“But you’ll be home to visit?” Ken looked hopefully at his brother, Tim.
Tim hugged Ken thoughtfully. “’Course I will,” he said. “College won’t be so much fun that I won’t want to come back from time to time.”
“I’m proud of you, son,” said their father. “It’s time for you to see the real world. Gain some independence, too.”
Tim hugged his dad. “Thanks, Dad. I’ll miss you.”
Unlike their dad, who was broad-shouldered, lean, and stood with the best posture out of anyone they knew, Tim and Ken’s mother was slightly shorter. However, she made up for it with her steely composure and deadly glare. Tim, who was once on the receiving end of many disapproving glances, was now wrapped in a kind, tearful hug.
“Now don’t you get into any trouble,” chastised their mom. “I don’t want to hear any horror stories of late-night beer parties.”
Tim made a face behind her back and Ken laughed.
“He’ll be fine,” boomed their dad. “Let the boy be. He can take care of himself.”
Tim had his luggage close by. A backpack, one large compartment bag and a smaller suitcase with wheels. Tim had decided to “travel light,” as their father had said, leaving many of his possessions to a grateful Ken.
The scene went silent for a moment, each person lost in their own thoughts of the coming departure. Suddenly, as the faint whistle of the train pierced through the air, Ken felt an over- whelming emotion overcome him. He and his brother had been through so much together. So many happy memories still lingered in his mind. Now his heart was giving way at the prospect of losing one of the closest people in his life.
The train creaked to a stop, and passengers stood up to board the train. Tim gave one last family hug and walked bravely away, not daring to look back at the tear-stained group behind him. The door slammed shut with an angry hiss, and the well-greased wheels of the train slowly began to turn. Tim’s smiling features were plastered to the window, as his face was slowly carried away.
Their mother began calling frantically to the half-open window.
“Be good, you hear!
“Make sure to go to bed early!
“Don’t forget your homework!”
The train gathered speed as it left the station. Tim had time for one last wave before he disappeared from view.
And that was it. Ken was left with a strange sense of loneliness, as if he had just lost his best friend. What would life be like now without Tim? He trudged wearily back to the van and climbed in. A light shower of rain was beginning to start up outside. The pitter-patter of the rain banged playfully against the car window, the streaming water distorting the image of Ken’s face. It was a long ride home.
* * *
The morning air was fresh and cool, carrying with it a faint trace of pine. Ken awoke sleepily, murmuring contentedly in bed as the chilly breezes blew in from his open window.
The night before, Ken had cried himself to sleep. It had felt as if he had been swallowed in a pit of sadness and regret. The morning came as a shock for Ken, and he felt as if he was losing his brother all over again. No one was there to fight for the bathrooms, no one was there for their mom to yell at, no one to have their sleep-deprived face blink tiredly at the breakfast table.
Ken had always been an early riser, and he climbed out of bed long before his parents had stirred in the bedroom down the hall.
He walked outside into the brilliant morning. The dewy grass brushed against his naked ankles, but Ken didn’t care. The morning air was exquisite, and Ken breathed deeply, thankful to be alive on such a perfect day.
With no particular motive, Ken shuffled across his backyard with his Nike flip-flops. He gradually walked into the woods that he had spent so many years exploring with his brother. Familiar trees and half-built forts revealed themselves to Ken, dew hanging from the leaves like the tears on his own face. Ken cried openly in the woods, a place of solitude where he had his own privacy.
Finally, he rubbed his eyes and ducked beneath some vines hanging at the entrance to one of the long-forgotten forts. Three large rocks sat resolutely in the center, while the area was fenced off by fallen branches and dead sticks. Branches of pine needles were woven between neighboring trees to obscure the view and make it impenetrable to unwanted invaders. The dirt floor was ground neatly and removed of any tough roots, pebbles, or pinecones.
Ken ran his hands over the smooth rocks, remembering the laughter that used to emanate from the clearing, the countless hours that he and his brother had spent carefully plotting the fort. Their sweat was as much part of the fort as the trees themselves. But somehow, the air was stiller than usual, quiet without his brother’s voice to accompany his thoughts and feelings.
Ken was filled with grief, knowing that his brother would never come back to play with him in the fort that they had made together. He suddenly missed his brother so much that his heart ached with a longing for just one more day to spend with his brother. He realized that there was still so much he didn’t know about his brother, and questions that he wished he had asked.
Ken took his walking stick that was still propped up against the rock and looked around for the knife. Carefully, he started to shave the stick of its bark, trying to complete his walking stick so that it would gleam white with the pale flesh underneath. Fond memories of lazy afternoons fluttered through his mind, reminding him of the long conversations that he and Tim had shared while carving their own walking sticks.
A sudden flutter of the branch above his head caused him to pause and look up. A bird with red feathers had plummeted to the ground, now waving its wings in a frenzied attempt to get up. Ken studied it carefully. It was barely grown, with a small beak, beady eyes, and a tuft of bright feathers for a tail. Ken could see that it had broken its leg.
“Poor thing,” murmured Ken. “How did it get here?”
He looked up to see the nest, barely visible in the foliage above him. There were still a few broken shell fragments in the dirty nest. Its mother was nowhere in sight. Ken carefully picked up the fledgling in his palms, taking care not to cause it any more pain.
The bird obviously was not suited for flight yet. Ken wondered if it had been deserted by its family. With a sickening wrench, he thought of himself as a bird in the same predicament. With Tim gone it seemed like no one was there to guide him, to look after him. All his life, Ken could never have imagined what it would have been like without his older brother. The one friend that was always there for him, who even defended him against the bullies on the school bus. Ken wondered if the bird in his hand had a brother of its own. Where did its family go? He vowed that he would not let the bird die. Ken gently stroked the bird’s head until its fluttering had slowed.
On impulse, Ken thought back to all the times his brother had taught him something or showed him something really cool. Tim’s memory would always be here in the fort for Ken to cherish.
Poor little bird, thought Ken. He’ll have to grow up without ever spending any real time with his brother. He cupped the baby fledgling in his hands and walked slowly back to his house. Don’t worry, Ken thought as he blinked in the morning sunrise, making his way back up to the house. I can be your big brother from now on.