The Boiler

Leah Schnelbach

FIRE ESCAPE

Shane’s leaving is right there in his name, like a genetic disease waiting to manifest in a child. So why did finding his note tear through me so bad?

His name was no mistake or anomaly. His dad loves Westerns, his mom submitted to her husband, and so three children: Shane, elder by six years, and twin babies Wyatt and Annie. We heard them living their lives above us, but we didn’t know them until they’d been up there a month.

School had just started. Shane was getting his butt kicked by some of the kids from the basketball court when my older brother Bobby stepped in and stopped it. Bobby brought Shane home, sat him down on the floor next to me, in front of Batman. He squeezed his shoulder like he did mine when I was upset.

I looked up and raised my eyebrows.

“It was the uniform,” Bobby said.

Shane was wearing a red and grey uniform for a private school up near Yonkers. He was trying not to sniffle. I would have made fun of him, too, usually, but I wasn’t risking Bobby coming after me. I just pretended not to notice all the snot and caught him up on Two-Face’s nefarious plan. I got a look at him during the commercials. A scrape where his chin hit the concrete, a puffy right eye that turned purple by the time Mom got home to fuss over him, blood in the snot on his upper lip. Not too bad.

The next day he and I walked to the train together. He was in normal clothes this time. I waited for him outside the Metro-North station’s vile bathroom while he changed into the uniform. He did his best not to make any eye contact with me, but halfway up the stairs to the platform he waved to me a little, and suddenly we were friends. We walked to school together most days because we had a lot to talk about, and it wasn’t too much out of my way. He spent as much time as he could at my place to stay out of his mom’s way. He started leaving his stuff in my room—otherwise he’d come home to gnawed books and toys basted in baby drool.

By 10th grade life had solidified around us. Shane was fully a freak now. He spent the ride up to Yonkers tracing his eyes with liner. He had other friends, and compared me with them unfavorably. For my part I spent most days down at the Cube ignoring my GPA. At night we’d meet on the fire escape, where I’d switch to cigarettes and I could talk to Shane’s voice without having to reckon with his makeup. For as long as our cigarettes lasted, we were friends again.

When he told me he was gay, I think he could only say it because he could talk through the smoke, looking at a prick of light in the dark instead of a person.

I was the only one who knew for a while, but after his mom kicked him out, it was Bobby again who found him downtown and brought him back. Our parents let him stay. With no one to pay his tuition, he switched to the local school with me, and worked in the afternoons. His parents played a game where their son was just a neighbor they didn’t know. When he climbed out my window to smoke, mom-at-home = window shut tight, but dad-at-home = Wyatt and Annie’s little faces poking above us like owls. They still wanted to talk to him. Their dad allowed it.

Once Bobby went up to school in Binghamton, Shane moved into his room. First day of senior year, we walked to the train behind Annie and Wyatt, starting first grade in their own uniforms. Shane held himself just like Bobby, same walk, same tilt to his head. No makeup. Each time somebody looked at his little brother and sister, he held their eyes until we went past.

Graduation came, and the first day of our last summer break. I woke up sour from the party. I didn’t have to read the note on my desk to know what it said. He wouldn’t live under them any more.

If it makes me dumb then I’ll be dumb.

School’s starting up again. I make up reasons to trail Wyatt and Annie to the train. I sit on the fire escape late into the night, blowing smoke, trying to hear Shane’s half of the conversation in my head.


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Leah Schnelbach earned her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2012. Her work has been published or is upcoming in AnamesaSpeculative Fiction 2015, The Crooked Timber Symposium, and Electric Literature. Her short story, “Bracelet,” was awarded an Honorable Mention by George Saunders in Lumina’s 2013 Fiction Contest. She is a staff writer for Tor.com, a pop culture website focusing on science fiction and fantasy, and is one of the founding editors of No Tokens journal.