If I Breathe, You Will Break
by Sofie Bird
I can see it, finally, cradled against his chest: the gossamer outline of my brother Jasper's
glass hand. The flesh of his arm ends at his wrist with a neat tuck of skin, and glass continues the
curve of his palm, sweeping uninterrupted into the curl of his three remaining fingers.
He won't let the nurses near him. I walk him from the hospital ward to reception, and he
hunches forward to shield it, his other hand guarding against stray strands of my hair. The ghostly
shape barely obscures the blue weave of his jumper. Something silver-fluid pulses though.
I can't bring myself to say anything. So Jas, about that time where we all thought you cut
your own hand off and had you committed? Yeah, sorry about that. We chat about my newly-ex
boyfriend and the funding cuts to my research while the hospital staff finish the paperwork, and I
try not to stare.
"There's not much we can do," the doctor says. "Phantom limb syndrome is common with
amputees. We've given him something for the pain, but--"
Jasper snorts beside me. I glance down at the ghost-like shape at his chest, see the joke.
It's not even a good joke. Three months of this, and he can still laugh.
The doctor's voice turns sour and scolding; he slaps the papers on the desk for me to sign.
"As you can see, he's calmer, now."
I bite back my reply until I know what to do with it, and sign. My brother has an invisible
hand. The doctors don't know shit.
As we wait at the taxi rank, I blurt, "Why don't you paint it? At least then, people would
He says, "Paint doesn't take," before he's even really heard my question, and grabs my
arm as I reach for the taxi door. I squeeze my muscles still to keep any part of me from jostling
him. "You see it," he demands. "Rue, tell me you really see it."
His face ripples between emotions, tugging his mouth in different directions and straining
the skin at his eyes to keep the tears in check. I cup my hand at the nape of his neck and bend his
head down to press against my forehead, the way he used to when he was so much smaller than
me. I see what you see. We are our own private universe again, like we were as kids exploring
alien planets in our back yard. The only ones who understand.
The glass is more and more defined each time I look, on the way home. The creases of his
knuckles and palm are etched in ghostly silver, and his triangle of moles is now embossed. The
jagged stumps of his thumb and index finger wink in the afternoon sun, like crystal-cut facets. I
wince at the memory, my father's sneer still vivid, but Jas laughs at a song on the radio. His
misheard lyrics make the taxi-driver blush. He's irreverent as always, and I can't help but grin.
The door of Jasper's apartment greets us with the scent of oil paints and turpentine. I
settle Jasper in the only chair that isn't occupied by a painting, or paints, or both, and make him a
coffee with a spoon of honey, his absurd drink I could never take the flavour of. I'm supposed to
call our mother, let her know when to come around so she can cook some meals for him and tidy
up his place, but I know Jasper won't let me. He hasn't forgiven them, yet.
My parents are practical people, an AI researcher and a science grant administrator, and
my brother's quiet insistence on the impossible has them half out of their heads. They don't see it.
They're so sure they know what's going on, I don't think they're even looking. Or maybe they just
don't know him like I do. Can't see things as he does. As we do, now.
At dinner last night, my father finally snapped. He had to prove to Jas that the hand was
really gone: he smashed his fist down through Jasper's glass thumb and index finger.
Jasper howled, a raw animal sound, and curled over onto the floor. Wax-skinned and
shaking, he wouldn't stop screaming. I wrapped him in a blanket and took him to the ER.
In memory, I'm sure I heard the tiny, pitiful crunch of my brother's fingers breaking. I
think that's when I finally believed. But my parents heard nothing. They know Jas did this to
himself. I think they're too angry about that to see anything else.
The honey-coffee is ready. I snag a teabag from his battered box of supermarket specials
and make space on the table and the chair opposite for two people to exist without paint.
"I might clean up if people came around more often," he says.
"Then we would have to get your head checked."
His face splits in the grin I haven't seen in months, the one that makes you want to
measure his face to see how he can possibly fit all that smile in. We're in this together; I'm
allowed to crack jokes about it, now.
His latest piece, a young woman's spine unzipping to show a nebula underneath, leans
half-finished against the coffee table, still drying from yesterday morning. I don't think anyone
asked how he'd kept painting so well with his left hand. The answer's so obvious now, as
terrifying as it must be for him to balance the brush in his fragile thumb and fingers.
I slip the piece behind the paint-spattered sofa, where he can't see it anymore. The hand
that painted it can no longer hold a brush.
Jasper takes to calling me most afternoons. We talk about minutiae of nothing, hearing-the-sound-of-your-voice chats, but there's always a hitch in his, like he's on the cusp of telling me
something. But everyone else is always pushing, pushing, well past the boundaries he's trying to
set, so I don't ask. I just let the silences spin out, so he can hear the centrifuge in the background
and the slurp as I get lazy with the pipette. Just so he can know that I'm here, in our private
reality, whether or not he wants to talk, because I feel like I'm doing something, and I need to be
It's another three weeks before he asks me over.
Our mother has been at his apartment almost daily, judging from the cleanliness. His
paintings have been stacked in size order against one wall, his habitual clothes piles washed and
put away, his cupboard stocked with canned foods and there's a new electric can opener on the
bench. Beside it is a copy of My Left Foot, stained brown and blue with what smells like baked
beans, coffee and paint. From the extent of the staining, I think at some point he's tipped an entire
coffee pot over the top of it, but here it is, because of course she's rescued it, and dried it out, and
put it back on the bench for him.
As if it's not bad enough, without Mom and Dad trying to force him to feel better on their
terms. Because it's inconvenient that he's not ready yet. I'm being unkind: I was probably just like
them, a month ago. They're terrified "not yet" will become "not ever," but it's not Jasper's job to
make them feel better. I shove the book inside a pizza box and pitch it into the recycling outside.
Let Mom scrape three-day-old cheese off the pages.
She means well. I'm going to be repeating that until her funeral, I think.
She means well, but she can't see his hand.
The glass is taking over.
Four months ago, I could see the flesh stump he refused to have bandaged. The skin
puckered closed just where his palm began, with his wrist bones bulging at the side like they
were lost. But those bones are gone, now. His arm cuts to ghost-glass an inch below the wrist
line, and the old grace of his wrist sweeps up as glass into his fingers and stumps. The glass is
eating its way up his arm.
"Maybe it's better to remove it," I say softly, handing him his honey-coffee. I can't help
but speak gently of his glass hand, in case louder volume shatters it. "All of it, I mean, above the
glass," I gesture delicately to his elbow. "It must hurt."
"But it's mine," he whispers back. He lays it down on his lap next to the mug, fingers
upwards, like a specimen.
"It's not helping you to keep it," I say. "Having to protect it all the time. Maybe it would
be better to just . . . let it go. Before more of your arm turns."
"I can feel it inside," he says, louder. His good fingers trace up his forearm, from where
the glass meets to his elbow. "Something cold and hard. The muscle tries to move around it, to
not shatter it."
"How far up?" I swallow against the rising tide of denial. It's just us. Either that makes me
crazy, or it means I can't abandon him.
He holds his elbow, eyes dark with fear. "It's taking over."
"What if we get ahead of it?"
He turns even paler.
I know people that I shouldn't know. Working in a lab, it happens. You meet them.
People who no longer have medical licenses, people who aren't in prison only because they know
other people who rather wish they didn't. But I know people willing to do crazy things for not
that much money, like amputate the perfectly healthy limb of a man who's been released from a
psychiatric ward for self-mutilation. We will beat this.
"It's your call," I tell him. "And we're not doing anything until you've had time to think.
At least two weeks. Maybe a month."
"None of my shirts will fit." He attempts a smile at the joke.
"I'm sure Mom'll be happy to take you shopping for new ones." I nod toward his over-cleaned kitchen.
"Now you're really selling me on it."
But he comes by my house just a week later. The glass is almost to his elbow, and I can
see his decision in his face.
We take it off at the shoulder.
My father tries to have criminal charges brought, but they can't find the surgeon. The
funding for my Alzheimer's research mysteriously dries up, and my job falls on the cut list. I
don't have proof that was my mother, but my parents are not subtle people. I mutilated their son.
They ban me from seeing Jasper and have him committed under a seventy-two hour psych-hold,
But the doctors have to release him: he's improving. My mother says he no longer cradles
an invisible hand. She needles every word through her teeth, because I've lost the right to know if
he's okay. They won't believe the surgery actually helped. Jasper was always going to recover, in
time. Correlation is not causation. But he doesn't flinch at every noise, or back himself into
corners away from people. He's not scared of the world anymore, and he's picked up the brush
He mails me one of his first, clumsy left-hand paintings. He's had to start again with his
art; all passion, no control. It's forwarded from my old lab office, redirected through three distant
friends and a former teaching assistant, because my parents have made sure that nobody they
know will ever speak to me again. It's a surrealist hand: flesh-over-clockwork with the palm up,
stretched open as if for surgery, and pliers tugging a glass wasp that's trapped in the cogs and
It's his thank-you. His you-are-still-my-sister. I mail him back a blank card with a picture
of the Venus de Milo and three weeks later he sends me a larger, clearer painting of the same
hand-and-wasp with the middle finger raised. We're good.
I get a call from Hemworth, a private pathology lab in need of a research assistant: I start
Monday. It's not my Alzheimer's vaccine, but it's a start.
And then he turns up on my doorstep with a baseball cap and a hoodie and a terrible limp.
"My toes," he whimpers.
I want so much to tell him he's imagining it, and have it be true. I can hear my father's
voice in my head. But I sit him down and I take off his shoes and mismatched socks, and there--two stubbed feet that end after the arch with gossamer, glimmering ghost-toes.
"They'll think I did it." He's nearly weeping. "They'll lock me up."
I stare at his toes while I try to get my face under control, not daring to touch in case I
grip them too tightly. His arm, his artist's hand, that was supposed to be enough. He needs me to
be strong, to know the answers. But I can't cut off his feet; amputating his arm clearly did
nothing. And he's right; my parents will have him committed, never mind how or why or when
he could possibly have done this to himself. They only see what they can explain.
I don't know how to stop it, not yet. But I can't help him at all if they lock him away. We
need time to figure this out, or he'll spend his last days watching himself disappear inside a
padded room. The world clouds over in red, but I push that thought back down and look him full
in his gaunt, pinched face.
"Where do you want to go?" I ask.
His face softens. Not hope--I don't have a solution yet, he can see that. Relief, perhaps.
Because I see it, so I make it okay that it's real. Because he knows I can't not help. We're back in
our universe, and it's getting smaller. But I will fix this.
We make the slowest getaway in the history of getaways. I load him into the car and grab
my wallet, all my food, my old microscope and lab gear, and empty my account at the bank. I
leave my phone in the freezer--Hemworth will figure it out when I don't turn up--and drive the
smoothest, most sedentary pace out of the city into the bush.
I wonder, as the first of the scrub passes by, if I'm being selfish, not letting my parents say
goodbye if I can't find an answer. But I'm not going to watch them blame him for disappearing.
We find a cabin just north of Adelaide, where the rocks make shapes like Jasper's early
alien landscapes, only not so neon. I sleep on the floor in the single bedroom, buy him paints and
canvas, take over the kitchen with my microscope and blood slides, and bury myself in
everything from bio-med journals to psychic woo, fuelled by honey-coffee. It's not so bad, when
you get used to it.
Every morning, the glass has crept a little further up his feet. Every day, he paints the
landscapes a little closer to our cabin.
It takes his ankles and shins almost overnight. He stops wandering out, so I buy him a
wheelchair, and wheel him out to the trees where he can paint, with a thermos of honey-coffee,
and a bottle to piss in, and a walky-talky to call me. He paints and drinks and sleeps and says
nothing while I take yet more blood, and more biopsies, and stew over reports, and call the
people who wrote them at three in the morning to ask them endless questions and shout down the
phone. His blood is normal, everything's normal, I don't have any answers. I stop washing the
cups, because we're only going to pour boiling water in them again anyway.
Two weeks in, it takes the tips of his left-hand fingers.
I watch him from the window that morning, instead of following up a study of
ossification in mice exposed to silicate particulates. I don't want to watch; I don't want to see how
much it's taken, but I don't know how else to hold him here.
The study will be a dead-end, like the others. It was never even really a lead, I just had to
still be trying. But he's still disappearing, and he just sits and paints in the sun with the glass
nearly up to his hips, and the light glinting off his fingers. I slam my mug against the wall, hand
cramping against the ceramic, and the handle snaps off. Pieces of mug fly over the sink.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him flinch.
I pry ceramic shards out of my bleeding hand and walk softly out to sit beside him. The
glass tips have spread down the full length of his fingers, just in the span of the day. I open my
mouth, but for the longest time, the words won't come.
"I don't know what to do," I finally say. My voice is as dry as the rocks, flat and dull.
He's still painting, tipping the pale bark of a eucalyptus with the brush balanced at the
base of his glass fingers. "I can feel it," he whispers. "Inside, like . . ." He presses his elbow
against his stomach. "Something hard, it doesn't move with the rest of me."
I nod, but the horror and anger don't flood this time. They've hollowed away.
"The abdominal wall, probably." Why not be honest, now?
"More than that," he says, and his voice is low and shaking. His face is tight, jaw
straining so hard I think he might crack a tooth, but he moves so gently and delicately with the
Because he has to. Heat floods my face as I squeeze my hand, the bloody evidence of my
outburst seeping through my fingers. He's not serene; he hasn't accepted anything, he just doesn't
dare let the rage have reign in case it shatters what's left of him.
Even the parts of him that are still flesh, he's having to hold as still as stone.
He stops drinking his honey-coffee the next morning. Says it doesn't sit right inside. The
only flesh of him left is his torso and head, and I watch for jaundice in his face.
It was supposed to stop at his limbs. Somehow along the way, I made that bargain with
myself, his limbs and no more, I would save his organs, save him, and we could live here and I'd
care for him, and bury my resentment, and blame the disease and not him, and be kind and loving
and everything he needed and it would damn well stop at his limbs.
But even that rage is deflated with truth. There just isn't time left to be angry. I thought I
was here to save him, to scream when he couldn't, be brave so he could, but what he needs from
me is to be here. To not turn away into my own rage and fear. I wheel him around, so gently, to
see the world, but the wheels ride rough on the stones, and he wants to go back to the cabin.
It takes his eyes that day. Glittering orbs that shimmer with the veins at the back of his
retinas as he blinks. I have to step out of the room to check my voice before I ask him if he can
"Not as you'd know it," he says, and he won't elaborate.
I don't dare move him from the chair, now. Who knows what else is shatterable inside?
He doesn't piss anymore, I don't think his insides are working. But he can't see me, not really. So
I keep the tears out of my voice as I talk, and I let them fall into my mug of honey-coffee that
now smells more like him than he does.
The glass eats him under his clothes, under my hands as I stroke what little is left. I peel
back his shirt, and glass has turned him, from the inside out. His spine shimmers like opal cut
with crystal, and layers of translucent organs fill his body, up to where his heart beats, still red,
pulsing against his pink fleshy lungs, pushing against the inevitable.
I sit with him that night, out on the porch. Neither of us speak. I don't move; we're closer
that way, both statues in our universe, and I watch the glass take his shoulders and his
cheekbones and his skull from me. The moonlight plays across his brain like a glittering cloud,
highlighting neuron flashes like thunderstorms across his cortex. Is he dreaming? Does it feel like
thinking, now, "as I would know it," or has he left me completely?
Our universe is chokingly small.
I will his heart to stay with me as the glass closes in. It stutters and struggles, fighting
against the stillness and I pour every ounce of movement I have, every breath into that solitary
pump, that thud of life, just me and his heart in the world. The dawn sifts down through the sky
and the shadow of his heart flutters in my peripheral vision, a lame bird fallen from the nest. The
meat of it glitters already with glass edges. I want to reach up and hold him, carry him through, I
need to feel he's still with me, but I dare not take my eyes off his heart. Its faint rhythm fills my
ears, each beat less and less sure.
Until there is no thud, but a splintering crack. It's what I imagine his glass fingers sounded
like, under my father's fist.
The flesh has torn. In the dawn light, the red glow of meat dies to ghost-silver. His
shimmer-thoughts fade to just glass, so fine it would shatter with a breath, visible at the edges
like a cobweb, where the dawn light catches.
And the sun is rising. With each painful, tight breath, I shift a fraction and lose more of
him to the light, to the mundanity of the world behind him--a cabin wall, a chair, a tree. I hold
my breath, force myself still to hold him there, with me, as long as I can as the sun rises. This is
what is left of our universe. And I am sure, if I move, I will shatter.