Thwap thwap thwap.
Leo Spearman’s hair stood on end at the sound of rain hitting metal. It dripped off the side and pooled in the grass, soaking into his shoes. His drenched, ashy hair stuck to his skin as he stood outside his father’s old spaceship, watching his brother, Gaeth, hug his mother goodbye. Not one friendly face was visible among the crowd of townspeople surrounding them.
The downpour intensified as Gaeth pick up the mud-caked suitcases, but his mom pulled him back into a hug. She immediately withdrew with a yelp and Leo knew she must’ve been poked by a piece of metal sticking out of Gaeth’s arm. Gaeth pulled his sleeve down so no one would notice, but it was too late.
“Get that thing out of here!” someone from the crowd yelled.
Leo tried his best to ignore them. He jogged to his mother and brother, the water soaking through his shoes, and grabbed one of Gaeth’s suitcases.
“Mom, it’s okay.” Gaeth patted her on the back.
“I shouldn’t have agreed to this. We should have found a different way,” she said through tears.
Leo brought the suitcase to the ship where their father waited. He stared at Leo with sad eyes and let out a long sigh.
“You seem alright for someone who won’t see your son again,” Leo said, crossing his arms.
“Don’t make this harder than it is,” his father replied without glancing his way. “I’m glad they agreed to let you take Gaeth. I can’t imagine a skinny nineteen-year-old on a freighter by himself.”
“He’d be terrified. Of course I’m taking him,” Leo said. “If I had my way, he wouldn’t be going at all. I always thought it was a bad idea.”
Was it him, or was the crowd moving in closer? The quicker they got off Earth, the sooner they could get Gaeth away from all these people. Leo’s stomach turned as he thought about how they spat on Gaeth as a child and ran from him as if he were a monster. If it had stopped when they grew older maybe they could have stayed on Earth. It wasn’t Gaeth’s fault he was sick, after all.
Leo’s father motioned to the townspeople. “Do you see everyone out here, gawking?”
They all stared at Gaeth like predators ready to strike.
“If Gaeth stayed, who knows what they might do to him. I don’t want him to go through any more pain.”
Leo looked away. He knew his father was right, but he didn’t want to admit it.
“I don’t want him to be in pain either,” Leo said.
“Then help him.”
Gaeth finally wrestled himself free of his mother’s grip and walked toward them. His clothes had soaked through, and his wavy brown hair slicked down across his forehead. His green eyes widened with worry as he glanced frantically at the crowd who had started up a chant.
“Hell no! Hell no! Robot kid has got to go!”
The rain poured down; the thwap sound Leo hated so much grew more irritating. Gaeth stood in front of their father. “Bye, Dad,” he said quickly.
Their father hugged Gaeth, and even though he wasn’t making any noise, his quiet shaking screamed louder than any wail could have.
“Get a move on already,” a man’s angry voice carried above the others. “I haven’t got all day.”
Leo flipped the man off, to which his mother scolded him. “Leo, what did I tell you about talking to anyone but us when we’re doing this? Act like a twenty-one-year-old for gosh sakes.”
“They shouldn’t be saying those things.”
“Hey Leo, you forgot to pack this in case your brother gets a loose screw on the way over.” Through the rain, someone threw a small object. It smacked Leo in the chest and splashed in the mud at his feet.
He picked it up and wiped the grime off. A screwdriver. Leo didn’t care who threw it or who said the joke; he sprinted at the crowd, not knowing what he would do when he got there. A bloody nose or two, at least. The crowd cheering drowned out his parents’ shouts as he collided with a man. The people nearby gave them room as they sent mud in all directions.
Leo threw his fist into the man’s face. Anything resembling flesh he wanted to destroy. The crowd around them erupted, Leo managing to land a few solid punches before several hands grabbed him and threw him back toward the ship.
“You could infect me, you contagious freak,” the man Leo attacked shouted, a trace of blood dripping from his nose.
“Don’t insult my brother then, asshole,” Leo shouted back. He walked back to the ship, where his family talked low among themselves.
“Send it to Oblurn already!” The crowd rushed toward Leo’s family. Out of the corner of his eye, Leo spotted someone holding a metal bat.
Leo ran toward the ship as his parents rushed Gaeth aboard. The crowd closed in, jostling Leo every which way as they shouted in unison, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Robot kid has got to go!”
A policeman managed to grab Leo and push him through.
His father grabbed him and shoved him up the ramp. “Take care of your brother and send us a message to let us know you’re okay.”
Leo fell back into the ship, where Gaeth already sat in the copilot seat. The crowd surrounded them, banging their fists on the hull, still chanting.
Leo sat in his own seat. He watched through the window as the same policeman lead his parents through the crowd, stopping a safe distance away. Leo’s heart sank for his brother. He knew he would be coming back, but Gaeth? How could Gaeth possibly feel right now, knowing this would be the last time he’d see them?
Gaeth had thrown his bags in the back with the cargo. Leo shivered in the cold, the dim lights not helping their spirits. He didn’t know what to say as he sat in his own chair. The rain slid down the large front window as he went through the routine checklist he kept between the seats. Outside the police shouted at the crowd to back away.
Gaeth checked the gage. “Check.”
Leo took his time checking it off the list. “Escape pod?”
“Still there,” Gaeth said.
Leo rechecked it, even more slowly. “Emergency thrusters?”
“Leo, just let me do it.” Gaeth’s voice shook as he said it, his face remaining solemn. He grabbed the checklist and finished the routine in less than a minute, not paying attention to Leo. After shoving it back between the seats, Gaeth sat back in his chair and sighed.
Leo carefully turned the ship around, the crowd now running away from the heat of the engines. His back pushed into the seat as the darkness of space filled the window. After a few moments, they were operating in silence except for the occasional beeping.
The ship’s computer buzzed. “Please enter coordinates.”
Leo glanced at Gaeth, still searching for words of comfort before typing in Oblurn’s location. There had to be something to make him feel better. But what do you say to someone being sent away from their planet for something they can’t control?
“Setting course for Oblurn,” the computer chimed.
Gaeth remained silent. Leo put the ship on autopilot and leaned back in his seat. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Stiff, cold.” Gaeth paused, not able to say the words. He eventually forced them out, “Wishing I could stay home.” His voice was barely above a whisper.
“I wish we could go back,” Leo said.
“So we’re really doing this.” It wasn’t a question, more of an accusation. He kept his eyes forward, playing with a loose thread on his chair.
“You saw the crowd. If you stayed home, it would only be a matter of time before they made you leave anyway.” Leo realized it wasn’t the right thing to say. “Think about it like going away to camp, except in space.”
“Yeah, a camp I can never come back from, and no one can visit.” Gaeth sighed. “And if you go, everyone thinks you’re some sort of monster. I’m surprised you aren’t afraid of catching Steel Elbow.”
“If I did, we’d be stuck in Oblurn together. Wouldn’t that be fun?” Leo snuck a glance at Gaeth, who rolled his eyes. If he could get him to laugh a little, it would be a small victory. “If it’s so bad and you don’t think you can stay there, we’ll figure something out. It’s the best thing for you, though.”
“Best thing for everyone back home,” Gaeth muttered, pushing the heat button on his seat. “Why aren’t you worried you’ll catch Steel Elbow?”
Leo thought for a moment. It was truehe should be scared of his brother. After Gaeth had given their neighbor Steel Elbow, all their friends had turned on him. But the way the crowd had treated Gaeth, Leo didn’t want to leave him.
“If I caught your virus and it meant we were going to live together for the rest of our lives, then I’d be okay with that. It’s what family does,” Leo said.
“But I could cover everything sticking out of my skin like I have, and no one would be any the wiser. I could build a house in the countryside in the middle of nowhere, and no one would bother me. The only reason I have to leave is that everyone found out about it.”
“How about this: if we both agree it’s so bad you can’t live there without being miserable, I’ll take you away from there.”
Gaeth faced Leo for the first time since they took off. “You better not be joking.”
“Why would I joke about something like that?” Leo shot Gaeth a look that said I’m serious.
“I’ll even help you build a house in the countryside.”
Gaeth held up his pinky finger. “You have to pinky promise.”
“Gaeth, I promise I’ll do it.”
“No. You need to pinky promise.” Gaeth wouldn’t break eye contact.
Leo exhaled. “Fine.” They wrapped their pinky fingers and shook them up and down. Gaeth nodded, sitting back in his seat, happier than before.
It was rare Gaeth smiled and it made Leo happy whenever he did. His heart sank as he realized it might be the last one he’d ever see. He didn’t want to get Gaeth’s hopes up, but if he could keep him in a good mood until they got to Oblurn, then he would at least keep his word to his parents.