This short story is republished from my 2015 anthology The Forging of Things.
“The world is such a beautiful place,” my little brother Reuben used to say as he would draw blue trees and red grass.
I would look at him curiously and say, “What do you mean?”
I tried not to sound judgmental or doubting since he was autistic. Although he was sixteen years old, he still had the innocent heart of a child. He was no doubt imaginative and thoughtful. What made him truly different from the rest of us was not his social apartness but his outlook of the world. He woke each day with newfound enthusiasm and an inspiring sense of wonder and awe. He loved learning new things and admired the different qualities and flaws in each person he met. So when he would declare how wonderful the world was, you couldn’t help but be amazed at how utterly happy he was.
Continuing to color in the shapes he drew, he would casually say, “Momma always says how cruel and unforgiving the world is. I don’t see it that way, though. I look at Mrs. Monica, and I just love how she smiles. Ricky always shares his fries with me when he doesn’t want anymore. They always make me happy. I just feel so happy when I go to sleep.”
His reply to my question would always put a big grin on my face. It thrilled me to know that Reuben was happy and enjoying life. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t help but look at the world in a different way. I could only see the looks of impatience on those who meet my brother, or I could hear the question “Is there something wrong with him?” over and over again. These conversations were the times when I would envy Reuben. He didn’t have a care in the world,
and any judgment that he faced passed right over his head. Where we always worry about the bad in the world, he only cared about and considered the good.
There were times when I lied outside with him on the lawn and counted the clouds or laughed at their shapes. In these special moments, I felt like I could understand his outlook on the world. We would put everything aside to enjoy each other’s company and bask in the warmth of the sun. I would look over to him and ask, “Hey, Reuben, what’s on your mind?”
He would stare thoughtfully upward as he considered the question. When he finally had this answer, he would look at me, smiling, and say, “I’m so happy. The sky is blue and that makes me happy.”
“You don’t like it when the sky is gray?”
“I love when the sky is gray too. I love the thunder and the lightning. I don’t think the sky can ever make me sad.”
“That’s wonderful, Reuben.”
One day, he came from school, beaming, and said cheerfully, “Guess what, Jerome, guess what!”
“What’s up, Reuben?” I couldn’t wait to hear his good news.
Every time he had something great to share, he would always confide in me first. I would always try to make his good news seem like the best news in the world because I never wanted him to feel neglected.
“I have a girlfriend!” He waited eagerly for my response.
My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. “Are you serious? That’s great! Who is it?” My heart pounded with excitement only because I knew that’s what made my brother happy.
“Alana Reinhart! She is in my homeroom. We always talked, and today, I asked her out. She said yes!”
Alana made my brother the happiest boy in the world. He would always tell me how beautiful and kind she was. He bragged to me about how she was a genius and how she would even help him with tough homework. For once, my brother had something—or rather someone—to feel proud of. He was beginning to explore new areas of love and open his heart up to something spectacular.
During the summer evenings, I took him for walks on the beach. We stared out at the fiery red ocean and spoke of wonderful impossibilities. He was amazed at how the ocean seemed to extend so far into nothing, which he filled with everything with his mind. He would suggest sitting on the soft cold sand and watching the sun until it was well under the horizon.
Again, he would repeat, “The world is such a beautiful place.”
“Yes, it is,” I said while staring mesmerized at the pastel-colored sky.
“No,” he said with no hint of hostility or rudeness. “You don’t get it. You don’t see it.”
“What don’t I see, Reuben?” This was the first time he had actually called me out on my lie.
“I always hear how horrible the world is, but I don’t want to think like that. I like to have beautiful world separate from ugly world. They can’t be the same.”
“Why not?” I couldn’t understand where my brother was going with this, but I tried my best to open up my mind and understand his thoughts.
“Because beautiful world is just too beautiful to be an ugly world too. Beautiful world has the sunsets, the trees, flowers, the bees, the sky, and love. That’s not ugly. It just isn’t.” His voice seemed to drop off into a reverie. I noticed how passionate he felt about his perspective of the world.
I looked at him endearingly and whispered, “Beautiful world is beautiful, but unfortunately, there are just not nice people out there.”
“But that’s where you’re wrong, Jerome. The not nice people don’t live in beautiful world. They have to live in ugly world, and I don’t want to live in ugly world, so I choose to live in beautiful world.”
And that’s when I understood what Reuben was talking about. In his mind, he had separated good things and bad things into two distinct categories, or more precisely, two distinct worlds. Where we tend to think of a world full of good and bad, he chooses to think of a world of good and world of bad where he decides to live in the world of good. It’s not that he doesn’t see the bad, but to him, it’s on the other side of the brick wall. When my eyes met his, at that moment, I understood him better than I ever had. The electricity that passed between us ignited the tight bond already between us. He made sense.
That was the last conversation I had with him. The following morning, he didn’t wake up. According to the doctor, he died from meningitis. The news hit me hard at first, and then it didn’t hit me at all. I remember being completely distraught and tuned out to everything else around me. For the next few weeks and months, I had shut down. The once colorful vibrant world seemed like murky gray sludge. So many emotions coursed through me the moment I found out had lost my little brother—sadness, anger, confusion, conflict, and finally emptiness. I felt nothing. I couldn’t help but feel betrayed by the world. My brother trusted it. He saw only its beauty, something that most people see for only a fleeting second. He lived in its beauty. He believed in his heart that he didn’t live in a world of hatred, violence, and death. To him, that ugly world did not concern him. It was far away and unreachable. He put all his heart and soul into this beautiful world, but it had let him down.
My brother had truly changed my life. In the short sixteen years I spent with him, he made me see the world in a way that no one else had. He had a heart as big as the moon, and he made sure to share it with everyone he knew. If anyone could truly be innocent and lonely, it was he. No one understood him, including me. But as opposed to everyone else, I took the time to listen to him and see the world through his eyes, and that world was truly beautiful. That world was a fairy tale, a dream come true. That was his world, the world that killed him.