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If I Breathe, You Will Break
    by Sofie Bird

If I Breathe, You Will Break
Artwork by Scott Altmann

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 see."

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."

I nod.

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 doing something.

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, twice.

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 again.

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 wheels inside.

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 brush.

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 see.

"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.

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