FICTION May 7, 2021

Gifted Kid

The T disgorges me into a sidewalk herd of bent, bundled young professionals, all of us head-down, earphones in, exhausted. A sucker punch of March wind makes me ask myself once again why I pay a thousand dollars a month to live here. 

When I’m halfway home, my phone buzzes. I pull it out, dreading more badgering from my boss, but the name at the top of the message is Val Rodriguez. 

hey man have u talked to jun recently?

Lightning spikes down my spine.

I step out of the mass commuter migration and text back. No, why?

Three dots jostle in a bubble as he types. My heart thumps in my ears. Those dots could become anything. Those dots could ruin my day, my week, my life. Or they could be nothing. They are a roulette wheel of my twin brother’s life.

he hasn’t answered my calls or texts for a few days. he seemed kinda weird the last time i talked to him, so i wanted to check on him

I had to stay late at work, and my boss wants me to finish a few more things tonight. I had planned to order Thai, bullshit through the work, and surrender myself to Netflix until it was time to wake up and do it all over again. All of that vaporizes in an instant.

I scroll through my phone to see when I last heard from Jun. A week ago. I’m such a shitty brother. My mind flashes to a hospital room, to a funeral parlor, to my mother shaking her head and saying, “Curt, why didn’t you check in on him sooner?”

I call my brother. It goes to voicemail.

I’ll go with you to his apartment, I reply to Val, because there is no question of not going, but I don’t want to go alone. Val has been Jun’s best friend since we were fourteen; I’m safe with him. Where are you now?

work. meet u at harvard square in 15?


I turn against the herd and run back to the train station.


Val shows up at the Cambridge Common bus stop on a ratty bike, wearing a drug rug and no helmet, and gives me a bear hug. He’s grinning from ear to ear, while my insides are clenched tight as a fist. Little has changed since we met in ninth grade, back home an hour and a world away in Worcester.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Val says, as we stamp our feet in the cold and wait for the 66 bus to Allston. It’s late, and with each passing moment my anxiety is ratcheting up like a winding spring. “You know how he gets. He probably decided to paint himself blue and meditate for a few days.”

“You said he sounded weird. Like, depressed weird?”

Val shrugs and tosses his long, dark hair over his shoulder. “He said he was having anxiety. Couldn’t sleep.”

“Not . . . not like Halloween?”

His grin flickers. He knows I mean Halloween 2015, when Jun went off his meds and the three of us ended up at the ER dressed as a Rastafarian banana, Luke Skywalker, and a twenty-three-year-old gaysian having a psychotic break. Jun thinks that story is funny; I haven’t dressed up for Halloween since.

Val laughs awkwardly. “Oh, nah, not nearly that bad.”

But bad enough to text me, I think.

My phone buzzes again. It’s my boss, asking whether I saw her email about the documents I need to edit and submit to a client tonight. My bus got held up in traffic, I text back, lying. I’ll get to it shortly.

The 66 finally chugs to our stop.


My brother and I were born five minutes apart, but on different days—me at 11:57 on May 13, Jun at 12:02 on May 14—establishing from the beginning that we would always be together, but separate. We were identical until we were twelve but so different in temperament that no one ever mixed us up. I am shy, anxious, the guy at the party who hangs out with the cat and leaves without anyone noticing. Jun is a golden retriever on two legs. He’s proudly queer; I’m unhappily straight. At age ten, he announced that he wanted to go by his Chinese name instead of Jonathan, but I’d never felt comfortable shedding Curtis for Ruisheng and told people my Chinese name only under duress. After graduating as salutatorian, I went to a good college in Boston, majored in English, and got a nine-to-five office job that I hate. Jun fiddled around for a few semesters in art school and community college and now fumbles between retail jobs and making art.

I love him like I love my arms and legs.

For twenty minutes the 66 labors through traffic in Harvard Square and across the Charles River, into a neighborhood of Boston called Allston. When we reach Allston’s main drag, Val and I push our way off the bus and descend into the gritty rumble. The neighborhood is a grimy warren of shithole apartments, Korean restaurants, and undergrads. Crowds of stylish foreign students fill the air with Mandarin that I should understand but don’t. Val looks at home among the kids, but I feel like an old square in my business casual sweater and wingtips. We’re both twenty-eight.

Val chattered the whole bus ride and keeps up his monologue as we hunch through the cold and the crowds to Jun’s apartment. Although Mom slips Jun a few hundred dollars every month to help with rent, his apartment is still a shithole in a decrepit three-decker. The front door doesn’t lock, so we let ourselves in and mountaineer up the narrow, rickety stairs. 

Val knocks at the apartment on the top floor. I’m in agony as we wait. I want the door to open and my brother’s grinning face to appear. We’ll have a good laugh, I’ll chide him to keep his phone charged, and I’ll head back home and get those edits shipped off for my boss.

But when the door opens, the crack fills with the white girl dreadlocks of Jun’s roommate.

“Oh, hey,” she says. “Jun’s not here.”

“Do you know where he is?” I say. “He’s not answering his phone.”

The roommate frowns and leans against the doorjamb. I think her name is Katy but I can’t remember, and I’ll look like a dick if I ask again. The smells of weed, cat piss, and something burning on the stove waft through the doorway.

“I haven’t seen him today. Actually, it’s been a few days since I saw him.”

My stomach folds itself into origami. “How long has it been?”

We determine that the last time she laid eyes on Jun was in the evening two days ago, although a dirty plate on the counter suggests he was there after that. His room looks like a bomb of art supplies and clothing exploded, but no more than usual, and not in a way that would indicate he is spiraling. His pill bottles are in a pile on top of his nightstand, next to the R2-D2 coin bank that I gave him for Christmas.

The messy room smells like him. We shared a bedroom growing up, so for me it’s the smell of home.

Katy is frowning with concern. “Do you guys think something happened to him?”

Val gives her a big smile. “Oh, I’m sure he’ll turn up.”

My phone buzzes again. I glance at it in case it’s Jun, but of course it’s my boss. The client is asking about those files.

“Oh!” Katy says. “I just remembered—he mentioned he was talking to that guy again. The fuckboy with the mustache. I bet he knows.”

Val and I both grimace. Elliot. “Do you have his number?” I ask.

She doesn’t, but she gives us hers in case we need to get in touch. We thank her for her help, she wishes us luck, and Val and I tromp back down to the cold street below.

I’m already searching through Facebook, looking for Elliot so I can find his number or send him a message, but I blocked the mustachioed prick the first time he and my brother broke up. Val puffs on his vape pen and does the same.

He holds up his phone. “Douchestache is doing a poetry reading in Central.”

Through the shattered screen, I see an Instagram post of a flyer and a string of hashtags. Elliot and his ironic Tom Selleck mustache are scheduled to present some of his poetry at a vegan café in Central Square, in Cambridge.

It’s back in the direction we just came, but I don’t have any other leads for tracking Jun down, and I won’t sleep tonight unless I know Jun is safe. Other than Val and Katy, I don’t know any of Jun’s friends, and I’m regretting that now. Why don’t I have a network I can call on when this happens? Why don’t I keep a closer eye on him?

And why is keeping track of him my job?

Val is already pulling up an app for the bus schedule. “64 to Central’s coming in fifteen.”

We walk to the bus stop and wait. It’s one of those nights so cold and clear the air feels like broken glass and the stars are dagger-points through the black. As the minutes crawl by, Val vapes, and I grovel to my boss. I’m so sorry, something has come up, but I can handle it, I’ll do the edits as soon as I can.

“Your boss is a hardass,” Val says. “Just tell her you have a family emergency.”

I slip my fingers under my glasses and rub my eyes. “I can’t. We’re on crazy deadlines, and I’m already behind because I screwed up on Monday and had to start this project over.”

“Lame. You should quit.”

I snort incredulously. I need this awful job. I wake up at night in a cold sweat from nightmares that I’ve been fired, that my rent checks have bounced, that my health insurance has been cancelled. That fancy college that made my parents so proud left me with staggering monthly loan payments, and a spell of unemployment wiped out my savings. It took me eight months of grinding out interviews and résumés to find this job. There’s a lot of money in this city, but none of it is going to middle-class kids who majored in English.

If I lost my job, my parents would never let me starve, but I think I’d rather step in front of the commuter rail than call them up and tell them I’ve failed. I’m supposed to be the son they don’t have to worry about. I always got straight A’s. Mom doesn’t pay my rent. I’m supposed to be the good child, the smart one, the one they can brag about to relatives and people at church. 

“You’re still at the tattoo parlor?” I say.

Val grins and nods. “Yeah, man. The other day I tattooed this sick zombie vulture on a dude’s back, big ten-hour piece.”

I want to ask how he does it. Val went to art school, he’s got loans. Like me, he’s looking at thirty with little to show for it but crushing debt, Craigslist roommates, and some furniture scrounged off the sidewalk. But he doesn’t seem to lie awake at night agonizing over it. The only time I ever see clouds pass over his sunny disposition, it’s when something’s up with Jun. 

“Are you . . . going to stay there?”

He hears what I’m really asking—when are you going to get a real job? I feel like a dick, but he laughs. “Yeah, man. Beats a cubicle, right?”

I don’t know what happens to tattooed punks and stoners like Val when they get past thirty or forty or fifty. I can’t picture it. But everyone told me that if I studied hard, took out my lip rings, and followed the proper path to adulthood, everything would work out, and I can’t see myself at forty either.

The 64 arrives, and back over the Charles we go. 


Central Square squats between Harvard and MIT like that one bad neighbor who never cuts their grass. Gentrification has not yet scrubbed out its drug addicts, its bum fights, its dive bars. Central is the bad child of the People’s Republic. I kind of like that about it. When the bus ejects us onto the street, Mass Ave is slashed blue and red with police and ambulance lights. My heart stops as we hurry past, but the strung-out old white man being treated by EMTs on the sidewalk is someone else’s brother.

The café is quirky and cozy, serving quinoa and smoothies to vegans and queer kids. Jun brings me here sometimes because the food is really good, but I feel too uncool to come alone. Val and I head to the basement. Down there, the lights are dimmed, and a microphone and a few rows of chairs are set up at the back. The reading either hasn’t started or has just ended, and the crowd is mingling and chatting. I hear Elliot holding forth about—oh, for Christ’s sake—David Foster Wallace, and I follow his voice to the source. He’s still got the fucking mustache.

But Jun isn’t here.

Val takes hold of Elliot’s elbow and jerks him aside.

“We’re looking for Jun,” I say. I’m so anxious I feel as if I’m covered in ants. “Have you spoken to him recently?”

Elliot folds his arms and avoids Val’s eyes. The only reason Val didn’t break Elliot’s nose after he broke Jun’s heart last fall was because Jun begged him not to. Val isn’t a violent guy, but any threat to Jun brings out the Worcester in him.

“Yeah, I called him,” Elliot says.

“When? When did you hear from him last?”

He picks lint off his sleeve. “This morning.”

This morning. That narrows our timeline. A small relief, but a welcome one. “How was he? Did he say what he was up to?”

“He said he would come to my reading tonight, but he didn’t. Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Val says.

Elliot shrugs. “He seemed kind of manic. He gets flaky when he’s like that. He promised, then probably forgot all about it.”

Actually manic, or just . . . Jun?” I say. Elliot is so glib, he thinks he’s so edgy, but he’s never had to watch a loved one self-harm and hallucinate.

“Not, like, crazy stuff. Just talking a mile a minute. Kind of agitated. He hasn’t answered any of my texts all day.”

“Do you have any idea where he might be?”

“Well, he was supposed to be here.”

I’m starting to feel pretty Worcester myself. With gritted teeth, Val says, “Elliot. We’re worried about him. If you know anything, please tell us.”

He sighs in exasperation. “He wanted me to go with him to a show at the Sinclair after my reading. He’s probably there. He said he and Lori were going to get high.”

My stomach is making paper cranes again. Sometimes drugs chill Jun out; sometimes they make him try to jump into the river.

No more time to waste. I turn and leave the café.

Val comes after me. “Back to Harvard?”

I glance at my phone. It’s coming up on nine-thirty. My whole night is shot. I’m going to be up all night working and exhausted tomorrow.

“Let’s take the T,” I say, hoping it will be quicker.


It’s not. We dodge addicts huddled around the station entrance, rush to make an outbound train, and then get stuck in the tunnel because of a disabled train ahead.

There are only a handful of other people on the train. That gives me room to pace from one side of the car to the other. Some college girl eyes me and goes back to her phone.

“Fucking train,” I mutter. “Fucking MBTA. What the fuck is wrong with this city, they can’t even get the trains to go half a mile?”

Val is slumped forward over his knees, scrolling through his phone and looking uncharacteristically glum.

“What does Jun see in that guy?” he mutters.

I shrug. Damned if I know. Jun has always been drawn to people who manipulate and mistreat him. At least Elliot was just insufferable and a cheater. Sarah stole money from him, and Jake punched holes in the walls of their apartment. I asked once why he always dated such miserable fuck-ups. Was he hooked on the drama? Did he not think he deserved better? He shrugged and said, “I guess I just try to see the good in people.”

Val puts his phone in his pocket and leans back with a sigh. “He didn’t tell me he was going back to him.”

I lean against the pole. My stomach growls. “He didn’t tell me either.”

“Yeah, but . . .” He lifts his hand as if to say but that’s different. I’m his twin brother, I’m the one who knows him best—except when I don’t. We have the same genetic code, but nothing else in common. But it’s different with Val.

It’s no secret that Val crushed hard on Jun back in high school. Nothing ever came of it; Jun only ever saw him as a friend. And that’s all they’ve been ever since. Best friends. Almost brothers. They are a better match than Jun and I are.

But my gut says that a piece of Val is still in love with him, and probably always will be. Jun has that effect on people. They meet him once and he lives in their hearts forever. Meanwhile, my friends from college post photos of parties and cookouts on social media that they didn’t invite me to. Jun joked one time that I got both our shares of brains and he got both our shares of heart.

I used to think I got the better side of that trade. I don’t think that anymore. 

My phone buzzes again. This time, it’s Mom. Hi sweetie, have you heard from Jun? I can’t seem to get in touch with him.


Harvard Square again, back among the Ivy Leaguers and the crust punks. Our breath streams out in front of us as we dodge cars and bikes and wind through the maze of streets to the Sinclair, a combination bar and concert hall. I don’t recognize the name of the band on the marquee, but I can hear its bass line pulsing from the street.

The bouncer stops us at the door. 

“We’re not here for the show,” I protest. “I just need to find someone, and then we’ll leave.”

No go. If we want in, we need to buy tickets.

Val is already pulling out his duct-tape wallet, but anxiety prickles up my sternum. A ticket is $25. I haven’t budgeted for that. I have an app that keeps track of every cent I spend—the Thai food for dinner was the one splurge I was allowing myself this week. If I don’t stick to my budget, I won’t be able to pay off my credit card this month like I wanted to, and I’ll have nothing left to put into savings—

I’m going down an anxiety spiral, but Val has already bought a ticket at the counter and disappeared past the bouncer. I exchange a plastic card for a paper ticket and follow Val’s back into the venue.

The concert hall is a dark crush of sweaty, flailing bodies. The air is hot and wet and reeks of beer and weed. My glasses fog up. On stage, the band is shredding on guitars and pounding on keyboards; the speakers are so loud my teeth rattle. A bro built like a linebacker accidentally bumps into me and slops beer onto my sweater.

Val’s drug rug turns psychedelic in the pulsing strobe lights. I try to follow him, but the band starts up a new song and the crowd surges forward. I clamp my hands over my ears and scrunch my eyes closed, panicking. Whatever’s wrong with Jun’s neurological wiring, I have a touch of it too. Usually my madness is as mundane and colorless as I am—run-of-the-mill anxiety and depression—but sometimes it isn’t, and right now my brain is as bright and loud as the Fourth of July. This concert is my hell. I can’t breathe. It’s so fucking hot in here, so fucking loud. 

Val’s hand closes around my arm, and he guides me toward the back of the venue. He’s located Lori. She’s standing by the bathroom with some other girls in crop tops—but no Jun. Val shouts questions at them, but the girls are staring at me because I’m shaking and gasping, dripping sweat. Embarrassment takes the anxiety attack from a seven out of ten to an eleven.

I can barely see through my fogged lenses and barely hear over the roar of drums and guitars, but I can tell Lori is shaking her head. Jun isn’t here. I fling myself away, toward an exit sign glowing red over the crowd. It leads me to a back alley, where kids with undercuts are smoking in little clusters. The winter air feels gentle and sweet after the tropical hell inside, and I lean against a wall and just try to breathe. My sweater is drenched in sweat and beer.

Val finds me, sees the state of me. 

As if from the other side of a wall I hear him say, “Come on, man, let’s get some air.” 

He puts his arm around me and leads me away from the venue, away from people. At the main road, he turns left, and just like that we’re back where we started on Cambridge Common.

My heart slows from jackhammer to piston engine. The worst has passed, but I feel wrung out and exhausted, like I’ve chewed up a year of my life in ten minutes. My cheeks are still hot, but now it’s because I’m mortified and upset with myself.

“Lori said Jun was at the concert earlier, but he left,” Val says. “So he can’t be—oh!”

Val stops, and his arm falls from my shoulders. He calls out, “Jun?

About twenty feet off the path, a little black head pops up from behind a snow bank, and a pink mitten waves.

It’s Jun, and he’s smiling.

The wave of relief nearly drives me to my knees.

Jun hops up, and Val runs toward him. They collide in a hug, and Val says, “Man, we’ve been looking all over for you!”

Jun chuckles. He has a Hello Kitty barrette in his hair, and he’s wearing Converse in the snow, but he doesn’t look high or psychotic. When he sees me, his face lights up, and he reaches to invite me into the hug. “Hey, Curtis! What are you doing here?”

My relief turns to rage like a switch has been flipped. “Why weren’t you answering your goddamn phone?”

His eyes widen at my tone. “Oh, I broke it. I figured I’d go without for a little while—you know, unplug. Try to go off the grid for a bit so I can stop getting distracted by Twitter and get more art done.” 

He gives me a conciliatory grin, but I’m not laughing. “You can’t just unplug without warning us, Jun. We’ve been looking for you all night. We talked to Katy, Elliot, Lori—they were all looking for you.”

“I didn’t mean to worry you,” Jun says. “It was such a pretty, clear night. I realized I could see stars—stars, here in the city! I had to stop and appreciate them. I was pretending I was out in the Arctic, like on top of a glacier or something. I guess I lost track of time.”

“You were stargazing,” I say incredulously. It’s so typical. It’s so typical I want to strangle him. “We were running around the city in a panic, and you were looking at the stars.”

Both Jun and Val hear the fury in my voice, and the air between us grows taut. Our triangle has rotated—now that they’re reunited, Val is on Jun’s side, and once again I’m the odd one out. I feel abandoned.

“Hey, man,” Val says, “what matters is that we found him, and he’s OK.” 

I wave my phone at my brother. “I was supposed to work tonight, Jun! My boss is pissed! I had shit to do, and instead I had to chase your ass around Boston.”

“I’m really, really sorry,” Jun says. “I didn’t know you were looking for me.”

“Of course you didn’t,” I say. “Because you decided to unplug without telling anyone.”

Val gives Jun’s shoulders a shake. “Well, that’s our Jun, right? He’s a free spirit. He’s right, the stars are really pretty tonight.”

I want to scream. “No. There’s being quirky and eccentric, and then there’s being a reckless asshole. Be a free spirit all you want, but check in with the people who care about you first. Christ, you gave me a fucking panic attack.”

I’m being unfair and unkind, but because Jun is Jun, he reacts with love. He touches my arm and says, “Oh my god, you had a panic attack? Are you OK?”

I pull my arm away. “I’m fine.”

He looks like he’s about to cry. “I am so, so sorry, Curt. You’re right, I should have let you know. Please let me make it up to you. Call out of work tomorrow, and let me take you to brunch. Let’s just hang out, like old times.”

Call out of work and get brunch? “For fuck’s sake! Do you not understand how jobs work? If I call out tomorrow, I will be fucking fired!”

“Well, maybe it would be for the best,” he says. “Honestly, I’ve been kind of worrying about you. That job is making you so miserable. If they don’t fire you, you should quit. You can find something better. It will work out.”

I’m so angry I’m seeing double. “No, I can’t quit. I don’t have anyone to pick up after me. I’m trying to be an adult. I’m trying so hard. Why can’t you? Why can’t you just grow up?”

A fire truck wails by like a banshee. Jun stares at me. 

I’m so tired. The rage burns out, leaving something sour and aching in its place. 

“Forget it,” I say, and I turn and crunch away through the snow. Jun says, “Curtis, wait!” but Val puts his arm around him and neither of them come after me. They’re not worried. They know I’ll be fine. They know I’ll be there the next time they need me. Aren’t I always?

Down the stairs, into the bowels of the T station. The outbound side is nearly deserted and smells like piss. Jun texts me a sad face and a heart, but I have nothing else to say. After a few minutes, a low rumble cuts through the quiet, and twin beams of light reach out of the dark tunnel. As the train’s metal skull grins into the far end of the station, my phone buzzes again.

I obey the Pavlovian urge to pull it out of my pocket, then suddenly feel compelled to hurl it onto the tracks. Let the Red Line crush the godforsaken thing. If Jun can go off-grid, then why can’t I? Why can’t I be the impulsive, whimsical one for once? 

For a moment, I think, maybe I’ll jump in after it. Make the news. Make people notice me. Honk. Screech. Splat. For a moment, it sounds better than going to work tomorrow and the next day and fumbling my way toward forty miserable and colorless and completely fucking lost.

But only for a moment. I’m the good son. I lower my arm, get on the train, and sit down. 

The text was from Mom, asking for an update.

I found him, I text back. Everything is fine.

Dana Berube is a writer and artist based in Boston. She was a finalist for the Chicago Tribune's 2018 Nelson Algren Literary Award, and her fiction has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and the anthology MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK. You can find her at @dana_berube.