Meet Conner, aka Bubs, Lizzie’s older brother…a very special character who will tug at your heart and humble you as you unfold his mystery.
“Jarretttttt, I’m home!” Conner screeches the minute the door to the tour bus opens, his poor fish ricocheting off the sides of the bags from his exuberant shaking. I’m unsure why he always calls out for Jarrett first, the boys both equally good to him, both in our lives the exact same amount of time. I wonder if Rhett ever asks himself the same thing, or if it hurts his feelings? Knowing Rhett like I do, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
“There he is!” Jarrett smiles, standing from the bench seat to give him a hug. “We missed you, bud. You have a good time with your dad?” He glances over Conner’s shoulder to me as he asks. He worries too, after living through it all right by my side.
“Ask if he saw Alma,” I mouth.
“Did you see Miss Alma today, buddy?” he questions casually, my jaw clenched tight as I wait for the answer.
“Yes, she loves me. Bethy too.” My brother can contain it no longer, already over any conversation not about his pets. “See my fish?” He shoves the bags in Jarrett’s face. “The red one’s yours. You can name it if you want.”
Still behind them observing, I roll my hand, wanting Jarrett to confirm specifics. He winks, reading me like a book. “Awesome fish, dude, we’ll put them in a bowl in a sec. What’d Alma make you to eat today?”
“Grilled cheese. Rhett, Bruce the Moose, I’m home!” Jarrett and I both chuckle at Conner’s clear dismissal of any further banter. He says he saw her, and he’s back with me now, seemingly unharmed, so I guess all’s well enough for me to move on.
Jarrett leans in to conspire in his ear. “Your uncle ran to town, but Rhett’s in bed, go wake him up.”
Such a shit, sending Conner to do his dirty work.
Once he’s bouncing down the hallway to torture anyone in the vicinity, Jarrett sits back down and pats the spot beside him for me to take. “How bad this time?”
I flop my head on his shoulder, letting him entwine our fingers. “Not too. Short and bitterly sweet.” I tilt my head and grin mischievously up at him. “I got in a few good jabs.”
“I’d expect no less.”
“I didn’t see Alma, though, which worries me. I just wish Conner wouldn’t ask to go. I wish he’d remember why he shouldn’t want to go.”
“You sure about that? Maybe it’s better that he doesn’t remember. There’s a lot of bad shit stuck in my head I wish I could forget, ya feel me?” He squeezes my hand and brushes a kiss at my temple.
In a way he’s right, I don’t want Bubs to have those visions in his head, waking him up at night, confusing him. But without his recollection, and him saying it out loud, I can’t ever prove what I know to be true. And therefore, I can’t keep him from our father. It’s never ending, these thoughts, the internal debates on the lesser of two evils. It’s exhausting.
Conner played soccer and football from youth to high school; our father didn’t attend a single game. He was in a garage band for almost three years; Daddy Demon never heard a single song. He didn’t give a shit about Conner before the accident, which I’d bet my left tit was far from an accident, but now he’s hell bent on playing house with a twenty-seven-year-old man he barely even knows? I haven’t figured it out, but I will.
My thoughts are splintered by a nasally shriek. “Get out, you retarded freak! What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I’m on my feet and down the corridor in a flash, Jarrett hot on my heels.
“Bubs? Bubs, what happened?” I ask as calmly as I can, dropping to my knees and wrapping my arms around him. He’s curled into a ball on the floor, rocking back and forth and banging clenched fists against his head. “Conner, stop,” I command, trying to restrain his arms, gasping in piercing pain when I catch his accidental elbow to the jaw. Always the damn elbow. “Shit,” I howl, shaking my head and rubbing it quickly before going back in. “Jarrett, help me! Rhett!”
They’re already there, caught in the flurry of commotion, one of them now flinging me out of the way so they can stop Conner from hurting himself. This time it’s my back, a sharp blow knocking the air from me as I’m tossed aside, landing against the edge of a bunk. I’ve gotten pretty tough over the years, so I take the moment to ignore the back and rub on my jaw some more, working out the ache.
Cami, our bassist and the one who’d set this catastrophe in motion, scrambles down and out of her top bunk, pulling a t-shirt over herself. “Liz, you can’t expect us to live like this! Your pervy fucking brother was creeping on me again. I don’t care what the hell’s wrong with him, I have a right to privacy!”
You live on a tour bus with four men, sleep nude, and have an expectation of privacy? Anyone else think that train of thought is asinine? Not my job to show her the light, though, that epic fail is all on the fools who raised her “cry wolf when convenient” exhibitionist ass. Helluva job. But more importantly, I haven’t the time or energy to waste on the about to be ex-member; I have to take care of my brother, the innocent, precious soul she name-called and scared to death.
Rising slowly to stand nose to nose with her, I concentrate on my breathing as a source of center, reminding myself the last thing Conner needs to see is violence. How badly he reacts to it, over-exaggerated even for him, is one of the biggest reasons I suspect foul play that summer I went to camp. If I dust this bitch right now, I’ll make things worse for an already petrified Bubs.
It’s this concern alone that saves her life. Otherwise, I’d have already mopped the floor with her and made her like it. “Cami, what’s wrong with you? He didn’t mean a thing by it.”
“I’m sick of it! I’ve bit my tongue long enough. ‘Nobody upset the retard’ gets old,” she air quotes snottily, testing everything in me not to lower those hands for her. “He’s always spying on me. I almost think he’s faking it just to get a peep show!”
Yes, that is exactly it, diva. He’s been faking it for seven long years in hopes of one day getting a glimpse of your uneven mosquito bites. Way to go, Cami the Case Cracker!
I literally have to take a minute and simply stare at her for my brain to compute such venomous hatred coming out of nowhere. Cami’s lived on this bus with Conner for months. I’ve even seen her help him with his puzzles a time or two, so the level of animosity pouring from her now is shocking and completely unexpected.
“He was looking for Rhett, you delusional, heartless bitch. He wanted to show off the new fish he got and mixed up the bunks.” My voice cracks and I gulp down the threatening sob, a cumbersome bubble in the middle of my throat. “But luckily, Conner isn’t doomed. He’ll be fine in a few minutes, still an angel. You,” I take a step in, crunching her toes under my own and making sure to curl my lip and bare my teeth, “however, are screwed for life. There’s no hope for the kind of evil inside you and I’m only sorry I didn’t see it sooner. Ugly and mean to the core is no way to go through life, Cami. I’d pick the way Conner does it over yours any day of the week. Now pack your shit, next stop is yours.”
“You can’t be serious! You’re kicking me out of the band, whose only chance in hell is me, because I don’t want some freak staring at my tits?”
“Jarrett?” I plead, flexing my fists in and out, praying for willpower I don’t usually possess.
“On it.” He inches himself between us. “Get your shit together, Cami, you’re out. And shut the fuck up while you do it. I don’t hit women, but you call him another name and I’ll damn sure smack a bitch.”
“You can’t just dump me, I don’t have a car! Unbelievable,” she scoffs.
“And your tits aren’t.” Jarrett scores one for the whole team. “But we’ll take you where you need to go. We have some decorum.”
While he stands guard over her, I move to the front of the bus where Rhett’s corralled Conner. Squatting down in front of him, I pry his hands away from over his face. “Hey, look at me.”
“S-sorry, Sister,” he chokes out in a trembling voice.
“What are you sorry for, huh? Being amazing, kind, and good lookin’? Being a winner? Cause that’s what you are!” He doesn’t answer me, burying his face behind Rhett’s shoulder. “What’s the rule, Conner?” I jostle his leg. “Huh? Tell me the rule.”
Still shaken and ashamed, he doesn’t answer, so I do it for him. “You win and every other motherfucker loses, right?”
“Right,” he grunts from his hiding spot, Rhett rubbing his back and smiling at me.
“Who’s the winner?”
“I’m the winner.” He peeks one eye out at me. Precious. How could anyone ever be mean to that face; those huge, innocent eyes, filled with unconditional love, and those sweet dimples?
“You’re damn right you are.” I hop up, grabbing his hand to raise his arm triumphantly in the air. “Ladies and gentlemen, boy and girls, Conner Matthew Carmichael is the winner!”
The boys clap and hoot while Cami rolls her eyes and continues to stuff shit in her duffle. Now Conner beams ear to ear, all again right with the world.
“I’m keeping her fish,” he boasts and we all die laughing.