By the time I was twelve years old, my life was an endless cycle of sameness. Every afternoon, I was greeted by a piece of chocolate cake and milk so freshly poured that bubbles still frothed and burst around the rim.
My mother would ask me how my day had been. I would say it had been fine, and she would put the milk bottle back in the icebox. Sometimes, I wondered what would happen if I said Mr. Pendergast had been attacked by a wolf during recess, or Petey Wilson had brought an Russian sabre for Show and Tell.
We never went anywhere. Mom didn’t belong to the bridge club, the Ladies’ Missionary Circle, or the quilting guild. She seldom talked to me, even, and never had I seen two teacups in the sink. I didn’t go to Cub Scouts or play Little League. My pals dropped me off at my gate after school every day. I never went fishing or bike-riding with them. I stayed home. Mom seemed to like it that way.
I had always been aware of the locked door in the hallway, and as I grew, so did my curiosity. Was it a guest room for guests who never came? A pantry full of flour and sugar and canned beans?
One Saturday, Mom went to the hairdresser for her weekly wash and set. I thought it was as good a time as any to find out what was behind the locked door. A bundle of keys hung on a nail in the kitchen cupboard. I grabbed them. It took a few tries before one smoothly clicked in the lock. I grasped the knob and pushed.
The room was dark, but I could see a rim of sunlight peering around a heavy shade. Crossing the room, I stumbled over something soft, lost my balance and fell sideways against...? A bed? I reached for the shade, let it wind halfway up.
I had tripped over a pair of slippers, their soles bearing the outline of little feet. I looked around in astonishment. A bed, spread with a colourful patchwork quilt. A pair of pyjamas, neatly folded, on a knitted afghan lying across the foot of the bed. A parchment shade perched upon a teepee-shaped lamp. I pulled open a dresser drawer. Socks. Undershirts. A bandana.
There was a baseball mitt sitting on the dresser, and I picked it up, pulling it onto my own hand. It was snug. The leather had been oiled to supple perfection, and I inhaled its rich scent.
“What are you doing?”
I jumped. Mom was standing in the doorway.
“Mom? Whose things are these?”
She turned without a word and I followed, the forgotten mitt still on my hand.
She sat down on the sofa, and then spoke tersely, her words like stones on ice. “You had a brother. His name was Graham. He was bike-riding with your father, going fishing. He was hit by a truck. He was nine. You were three.”
Just like that, I had a brother and lost him in the same breath.
I had a sudden impression of shadows, the cloying scent of flowers, an atmosphere laden with echoes of blame and resentment, and finally, a slamming door. Then, nothing but years of silence with Mom, both of us locked in, she with her memories and bitterness, and I, in a prison of her fears.
She re-locked the room, and we never spoke of it again.
And now, middle-aged and gray, I sit by your grave, Graham. Though you would be older than me, I think of you as my little brother, with your freckled nose, your gap-toothed grin, and your eyes, so much like my own, eternally smiling at me from the framed snapshot that I found in your room.
I left everything as it had been until I sold the house. When I admitted Mom to the nursing home, I gave her your pillow, and she would hold it, inhaling the last scents of you with tears running down her cheeks. I think, after so many years, she was finally allowing herself to grieve.
Mom’s gone now, but you would know that.
We’re all free, little brother. Mom, you, and me.
I stood to leave, and in a last farewell, laid the still-oiled and supple baseball mitt on Graham’s grave.
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