My brother Jack can’t talk.
I have to say that first.
Even though, honestly, it doesn’t have anything to do with anything.
People just need to hear it first, so they can get comfortable or whatever, even though there are probably over a thousand ways I’d describe my brother before I got to the fact that he can’t talk. It’d be like someone asking my mom about me and her saying, “Well, I’ll tell ya, Hannah can’t fly.” There are lots of things people can’t do. That’s just the way it goes. What you can’t do doesn’t define you.
Besides, Jack kind of can talk. He makes different noises that mean different things, which is pretty much all talking is anyway. I mean, people like to sit up on their high horses, but words aren’t much more than fancy mouth farts when you really think about it. Let’s not sugarcoat things here. We’re all animals. Talking, like farting, is just air being forced out of a hole, causing a vibration.
But I still have to tell everyone that my brother Jack can’t talk first. So that they can feel more comfortable. Even though it doesn’t have anything to do with anything. And it’s also not even true. You tell me how that makes sense.
Last week, my friend Jenelle Butcherman visited our house for the first time.
Jack had his shirt off when we walked in. He was holding a spatula, slapping it against his chest as he giggled and jumped on the trampoline that we keep by the door.
“That’s my brother.” I said. “His name’s Jack. He’s autistic. He can’t talk.”
Once he saw me, Jack started jumping higher and laughing harder. I walked up to him and gave him a high five, just like I always did when I got home from school.
Jenelle stood there, frozen like she was a gargoyle and I’d just introduced her to the sun.
“You want to go to the basement?” I asked as I moved back toward her.
“Will, um, will he go with us?”
I shrugged. “Not if I ask him not to.”
Jenelle ran downstairs.
My mom came down a few minutes later. She was carrying a platter of grilled cheese quarters with the crusts cut off, each of them a perfect golden brown. She went all out when I had friends over. She knew it could be tricky to get them to come back. She’s on my team.
Jack came down after her and made a beeline for the platter.
“Jack,” Mom said, using her special Jack voice that isn’t much louder than a whisper but is still stronger than a yell could ever be. “No. Not yours. Those are for Hannah and her friend. Yours are upstairs.”
Jack looked at Mom, then at me, then at the sandwiches. His hand moved toward them.
“Jack,” Mom said again.
Jack’s hand froze in mid air.
“No. Not yours. Yours are upstairs.”
His hand inched forward again.
“Jack. What did I just say?”
Jack grunted, bit his wrist, and gave me a hug. Then he reached for the sandwiches again. Oh, did I forget to mention that my brother Jack’s a manipulative little turd? Well, he is. He’s also very aware of how cute he is. Without a doubt, both of those facts should come before the fact that he doesn’t talk.
I looked at Mom and shrugged. “We probably don’t need this many, Mom.”
She shook her head. “Jack’s are upstairs, Hannah. These are for you and your friend.”
Jack grunted at Mom, then gave me another hug.
I peered at Mom from over his shoulder, my eyes pleading with her. Come on. My eyes said. You know what’s gonna happen if I say no. In front of my friend. Please, let this one go. Just this once.
Hannah, her soft, green eyes said back. I’m sorry. But we have to be consistent. You know that. We have to set boundaries and stick to them. Those are for you. They aren’t his.
That’s the thing about living with someone who doesn’t talk. You get really good at finding ways to communicate without words.
I sighed at my mom. It was yet another reminder that, yeah, she’s on my team, but she’s on his team first. It’s always been this way. As much as I want to sometimes, I can’t really blame her.
I looked back at Jenelle. She was frozen again, her hands pressed tight against her thighs. I cringed as I turned to Jack. “No Jack. Sorry.” I patted him a few times on the chest. “These are for me and Jenelle. Your sandwich is upstairs.”
Jenelle’s body lurched as my brother’s scream shook the basement. Not a second later, Mom was on him, pulling him upstairs and slamming the door behind her.
Jenelle and I just sat there, silent for a while, before, finally, we each took a sandwich quarter.
“You kind of treat him like a dog,” she said after she took a bite. I didn’t say anything. I felt the eight words crawl through my insides like a spider. She took another bite.
Finally, I made myself shrug. “We just have to repeat things sometimes. That’s all. So he understands.”
It was the first time anyone had ever told me this, and I cried about it that night, in bed. I don’t think I was crying because I was sad, or even angry. I think I was crying because I was scared. Scared she was right. Scared we really did treat Jack like a dog.
Early the next morning, when Jack was still asleep, I found Mom drinking coffee at the kitchen table.
“Hannah? What are you doing awake this early, sweetie?”
“Mom, do you, um, do you think we treat Jack like a dog?”
She set her coffee down. A confused, maybe even a little bit disappointed look took hold of her face.
I looked down.
“Why would you ask that?”
I shrugged, still looking at my feet. I heard her take a deep breath.
“Um, no. No Hannah. I don’t think we treat Jack like a dog. Do you?”
I closed my eyes. I could feel the tears coming again. I tried to take a breath and failed, instead letting out a whimper. “No. No, but, but, Jenelle, Jenelle said we do. And, and–”
“Hannah, look at me.” She waited. I felt her hand, gentle but firm, rest against my shoulder.
“Sorry,” I managed, the tears falling fast now. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”
“Look at me, honey.”
When I finally looked at her, I could see that her eyes were wet too.
“I know it’s confusing,” she said. “It’s confusing for me too. It’s confusing and it’s hard and we’re both gonna make mistakes. But look, we treat Jack the way it works best to treat Jack, so that he can be the best possible version of Jack. Okay?”
She picked up her coffee and took a sip. When she set it down on the table again, she did it a little too hard, and some of it spilled out the side. She looked back at me. “So you can just go ahead and tell Jenelle Butcherman to shove it, okay?”
An hour later, when the bus got to my stop, Mom leaned in real close to me and whispered, “You know not really to say that to that girl, right? That was just between you and me. You know that, right?”
I nodded, then she kissed my head and I got on the bus. I waved to her and Jack through the window. Jack was barefoot, giggling as he jumped on the wet, morning grass. Even before they were out of sight, I missed them.
I would never tell Mom this, but I’ve heard Jenelle Butcherman’s voice in my head all week. After I ask Jack for what seems like the millionth time to sit down, or to get down off of something, or not to bite himself. You kind of treat him like a dog.
But then there’s always another voice, one that follows Jenelle Butcherman’s like a soft, soothing echo. It’s my mom.
That day at school, and all the other days after that, Jenelle Butcherman didn’t eat lunch at my table. And she never came over to my house again.
She probably thought I was sad about this, that I wanted her to keep being my friend, that I missed her.
But Jenelle Butcherman can shove it.