Alexander, who wants to be called Xan, is a misfit. He’s an awkward loner who hasn’t been able to find his place in the world. Xan’s half-brother, Robert, seems exactly the opposite. At eighteen, he’s enrolled in community college and has a decent job and a great girlfriend. So when Robert suspects Xan is traveling down a dangerous path of extremism, he is determined to intervene before it’s too late. But the brothers may be more similar than either of them realizes….
This edgy exploration of what goes on in the mind of someone pushed to the brink examines the seeds of extremism that exist in everyone—and is sure to captivate readers of all kinds.
I want you to understand my brother. I don’t need you to, so don’t get all worked up over it or anything. Ultimately you can do what you like. But I would like for you to understand him.
As far as that goes, I’d like to understand him myself.
“What are you doing with those on?” I ask him when I walk into the room. He is just standing there, unoccupied as he often seems to be, in the small bedroom we still share. It’s about three years after we should have stopped sharing a room, or much of anything else, but this is beyond our control. The those I am talking about are tinted glasses, kind of dark amber, which make him look something like a 1970s pimp. “They make you look like a pimp.”
“Don’t talk to me like that. You know I don’t like that kind of talk. Anyway, they are glasses. I wear glasses, to be able to see, and you know that.”
I do know that. “I didn’t know that you wear pimp glasses, though. You wear them to see hookers, is that it? Can I have a shot?”
“Did I ask you to stop talking to me like that?”
“Like . . . stop it, Robert. I’m serious.”
He is. He is very serious. My brother has a number of problems, one of them being me. I am a pain in his ass, and I know it. He is also very fortunate to have me, and he knows it.
Our combined age is thirty-five. I am one year older, and this room is not big enough for all this accumulation of guy, but it is the only room we have for the moment. There is another room here, and that belongs to Ma. It’s a very close, warm, and intimate arrangement. It could drive you nuts.
“They’re too dark, anyway,” I tell him.
“They are for my sensitivity to light. The eye doctor prescribed them special for my sensitivity.”
The more serious he gets about something, the stronger my urge to laugh. I realize this is not helpful, but oh, well.
“I don’t see how glasses are supposed to stop you from crying every time you watch Titanic, Alexander.”
“I do not—”
“You also do not have a sensitivity to light.”
He pauses, composing his argument. “You are not a doctor.”
“Point taken,” I say, and pause to compose my counter-argument. My counterargument is a penetrating I-know-you-better smile. “Now, why the tints?”
Because I am me and he is him, surrender is inevitable. “They’re for privacy.”
“What kind of privacy?”
“I’m shading out my windows. You know? The eyes are the windows to the soul? Well, I am tired of people staring in, trying to see my soul. People look in and think they know you, think they have you. They steal pieces of you that way. So, I’m blocking out access to my soul windows.”
I have to credit him this much—it’s pretty effective shading. Because the lenses are nearly the exact light caramel color of his eyes, there is a subtle camouflage effect that seems almost like you can stare right through his eyes, but not into them. As if you were looking straight through to the back of his scary skull. Eerie, but effective.
I won’t be giving him credit, though.
“Who would want to steal pieces of you? That’s like robbing a landfill. Why bother?”
I cannot help it. I have tried to stop, but since we were way small, teasing my brother has been a kind of narcotic that I can’t quit, giving me a vague sense of well-being even when I overdo it a little bit.
“Don’t you have someplace to go?” he asks, pretending to be disinterested in me rather than livid.
“Hey,” I say, “that’s my line.” It is my line. Because I usually do have someplace constructive to go, while he does not. I have a job, and I am part-time at the community college, aiming for full-time. I play soccer for the local men’s team, and I have a girlfriend. None of these things applies to Alexander, and it is a hobby of mine to point this out.
“As a matter of fact, Alexander, I had this hour set aside for a little downtime, to rest up in peace for the busy evening ahead.”
“Robert, I asked you not to call me that. Can you just respect me enough to call me by my preferred name? Can you just manage to work up that small bit of respect for me and do that much? It’s not a lot to ask, is it?”
What he prefers to be called is Xan. He has become attached to the notion of it because of its more exotic ring. I have pointed out to him that Alexander the Great was both Macedonian and great—pretty exotic without sounding mental—but this fact has not impressed him at all.
“Sorry, Al,” I say.
I know. I have to do better. They say that excessive reddening of the face does not indicate high blood pressure—after causing it so many times, I eventually felt obligated to look this up—but I am not convinced. His head looks like a really big sandwich bag being pumped up with cranberry juice.
“Jesus, Xan, calm down already. It’ll just take some getting used to. You did pick the most awkward of all your syllables. Cripes.”
You’d think that would pacify him, right?
“Don’t blaspheme, Robert,” he says. “You know that bothers me.”
“It didn’t used to bother you.”
“Yes, well, disgusting vile pork rinds never used to bother me either—”
“Hey,” I snap, “don’t blaspheme pork rinds. You know how that bothers me.”
“Robert,” he says, nostrils slightly aflare, “while I have not yet found a religion that speaks to me on a personal level, I have concluded it is right to treat everyone’s faith with respect. I would think you could—”
“Pork rinds,” I say.
“They are my religion. Pork rinds. Please show respect.”
“I hate you,” he says.
“Of course you do,” I say, brushing past him to flop onto my bed. “You hate everybody.”
He doesn’t. Hate me, that is. I’m not so sure about everybody else, though.
“You coming to the game tonight?” I ask him as he stretches out on his own bed.
“I don’t know,” he says, followed almost without pause by, “I suppose.”
He never misses my games. He loves me. In spite of everything. I don’t know how he manages it, really. I’d hate my guts if I were him. He’s got a good soul hiding behind those windows.
We are walking together, Xan and me, to the park, which is only a few blocks away. Walking with him is great—it aids communication. When he is standing still, he always looks trapped and desperate, like he’ll make a break for it at any second. He likes to walk, though, and sometimes to run. That sense of getting somewhere, even if it’s somewhere modest like White Stadium—which is not much more than a grass field, so that the “stadium” bit is a mystery—makes him a better guy to talk to. Because he can feel a little less like a ne’er-do-well. Which, he kind of is, really.
“How’s it looking for a job, Xan?” I ask as matter-of-factly as I can.
He stops short, right there on the corner. His brakes practically screech.
“Jeez, it was just a question,” I say.
“No,” he says, waving me down, “shush.”
I see that he’s not bothered about me at all. I follow his intense focus out into the street, to the other side, where a line of funeral cars is passing, headed toward the crematorium.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Trying to make eye contact,” he says.
“With . . . a funeral?”
He does appear to be doing just that. His eyes, just discernible in the pimp glasses, travel right to left with the hearse, then jump to the flower car and follow it several yards, then jump to the next and next cars.
“Stop that,” I say, putting my hand right up and deliberately smudging his glasses. “What’s the matter with you? People don’t want you doing that. Why are you doing that?”
He is wiping down the glasses with a special little chamois he keeps in his pocket.
“To connect, Robert,” he says simply. “I do it all the time.”
I tug on his shirt, and we continue walking. “You are a serious freak, Alexander. Does anybody ever look back? Like intense, like the way you were doing?”
“Sometimes, yes. Those are great moments, when that happens.”
I look sideways at him to be sure he is not pulling my leg, which of course he isn’t, because he is Alexander, but he deserves the look anyway.
“Xan, you haven’t made a new live friend since you were, like, seven, and now it’s important to you to connect with grieving, mobile strangers?”
He waits a bit, presumably translating his thoughts into something I can comprehend.
“People need to connect, especially at hard times,” he says. “I’m trying to be helpful.”
See, he says these things. He says these things and he makes me see that his intentions are good even if his GPS is set for the planet Blurg. But while he is making me see this, I have to gently try to make him see what everybody else sees.
“Stop staring at funerals, ya maniac. You really need more constructive uses for your time. Which is why you are lucky to have me. Watching me excel at soccer will be constructive for you.”
He makes a hurnn noise, signaling that he has not exactly seen the light, but we are soon at the field, and now he is kicking a ball back and forth with his big brother, which, I can see right away, is good for him. It’s always good for him.
He wasn’t bad when he played at school. Wasn’t as good as me, but wasn’t bad at all, at school. He wasn’t bad at academics, either, when he tried. Wasn’t as good as me, but wasn’t bad. He never should have quit either one.
“You never should have quit,” I say when he sends a nice little backward-spiral chip shot that lands softly right under my foot. I flip the ball up and play a bit of keepie-uppie.
“I never quit. They forced me off the team,” he says, watching me with his hands on his hips.
“They never did,” I say, popping the ball up, left foot, left, right, left.
“They did. Stop hogging the ball.”
I flip the ball up and pop it his way. He begins playing keepie-uppie. He was always pretty good at this. Not as good as me, but pretty good.
“Xan, requesting that you attend classes and achieve some level of grade results is not the same as forcing you off the team.”
He’s doing all right. Six, seven, eight . . .
“Hey, how many of those can you still do?”
As soon as I have asked, there is trouble. Maybe he wasn’t counting, and now the effort of digitizing in his head is interfering with the physical performance. As if the god of coordination instantaneously withdrew his gift, Xan shanks the ball off the side of his foot and stands staring angrily at me as it squibs away.
“I’m guessing from your expression that you are blaming me for that,” I say.
“Only because you did it on purpose, Robert. It’s what you do, after all.”
Unfortunately, this makes me laugh out loud. “Okay, if I overcomplicated things, how ’bout I count for you while you keep the ball up next time?”
He is walking in the direction of the ball. “I never even said I wanted to know how many I could do,” he snaps—in my opinion, comically. “I was happy there, just enjoying doing it. You were the one who needed to put a number on it, just so you could top it, of course, by multiples of ten or something. Jerk.”
The coach has beaten my brother to the ball, scooped it up, and is walking toward him with it. “Is he being a jerk?” the coach asks.
“Yes,” Xan says.
“Yeah, sweepers tend to be jerks. It’s kind of in the job description. And he’s a powerful sweeper. Therefore—”
“A powerful jerk!” Xan says excitedly, as if he’s gotten a really difficult quiz answer rather than the most obvious one. At least he appears to be making a friend.
“Stuart,” the coach says, putting his hand out.
“Xan,” my brother says, accepting the challenge.
It is unusual, for both of them, to do any unnecessary mingling. Even when he is in a mood to kick around with me pregame, my brother always manages to scamper away by the time anyone else joins us. And the coach tends to be too busy, preoccupied with sustaining the team’s mediocrity, to notice anything on the periphery. Unless he’s looking for something.
“You seem to know what you’re doing with a soccer ball,” Stuart says.
I walk up close so the three of us form a cozy huddle. “He was very good in high school, Stu. Until he quit because he got tired of hearing how he was no me and he never would be.”
“I never heard that,” Xan protests vigorously. “Not once did I ever hear that.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear it, but they were saying it.”
“Hey,” Stu intervenes, “if you ever hear it around here, Xan, ‘You’re no Robert’ is a good thing.”
Alexander does something he does not do often enough. He smiles. And this, believe it or not, makes me smile. I am sure it looks like we are now competing at some freakish smiling contest.
“So, you want to play with us?” Stu asks my brother.
His smile slides away, as he himself nearly does. He takes a couple of instinctive steps backward. “Oh, thank you, but . . . I don’t know. . . .”
“We could really use you, Dan.”
“Xan. Honestly, we are kind of shorthanded this evening.” Stuart gestures toward an unimposing collection of casuals kicking balls randomly in the distance. We’re not exactly a powerhouse at full strength, even in our modest little league. With numbers down, times will be tough. “You look like you got good wheels, and we could really use somebody up front. It’d help us out.”
“He was a striker in high school!” I say with more enthusiasm than I would have expected, though I take not a volt of it back. “Xan, this is great. Come on, man, you are needed. What’s better than being needed and playing the beautiful game on the same team with your gifted brother?”
He is fidgeting, nervous, as awkward as hell as usual, but also a bit excited. I have asked him twenty times to give this a go, but the coach stepping in has clearly tipped things. “Well . . . I’ve got some things to do.”
“What, funeral-bothering? Come on, man.”
“I don’t even have any gear—”
That is all we need to hear. Stu and I each grab one of Xan’s arms and we all jog over to the collection of kit bags and guys stretching, and in no time at all my brother is in shorts and cleats and is reintroducing his hamstrings to the exquisite torture that is warming up for the first time in more than a year.
“Ahh, ahh,” he says with an almost crack to his voice. He is lying on his back while I hold his right heel and push it in the direction of his head. I won’t even say how much fun it is on my end, because that is irrelevant and this is a job that must be done, but I do not take my eyes off the carnival of muscle twitch and fracture that is Xan’s face. Suddenly his eyes go way wide in a different way entirely as he looks right past my shoulder and his foot.
“I don’t believe what I am seeing.”
The voice belongs to my girlfriend, Babette, and so my eyes go wide with excitement too. I let go of my brother’s leg and let it snap to the wet turf like in a big mousetrap. I pirouette to give her a squeeze.
“Isn’t this something,” she says.
“Yes, it is. I didn’t think you were coming,” I say.
She’s not even paying attention to me, I don’t think.
“Xan, you’re playing with these guys. That’s great,” she says, giving me a little shove and standing over him.
For his part, Alexander lies mostly motionless where I dropped him. His legs aren’t moving at all, but his grin is electric, and his eyes are nearly burning through the silly brown lenses of his glasses.
“I can’t feel my leg,” he says, about as cheerily as a person could say that.
I go to him, and give him a hand up. “It’s been a while, that’s all,” I say. “Give the blood a chance to circulate back around in there.”
He limps around, bouncing, kicking, giving it a bit of a hokey-pokey shake here and there. Then he’s off on his test lap.
“This is a very good thing,” Babette says when he breaks into a jog around the field. “This is just the kind of thing he needs.”
“I know,” I say, and before I have a chance to say anything else, like how wonderful it was of me to arrange it, or that’s the kind of guy I am, Babette emphatically addresses the subject of the kind of guy I am.
“Make sure you make him feel a part of the team,” she says.
“Ouch, ouch, ouch,” I say. This is less because of my hurt feelings and more because of my hurt sternum. Babette has fingernails like gardening tools. Especially the index emphasis finger.
“Okay,” I say. “Of course.”
“Not, ‘of course.’ For you, ‘of course’ would mean prodding him like some hapless lab monkey until he went berserk in front of the rest of the team, all in good fun.”
“Well, it would be—ouch. Okay. Anyway, I wouldn’t do that. You don’t really think I’m like that.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Not in front of other people. I wind him up, Babette, but not the serious stuff in front of other people.” And at this moment I am truly wounded, on the inside. “He’s my lab monkey.”
She desists from the poking just short of reaching my literal physical heart. But she completes her point all the same. “I don’t think you do it all on purpose. But you need to be more aware. He’s not like you, Robert. He has feelings. He doesn’t think everything’s a laugh. And I don’t think he bounces back very well.”
What I do here is, I remain quiet, which is my surrender.
She accepts my terms. “Good,” she says, leaning close to my face.
Alexander has now done his lap and trotted up by my shoulder. He stands there in his signature style—awkwardly. Spontaneously Babette lunges over and grabs him in a great, tight neck hug.
It could be strangulation—Babette is a take-the-breath-away hug machine—but I know my brother, and the redness bubbling up from his neck to his hair follicles is the sweeter shade of bashful.
“Now, let’s see some soccer, boys,” she says.
We both turn to join the rest of the team warming up, but Xan is way ahead of me already, bolting like he did as a boy, as he hasn’t since he was a boy.
Chris Lynch is the Printz Honor Award–winning author of several highly acclaimed young adult novels, including Printz Honor Book Freewill, Iceman, Gypsy Davy, and Shadow Boxer—all ALA Best Books for Young Adults—as well as Killing Time in Crystal City, Little Blue Lies, Pieces, Kill Switch, Angry Young Man, and Inexcusable, which was a National Book Award finalist and the recipient of six starred reviews. He holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College. He teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at Lesley University. He lives in Boston and in Scotland.
"Lynch cuts to the quick during this short novel...It rings true."--Booklist
* "For those who wonder about the roots of homegrown terror and extremism, National Book Award Finalist Lynch pushes the spotlight from the individual to society in a story that can be brutal and ugly, yet isn't devoid of hope."--Publishers Weekly, starred review
* "The story is well paced and provides an eerie look into the small town of repressed aggression in which the boys grew up...A quick read, but one that will stay with readers long after it’s over.–School Library Journal, starred review
"Lynch creates in Xan and Robert a set of truly complex characters; there are no angels or devils here, just a pair of young men on the brink of adulthood who can’t quite grasp the autonomy each craves and needs. Lynch continues to be an edgy yet compassionate spokesman for working-class kids, respecting the dignity of modest aspirations even while critiquing the ethical shortcomings of his characters."--The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books