United States

A Small Matter

September 22, 2020

    Robert’s nails dug into straw as he watched his brother’s feeble form. His brother’s chest slowly rose and fell, Robert’s stomach churning in rhythm. He frowned. 
    “Com’ on, James! It ain’ nothin’! What’d a you sleeping around for?” Rasps. Deep, guttural rasps that made Robert’s skin crawl. No 8-year-old sounded like that, let alone his little brother. He picked at a patch in his overalls and stared at his feet, wondering when his pa was coming back. It’d been three days already! He shook his head and stood up, looming over his dumb little brother. He sneered at him. “Fine, then! I’ll fix youse up myself!” He walked over to his small section of the room and snuck a hand under a crack behind the wall. He kept fiddling until he’d hit something; he grinned and pulled out his life savings. It was two quarters and a penny. He whistled in appreciation, making his way out the door, saluting his brother off on the way. “I’ll be right back!”

    It was a thirty-minute journey towards the nearest town. Robert’s legs ached as he came to a stop, hands on his knees as he wiped his forehead slick of sweat. His stomach grumbled, and he sighed. Gotta use this for James… He strode forward with purpose, looking around at the boarded-up windows and glaring at nearby-goers who’d been looking his way for a little too long. He reached his destination, a quaint little general store he’d seen once or twice but’d never been in. He always remembered his ma telling him about it. About the little discounts they had, and how she always loved to talk with the owner. Before she’d gone. He ignored the stinging in his eyes and walked in, hearing a bell above him ring and smelling the warm, incensed air. HIs eyes took in the various aisles, all stacked with more things than he’d ever need in a lifetime. A short gasp escaped his breath at the sight, but he put it out of his mind. He saw a weathered-looking man clad in red behind a counter turn and smile, only for it to die at the sight of him. The man put his hands down and leaned over, expression darkening. “I don’t take in street urchins, so I’d reckon you ought—“

    “I ain’t no urchin!” he interrupted hotly. The man crossed his arms, and Robert stuck up a quarter in sweet, sweet defiance. “I can pay, don’t just try to throw me out!” The man rose a graying eyebrow and shrugged. “Fair enough,” he went on, “but” - he glared at the boy - “don’t try anything funny. I got my eyes on you.” Robert’s lips thinned, but he bit back an insult that he was sure his pa woulda gave him hell for. He walked up to the man.

    “I need medicine!” he imperiously declared. The man drily stared at him. 

    “Medicine,” the man drawled, testing the word in his mouth as if he hadn’t heard it before. Robert nodded. “Yup. Anythin’ for sickness.” The man’s face softened a bit. Robert scowled - he hated pity. The man must have picked up on this, for he nodded and got down to business, handing Robert a cure-all salve he said would “work for anything, anytime.” Robert liked the sound of that. He didn’t like losing all his money though.

    Robert’s heart was beating with anticipation as he saw where his little brother must have been waiting for him. He saw no sign of his pa. He scoffed. That’d took him less than a few hours, tops, and his pa was still gone? He hung his head up in pride. Man, he sure was smart if he could outdo his pa like that! A grin stretched out onto his face as he entered his home, eyes searching for his brother. “James!” he called as he saw him, “I got the medicine! You can stop whin—“

    His grin died.

    "James?” He walked up to his brother. His eyes were open, but they were looking through him. He put a hand on his brother’s chest. Nothing. It was still. His blood turned to ice. “J-James?” he whispered. He looked down at his brother’s feet, and his toes had gone blue. He blinked. 

    “Oh.” His arms slowly descended. He dropped the salve, its mint-green contents spilling out across the house’s floor. 

    His house, it was, 10-year-old Robert now realized.

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