by Coco Hull
Mom said this every morning, standing in the frame of our front door. These two words, a prayer to God, and a kiss on the forehead. We were told that these things were the tools to a successful school day. We would each take one of her hands — it was just me, Wesley, and Mom, asking God to guide us through the day. God always looked like Wesley in my head.
Wesley would get my backpack from the hook I was too short to reach. I was abnormally short for a seven-year-old; he was abnormally tall for an eight-year-old. Both of us looked out of place in our classrooms. He would put the straps onto my shoulders and take my hand. I didn’t need to imagine God as anyone else but him. Mom would watch us get our bikes from the shed and pedal off to school. Wesley was always anxious, head right on his shoulders. Wesley understood “go flourish,” the way Mom intended it: “be the best.” Every teacher adored him. His fear of messing up made him walk on a balance beam of perfection. I always had my head in the clouds.
“Louise has a tendency to daydream,” my teachers would tell Mom. Mom added a line to the morning prayer about paying attention.
Wesley always knew everything. He knew the state capitals and the hard problems on my math homework. He knew what to say to make me stop crying when Mom and Dad yelled at each other louder than we could blast Full House.
I think about this now as I lay on the cold leather of the patient chair, counting the drops of condensation on the air vent above me.
“Miss Louise! Sixteen and all grown up. Wow,” Mr. Morrison says as he saunters in in his white coat, “How often are we flossing?” When he starts I feel the cold sharpness of metal prodding at my gums. I want to say: why do you even ask? You know it’s next to never. But Mom explicitly reminded me in the waiting room that Mr. Morrison served with Dad and Mrs. Morrison is head of the junior league, so I can’t give him any lip.
“Mhmm I try to do it a few times a week but sometimes I forget,” I say as he removes the metal tool from my mouth. Mr. Morrison is not an idiot.
“Okay okay. Let’s try to be a little better.” he says. He pats me on the shoulder. That makes me uncomfortable. This guy has his hands inside a cavity of my body but him touching my shoulder makes me wish the chair would swallow me whole.
“Yes sir,” I say.
He uses some sort of electronic pick to cut through the layers of gunk between my not so white teeth and my inflamed gums. If I eat ice cream or drink water that’s too cold today, it’ll feel like someone is playing darts with my mouth as the board.
“So, how’s the family? Mom and Dad are doing well?” he asks. He keeps the tool in my mouth. I nod.
“And Wes?” He removes the tool.
“He’s good,” I say. I have no idea how Wesley is. Everyone calls him Wes. Except for me. Wes-ley. Wesley. He is Wesley.
“What is he up to this summer? My Bobby is sad to have lost his doubles partner this year.” he says. He is turned away from me, grabbing some other torture device from his tray. When he turns back, he raises his eyebrows up higher than the protective goggles.
“He’s doing Outward Bound,” I say, staring into the blinding light above me. I perfectly executed the response Mom crafted for me. “That’s all you need to say,” she said, “Keep it simple and people won’t ask too many questions,” she said.
Mr. Morrison nods. He sprays my teeth with water and sucks up the metallic tasting liquid with a small vacuum.
These two words and a prayer to God were the tools we needed at fifteen and sixteen. Wesley was awkward in the way handsome teenage boys are awkward — he still looked beautiful. He consisted of long limbs and blonde hair so bleached by the Florida sun it glowed like neon white snow. I’ve never seen snow, but in art class we looked at Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and it baffled me how the snow was that white. Nothing in the real world is ever that pure, but I guess if your name has “Elder” in it, no one questions you.
Wesley’s neck was a deep tan last summer, the year my parents thought working construction would “snap him out of this.” Wesley and I never talked about what he was being snapped out of, but I’m not an idiot.
“He hasn’t gotten out of bed all weekend, Jay, doesn’t that concern you?” Mom would plead.
“He doesn’t need to be coddled,” Dad would say, “he needs to go mow the lawn.”
Wesley worked on the crew of dad’s construction company. It was my job to pick him up from the site every day at 6 o'clock, even though you aren’t supposed to drive by yourself with a learner’s permit. But Dad’s license plate says “Veteran” on it and no cops pull over veterans.
The Florida humidity is thick. It’s thick and wet and makes you feel like you’re walking through peanut butter. Wesley’s smell from working in it all day was so bad I would have to roll all the windows down in the truck to keep my eyes from watering.
That was the summer of blue cans. Robert from the construction crew would hand Wesley a Bud Light every day before he got in the car. He was sixteen. At least with Robert’s gifts, Wesley wasn’t going to the corner store on Magnolia Street to buy the six packs of the blue cans. At the beginning of the year, he ran into dad there. When Dad gets that mad, his mind takes him back to 2004. Everyone around him becomes an Iraqi. That night Wesley earned a bruise around his neck. Mom got one on her eye from trying to calm Dad down. I got one around my wrist for trying to calm Mom down. They called Wesley out sick from school for the rest of the week because purple necks don’t go unnoticed. I hated biking to school alone. The bike lock was so rusty it was hard to close, and Wesley usually did it for me. The school counselor wasn’t an idiot. She called out to me when I was on my way to math to inquire about Wesley’s absences. I pulled up the sleeve of my hoodie to reveal the ring of blue, the same color as those cans. She told me that kind of anger is normal. She said to remember the sacrifices Dad made for our freedom. She said he didn’t mean it. I started taking the long route to math class.
Mr. Morrison walks me to the waiting room. Mom stands and meets us at the front desk.
“Louise is going to work on flossing a bit better, but everything looks good!” he tells her as he squeezes my shoulder again. His pale, clean fingers on my thin shirt make me want to throw up all over his white coat. How is his coat white as snow, when he just had particles of my mouth grime spraying onto him?
“Thank you, Bill,” Mom says. They do one of those adult embraces where they half kiss each other’s cheeks.
“Louis tells me Wes is doing Outward Bound,” Mr. Morrison says — a statement asked like a question.
“Yes, indeed! He comes home tonight. It was his idea… Such an adventurous kid… Jay and I were hesitant cause you know, it’s hard having him away all summer but he’s just always loved the outdo—” she rambles. I stop listening and stare outside at the August heat radiating off the asphalt in translucent wiggly shapes. Wayyyyy over the top. Mr. Morrison is not an idiot.
The summer of construction did not do anything. Wesley was drinking the blue cans to wash down the stuff that Mom got from the pharmacy, which the pharmacy got from the doctor that Wesley went to but couldn’t tell anyone about. The little white pills in the orange bottles. Dad thought the orange bottles were unnecessary.
Later that year on Christmas morning, Wesley did not come out of his room. We were all ready for church. I was standing in the hall wearing the itchy red dress Mom bought from Nordstrom. Dad went to the car. Mom tried to get Wesley up. There were only three of us in the pew.
“When I was sixteen and got sad, I would just snap out of it. I didn’t need to go see a psychiatrist to whine to,” Dad grumbled between bites of pancakes.
“Jay. Not now,” Mom said.
They got me an expensive purse that year.
“For working so hard in school. Miss smarty pants,” Dad said, pouring Mom a mimosa.
“My salesgirl said it’s going to be the hottest piece of 2016!” Mom said, sipping her mimosa. Mom said that about this year, 2015, and the watch she bought herself. The purse was a reward for flourishing. For listening to the prayer and ceasing to daydream in class and using my God given tools.
“Would you like one, Louise?” Dad asked, gesturing towards me with the champagne bottle. I looked at the hallway leading to Wesley’s room.
“No sir. Thank you though. And thank you for the bag. It is beautiful,” I said.
By the time the sun streamed into the house horizontally, Mom and Dad had switched from the bubbly stuff to the brown stuff. I took the card I had made for Wesley into the backyard, behind the grill. I tested the lighter, the small flame warming my face. It was orange like the color of those pill bottles. The pills that were never enough. The next summer, at seventeen, Wesley would go to a place where kids who will die without the pills go to be cured. I lit the card on fire. What did I do? What did I do?
Mom drives me home from the dentist in silence. When I pointed out my ability to legally drive myself this morning, she said she wanted to spend quality time with me. She just wanted the chance to quell any suspicions Mr. Morrison might have had about Wesley’s summer. I think she only confirmed them. Outward Bound was code for a place where kids who will die without the pills go to be cured.
I set the table for the first family dinner with Wesley home. Mom and Dad are happy. There is a lock on the fridge in the garage where Dad keeps his blue cans. Wesley is fixed. He can flourish again. He talks of his friends there like he was better than them. Like they belonged there but he didn’t.
“My roommate Dylan got to go home today too. Bad move, he’s gonna go smoke weed at the first chance he gets,” Wesley says.
“Was Dylan nice?” I ask.
“I guess. He was kinda psycho though,” Wesley says, looking at my parents. They both laugh.
“Well, son, it’s good to have you home,” Dad says.
“I’ll take you to the barber tomorrow,” Mom says, tousling his light brown hair that grazes his neck. It is no longer white like the snow.
“Wesley, want to go to the tennis courts with me tomorrow?” I ask him.
“Louise, no one calls me Wesley anymore. It’s just Wes. But sure, if you want” he says, leaning back in his chair and taking a sip of lemonade.
A year later, I stand barefoot on the hot black asphalt of another Florida summer. It is pure, hot black. The asphalt, once a place for four bike wheels, is now burning through the skin on my feet. Wesley, flourishing is bullshit. Mom tells me to put my shoes on and get in the car, people are starting to stare.
Coco Hull is a Miami-based copywriter and lover of fiction. She is fascinated by the relationship between origins and identity.