Dominant Genes By Laura Hallman

It was too rainy for July.
I huddled my shoulders and cupped my hand around my mouth, blowing into it to keep warm crossing the parking lot.  I approached the boy sitting on the bench outside the bus terminal.  Billy—seventeen and clever and carrot-topped and way too damn sure of himself.  He was still Billy, not yet decided on Bill or Will.

“You can’t keep doing this,” I said just before stepping up under the overhang.  It sounded so bitter coming from my mouth, of all mouths.

“I know.”  He aw-shucksed me and looked away.  “But you know what she’s like.”

“Yeah, I do.”  I nodded.  “And I know what you’re like too, little brother.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  He looked me up and down.

“Come on, really?  Billy?  I’d put money down even you at least started whatever fight put you on that bus.”

“Why do you always take her side?  She did the same thing to you and you got to leave, Melanie.”

“That was a little different.  And I am almost positive I have never once taken her side.  Billy, where’d you get the money to get here?”

“Nowhere.”  He looked away from me.

“Oh.  I see.  I didn’t realize Greyhound started running fairs on lies.  Why’d you stop here?  Have enough fuel to get yourself clear across the country.”

“Yeah, whatever, Mel.  Just let me stay.  Can I stay?”

I sighed.  This was just like the other dozen times he called me and begged me to come out and live with me and leave our mother’s house.  But this time he had actually left; this time he was here.  Should I give him credit or send his still-juvenile-ass back on the next bus?  I left at seventeen, and he never forgot that as a strong point in his argument to stay with me.  However, I was forcibly thrown out.  I probably wouldn’t have left otherwise, at least at seventeen.

“You know what she’s like,” he repeated.

“Yeah—”

“Melanie, most kids think their parents are superheroes, but if she was a superhero she’d be Wonder Woman.  As in: Wonder-What-the-Hell’s-Wrong-With-Her-Woman.”

“Billy, how long did it take you to come up with that one?”

“All the way here.  Want to hear about her powers?  She has the ability to fly—right off the handle.  She forgets responsibility for her children faster than a speeding bullet.  And she can jump to conclusions in a single bound.”

I laughed and tried not to.  It felt maternal.  “See, Billy?  You are not without talents.”

“Like talents worth keeping around?”

I could see both sides of it—he was right about her.  She probably had too much to handle with Billy.  Maybe I had gotten pregnant after all to get out, without realizing it.

“I don’t know, Billy.  So did you steal whatever you sold to get you here?”

“Not really,” he said, twisting his face, really sure he’d convince me.  “Just from Mom.  Does that count?”

“Well.  Yes.  Technically.  But I won’t tell her.”

“So can I stay?”

“Billy…”

“Come on.  You got out.  Now help me, right?”

“Billy.  That’s different.  She threw me out.  You’re not knocked up at seventeen, you’re just rebellious at seventeen.  Go home until you figure out how to make it on your own.”

“Why won’t you let me stay with you?  I wouldn’t be rebellious or whatever against you.”

Sometimes I understood why a parent would want to dismiss a child—not explain or go out of the way to hear him talk, just dismiss him.  Sometimes I understood the pure exasperation of teenagers unto their parents.  But if my daughter ever asks, I have never felt this way about her.

“If you want it to be even so bad, I had to do it on my own.  If you want out so bad, figure it out.”

I had.  It had taken me all four years since I left home to be this stable, to be somewhere good in my job, pay regular bills on time every month.  To know my daughter and I could really survive had taken all four years.  I couldn’t take on a seventeen-year-old.   We’d sink.  He would never be as much help as he would claim now or as I could con myself into believing possible.

No, I didn’t want him to suffer.  I wanted him to grow.  While he still had opportunity to learn to do it on his own, why shouldn’t he?  Before she threw him out too, let him just go home and get a stable footing so he could do it.  If he moved in here with me—even just stayed for a little while—he would never get out.  Why should he?  He could walk all over me, mostly because I just wouldn’t want to hear it.

But he would be a nice addition.  For a while, at least, I would be able to guilt him into chores.  And did I owe it to him?  Does the older sibling blaze the trail?  Was that the natural order of things?  What if he, my younger brother, wasn’t as strong as he would need to be?

“That’s all the more reason you should want me here, Melanie.  So you could help me so I don’t wind up like you.”

“Wear a condom.  Go to college.  You won’t end up like me.  There, have I helped?”

He stood a good six inches taller than me now.  I never stood at much of a substantial height, but at least I had always been taller than Billy.

“Are you serious?  Why the hell did I even come to you in the first place?  Why did I think you might help me?”  He stared at me, squinted, tried to intimidate.

That will never work.  He will always be my kid brother.  His freckles and red hair do nothing to help him edge up on me.  My daughter also has red hair and freckles.

“I don’t know, Bill.  You probably should have at least called first.  I could’ve saved you the trip.  The money.  Could’ve put it toward something a little more lasting.”

He stood quiet.  He shuffled his feet in the puddle between us, splashing water up onto the tongue of his brown, suede, skate boarding sneaker.  He got quieter, more desperate.

“You’re really going to send me back to her?  There’s no way I can stay?”

I shook my head slowly.  I couldn’t tell him one day he would understand, because he probably wouldn’t.  “I’m sorry.  I can’t swing it yet.  And you have to go through your senior year of high school.  Maybe, maybe, we can talk about it after you graduate.  When you have a plan.”

“You know, they have high schools out here too.”

“Billy… just go home.”

He stared across the parking lot in panic.  He honestly thought this would work.  He hadn’t even brought a bag of clothes to stay the night, much less move in.  He called collect from the bus stop, not even bringing fifty cents to call me from a payphone.   And he expected to just stay?

“I don’t even have a ticket back.”

“You’re probably going to be the death of me.  Alright, I’ll spring for your ticket back.  I can probably handle that.”

He looked at me, maybe with appreciation, maybe with cynicism.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

His sideburns were authentic now, not just an overgrown haircut.  His shoulders had broadened.

“You know what, Bill?”

“What?”

“I know it’s not what you want, but what if I let you come out for Christmas?  The whole week or whatever you’re off at Christmas?”

“Really?  Like I could really come and stay here then?  I mean, I couldn’t pay for it though.”

“Of course not,” I smiled.  “You’d have to steal something.  I’m guessing Mom’s countertop knick-knacks are spread pretty thin.”

“Pretty much.”

“What did you and her even fight about?”

He shrugged.  He bit the inside of his lip.  “Everything.  Nothing special.  Just everyday stuff, you know?  I can’t ever go out.  There’s never anything to eat.  She steals money I actually do have.  She flips out when I steal stuff back.  She’s got friends there at all hours of the night, but I can’t have a buddy over at three in the afternoon.  Much less my girlfriend.”

“Oh, so you’ve got a girlfriend these days, Billy?  Be careful.”

“We are,” he blushed.

“Alright.  I hope so.  Come on, let’s go check the schedule.”

I placed my hand heavy on his shoulder and steered him into the terminal.

“You know,” he said, “They should put her away.”

“Yeah.  They should.”  I shrugged.  “Then you have your plan.  Go home, do well in school, get into college, and become a lawyer so you can draft a Power of Attorney.  Hey, don’t forget your boots at Christmas.  This rain turns to snow.”

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