PLACENTIA — Hulking and taciturn, the teenager slumped on the couch, watching his little brother draw with his only hand.
The younger one should have been in school, but the teenager was too tired to get up that early. The little apartment--and the little boy--needed cleaning, but it felt so hard to stir himself from the couch. There were telephone calls to make about their future, but those could wait a few more hours, or maybe a few more days.
All of this was so much more difficult than Juan Reyes, newly and suddenly graduated to adulthood, had imagined.
His little brother, Elfego, lost his arm in a car accident in September, as he was on his way to church with their mother. Micaela Reyes, 51, died in the crash.
After her death, Juan, barely 18, decided to raise his 10-year-old brother, who has Down syndrome. Juan dropped out of high school and slept on a mat by Elfego's hospital bed every night. He would be the adult of the family and seek legal guardianship, and they would be together forever.
If only growing up were that easy.
Juan discovered, like many new parents, that love and good intentions fall far short of a child's needs. He sat in the tiny apartment with Elfego, patient with his brother but without the energy to cook, clean and tackle all the paperwork and phone calls necessary to get their new lives in order.
"I was so sure I could do it all, like I thought, 'How hard can it really be?' " Juan said. "I had no idea."
By February, he had fallen in grave danger of losing his brother. A social worker already had murmured words of concern about the apartment, about Elfego's schooling. Worried friends and relatives would call. Juan didn't even answer the phone.
It took Elfego's special education teacher to help Juan see that fatherhood entails much more than a romantic promise and dramatic action.
Before the accident, Juan might have seemed unlikely to learn such a lesson in maturity.
Not that he was an active troublemaker, but neither was he a help at home. A high school senior, he had his own life of friends and parties. He was more interested in sniffing out the hottest party, or scoring an illicit beer or two, than spending time with his baby brother, nearly eight years younger, slow and nothing like him.
So his mother did it without his aid. Micaela made just enough money as a seamstress to keep her sons off welfare. The boys' father never lived with them, and Juan said he doesn't know his whereabouts.
Micaela cooked and cleaned and made sure both boys went to school regularly and on time, walking Elfego to the bus stop every morning and meeting him every afternoon.
She took him everywhere she went, hand in hand. Elfego--chubby and giggly and quick to give hugs to strangers--would smile up at her at regular intervals as they strolled, happiest when his mom would reach down and pat his fuzzy hair.
And each year, Micaela would talk to special education teacher Sharon McCart about her big goal for Elfego: that he would learn to write his own name. Maybe this year he'll learn to do it, his mother would say.
"I think about that almost every time I look at him," McCart said. "It was a wish she always had for Fego."
It was the last thing they talked about, at the school's annual open house a few days before the accident.
On a Sunday morning last September, a friend picked up Micaela and Elfego for a drive to church.
They had not gone 30 feet before the driver suddenly lost control and smashed into a building. Police described it as a "freak accident" that left the driver severely injured, Micaela dead and Elfego crying for his mother, his arm nearly severed.
Suddenly, Juan's carefree world shifted beneath him.
He made a series of swift decisions. He made complex arrangements for his mother's funeral and burial in Mexico. He put high school on hold, living at his brother's hospital for months, and he applied for welfare to keep them going. He vowed to take care of the little boy, to stay with him and make sure he got better. Elfego could have gone to live with their mother's cousin, whom they had always considered an aunt. But Juan would not have it.
He would take on the parent's role and seek guardianship of Elfego.
Just before Christmas, the brothers went home from the hospital. Juan let his brother stay home from school whenever he wanted--which came to several times a week. Juan cooked when he felt like it, cleaned even less often. He thought about making the calls to set up guardianship and obtain necessary papers but found himself procrastinating.
Juan isolated himself and his brother from almost everyone. It wasn't a conscious thing, he said. It's just that the phone rang constantly--friends and hundreds of strangers who had heard of the boys' plight were always calling to offer help--and he didn't want to hear about it. He didn't want to talk about his mother or Elfego's arm or answer questions about how he felt.