“Brother”–Anne Britting Oleson

My brother Leo is laughing behind me, and I hate it. He’s always laughing at something, his brown eyes huge behind his thick lenses. I can feel little puffs of laughter on my arm, because he has to stand so close just to see me.

“This is awesome, Carl,” he says.

“Jesus, Leo,” I say.

We’re walking along the sidewalk toward the field behind the church. I’m dragging a stick. I like the noise it makes, scraping along the concrete. Leo’s half-running to keep up. He keeps shoving those glasses back up his nose, shoving his hair out of his face. I have a crew cut. I can see fine.

Some kids’ll be at the field. I was past the garage and almost gone before my mother put her head around the corner of the door and called, “Take your brother with you.” She’s always telling me that.

Today he’s working at one of his teeth with his tongue. It’s loose, and he wants it out for the Tooth Fairy tonight. I’d like to tell him there isn’t one, that it’s our mother who’s always putting those dimes under the pillow, but that’d probably make him cry, and that’d probably make Ma mad. I don’t have time for her to be mad at me. Worse, I don’t have time for her to ground me. There’s probably a game on already at the field, baseball, football, maybe just wrestling. I step up the pace, throw the stick into the bushes—it’s slowing me down.

We’re nearly there when Alex White catches sight of us and hucks the football. It comes spiralling toward me, and I reach up and pluck it out of the air like I’m picking an apple off a tree or something. “Nice one,” I yell.

“Damn, you brought the kid,” Alex yells back.

“Hey, Alex,” Leo shouts.

There’re already a bunch behind the church, lining up to face each other. Six of them. I’ve got the football now. They straighten up out of their crouches and wait.

“Carl’s on my team,” Alex tells them as we draw closer.

There’s immediate complaint. “No fair,” Pete Harris says. “You always get Carl.”

Andy Thompson says, “Now it’s four to three. Not fair.”

Alex shrugs. “Somebody’s gotta take the kid, then.”

Leo beams, his loose tooth askew in his mouth. “Yeah! I can play.”

I drive the toe of my shoe into the ground, don’t meet anyone’s eyes. Nobody wants Leo on their team. He’s too small. He can’t see. He’s a geek. I hear the grumbling. When I look over at Leo, I know he hears it too. His lower lip is trembling, but he’s trying to hide it. I’m embarrassed. I don’t say anything. But then he moves closer to me, looks up through those glasses, his brown eyes enormous.

“Somebody sits out, then,” Alex suggests.

“Leo’s on my team,” I say suddenly. “Trade somebody over.”

Alex leans in, almost into my face. “Are you crazy? We’ll get killed.”

“We’ll be fine. Trade somebody over.”

So we play. Alex is the quarterback. He passes me the ball and I run with it. Leo runs along beside, panting, and then falls behind. Everyone falls behind. I score. We trade possessions. Pete’s running the ball for the other side. He easily outstrips my brother. I charge up, tackle him. On the next play, the other team tries to run Jerry Crockett. Even Alex can bring him down. Second down. By the time we take a break for halftime, my team’s ahead something like 35 to nothing.

“Handicap,” Pete shouts suddenly. “Make it fair. Leo runs on the next pass.”

“Stupid,” Alex says. “Leo’s a handicap already.”

Leo looks at me. He’s working that tooth with his tongue.

“Leo,” Pete snarls, “or I go home.”

Pete owns the ball. The only good one any of us have. The only one we have this afternoon, anyway.

Alex stands up slowly. His eyes are narrowed. “Just once, then, jerk.”

I can’t believe I’m hearing this. I stand up, too. “Alex, no.” If I bring Leo home hurt, I’m so in trouble. Grounded for life. “Don’t.”

Leo’s up now, too. “I can run,” he says. He takes a step away from me. “I can do it.”

“Jesus, Leo,” I say.

So that’s how my little brother manages to juggle the football momentarily on the pass reception before three guys on the other team pummel him to the ground. “Shit,” I say under my breath, rushing to where the kid lies in a heap. “Shit, shit, shit.” I pick up his glasses, sit him up, set the glasses on his nose. There’s blood running from his mouth. “Get away from him,” I shout, shoving Jerry aside. “Leo, you okay?”

He puts a hand to his face. “My tooth,” he says. He spits out a gob of blood. I tell him to open his mouth. The tooth is gone.

Twenty minutes we spend looking for that thing, in the mud and the trampled grass. One measly baby tooth. The blood keeps dripping down Leo’s chin. He looks awful. Ma’s going to kill me.

He’s near tears when I finally drag him away. Thank God he has the sense not to say anything until we’re far away from the others.

“What about the Tooth Fairy?”

He slips his hand into mine. I don’t bother to shake him off.

“Write her a note,” I say. “Jesus, Leo.”

ANNE BRITTING OLESON  has been published widely in North America, Europe and Asia. She earned her MFA at the Stonecoast program of USM. She has published two chapbooks, The Church of St. Materiana (2007) and The Beauty of It (2010). Another book, Counting the Days, is scheduled for release next year.

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