I don't know whether to call this an AU—it covers a timeframe that the show barely touched, if it went there at all. Readers of my post-series fics will recognize a couple of characters that I created, and there are some nods to things that came up in those fics and in some of the one-shots I've posted to B&B, but I think it stands okay as a oneshot.
Cross-posted at WritingFromAnne and Bachelor & Butterfly. There's some language and some crudeness.
I hope you enjoy it. Please let me know. Thanks.—Anne
A Big Day
Alex didn't see why it was so important to put the date on his paper. His name, that made sense. But who cared what date it was? This was just one more useless requirement. Dates on papers, spelling words they would never use—like delineate—and, worst of all, algebra. In what life would Alex "solve for x or y"?
Staring out the window at the sunny spring day, Alex flipped his hair away from his eyes and watched the elementary-grade kids, who had a later lunch recess. Yep, there was his brother, playing tetherball with a bunch of the punks he hung out with. Looked like a cut-throat game—Danny had the ball clutched to his chest and was deep in hot argument with that clingy little suckup Jason Bell. This was actually surprising, given that Jason usually had his sniffer planted pretty far up Daniel's . . .
"Alexander." Mr. Silviera tapped his pointer against the board. "Can I have your attention up front please?"
Alex turned back to the board, stifling a yawn.
"What's the date today, Alexander?"
Alex read the far left corner of the board. "April 23."
"All right, people. You heard Mr. Meade. Let's get dates on those papers, and when the timer goes off, you may begin your essay. Six paragraphs, how you spent your Easter vacation. I don't care whether you spent it touring the British Isles or right here in Chappaqua caddying your dad's golf game—make it rich with details."
Sure, Alex thought, rich with details about Mom barely speaking to Dad the whole time they were on Maui, until the last night, when she had about 45 of those yellow umbrella drinks that tasted like gasoline and threatened his dad, waist-level, with a pair of nail scissors from her manicure kit. Or how about some details from their second night in the villa, listening to his little brother puke his guts out after a prawn dinner that didn't seem to make anyone else sick? Maybe he would just stick to the lighter moments, like when Dad let him and Danny rent those personal sailboats outside Lahaina. Of course, Dad's mood wasn't too light when—high on sun and the wind rippling their hair, and thrilled with their own surprising skill at handling the miniature sails—Alex and Daniel raced the boats, motors off, way out beyond the boundaries. It nearly killed Alex when Danny beat him by mere inches. "By the length of your dick," Alex scoffed, in part to see the brief expression of shock cross his little brother's face before he wrinkled up his freckled nose and laughed. They were still laughing when the boat rental guys buzzed up on Jet Skis and bawled them out, promising to "slap a fine on your rich old man." Danny was scared, but Alex knew better. "Don't worry about it," he told his brother as they motored back to the boat rental hut. "Yeah," Daniel said with bravado that he managed to fake ever more convincingly as he grew older, "they're just the sailboat police, not the real police." For some reason, this struck Alex funny and the two of them continued to laugh about it, even after Alex got griped at by their dad for taking Daniel so far out. They tossed out the phrase a few more times that evening after their parents went down to the bar and left them in the villa eating pizza and watching The A-Team.
Now Alex gazed out the window again, this time focusing on a gaggle of girls standing on the tetherball sidelines, spectating the heated competition now between Jason and some ratty-haired boy Alex didn't know. Nancy Adamson, who lived down the lane, stood beside Danny, her skinny shins bruised above perfect, brilliant, white-and-black oxfords. She said something to Danny, who smiled but kept his eyes flat and fixed on the ball. Alex had to hand it to his brother: He sure knew the Meade way of being politely rude.
"Alexander." Mr. Silviera's tone carried a sigh.
Alex bent over and pressed his pencil to the newsprint. He hated the way newsprint smelled, a mixture of stale breath and old cardboard. Come on, Alex. Details. Easter break. Details. Maui. Girls.
Girls. Now there was one thing Alex certainly wouldn't be writing about: watching the bikini-wearing girls on the beach, burrowing their breasts into the sand; the way he imagined them each pulling slick swimsuit bottoms over the smooth, flat spot between their dolphin-soft legs. Or the girls he had seen lounging around the pool at the resort, painting their toenails and describing the sundresses they planned to wear dancing that night—and how his fervent wish to join their party reminded him of the feeling in his gut that awful morning at Boy Scout camp last summer, when he woke up and discovered he wasn't over it, that he had peed his sleeping bag. So, when he felt that twisting bellyful of shame by the pool in Maui, he squashed it by challenging Danny to a cannonball contest—an easy win because he had two years and 30 pounds on his scrawny brother, who rose to every challenge with moth-to-fire enthusiasm. No, that stuff would not be making it into his essay.
"Whatcha writing about?" whispered Scott Adamson, leaning over to eyeball Alex's paper, which so far said "Alex Meade, April 23, 1984."
"I don't know yet."
"I don't see why we have to do this. We're in goddamn middle school; we already know how to write." Scott exhaled tunafish breath and peeked ahead to make sure Mr. Silviera was still buried in his gradebook. "I ought to really stun the old fart and write about my first wet dream."
Alex stifled a laugh. Leave it to Scott.
"No, really. I had one over Easter vacation. Woke up and . . ."
"Will the baby be a boy or a girl?" Hilda asked her mother as they stood at the kitchen sink. While her mother, heavy with child, circled the dish brush round the chipped plates, dislodging eggs and syrup into the pooling gray water, Hilda dried the cups and silverware already piling up in the rack.
"We'll know when it comes."
"Any day now?"
"Any day now."
"Rosa!" Hilda's father hurried into the kitchen, his blue work shirt untucked. "What has happened to the button on my shirt? I can't show up missing a button!"
"En el. . . on the floor . . . by bed," Mami said, following her own new rule that English must now be spoken at all times. "I'm sorry, but I can't bend to pick up . . ."
"No, no, it's fine. Can you sew it before I leave in . . . 15 minutes?"
"Yes, Ignacio. Hilda, finish getting ready for school. You cannot miss the bus."
No, Hilda didn't want to miss the bus, especially since they didn't have a car right now. Ever since the Pinto had broken down for good—something about a fan belt had stranded Hilda and her mom in that thrift store parking lot that rainy day. Mami had pounded on the steering wheel and said "mierda!" so Hilda suspected it was bad. That evening, when her father came home from his job at PS 212, the discussion between her parents confirmed it was bad: Lots of heated Spanish (despite the new rule), then two English words, "head gasket," and back to Spanish for a number that Hilda quickly translated as "six hundred and fifty fucking dollars." They thought she didn't know when they swore in Spanish, but Gina from two doors down had taught her a few words. Two years older, Gina knew a lot of things Hilda didn't. Like after Gina's class—well, just the fourth-grade girls—saw a movie about how girls got something called a period and they nearly bled to death down there every month. Gina had even taken her in the girls bathroom and shown her evidence: blood-stained things that looked like Barbie-sized mattresses inside those mysterious mailboxes that hung behind the toilets. Hilda had gone home and chewed her nails to nubs trying to rid her brain of the images, which kept popping up. She might have to break down and ask Mami about this. Mami would scold her for listening to Gina's trashy lies, but that would be a small price to pay for some peace of mind.
Sitting on the stairs, tying her shoes, Hilda spread her knees and peeked up her skirt to the strip of flowered underpants between her legs. Nope, no blood.
"Ignacio!" Mami's voice from the kitchen was sharp. "Ignacio!"
"De que del diablos—" Papi yelled from upstairs.
"It's time! Ay. Ay." Mami sounded out of breath. Hilda's heart thumped against her neck, but she stayed frozen on the stairs, one scuffed oxford on.
"Call Leticia!" Mami's sister, Lay-tees-ee-ah. Hilda called her Tia Leti—like Lady. Tia had been in Queens since before Hilda was born and she spoke English with hardly any accent.
Now Papi was thundering down the stairs. Passing Hilda, he barked, "Go! Go to school!"
"But . . ."
Knowing better than to argue, Hilda stood up on shaking legs and dashed through the dining room into the kitchen, her sock-clad foot sliding on the bare wood floor. As she grabbed her lunchbox off the table, she snuck a look at her mother, leaning against the sink, her belly swollen. Her cheeks glowed and blood stained the inseam of her beige slacks.
"Go on, mija," Papi said, his tone gentler as edged around her to get to Mami. "Have a good day at school."
"But what about Mami?" Hilda managed; her throat felt all hot, like when she was a baby going off to nursery school.
"She'll be fine." Papi kissed her on the cheek, but Hilda could tell he wasn't paying attention to her. "Tia Leti will come."
Tia Leti worked at the hospital. Why did they need Tia Leti to come? Was Mami bleeding to death like Gina said?
Hilda ran down the porch steps, Gremlins lunchbox in one hand, her oxford in the other and rushed for the bus stop, even though it was too early.
"Hurry up with your math," Scott told Alex in the towncar on the way home. "Then let's ride our bikes."
"I want to," Danny said, annoying as always with that whiny voice. Alex might be more tempted to invite him along if he didn't always beg.
"No." Alex gave him a blank stare.
"Because you have to be 10 to ride bikes with us." Scott settled it.
"I'm almost 10."
"Not good enough."
Daniel's eyebrows went down, and Alex knew he'd be tattling to Consuela the minute they got home. Or worse, their mother. Mom would insist Consuela make him a milkshake because she felt sorry for him and Alex would pretend like he didn't care that no one offered him one.
"You guys don't let me ride," Danny muttered, "then I'll tell Dad you had a ramp up yesterday."
"You wouldn't!" Alex could hardly believe it.
"Not if you let me ride, I wouldn't."
Alex sighed and met Scott's eyes over the top of Danny's head. Scott nodded and shrugged. Daniel had them. Because if their dads found out they were hurling themselves off the makeshift ramp again, they would have their bikes taken away for a month. At least.
The towncar veered into the long, curving driveway at the Adamsons' house, stopping to let Scott out. Behind them, a second towncar stopped to drop off Nancy—she rode with her friends, two other girls in Danny's class. Nancy peeked at Daniel through the tinted windows as she went by, but he looked away.
"Your girlfriend's checking you out," Alex said.
"Why? Don't you like girls?"
Daniel was smart enough not to answer with a yes or a no. Instead he snorted and said, "Girls are stupid."
Alex didn't reply, but as he watched Nancy pirouette up the walkway toward the double doors, her pink skirt twirling, he thought, no, girls are lucky.
Nancy and her friends were outside later that afternoon when Alex, Scott, Daniel and Jason reconvened to ride their bikes out to the creek. She and Cathy Whitmore and some girl whose name Alex couldn't remember were pretending to be rock stars. Wearing short leather skirts and high heels—Cathy even had a cone bra like Madonna suspended against her flat chest and her long red hair yanked up in a genie ponytail—they were singing a godawful version of "Like a Virgin." Alex ignored them as he and the other guys rode by, but laughed when Scott yelled back, "Keep that up and you'll be virgins for the rest of your life!"
The boys rode along the narrow, grassy trail that led to the creek. Disoriented by shifts in lighting, especially as late-afternoon clouds created strange shadows, Alex kept his eyes glued to the dirt, careful to keep his tire right smack in the center of the track. Any deviation meant a stubbed tire and an embarrassing wipeout that Scott would never let him live down. Jason was yelping like a wild animal, asking in between whoops if they were going to "do the ramp again today." Scott finally said they'd do it again if he'd shut up. Daniel, like Alex, rode silently, his concentration honed in on the trail. Alex hoped Danny would keep his big fat mouth shut at home about the ramp; usually, he was trustworthy, but Alex could never be too sure. Piss Danny off and he would spill secrets as readily as he vomited shrimp.
"There it is!" Jason shouted, pumping his skinny legs to race across the weeds to the makeshift ramp Alex and Scott had built out of an old board and a couple boulders.
It was a rickety operation, the boulders two different sizes, causing the ramp to list downward toward the creek, which gushed with spring runoff below a shallow embankment. Alex knew exactly how to ride the ramp—lean to the right and stand up, then tilt the handlebars to the right as he launched the bike off the ramp. In a move to keep Daniel greased up so he wouldn't whalemouth to Dad about the ramp, he whispered these secret tricks to him as they slowed their bikes.
"You don't have to tell me," Danny said, wiping sweat from the edge of his freckled cheek and crossing his arms across the front of his Mt. Kisco Country Club sweatshirt.
"Fine, break your neck then," Alex said.
Scott took the ramp first, backing way up in the lumpy terrain to secure a running start. He stood on the pedals, his broad back widening as he yanked back on the handlebars. He avoided a mud patch and hit the board going full speed—it made a satisfying smack as it bowed beneath his weight—and hurtled into the air, tilting his wheel just as Alex had advised Daniel to do. Scott, a graceful giant, landed smoothly and skidded to a stop with a couple feet to spare before the creek bank.
"Yes!" Scott flexed his elbow in triumph. "Blondie, you're next!"
Alex rode back to Scott's starting point, then a bit further still. He eyed Jason, who stood, jittery, by Daniel. Jason nudged Daniel, who swatted at him irritably, his eyes on Alex. Alex took a deep breath and led off, his first pedal-turn so ambitious that he popped a little wheelie.
"Did you see that?" Jason asked.
Alex kept his eye on the ramp, which turned out to be a grave mistake. Just as he was hitting full speed, he neglected to see the little patch of mud that interrupted his approach. He barely hung on to the handlebars as the bike slowed beneath him; he hit the ramp going too slow, jerked his handlebars to the left and his bike flopped off the backside of the ramp with an unimpressive lack of balance. To the sounds of the other boys' laughter, he put his feet down to keep from falling, then teetered over with one foot in the dirt as his bike's crossbar slammed into his crotch.
"My sister could have done better than that!" Scott was laughing so hard his voice cracked.
"Shut up!" Alex yelled between gritted teeth; it was all he could do not to grasp at his jeans and hop around like a monkey. Sometimes he hated Scott Adamson.
"You took the ramp like a girl!"
"It was that stupid mud . . ."
"Excuses, excuses. Blondie's a girl . . ."
"Next you'll be dressing up like Madonna . . ."
The trees were turning black as the rushing in Alex's ears, the pain between his thighs, blotted out the rest of Scott's taunts. He shoved his bike over toward the bushes, stomping through goopier mud that splashed up on his jeans. He didn't care if Consuela would be mad. She didn't seem to get it that they could just buy another pair of jeans.
"Danny Boy, you're up," crooned Scott.
"Don't call me that." Daniel sat on his bike seat and cocked his knee to take off.
"Why can't I be next?" Jason wanted to know.
"Smallest goes last. Come on, Danny Boy. Let's see if you're any better than your sister."
"Shut up, Scott." Daniel started pedaling toward the starting point.
It infuriated Alex further to hear his little brother sticking up for him. He watched as Daniel lined up his bike and focused first on the ramp, then on the track. Danny's eyes blazed—no wonder people always commented on how blue they were—and he set his mouth in that line that Alex recognized. Alex was about to get shown up by his wimpy little brother.
As Daniel stood on the pedals and began barreling toward the ramp, he neatly swerved around the mud and was just hitting full speed when Alex heard his own yell: "Look out!"
Daniel's head whipped back and, as his front tire hit the ramp, his hands came off the handlebars. In one jerky move, his little body rocketed over the bike and landed with a thud on the brink of the creek embankment. As the other two boys dashed forward, their drawing breath noisy, Alex watched his brother disappear, then heard the roar of the silence around Scott and Jason's shouts.
Hilda's father greeted her at the door when she came home from school. Her stomach burned in the globby cluster that had prevented her from eating her lunch or concentrating on her spelling and math. She had been reprimanded by Mrs. Lipson for not knowing her sight words then embarrassed when that creepy Mark Stein asked her why she requested the bathroom pass so many times. Even Mrs. Lipson had asked her if she was all right. Of course she said yes; if she revealed her worries, she would start blubbering.
"The baby's almost here," Papi said, scooping Hilda up in a hug. "Your Mami is doing so good."
Oh, the relief that came with Papi's arms around here, his scent of cigars and canned shirt starch. Now Hilda did start crying, big terrible sobs that she had tucked up inside her chest all day.
"Mija, what's wrong?" Papi held her at arms length, his eyes wide.
"Is Mami . . . going to be okay?"
"She is going to be fine. It's been a busy day, but the bebe will be here any minute. I need to go back in there, so you must . . . shhh, mija. It is okay."
"All that blood . . ."
"Just part of having a baby. Even though, Mami is very upset her pants are ruined."
"She's not bleeding to death?" Hilda could hear hard breaths coming from the upstairs bedroom, and Tia Leti saying, "Couple more, Rosa."
"No! Where would you get an idea like that?"
"Gina told me . . . girls bleed almost to death every month! She even showed me in the girls' bathroom!"
Now Papi frowned. "Gina? Gambarro?"
Hilda nodded, wiping her nose and cheeks on the back of her arm.
"How many times have we told you not to listen to that . . . scamp." Papi shook his head. "Hilda, this is something you must ask your Mami about."
"So it's true?"
"No, it is not."
"Ignacio!" called Tia Leti. "Come on! Baby's crowning!"
Hilda glanced up the stairs. The panting and grunting turned her guts to jelly, especially when Papi patted her so quickly and took the stairs two at a time.
The baby. The baby that Mami and Papi were so excited about—finally it was coming. Hilda would be a big sister. A very big sister. Most of her friends had sisters and brothers closer to their own age. But Mami had explained that Hilda would be a tremendous help. The baby would be hers, too. Hilda thought this sounded like fun, kind of like playing real-life dolls. She had one of those Cabbage Patch dolls, but Gina told her it wasn't real because it came from a garage sale and didn't have a birth certificate and adoption papers. Well, bully on Gina: Now she would have a real baby.
Sure enough, from upstairs she heard the wail of an infant. Loud yells that made her cover her ears. Even through her hands, which made noises like the sea, she could hear the staccato waa-waa-waa-waa, but she also heard Mami and Papi and Tia laughing, saying bebe gorda and muy bonita.
After a long while—long enough so Hilda's bottom grew sore from sitting on the naked stairs—Papi called down the stairs, "Mija, come on up and meet your new sister."
Daniel emerged from the bushes, blood dripping from the raspberry on his cheekbone. He held his arm at a strange angle across his muddied belly. His forehead, caked with mud, furrowed over his nose.
"Are you okay?" asked Scott, his voice thin.
Daniel didn't answer; he sank to the ground next to his bike on legs visibly shaky, his face so pale that Alex could see his freckles from way over here. Danny's front teeth drove hard against his trembly lip as moist breaths rasped through his tight mouth and stuffy nose.
It was the blood that mobilized Alex. Coming faster and faster, it rolled in three-, four-, no—five-wide rivulets off Daniel's chin to drop continuously onto his jeans. While Scott and Jason dismantled the ramp—this much blood and for sure a grownup would be involved soon—Alex ran to Daniel and skidded to the dirt beside him.
Daniel's voice cracked. "My arm hurts."
Danny nodded. His eyes reddened, but he took a deep breath and blinked fast. "I'm going to . . . throw up."
"No, you're not. You're okay."
"Go get Mommy."
"Mom's not home. It's just Consuela."
"Go get her."
"Danny—we can't. Come on, let's just walk back. It's not that far. I'll push your bike."
Now Jason and Scott were hovering. "Can you walk back?" Scott asked, standing over Daniel while Jason dropped to the ground and sat as close to Daniel as he could without climbing in his lap.
"You okay?" he asked in a high voice.
"Just . . . " Daniel took another heavy breath and blew it out. "I'm okay. Let's just go home."
A jolt of pride lanced Alex's chest, especially when Daniel grimaced and climbed on his bike, riding at a snail's pace, left hand on the handlebars while he glued his right hand to his chest. They bumped along the trail, Daniel screwing up his face so tight that Alex wondered how he could see. He kept hearing his own terrible voice—"Look out!"—and rifled through plausible reasons for yelling such a thing. He could say he saw a squirrel. Or that he didn't know if Daniel saw the mud. No, the squirrel was better. God, he wished he could take it back.
Off the parkway, past the Adamsons' they rode, Alex calling bye to Scott; Daniel remained grim-faced and silent even when Jason rode right past the turnoff to his own house. Alex imagined Daniel conjuring up ways to narc about the ramp, about Alex's cruel warning.
"Go on, Jason. We'll see you later," he said.
Jason didn't drop back. He rode alongside Daniel, sometimes hovering so close that Alex worried they would touch wheels.
"Go on." Alex raised his voice. "We've got it handled."
Now it was just the two of them, covering the last few yards for home. Alex tried to swallow the panic that grabbed at his neck every time he glanced at Daniel. What was Danny going to say? White-faced, with blood all over his face, hands and sweatshirt, he looked like something from Night of the Living Dead, and as they approached the house and saw Mom's gray Mercedes in the driveway, Danny's face began to crumble. By the time they reached the porch, Daniel was off his bike, sobbing. Then he stopped by the roses, bent double and began vomiting, while Alex ran up the steps, threw open the door and screamed, "Mommy! Consuela! Hurry!"
The baby wasn't muy bonita. She was definitely muy gorda, with squinty eyes and puffy cheeks, and she wouldn't even look at Hilda. All she did was make weird noises—like that striped cat that hung around the porch—and squirm, yet Mami and Papi acted like she was the greatest thing since someone invented the television.
"Her name is Betty," Mami whispered, while Tia bustled between the bedroom and the bathroom with a trash bag, mumbling about still being able to get to work on time if she hurried. Papi went downstairs to make Mami some tea, leaving Hilda alone with her mother and the baby. It smelled funny in here—like when Mami was cutting up carnitas before they were cooked.
"She will be your best friend," Mami said.
"She's not very cute," Hilda said, the stress of her day preventing her from watching her words. As soon as she said it, she wanted to snatch it back.
But Mami just laughed. "She will be," she said. "You weren't at this age, too."
"Ay." Mami had a peaceful smile on her face. "Come, mija."
She patted the bed beside her.
Hilda curled up next to her mother, resting her head against the side of Mami's worn-out nightgown. From the other side, she heard baby Betty making sucking noises.
"Can she have a snack with me?" Hilda whispered. Suddenly, she was starving and she hoped dinner would be more than just beans and rice.
"No. When she is older."
"Can I give her a bottle?"
"Not yet. She will nurse."
Hilda nodded, wondering what that meant.
"From my . . . pecho." Mami touched her breast. "Just like you did, either."
Mami giggled and tapped Hilda's hair. "My smart niña."
"Don't most people have babies at the hospital?" Hilda remembered when Francie Jiminez's brother was born.
"Why didn't you?"
"Cost too much. And Tia Leticia can help me."
"But Tia could help you at the hospital."
"No, no, no. Tia works at expensive hospital way out in Westchester County. Besides, the hospital is for sick people."
"Having a baby doesn't make you sick?"
"No! It is most natural thing. What a woman's body is made for."
Hilda considered asking her the question about bleeding to death, but decided she didn't need an answer right now. It felt too nice, snuggling against Mami's soft pecho, listening to her new baby sister, who was now making sweet, sleepy breathing sounds.
"You don't have to go to hospital to have a baby," Mami said, petting Hilda's bangs away from her forehead. "Not like for a broken leg or broken arm."
Daniel had a broken arm and a good-sized gash on his cheek. Mom drove him to the emergency room and apparently Dad met her there, because the three of them came home together a long time later. Danny had ice cream all over his mouth, a gigantic Lego set (the spaceship!) under his good arm and a neon orange cast on his bad one. His face, decorated with a gauze bandage on his cheekbone, was still a funny shade of white and his eyes were puffy and red, but Alex was so grateful to see him that he felt a little like crying himself.
Mom made Daniel swallow a pain pill—a big production because Daniel hated taking pills—and they all choked down some of Consuela's spaghetti. Then Dad went off to his study with a tumbler of brown liquid and Mom said she was going to sink into a nice hot bath. "It's been a big day," she said. But the telephone rang then, and it sounded like it was Mrs. Bell. "That's kind of Jason to worry," Mom said. "You make sure and tell him Daniel will be just fine. But can you believe it? School pictures are next week and Daniel's going to look like a thug."
Alex listened, tensing, for signs that Jason had told his mother about the ramp or his warning, but the conversation shifted to country club gossip, so he lost interest. At Daniel's invitation, he carted the new Lego set into the family room and dumped it out on the floor with a tinkling crash. Even though Alex was too old for Legos, he opened all the little baggies and let Danny organize the pieces, then they began working on the spaceship. Daniel had trouble snapping the Lego pieces together because he couldn't use his right hand, but in no time, he had figured out how to connect the pieces by leveraging them against the carpet.
"Did you tell Mom and Dad how it happened?" Alex seized up again, like he was waiting for a mosquito to fly into his ear and get trapped there.
Daniel shook his head. "Just that I fell off my bike. I don't want to get in trouble."
"That was really good thinking." Alex's whole chest warmed up and he wondered what it meant that he wished he could hug his brother. Magnanimous with relief, he added, "That was really smart of you."
"You know what else I was thinking?"
"About girls." Why did Daniel suddenly remind Alex of their mother after she had been drinking those olive drinks she loved so much?
"What about girls?"
"That they're not so bad."
"What made you think about that?" Alex peered at the picture on the Lego box and sifted through the pile of plastic for a red triangular piece.
"The nurse at the hospital. She was really nice. She told me she had a niece about my age. And guess what! Another, brand new niece that was just born today."
"And she was pretty. She had these really nice brown eyes and long dark brown hair—"
"No . . . way more beautiful. And she held my hand when I was a little bit scared and—" Now some of the edges of Daniel's words were rounded off, like the puzzle pieces that fit together in the middle.
Alex assessed his brother with narrowed eyes. Since when did Daniel admit he was scared? "You sound funny."
"I'm kind of sleepy. But this nurse said the new baby girl was very pretty and it got me thinking about that old doll of Mommy's from when she was a little girl. You remember, that you used to play with."
"No, I didn't!"
"Yes, you did so."
"No, I didn't, Danny! You take it back or I'll break your other arm!"
"Okay, okay." Daniel giggled as he tumbled over, curled up pill bug style. He rolled sideways, so he was lying on the floor, his bandaged cheek against the beige carpet. "Anyway," he said, sucking spit along the sides of his tongue. "She said the baby girl was the most beautiful baby in the whole world and I thought maybe a girl like that . . ."
Daniel shifted onto his back, shrugged and stared at the ceiling, letting his orange arm rest on his belly as his eyes began to close. He forced them open again, wide and blue, and tried to finish his sentence. But again, his eyelashes met.
Alex continued snapping Lego pieces together, soothed by the way the round holes and pegs lined up, and by the way his little brother's breathing smoothed out into soft, rhythmic snoring.