Mary’s only brother, Gabe, is mentally handicapped and strong enough to bend a parking meter into a boomerang. He is twelve and has never said a word, but needles and bullets and cars buckle and crumple up against his skin. The U.S. Army hasn’t bothered him since he kicked a national guardsman through a chain-link fence.
Mary loves him and is usually able to keep him calm. Because of her the country is still standing and no one has quite been killed. Arms have been broken, though, and buildings destroyed. One day a dog barks at Gabe, who’s been throwing bread at the ducks. Gabe is unable to filter out sound, which is why he uproots a bench and crushes the dog into the grass. A little girl is holding the leash, her face speckled with blisters or acne.
“Gabe, say you’re sorry,” Mary takes Gabe by his shoulders. Like trying to turn a tree in the ground. Gabe knows to hug the girl. “Not too hard,” Mary reminds him. On the other side of the pond, the photographers fire their cameras.
Mary would like to paint. Once, while Gabe watched a dance video, she paid a neighbor to go and buy all the equipment she’d need. She had the money, since the government pays her a secret salary to stay with Gabe and keep him calm as possible. She’s yet to find any time to try her equipment, though. Gabe only sleeps two hours a night. She’s never alone, she’s got to be careful. Gabe once found her crying and put his head through their bathroom wall. When he sleeps his breathing moves her hair back and forth across her face.
Bright red spots appear on Gabe’s face and shoulders one morning. By dinner he has begun to scratch. He develops a fever.Nothing like this has happened before.
“Gabe,” she says. “Remember the girl with the dog? I think she must’ve had chicken pox. I guess you’re sick.”
Hours and hours before midnight she finds him in bed, already falling asleep.
“Wow, superman. You sleepy? Don’t scratch.”
Every sore is opened. The tips of his fingers are wet.
“Don’t scratch, please.”
There are some doctors who still visit houses. Mary calls one, doesn’t give him any names.
He arrives and is very young. He looks like a medic in a war movie.
Moving into the bedroom he seems to recognize Gabe.
Mary says quickly that he’s sick.
“He can’t get sick is what I read,” says the doctor.
“Well,” says Mary.
Gabe begins scratching his neck. The sound is like paper rustling.
“Chicken pox,” is the doctor’s diagnosis. “He’s hurting himself.”
“You can’t stop him,” she says. “Is there medicine?”
“Really just ibuprofen and certain creams. I brought a tube of something. Have you had chicken pox?”
He steps toward the bed.
“There’s a lot of bleeding,” he says.
Mary thinks of war movies, when the medic is overcome with sympathy and walks into the line of fire and his chest just pops open.
“Is he strong enough to break his own skin?” he says.
He asks Gabe to stop scratching. He tells Mary to draw a bath and add some oatmeal. She leaves the room. He then takes hold of Gabe by the wrists because he thinks he has to try, and he is not thrown across the room or torn apart. He controls the boy.
The bathwater is running. Mary is seen crossing the hall, going to the kitchen to find oatmeal. The doctor calls, without thinking,
“He’s weak, I’m holding him down.”
He watches his hands, which are in control of Gabe, the human plague. The fever has weakened him, and the doctor knows this probably will never happen again. Very quickly, like the sun rising and setting in fast motion over a desert in a nature special, the ideas and conflicts and foundational philosophies pass through his brain and he finds he has decided. He knows the boy hasn’t killed anyone.
“It’s only a matter of time,” he says. He begins to visualize moving one of his hands from the boy’s wrist to his throat. He listens to the sister, now in the bathroom again. He moves his hand and begins to squeeze.
After finding the doctor trying to kill Gabe, after chasing him from the house using her easel like a bat, after giving Gabe ibuprofen and letting him stay in the oatmeal bath until he’s fallen asleep, after carrying him to bed, Mary sits and begins to paint. She works for hours, starting over many times, rinsing all her brushes over and over in the sink. Gabe sleeps through the night and spends all day in oatmeal baths. He doesn’t regain his strength and temper for a week.
Mary’s favorite piece, the one she works on the longest, is an illustration of a kind of wind turbine, only rather than wind it’s driven by a wheel at its base, which someone strong as Gaben could spin for just an hour a day and he could generate enough electricity to power a block of hospitals—maybe the whole city—for a month, and save the world.