For the first week, the only time I let Luke touch a brush was to clean it. Other than that his job was simple, spread the drop cloths along the perimeter of the house, unload the ladders and paint cans, and wait by the truck until it was time to leave. I figured the less that was expected of him, the less chance he had of fucking up. So he sat on the tailgate, kicking up tiny dust storms, and smoked cigarettes until I was finished. Most days the sun outlasted us. I drank water from a disposable gallon jug, and stripped off my shirt when it became heavy with sweat, the sun turning my pale back the color of ripe cherries. At least I had the work to distract me from the heat, but Luke never complained of boredom or unfair treatment; he just sat and observed, and I took notice of that.
I could always tell if Luke was high when I arrived to pick him up. On mornings he was, he filled the truck with an odor like burnt plastic. His skin was oilier, his acne more pronounced. It was as though every imperfection was magnified. His eyes, which were deeply set to begin with, seemed to have receded further back into his head, and when our gazes met, something he tried his best to avoid, it was as though he were looking out at me from behind a mask. But he was always waiting for me when I drove up, a cigarette pinched between his thumb and forefinger like a joint. He never missed a day and I never told Maggie he was using. His parents had forbidden him to leave the house except for work so I figured whatever he was on was a holdover stash and that he’d run out before long. And besides, I wasn’t a narc. There were times when I even felt a sort of kinship with him. We had both grown up in the same place, had both used Erie’s meager size and limited diversions as an excuse to drink our parent’s liquor, steal beer from their garages, raid their medicine cabinets. I knew that when he’d started in on that kind of life his intention had not been to waste his days. I knew because that had not been my intentions either. It was just the opposite, like you were living more fully than everyone else. I knew what it was like to look at the people around you and mistake their fear for envy, their pity for admiration. I knew also what it was like to wake up in a hospital room, one arm connected to an IV, the other handcuffed to the bedrail, your best friend dead in a car you were driving. I knew what it was like to have a policeman look at you like you were the lowest thing on earth and tell you the wreck was so twisted that emergency crews had to cut the legs off the corpse to remove it. I knew what it was like to finally realize the things you had done and beg a young doctor to kill you with morphine.
—from “The Brother,” by Eugene Cross