Written by Tiffany Wang
ArtDaisy Contest Entry No. 0003:
Catch Me If You Can
Even when they were kids, she had never played fair.
As he looked at the meadow across the street from the hospital, he caught glimpses of the children playing tag, chasing each other round-and-round until they fell to the ground in dizzying heaps. They would always get back up, though, shrieking in delight and picking sides for round two.
He had come back home, and it was the last place he wanted to be.
But every time he started to consider driving back towards the airport, he thought of the skinny, dark-haired boy inside, days away from turning sixteen, clouded in a blanket of medication. I’m here for Julian, he thought, as he sat down on the stone steps. Everything that he’d done in the past week –emptying his meager bank account to buy a plane ticket, blowing off his last few finals – was for his little brother, who now had one wrist heavily bandaged and a mind full of screaming thoughts.
His phone buzzed dimly in his pocket. He pulled it out and saw her name blink up at him, before he looked down to clear his vision.
She shouldn’t be calling or texting to see if Jules is fine, he thought heavily. She should be here, for God’s sake. I still remember that promise we made – does she?
Then again, Hallie had never been very good at keeping promises.
Christ in Heaven, she should be here. She was his twin – and Jules’s older sister.
He remembered when Jules had first been diagnosed. It was years ago, when his brother was only nine. He had been called a freak in school by one of the older kids, after he had giggled uncontrollably for a solid thirty minutes, his joy blending into hysteria.
Because this was one incident out of many, their father had taken Julian to a series of psychological tests. He and Hallie had gone along and stared through the rectangular glass window at the man in the white lab coat, who gestured to their little brother, then to some documents on a table. Through the barrier, the muffled words of “rare before the age of ten” and “severe bipolar disorder” floated through.
“What does that mean?” he hissed to her, as they sat back down on the stiff chairs. They might be the same age, but she was a whole fourteen minutes older, so she knew things like that.
She chewed on her lip thoughtfully. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “But he’s not a freak.”
He thought of the way Jules always had dirt stains on his clothes, from playing baseball on muddy fields. He thought of his brother’s hazel eyes and chocolaty smiles, and felt he might burst inside. “He’s not,” he agreed staunchly. “If anyone says he is, we’ll beat them up.”
“Yeah!” Hallie said excitedly. She grinned at him, the dimple on her left cheek matching his. “And we’ll always help him and be there for him – always!”
“It’s a promise!” he added, and they shook on it, just to be sure.
Then they went home, and discovered that reality had a way of breaking the promises of twelve-year-olds.
He didn’t think that either of them had really intended to slide away from what they’d said they would do in the gray office. It was just – life got in the way, like it so often did. He had soccer practice, Hallie started swim, and both of them joined student council and debate. Eventually, protecting Julian faded from the forefront of their minds; it was never really gone, but it stopped being a primary thought.
In the meantime, their brother pushed back against what it meant to have bipolar disorder. He stopped taking the pills several times – convinced that he could cure himself – which resulted in brief periods of euphoria, where he stayed up until five in the morning and thought he was invincible. This always faded, though, leaving Julian plunged into an endless spiral, drawing with metal and losing interest in just about everything.
And in the end, he and Hallie had always watched from the end of the hallway, biting down their nails while their parents spoke to their brother, explaining why he had to keep taking the medication.
His head was underwater, as he breathed in the strands of thin air. “Hallie,” he muttered, and with her name came a quick lurch of anger. He punched her number into his phone with surprising ferocity and waited.
She picked up after three rings. “Hello?”
His hand came up, pulling off the gray hood so that it fell around his shoulders. The last time they’d talked, he’d exploded at her for not coming back to see Julian with him. She had refused to give him her reasons, but he thought he knew the answer anyways.
She was tired. Granted, they all were, but Hallie had always been more impatient than anyone he knew. She had chosen to stay in her university on the other side of the country because she didn’t want to be tied once again to a place with shaky roots. Instead, she wanted to rip out all the old ones and start fresh.
But Hallie hadn’t really done anything unexpected – she’d just finally followed up with something she had threatened to do for ages. She had taken the first door out that she could, just like she’d always sworn she would.
He just couldn’t believe he’d never taken her seriously before.
Now, he thought of all the times they had chased each other around when they were children, and she’d run faster than he ever could, screaming, “Catch me if you can!” at the top of her lungs. Even when Julian had joined in, she was always just out of reach, dancing out of the way, laughing. The split second anyone managed to tag her, however, she stopped abruptly, sometimes refusing to keep playing, insisting she had let them catch her.
It was just the way she was.
“Hi,” he said, and he heard her breathing on the other end of the phone. He could picture her leaning against a wall, her eyes closed, a bold streak of violet dashed in her hair. “How are things going?”
“Oh, you know,” she replied lightly. “I aced that physics quiz that I’ve been studying for.”
“That’s good,” he answered automatically, and immediately drew a blank.
She spoke again first. “So,” she said haltingly. He knew that she was biting her nails as they talked; he would be as well, but his own had already been ragged for days. “How’s Julian?”
He realized his knuckles had gone very white. “Fine,” he said softly. “Jules is fine.”
Her sigh came through the speaker, louder than he thought it would be. “Don’t give me the cold shoulder too,” she said, and he caught the hint of annoyance in her voice. “I called you earlier today, okay? Plus, Dad already tried to guilt me, and I’m not a heartless bastard, you know –”
“You should be here.”
She exhaled with frustration. In his mind’s eye, her bangs fluttered as they moved slightly. “Eli,” she responded, “I already told you and Dad and Jules that I’ll be back when the semester ends –”
“Hallie,” he said, his teeth gritting together. All of a sudden, he needed her to be nine again, chasing him through their neighborhood and pulling him back onto the pavement when he got too close to the street. He needed her to listen to him – actually listen – the way she used to when they were young, huddled around a flickering campfire and whispering fairy-tale stories to one another. “Jules needs us –”
“I get it!” she snapped, her words stabbing into him. “But Eli, we’re nineteen – Eli, we’re finally out of that goddamn house. I know that Julian needs us, but – God! There will always be another crisis with Jules. Because of him, Mom and Dad never had a chance to do anything because they were always looking after him, and, if you really want to get into this, he also screwed us out of having a normal childhood. God, I know it’s not his fault, but I’m so fucking sick of all this. Eli, we finally have a chance to live our own lives – don’t try to make me some kind of bad guy.”
Her outburst wasn’t new to him, and it wasn’t like he’d never tasted the words either. He sometimes whispered them to himself in the safety of his room, when he could hear his brother humming aimlessly next door, rattling the remaining pills around in an orange bottle. It was then that he pondered how it would feel to simply pack a bag and walk out the door.
“You’re not the only one that thinks like that, Hallie, and you’re definitely not the bad guy.” He pressed his fingers against his temple. “But we’re siblings – we look out for each other.”
“You sound like an idiot,” she responded scathingly. “Eli, you might be my twin and, sure, he’s my brother. But, come on, admit it – even you know that, sometimes, Julian is such a fr –”
She stopped abruptly, as his stomach dropped. “Hallie,” he said slowly.
“No,” she said, very quietly. She sounded drained now, not angry. He could imagine the tears building in her dark eyes, following the same tracks down her cheeks as they did his. “No, I didn’t mean that, Eli. You know I would never say that about Jules.”
“Okay,” he said back, because he wasn’t sure what else he could say. She could’ve been standing right next to him, he saw her so clearly.
She was silent, and he stared out at the open field, where figures bundled in puffy coats threaded through the tall grass. “I have to go, Eli,” her voice said at last. It only hesitated for the slightest instant before adding, “Love you.”
“Love you too.”
She hung up and he inhaled sharply. He needed to go back inside, to check on Jules and tell him that Hallie called and, yes, of course she missed him and she loved him and she would be home soon.
But for now, he just sat on the lonely steps, letting the cold wash over him.
“Tag,” he said softly, and watched as the children darted among the trees, running so fast they looked like specters. “Tag, you’re it.”