Don sat quietly on a bench watching as his younger brother happily darted back and forth across the playground. Don was also keeping an eye on a small group of boys who seemed to show an interest in Charlie. Having seen it far too many times, he suspected what they were up to and his body tensed in case he needed to bolt from the bench to his brother's side. The group gradually wandered away and Don released a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding.
He turned his entire focus on Charlie, smiling as his little brother drew in the sandbox. Every now and then a breeze would come by and blow Charlie's long curls into his face. Don chuckled silently as Charlie swatted at them in frustration. The next time Dad wanted to try to talk Charlie into a haircut, Don would have to tell him to bring it up on a windy day. Maybe then Charlie would consider it. No, Don shook his head. His brother was adamant about keeping his long, curly hair. Nothing would ever change that.
Charlie finally gave up drawing and looked longingly at the empty swing set, and sneaked a glance in Don's direction. Don shook his head and Charlie pouted as he went back to drawing. It broke Don's heart to have to say no, but that was the way things had to be. He closed his eyes for a moment as he fought back a wave of sadness. The one thing Charlie still loves to do, and I can't even let him have that joy, but we have to be careful with his head. Sighing, Don opened his eyes and immediately sat upright. The group of boys had returned and were surrounding Charlie in the sandbox.
Don was on his feet and sprinting toward his little brother, cursing the distance between them. I shouldn't have been so far away, he swore at himself. As he ran he saw Charlie's head dropping to his chest, his cheeks wet with tears. Don watched as Charlie covered his ears with his hands, trying to block out the taunts of the young boys. As he was almost there, Charlie looked up at Don, his eyes beseeching him to make it all better. The boys saw the older Eppes brother bearing down on them and quickly fled, but not before one boy spit in Charlie's face and flipped Don the finger.
There was no indecision on Don's part as to whether he should chase after the boys or stay with Charlie. He held his younger brother's shoulders and carefully looked him up and down, searching for any injuries. "Are you okay, Buddy?"
Charlie looked up at him with tearful eyes. "They were mean to me," he whimpered.
"I know," Don told him as he hugged Charlie close. "I'm sorry it took me so long to get here."
"You're supposed to keep me safe," Charlie said softly.
"I know," Don whispered back. "God, I'm so sorry. I promise I'll never be that far away ever again. Okay?" He felt his younger brother nod against his shoulder. "It's okay now, Charlie. They're gone and I'm here. Can you calm down for me?"
Charlie sniffled and his crying slowed, though his tears has already soaked through Don's shirt. He pulled back a bit and looked up into Don's eyes. "They called me special."
Don nodded. "You are special, Charlie. Remember? To me, to Dad, to your friends... remember how we talked about that?"
Don smiled as Charlie slowly grinned and nodded. "I remember, Donny."
"Good," Don said as he affectionately ruffled his brother's hair. It's funny, he thought to himself. How 'special' can mean two totally different things – gifted or-
"They ruined it," Charlie's quiet whisper interrupted Don's thoughts.
Don looked down to where his brother was pointing. Although the boys had kicked sand across them, Don could still see the remnants of the letters and numbers that Charlie had spent the afternoon drawing. His heart filled with sadness at the child-like scribbling:
'I luv Dony and Dad'
"They didn't mess it up too bad," Don assured him. "I can still see it." He slipped a finger under Charlie's chin and lifted his face, gently wiping the spit away with a tissue. "And I love you too, Buddy."
Charlie beamed at his older brother's words, all the bad stuff forgotten just because Don loved him. "Hey, Donny?" he asked eagerly.
"What?" Don chuckled at his enthusiasm.
"Can we get ice cream?"
Don made a show of sighing and rolling his eyes, part of the game the two of them played every time they left the park. "I don't know... It is almost supper time."
"I promise not to tell Dad," Charlie giggled uncontrollably.
"Alright then," Don smiled, faking a stern look. "But just this once, young man."
Charlie nodded, his curls wildly bobbing around his face. Don patted him on the shoulder and took his hand, carefully leading Charlie through the parking lot to the SUV. Don would have to make sure they didn't come to the park on a Wednesday again. He preferred to bring his brother here early on Sunday morning when there wasn't anyone else around, but they'd missed this past Sunday because Charlie has been in the hospital with a complication from his head injury. When his little brother had started crying about not being able to go to the park, Don had promised him that they would go first thing after he got out of the hospital.
"Hey Don?" Charlie spoke up.
"Yeah, Buddy?" Don replied as he opened the passenger door of his SUV.
"Are you sure special is a good thing?"
Don's heart lodged in his throat at the doubt in his brother's voice and he blinked back a sudden wave of tears. He nodded as he helped Charlie into the seat. "Yeah, Buddy. I'm sure."
"Okay then," Charlie giggled in relief, watching as Don fastened the seatbelt across his lap. Don smiled and carefully shut the door.
Special, Don thought to himself. He'd gotten so sick of that word when he was growing up. Charlie needs extra attention because he's special. Charlie is going to go to school with you because he's special. Charlie needs you to look after him because he's special.
Now, special had a brand new meaning, and Don still hated the word – even more so than before. But the doctors had suggested that he and Alan keep using it because Charlie was already accustomed to hearing it from his childhood. It will be less of a transition, they had explained. And when strangers use the word around him, he won't be uncomfortable with it.
Don wearily sighed as he opened his door. He couldn't help but grin as his thirty year old brother stuck out his tongue and made a face at him. Special.
A flurry of emotions suddenly slammed into Don, and he fought to suppress them as he remembered... The car accident had been bad, and the prognosis for recovery dismal. But Charlie – his beloved baby brother – had surprised everyone, doctors included, by surviving. Yes, the brain damage was severe, but all that mattered to Don was that Charlie was alive, even if he was special.
Don shoved the bittersweet memories to the back of his mind and eyed his little brother. He stuck his tongue out too, and happily watched as Charlie dissolved into a fit of laughter.