Scott Broker

Etymologies 

Did you know that “gossip” comes from the Old English “godsibb?”

My brother, Alan, once became obsessed with gossip, pushing his name around the school hallways until others began carrying it, too. “I’m intending for my reputation to live longer than my body,” he told me one night after dinner. I was balancing chemical equations but thinking, mostly, about the taste of other people’s tongues. Was it the tongue you tasted, or the stuff that had been near the tongue?

Alan plucked the pen from my hand and put it behind his ear. “What have you heard about me?” he asked. “At school, that is.”

Alan was not normally home after dinner. Last year, we attributed his absence to cross country, believing that he was always running, that his was an addiction that could not be sated. When it came out that he hadn’t been to the trail since eighth grade, he had laughed in our faces. “I’m almost offended,” he said. “None of you ever asked to come to a meet.” Later that night, he emerged from the bathroom in a towel, holding the pear-like swell of his stomach. “What runner would have this?” he howled. “Or how about these?” He dropped the towel and bent over his naked frame, pinching his calves and thighs. “This is the opposite of muscle.”

No one said anything. I watched Alan ride the silence, impressed, I imagine, by the magnitude of his own confidence. When my father eventually spoke his name, it was sloped like a question. I tried to keep my eyes away from his penis, but the rest of his body—the sharp hips, the thin sketch of bellybutton hair—kept bringing me there.

“You are idiots,” he said before finally leaving the room. My mother stood and folded the abandoned towel. “You shouldn’t have to do that,” my father said, but it was already done.

Alan would not be home, now, if my parents hadn’t taken the keys to the Ford Explorer and hidden them somewhere halfway decent. This practice began with the towel and hadn’t changed in the months since—the duration of Alan’s punishment only lasting as long as it took him to find the keys again. Usually, this was less than a day; sometimes, less than an hour. The real thing that could not be sated, we’d learned, was Alan’s desire to be somewhere else.

Before he stole the pen, I’d managed to write N2 + H2 → NH. Unbalanced, the equation trembled. “Can I have that back?” I asked.

Alan frowned. “I want to talk to my big sister.”

In his mouth, “big sister” sounded like a joke. Alan may have been a year and a half younger than me, but since starting high school, he seemed so old. Sometimes, I resuscitated the image of his penis just to remind myself that a part of him was still undeveloped, even at 16.

“I haven’t heard much,” I said, resting my chin in the cup of my palm.

Alan squinted at me; his pupils dilated enough to eclipse the iris. “If you’re trying to seem aloof,” he said, “it’s not a good look on you.”

My eyelids twitched. “People were talking about the razorblade this afternoon.”

He leaned forward. “And?”

“They thought it was gross.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Alan blew on his hands as if to warm them. Somewhere on his left calf, a girl’s name was halfway carved—the reason for today’s suspension. I hadn’t seen it yet, but kept glancing at his jeans during dinner to see if he might bleed through the bandage. NATA, it apparently said, meaning “born” in Italian or “cream” in Spanish. Alan did not know this, though, and Alan did not care to know. Alan only cared to be known.

“Godsibb,” by the way, is an abbreviation for “god sibling.”

My family does not believe in any god, but we do believe in other unlikely circumstances, like instant karma and celebrities dying in groups of three. When my father yells at my mother and then has heartburn, she’ll whisper “Instant karma” to anyone who will listen. If he hears her, he’ll throw a shoe across the room. And whenever a famous person dies, he likes to chant “Who is next?” over and over. “My money,” he sometimes adds, “is on Clint Eastwood.”

My parents only use the word “sibling” if they want me to do something they don’t want to do. “Can you talk to Alan? He’s your sibling,” they said when he was first suspended for smoking weed out of a dented can when we thought he was running. I’d tried, planning my words before knocking, but what do you say to someone who you’ve just seen naked?

A week after the NATA incident, I agreed to take him to his school-mandated therapy session not because he was my sibling, but because the office was on the north side of Quail Lake, where I’d just recently kissed our neighbor, Willie. His was the tongue I’d tasted, the velvety organ I’d tried to wrangle with my own. It was my first kiss, and I was surprised to have my practiced purse split so simply by Willie’s tongue. The immediate abandonment of process—like pulling the skin from a snake that’s only just begun to shed—was awful and exhilarating.

In the car now, I asked Alan whether he loved Natalie Merchant. Three weeks earlier, she had gotten drunk at a party, swerved off a county road, and died. It wasn’t the accident though, or the drinking; she’d had a brain aneurysm sometime in the minutes after putting the car in park.

“Love her?” Alan drew a line through the window condensation with his finger. “I don’t think so. But it’s hard knowing how you feel about someone who is dead.” He paused, rubbing the line out with a fist. “It’s more like I could have loved her.”

I thought of the half-formed name on his leg, the way that NATA might look as a scab or a scar. The truth is, I wanted Alan to love her, for his third period pain to have meant something more than performance. Instead, it felt like he’d strapped himself to her rising soul so the whole town might see him on the way up.

“Did you