I peeled open the curtains that clung heavy with dust and squinted. Morning light was filtering in through the kitchen window despite a persistent cloud’s attempts at casting it aside. The dust falling in spirals onto the counter was just another thing rarely touched in our cemetery of a house.
From the window, it was easy to see the backyard and the forest that ran adjacent to the property. The woods were slowly reclaiming the yard with every passing year and we did nothing to stop it. The irony was not lost on me as I poured myself a cup of stale coffee.
Cardboard boxes were occupying most of the kitchen floor space. I kicked an empty one aside dispassionately as I leaned over the counter to reheat my coffee in the microwave. The ever-growing stack of mail was sitting next to the humming machine. I gave a sigh that would have had more sympathy with an audience. There would be bills in that stack and letters of condolence and reminders of grief, reminders of Thomas. Mom was currently in the process of declaring Tommy officially dead. Everyone knew he was dead for years now in that sweetly pessimist way, but Mom was finally admitting it and that was supposed to be a good thing according to her therapist. But I didn't agree.
I entered the world holding my brother’s hand. The story had been told so many times by our mother it almost lost its meaning. The doctors had a hard time prying our fingers apart. And now that he was actually gone I found myself clasping my own hands tight as a substitute. I was the last holdout. Maybe it was delusional, but I was having a hard time letting go.
Grief always hits hard and fast. If I could be grateful for anything it was that Mom’s motivation to move on had come to a quick stop. It always did this time of year—when Tommy disappeared. For me it was different, the disappearance of my twin brother dulled into an ache that almost seemed worse than when he first vanished. At least back then we had a little hope.
Somebody had to hold it together. The therapist told my mom accepting that her son wasn’t coming back was a sign of moving on, healing, but I knew what it really was—giving up—and I didn’t think it was fair to Tom to move on like that. If the situations were reversed. I know he’d still be looking. I gulped down a queasy gulp of coffee.
Above my head, I could hear a floorboard creak. With bated breath, I wondered if mom had finally decided to get her day started after a long bed-ridden weekend, but the sound settled, and I resigned myself to the fact that her grief would probably swallow the rest of the week. Two thick envelopes in the stack of mail caught my eye and made my heart sink a little further. It was an information packet for a prestigious university. Everyone in my class was talking about college. I had been curious a few weeks ago when I sent for it. But now I couldn't think why I had done it. I just couldn't make myself go. Not now, when I was needed here. I pushed the top envelope ceremoniously away. But the name on the packet caught my eye and before I knew it my vision was blurring from tears. A cruel joke to play. Didn’t they know, these ambiguous college recruiters? The envelope on top was not addressed to me, but rather to my brother, Thomas. In my head, the world should know everything stopped five years ago when Tom went missing, frozen and waiting for his return. But the proof was right in front of me, wasn’t it? The world had continued to move and was none-the-wiser of my missing and potentially dead twin brother.
I found myself drawn back to the window, to the light, to the unkempt yard and the trees swaying beyond it. My eyes glazed over as trees blurred into a wall of green. Without putting thought to action, I crumbled the envelopes in my fist and threw them into the trash on my way to the back door. By the time the screen door was groaning shut I was halfway across the yard.
I wasn’t supposed to go into the woods. The woods, with their grappling tree branches leaning hungrily toward me, waiting to devour just like they had Thomas. I had made a promise. Bad things happened in the woods. So, I stopped, right at the edge of the property line, and breathed in the cool forest air pulling at me, begging, whispering for me to enter and greet them like old friends. There was something about the woods. They spoke to me all my life, I used to love them. But now? My heart was full of hatred for the betrayal they had played. They took the one thing in my life that mattered, and they wouldn’t give him back. The forest ate my brother, I wondered what it would do to me.
I had a choice to make. I flipped a coin in my head and without waiting to see where it landed, I moved, stepping tentatively into the undergrowth of an unkempt tree line with heightened apprehension. The wind rose up once more and rushed through the leaves offering a gentle greeting. How long had it been?
Five years. Five years ago, this forest was filled with people and flashlights, and desperation. Five years ago, a boy ran into the forest and never came out. They found a shoe, just one shoe, and then everyone gave up. But I never gave up, never stopped looking for something, anything, a reason for why a boy would just vanish.
However reluctantly, I had made a promise to my mom a few years ago. I promised to stop looking. I hadn’t entered the forest sense. The worst breakdowns I had ever seen my mother commit to, forced my hand. For the sake of a grieving woman, I abandon my other half.
So, what had changed for me to contemplate breaking my promise? My mom got the therapy I had been praying for her to receive, but it backfired. The therapist had planted an idea in my mom’s head. The lie that removing ourselves from this forest would take all the pain away. It wasn’t that easy though, was it? We had deep roots planted here too.
Mom wanted to move. Away from the town that side-eyed us every time we went to the grocery store. Away from whispers and conspiracies. Away from the accusations that she was a terrible mother. Away from the grief. I didn’t see it the same way mom did. It wasn’t mourning I felt for a dead brother because deep down I was convinced, despite all the talk, that my brother was still alive. And I knew I’d never feel complete again, not without some kind of resolution.
I didn’t want to move, but I didn’t want to abandon my mother either. The town was not a reminder of grief--it was a connection to someone so tethered to me; I just couldn’t bear to walk away. Mom had a plan to leave this town by the end of the month. This would probably be my last chance to go to the woods and find Tom's other shoe. I wanted to be the one to find it, to find something. To prove my brother hadn’t simply vanished. I didn’t want to move on, to move on was to abandon Thomas.
With a weighted breath, I committed myself into the woods until I found the path that Tom always took, the one that had been so well-worn by hikers and joggers. Now it had fallen prey to misuse as weeds and dead tree limbs threatened to reclaim the trail. It wasn’t easy navigating, but I knew this path by heart.
Thomas loved running in the forest. A lot of people did. He was training. One of the only things he and I disagreed on. I hated running, really hated it, but I did it, so Tommy didn’t have to run alone.
But not that day, I was stubborn, Tommy always said I was too stubborn, and I wouldn’t go with him to prove he was right. It was cold and rainy, just like today was going to develop into if the cloud above my head got its way. The guilt of it continued to eat at me. If I had gone with him when he asked, if I had just sucked it up and gone, he might still be here. The light was slowly fading.
I stopped. This was my graveyard—my headstone for a missing brother. The Hazel tree stood, quiet, sagging under the weight of heavy secrets. If only trees could talk.
“It’s five years almost to the day,” I said, breaking the silence. A few feet away a disgruntled bird rose through the air and disappeared above the forest’s canopy.
It was the mailman who found Tom's shoe. One shoe, not even the sock that went with it—just lying against the base of a great old Hazel tree. I could still remember when the police slipped it into an evidence bag. That’s when it all fell apart for mom. I kept telling myself, it’s just a shoe, it’s just a shoe, it’s just a shoe. Over and over again until the word turned funny in my head. A shoe wasn’t a crime scene, a shoe didn’t mean my brother was gone, but the past five years had proven that mantra wrong. That shoe represented a lot of dead ends.
People often assume that twins have this deep connection. A bond that psychically sends a message if one or the other is hurt or scared or...worse. But I never got any of that when Thomas went missing. Just a hollow, empty feeling and guilt for not raising the alarm sooner.
I dropped to my knees and dug my hands underneath the decomposing layer of leaves that had fallen there, brushing the fragments aside. Dirt found its way under my fingernails as I let the anger and despair run through me. A dozen scenarios of what had happened to cause my brother to lose a shoe and then himself was agonizingly projected in my mind. I busied myself by scouring the ground until I couldn’t feel my kneecaps. I wondered if it was possible to find something the police and a whole townful of volunteers had missed. A recent handful of daisies in the alcove of the hazel’s deep roots had been placed by a stranger. The flower petals had shriveled but somehow had not blown away. Someone else seemed to care that my brother had gone. And I wasn’t sure if it made me happy or sad.
I should be at school. My classmates would have a shrine, a memorial of my brother next to the old locker he used to occupy like they did every year, but this year hit harder. This year felt like giving up. I didn’t want their sympathy. I was angry and wanted answers. I wanted to scream, but I didn’t have the energy. A few tears slipped down my nose and I didn’t bother to brush them away. I grabbed the petals, pinched them between my fingers one by one until nothing remained.
From the base of the tree, I listened as the forest relaxed around me. I wondered how long I could stay here. Maybe forever. If the situation was reversed Tom would be comforting our mother who was no doubt crying into her duvet cover, not here, kneeling in the woods. How long did it take to say goodbye? To walk away with no answers, just the empty space of a person that shouldn’t be dead?
Birds began chirping and creatures began moving once more. The world, again at peace, orienting itself around me after my disruption of their sanctuary. I looked up, through the tree’s branches—the clouds were getting heavier, threatening rain. The world was growing darker, as light slipped back, behind the clouds. I wouldn’t mind a downpour; Thomas loved the rain. It may have been minutes, maybe hours as I watched a line of ants, crawling across the Hazel’s bark; working their way around the crushed daisy petals. I closed my eyes as the first drops of rain began to fall.