At first, there is only one big brother Stu snoring and crying on her couch. One Stu flinging boxers to a musky, moist heap. Only one Stu who forgets to wipe his shavings off the sink, and delete his search history after tossing one off. There is only one unemployed, brain-injured Stu. One Stu, that she knows of, with a Vince Lombardi Trophy. One recent history of smashing glasses, punching walls, insomnia, and breaking into song or sobs. One night, there’s one Stu pacing around the spare bedroom. The next morning, there are two.
Two Stus playing war at the table. Flipping, slapping, stacking captured cards. Two Stus belching and spilling their orange juice. Two moodswinging, forgetful, unemployed Stus, who the sister is determined to help back onto their feet.
“Do you Stus want pancakes?” the sister asks. “At least one of you needs your strength for work next week.”
She has gotten the first Stu a warehouse job at the manufacturing plant where she’s the data entry queen, but the Stus seem doubtful they are ready for work. Skeptical, at best.
“Negative on the flapjacks,” they say. “The carbs,” then whip two more cards to the table.
Still, she measures the milk and flour, browns the batter to a bubble, and flips. “I’ll leave these here, in case,” she says, but as she places the plate on the table for them, they grunt and take off for the shower.
Forty minutes later she reminds the Stus she needs to get into the bathroom before work. They have been singing “Single Ladies” on repeat. When she knocks, they just belt the lyrics louder. Then the water shuts off, the door swings open, and like a boy band, four Stus sweep through steam, towels wrapped around their torsos.
She laughs as she’s slung over one Stu’s shoulder. “Hike!” he calls, and the way he tosses her to another Stu is surprisingly gentle.
“Eat those flapjacks,” she says, pulling up her tights, almost out the door. “There’s enough for everyone. Plus, I made them.”
Four thumbs up, four brotherly salutes, but when she waves from the car, five Stus wave back. Things turn sour quickly: Through her rearview mirror, she watches the Stus slam lawn chairs into the patio.
At work, a Post-it note’s folded and stuck to her favorite framed family photo: Original Stu, the high school football star, not yet brain injured, sandwiched between their parents, and blowing out sixteen birthday candles. She unfolds and reads the Post-it note: Conference room. Fifteen? then glances at Fred through his office windows. Bless his lonely little heart, he blows a kiss, turns his fingers into heart, pumps it in front of his chest.
“How many brothers need work?” he asks, confused, wobbling his foot back into a sock.
“Oh, some,” she says, “They’re all strong. They can lift things. They’re warehouse ready.”
He frowns and mumbles something about the tightening company belt, so she kisses his forehead. “I thought you were a sports fan. Plus, more Stus might mean more me.” She retires to the bathroom, to catch her breath, freshen up. When she returns, one Fred is tucking in his shirt by the window, while a second Fred’s lacing a shoe.
It is difficult to count all the Stus when she arrives home. A shirts versus skins touch football game’s approaching halftime on the road. The sign on a streetlight reads “The Stu Bowl.” In the backyard, two Stus dig up the lawn, searching for a buried time capsule that’s somewhere in their childhood home yard, not here. On the roof, one Stu scans the evening sky for signs of alien life, while another dangles his legs off the ledge, sways, and moans.
“Be careful, please,” she calls to the dangling Stu, but he cannot hear beyond the music. Four thunderous Stus have formed a hair band on the porch.
Inside, a cluster of Stus play Super Smash Bros in the living room while a burpee competition ensues in the kitchen. Suddenly, one Stu throws a chair at another, and it’s a battle royal she can’t stop.
At the grocery store, she tries to take deep breaths as she scans the produce department. Too many peppers and too many tomatoes. So many apples all neat in their rows. Her cart squeaks through too many fluorescent-lit aisles, their shelves stacked with bright packaged goods. She thinks she catches a glimpse of herself at the far end of the cereal aisle. Just a solitary woman looking calm, even peaceful, with music hooked into her ears. “Are you…” she begins, but as the woman approaches, she realizes her mistake. She regards the shelf, as the stranger pushes past, and pretends she finds what she needs.
Rebecca Fishow’s short story collection, The Trouble With Language (Trnsfr Books, 2020), won the 2019 Holland Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, Tin House, Joyland, The Believer, Hobart, The Nervous Breakdown, and other publications. She is pursuing a PhD at University of Illinois Chicago. Find her at rebeccafishow.weebly.com.
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