I have been gifted with misunderstandings. I said that once to my friend Blake, and he said, “I have been gifted with this son’s panties.” This is the sort of thing I like about Blake.
For the most part, I’m still reeling. About a month ago, my twin brother drove drunk into an empty McDonald’s. The impact didn’t kill him, but his injuries did. The doctors were pretty sure he’d survive it.
My parents decided to do a burial instead of a cremation. Blake thinks this is weird, and frankly speaking, so do I. In South Korea, where Blake lives, funerals last for three full days.
I spent most of the services upset and sulking about my brother’s outfit, which I had no say in. He’s going to be buried forever in long sleeves and a blue tie. He hates long sleeves and also that color.
“I can’t get over it,” I’m telling Blake. “I know it doesn’t matter. He’s dead and beyond caring.”
“But you care,” he says.
I feel that caring is how most misunderstandings start. Lately, I’ve been ignoring Mom and Dad whenever they speak to me, which they interpret as resentment. The truth is that I care so much about honoring Jason for who he was that I can’t open my receptors to much of anything else. Their words are cool wind to me.
Blake says it’s like how, when someone has a crush on you, they often don’t talk to you.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever had a crush on me,” I say.
“I’ve had a crush on you,” he says. “But not now, though.”
It’s easy to talk to Blake and not easy to talk to other people. We met online about a year ago while playing Mario Kart. Back then, he went by Bevys, his real name, which mostly got pronounced as “babies” when he and his dad left Michigan for Seoul. He says Wyoming is the land of wry homies, because that’s where I live and that’s what I am.
“Dude, pay attention.”
Sometimes, in underwater levels or on tracks with huge skies, I become lost in the blue and forget what it is I’m doing. In battle-mode, I can’t be on the blue team or I unconsciously sabotage myself. My own balloons.
For the most part, life is weird. Jason and I used to get mistaken for each other all the time, but now invariably the teachers recognize me, and I have to accept being on display. The world is feeling more and more limiting to me.
“Tell me about it,” says Blake. “Dad got me a Korean tutor.”
“I said Dad got me a Korean tutor.”
Blake’s dad is a pitching coach for the Doosan Bears. Before that, he managed the team at the University of Michigan. Americans get paid a lot of money to travel to Korea on these baseball contracts, but the tradeoff is that you have to live in an apartment in Seoul instead of a house in Ann Arbor. Plus, your children have to attend an international school, where apparently all the grades are shoehorned into one building.
About a week passes before I understand why more Korean might translate to less freedom for him. My dead brother is his new alphabet, as both increase our visibility. Suddenly we have fewer excuses not to engage.
“Her name is Yumi,” Blake explains, “and we talk on Zoom every Tuesday and Thursday, unless we don’t.”
I wonder if Yumi became a tutor because she enjoys misunderstandings. Most people do not. Something I’ve found over the course of my short life is that conversation is a workout in which I must labor to ensure sense. The routine does not on any level make my heart stronger.
“Plenty of sweat, though,” Blake jokes. “All down my swampy ass.”
“Are you basically confined to small talk, then?” I ask him.
What he is, he confesses, is super attracted to Yumi, who’s pushing fifty.
I try but can’t get over that name of hers. You and me, again and again. It represents something different in Korean, I am aware. My own name refers to loyalty and faithfulness.
At school, there’s this kid named Connor, who’s made a point of telling me day in and day out that my brother is a criminal. That he uses the present tense is the most confusing part of it. Connor and his mom used to get hashbrowns and McMuffins every morning for breakfast on their way to school, which they can’t now, given Jason’s choices, and losing this ritual has been disturbing for him. I don’t know what to tell him about it, because the only thing that occurs to me whenever he’s accosting me is that his body is far too chiseled to be running on fast food like that.
“What would a faithful and loyal brother do to the shit-talker?” I ask Blake one day.
“A favor for him?” he says. “That’s what Benjamin Franklin did. Some kind of psychological trick to manipulate his enemies, I guess. Could potentially be worth trying.”
When, however, I give Connor the egg sandwich I made specifically for him, he fastballs it at my face, and before I know it I’ve broken his blue-framed glasses against his sharp nose.
I’ve had a counselor at school since before Jason died. She’s reminding me now that what we do when we encounter conflict is breathe and use our words. No one, she assures me, has forgotten the terrible tragedy I’m being asked to live through.
“Are you going to talk to Connor about throwing the sandwich at me and calling my brother a criminal?” I ask her.
“Not personally, no,” she says.
Nothing comes of the altercation except that Mom and Dad have to buy him new glasses. I can’t help focusing on two aspects of the whole ordeal. One is that we’re reliving the worst part of my grief. I don’t want blue, and here they do. Two is that we never eat breakfast together, which stings especially because if a bully can eat with family, then why can’t we?
“Your dad doesn’t eat breakfast,” Mom gives as a reason.
“Would you like to fast together?” offers Dad.
I don’t think that I would. I never much liked denying myself things. When I want something, I want it now, or the threads of my inner world begin to unravel.
Jason never denied his body a shred of what it desired, and this was his fatal flaw. That, or his fatal flaw was feeling less lonely whenever he was around alcohol. That, or he’d gotten so good at masking what was inside of him that nobody in his life with sway or power could see he had a problem.
“Do you eat breakfast with your dad?” I ask Blake while we swoop through Bowser’s Castle.
“Breakfast is weird here.”
“But do you eat it with your dad ever?”
“Like, rice and vegetables.”
We place first and second in a race full of Japanese kids. I’d say that Blake is currently deflecting on account of tense family ties, but with me Blake never deflects.
“I’m asking if you regularly eat breakfast with your dad,” I press him.
“No, Dillon, I do not.”
The car Jason crashed and totaled was the car we used to share. A few days a week, we’d munch on Pringles or something in the school’s dirt parking lot. I have Physics first period, and he had Math. Real snoozers, those subjects, and worth being late to. My brother was starting to like psychology, he’d said, and my best classes have always been gym or Spanish.
Mom, who studied Business, is an office manager for Wyoming’s Make-A-Wish Foundation. Dad’s a private drumming instructor, and Blake’s been nurturing an interest in video editing.
“I make-a-wish that Dad would get a shot at the MLB already,” my friend told me once. “I make-a-wish that baseball were more interesting.”
My own wish is that Jason were around to play with us. I wish the world were fair and that Blake’s mom wasn’t killed in a mugging gone devastatingly sideways in broad daylight.
Recently, instead of taking the bus home after school, I’ve been walking to the Goodwill downtown to steal from their collection of ties. It’s not even that I don’t have money. I pocket a tie and purchase a novel or a Grand Teton magnet. Afterward, I walk clear to the cemetery near Kelly Walsh and leave whichever new tie it is on my brother’s grave. The trip exhausts me and upsets my parents, who have to drive miles out of their way to come and get me.
You can’t be doing this every day, they like to say. Whenever Dad says it, it sounds like a challenge.
Today, post-theft, I run into Connor on the street outside of the Rialto theater. He’s gazing blankly at the vape shop, and I’m twisting a fresh bolo through my fingers.
“Hey,” he says. “You hungry?”
“Because I am and don’t want to eat alone.”
Fifteen minutes later, we’re in the drive-thru at the McDonald’s way across town. After ordering, he apologizes for what he said to me about Jason.
“Mrs. Nelson talked to you, then?” I ask.
What’s it like, I wonder, to be someone who’s never spoken to a counselor?
“I was out of line,” he goes on. “I had stuff in my life that I took out on you. It’s not the first time I’ve done it to somebody.”
“Aren’t you on the football team?”
“My mom goes crazy if she can’t do the same thing every single day. It can get to me.”
“Wait, if you have a car,” I say, “why does your mom drive you to school?”
“She doesn’t,” he says.
We get our food and eat it in the parking lot.
“Yes, I play on the football team,” he says.
When I tell Blake about it later in the evening, he laughs and laughs, because in fact he assumed the Franklin factoid was bullshit, yet here it’s been proven right.
“He paid, even,” I relate to him.
That wasn’t exactly what I was thinking.
“Yumi’s into League of Legends,” he informs me.
There’s something about those massive strategy games that unnerves me. Too much is moving at once. In Mario Kart, there are twenty possible items, and which one you get from any given block is not your decision. The tracks are closed loops, and you progress only in one direction. The familiarity of it all is comforting to me. Like Connor’s mom, I much prefer the devil I know.
“You should see her talk about it,” Blake is saying. “Her weird face lights up. I make-a-wish I knew what she was saying about it.”
We have an old Super Nintendo at the house on which Jason and I used to play Super Mario Kart. The great secret of my life up until this point is that, without knowing why, I’d always let him win.
“She’s seriously beautiful, dude,” Blake continues. “She has this tic where she squeezes her thumb between her index and middle fingers.”
“How does she use the keyboard during League?” I ask.
“And she’ll play with her hair.”
“I’ve never seen a teacher do that.”
Blake did ask her about the keyboard, he adds, but isn’t sure she understood him.
When inevitably I see Connor again, it’s in the graveyard, because he’s followed me there. He doesn’t reveal himself until after I’ve completed my little tie ceremony.
“Don’t you have practice or something to go to?” I say to him.
“It’s spring,” he says plainly. “Football is fall.”
Above us, the big sun is out, in a crisp blue sky, and I am damp from all the walking. Connor’s shirt is sticking to his barrel of a chest, and the sweat has lit up his sturdy face.
“You hungry?” he asks.
This time, after polishing off our fries, we migrate to the back seat of his car and smash our faces into one another. I don’t know how or why it’s happening. I never was drawn to romance or kissing or watching a fullback’s thick fingers grapple with my crotch. My heart is the Crazy 8 item, a Möbius strip of possibilities, and suddenly I’m surrounded by bananas and mushrooms and emotions that aren’t quite as heavy as the sad ones I’ve been lugging around. The Crazy 8 is various shades of blue. Connor ejaculates into his pants, it seems like, then asks if I play Madden or have an Xbox at home.
“Are you serious?” I say.
“About which part?”
I don’t know, actually, and meanwhile I think he thinks my feelings are hurt.
“I didn’t know you were gay,” I admit to him.
“I’m not,” he says.
“I’ve always been uninterested myself,” I tell him.
“I know that,” he says.
There’s nowhere else to go then, except back to my house, where he drops me off. Before leaving, I ask if he wants to come inside and play some Mario Kart, but he refuses without explanation.
That night, Mom and Dad stare at me in the living room. I know they’re mad but can’t pinpoint why. The Goodwill books are piled up by the TV, and the Teton magnets are lining the cabinet in the bathroom upstairs.
“Was that Connor’s car you just pulled up in?” they say.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Are you two friends now?”
“I don’t think so,” I tell them.
What I think is that Connor, too, is processing something enormous in his life and can’t untangle himself from the person he’s unexpectedly crashed into. That’s how Blake and I became friends. Connor and Blake, of course, are hilarious foils: Xbox to Switch, Mario to Madden, White to Filipino, football to baseball. Whereas Connor smells like pennies, Blake, as far as I know, smells like nothing.
“It might be good to make some friends,” Mom is suggesting, “who aren’t trapped inside your Nintendo.”
“But you need to call us if you’re going to miss dinner again,” asserts Dad. “Your mom made all this lasagna, all right? And now we’ve had to freeze it.”
I prefer not to have to hide stuff from them. Being forthcoming helps protect my energy. But I don’t know how to explain to them that I fooled around with someone who stalked me and whom I’ve punched in the face before. And who spoke ill of the dead and at one point bit my lip.
Nor do I know how to broach it mid-race with Blake, who’d surely say something clever about it, like what an honor to be Connor’s hookup. Or perhaps, did Big Boy Bully’s semen smell eggy?
On my way to the kitchen for a post-Flower Cup snack, I hear Mom and Dad, still in the living room, watching reruns of Jason’s favorite show. Ironically, he was partial to the police procedurals, I suppose because the mechanics of them are always predictable. This is why Dad dislikes them. Now, he whispers a critical comment, to which Mom hums.
In Mrs. Nelson’s office the following week, I ask what the punishment would be for someone who commits indecent acts in a car in public.
“Why?” she says.
“What about someone who steals something that’s essentially worthless?”
It’s because she’s said my name, I think, that I realize I’ve been doing these things to feel closer to my brother. I break the law and drive reckless, in other words, just as he did. I am Dillon, ever faithful and loyal.
“Have you thought more about college and what you’ll study?” Mrs. Nelson asks.
This is an inexplicable lie. I want to transform my aptitude for gym into a degree that allows me to physically train college football players. My side gig will be a YouTube channel with Blake for which we layer amusing commentary over silly Mario Kart gameplay.
“You’ve got time,” she says, “if you need it. No worries for now.”
To my surprise, Blake dispenses the same wisdom when I share my plans with him. And, to my surprise, it bugs me. We are zooming through Sweet Sweet Canyon, and when he bungles the shortcut through the donut, I huff and puff and ram my Master Cycle into a wall.
“Is that all you have to say?” I accuse him.
We lose the race and some precious experience points. I believe Blake is better than parroting a school counselor’s clichés. I come to him not for platitudes but for insight and illumination. He didn’t even spring for wordplay, for God’s sake.
“You’re the one hiding shit,” he says.
“Do you not want to make videos with me?” I demand to know.
“You’re abandoning me.”
“You’re hiding shit,” he says.
Our little avatars wander the ether waiting for the next race to start. The other racers exchange scripted pleasantries with one another. If you press a button, you can say “Take it easy on me!” or “Have a good race!”
Mute City commences, and I inject into the silence, “Connor touched my dick, but only through my pants.”
“I’m sorry for hiding it. Please take it easy on me.”
We lose this race as well. Blake is sniffling by the second lap. I don’t think it’s about Connor or my penis, which is confirmed once he starts explaining. What’s happened is that Blake had a blowout with his dad, who’s been dating someone new. For the most part, Blake’s still reeling. He is very sensitive currently, he says. Like a tiny, deflating donut.
“I was thinking about breakfasts, since you brought it up,” he tells me. “I thought we should have brunch or something, the three of us, so I could meet her and get to know her. Her name is Jangmi, and she’s one of the interpreters for the Bears. I was going to speak all my dumb Korean to her, about the weather and what foods I like and do not like.”
“And then,” he says, “I stayed up all night playing League with Yumi. The next morning, I was drained and just sat there staring at them. All blank and dead, like I forgot how to talk.”
“And then,” he concludes, “I threw my coffee on the floor, because coffee was what Mom drank. Dad called it a tantrum and told me to go home if I was just going to be messing around like this.”
He stops there and breathes. Whenever Jason and I fought, we’d lock ourselves in our rooms and seethe over it. In time, whatever the problem was would dissipate, and we’d start playing again.
“I’d love to make videos with you,” Blake is saying to me. “Homie. What kind of thing did you have in mind?”
“Like, maybe something sexy?”
“You played League?”
“It sucks, man.”
That night, I can’t sleep at all. I am carried along by the thought that we are heroes. That all of us, Blake and Yumi and me, are fighting some good fight. From our misapprehensions grow havens and safe spaces. We, bearers of sons’ panties and co-op missions, are agents of care. During our final race, I convinced Blake to organize another breakfast, tantrum or not.
The same thoughts drive through me as I accompany Connor to dinner with his Mom. She is an absolute misfit. We are gathered around a Taco Bell spread in their dining room, which has a huge window next to it, which looks out onto a tree-spotted backyard tied together by a trampoline. Wolf Creek is where Casper’s privileged live. Connor’s dad, I’m told, is off drilling in Alaska.
His mom has this necklace on that she can’t seem to come to terms with. She toys with it and adjusts it, then removes it altogether and places it on the table. Then she excuses herself and goes and puts it in another room. I’m struck by her decisiveness, but upon returning she mistakes my expression for something that it’s not.
“You cannot blame yourself for what happened to your brother,” she says.
“I don’t,” I say. “What do you mean?”
“Connor has explained everything to me,” she notes. “You don’t have to worry.”
“About what? I don’t blame myself or my parents or anybody else,” I tell her. “Not even him.”
“Oh, honey, it’s going to be okay.”
“She never calls people honey,” says Connor.
“Sweetheart, that’s not true.”
“You’ve never called me sweetheart in your life,” he says.
The scene feels more like comedy than drama. And I’m stuck remembering how Jason used to fidget through the entirety of the winter. Any fabric on his arms and wrists would set his brain on fire. But what’s there to do about it, blame December and January? Store the cold upstairs? On good days, his struggle made us laugh.
“It’s nice to have someone around,” Connor’s mom goes, through her second Crunchwrap Supreme.
“Mom,” he sighs. “I’m right here.”
After eating, we watch the local news in the living room and fart. She knows a lot about wind patterns and clouds. She goes to the bathroom at one point and never comes back, and Connor uses this opportunity to scoot closer and propose we make out on the trampoline.
“What did she mean when she said I don’t have to worry?” I ask him.
“She was just being nice.”
An hour or so later, I’m walking home. It’s miles in the dark, but I’ve declined Connor’s offer to drive me because there’s thinking I’d like to do. To the rhythm of my steps, my mind puzzles over these vast distances between people. The distances are often vaster with those you see the most. It makes so little sense. My hurting brother is a dead person. My clueless parents dressed him in the wrong clothes. I want to hang out with Connor’s nice mom again and talk to her about the necklace and what her favorite words are.
When at last I arrive at my own doorstep, I am fully prepared to bombard my parents with the facts of my life. My wish, I will tell them, is that they make use of these facts and bury me correctly, should it ever come to that. Bury me as I am: a gamer thief with a half-boyfriend and a growing taste for trashy food. In this way, we will honor Jason’s passing.
Inside, I hear 8-bit music and someone rooting around in the kitchen. I go and look and discover Dad uncorking a bottle of wine by the sink.
“Dillon,” he says, surprised, despite my being late.
“Why are all the lights off?” I ask him.
“Your, uh,” he starts, then pauses. His fingers drum against the bottle, which clacks onto the counter. “Your mother and I are having a bit of a rough night, son.”
As far as I’m concerned, every night is a rough one, and thus I do not respond.
“You know all those novels you bought are about lost children?” he says. “Imagine, a stack of lost children, left right there in the living room for us to casually pick through.”
I tell him the truth about it, which is that I plucked them at random from the Goodwill shelves.
“Well, they are,” he says. “Kidnapped kids, murdered kids, Peter Pan. Hey, remember when we all saw Alice in Wonderland together?”
“No,” I say.
This is, I’m realizing, not their first bottle of wine. The music stops, and Dad sways.
“I’m glad you’re home,” he says, before instructing me to follow him.
And I do, out of the kitchen and up the stairs to Jason’s room, which is a terrible mess. I’m not sure what I’m looking at. The Super Nintendo is hooked up to the TV in there, and in Mom’s gravity are sloppy plates of leftover lasagna. The carpet is stained red, from either food or drink. For a moment, I’m furious that they’re drunkenly desecrating the place, but then the feeling smooths out into relief, because they, too, are behaving badly.
“Dillon,” says Mom.
Super Mario Kart loops through its blue-lettered home-screen animation, and my distance from all people, facts, and things feels almost unbearable.
“Want to play?”
You know I do.
What exactly transpires next eludes me still, but for now I have joined them, and race we do. We laugh, and we curse, and in Ghost Valley we sail over and over into the abyss, as though not a one of us can bear to win.
TIM RAYMOND is an autistic writer from Wyoming. His stories are forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review and Bellevue Literary Review. He currently lives in South Korea and posts comics about mental health on Instagram at @iamsitting.