This is chapter one of a fiction piece I’m working on called “The Other One”
Ethan had always been obsessed with the number 7. I could never figure it out, and although he was my best friend, he certainly never explained it to me. But he listed things in 7s, always kept 7 sodas in his fridge, and somehow knew a way to spend exactly 7 dollars at any fast food place in town. When they changed prices, it was like he was a little kid on Christmas morning and it was all game that he would very quickly win at.
It was uncanny. And truth be told, it fascinated me as well. Then again, his bizarre behaviors were always fascinating, and it’s what made him easy to hang out with. He wasn’t demanding, he wasn’t needy. He was just odd and comfortable with that. That fact is what made us friends in the first place: the fact that we both felt too “odd” to quite fit in.
When everyone else our age was getting ready to go off to college, Ethan and his family got the unwelcome news of illness. Even I was floored by it. I wanted to help, but couldn’t. It felt like one of those weird dreams where I was in danger and only half asleep, but couldn’t move my body at all. When he got sick, it felt a bit like the world was starting to implode.
And when he died….well, I left everything behind. It was years ago, but it still feels fresh to me.
Moving across the country wasn’t really as difficult as I thought at first. A major change to be sure, but the adjustment was the only hard part. I wasn’t sacrificing much. No close friends. No pursuit of higher education. I was good enough with technology to make a living off of that wherever I ended up. I didn’t feel like I was really leaving anything behind here in Manchester, Mississippi.
Anything except my family. And because of them, I now find myself at this tiny Mississippi airport, waiting for a ride to the place I wasn’t sure I wanted to see again.
My brother Alex’s car was unmistakable. He had driven the same sensible family sedan since he graduated from college and got married. He had done well enough for himself to upgrade, but wasn’t the type to spend money that he didn’t need to spend. He wouldn’t even consider anything new until that thing exploded or fell to pieces.
Alex himself was also unmistakable. You could practically hear his personality from a mile away. It was his gift. He could successfully network with inanimate objects if he wanted to. It’s what made him so popular through his entire life. And what has made him so successful, even just a few years removed from law school.
We had the same last name, but the similarities basically ended there. Alex and I were not only completely different personalities; we didn’t look a thing alike. Besides small differences in hair color or skin tone, there was also the fact that I was at least half a foot taller than anyone else in my family. Still, it was strangely good to see my brother again.
“Aaron!” he yelled, practically leaping out of the car. Nobody could claim that Alex lacked enthusiasm.
“Aaron! Man, my eyes must betray me! It has been FOREVER since I actually saw you! Have you lost weight?”
“Alex, if anything I’ve gained a few pounds. Plus, it’s been a couple months since I saw you, so stop being so dramatic. Though, I mean, we are family, and you could visit more often.”
“Hey, you say it like I was the one who moved to New York, not you. But whatever. You look good, man. Something’s different. Maybe you’ve been working out? No, no, that requires WORK. There’s no way my brother Aaron would be associated with that.”
“You’re hysterical. Tell you what: you go ahead and take my bags and get Mom or Dad to come back and get me. I’ll wait. Or send a taxi. Even that will be a better greeting.”
“Oh shut it,” Alex said. He extended his arms for one of those quick hugs that are appropriate for brothers so that emotions don’t come into play. “It’s really good to see you again, bro.”
“Yeah Alex. You too,” and truth be told, I really meant it.
With the bags loaded in the trunk, we started the drive to our parent’s house. It was funny to see all the streets and buildings that looked untouched over the years. Regardless of any growth that had occurred over the years, the city felt exactly the same.
“Does anything actually ever change here?” I felt inclined to ask.
“No, you know Manchester. It’s like a nice jelly or jam.”
I let the silence rest in the car for a minute. Alex would explain his terrible analogy soon.
“No, Alex. That’s stupid. Just stop. I’m perfectly fine with riding in silence. In fact, I’m perfectly fine with never having a conversation with you ever again.”
“You love it. Stop living in denial. You never could accept the fact that I was the witty one.”
“By what standards are we talking about, here? You clearly were the one who inherited Mom and Dad’s sense of humor.”
There were actually two truths in that comment. The first was obviously that my parents were cheesy people. Alex had clearly gotten that.
The second was the fact that I am adopted, so I didn’t actually get anything from the Palmer gene pool.
My parents had more than their fair share of trouble with children. They had been told pregnancy wasn’t much of an option for them, but they kept trying regardless, holding onto the belief that if it was meant to be, it would happen. And suddenly, he happened. Turns out the doctors weren’t far off in their assessment, though, as it was really amazing that he even survived the pregnancy.
Miraculous was the term used, in fact.
But my parents wanted another child, and they always loved the idea of adoption. I don’t know whether they felt sort of self-righteous taking this unwanted kid and bringing him into a home, or if they just really wanted to be that selfless. Either way, that’s where I came in, and we had our happy little family, just the four of us.
And then my parents were blessed with Ashley, my younger sister.
Ashley. She was a complete surprise, since the doctors had gone from saying pregnancy would be difficult to saying it was impossible. And somehow, the pregnancy was fairly easy, especially compared to what they went through with Alex. She has always been very special to the family for that reason.
I’ve always wondered what all of that makes me, though. Alex the Miracle. Ashley the Blessing. Aaron…the Fake? The Outcast? The Other One?
The adoption wasn’t ever held as a secret. My family wasn’t going to hide anything like that from me. And honestly, my parents always treated me as if I was a natural son. I can’t think of a time in which I was ever treated differently than Alex or Ashley. Even then, knowing I wasn’t actually a blood member of the family felt isolating at times. I think that’s why I connected so well with Ethan, since his weird way of looking at things meant he never viewed anyone as an outcast. Never viewed anyone as irregular.
Oh yeah. Ethan. It hit me again that this was the first time I had been home since he died.
You know, it actually felt funny to call it home. Sure, all the parks I played in as a kid were here. The stores my family shopped at. The schools where my siblings and I had attended. All of it was still here, still the same, but it felt so strange. It was familiar, but “home” wasn’t the term I would’ve normally ascribed to it.
It was just the place I grew up, nothing more.
“How’s business been up in NYC, man?” Alex’s words broke me out of my daydream.
“Business? Eh, so-so. I mean, you’d be amazed how many idiots with computers there are. Especially in a city that size. Not like my services are ever not in demand.”
Alex waited before adding in “…but?”
“You definitely have a ‘but’ to throw in there. I know you do.”
My brother could read people. I’ll certainly give him credit there.
“Buuuuut, it’s not really….anything special. I guess that’s the best way to put it.”
“What do you mean?”
The drive the house suddenly seemed to take a lot longer than I remembered.
“I mean that I’m working at this store, but that’s all. I’m working, but it’s always the same. It’s very routine. When I get there in the morning, I know that I’m never going to do anything more than sit behind that counter, fighting viruses that people get after trying to find sites they’re not allowed to go to.”
“So you’re saying there is no room for growth, or something?”
“I mean, I guess so. But I don’t really think about growth. It’s not like I want to own the store. It’s just….I dunno, man, do we have to talk about this right off the plane? I didn’t exactly get much sleep, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. Too heavy to jump into so early. My bad man. Didn’t mean anything by it.”
“It’s cool, I’m just tired from the trip and all. Hey, how’s the little one? Geez, I feel sorry for Rachel. You not only tricked her into marrying you, but now you’ve got her stuck with your kid.”
“Poor girl. I owe her so much, putting up with me AND little me. Oh man, Aaron, I can’t wait for you to meet Bryce. He really does looks just like me.”
“No, it’s fine, I plan on treating him as badly as possible growing up, so he has thick skin by the time bullies come along.”
Bryce was born just a few months earlier. Being down here also marked the first time that I would meet my nephew. It was the part of my visit I was looking forward to the most, honestly.
As we talked, we drove right past Greymont University. It was a small private college that was located in town. It was also really weird to see. We had grown up wandering over to Greymont football games on lazy Saturday afternoons, and it was a sort of a staple in the community. My siblings both attended the school, and I was supposed to as well. I never went, of course, but I thought about the place quite often.
I mean, what would my life look like if I had gone to college? Would I have ever left Manchester? Would I have fit in at all? Would I have met a girl and gotten married and ended up living just like Alex and Rachel? And would I even have wanted that?
I kept drifting in and out of daydreams as we passed by more symbols of my youth, and Alex tried to sing along to radio songs he had never heard before. I knew how things would go as soon as I got to my parents’ house, too. Mom would have prepared far too much food and would have far too many towels and sheets and blankets cleaned for my stay. Dad would hide his enthusiasm as best he could but inevitably have some sort of new movie he bought or gadget he’s playing with that he has to show me. Rachel would already have Bryce there and would be insisting on helping my mother out as much as she could and my mother would be kindly refusing help because she’s stubborn.
And for whatever reason, though Alex and Rachel had just had a child and Dad’s business had posted their best quarter in years and my mother was celebrating five years of being cancer free, I would be the center of attention. There would be all of this commotion and attention and it would all be thrown on me. It would be more than I want, and far more than I deserve. And through the daydreaming and reminiscing about the trouble we used to get into, we arrived in the driveway, exactly as I remembered it.
Alex seemed more excited about being there than I was. “Dude, Mom and Dad are going to go CRAZY when they see you. You’re pretty much all they’ve talked about since you told them you’d be here for the holidays!”
“Yeah man, I bet. I’m….I’m pumped too.” It was surprising how nervous I felt about walking in those doors.
“Geez, how long has it been since you were last here, anyway? Like, thirty years or something?”
“Something like that, man,” I said as I grabbed the bags Alex failed in offering to help with. “Something like that.”
I couldn’t do anything but stare at that porch, the rocking chairs, the house itself. Where I had spent my childhood. It was hard to believe I was standing here again. And Alex was wrong. I actually knew exactly how long it had been since I left home.
It had been 7 years.