"OK, this time's for real," Sheldon said. The spoonful of freshly stirred peanut butter quivered in his hand, a sheen of oil running along his thumb.
"Laer rof semit siht yako," Max said, his freckled cheeks glowing with anticipation.
Sheldon touched the spoon to his lips. He paused, waiting for the thunderclap outside to pass.
"Maybe use celery," Max said. "Yrelec esu ebyam."
Sheldon dropped the spoon onto the Formica counter that stood between them. "God, I almost had it!" he said.
"Ti dah tsomla i dog," Max muttered under his breath.
Rain leaked from the exposed rafters into a bucket a few feet behind Sheldon's stool. The constant dripping was getting to him, and so was Max. Sheldon lifted the spoon again, leaving behind a crescent of peanut butter. "If you want to help me, just keep your mouth shut, OK?" he said.
Max lowered his head, bright red hair combed carefully and parted down the center. "Yako tuhs htuom ruoy peek tsuj em pleh ot tnaw uoy fi," he whispered quickly, then reached immediately for the spot of peanut butter on the countertop. He spread out the glob with his right index finger, then touched it up with his left until it looked like a butterfly.
Sheldon opened his mouth again and this time he got the spoon past his teeth, but before he could take a bite, he started dry heaving. It was the smell. Peanut butter and lentils just didn't mix. He wished his mom hadn't cooked dal again last night.
Max put his arm across the counter and touched Sheldon's wrist, first with one hand, then the other. "Wait, Shel," he said. "I think you might do better with hummus. Summuh htiw retteb od thgim uoy kniht i. Lehs tiaw."
Sheldon lowered the spoon and furrowed his brow, pushing his long bangs out of his face.
"I told you. I'm Dave now," he said sternly.
"Won evad mi. Uoy dlot i," Max mumbled. "Sorry . . . Dave," he said, putting his right hand to his lips. "Evad yrros." He let his right hand drop, then brought his left to the place where his right had been.
"Anyway, it has to be peanut butter," Sheldon snapped. "Nobody at school eats hummus. They don't even know what it is."
"Si ti tahw wonk neve tnod yeht. Summuh stae loohcs ta ydobon--" Max paused, looking lost.
"It has to be peanut butter," Sheldon reminded him, rolling his eyes.
Max nodded. "Rettub tunaep eb ot sah ti yawyna," he said, picking up where he'd left off. He settled back down on his stool biting the nails on each of his thumbs, then index fingers, all the way down the line to his pinkies. "Oh. Ho," he said, sounding defeated.
Sheldon stifled a laugh. He knew he wasn't supposed to make light of his little brother's disorder, but there were certain things Max said that came out so funny. There was a game he liked to play with Max--and Max seemed to like it too--but their parents had forbidden them from playing it anymore. They said it was undermining Max's treatment. But it was a rainy day, which meant no camp, which basically meant vacation from treatment, Sheldon reasoned--and besides, their parents were at work and would never know. Sheldon stuck the spoon in the peanut-butter-filled tupperware container. "Straw," he said to Max with a gleam in his eye.
Max grinned sheepishly. "Warts," he said.
"Live," Sheldon said.
"Evil," Max answered, giggling.
"Stressed!" Sheldon said.
"Desserts!" That was Max's favorite. He pressed his forehead into the counter, laughing. When he came up for air he looked at the handle of Sheldon's spoon, emerging from the peanut butter. "What about carob sauce," he said seriously. "Ecuas borac tuoba tahw."
"That's not one," Sheldon said.
"Eno ton staht," Max said. "I know. But you could try that. Taht yrt dluoc uoy tub. Wonk i."
"Wonk i. That's a good one."
"Eno doog a staht. I know."
"You know, huh? Well,
then you must know what I already told you. It's got to be pea-nut butt-er."
It had to be peanut butter because it was peanut butter that had ruined Sheldon's social life for the last seven years. All because he'd forgotten his lunch one day in second grade and bought a fluffernutter. He'd never eaten fluff or peanut butter--or white bread, for that matter. His mom didn't keep food like that in the house. Well, she did buy peanut butter, but it was that gross all-natural stuff with the layer of oil floating on top. This was different: it looked creamy and delicious, like something from a candy shop. When he sat down at the long cafeteria table with the other boys in his class, he couldn't wait to sink his teeth into his sandwich--this thing everyone else he knew got to eat on a regular basis. He took a huge bite, not knowing what to expect, and reveled in the smooth sweetness of it all. But when he tried to swallow the trouble began. Mashed-up peanut butter and marshmallow clung to the roof of his mouth. He tried to lick it off, but his tongue just kept clicking against the caked-on stickiness. He gagged over and over, a dry, staticky sound shooting out of his mouth. Kids watched slack-jawed, chocolate milk dribbling down their chins. And then came Mrs. Gagliardi, lumbering over from her corner, throwing Sheldon on his back, scooping out the fluffernutter, and bending over to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which he didn't even need. Her breath smelled of school kitchen and Sheldon threw up right in her face, puke dripping down her bloated cheeks, dangling from her hairnet.
He'd never had many friends, but from then on Sheldon couldn't go to recess without someone making choking sounds or pretending they were Mrs. Gagliardi wanting to make out with him. Sometimes he'd find peanut butter on his chair or in his backpack. It would mysteriously show up on his clothes. Nobody wanted to sit next to him at lunch.
By middle school kids didn't bother him too much; he was mostly just ignored. But now, a month away from the beginning of high school, that was going to change. Now he was Dave. Dave with the same long-in-front, short-in-back hairstyle all the boys had. Red hair dyed the perfect average brown. He was going to show up at freshman orientation as a regular guy, a guy who had friends who would sit with him in the cafeteria. A guy who ate peanut butter just like everybody else.
He scooped the spoon out of the peanut butter container and balanced it in front of his face. Once again he opened wide. He pinched his nose to shut out all odors and closed his eyes. And just then, when he was really sure it was going to work, he felt a drop of water on his head. He looked up only to have another land on his cheek.
He hurled the spoon at the ceiling. I hate this house! Sheldon thought. Everything about it! The leaks, the crooked doors, the windows that always stuck in the summer. All things that his parents put up with because they wanted an old rural home.
The spoon left a peanut butter mark on the rafters, right where the leak was coming from, and crashed back down onto the counter, bouncing beside his mom's floppy beach hat. Her new name, Elata, was embroidered across the front. How stupid, Sheldon thought, changing her name from Dierdre to Elata because she'd rather have a name that means happy than sad.
Max, shoulders hunched, kept his eyes off of Sheldon and went to work on evening up the peanut butter skid marks on the counter. "Maybe you don't need to do this," he said timidly. "Maybe you're just never going to be able to eat peanut butter. And that's OK." He started to repeat those sentences backwards, but Sheldon cut him off before he could finish. "You just don't understand, do you?" he said, standing up on the rungs of his stool, water dripping to the floor beside him. "You'll never understand. You know why? Because you go to your special little school and your special little camp where everyone's a weirdo. And if everyone's a weirdo, then no one's a weirdo. So you will never know what it feels like to be a weirdo. If you could just spend one day at regular school, you'd get why I have to do this!" Sheldon slowed down at the end and pushed his face close to Max's for extra emphasis.
Max sped through the last few sentences of that speech backwards, but got lost on the second "everyone's a weirdo."
Look at him, Sheldon thought. He has no idea what a freak he is. And then something occurred to him, something he knew he shouldn't do, something he knew he'd regret when his parents came home, but he was angry and jealous and it was just too tempting. A cold smile passed over his lips. "Antidisestablishmentarianism," he said calmly.
Max froze. "Smi-na . . . smi-nair...." He started to breathe rapidly.
"Floccinaucinihilipilification," Sheldon said, eyes narrowing. He didn't even know what the words meant, but he'd memorized them the night before in his bed while scouring the dictionary. He'd been sent to his room for repeatedly saying poop at the dinner table; each time he said it, Max would say it back, and the two of them had erupted in giggles over a game of poop ping-pong that seemed as if it would never end. They'd interrupted their dad talking about his day at work, and how he'd seen a fascinating case of giardia duodenalis, which, of course, were words Max got stuck on. Their dad took a pad out of his shirt pocket and wrote the word out for Max, and explained that giardia duodenalis was a flagellated protozoan parasite that affected the gastrointestinal tract and often led to yellowing of the feces and frequent defecation. Max was so tripped up by gastrointestinal and flagellated he could barely get through defecation. Poop, Sheldon figured, would be a much easier word for Max to say. But as usual, only Sheldon got in trouble for their silliness. And so, while sulking bitterly in his room, Sheldon had wondered: What would happen if nobody helped Max along? What if they just left him there with the impossible-to-spell words hanging in midair? He'd laughed to himself as he gleaned the dictionary, looking for the longest words he could find, imagining that they'd turn Max into a misfiring machine rather than his parents' little idiosyncratic darling. He never really thought he'd test it out, but here he was, doing it for real. And it was working just as he'd predicted.
Max was still stuck on antidisestablishmentarianism and was looking to Sheldon for help. He was hyperventilating and touching his head, his nose, his chin--first on one side, then the other.
Lightning flashed outside and thunder crackled a few seconds later. Rain slanted against the windows and the drips quickened.
"Now you see how it is," Sheldon said, the meanness swelling in his chest. "And if you ever get better, this is what it's gonna be like. At real school."
"Loohcs laer ta. Ekil eb annog sti tahw si siht retteb teg reve uoy fi dna," Max murmured, looking relieved to hear something he could grasp. "Si ti woh ees uoy won."
"You know," Sheldon said, leaning over the counter again, "I know what your problem is, Max." He picked up his mom's hat and put it on Max's head. It was way too big and the brim fell down over his nose. "I found it in an encyclopedia in mom's office."
Max repeated Sheldon's words backwards quietly, as if in a trance.
"I mean, aside from all the other crazy stuff you do," Sheldon said. He pulled the hat up a little and lifted Max's chin to look him in the eye. "You've got a fear of long words, Max. You know what it's called?" The terrified expression on Max's pale face made Sheldon want to stop, but he'd come this far and felt like he had to keep going.
The rain was coming down so hard now there were no individual drops.
"Hippopotomonstrosequippedaliophobia," Sheldon said with a self-satisfied smile. This one he'd been sure to memorize carefully, and he enunciated each syllable proudly as if reciting a poem.
Max closed his eyes, trying to picture the word. He opened his mouth, but all that came out was a distant, scratchy sound. It got louder and louder until it was a yell. And then came the tears and runny nose and red face--a slightly darker, purplish version of Max's hair. He pounded the counter with his right hand, then with his left in the same spot. And he looked at Sheldon as if to say, Why did you do this to me?
Sheldon jumped back and let go of Max's face. He looked up at the antique cuckoo clock. Oh my God, he thought. Mom and dad will be home in half an hour. I'm going to be so dead. The sound coming from Max's wide open mouth was like a siren, interrupted by quick, snorty breaths. What if he never gets over this word? he thought. It'll be a permanent scar on his brain and it'll be all my fault.
He got off his stool and went for the first piece of paper he saw: the shopping list pad on the fridge. He ripped a page from it, pulled the magnetic pen off the freezer door, and brought them back to the counter. He took the hat off his screaming brother's head and placed it on his own. Max's sweat and warmth seeped through to his forehead. Then without saying anything, so as not to make matters worse, Sheldon wrote in clear capital letters:
Max's crying started to subside, but he was sniffling hard. He began in a cracked voice, "Aibohp-oila. . . ."
Sheldon bent down and picked up the spoon and tossed it into the sink. He ran a sponge under the faucet and squeezed it out, then brought it to the counter. He started with a slow, even stroke on the far right, followed by one on the far left, working his way back and forth to the middle. When he got to the last stripe of unwashed counter, he handed the sponge to Max and watched him run it in a perfect straight line from top to bottom, erasing the last peanutbutterfly, one hand placed neatly over the other.
"Arachibutyrophobia" by Hillary Frank will be included in Hedonophobia and Other Shades of Fear, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Company, spring 2007. Frank is also the author of Better Than Running at Night and I Can't Tell You.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Andre Metzger.