My brother has been missing for three days.
But when I finally arrive at his school, after driving through two hours of cornfields, he’s everywhere.
I see him in the quad, gazing at the clouds. I blink, and he is gone.
Outside his dorm, he sprints past me, full speed. The wind morphs him, his edges waver. Blurry, he glances at me, but his nose is all wrong—someone else’s brother.
He disappears again and again, everywhere I look.
The police aren’t sure where he was last spotted, who he last texted.
My brother’s roommate looks surprised to see me. He has a port-wine stain across one side of his face that I hadn’t noticed when my brother moved in six weeks ago. In my memory, his complexion is monochromatic. I wonder what else I remember wrong.
“They’re searching the woods,” the roommate tells me.
I smooth my brother’s crumpled comforter and sit. The room is humid, a sweating stink cloud. I poke a jumble of dirty clothes with my feet and wonder if I’ll have to wash them.
My brother’s roommate watches me from the door. His birthmark stretches over one eye and half of his nose, swirling maroon like a cosmos. I strangely want to touch it.
We stare at each other. This is our third conversation, if you could call it that. The first, six weeks ago, I hardly remember. The second, two days ago, he asked if he should call the police and I said What do you mean, he’s gone? repeatedly, demanding new answers.
“How’s your mom?” the roommate asks.
“Can we open a window?”
I pick up a photo from my brother’s desk. A Jolly Rancher wrapper clings to the frame; watermelon. The photo was taken the day he won State last year. He ran the 5K in fifteen minutes, twelve seconds. He couldn’t believe he could run that fast. He kept looking at the medal and laughing. It was the funniest day of his life. His photo was in the paper—the moment the ribbon snapped, his arms in the air, face cracked into a grin.
But this is a different photo. In this one, the three of us crowd on the couch. My brother holds his medal in one hand, his other arm over my shoulder. I had just jumped into the frame after setting the self-timer. One of my hands is blurry. Mom is pale, her smile tight-lipped. My brother and I tried to explain the moment he crossed the finish line, but we kept talking over each other. Mom couldn’t feel the bleachers shake when the loudspeaker blared my brother’s name.
After he moved out, I found the medal in his room and put it around my neck. It was plastic, the gold just paint. Not as heavy as I expected.
The last time I spoke to my brother, we couldn’t hear each other. All I heard was a whooshing din, like he was standing under the El tracks, even though I know there’s no El in the cornfield. After a minute, we hung up.
The police haven’t found anything. His wallet, his phone, his backpack.
My brother’s roommate and I walk to meet the search party. It’s late afternoon but the sky is already darkening, the trees briefly gold-splattered.
We find two police officers near the mouth of the forest, on the edge of campus. My brother’s roommate asks about the search party, but an officer cuts him off. She says my name and my throat goes cold. She recognizes his face in my face, from his pictures. I feel exposed.
She shows me a medal, gold paint flaking off, revealing plastic below.
“That can’t be his,” I say. “He left that at home.”
“Are you sure?” she asks.
I remember putting it around my neck; its lightness. I remember staring at myself in my brother’s mirror. I remember my brother appearing behind me, laughing.
And I don’t know what I’m remembering.
The silence crackles, like the sound from my brother’s end of the line when we last spoke. When I called him three nights ago, to say Mom collapsed again. When I left him a voicemail, after, and screamed at him for leaving us.
I left the voicemail in the shadow time, between when we know where he was and when we don’t.
“We’re about to search the river,” the officer says.
I realize the sound I hear is rushing water.
My brother’s roommate puts a gentle hand on my back. He’s backlit by the sunset, his outline glows. I pause there, trapped between wanting comfort and wanting control.
There’s an alternate universe where I would kiss my brother’s roommate, would have already. Where I’m here under different circumstances. Where my brother isn’t gone. Where my brother isn’t everywhere I look.
The officer’s radio buzzes. A crackling voice says, “We found a cell phone.”
My brother’s roommate touches my shoulder.
The radio buzzes again. I’m suddenly nauseous.
I sprint into the forest, careening around tree trunks, mud sloshing at my feet. I’m fast, too.
The river churns before me, soft-looking. I stop and wait, half-expecting my brother to crash through the trees, his arms lifted, his dumb, sweaty, grinning face tipped toward the velvet sky.
The only sound is the river, as if it surrounds me. As if I’m already in it.
* * *
I forget that the Chicago Marathon is tomorrow morning, haven’t realized that I’ll be stuck bumper to bumper for hours trying to get home. I haven’t seen, yet, the layer of discarded paper cups on the sidewalk. I’ll kick them absentmindedly as I walk to our front door. Mom will peek at me from behind the curtain, blinking in the sunlight. Moments later, I’ll have to tell her.
I haven’t thought about the anonymous blur of legs that will thunder by our apartment while I am away. How comforting, to be nameless. How tired they will be, when they’re finally home.
Emily Roth is a children’s librarian, a lifelong Midwesterner, and an occasional marathon runner. Her short fiction has been published by Reflex Fiction, Exposition Review, TL;DR Press, and others. She lives in Chicago with her rescue dog, Obie.