Sam is sleeping. Finally. Under my arm, I feel his breathing rise and fall, and his hand in my hand has finally relaxed, and I know he's breathing with his mouth open a little because crying the way he was plugs up his sinuses. But he's sleeping, so I can close my eyes and relax, maybe get some shut-eye myself.
The curtains are shut and the lights are off, and even though it's only late afternoon and the sun is still shining, the room is mostly dark. Sam's safe up against me, the way he used to sleep when he was little and had a nightmare or was sick or was scared that Dad was gone for so long. Back then, Sammy would fit right against me, his head under my chin, his feet against my shins. But now -
Now my little brother is a freaking giant. He has been for five or six years. It's hard to believe that he used to whine about being the shortest kid in his class. But he was, he usually was the shortest boy, until all of a sudden, one day, up he shot, right past Dad and right past me, and I'm not sure he's stopped yet.
I saw a lot of kids in school who were too tall for how old they were; twelve year old psyches inside seventeen year old bodies, gawky, awkward, perpetually disoriented about what to do and how to do it, with their bodies, with themselves, with everybody else.
Sam never had that problem. He was always an old soul in a child's body. So when he got gigantic, he was never awkward, never unsure of his physical self. Okay, he mighta been a little gawky every once in awhile, but I guess every teenage boy is at least sometimes.
But even for being perpetually old and permanently gigantic, my little brother is still my little brother. I still watch out for him. We watch out for each other, sure, we automatically take up the slack for each other whenever and wherever we need to, but Sammy's always seemed to have a little too much 'slack' in his life. Sometimes watching out for him is an automatic thing, a reaction to years of habit, like stopping him from crossing a street when traffic's coming and he's too busy talking to notice. Sometimes it's just a feeling that I need to stick closer to him, or make him stick closer to me, until some as-yet-unknown danger is past. Sometimes it's making him laugh when all he's got inside of him is anger and aggravation.
Too many times though it's picking up the pieces of his soul and keeping them safe until we can put them back together again.
Losing Jess was bad enough. How he lost her, why he lost her, it all combined to crush him with the weight of guilt and what-ifs the size of Topeka. I thought he was healing though, I thought when he let Sarah get a little inside of him that it was a good thing, a good sign. By the time he met her, he was sleeping full nights again, not shouting himself awake anymore. He actually seemed comfortable in her company.
And then some little piece of fate decided Sam hadn't gotten the full tour of hell yet and dropped Madison in his path, and I had to stand by and let my little brother learn again that in lives like ours, hope is a poison.
It's not even his own situation that's shaking Sam so much. I'm sure he's not even thinking about it right now, whether he'll turn evil, if I'll ever have to decide I have to kill him. All he's grieving now, all that he's agonizing over, all that is shredding him from the inside out is how he couldn't save Madison. Even though it isn't his fault she was infected, and it isn't his fault there is no cure, he cared for her and in his mind he failed her.
If we'd been in some backwoods, isolated spot, after Madison was gone there would've been time to comfort Sam, to just hold onto him and let him grieve. But we weren't in the backwoods and I didn't have that luxury. We had to get out of there and fast. I just started driving. The first major highway I got on, we were heading west, so I figured I'd drive to the Pacific Ocean if I had to. I was going to get Sammy away from there.
Before we even got in the car, Sam had shut down. He stared out the windshield and pushed his hands down onto the bench seat like he was keeping himself upright. I was talking to him, but he wasn't answering me. I didn't push it, I just let him be quiet. What could I say anyway? 'You did the right thing. Madison is at peace'?Yeah, platitudes always make everything so much better.
Under my arm, Sam is dead sound asleep and doesn't even twitch. He probably wouldn't wake up if I was to move, but I don't move. I keep my arm around him. These days there doesn't seem to be much I can do for Sam, to keep him safe, to help him not be afraid of what's coming in our lives. I couldn't protect him from what happened with Madison. Hell, I wanted so much to believe we'd saved her, that Sam could have even one day of normal love and intimacy with her, I practically caused Sam having to kill her. So keeping him comforted, comforts me too.
We'd been driving a few hours when we needed to stop for gas. Sam looked around at the gas pumps and cashier kiosk, so I knew he was registering what was going on.
"I'll be right back, Sammy. You want anything?"
I didn't know if he was hearing me yet, but I wanted to try. But he didn't answer me, so I worked as fast as I could, filling the tank and paying for the gas. Just as I got back in the car, Sam sobbed. Once. Just once. I knew he wasn't ready yet for the whole 'I'm here and I've got you' hug and huddle, even if I was, so I patted his arm and gave it a squeeze and he shut down again and we kept driving west.
Another couple rest stops down the highway, I decided to stop and use the bathroom and get us some food. I wasn't hungry and I figured Sam wasn't either, but I figured I might as well get some food anyway, just in case. Sam didn't get out when I did, so I wasn't sure if maybe he didn't know where we were or why.
"Pit stop, Sammy. Hungry? Need to go in?"
He looked at me, which was something, anyway. Then he thought about it. Then he shook his head. Personally I thought he should take the opportunity, but I guessed his body was shut down as much as his emotions. When he was ready to talk, or eat, or pee, he'd let me know.
I didn't want to be gone from him too long, so I made a fast grab of food and water. And pretzels. For some reason I thought pretzels might be something Sam could eat, so I grabbed a little bag of them and checked out.
Sam was in the same spot as I left him. I put some water and pretzels next to him and he looked at them but he didn't touch them.
I tried talking to him every once in a while. Saying I thought we'd stop for a room in another couple hours or so. Commenting on the traffic. Asking if he was doing okay. Just a few words every once in awhile. And each time I said something, Sam would look at me, and look like he was trying to say something, or trying to think how to say something, but nothing would come out, and he'd give me that look, that lost little brother look, and I'd put my hand over his until that look went away.
Finally, I stopped trying to talk to Sam and just kept my hand over his. That's all I needed to say anyway.
I don't think it was even dinnertime when I pulled into a motel. I was exhausted, so Sam had to be totally wasted. When I got out of the car, he followed with his hand, like he didn't want me to let go of him.
"You wanna come in with me? I'm gonna get our room." I asked, but I don't think he heard me. I shut the car door and kept as much of an eye on him as I could while I checked us in.
When I got back to the car, Sam was in the driver's seat, with his hands on the wheel. He hadn't moved the seat back, so his knees were jammed against the dashboard. He wouldn't have been able to drive like that even if he was alert and coherent. I cleared my throat and he looked at me. And didn't move. So I nodded to the passenger seat and after a minute of thinking about it, Sammy slid over again.
I got in and picked up the bag of pretzels and water bottle that got pushed to the floor when Sam slid past them. Sam pushed his hand toward me again, and I put my hand over his and purposely took a long way around to our room so I didn't have to let go again so soon, and I didn't let go until we were both out of the car and my giant little brother was standing next to me at the trunk of the car.
I knew if something happened right then, if we had to suddenly hunt something, if we came under attack from some bad guy, supernatural or not, I knew that Sam could and would react to the situation, put his grief and agony aside and deal with the threat. Putting our feelings aside was something we were both raised to.
But there was no hunt, no bad guy, so Sam could deal with his pain, we could deal with it, the best that we could. And so my gigantic little brother stood beside me at the trunk of the car, with rounded shoulders, bowed head, watching every move my hands made, waiting blankly for me to hand him his backpack and lead the way to the motel room.
I was still talking, giving him a running monologue of what he could see I was doing, 'here's your backpack, I've got my duffel, I'm gonna shut the trunk now…' but I didn't think he was hearing me. I wanted to put my hand on Sam's arm and give him a gentle shake and get him to look at me, make some connection, make sure he was still in there. Make sure he knew that I was there. I settled for just touching his arm as I moved to the door of our motel room, and Sam followed along behind, blank, completely and utterly blank.
So, I opened the motel door and set my stuff on the first bed, and Sam came in behind me and headed for the far bed. I went back to the car and got the weapons and the water and pretzels and the salt, and when I went back into the room, Sam was still making his way to his bed. I salted the room and used the bathroom and checked the heat in the room and Sam had only just got to the bed.
I could understand that. As long as you're moving, even if it's just in the passenger seat of a moving car or creeping along across a tiny motel room, as long as you're moving, it keeps you - or feels like it keeps you - one step ahead of the grief.
And if you stop, you die.
When Sam finally made it all the way to his bed, he stood there, staring at it like he knew what he had to do but he didn't want to do it. So I kept on with my monologue and pulled his backpack off his shoulder and propelled him down to sitting on the bed. I told him he'd have a shower and some food and then some sleep, and while I talked and he heard me or not, I crouched down and pulled off his boots and socks.
I used to do that, up until Sam was about six or seven, when it was time for bed or a bath or just a change of clothes, I'd get him started by taking off his shoes and socks. Not because he couldn't, but because if he wasn't too busy talking to do it, he was too tired or too sick to.
Right now, I wished he was talking my ear off.
So - I got him back up to his feet and into the bathroom. I turned on the water to let it heat up and wondered when or if Sam was going to catch on to what I wanted to happen next.
"Okay, we're gonna get your clothes off and get you in the shower. And hopefully you can take it from there, because I'd rather not have to bathe you, but if I have to I will."
Sam was looking at me, I could tell things were percolating in his brain. They might be taking two or three or ten times as long to process, but they were processing.
He blinked and nodded and started to unbutton his shirt. Just to be sure we were both talking about the same thing, I waited there until the shirts and jeans were off then I went to get him some clean clothes out of his backpack. I took my time, giving Sam the chance to lose his boxers and get in the shower. He might be semi-comatose, but that meant that some of him was still alert and bashful.
It was only a few minutes, I only took a few minutes to grab his clothes and go back into the bathroom, but when I did, Sammy was in the shower, crying. Not just sniffling and clearing his throat crying, but out and out breath-taking, soul-shredding, heart-breaking sobbing.
Four times I tried to say something to him. Four times I took a breath and opened my mouth and nothing came out. My giant little brother was breaking down and I couldn't offer him any comfort without risking breaking down too.
Finally I managed to take a deep breath and call, "Sam your clothes are on the sink, I'm taking the dirty…"
Then I waited. If he needed me, I was going to be there.
But the sobbing stopped, I thought I even heard a faint, 'okay' over the water, so I went out to get some food ready for him. Just in case he felt like he could eat something.
It didn't take long to set out the pretzels and prepackaged sandwiches, crack open a bottle of water, and get some coffee started. When that was done, I sat at the table and tried to think of something else to do until Sam came out of the bathroom.
Tried to think what I would do after Sam came out of the bathroom.
He needed to eat, he needed to sleep. I needed to know he he was going to be able to handle his pain.
The shower turned off and I rearranged the food on the table and checked the thermostat again and pulled the blankets back on Sam's bed and got some aspirin out of our first aide kit and went back to the table to wait for him to shuffle out of the bathroom and over to the table.
"What's your pleasure, Sammy? We got a roast beef sandwich, turkey, tuna fish - your favorite." I tried to sound perky, but I think it got lost in the translation.
Sam looked at the table and scanned everything that was on it, but shook his head.
"Water? C'n I just have water?" It was the first words he'd said to me since before he lost Madison.
"Sure." I handed over a bottle and Sam took one swallow and one swallow only and put the cap back on before I could offer up the aspirin.
"Hold it - here." I held the aspirin out to him. Still moving slow and thinking slow, it took a few beats for Sam to lift his hand and accept the pills from me. Then another few beats for him to swallow them with one more swallow of water.
Then I had to take the water bottle out of his hand and put it on the table because Sam didn't seem to realize that was the next thing to do.
"What d'you say you get some sleep, hunh? Maybe we'll both get some shut-eye until dinnertime. What d'you say?"
I didn't get an answer and I didn't expect one. I didn't need one.
"All right, here we go." I put my hands on Sam's shoulders and propelled him away from the table and to the bed. He folded pretty easy once we got there, sitting, then laying down.
He looked so small, and lost, and hopeless. I tucked the blankets around him and sat next to him. If I said anything to him now, it would be platitudes, I knew. So I didn't say it with words. I only put my hand on his head and tried to will some comfort into him. Comfort and strength and the okay to grieve, for everything he'd ever lost in his life.
Guess it worked, just a few seconds later, ten or fifteen seconds later, Sammy started crying again. The same heart- soul - and lung-breaking sobbing he'd broken down in the shower with. Sobbing so hard I was surprised he could breathe.
It was finally time for the hug and huddle.
"All right, Sammy. All right. Give me a minute."
I pulled the curtains all the way shut and turned off the lights and set a couple bottles of water on the bedside table and got into the bed behind Sammy. He was still sobbing, lying on his side, pressing his face into his pillow, and I stretched out behind him and wrapped my arm around him and took his hand into mine and held on.
To anybody else, this would be really weird, I know. Two grown men, two brothers, wrapped up together in the same bed. But most of the rest of our lives would be weird to anybody else anyway. And my little brother needed me so the rest of the world could go screw itself.
"All right Sammy, all right. It's just us here, just us. You do whatever you have to, it's gonna be okay."
I could remember from longer ago than I could remember the feeling of Sam's hair tickling my nose, his breathing filling the space between us, his heartbeat under my arm. This is us. This was us, when my little brother was still my little brother and I was still big enough to protect him from anything he needed protecting from.
Sammy grabbed hold of my arm with his other hand and held on like he thought he'd float away without me. He was coughing/crying/choking/sobbing, lost and miserable, and all he had was me.
All we had was each other.
So he held onto me and I held onto him while he shook so hard the bed rattled, and he cried so hard he was having trouble breathing, and his heart broke so bad I wondered if we'd ever get it all put back together.
"Okay, Sammy. Okay. We're okay."
We stayed that way awhile, I don't know how long, half an hour maybe. I could tell when Sam was wearing out, when exhaustion started winning out over grief. His sobbing turned to panting, his desperate hold on me eased up, the bed rattled only every once in awhile.
When I knew he was ready, I offered him the already-opened bottle of water. He sat up and drained it, like I pretty much figured he would. I sat up next to him, waiting for whatever he needed next. If he wanted to eat, if he needed to use the bathroom.
If he wanted to stay with me and me with him.
He finished the water and handed the bottle back and laid down again, heavy and exhausted. I laid down behind him and put my arm around him again and my giant little brother took my hand into his and went to sleep.
So now I'm awake just a little while longer, feeling his breathing and his heartbeat, his hair tickling my nose and his body finally relaxing into rest. And it's when he is relaxed and sleeping and safe in my arms that I close my eyes and fall asleep too.