissed. All that work he did to get him on there, you know?"
"All right. I'll talk to Carl this week, see what I can do."
"I think you got plenty of shit to worry about. Don't need to add tutorin' back on your list of things to do."
"Nah, it's a light term," Lip lies, "I got time. I'll work somethin' out with him. How's Debs?"
"Who knows? Fine, I think. Liam's good too. Writin' his name all over everything at the house I could do without, though."
Lip laughs. A big, green crayon 'LIAM' appeared on the back of Lip's statistics textbook last time he went home. Little graffiti artist in the making.
"And how are you?" Lip asks.
"Oh, you know. Just tryin' to keep my head above water. I'm like a shark—stop swimmin', we all die."
"Think you're mixin' your metaphors there."
"Excuse me, College," she teases. The sound of the announcement for an Inbound Train plays in the background, and her tone changes, "Hey, I gotta go."
Then the call is over and the loneliness has returned.
"Oh, I'm good, I'm fine," Lip says to no one, talking into his dead phone, "Got a reading quiz tomorrow, but it's no big deal. Actually pullin' an A in that class right now…"
He returns his phone to his pocket and sits back to smoke the last of his cigarette. But then his phone starts ringing. He takes it back out and expects to see Amanda's name, but it's Fiona again.
"Hullo?" he answers.
"Hey, I forgot to ask: How are you?"
Lip smiles. "Not much to write home about," he says. In the background on Fiona's end, he hears a CTA recording announcing a stop, but he can't make out which one it is.
"Classes and stuff—they're okay?"
"Well, good. Just thought I should ask."
"You, uh, you ever think about the car?" Lip closes his eyes. He doesn't know why he just asked that.
"Mom and Dad's Cavalier?"
"Why the hell would I want to think about that?"
"Dunno. I keep thinkin' about it lately. Not sure why."
"Do you even remember it? You were real young."
"I was four when we moved to the house. Ian and I were both four."
"Magic Month, huh?" Fiona murmurs.
Her voice has lost its cheer, and Lip regrets bringing this up. Surely, Fiona remembers much more (and much worse) than he does.
"So, what?" Fiona asks irritably, "What about it?"
Lip stubs out his cigarette. "I dunno," he says again, "I just keep thinkin' about it."
There's a pause and then Fiona gathers up some of her cheer once more and says, "Well, you've come a long way from the Park 'n Ride to Chi Poly, all right? Just focus on that."
"You think Ian remembers it much?" Lip asks, somehow unable to stop himself.
"I don't know," Fiona replies softly, "I hope not. Be nice if one of ya was too little to remember."
Another stop announcement plays behind Fiona and she says, "I gotta go, Lip."
"Sure. Talk to ya later."
As Lip puts away his phone, his feet start leading him back toward the dorms. He's got two hours before he has to work the dinner shift, and he really needs to read that chapter, take some notes, and start working on outlining that essay that's due next week 'cause he's not gonna have much time before then…
But when he gets to the sidewalk cutoff that will take him no place but the dorms, Lip pauses. He glances up at the clouds once more, figures it's gonna be at least an hour before the sky starts sleeting. Fuck it. He digs his hands deeper into his jacket pockets and heads in the opposite direction. He's gonna get as far away from campus as he can. For a little while, anyway.
Lip walks for twenty minutes before he finally emerges from the leafy bubble of campus and apartment buildings that house nothing but Chi Poly students and Bubble Tea places and Pita shops that cater exclusively to the rich little shits. The neighborhood beyond Chi Poly is actually pretty working class. Nicer than the Yards, but a breath of fresh air compared to the area around the university. People look normal, not perfectly outfitted from North Face or J. Crew, and they're not all exclusively twenty years old. And there's not a goddamned recumbent bike in sight.
He ducks into a corner store (the hand-drawn 'We Accept LINK' sign in the window warms his heart) and buys a pop—Strawberry Crush, the kind of thing that would never be an option on the Poly campus. He drinks it while standing on the sidewalk, leaning against the side of the storefront, watching people go buy. If he squints, it could be like he's home.
The pop tastes awful, almost like he can pick out all the individual chemicals dancing on his tongue, swathed in corn syrup and red dye #40. Still, he drinks it and smiles as a little kid in a Batman costume walks by holding his mom's hand. First it makes Lip think of Casey Casden and all the grief that Debbie caused them, but then he can't help thinking of Ian, picturing him as he was when they were six and seven, a walking freckle with boundless energy and a smile that was missing several pieces
Ian loved Batman more than any other cartoon, but Lip always got to be Batman when they played because, he told Ian, "Batman is smart," and Ian couldn't argue with that rationale. Instead, Ian would have to be the Joker, but Ian hated being the Joker, hated being on the wrong side. He kept trying to make the Joker turn good and see the error of his ways, and this violation of the rules of Batman annoyed Lip to no end. "You're not doing it right," he'd tell Ian, "We're not gonna play if you're not gonna do it right." So Ian would reluctantly do his best to be bad. Ian sucked at being bad, though. So they'd give up on playing Batman and play guns. It was hard to fuck up playing guns since there was no dumb sense of morality to get in the way. Guns were guns and even stupid, sweet Ian could get behind that.
And now Lip's back to being depressed again. He tosses the remainder of the pop in a garbage can and starts trudging back toward campus.
Lip's never been one to be apologetic about being a bossy shit. Most of the time it was necessary—there wasn't exactly a surfeit of other folks around stepping up to take charge—but even when it wasn't, so what? If people didn't like Lip being bossy, they could've grown some balls and said as much. But he didn't always have to take that opportunity. It wouldn't have killed him to have let Ian be Batman once in a while. Fiona had certainly said as much to Lip at the time.
Lip walks past a guy in a denim jacket just then who reeks of BO and, of course, his mind turns to Frank. Fucking Frank. And then because he can't seem to stop thinking about it lately, Lip's remembering that last night in the Cavalier.
It was miserably cold that night, had been for days, and all four of them were scrunched together in the back seat, trying to get warm. It had been a week, maybe, since the battery finally died, and there hadn't been any heat since then. And Ian was sick because he always seemed to be sick during that period, like he'd caught one cold and hadn't been able to shake it. Everything seemed to be coming together into one nightmare knot Lip didn't know how they could untangle. He held Ian's hand and he pushed in closer to Fiona.
Lip had been surprised that Frank stayed with them that night. At first, Lip read this charitably, but then he figured out that this probably just meant Frank had finally run out of money and favors. So then it made it worse that Frank was there with them.
First, Frank encouraged them to sing songs to keep warm, but they didn't know any of the songs he tried to sing ("You guys don't know 'Hotel California'? What the hell's wrong with you?"). Then Frank insisted they pile up all their clothes and belongings into a wall around them to keep out the chill. But the chill was inside too and three underfed little kids weren't that great at generating excess body heat. And it was getting hard to breathe surrounding by all that stuff. Plus, their breath made things moist, and it seemed to make Ian's coughing that much worse.
"All right," Frank finally said, "Forget this noise. Get your stuff and come on."
They scrambled to shove their belongings into the endless grocery bags Monica had hoarded before she split, and then they hurried to follow Frank as he led the way out of the Park 'n Ride.
"Shouldn't we lock the car?" Fiona asked.
"Forget it," Frank waved off the only home his kids had known for seven months, "We're not coming back."
Lip had felt both frightened and triumphant. Frank finally had a plan that included them.
They walked for ages. Lip's hands and toes went numb from the cold, and Frank even consented to carrying Ian for a while because his exhausted stumbling was holding them up. Lip felt a jealous when Frank scooped Ian off his feet, but Fiona had given Lip a cautious smile, and Lip decided not to complain. He also decided not to voice his suspicion that Frank's plan was actually just to walk all night to keep warm until the stores opened in the morning and they could loiter someplace inside.
This wasn't the case, though. Frank did eventually lead them to a street of dark little houses and up the front steps of a blue one on the corner.
"Whose house is this?" Lip asked, not really wanting to but feeling like somebody had to ask.
"Who's our aunt?"
"Never mind. Just look pathetic. Try to look like Dickensian street urchins."
"I don't know what that is," Fiona said, panicked.
"Just try to look tired and cold and hungry, all right?" Frank snapped, banging on the front door, "Shouldn't be too hard."
Frank banged again and then again a little bit later, refusing to budge until eventually a light came on inside and they heard someone turning the locks.
"Ginger!" Frank cheered as an old woman opened the door just wide enough to see out.
"The hell are you doing here?" she asked.
"Thought it was time you met the kids."
"Go away, Frank."
Ginger started to slam the door, but Frank stopped it with his foot.
"Listen," Frank said, his entire tone changing to something much more pathetic, "There was some mix-up with Com-Ed. I paid the bill, but they're saying they never received it. Shut the electric off over at our place, and now we've got no heat. And of course, I can't get a hold of anybody over there. Twenty-four hour hotline, my ass."
Ginger made a face and said, "You got electric heat? That's no good. You gotta have gas heat. Electric's too expensive."
"That's what I always say," Frank said in a chummy, conspiratorial tone, "But it's the landlord's choice. What're you gonna do?"
"Hmm," Ginger agreed reluctantly, seeming then to remember her dislike for Frank, "Well, you can't stay here. I told you—never again."
"Come on, Ginger, just for tonight? I'll go over to Com-Ed first thing in the morning and get everything straightened out."
"No. No, Frank. Now, go away."
"Please? Fiona's been crying her eyes out all night, she's so cold. And, and Ian—" Frank paused, then scooped Ian back up and held him up to Ginger the way a priest holds a crucifix to a vampire, "He's sick as a dog. I don't want him getting worse. Kid's like fuckin' Tiny Tim."
Ginger peered at Ian who, miserable and snot-faced as he was, still had those Bambi eyes that always got strangers to offer him treats and ask him if he needed help finding his mother. Nobody could ever resist those eyes. Lip could see them doing their best on Ginger, her reserve wavering.
Frank could see it too. "Isn't he the spitting image of Clayton?" he asked, pushing harder, "You were always so good to Clay and I when we were kids. Had a real soft spot for him, didn't ya?"
Ginger smiled then. "How is Clayton? He was always such a nice boy."
"Don't know," Frank said quickly, "Haven't seen him in years. He's too good for his failure of a brother now."
"Yeah, well, that's true," Ginger murmured, and Lip got the impression that Ginger wasn't exactly all there.
"Where's Monica?" she asked then, and Lip felt like she's slapped them.
But Frank saw it as an opportunity to lay it on thick. "Oh, she left us," he says, his voice full of woe, "Couldn't handle the pressure of three kids. Wanted to live a free-wheelin' life with no responsibilities. Left me with the three of them, took all our money. Here I am, a single father, tryin' to raise three growing kids on minimum wage. Got a bad back, but can't let that stop me. I got them to worry about, you know? Just trying to look after them, raise them right…"
Ginger was still looking at Ian, who was leaning back against Fiona now, eyes closed as Fiona stroked his hair away from his hot forehead. Worried that their secret weapon was losing its effectiveness, Lip willed Ian to open his eyes. And, as if psychically receiving Lip's nudge, Ian did. He turned his big, green eyes up at Ginger, looking for all the world like a Precious Moments figurine.
"All right," Ginger finally gave in, "But just for tonight. You've got to be out in the morning. Patrick's coming by to fix the back steps and he won't like it if he sees you here."
Somehow all kids knew not to cheer, but Lip and Fiona were certainly celebrating their good fortune inwardly, exchanging secret smiles as Ginger led them into the house. There were two twin beds available and the couch. Frank claimed one of the beds right away. Fiona insisted the boys take the other bed and she took the couch.
It felt odd leaving Fiona all alone on the strange couch, but she insisted, putting on a brave face. Lip held Ian's hand as Ginger led them upstairs to a dark room crammed full of junk, including a narrow bed with sheets on it that smelled like mildew. Lip's uneasiness lessened a good deal as they settled onto the bed, the first real bed they had slept on in months.
Ian couldn't remember anything before the Cavalier, but Lip did remember, so very faintly, a bed at Uncle Nick's that the three of them had shared and a sleeping bag they shared at Monica's friend Amy's house, which wasn't so much her house as a house in which Amy was squatting and allowed Monica's family to briefly camp out in. Years later, Lip would be silently devastated when he and Debbie went searching for Ian and found that their brother had been living in a squat just like Lip remembered. Seeing Ian's kit bag in that place, Lip's name stenciled on it, a shudder had traveled down his body.
But that first night at Aunt Ginger's house was still magic in Lip's memory. For a few years, Lip had looked back at that event, at Frank getting them out of the freezing car and into a real bed in a real house, as the one time Frank came through for them. It was the one bit of proof that Frank wasn't entirely a bad father, that he actually gave a shit about their wellbeing. Then, of course, Lip got a little older, got burned by Frank a few dozen more times, and he started to realize that this wasn't the one time when Frank put the kids first and came through for them. This was just one of many times that Frank wanted something for himself and saw that he could use the kids to get it.
Lip didn't know that then, though. All Lip knew was that the lumpy, mildew-stinking bed was heavenly.
Ian was too sick to appreciate it. He took Lip's hand and spooned against him automatically, just like they always had in the car. Lip knew that getting close to a sick person and breathing was how you transferred cold germs, and he didn't want to get sick. But he also didn't want Ian to be scared; that was more important. So Lip cuddled up to Ian tight and breathed in the germs as deep as he could just to spite them.
The next day Frank finagled another night out of Ginger and it turned out to be a wild night—the adults partying downstairs while Fiona and Lip played Go Fish and luxuriated on the bed upstairs, taking turns giving Ian sips of Fruit Punch when he was awake. The next morning, Aunt Ginger "went to Wisconsin," and they never saw her again. Kindly enough, she left Frank in charge of her house while she was away. "The Gallaghers have finally had a stroke of luck," Frank enthused as he scrubbed dirt off his hands in the kitchen sink.
"Jesus Fucking Christ," Lip mutters now as he shakes the memory off and approaches the library once more. He's got about forty minutes until he needs to report for work and he could probably manage to read the chapter and take some good notes in that time if he really focused.
In his pocket, though, he finds his hand clasping his phone. He wants to call Ian, just to hear his voice, check how he is, maybe even ask if he remembers anything at all about the rusted out Cavalier, the pictures in the upholstery.
But then annoyance surges up inside of Lip. He drops the phone back in his pocket and charges full force into the library.
Fuck Ian. And fuck Frank. And fuck Monica. Fuck them all.
Lip's gotta study.