There are some things in life that you never forget—no matter how much time passes, they just cling to your heart and mind like the stubby fingers of a kindergartner clutching his mother’s hand on the first day of school. Special moments, like the day when my parents showed Nick and me the place where they met, and we sat there under the big tree, as one happy family, or emotional events, like the time when my parents told us that they were getting a divorce— those are things that will stay with me forever. That day when I thought I had lost my brother was one of those things. It is still as clear in my mind as the moment it happened.
I remember it started on a humid afternoon in August, during one of those days when the air is so heavy that you can barely move and the heat overwhelms your senses. The sun smothered us like a thick-soled boot extinguishing a coal that escaped from the fireplace. We could feel its merciless heat on our backs as Nick, my ten-year-old brother, and I sat on the front stoop, eating Popsicles. Our mother had ordered us out of the house after Nick spilled his drink all over the kitchen table.
“Hey, Ben, do you wanna play basketball?” Nick asked. He was always playing basketball those days.
“No. It’s too hot,” I replied.
Nick grabbed a ball anyway and started dribbling around.
“When will you be ready to play?” he pestered.
“I don’t want to play at all, Nick. Stop bothering me.”
“Bother! Bother! Bother!”
“You’re such a baby! Why don’t you go ask your mommy to play with you? Oh, wait, I forgot, she doesn’t like you anymore because you ruined her tablecloth.” I was being a bully, but I was irritated and I knew what would get to him.
“She still likes me! She’s my mom!”
“OK, OK, you can think whatever you want.” I had him. He threw his basketball at me and ran inside. I waited for Mom to send him back out again, but she didn’t. She was probably finished cleaning up. Nick was sitting at the kitchen table when I walked in. I shot him a look that let him know I had won and then headed upstairs. I was taking it too far, and I knew it, but I had to get the better of him.
“Shut up, Ben,” he called after me, but I ignored him. When I was almost to the top of the stairs, I heard a sob escape his chest before he could stifle it. He hated when I teased him about being a baby. Ever since the divorce, he had been really close to Mom, and he still felt insecure. I shouldn’t have been so harsh with him.
The thing about Nick is that he usually forgives you pretty quickly. I thought that by the next morning at the latest, he would have forgotten the whole incident. At first, I thought he had, but he wouldn’t speak to me and his eyes were red, as if he had been crying. Something was wrong, and I worried about him for most of the day. Maybe something was going on at school. Or, more likely, he was still sore about our argument from the previous afternoon. He was only ten, after all. I decided to apologize when I got a chance.
The walk home from baseball practice was pretty long, and about halfway through, all that humidity built up into a thunderstorm, and before I knew it, rain began to pelt my face like bullets. I put my hands over my head and started to run. Thunder boomed, and I ran faster and faster. When I reached the front door, I knocked as hard as I could. I waited for the familiar sound of my mother’s pumps on the hardwood floor, hurrying to let me in, but heard nothing. I knocked again.
“Mom?” A huge peel of thunder crashed from the angry skies, and it really began to come down. Where was she?
I fished around my pockets for my key. I found it and unlocked the door, collapsing into the shelter of my warm home. I trudged upstairs, peeled off my sopping baseball pants, dried my hair, and felt a lot better. I would have been happy to settle in for the night, except for one thing. Where was Mom? And, come to think of it, where was Nick?
I headed downstairs to phone the neighbors in case someone had seen them. When I reached the kitchen, however, something caught my eye. Lying on the table was a note written in my mother’s careful hand.
Can’t find Nick. Went out to look for him. Stay here.
I love you.
When I finished reading it, two thoughts immediately invaded my mind like so many enthusiastic schoolchildren shooting their hands up to answer a question. My first thought was that I knew exactly what had happened to my brother. I don’t know how I knew, but I’d never been so sure of anything in my life: he had run away. My second thought was that there was no way that I was staying home. I had to find him.
I ran outside and the ferocious rain that almost knocked me down nearly changed my mind. Squinting my eyes, I ran around back and grabbed my bike. The first place I thought to look was Nick’s friend Daniel’s house. Even if he hadn’t planned to go there, he might have taken shelter from the rain. I pedaled faster than I had ever before, and the rain stung my raw skin.
I couldn’t see very clearly, but when I reached Daniel’s house, I recognized the dejected walk of my mother slogging down the front walkway. She must have had the same idea I had, but not had any luck.
“Mom! Mom! It’s Ben!” I called to her. I’m surprised she could hear me through the deafening roar of the storm.
“Oh, Ben! What are you doing? I told you to stay home.”
She hurried to me in her clumsy spotted boots. At thirteen, I was just taller than her and I looked down into her worried eyes, wet with tears and rain. Those vividly blue eyes had seen so much, too much. I just couldn’t let her lose her son on top of her husband.
“Mom, listen to me. I’ll find him. Don’t worry. I want you to go home and stay there in case he returns. Please.”
She grabbed my hand and squeezed it as if she were a child getting a shot. Why did my mother seem so small and weak?
“OK,” she whispered. “I love you.” She turned and started sloshing home, probably dying inside, but glad to be getting relieved of her responsibilities for a moment by letting me do what I was determined to do.
When she was out of sight, I pondered my next move. Where would Nick go if he wanted to escape from the emotional tumult and tribulation of his ten-year-old life, if he wanted to feel safe, and loved? Another crack of thunder rang in my ears just as the answer came to me: the tree.
I mounted my bike like a steed and flew down the street once more. It was a long trip to the place where our parents had met, but I knew with all my heart that was where he’d be.
As I pedaled through the downpour, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, all alone in the violent storm. His mop of curls would be matted against his head, and he’d be shivering. I clenched my jaw and it was as if my body was not a part of me; I could not feel the pain as I exhausted every ounce of my energy. In less than five minutes, I was pulling into the park. I strained to see if I could catch a glimpse of Nick below the tree. And just like that, there he was. He was hunched into a ball, shaking with shivers, sobs, or both. I tossed my bike aside and ran to him. Wrapping my arms around his quivering form, I cried, and our sobs became one. We sat there like that for a long time, not thinking at all about getting up and going home. Eventually, the storm started to let up and our sobs quieted. As one final bolt of lightning lit up the sky, he looked up. I stared into his wide, brilliantly blue eyes and realized that they were just like my mom’s. He was so young, so innocent, and I couldn’t let those eyes know such pain and grief. As I looked at him, I realized that he needed me more than I had ever known. After a long journey, I had finally found my brother, and I knew that I would never again let him go.